Sciency Words: Triangular Trade

January 26, 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 I’m really stretching my conception of science-related terms so we can talk about:


When I was a kid, I had an extensive collection of cards from Star Wars: The Customizable Card Game. At one point, I was trying to trade with a friend to get his Millennium Falcon card, but I didn’t have anything my friend wanted. So we got a third person involved and set up a three-way trade. My extra Princess Leia card went to this third person, who then gave a rare star destroyer to my friend, who then gave me the Millennium Falcon I needed to complete my rebel fleet.

This was sort of like what happens in triangular trade. Like nerdy kids trading Star Wars cards (or non-nerdy kids trading, I don’t know, baseball cards or something), cities or regions or countries set up three-way trade arrangements for their exports. This kind of arrangement served as the basis for much of the world economy in the 18th and 19th Centuries, during the Age of Colonialism.

The most commonly cited example (unfortunately) is the slave trade, where the trade routes between Europe, Africa, and the Americas actually traced out a big triangle across the Atlantic Ocean. European nations exported manufactured goods to their African colonies, which then exported slaves to the American colonies, which then exported things like sugar, cotton, tobacco, etc to Europe.

Obviously triangular trade is more of a historical term than a sciency thing, but much like the word thalassocracy, I feel like this old, history-related term might become applicable again in a far-out, Sci-Fi future where humanity is spreading across the Solar System. And the reason I think that is because Robert Zubrin, one of the foremost Mars colonization advocates in the U.S., wrote about triangular trade in his book The Case for Mars and also in this paper titled “The Economic Viability of Mars Colonization.”

To quote Zubrin from his “Economic Viability” paper:

There will be a “triangle trade,” with Earth supplying high technology manufactured goods to Mars, Mars supplying low technology manufactured goods and food staples to the asteroid belt and possibly the Moon as well, and the asteroids and the Moon sending metals and possibly helium-3 to Earth.

So everybody wins! The people of Earth win, the colonists on Mars win, and all the prospectors and mine workers in the asteroid belt win! Even our moonbase wins (this part might seem counterintuitive, but the delta-v to reach Earth’s Moon from Mars is actually lower than the delta-v to reach the Moon from Earth). And this time, slavery isn’t involved!

Unless the high technology being exported from Earth includes robot slaves who then… hold on, I have to go write down some story ideas.

Mars-y Christmas!

December 25, 2017

Sciency Words: Graben

December 15, 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:


According to the appendix of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a graben is defined as “a long geological ditch formed when the ground sinks because of movements in the underlying crustal layers.”

According to real life, a graben is… well, it’s exactly what Frank Herbert said it is. The term comes from a German word meaning trench, which is a nice, direct way to describe what grabens look like: trenches.

Grabens tend to form between two “normal faults” if the faults run more-or-less parallel to each other. In other words, they form when two masses of the planet’s crust start moving away from each other, allowing a thin sliver of material to sink down into the gap between them.


Image courtesy: Wikipedia.

I used to think grabens could only form due to the movements of tectonic plates, which would mean we should only expect to find them on Earth—the only planet known to have active plate tectonics. But really grabens can occur on any world where the planetary crust is moving around, being pushed or pulled in different directions, causing the surface to stretch and crack.

That could explain why grabens, or at least surface features that look an awful lot like grabens, have been observed on the Moon, Mars, and other places in the Solar System. And perhaps that’s also why they were found (will be found?) on the planet Arrakis, all the way out in the Canopus Star System, according to Frank Herbert.

Sciency Words: Regolith

November 18, 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:


For a long time, I assumed this was another example of having one word for something here on Earth (soil) and a completely different term for the same thing on another planet (regolith). But no, we have regolith here on Earth too; however, other planets and moons do not appear to have soil, strictly speaking.

American geologist George Perkins Merrill is credited with coining the word regolith back in 1897. The term is based on two Greek words meaning “rock blanket.” I don’t know about you, but that conjures up a strange mental image for me. I mean, who’d want to snuggle up under a blanket of rocks?

But after doing further research, I think Merrill was being pretty clever with this one. Regolith is defined as a layer of loose gravel, sand, or dust covering a layer of bedrock.

As for the distinction between regolith and soil, I think it’s best to define soil as a special kind of regolith: regolith that contains enough organic ingredients to support plant life.

By that definition, Earth has both regolith and soil while places like the Moon and Mars only have regolith. That being said, a lot of people (including professional astro-scientists) go ahead and talk about Martian soil when they really mean Martian regolith.

