Sciency Words: FarFarOut

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at new and interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:


You know, I recently spent a couple days trapped at home due to a snow storm. Don’t worry, I don’t live in Texas—I wasn’t trapped in that snow storm.  Anyway, after reading a little about Dr. Scott Sheppard, I feel as though I seriously misused those snowed-in days.

Dr. Sheppard is one of the key players in the ongoing search for Planet X, also known as Planet Nine or (as I like to call it) New Pluto.  Together with fellow astronomer Chad Trejillo, Sheppard has discovered more than sixty objects of various sizes out beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto.

Among those sixty-plus objects Sheppard and Trejillo discovered is a possible dwarf planet nicknamed “FarOut” (official designation 2018 VG18).  FarOut is—or rather was, very briefly—the most distant natural object known to exist in our Solar System.  Hence the nickname.

But in early 2019, Sheppard was reviewing his data and happened to notice another object even farther out than FarOut.  As Scientific American tells the story, this happened while Sheppard was “snowed in during a blizzard.”  (I spent my recent snowed-in days watching cartoons on my phone.)  The new object Sheppard found in his data has the official designation 2018 AG37, but Sheppard nicknamed it “FarFarOut,” for obvious reasons.

According to this article from Carnegie Science, FarFarOut has a highly eccentric (non-circular) orbit, with an orbital period of approximately one thousand years!  Seriously, a thousand years!!!  A portion of that highly eccentric orbit is actually not that far away at all; at its closest approach to the Sun, FarFarOut’s orbital path actually crosses within the orbit of Neptune.

I do have to take issue with some of the news articles and social media posts I’ve seen about FarFarOut.  Strictly speaking, FarFarOut is not the most distant known object in the Solar System.  We should probably call it the most distant natural object, or the most distant non-articifical object, that we currently know about, because there is one known object that’s even fartherer out than FarFarOut.

Sciency Words: Linguistic Relativity

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Okay, I know you’ve seen every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, just like I have, so I’m sure you remember the one about Riva.  He was the deaf and mute ambassador who communicated with the help of three telepathic interpreters.

In that episode, we’re told that Riva has quite a reputation for his peacemaking skills.  He’s such a famous peacemaker that, at one point, Lieutenant Worf has this to say about him:

Linguistic relativity (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is the idea that the language you speak shapes your thoughts.  Language molds your mind and influences your perception of the world in subtle yet profound ways.

For example, if you’re a Klingon and your language has no word for “peacemaker,” how would you ever talk to your fellow Klingons about making peace?  Could you even conceptualize, in your own mind, what peacemaking would be?  It would be difficult for some, and nearly impossible for others.  Thus we can see how the limitations of a language can limit the thinking both of individuals and of an entire society.

American anthropologist Edward Sapir was not the first person to suggest that language molds our minds in this way, but he was the first to try putting some science behind the idea with this 1929 paper on the Hopi (a Native American tribe) and their language.  Then in 1940, Benjamin Whorf published this paper expanding on Sapir’s work with the Hopi and building on Sapir’s thoughts about language.  Sapir and Whorf never actually worked together, nor did they articulate their ideas as a formal hypothesis; even so, this concept is now commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

But linguistic relativity is, in my opinion, a far more apt term.  It’s obvious, if you read Whorf’s 1940 paper, that he’s borrowing concepts and terminology directly from Einstein and the theory of general relativity.  Just as you must account for your physical frame of reference when observing space-time events, you must also consider your linguistic frame of reference when examining psychological or sociological realities.

Over the years, I’ve seen and heard some pretty extreme claims related to linguistic relativity.  In some cases, these claims have bordered on racism (i.e. for reasons X, Y, and Z, Western European languages are superior, while other language groups are inferior).  So obviously, linguistic relativity can be a controversial subject. As part of my research for today’s post, I read this paper reviewing the origins and history of Sapir-Whorf/linguistic relativity, and I think one of the concluding remarks in that paper sums things up nicely:

Whorf may not have been right on all counts, but he was not wrong either.  The fact that language plays a role in shaping our thoughts, in modifying our perception and creating reality is irrefutable.

Personally, I can tell you that I’ve experienced some of the effects of linguistic relativity myself, many times over.  Every time I learn a new scientific term, I feel like a Klingon who just found out what a peacemaker is.  Sometimes, the change is small; other times, it feels like a major paradigm shift.  My mind seems to open up to new possibilities, and I find that I can conceptualize the world around me in a whole new way.

In my experience, learning new vocabulary (scientific vocabulary or otherwise) is the absolute best kind of learning.  And that, my friends, is why I write this Sciency Words series.

