Sciency Words: Entropy

October 19, 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:


This is not the first time I’ve written about entropy. In fact, entropy was the subject of my very first (sort of, see footnote) Sciency Words post way back in 2011.  I was still trying to figure out this science stuff back then, and I was also still trying to figure out this whole blogging thing. It’s a little embarrassing to look at that old post now, so I hope none of you will click this link to see it for yourselves.

Back in 2011, I defined entropy as disorder.  Specifically, I said:

Entropy: (noun) A measurement of the amount of disorder in a mechanical system.

This thing about disorder is a very common and rather superficial way of defining entropy.  I’ve since seen and heard the term defined in lots of different ways, some more or less appropriate depending on which scientific field you’re talking about.

My favorite definition today is:

Entropy: (noun) a measure of the amount of energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is no longer available to do work.

And according to the second law of thermodynamics, the total entropy of a closed system will always go up.  This is true whether you’re talking about a steam engine or a living organism or the entire universe.  In any closed system, entropy keeps going up.

When I wrote that original Sciency Words post on entropy back in 2011, it didn’t occur to me to look up the word’s etymology.  That’s a shame, because this turned out to be one of the easier etymologies I’ve researched. I kind of assumed entropy would have some long, convoluted history tracing back to ancient Greece.  I mean, the word looks like an ancient Greek word to me.

But no, the word entropy was coined as recently as 1865 by German physicist Rudolf Clausius, the same person who originally formulated the second law of thermodynamics.  According to, the word is formed by analogy with the word energy, which comes from two Greek root words meaning “in work” or “in the process of working.”  So entropy derived from two Greek words meaning “in transformation” or “in the process of transformation” (so at least I was on the right track thinking the word looked like Greek).

This has led me to think up yet another way to define entropy, a definition that I feel stays a little more true to that “in transformation” meaning that I suspect Clausius was going for.  Let me know what you think of it in the comments.

Entropy: (noun) the gradual but inevitable transformation of what is useful into what is useless.

Footnote: I actually wrote several blog posts before that titled Sciency Words, but those really weren’t the same, and I wouldn’t consider them part of the Sciency Words series.

Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part Two

October 12, 2018

In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, I told you about STEAM education, a variation of STEM education, but with an A added to represent the arts.  There’s a passionate and sometimes vitriolic fight happening in the education world about this.  If I had to pick sides, I guess I’d be on team STEAM; but I hate picking sides in something like this because this whole STEM vs. STEAM fight amounts to what I like to call a “failure of language.”

What I mean by that is that the whole STEM vs. STEAM thing is all about words.  Words, words, words.  Nothing more.  Every time we invent a new word, we create a sort of mental box.  To define our new word, we put certain things in the box, and we keep other things out.  To some extent, we have to do this; otherwise, language wouldn’t work.

But when we start sorting concepts into different mental boxes, we may inadvertently start erecting mental barriers as well.  As a child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I never heard about STEM or STEAM.  Those terms hadn’t been invented yet.  Even so, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were absolutely different from each other.  There were hard barriers between them.  I worry that an unintended consequence of STEM has been to make those kinds of barriers harder and taller, and I’d like to believe that STEAM might help break those barriers down.

As a matter of education policy and the allocation of grant money, maybe STEM is the more useful word to be using.  When we can take a bunch of big concepts (like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, along with all the interdisciplinary challenges that come with those subjects) and put them together in the same mental box, we suddenly have the ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways.  STEM education is important.  The fact that this term exists and we all more-or-less understand what it means is a huge success of language.

But what I’ve seen of this STEM vs. STEAM debate strikes me as a case study of how a success of language can start to look like a failure.  I can think of other examples as well. Any time we start insisting that things (or worse, people) belong in separate boxes, we’re allowing mere words to create real divisions, and we’re making the communication of ideas between the two sides more difficult.

This may not qualify as a scientific term, or even as a linguistics term, but it’s a term I’m using more and more in all the seemingly pointless arguments our society keeps getting into these days:


Okay, I’m going to get off my philosophy of language soapbox.  Now it’s your turn.  What do you think of STEM, STEAM, and the ways language succeeds and/or fails us?

Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part One

October 5, 2018

I don’t think I’ve ever done a two-part episode of Sciency Words before, but this turned out to be a more complicated and controversial topic than I originally expected.  I have some strong feelings about this, but for now I’ll keep those feelings to myself and endeavor to be fair to both sides of the debate over:


Our story begins in the early 2000’s.  Studies were being published.  Important meetings were happening at the National Science Foundation.  There was a growing concern about the state of education in the United States.  Children were not learning what they needed to know in certain specific fields.  It seemed that a whole generation of young people would not be prepared for the high-tech job market of the future.