Unless, of course, Martian regolith turns out to have more organic matter in it than we thought!

One Last Thing About the Eclipse

August 30, 2017

This hasn’t been much of a research week for me. I’m more focused on the fiction side of my writing at the moment, rather than the science stuff.

So today I’m just sharing some artwork, something I didn’t quite get done in time for the eclipse.

You know, we are kind of lucky that we have these total solar eclipses. By some amazing coincidence, our large Sun and small Moon appear to be the same size in Earth’s sky, allowing the Moon to perfectly cover up the Sun.

That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the Solar System. That perfect planet-moon-star alignment is likely rare, perhaps even unique in our galaxy. So whenever we make first contact with aliens, and they start bragging about their luminous forests or crystal waterfalls or whatever, we Earthlings will have a unique and beautiful thing to brag about to: we have total solar eclipses.

Recommended Reading: Earth in Human Hands

August 14, 2017

Welcome to another edition of Recommended Reading here on Planet Pailly, a special series devoted to books that I think you should read. Today I’m recommending Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon.

If you’re a fan of Star Trek, especially if you’re one of those fans who takes Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future for our planet seriously, then you really need to read this book. 24th Century Earth, according to Star Trek, will be a paradise; Earth in Human Hands tells the story of how we could make that fictional paradise a reality.

Now I should make it clear that this is not explicitly a book about Star Trek (though as I read it, I couldn’t help but notice the parallel). This is actually a book about the Anthropocene, which is something of a controversial term. I’ve written about it previously here and here. The basic idea is that human activies have already had such a dramatic impact on our planet that we’ve initiated a new epoch of Earth’s geological history. The Holocene is over; the Anthropocene has begun.

Up until now, the changes we’ve caused have been, for the most part, inadvertent. We might even be forgiven for our mistakes, since we didn’t realize for a long time what we were doing. But Grinspoon’s premise is that the time is coming when we will stop making inadvertent changes and start making changes that are deliberate and intentional. First, we’ll want to undo some of the damage we’ve caused, and then we’ll start to reengineer our environment to make our lives more comfortable and secure the planet’s biosphere against natural disasters.

To be clear, Grinspoon is not saying we’re there yet. We do not have the knowledge or technology to reengineer our planet—but we may be heading in that direction. If so, the Anthropocene might not be an age of ecological disaster but rather a golden age for planet Earth, under the wise and benevolent stewardship of the human species.

Admittedly this is a hyper-optimistic vision for our future, but then again so was Star Trek. So if Star Trek’s utopian Earth is something you believe in, something you’d like to see become a reality, then David Grinspoon’s Earth in Human Hands is the book for you.

Sciency Words: Noösphere

August 11, 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:


Earth has a lot of “spheres.” There’s the atmosphere, which is the sphere of air surrounding our planet, and the lithosphere, which is the sphere of rock making up our planet’s crust and upper mantel. Earth has a hydrosphere (all of Earth’s surface water) and a biosphere (all of Earth’s organisms, collectively).

Over time, scientists have come to appreciate how all these “spheres” are interconnected with each other, maintaining conditions on this planet that are just right for life. At the risk of sounding New Agey, it’s almost like Earth is alive, like Earth is a single organism, and we’re just small parts of a greater whole. If so, perhaps we can add one more sphere to the list: the noösphere.

The term noösphere (pronounced either new-o-sphere or know-o-sphere) was coined in the 1920’s by a Jesuit priest named Tielhard de Chardin. The word comes from two Greek words: nous, meaning mind, and sphere, meaning sphere. In other words, the noösphere is the sum total of all the knowledge and intelligence on our planet.

Or going back to the New Agey stuff, the noösphere is Earth’s mind. We humans are like cells in Earth’s body, but we’re not just any old cells: we’re Earth’s brain cells. You might even say Earth has started to develop a new level of intelligence, a noösphere 2.0, as all us brain cells form a new series of neural connections with each other (in other words, the Internet is making Earth smarter).

Of course we could push this analogy too far. Are human beings really worthy of being compared to brain cells? Is the Internet really making our planet smarter?

While I’m not ready to declare humanity to be Earth’s brain, I do think the concept of the noösphere is interesting and warrants some discussion. The various spheres of our planet are interconnected, sometimes in weird and surprising ways; so how does the noösphere—the accumulated knowledge and intelligence of all humanity—contribute to (or detract from) the greater whole?

P.S.: I first learned about the noösphere in David Grinspoon’s recent book Earth in Human Hands, which I’ll be reviewing next week.