Sciency Words: Qubit

December 7, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


I’m starting to think I can get used to just about any weird quirk of language.  When I first saw the word qubit, referring to the quantum bits inside a quantum computer, I’m pretty sure my eye twitched.  The spelling of that word… it just looks so… so wrong.

And I’m not the only one who to feel that way.  In a paper titled “From Cbits to Qbits,” American physicist N. David Mermin laments that “the prevailing ‘qubit’ honors the English rule that should be followed by but ignores the equally powerful requirement that qu should be followed by a vowel.”  Mermin would prefer the spelling qbit.  I would prefer the hyphenated form q-bit.  Unfortunately, neither of those options seem to have caught on.

So who is responsible for this crime against English spelling rules?  It was another American physicist by the name of Benjamin Schumacher, who originally introduced the term in this 1995 paper on quantum information theory.  In the brief acknowledgements section at the end of the paper, Schumacher explains: “The term ‘qubit’ was coined in jest during one of the author’s many intriguing and valuable conversations with W.K. Wootters, and became the initial impetus for this work.”

As a writer, I kind of identify with Schumacher here. I’ve had the experience many times of either learning a new word or inventing one, and having that spur fresh and exciting new thoughts.  But still, why is the word spelled that way?

Several other sources (including Wiktionary) say the word qubit is formed by analogy with cubit, the ancient unit of measure equal to the length of an adult male’s forearm (from elbow to fingertips).  There is a certain inherent uncertainty involved in cubit-based measurements, given the amount of variation there can be among adult male forearms.  So I guess connecting that to all the inherent uncertainties of quantum science and quantum computing makes a sort of sense.

I don’t know.  Maybe I’ve gotten so used to seeing the word spelled the way it’s spelled that it doesn’t bug me as much as it used to.  And knowing a little about the word’s history, and its apparent association with the cubit, probably helps to make the weird spelling a little more palatable for me.  But what about you?  Are you okay with qubit, or does that weird spelling make your eye twitch when you see it?

The Softer Side of Sci-Fi

November 30, 2018

So I sort of screwed up my blogging agenda for this past week.  I just had too much other stuff on my mind, and I guess I needed time to sort things out in my head.  Such is life!

At least it’s good stuff, for a change. Writing stuff. World-building stuff.  I’m not sure how much I want to reveal at this point; but since this is a Friday, and since we usually talk about the definitions of science or science-related terms on Fridays, I’ll tell you about one thing.  It has to do with the definition of science fiction.

Or to be more precise, it has to do with the definitions of hard and soft science fiction.  Hard science fiction tries to portray science as accurately as possible, while soft science fiction takes more creative liberties (sometimes a whole lot more creative liberties) with scientific facts.  Pretty much every work of science fiction lies somewhere along a spectrum between hard and soft Sci-Fi.  Or at least that’s what I always thought these terms meant.

But then a week ago, I read an article that seemed to be defining soft science fiction in a way that didn’t make much sense to me.  I can’t find that article now (thanks for trying, Google), but when I turned to my trusty copy of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, I found that yes, indeed, soft science fiction (and by extension hard science fiction as well) can be defined in two very different, almost contradictory ways.

To quote from Brave New Words, soft science fiction may be defined as “science fiction that deals primarily with advancements in, or extrapolations based on, the soft sciences (e.g., anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.).”  And hard science fiction is, therefore, science fiction dealing with the hard sciences, like astronomy, physics, or chemistry.

So instead of being two ends of a spectrum that encompasses all of science fiction, hard and soft science fiction are merely two subgenres among a host of other subgenres like cyberpunk, space opera, alternative history, etc….  And weirdly, according to these new (or at least new to me) definitions, soft Sci-Fi is just as concerned with scientific accuracy as hard Sci-Fi.  It’s merely a different branch of science that it’s trying to be accurate about.

