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:

ZOOSEMIOTICS

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:

YLEM

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:

XENA

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:

WIMPs

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.


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

April 26, 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, V is for:

VOLATILE

Whenever I hear somebody talk about volatile chemicals, I’m never quite sure what they mean. This is another case of a word that means one thing to the general public and something rather different to professional scientists.

In chemistry, a volatile chemical—also refered to simply as “a volatile”—is a chemical substance that tends to evaporate spontaneously under ordinary temperature/pressure conditions. A common example of a volatile here on Earth is water.

Of course you may encounter other chemicals here on Earth far more volatile than water. Just think about alcohol or gasoline. You might also think about nitrogen, oxygen, or hydrogen, because if you manage to get these chemicals into their liquid phases, they will immediately turn back into gases at the first opportunity. That makes them extremely volatile.

To be clear, the volatility of a chemical has nothing to do with how flammable, explosive, reactive, or unstable it is. That may seem a little confusing, but unlike previous confusing chemistry terms we’ve seen (like organic or reduction), I’m not sure I can fault chemists for this one. The chemistry definition is actually closer to the original meaning of the word; in a sense, it’s the rest of us who’ve been using the word wrong.

When volatile first entered the English language from French, it could mean either “light weight” or “evaporating quickly.” The “violent and unpredictable” meaning didn’t come until later. If you go further back into the word’s history, you find it derives from a Latin word meaning “to fly away,” which is actually an apt description of what atoms and molecules do when a volatile chemical evaporates.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, the WIMPs will take on the MACHOs. Which acronym will win?


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

April 25, 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, U is for:

URANUS

I feel really sorry for the planet Uranus.

I’m really sorry, sideways buddy, but they’re not laughing with you. They’re laughing at you.

Rumor has it NASA wants to send a space probe to Uranus in the late 2020’s or early 2030’s. It’ll be the first time we’ve visited an ice giant since the Voyager 2 flybys of Uranus and Neptune, back in the 1980’s. I’m pretty excited about this, but I can’t talk about a Uranus mission without people starting to snicker at me.

So how did the seventh planet of the Solar System end up with such an unfortunate name? Here’s a quick rundown of how this happened:

  • On March 13, 1781, English astronomer William Herschel discovered a new planet beyond the orbit of Saturn.
  • As a good, patriotic Englishman, Herschal named the new planet Georgium Sidis, Latin for “George’s Star,” in honor of King George III (the same King George mentioned in the Declaration of Independence).
  • For obvious reasons, the name Georgium Sidis wasn’t popular outside of England. Several alternatives were proposed, including Herschel, Neptune, and Uranus.
  • Uranus went on to become the most widely used name around the world, until in the mid-1800’s even England officially accepted the name.

In ancient mythology, Uranus was the god of the sky, the father of Saturn and the grandfather of Zeus. He was an extremely important deity, so it made a certain sense to bestow this prestigious name on such a prestigious discovery: the first new planet discovered since ancient times.

German astronomer Johann Elert Bode proposed the name. As a German, he presumably didn’t realize how it would sound in English—or maybe he did know and was deliberately trolling King George! That’s my personal theory.

Whatever Bode’s intentions were, Uranus is now stuck with its name and all the jokes that come with it. Which is a shame. Such a strange and mysterious planet deserves better.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, we’ll be working with volatile chemicals.