Sciency Words: Abstract

May 19, 2017

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:


Abstract is kind of an abstract word. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Among those many meanings, “to abstract” as a verb can mean to take specific information and turn it into more generalized—or rather, more abstract knowledge.

I believe this specific to generalization idea is behind the usage of abstract in scientific papers (as well as other kinds of academic literature). An abstract is the first section of a scientific paper. It takes all the specific information presented in the paper and generalizes it into a one-paragraph summary.

Icarus, a prestigious journal of planetary science, advises authors to include three things in their abstracts:

  • The purpose of their research
  • The principle results of their research
  • The major (i.e., generalized) conclusions we might draw from the research

Icarus also says: “An abstract is often presented separately from the article, so it must be able to stand alone.”

Some of you may have wondered why I didn’t mention abstracts in my recent post on how to read a scientific paper. That was an oversight on my part, but there’s a reason for that oversight. I think of abstracts as sort of like the back covers of books. By that I mean I read abstracts to figure out which papers might be worth reading in full.

But once I’ve found a paper I want to read, I don’t pay much further attention to the abstract. Why? Because like the back covers of books, abstracts really aren’t part of the “story” scientific papers are trying to tell. Also, I’ve been warned that abstracts can be oversimplified or misleading.

I recently found this article published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. It’s titled “How to write a good abstract for a scientific publication or conference presentation.” In the abstract of this article on abstracts, it says:

Well, that’s what it should have said. What it actually says is this:

Abstracts of scientific papers are sometimes poorly written, often lack important information, and occasionally convey a biased picture.

The article goes on to offer guidance, especially for younger researchers, on how to improve their abstracts. “Misleading readers,” the paper warns in its conclusions section, “could harm the cause of science […].”

Personally, I don’t hold it against scientists if their abstracts aren’t the best. Condensing all your research into one paragraph can’t be easy. The lesson here for people like me who are trying to read this stuff is to take abstracts with a grain of salt—just like the back covers of books.

Okay, next week we’ll stop talking about scientific papers and instead go visit a strange planet. Easily the strangest planet in the Solar System, perhaps in the whole universe. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. It’s called Earth.

Sciency Words: Basic

May 5, 2017

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:


During this year’s A to Z Challenge, I ended up covering several scientific terms that do not mean what you might think they mean. Notable examples include reduction, metallicity, and volatile. Basic is another good example, but I already had something else I really wanted to do for B.

Whenever I hear someone talking about basic chemicals, it’s not always clear to me what they mean. On the one hand, basic could mean simple or ordinary.

But basic can also mean fundamental or foundational, as in a base is a foundation upon which you can build something. This gets us closer to what the word means (or should mean) whenever we’re talking about chemicals.

A “Base” for Salt

The modern usage of base and basic in chemistry can be traced back to the mid-1700’s, to Guillaume-François Rouelle, a French scientist who studied the chemical formation of salts. Rouelle found that certain substances, such as alkalis, served as good “bases” for creating salts.

All you have to do is take one of Rouelle’s bases, add an acid, and voilà! you have a salt. And if your base happens to be sodium hydroxide and your acid happens to be hydrochloric acid, you end up with water and sodium chloride, a.k.a.: table salt.

So the next time you run out of table salt but have plenty of sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid around, you know what to do!

A “Base” for Protons

Our understanding of acid-base chemistry is a little more sophisticated today than it was in the 1700’s. Rouelle wouldn’t have known about protons, for example. Fortunately, the original terminology still makes a certain sense, even after we learned of protons and the role they play in acid-base reactions.

In most cases (excluding Lewis acids and Lewis bases), an acid can be thought of as a molecule with a proton dangling loosely off the side. This dangling proton will break off at the first opportunity, so long as the proton can find a better place to go.

In this context (again, excluding Lewis acids and Lewis bases), a base can be thought of as a molecule that can accept a proton that has broken free of an acid. In other words, it’s the “base” upon which the proton can land and make a new home for itself.

Basic Chemicals Aren’t So Basic

So if you hear someone talking about basic chemicals, you might want to ask for some clarification. By “basic,” do they mean (wrongly) a common or easy-to-make chemical, or are they talking (in a more proper sense) about acid-base chemistry?

IWSG: Reflections on the A to Z Challenge

May 3, 2017

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement. Click here to find out more about IWSG and to see a list of participating blogs.

Today’s post is also my reflections post following my first A to Z Challenge.