Maybe this is old news to some of you, but for me this has been a huge revelation.  Redefining hard and soft science fiction has been a major factor in all the re-thinking, re-writing, and re-world-building I’ve been doing this week.  However, this is not the big, central idea that’s been on my mind.  It’s more like a satellite thought orbiting that big idea, and its gravitational perturbations are being felt.

I’m going to leave it at that for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks and months.  My IWSG post this coming Wednesday should be interesting.

Sciency Words: Shirt-Sleeve Environment

November 23, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


I’ve seen this term, or terms very similar to it, in a lot of different places.  It’s usually obvious what it means from context.  A shirt-sleeve environment is an artificial environment where humans can wear ordinary clothing in safety and comfort. The cabin of a commercial airliner is a good example.  So is the interior of the International Space Station.

In the early days of aviation, pilots were far more exposed to the elements than they are today.  They had to wear specialized clothing, especially for high altitude flights.  It gets really cold up there above the clouds, and the air is very thin. Pressure suits were often essential, and in some cases those early pilots needed to bring supplemental oxygen with them.

There were several experiments in the early 20th Century to create safe, pressurized cockpits.  I guess these were technically shirt-sleeve environments, but they still sound to me like tight and uncomfortable spaces.  Maybe you could have worn your normal, everyday clothing in those cockpits, but I doubt you’d want to.

So the first true shirt-sleeve environment (in my judgment) would have been the Lockheed XC-35, built in 1937 for the U.S. Army Air Corps.  It had a pressurized cockpit, crew area, and passenger cabin, so the crew would have had plenty of room to move around comfortably in their comfortable clothes.

Apparently the Army called this a “supercharged cabin,” not a shirt-sleeve environment.  Based on what Google ngram tells me, it seems the term supercharged cabin was replaced with shirt-sleeve environment by the end of the 1950’s, right around the time the American space program was getting started.

As this 1960 paper from Boeing Airplane Company explains, “The term ‘shirt-sleeve environment’ means that the crew would be comfortable in this environment without any special equipment such as pressure suits.” And according to this 1958 paper on the structural stability of spacecraft, “Shirt-sleeves can become the normal flight clothing in sealed cabins under [sea-level type] conditions.  In terms of human performance, the advantages of a sea-level atmosphere have been clearly demonstrated by the experiences of Ross and Lewis during the recent Strato-Lab High 2 and 3 flights.”

In modern space exploration literature, the International Space Station is typically cited as the most impressive shirt-sleeve environment yet constructed.  The term is also used to describe the kinds of habitats we’d like to build for ourselves on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System.

So remember: when you’re packing your bags for space, you don’t have to be too picky about which shirts you bring.

Sciency Words: Brainwashing

November 16, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may be under the impression that there are people out there in the world who have been brainwashed. Advanced psychological techniques have been used against these poor souls.  They’ve lost the capacity for rational, independent thought. Why else would people join cults or vote for certain politicians or do many of the other crazy things people are doing these days?

But I am here to tell you that brainwashing of that kind does not exist.  Sure, there is such a thing as social conditioning, which teaches us what is or is not culturally acceptable in the communities we live in.  There are also propaganda campaigns, which seek to win an argument by misrepresenting the other side.  There’s also coercion via torture.  But no, I’m talking about brainwashing: the subversion of human free will, the transformation of people into puppet-like automata.  That’s not a real thing.

The term brainwashing was coined by American journalist/C.I.A. propagandist Edward Hunter.  In 1950, Hunter wrote an article for the Miami Daily News titled “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party.”  Hunter followed this up with a book titled Brain-washing in Red China, describing the “terrifying methods that have put an entire nation under hypnotic control.”  Hunter apparently translated the term straight from the Mandarin xi-nao, meaning “wash-brain.”

Hunter also sought to explain away the false confessions of American soldiers who’d been captured during the Korean War and were being held in Chinese P.O.W. camps.  According to this article from Smithsonian Magazine, Hunter attributed those confessions to some sort of ancient Chinese art of mind control (I feel like there should be a Chinese gong sound effect here, to really reinforce the stereotypes behind that notion).