Thus, the concept of STEM education was born.  STEM, of course, is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  There’s been a strong push in recent years to get children excited about these subjects, to get them interested in pursuing STEM careers, and rightfully so.  Our world is changing, and children should be prepared for that.

But has this emphasis on STEM gotten out of hand? Has STEM led to a deemphasizing or even a devaluing of the arts?  Some worry that it has, and this has led to a new push to turn STEM into STEAM, with the A representing art.

The argument goes that the arts, or at least certain key aspects of the arts, are just as important in the high-tech world of tomorrow as the more traditional STEM fields.  As an example, think of a smartphone.  Think of the design team that figured out what the phone should look like, what it should feel like in your hand.  Think of the people who designed the user interface, with all those little icons that show you what your phone can do, and all those musical dings and beeps and whistles that let your phone tell you you got a text message, or that your download in complete, or that your battery is running low.  All those little niceties of design—it takes artists to do that.

But some people really are not happy about getting the arts mixed up with STEM.  Yes, the arts are important for a well-rounded education.  Yes, there’s a place for artists in the jobs market of the future.  But remember how our story began.  There was a growing concern that children were not getting the education they needed in certain specific fields. This was a crisis in the American education system, and the crisis is not over yet.  STEM education is only now starting to get the attention—and also the grant money—it so desperately needs.  We need to stay focused on the biggest problem areas in our education system.

Now I try to keep these blog posts fairly short.  I hope I did an okay job summarizing both sides of this issue, but if you think I left important points out, please feel free to yell at me in the comments below.  I’d especially love to hear from educators who may be on the front lines of this debate.

As for my own opinion… I guess if I had to choose sides, I’d be on team STEAM.  But I hate choosing sides in something like this.  From my perspective, more than anything else, this fight looks like a failure of language.  I’ll explain what I mean by that in part two.

Sciency Words: Alien

September 28, 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:


I recently added a new book to my personal reference library. It’s called Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.  Flipping through this book has been an absolute joy, and I’ve learned that many of the words we commonly see in both science and science fiction have far more complicated origins than you might expect.

The First Planet Had the First Aliens

The notion that life might exist on other worlds has been around for a surprisingly long time.  The ancient Greek philosophers were philosophizing about it as far back as the 7th Century B.C.E.  The idea really came to the forefront, though, thanks to Galileo.

Once Galileo looked through his telescope and found that the Moon was covered in mountains and “seas,” and once he turned his attention to the planets and realized they too were worlds in their own right, it wasn’t such a huge leap of logic to supposed that people might be living on those other worlds.  But if we’re going to talk about these hypothetical people, what should we call them?

According to Brave New Words, the planet Mercury was the first to have its possible inhabitants named.  Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens was writing about the Mercurians as early as 1698.  The term Lunarians, referring to the inhabitants of the Moon, is first noted in 1708.  Other terms like this kept cropping up throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries: Saturnians in 1738, Neptunians in 1870, Martians in 1874….  But what about a generic term for any life-form that’s not from Earth?

An Alien by Any Other Name

The word alien is almost as old as the concept of extraterrestrial life, but that’s not what the word originally meant at all. “Alien” traces back to an ancient Latin word that meant something like “belonging to someone else,” according to

The word came to English by way of French, with its meaning changing and expanding quite a bit along the way.  Alien can mean strange or exotic.  It can mean new and unexpected.  It can mean “from a foreign land.”  It can also mean out of place or unwelcome, and it can have other pejorative connotations as well.

But for our purposes, we’re primarily interested in the “creature from another planet” definition.  The oldest citation given in Brave New Words comes from British essayist Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1820: “I am like a being from another planet on this terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.”

But this quotation is marked as being of historical interest, not as a proper example of the word’s sciency/science fictiony usage.  Mr. Carlyle is sort of fumbling for words here, I think, and the word alien still seems to have more to do with being foreign in general rather than extraterrestrial in particular.

Attack of the Bug-Eyed Monsters

So it’s not until the 1930’s, thanks in large part to the pulp Sci-Fi magazines of that era, that the word alien truly comes to mean a creature from some other world.  As Brave New Words shows us, it’s in the 30’s that we start reading about “intelligent aliens” who perform experiments using “many forms of apparatus,” or we hear about how “disgusting” it would be to “traffic with an alien form of life,” or how infuriating it is to think that a human being has become “a captive of the aliens.”

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like a surprisingly recent development in the language.

Sciency Words: Tau Level

September 14, 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 first came across this term in a press release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  It has to do with Mars, and the global dust storm that’s been happening there these last few months, and that Mars rover that we may have lost.  But most of all, this tau level thing has to do with Beer.

No, not that kind of beer.

I’m talking about Dr. August Beer, a 19th Century German physicist who studied how light passes through and/or gets absorbed by various substances.  Dr. Beer is best remembered for Beer’s law, which (according to several papers I looked at… click here or here or here) is used to calculate how much sunlight makes it through the Martian atmosphere to reach the planet’s surface.