Back in March, I mentioned to a friend that I was having a hard time with writing. I believe I said something like, “I’ve fallen out of love with writing.” Under the circumstances, I didn’t feel up for something like the A to Z Challenge; and yet I did it anyway, and I’m glad I did.

My theme was scientific terminology (a.k.a. Sciency Words), because of course that would be my theme. My Sciency Words series is an obvious fit for A to Z. How could I not do that?

The real challenge for me in the A to Z Challenge wasn’t writing 26 blog posts, nor was it reading everybody else’s blogs over the course of 26 days. No, the real challenge, at least for me, was doing both at the same time.

Whenever I was in the heat of writing the next batch of posts, I fell behind on all the blogs I wanted to read. I couldn’t even keep up with the comments people were leaving on my own posts (if you commented on something, and I never responded or came to check out your site, I’m really sorry).

And then when I was keeping up with all the cool/inspiring/thought-provoking blogs I was reading, I started falling behind—way behind—on my own writing schedule. I have to admit that Sciency Words: A to Z almost ended in disaster toward the end of week three.

Oh well. Lessons learned, and I’ll try to do better next year. And honestly, despite the problems I had I met a lot of cool new people, and also I’m pretty happy with how my 26 posts turned out. The thing I’m most proud of was this cartoon from Sciency Words: Planet.

Going into May, I’m now feeling a lot better and a lot more confident about my writing. I guess the A to Z Challenge was just what I needed to fall in love with writing again.

Sciency Words: Zoosemiotics (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 30, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, Z is for:


As a writer, words are my trade. As a science fiction writer, I feel scientific terminology is crucial to what I do, which is why I write this Sciency Words series.

But it’s also important to recognize the limitations of written and spoken words, and to be aware of the fact that language—as we humans understand the concept—is not the only means of communication available to us… or to life in general.

Zoosemiotics (pronounced with a double-o sound, zo-o-semiotics) comes from two Greek words: zoe, meaning life (specifically animal life, in this case), and semeion, meaning sign or signal. The term refers to the way animals communicate with each other and the study of this communication.

Well know examples include:

  • Birdsong
  • Whale-song
  • The dance of bees
  • Ants laying down scent trails
  • Dogs marking their territory
  • Squid rapidly changing colors

In all these cases, animals attempt to convey a message of some kind to each other using signs or signals. Sometimes these signals are interpreted correctly; sometimes they’re not, especially when different species are involved (interspecies zoosemiotics).

But whenever an animal is trying to communicate an idea to another—even simple ideas like “Danger!” or “Food this way!”—you can bet a zoosemiotician would really like to study what’s going on.

The field of zoosemiotics also covers the study of how animals try to use signs and signals to communicate with humans (anthropological zoosemiotics). Of course if you’re a pet owner, you probably don’t need a degree in zoosemiotics to know how animals communicate with us. You already know.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z… oh wait, we’re done with that. Tomorrow, if I hate chemistry so much, why have I forced myself to keep studying it? Tune in for the return of Molecular Mondays.

Sciency Words: Ylem (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 29, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, Y is for:


When George Gamow and Ralph Alpher were developing the Big Bang Theory (the actual theory, not the T.V. show), they needed a term for the bizarre form of matter they predicted would have existed in the early universe. They ended up picking the awkward-sounding word ylem.

In a 1968 interview, Gamow had this to say about the word’s origins: “You can look in the Webster dictionary. This is a word—I think it’s an old Hebrew word, but Aristotle was using it—in Webster dictionary (sic) is says ‘material from which elements were formed.’”

As a word nerd, I’m compelled to make two points of clarification before we can move on. First, I hate when people cite “Webster’s dictionary” as a source. Webster is not a trademarked name (Merriam-Webster is), so anybody can stick “Webster” on a dictionary and make it sound authoritative. Second, ylem does not come from Hebrew; the etymology traces back to the Greek word for matter (this according to my favorite real dictionary, The New American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition).

Okay, word nerd rant over.

Aristotle did have something to say about the “fundamental matter” from which the elements formed. By elements, of course, he meant earth, fire, wind, and water. Aristotle’s term for this was proto-hyle. Over the millennia since Aristotle’s time, the hyle part of proto-hyle changed phonetically (Latin added an m, French dropped the h), and thus ylem entered English as a philosophy term.

Gamow and Alpher then turned it into a scientific term. Regardless of which dictionary they were looking at, for them it meant the primordial matter that existed after the Big Bang but before the chemical elements formed.

