Sciency Words: Tabby’s Star

February 17, 2017

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

TABBY’S STAR

Something’s wrong with a star named KIC 8462852. It flickers. It dims by as much as 22% for no apparent reason. This is an F-type main-sequence star, meaning it’s only a little bit larger than our Sun. F-type stars shouldn’t behave like this.

KIC 8462852 is sometimes called the WTF Star, because of the paper that first described its abnormal fluctuations in brightness. That paper was subtitled “Where’s the Flux?”

The star is also known (and perhaps better known) as Tabby’s Star, in honor of Tabetha Boyajian, the lead author on that paper.

There are several possible explanations for what might be happening to Tabby’s Star, but it’s the least likely explanation that’s gotten the most hype. Could it be aliens? SETI decided to check it out. They didn’t find anything. But still… it could be aliens.

Massive alien starships might be transiting the star, blocking some of its light. Or perhaps there are enormous space stations orbiting the star. Or maybe we’ve caught an advanced alien civilization in the act of building some kind of megastructure (like a Dyson sphere) completely encircling their sun.

Most professional astronomers do not think it’s aliens. Tabetha Boyajian herself doesn’t seem to take the idea seriously and often jokes about the crazy emails she gets from people who do. And to be perfectly clear, I do not take this alien megastructure hypothesis seriously either.

But just to be sure, I’ve decided to hop into my imaginary spaceship and fly out to KIC 8462852, just so I can see for myself what’s really going on. Wish me luck! I’ll let you know what I find next week.

fb17-approaching-tabbys-star


Sciency Words: Ecotype

December 30, 2016

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

ECOTYPE

Let’s say you discover two groups of antelope. Both groups are the same species, but one group lives on the east side of a mountain range and the other group lives on the west side.

Again, these antelope are all the same species of antelope. But because of a geographic barrier, the two groups rarely if ever intermix or interbreed. As a result, one group has developed thicker wool than the other, or they have slightly different antler shapes, or there’s some other distinctive characteristic that one group has and the other doesn’t.

When you find distinctly different groups within the same species, the groups are called ecotypes. Typically, this sort of differentiation occurs within a species because ecotypes are living in separate ecological habitats.

I first encountered this term in a recent article in Scientific American. As a science terminology enthusiast, I find this to be an interesting kink in the ongoing debate over how to define the word “species”—but the article I read was about something even more interesting than that.

Orca Ecotypes

If we ever learn to communicate with orcas (killer whales), we should tell them about Shakespeare.

dc30-orca-romeo-and-juliet

Orca ecotypes don’t mix, even though there’s nothing stopping them. They’re genetically compatible. Their territories overlap. They encounter each other in the open ocean all the time, but apparently they don’t like to intermingle due to what Scientific America calls “cultural differences.”

We should be careful about anthropomorphizing animal behaviors. When Scientific American says orcas have “cultural differences,” they mean they have different hunting and feeding practices. And also different clicking/whistling patterns for communication.

Actually, that does sound a little bit like orcas have human-like languages, and maybe even a primitive version of human-like culture. And those linguistic and cultural barriers are enough to keep them apart. We really should tell them about Shakespeare. They’d probably understand a lot of Shakespeare’s themes.

P.S.: You may have missed it, but I was trying to make a West Side Story reference with that thing about antelope.

dc30-antelope-west-side-story


Life on Mars: The Hunt for Martian Dinosaurs

December 28, 2016

Can Mars support life? Is there anything living on Mars right now? It sometimes seems like Mars is desperately trying to convince us that the answer to both questions is yes.

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If you’re hunting for alien life in the Solar System, there are four places you should pay attention to: Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Now a thought recently occurred to me—a thought that I’m sure has occurred to other people before: in an astrobiological sense, these four worlds sort of represent the past, present, and future.

  • Mars: a place where alien life might have existed and thrived in the past.
  • Europa and Enceladus: places where life may exist and thrive in the present.
  • Titan: a place where life might start to evolve and thrive sometime in the future (assuming it hasn’t started already).