P.S.: If you watch that episode of Star Trek, you’ll note that Mr. Worf puts a lot of stank on the word “peacemaker,” suggesting that while the Klingons do have a word for that now, it’s a pejorative term.  The pejoration or amelioration of a word can also have subtle but profound effects on your thinking as an individual and on the collective thinking of a society.

Sciency Words: Newtonmas

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science or science-related terms.  In today’s episode, we’re talking about:


Newtonmas is often described as a secular alternative to Christmas.  Some people see Newtonmas as an affront to Christmas and all things Christian.  Me?  I don’t believe science and religion necessarily need to be adversaries, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t celebrate two things on the same day.

Newtonmas commemorates the fact that Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642.  Or at least that’s Newton’s birthday according to the Julian calendar.  According to the Gregorian calendar, Newton was born on January 4, 1643.

If I may wander into the calendar technicality weeds for a moment, the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in 1582, but it was not adopted by all countries right away.  Great Britain didn’t switch over until 1752.  And so at the time of Newton’s birth (1642/1643), in the place where he was born (Lincolnshire, England), the Julian calendar was still in effect, and it remained in effect for Newton’s entire lifetime.  So as far as Newton and his countrymen were concerned, he was born on December 25, 1642.

The first documented celebration of Newtonmas occurred in Japan.  In the late 1800’s, a small group of students at the Imperial University in Tokyo formed an Isaac Newton fan club.  This fan club rapidly grew in popularity and soon included a mix of undergrads, grad students, and professors.

And so on Christmas Day, 1890 (Gregorian calendar), members of this Newton fan club got together for the first ever Netwonmas party.  According to this article from the time, the party included humorous science lectures, a science-themed gift lottery, and plenty of “laughter and good cheer.”  Basically, Newtonmas started out as nerdy fun.  And as far as I’m concerned, that’s what it still is (and I do not want to hear any “war of Christmas” nonsense in the comments, thank you very much).

So merry Newtonmas, friends!  And merry Christmas, too!  There’s no reason you can’t celebrate both, if you want to.

P.S.: This will be my final blog post of 2020.  I’m taking some time off for the holidays.  I’ll see you again, friends, on January 6, 2021 (Gregorian calendar) for the first IWSG post of the New Year.

Sciency Words: Chromophore

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at those weird words scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Recently, just for fun, I was watching an old interview with Carl Sagan (the same interview I cited in Wednesday’s post, by the way).  Around 25 minutes into that interview, Sagan talks a little about Jupiter, and he mentions that Jupiter’s distinctive coloration is caused by something called “chromophores.”

Sagan then goes on to say, flippantly, that we call it a chromophore because “we don’t know what it is.”  But the word chromophore is not quite a meaningless placeholder term for a thing we don’t understand (like dark matter).

Definition: A chromophore is a group of atoms within a larger molecule that are responsible for giving that molecule its color.  So, for example, chlorophyll molecules have chromophores in them that soak up red and blue light, thus giving chlorophyll its characteristically green appearance.

Etymology: Chromophore comes from two Greek words meaning “color” and “bearing.”  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage of the word is in this 1879 dictionary of chemistry.  The word appears in a section about the chemical reactions used to make dyes.

Fun fact: just like the planet Jupiter, the oil pastels I used to draw this picture of Jupiter contain “chromophores.”

To say that Jupiter’s coloration is caused by chromophores is absolutely correct, but somewhat unhelpful.  It’s like asking “what caused that sound?” and being told “vibrations of the air.”  But, at least for now, it seems we don’t have a better answer.  To the best of my knowledge, we still don’t know which chemicals, specifically, are responsible for giving Jupiter his distinctive coloring (though Jupiter researchers have a lot of plausible-sounding guesses).

But whatever those chemicals are, they must contain chromophores.  Almost by definition, that must be true.

Shameless Self Promotion Time: Looking for Jupiter T-shirts, Jupiter notebooks, or other Jupiter-themed stuff?  Click here to check out all the Jupiter-related products available in the Planet Pailly store on Redbubble!

Sciency Words: Radical Acceptance

Hello, friends!

I’m still recovering from what may or may not be COVID-19, so I don’t have a regular Sciency Words post for you today.  But during the time I’ve been sick, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube, and I discovered a YouTube channel that I wanted to share.  It’s called Cinema Therapy.

It’s hosted by a professional filmmaker and a behavioral psychologist.  The two of them watch movies together and talk about the psychological truths (and falsehoods) expressed by those movies.  I’ve especially enjoyed their analyses of The Lord of the Rings films, and this episode on Frodo Baggins and radical acceptance was really helpful for me in my current situation.