In a sense, this isn’t too far from the proto-hyle Aristotle was talking about. Except by elements, Gamow and Alpher meant things like hydrogen and helium, not earth or fire. Also, they could be a whole lot more specific about what ylem actually was: a highly charged plasma of protons, neutrons, and electrons that took roughly 400,000 years to cool off before it could start combining as atoms.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, animals may not be able to talk, but they have other ways to communicate with us.

Sciency Words: Xena (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 28, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, X is for:


In January of 2005, astronomers at the Palomar Observatory in California discovered a new “planet.” Except this planet had a highly inclined (tilted) and wildly eccentric (non-circular) orbit. Pluto’s modestly eccentric, Neptune-crossing orbit was weird enough, but this? Planets aren’t supposed to have orbits like this, are they?

The Palomar Observatory astronomers decided to name their discovery Xena.

Personally, I think that name fits: a convention defying name for what was, at the time, a convention defying planet. But Xena was only intended to serve as a placeholder until the International Astronomy Union (I.A.U.) could assign an official name, and they chose the name Eris.

In Greek mythology, Eris was the goddess of discord. This name also seems fitting, given the amount of discord that would soon follow, because Eris was officially classified not as a planet but as a dwarf planet, along with Pluto.

There is now a proposal to reclassify Pluto, Eris, and about a hundred other Solar System objects as planets. It’s a proposal I like, for reasons I tried to lay out in a previous post, but it’s not something I expect to go anywhere. Most professional astronomers seem to be against it.

Anyway, the story of Xena/Eris is an example of something that seems to happen a lot in the field of astronomy. New discoveries get temporary names (pop culture references aren’t uncommon here) until the I.A.U. can review the discovery and assign a name officially.

As another example, the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission came up with a ton of names for geological features on Pluto and its moon, Charon. Many of these names came from Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, The Lord of the Rings… apparently there are a ton of nerds at NASA. You can expect the I.A.U. to change most of those names—but perhaps not all of them. Sometimes a pop culture reference gets the I.A.U.’s okay (especially Lord of the Rings references, I’ve noticed).

In the case of Eris, Eris’s moon (originally named Gabrielle) was officially renamed Dysnomia. Dysnomia was the ancient goddess of lawlessness, and Lucy Lawless was the actress who played Xena on T.V. That was apparently an intentional, though rather convoluted, way to honor what could have been Xena: Warrior Dwarf Planet.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, in the beginning there was the Big Bang. Then there was ylem. A whole lot of ylem.

Sciency Words: WIMPs (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 27, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, W is for:


Approximately 85% of the matter in the universe is invisible; or if it’s not invisible, then it’s doing a really good job hiding from our telescopes. We call this invisible and/or well-hidden matter “dark matter.” We know about its existence only because of its gravitational effects, and also because of its childish taunting.

Scientists love acronyms, especially clever acronyms. There are many possible explanations for the dark matter phenomenon. One of them is a hypothetical subatomic particle called a WIMP: a Weakly Interacting Massive Particle.

Under the current standard model of particle physics, the universe is governed by four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. Click here to learn everything you could possibly need to know about these forces.

If WIMPs exist, they interact with some of the fundamental forces, but not others.

  • Gravity: yes.
  • Electromagnetism: no.
  • Weak nuclear force: maybe yes.
  • Strong nuclear force: probably no.

Light is a result of electromagnetism. Since WIMPs don’t interact with the electromagnetic force, that would explain why we can’t see them.

But invisible particles like WIMPs aren’t the only possible answers to the huge question mark of dark matter. What about matter that’s visible but well hidden? Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects (or MACHOs) are massive but faint objects in space, such as brown dwarfs, rogue planets, or black holes—the kinds of objects that would have a lot of gravity but would be difficult to spot with a telescope.

I have to imagine someone worked really hard to come up with MACHO as an acronym, so it would match well with WIMP. While there are other hypotheses out there, somehow the WIMPs vs. MACHOs debate seems to get the most attention. Which hypothesis does the best job explaining the dark matter mystery?

At this point, to the best of my knowledge as of this writing, physicists still cannot prove or disprove the existence of WIMPs. However, a recent astronomical survey seems to have ruled the MACHOs out of consideration. There simply cannot be enough black holes, brown dwarfs, and other stuff out there to account for 85% of the matter in the universe.

So the WIMPs haven’t won (at least not yet), but the MACHOs definitely lost. Big time. The MACHOs are losers. Big, fat losers. Hey, that’s not me saying that; it’s just what the science acronyms are telling us.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, another reason to get mad at the I.A.U.