Regarding Mars, there was clearly a time when rivers, lakes, and oceans of liquid water covered the Martian surface. There’s growing evidence that at least some of the organic chemicals necessary for life were also present. Therefore it’s easy to imagine a time millions or perhaps billions of years ago when Mars had a biosphere as rich and robust as prehistoric Earth’s.

Obviously that robust biosphere is gone now. Even when we hear about the possibility that life still exists on present-day Mars, it’s generally assumed that this life would be only a remnant of what came before. The microbial survivors of whatever wiped out the Martian dinosaurs, so to speak.

Someday (hopefully soon), humans will travel to Mars. When we get there, we may find that all the Martians are long dead. That might seem a bit depressing, but actually I’m kind of excited by the idea that the fossilized remains of Martian dinosaurs might be there, waiting for us to come dig them up.


Sciency Words: Frost Line

December 23, 2016

Welcome to a very special holiday edition of Sciency Words! Today’s science or science-related term is:

FROST LINE

When a new star is forming, it’s typically surrounded by a swirling cloud of dust and gas called an accretion disk. Heat radiating from the baby star plus heat trapped in the disk itself vaporizes water and other volatile chemicals, which are then swept off into space by the solar wind.

But as you move farther away from the star, the temperature of the accretion disk tends to drop. Eventually, you reach a point where it’s cold enough for water to remain in its solid ice form. This is known as the frost line (or snow line, or ice line, or frost boundary).

Of course not all volatiles freeze or vaporize at the same temperature. When necessary, science writers will specify which frost line (or lines) they’re talking about. For example, a distinction might be made between the water frost line versus the nitrogen frost line versus the methane frost line, etc. But in general, if you see the term frost line by itself without any specifiers, I think you can safely assume it’s the water frost line.

Even though our Sun’s accretion disk is long gone, the frost line still loosely marks the boundary between the warmth of the inner Solar System and the coldness of the outer Solar System. The line is smack-dab in the middle of the asteroid belt, and it’s been observed that main belt asteroids tend to be rockier or icier depending on which side of the line they’re on.

It was easier for giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn to form beyond the frost line, since they had so much more solid matter to work with. And icy objects like Europa, Titan, and Pluto—places so cold that water is basically a kind of rock—only exist as they do because they formed beyond the frost line. This has led to the old saying:

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Okay, maybe that’s not an old saying, but I really wanted this to be a holiday-themed post.


Sciency Words: The Zero-One-Infinity Rule

December 16, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

THE ZERO-ONE-INFINITY RULE

I came across this term in Time’s special edition on Scott Kelly’s year in space, which I reviewed on Wednesday. The term was used in an article about astrobiology, but it actually originates in the field of computer science.

Zero-One-Infinity in Computer Science

The zero-one-infinity rule is sort of a rule of thumb. It’s credited to Dutch computer scientist Willem Louis Van Der Poel. According to this rule, a computer program should either never allow a certain event (zero), or it should allow it only once (one), or it should allow it an unlimited number of times (infinity).

The logic here is that it makes sense to not allow something to happen. It also might make sense to allow something to happen only once, perhaps as an exception. But programmers shouldn’t create arbitrary limits (according to this rule) on what a program can do. If you’re willing to allow something to happen twice, why not three times? Or four? Or thirty-eight? Or as many times as the user wants (computer memory space permitting)?

I don’t have a whole lot of coding experience, but the zero-one-infinity rule makes sense to me. It seems like a good rule, although I could probably think up more than one exception to the rule if I really wanted to.

Zero-One-Infinity in Astrobiology

Applying the zero-one-infinity rule to the search for alien life is, in my opinion, brilliant. How many locations in the universe can support life? There are really only three answers:

  • Life cannot exist anywhere in the universe (zero).
  • Life can exist only on Earth; Earth is a very special exception in a universe where life is otherwise not allowed (one).
  • Life can exist in an unlimited number of locations in the universe (infinity).

