Sciency Words: Polygon Terrain

March 16, 2018

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:


This phenomenon goes by several different names: polygon terrain, polygon patterned terrain, polygonal patterned ground formations… you get the idea. For the purposes of this blog, I’m making polygon terrain the official way to say it, because that matches up with other terrain-related terms we’ve seen, like chaos terrain or cantaloupe terrain.

Polygon terrain is a distinctive pattern of either cracks or ridges that draw polygonal shapes across the landscape. On Earth, these polygons tend to appear in arctic climates. They’re caused by the repeated freezing and thawing of underground glaciers.

When the ice thaws, the ground above it can sink down a little. Then when it refreezes, the ground is forced back up. Overtime, the surface starts to break and crack, producing a landscape that looks like this:

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Polygon terrain seems to be uncannily common in Mars’s northern hemisphere, in regions such as Utopia Planitia. This suggests two things:

  • There are large glaciers buried beneath the layers of surface dust and surface rock.
  • Those glaciers periodically thaw and refreeze.

Thawing Martian glaciers might or might not produce liquid water. Instead, the ice may sublimate, skipping its liquid phase and turning directly into water vapor. But still, during warmer seasons, it’s possible we might find a trickle of liquid beneath these polygon terrain regions—perhaps even enough to sustain a few extremophile microorganisms.

In the future, human explorers on Mars may take a keen interest in Mars’s polygon terrain. This kind of surface geometrization may not have anything to do with advanced alien civilizations, but it’s still worth a look if you’re searching for simpler forms of alien life. Or at least, it’s a good place to check if your colony is in desperate need of liquid water.

P.S.: For a slightly more detailed (without being unintelligibly technical) discussion of polygon terrain, please check out this post from Planetary Geomorphology Image of the Month.

Sciency Words: Canali

March 10, 2018

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:


In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, we looked at one of the maps of Mars drawn by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, and we talked about how Schiaparelli invented many of the place names we still use for Martian geography today. But Schiaparelli’s work also led to one of the most embarrassing mistakes in the entire history of astronomy, and it all happened because of a word: canali.

Looking through his telescope, Schiaparelli saw (or thought he saw) little lines crisscrossing the Martian surface, and he labeled these lines “canali,” which is Italian for channel, but the word was mistranslated into English as “canals.”

It seems Schiaparelli believed these “channels on Mars” were a natural phenomenon, but that’s not the impression English-speaking astronomers got when they started reading about “canals on Mars.” And some astronomers, most notably American astronomer Percival Lowell, were so excited by the idea of Martian canals that they turned their own telescopes on Mars and saw (or thought they saw) exactly what they wanted to see.

This would be the same kind of technological geometrization that Carl Sagan would later write about in reference to Earth, but on a much larger scale. Except it’s not true. Mars is not covered in canals. Even before NASA started sending space probes to Mars, researchers found that the whole thing was probably a trick of the eye. To quote from a paper from 1903:

Our conclusion from the entire experiment is that the canals of Mars may in some cases be, as Mr. Green suggested, the boundaries of tones or shadings, but that in the majority of cases they are simply the integration by the eye of minute details too small to be separately and distinctly defined.

However, in more recent times our space probes have discovered other oddly geometric patterns on Mars, the kinds of patterns that may reveal a very different kind of Martian secret. But I’ll save that for next week!

Sciency Words: Utopia Planitia

March 2, 2018

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:


As a lifelong Star Trek fanatic, I’ve known the name Utopia Planitia for almost as far back as I can remember. It is (or rather, will be) the site of a prominent human colony on Mars, and by the 24th Century it will be the location of one of Starfleet’s most important shipyards. The U.S.S. Enterprise-D, the U.S.S. Defiant, and the U.S.S. Voyager will all be built there. But where did the name Utopia Planitia come from?

In the 1870’s and 1880’s, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli drew what were, at the time, the most accurate and detailed maps of Mars ever produced. But Schiaparelli had a problem. He had trouble matching the pre-established names from older Mars maps to his new map. The old maps were, to put it bluntly, wrong. The new map looked so different that Schiaparelli had to throw out all the old geographic names (goodbye, Kepler-land and Cassini-land!) and make up new ones.

