Hooray for Citizen Scientists!

April 30, 2018

In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, we met “Steve” and learned how this strange and unexpected aurora-like phenomenon ended up with such a friendly, normal-sounding name.  But there’s another important aspect of Steve’s story that I didn’t really touch on: the role of citizen scientists.

Photo of “Steve” by Elfie Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Toward the end of this paper from Science Advances, the same paper which linked Steve to another aurora-related phenomenon known as S.A.I.D., I found a paragraph that I feel is interesting enough and important enough to quote in full:

STEVE has highlighted the importance of citizen science.  Although independently observed previously by auroral photographers both amateur and professional, citizen science has proven to be a bridge between amateur observers and traditional aurora scientists.  This bridge has facilitated the advancement of our understanding of both the night sky and magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling.  We emphasize that this collaboration with the citizen scientists was not simply through crowdsourcing and image analysis of a large data set. Citizen scientists discovered a new category of auroral observation by synthesizing complex information and asked the scientific community for input on these observations.  This example can help change the nature of scientific engagement between the scientific community and citizen scientists and move communication from one way to two way, with curiosity transitioning to participation and finally to stewardship.

Citizen science is often portrayed as something new, something that’s only become possible thanks to computers, the Internet, and technology in general.  And I think that’s fair.  The mystery of Steve might not have been investigated as thoroughly as it has been, or it might not have been investigated at all, if not for Facebook.

For most of the 20th and early 21st Centuries, cutting edge science has required a lot of extremely powerful, extremely sensitive, and extremely expensive equipment.  If modern science is seen as inaccessible to the average person, that might be in part because the average person could not afford to perform science him or herself.

But it wasn’t always so.  Most of the great scientists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries were essentially hobbyists, people who indulged their curiosity using the kind of tools they either bought off the shelf or built with their own hands.

So in a way, I think of citizen science as science returning to its roots, with ordinary men and women contributing once more to the important discoveries of our time (like the discovery of Steve).

Sciency Words: Steve

April 27, 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 2014, photographer, citizen scientist, and weather enthusiast Chris Ratzlaff was out looking for the aurora borealis when he saw something weird in the sky.  Something that looked like an aurora but could not possibly be an aurora.

For one thing, it was in the wrong part of the sky.  It was too far south, well outside the auroral oval, the region encircling the pole where, on any given night, aurorae are predicted to occur.

And for another thing, this mysterious something was the wrong color.  It was purple. Now I was a bit confused about this part at first, because I thought purple was one of the normal colors in an aurora (along with green).  But aurora purple is more of a reddish or magenta-ish purple, whereas this new phenomenon was a true purple.  A purplish purple, so to speak.

According to this interview with Canadian Geographic, Chris shared pictures of the whatever-it-was on a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers.  Other members of the group then went out and got more photos.  Hundreds of photos.  And time-lapse sequences.

But still, nobody knew what this purple thing was.  An early guess that it was something called a proton arc got shot down by an expert, at which point Chris wrote “[…] until we know what it is, let’s call it Steve.”  This was a reference to the DreamWorks Animated film Over the Hedge.

In the film, a group of animals are confused and alarmed by the appearance of a neatly-trimmed hedge.  One of the animals says, “I would be a lot less afraid of it if I just knew what it was called,” to which another animal replies, “Let’s call it Steve!”

This bit about being less afraid of a thing simply because you know its name is, in my view, a profoundly true statement about the power of language.  But I digress.

According to this research paper from Science Advances, we now know, thanks to all those photos and time lapses from the ground, combined with satellite observations from orbit, what “Steve” is.  Or at least we know that it’s associated with another phenomenon called an S.A.I.D. (SubAuroral Ion Drift). Thanks to Steve, we now have a new way to observe and study S.A.I.D.s and learn more about the interaction between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field.

As such, Steve has been assigned a more proper-sounding scientific name: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (or S.T.E.V.E. for short).

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: 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!