We already know the zero proposition is false.

There was a time (I remember it well) when many a scientist argued that Earth must be an exception: the one and only place in the universe where life could exist. Occasionally, I still hear people try to argue this.

All it would take is to find a second life-bearing world to prove the one proposition wrong (I’m looking at you, Europa). Because once we know about two living worlds, how could anyone argue that there can’t be three? Or four? Or thirty-eight? Or however many the universe feels like having?

Links

Zero-One-Infinity Rule from The Jargon File.

Willem Louis Van Der Poel from Wiki Wiki Web.


Sciency Words: Bunny Suit

December 9, 2016

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

BUNNY SUIT

Okay, I’ve snuck into a top-secret government research facility in Nevada. I’m not entirely sure what they do here, but as a science fiction writer I have to know stuff about science. Specifically, the kind of futuristic science they do in top-secret government research facilities.

As I crouch behind some crates labeled “Roswell materials,” I overhear two of the scientists talking. “I’ve got to go put on my bunny suit,” one of them says.

Bunny suit? I couldn’t have heard that right. At first, I picture something like the Playboy Bunny outfit, in part because the two scientists happen to be women. Then a less sexist part of my brain suggests that they might be talking about an Easter Bunny costume. But that doesn’t make sense either.

Fortunately, I have my smartphone with me, and I’ve already hacked into this research facility’s wifi (the password was “password”). So I google “bunny suit science” and find out that they’re actually talking about this:

Image courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

Image courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

The more proper, more technically accurate term would be cleanroom suit. Cleanroom suits are those loose-fitting, papery outfits that go over your regular clothes and cover your entire body. They sometimes include a mask and goggles to cover the face, but not always.

Think of the perfectly smooth mirrors being made for the James Webb Space Telescope, or the highly precise laser instruments used at LIGO to detect gravitational waves. If you’re working with that kind of extremely sensitive equipment, the kind of equipment that could get screwed up by the slightest speck of dust from off your skin or off your clothes, then you have to wear a cleanroom suit.

Except people who work in the science biz don’t call them cleanroom suits. They call them bunny suits. That’s the kind of insider lingo that I, as a science fiction writer, can totally use in a story at some point.

Now, let’s see what else I can learn for my stories—uh oh, gotta run. The dogs caught my scent.


Sciency Words: Kosmikophobia

December 2, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

KOSMIKOPHOBIA

I stumbled upon this word while researching last week’s posts on asteroids (click here or here). Kosmikophobia is the fear of cosmic phenomena.

To be fair, there are cosmic phenomena to be genuinely concerned about, such as potential asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts, or the kinds of solar storms that could trigger another Carrington Event.

But this is a phobia, meaning its an irrational or over-exaggerated fear. It’s one thing to one thing to worry that an asteroid might one day wipe out human civilization; it’s another to live in existential dread that it might happen at any moment.

Kosmikophoba can also cover totally irrational fears of auroras or eclipses or the phases of the Moon. Or if you’re excessively terrified of comets and planetary alignments because you believe they are bad omens… that could also be considered kosmikophobia.

There are just two things I’m not clear on: first, has anyone actually been diagnosed with kosmikophobia and received treatment for it? And second, why is it spelled with k’s rather than c’s.

Regarding the spelling, I’m guessing the k’s are supposed to be a more authentic transliteration of the original Greek spelling of cosmos. I just can’t find any etymology to back me up on that.

As for the first point, I know not all phobia-words are meant to be taken seriously. For example, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (the fear of long words) seems to have been made up as a joke.

Since I can’t find any case studies about patients suffering from kosmikophobia, I can’t be sure how seriously to take this condition. The only thing I can say for certain is that this is a real word. I found it in a real dictionary. And as a space enthusiast, I’m really glad I don’t have it.