For inspiration, Schiaparelli turned to the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and other classical sources. That included several names for “paradise,” like Eden, Arcadia, and Utopia. Clicking the image below will take you to a NASA history page, where you can take a closer look at one of Schiaparelli’s maps (I believe it’s his original map from 1877, but I’m not 100% sure). Bear in mind that this map was drawn based on what Schiaparelli saw through his telescope, and it was intended for use by other telescope observers of his time, so north and south are flipped around.

At about 260° longitude and 50° north latitude, you’ll find a small, triangular shape marked Utopia.

In Greek, the literal meaning of Utopia is “no place,” but the word has come to mean paradise or fantasy-land… a place so idealistically perfect that “no place” like it could exist in reality. And so Utopia Planitia means “the plains of paradise” or “the plains of fantasy.” Thematically speaking, I can’t think of a better place for all those wonderful ships from Star Trek—and the idealistic vision of the future those ships are supposed to represent—to be constructed.

Sciency Words: Paracosm

February 23, 2018

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:


I love this word. I was a little hesitant, at first, about calling it a scientific term, but it didn’t take much digging for me to learn (to my delight) that it is used in scientific literature. In fact, the word has its origins in science.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, psychologist Robert Silvey was conducting research on the phenomenon of imaginary friends. Ben Vincent, a participant in Silvey’s research, is credited with coining the term paracosm to describe a rather special, rather complex form of imaginary play.

Paracosm combines two Greek words which can be translated as “the world beside,” as in the world that exists besides, or in addition to, the real world. A paracosm is a private fantasy world that is created and maintained over a long period of time within one’s mind.

An important thing to note is that, from the paracosmist’s perspective, this fantasy world does not exist instead or reality. It does not replace reality. Rather, fantasy and reality exist side by side, and the paracosmist lives in both. A paracosmist is not confused about what is real or what is make-believe.

According to the expert sources I’ve looked at, these fantasy worlds are highly detailed. They may be populated by humans, or talking animals, or space aliens and robots, or whatever. They may include their own history, geography, language, social order…. Also, time may not pass at the same rate in the fantasy world as it does in reality. I… I didn’t get that from any expert sources. I guess I could point to Narnia as an example, but instead I’m just going to tell you to trust me on this one: I have personal experience with this accelerated time thing.

Most of the research I’ve found about paracosms focuses on children, with generalized conclusions ranging from “this is a normal and healthy part of childhood” to “this a coping mechanism used by some children to mentally escape from abuse or neglect, or from the loss of loved ones, or from other forms of trauma.”

There’s far less research available on the phenomenon in adults, aside from the suggestion that childhood paracosmic fantasies, or aspects of them, can linger into adulthood and have an ongoing impact on people’s lives. This seems to have been the case for several well-known authors, including Emily Brontë, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

I really do love this word. I love finally having a word to describe something that’s been part of my life for nearly twenty years. Yes, I’ve been maintaining my own paracosmic fantasy world for almost twenty years now, and I have journal entries dating back to 1998 to prove it. And during that time, thanks to the accelerated time thing I mentioned earlier, I’ve “witnessed” nearly a thousand years of fantasy history.

For a writer, that’s plenty of material to draw upon for storytelling. On rare occasions I’ve even allowed elements of my private fantasy world to seep into this blog.

And despite the lack of research on the subject, I suspect my experience of having imaginary friends and an imaginary world stick with me well into adulthood is not all that unusual, at least not for writers, artists, and other creative types.

Sciency Words: Baily’s Beads

February 16, 2018

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:


This is going to be a quick one. I sort of blew all my writing hours this week finishing the first episode of my new short story series: Omni-Science. I don’t regret that. Writing Omni-Science felt awesome, and I hope you liked reading it.

The writing prompt that inspired Omni-Science was this photograph of the “Mondretti cylinder.”