In those calculations, the Greek letter tau (τ) represents the amount of dust or other particulate matter that’s floating around in the atmosphere.  The more dust in the air, the higher the tau level.  And the higher the tau level, the less sunlight reaches the ground.

As you can imagine, you need to measure the tau level on Mars each day (or rather, each sol) and predict what the tau level will be tomorrow (I mean, solmorrow) if you’re trying to run any sort of surface mission on Mars that depends on solar power.  And in the future, when we have a well-established colony on Mars, don’t be surprised if the term tau level features prominently in the local weather reports.

P.S.: I had an idea that got too convoluted, but I really wanted to make a “don’t drink and drive” joke involving Beer’s law and our possibly wrecked Mars rover.

Sciency Words: Garn Scale

September 7, 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 1985, Senator Jake Garn of Utah became the first sitting member of Congress to fly in space.  Florida Congressman Bill Nelson followed a year later.  I guess NASA felt it would be good for somebody in Congress to see firsthand how the money for the space shuttle program was being spent.

Senator Garn’s Wikipedia page quotes several astronauts. Apparently not everyone was thrilled about Garn’s mission, but some of them had nice things to say. Astronaut Charles Bolden, who would later go on to become NASA Administrator, said:

Jake Garn was the ideal candidate to do it, because he was a veteran Navy combat pilot who had more flight time than anybody in the Astronaut Office.

And Charles Walker, one of the astronauts who flew with Senator Garn, had this to say:

[…] I think the U.S. space program, NASA, has benefited a lot from both his experience and his firsthand relation of NASA and the program back on Capitol Hill. As a firsthand participant in the program, he brought tremendous credibility back to Capitol Hill, and that’s helped a lot.

Jake Garn may have had a lot of piloting experience before his mission, and afterwards he may have had a lot of positive things to tell his colleagues in Congress, but the mission itself… well, let’s just say weightlessness did not agree with the senator’s stomach.

As a result, Garn’s name has become something of a slang term at NASA.  The Garn scale is an informal, off-the-cuff system to quantify how space sick someone becomes while in space.  Apparently it’s not unusual, even for the most experienced astronauts, to get a little space sick.

A zero on the Garn scale represents not getting space sick at all.  If you do get sick, you’ll probably score a tenth of a Garn, or a quarter of a Garn—some fractional amount of a Garn.  It’s said that no one has ever reached one full Garn’s worth of space sickness, except of course, Senator Garn himself.

Hopefully the senator has a sense of humor about all this.

Sciency Words: Space Adaptation Syndrome

August 31, 2018

While doing my recent research on hypogravity and its effects on the human body, I’ve seen the term space adaptation syndrome come up a few times. I figured it would make a good Sciency Words post. Then I discovered, to my surprise, that I’d already done this one!

So today I’d like to present to you, apparently for the second time:


Yeah, we could just call it “space sickness,” but this is Sciency Words, so we have to call it “space adaptation syndrome.” Because NASA has a rule that all space related terms must be turned into acronyms, we can also call it “S.A.S.”

Most astronauts experience space adaptation syndrome at some point, usually during training or during their first few days in space. Relapses are also known to happen. As you can imagine, NASA really wants to figure out what causes S.A.S. and how to prevent it. This is one of the reasons they recently left an astronaut in space for almost a full year.

Mr11 Year in Space

This is totally how the year in space mission happened.

At present, S.A.S. seems to be similar to motion sickness. It is also sort of the exact opposite of motion sickness. Think of it this way:

  • Motion sickness: your inner ear senses motion, but your eyes do not (because you’re playing with your phone in a moving car, for example). In this case, your eyes are feeding your brain false information.
  • Space adaptation syndrome: your eyes see that you’re moving (or not moving), but in the absence of gravity, your inner ear hasn’t got a clue what’s going on. So in this case, your eyes are trustworthy; it’s your inner ear feeding false information to your brain.

The good news is that we humans can adapt. Our brains learn to rely less on our inner ears, allowing the business of human space exploration to continue.

The bad news is that once we humans adapt to space, returning to Earth becomes a problem. I’m not talking about bone loss or muscle atrophy. I’m talking about balance. All of a sudden, your inner ear is working again, and your brain has to relearn how to do this balancing and walking stuff.

There is also a concern—and I’m not sure how seriously to take this concern—that the human body might adapt too well to space. You might spend so much time up there, becoming so acclimated to zero-G, that your brain and inner ear will never function properly together again. You’ll never walk again. You’ll never be able to come home. You’ll be stuck in space for the rest of your life.

That would suck.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. To be honest, if I ever get to go to space, I probably won’t want to come back anyway.

P.S.: Here’s a bonus Sciency Word: lead-head. Lead-head is what astronauts call immunity from space adaptation syndrome.