The truth was that the American P.O.W.s had been tortured. Nothing more mysterious than that. People will say almost anything when they’re being tortured.  That doesn’t mean they believe what they’re saying.  It just means they want the torture to stop.  But the concept of brainwashing as some mystical Chinese art, or perhaps a secret Soviet technology, caught on in the U.S. After all, why else would large numbers of people choose to support communism over capitalism?

Last week, I told you about a list of fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid.  Brainwashing was on that list, because the term is often so vaguely defined that it can apply to almost any form of persuasion.  To quote from the original article:

Nevertheless, the attitude-change techniques used by so-called “brainwashers” are no different than standard persuasive methods identified by social psychologists, such as encouraging commitment to goals, manufacturing source credibility, forging an illusion of group consensus, and vivid testimonials.

Going back to those Korean War P.O.W.s who were tortured, the fifty terms to avoid article explains that relatively few of them gave the false confessions their captors wanted, and of those few even fewer retained the communist ideologies they’d supposedly held while in captivity.  This suggests that the ancient mystical Chinese art of brainwashing had an astonishingly low success rate.  As for those very few who did remain “brainwashed” upon returning to the U.S., it seems they’d already been part of America’s communist subculture beforehand.

Even articles I looked at that say brainwashing is a real thing (and purportedly teach you how to guard yourself against it) concede that brainwashing techniques only work well on people who are either vulnerable (due to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc) or who are already predisposed to believe whatever their brainwashers want them to believe.  For example, if you already think the end of the world is near, it’s not so difficult for a cult leader to persuade you to join his or her end of the world cult.

So if you think someone’s been brainwashed, I’m sorry.  You’re wrong. You’re going to have to deal with the fact that other people genuinely believe things that you disagree with. They may or may not have good reasons for doing so.  You can argue with them.  You can try to get them to see things from a different perspective.  In extreme cases where physical or psychological abuse is at work, you can try to get them help.  But you cannot merely dismiss your fellow human beings as brainwashed zombies.

Sciency Words: Psychological Terms to Avoid

November 9, 2018

You know what really grinds my gears? When a news story begins with the words “A new scientific study shows…”  Whatever follows is sure to be a gross misrepresentation of science.  I think these sorts of reports do a real disservice to the public, especially when they’re related to people’s health.

I recently stumbled upon this article from Frontiers in Psychology.  It’s titled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases.”

For today’s episode of Sciency Words, I’ve decided to highlight just three of those fifty words and phrases, to give you a taste of what’s on that list.  Two of them I found intellectually interesting.  The third one was personally enlightening.

  • Scientific Proof: This is a big one. It’s actually listed in a section titled oxymorons.  According to the article, “The concepts of ‘proof’ and ‘confirmation’ are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting.”  I’ve said before on this blog and elsewhere that legitimate scientists rarely if ever claim they’ve proven anything.  They speak in terms of statistical significance or high degrees of certainty.  Whenever someone tells me such-and-such has been scientifically proven, I stop listening.
  • Chemical Imbalance: I’ve known that “proof” is a problematic word in science for a long time.  This entry on the list was a much bigger surprise to me.  We’ve all heard about how mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but apparently that’s an inaccurate and misleading description. While brain chemistry may be an important factor in some cases of mental illness, the article explains that “There is no known ‘optimal’ level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so it is unclear what would constitute an ‘imbalance.’”
  • Closure: The word closure originally meant one thing in psychology (the ability to perceive a complete shape when parts of the shape are missing). The term has since been “misappropriated” to refer to a feeling of emotional resolution following a traumatic event.  It’s supposed to be the end-state of the grieving process, but as the article explains “[…] it is rarely if ever clear when trauma victims have achieved the desired emotional end-state.”  As someone who recently experienced a traumatic event myself, I know exactly what the article is talking about.  Grief fades slowly.  It does not come to a clear and decisive end.  Promising people that if they do this or do that, they’ll be able to find this elusive closure is not helpful.  At least it wasn’t helpful for me.