And hey, psychology is a scientific field.  Radical acceptance is a term used in that scientific field.  So there’s your Sciency Word for the week!

Sciency Words: Preservation Bias

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at interesting and new scientific terms in order to expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:


So is there life on Mars?  Well, there could be.  It’s not totally impossible.  But as I’ve said before on this blog, I think the odds of us finding living things on Mars are pretty low.  The odds of us finding dead things on Mars, however… I think those odds are much better!

Or at least I did think that until I read this paper, entitled “A Field Guide to Finding Fossils on Mars.”  That paper introduced me to the concept of “preservation potential,” and subsequent research led me to learn about something paleontologists call “preservation bias.”

Basically, turning into a fossil isn’t easy.  A lot of factors have to come together just right in order for a dead organism to become preserved in the fossil record.  As that Martian fossil field guide explains:

On Earth, most organisms fail to fossilize because their remains are physically destroyed, chemically oxidized or dissolved, digested by their own enzymes, or consumed by other organisms.  Fossilization only occurs when processes of preservation outpace degradation.

Preservation bias refers to the fact that certain organisms—or certain parts of certain organisms—stand a better chance of fossilizing than others.  Preservation bias can also refer to the fact that some environments (rivers and lakes, for example) do a better job creating and preserving fossils than others (for example, deserts).

A lot of factors can get involved in this, but as a quick and easy example, think of the dinosaurs.  Dinosaur bones fossilize easily enough.  Other parts of the dinosaur… not so much.  That, my friends, is preservation bias at work, favoring hard tissue, like bone, over soft tissue, like muscle or fat.

Now imagine what would have happened if dinosaurs somehow evolved without bones (that’s a weird concept, I know, but just bear with me a moment).  How much would we know about those boneless dinosaurs today?  Would we know about them at all?  Those hypothetical boneless dinosaurs could have roamed the earth for billions of years and left hardly a trace of evidence for us modern humans to find!

Which brings us back to Mars.  There was a time, very long ago, when Mars was a much warmer and wetter planet than he is today.  It’s possible—no, I’d say it’s probable!—that life of some kind developed on ancient Mars, just as it did on ancient Earth.  But would that ancient Martian life have left us any fossils to find?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It depends on the various factors involved in preservation bias.

P.S.: Boneless dinosaurs are delicious.

Sciency Words: Safety Ellipse

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those wild and crazy words scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


I don’t know about you, but when I’m trying to dock my shuttle pod with another spaceship, I like to take a few long, leisurely loops around that other spaceship first.  You know, like this:

Spaceships are pretty!  Who wouldn’t want to get a good look at them from every conceivable angle before completing docking maneuvers?  But it turns out that circling round and round a spaceship like this is not just for admiring the view.  It’s also for safety!  As explained in this paper:

A “safety ellipse” is an out-of-plane elliptical periodic relative motion trajectory around the primary spacecraft such that the trajectory never crosses the velocity of the primary.

That clear things up?  No?  Okay, how about a quote from this paper instead:

This paper defines a safe trajectory as an approach path that guarantees collision avoidance in the presence of a class of anomalous system behaviors.

Still confused?  Here’s a short video demonstrating what a safety ellipse (a.k.a. a safe trajectory) looks like:

Basically, if your shuttle pod experiences engine failure or any other major malfunction, flying in a safety ellipse ensures that you will not collide with the ship you were trying to dock with.  At least not for a good, long while.

I first heard about this term the other day while watching the livestream of the SpaceX Dragon capsule approaching and docking with the International Space Station.  Several times, the livestream commentators mentioned that Dragon was utilizing a “24 hour safety ellipse” or “24 hour safe trajectory,” meaning that if anything went wrong, mission control would have at least 24 hours to fix it before Dragon and the I.S.S. collided.

So remember, friends: the next time you’re going to dock with another spacecraft, do that out-of-plane elliptical periodic relative motion thing.  In other words, circle around the other ship a few times before making your final approach to dock.  It’s for safety reasons.

P.S.: It’s also for enjoying the view.  Spaceships are pretty!

Sciency Words: Data

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science and science-related terminology.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


Okay, are you supposed to say “this data” or “these data”?  Are you supposed to say “the data is” or “the data are”?  In other words, are you supposed to treat “data” like a singular or plural noun?

Well, before I answer those questions, let me tell you something about English grammar that you already know, even if you don’t know that you know it.  English makes a grammatical distinction between count nouns (like shoe, child, or cactus) and mass nouns (like corn, furniture, or homework).