That’s a very strange and mysterious image, certainly strange and mysterious enough to get the machinery in this writer’s brain started. But being the science nerd that I am, I also recognized that this is actually a time-lapse/composite image of a solar eclipse, showing off the “Baily’s beads” effect. (Also when I downloaded the image, the file name had the words “Baily’s beads” in it, which removed any doubts I had about what I was really looking at.)

As I’m sure you know, the Moon is not a smooth, perfect sphere. It’s covered in craggy terrain, and so during an eclipse, just before the Sun disappears entirely behind the Moon, the last rays of sunlight peak out from the gaps between mountains and craters and so forth. As a result, those of us who are using proper safety gear get to see these “beads” of light around the edges of the Moon.

I’m guessing Francis Baily was not the first person to notice this, but in 1836 he became the first to explain it in a paper for the Royal Astronomical Society titled “On the remarkable phenomenon that occurs in total and annular eclipses of the sun.” Those 19th Century English astronomers certainly did have a way with words, didn’t they?

Sciency Words: Moon Village

February 9, 2018

In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, the Moon would like to ask a question, the same question it’s been asking since 1972:

The answer is we humans may be returning to the Moon fairly soon, perhaps within the next decade, but this time we’ll be bringing a far more diverse set of flags to add to the Moon’s collection.

The European Space Agency, also known as the E.S.A., is taking the lead on the next round of Moon missions. For the last few years, Johann-Dietrich “Jan” Wörner, the current E.S.A. director-general, has been talking up the idea of building a Moon village near the Moon’s south pole, a region where large quantities of water ice have been detected.

Apparently interest in Wörner’s Moon village has been growing steadily to the point that Wörner has been quoted saying the village is already “more or less a fact.” I have a feeling the recent successful test of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will accelerate that growth in interest.

But my biggest question about this, and the reason I felt this was worthy of a Sciency Words post, is this: why aren’t we talking about a Moon base? Why is it a village? Apparently the terminology was a very deliberate choice. On the E.S.A. website, Wörner writes:

By ‘Moon Village’ we do not mean a development planned around houses, some shops and a community centre. Rather, the term ‘village’ in this context refers this: a community created when groups join forces without first sorting out every detail, instead simply coming together with a view to sharing interests and capabilities.

I remember in first or second grade painting a mural as a class project. Each student was free to paint whatever he or she liked within the guidelines set by the teacher. The Moon village sounds like a similar concept to me, with every participating country or company or other privately funded group doing their own thing within the broader guidelines set by the E.S.A.

I just hope the end result is not quite the eyesore that that mural was when I was a kid.

Sciency Words: Jeans Escape

February 2, 2018

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:


Once upon a time, there was a molecule on Mars that dreamed of going to space. In fact, once upon a time there must have been a whole lot of molecules in the Martian atmosphere that wanted to go to space, and they apparently succeeded because today Mars’s atmosphere is mostly all gone.

Several factors must have contributed to the success of this molecule-scaled space program. One factor was temperature. The temperature of a gas is really a measure of the average velocity of the molecules in that gas. But remember, that’s the average velocity meaning some individual molecules may be considerably faster or slower than average.

As gas molecules bounce off each other, some of them may also gain or lose momentum, and in some cases a molecule might gain enough momentum to achieve escape velocity (11 kilometers per second on Earth, or 5 kilometers per second on Mars).

At that point, that molecule could achieve its dream and fly off into space (assuming it doesn’t collide with any other molecules on the way out). This can happen with virtually any gas on any planet, but it works best for light-weight molecules (like hydrogen or helium) on low gravity worlds (like Mars).

This process is sometimes called thermal escape, but in the scientific literature I’ve read it seems to be more commonly referred to as Jeans escape.

Sir James Hopwood Jeans was a British mathematician and astronomer. In the early 20th Century, he published prolifically on subjects ranging from star formation to blackbody radiation to the thermal properties of planetary atmospheres. It was this planetary atmospheres work that first led to the idea that a planet could gradually lose its atmosphere to space.

Or at least it was the first time we humans knew anything about it. The atmospheric gas molecules of Mars figured it out a long, long time before that.