The Frontiers in Psychology article is aimed at students and professionals in the field of psychology and related fields, but I think it’s worth a look for everyone (here’s the link again).  Some entries are highly technical, but most are things we’ve probably all heard about at some point, and many of us have probably been misled about how our minds and our bodies work as a result.

At the very least, I’d say take a few minutes to skim through the list.  That way, you’ll be a little better prepared the next time someone on television (someone who doesn’t know much about science and who doesn’t care to learn) starts telling you about your mental health or about your health in general.

Sciency Words: Clarke Orbit

November 2, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


So I was once again flipping through my copy of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction when I discovered a small fact that gave me a big surprise.  It involved Arthur C. Clarke, the legendary science fiction writer who’s best known for co-writing the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but who was also a prominent thinker, futurist, and inventor.

In 1945, Clarke wrote this article for Wireless World describing a method for transmitting radio and television signals to the entire globe.  Clarke’s idea involved placing artificial satellites in a very specific and somewhat peculiar orbital arrangement.  Clarke explains:

It will be observed that one orbit, with a radius of 42,000 km, has a period of exactly 24 hours.  A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincides with that of the equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet.

Clarke admits that this idea may sound a little too fantastical to some, but he argues that it’s entirely plausible to do this using current (as of 1945) technology.  His only concern was whether or not radio transmissions would be able to penetrate Earth’s ionosphere, though he was confident that at least some radio frequencies would work.

And of course Arthur C. Clarke was right (he usually was about these sorts of things).  We now know this orbital arrangement as a geosynchronous orbit, or to be more specific a geostationary orbit.  A geosynchronous orbit allows a satellite to move around in Earth’s sky, so long as it always returns to the same positions at the same times of day. A geostationary orbit does not allow a satellite to move at all in Earth’s sky.

And according to Brave New Words, these kinds of orbits are also known as Clarke orbits.

So which term should we be using?  Personally, I’m not sure.  I like how the term Clarke orbit honors Arthur C. Clarke for inventing the idea.  On the other hand, I appreciate how the term geostationary orbit helps define itself, thus making verbal communication a little easier.

So which of these terms would you prefer? Clarke orbit or geostationary orbit?

Sciency Words: Asparagine

October 26, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


Asparagus is my favorite vegetable.  Some people may not believe me when I say that, but it’s true.  It has a unique, hard-to-describe flavor that really makes my mouth water.  It’s also a pricier vegetable than most, so it’s something I’ve come to associate with special occasions.

But aside from the taste, part of the reason I like asparagus is that it’s played an interesting and important role in the history of science.  Several chemicals were first discovered in asparagus and have been named in asparagus’s honor, the most noteworthy being asparagine (chemical formula C4H8N2O3).

One fateful day in 1806, two French chemists—Louis Nocolas Vauqueline and Pierre Jean Robiquet—were performing experiments on asparagus juice when they managed to isolate a new and unusual chemical. Vauqueline and Robiquet named their discovery asparagine.  Little did they know they’d just discovered the first of twenty fundamental building blocks for life on Earth.  Asparagine was the first known amino acid.

This very random illustration was inspired by Google auto-suggesting “asparagus disco” while I was typing the words “asparagine discovery.”

Asparagine is considered a non-essential amino acid, which I feel is a misleading term.  Asparagine is essential in the sense that you need it to stay alive, but it is not essential that you get it in your diet.  Your body can make it out of other things.

I guess that’s fortunate for those of you who don’t like asparagus as much as I do.

P.S.: I have long been under the impression that asparagine is responsible for making pee smell funny after you eat asparagus.  Apparently that’s not correct.  That smell is more likely caused by a sulfur-containing compound called asparagusic acid.