Count nouns have different singular and plural forms (shoe/shoes, child/children, cactus/cacti).  Mass nouns do not.  When was the last time you heard someone walk into a room and say, “Oh, look at all these furnitures”?

Traditionally, data has been treated as a count noun, with datum as the singular form and data as the plural.  This is consistent with the word’s Latin origin.  In Latin, datum meant something like “a thing that is given,” and so data would mean “things that are given.”

But of course, Latin is a dead language; English is still living, and in living languages words change.  Right now, “data” is in the process of changing from a count noun to a mass noun.  If I had to guess, I’d point the finger at personal computers for causing this change.  I imagine datum and data were once rather esoteric, rather academic words.  Then personal computers put the word “data” into the vocabulary of the masses—but not the word “datum.”

I mean, given how much (how many?) data computers process, how often would anyone need to talk about a single datum?  In our daily experience, a single bit of data is akin to a single grain of sand.  And so, much like the word “sand,” many of us have started treating “data” as a mass noun.  Those who still use “data” as a count noun are in the minority.

A few years ago, the statistics blog Five Thirty Eight conducted a survey asking, among other things, if people preferred “the data is” or “the data are.”  As Five Thirty Eight explains:

To those who prefer the plural, I’ll put this in your terms: The data are pretty conclusive that the vast majority of respondents think we should say “data is.”  The singular crowd won by 58 percentage-points, with 79 percent of respondents liking “data is” to 21 percent preferring “data are.”

There are still some contexts where saying “this data” or “the data is” would be frowned upon.  Basically, the more academic a setting you’re in, the more countable (and less mass-able) your data should be.  Although I’ve noticed that even the most persnickety of academics are more likely to talk about a singular “data point” rather than use the word “datum.”

Of course, none of this matters if you’re talking about Commander Data, the character from Star Trek.  In that context, Data is a proper noun, and therefore a countable noun, and therefore:

10 Ridiculous Scientific Names

Hello, friends!

Sorry, I don’t have a Sciency Words post for you this week.  I was researching a thing, but it turned out that I’d bit off more than I could chew.  I really don’t think I should do a blog post on a topic when I understand that topic so poorly.

If you really had your heart set on learning some scientific terminology today, please check out this video from SciShow on some of the “ridiculous” names scientists have given to animal species.  Though personally, I’m not sure what they mean by ridiculous.  Han solo sounds like a perfectly sensible genus/species name to me.

Sciency Words: Flying Saucer

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Okay, first question: does this really count as a scientific term?  Probably not, but the origin of the term “flying saucer” is pretty interesting nonetheless.  I’m going to go ahead and say this one’s sciency enough for Sciency Words!

So, on June 25, 1947, an article appeared in The East Oregonian reporting on the sighting of “nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation.”  American businessman and aviator Kenneth Arnold had been flying his airplane near Mount Rainier, in Washington State, when he saw something he could not explain: nine flashes of light, like sunlight glinting off metal.

By all accounts, Arnold was legitimately confused by these strange lights.  But he did not jump to any conclusions.  He did not immediately assume he was looking at a squadron of extraterrestrial spaceships.  In other words, Kenneth Arnold was not this guy:

Instead, Arnold tried to observe and record as much information as he could, in an objective and unbiased manner, paying attention to any details that might help solve the mystery.  Based on what it says in this article (an interview with the newspaper reporter who initially interviewed Arnold), it sounds like Arnold went to the press in the hope that someone out there might read the story and come forward with a plausible explanation for what those weird light really were.

But some details of Arnold’s story were not reported accurately.  Most notably, Arnold never said the flying objects he saw looked saucer-like.  In this article from The Atlantic, Arnold is quoted trying to clear up the confusion:

These objects more or less fluttered like they were, oh, I’d say, boats on very rough water or very rough air of some type, and when I described how they flew, I said that they flew like they take a saucer and throw it across the water.  Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted that too.  They said that I said that they were saucer-like; I said that they flew in a saucer-like fashion.

According to that same article from The Atlantic, this may have been “one of the most significant reporter misquotes in history.”

It’s not entirely clear when “saucer-like aircraft” got simplified into “flying saucer,” but it seems to have happened in a matter of weeks, if not days.  The original news article was published on June 25, 1947; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known usage of “flying saucer” is from July 8th of the same year, and the quotation cited by the O.E.D. makes it sound like this “nickname” was already in widespread usage.

And thus, flying saucers became part of the popular lexicon, not because Kenneth Arnold said that’s what he saw but because Arnold was misquoted by a newspaper reporter.