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:

ALIEN

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 Wiktionary.org.

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:

TAU LEVEL

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.


Lost Opportunity on Mars

September 12, 2018

Over the last few months, a global dust storm has been raging across the surface of Mars.  It started at the end of May and is only now beginning to clear up. It’s been suggested that this was one of the worst storms we’ve ever observed on the Red Planet

The Good News

If you’re worried about the Curiosity rover, don’t be.  The rover’s just kept on roving, and sciencing, and recently it sent back this selfie to let us know everything’s a-okay.

Just kidding.  Here’s a link to the actual “selfie” Curiosity sent back. It’s an interactive 360-degree panoramic thing, so click the image and drag it around to get the full experience.

The Bad News

While Curiosity seems totally unfazed by the bad weather, things are not looking so good for NASA’s other rover, Opportunity.  It’s too early for a eulogy, but based on what it says in this press release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we should be prepared for the worst.

NASA lost contact with Opportunity in early June, shortly after the storm began.  Unlike Curiosity, which runs on nuclear batteries, Opportunity depends on solar panels for energy.  So the problem may simply be that Opportunity wasn’t getting enough sunlight during the storm.

Or it could be that something more serious has happened to the almost fifteen-year-old rover.  In the press release, Opportunity’s project manager is quoted saying: “If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover.”

So fingers crossed….


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:

THE GARN SCALE

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.


Hobbit Holes of Mercury

September 3, 2018

Scientists need artists.  This is especially true for those scientists who study the planet Mercury.  According to a convention established by the International Astronomy Union, craters on Mercury are to be named after famous artists, writers, and musicians. And it just so happens that Mercury is the most heavily cratered object in the entire Solar System.

So yeah… Mercury scientists need artists. Lots and lots of artists.

This brings me to one of my all time favorite facts: there’s a crater on Mercury named in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien. And it’s not just any boring old crater, at least not from the perspective of colonists who might one day be living on the first planet of the Solar System.

The best real estate on Mercury is near the planet’s north pole. Sheets of water ice have been detected in that region, within the permanently shadowed bowls of craters where the sunlight can’t reach them.  We recently learned there are similar ice sheets on the Moon, within craters near the Moon’s south pole.

Whether humans go to Mercury in pursuit of natural resources or for the purposes of scientific research, we’ll want to set up shop somewhere with easy access to water. Prokofiev crater (named after a Russian Soviet-era musician) is the deepest of Mercury’s polar craters, and thus likely the iciest.  But Tolkien crater appears to be pretty icy too.

We’ll also probably want to construct our habitats underground.  Underground habitats would provide us with some protection from solar and cosmic radiation, among other things.  Therefore I have to assume that in the distant future, the residents of Tolkien crater will refer to their underground dwellings as “Hobbit holes.”


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:

SPACE ADAPTATION SYNDROME

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.


How to Walk in Hypogravity

August 29, 2018

As a science fiction writer, I really wish I knew what it’s like to walk on the Moon or Mars or any other low gravity world.  It would help a lot with that whole “writing from lived experience” thing.  Of course there are ways I could experience hypogravity for myself, but I don’t have that kind of money.  So instead, I’ve turned to medical research papers like this one from Frontiers in Physiology.

First off, let me just say this: I’ve read some really complicated stuff over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as complicated as a scientific paper trying to describe how we humans walk.

But if we want to understand what it would really be like to walk on another planet, we have to start by understanding—in meticulous mathematical detail, apparently—how we do this walking thing here on Earth.

Gravity Makes Walking So Much Easier

The mathematical relationship between walking speed, leg length, and gravity was determined back in the 1870’s.  It was later used in what sounds like a rather whimsical research paper about the walking pace of the Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels.  And then it was used for more pragmatic purposes to estimate the running speeds of dinosaurs.

For those sorts of calculations, the force of gravity would have been treated as a constant, but gravity can easily be treated like a variable, and that’s when things get interesting.  You see, when you walk, your body uses energy to complete the full arc of a footstep, especially at the beginning when you’re lifting your foot off the ground.  But gravity helps you (perhaps more than you realize) when your foot comes back down to the ground.

So if you reduce the force of gravity, gravity provides you with less assistance, and you end up having to expend more energy to complete each step in your walk cycle.

Walking-Mode vs. Running-Mode

The muscle actions involved in walking and running are different enough that there’s no real grey area between “walking-mode” and “running-mode,” as that paper from Frontiers in Physiology calls them. These two “modes of locomotion” take advantage of gravity in distinctly different ways.  Walking-mode ends up being more metabolically efficient at slower speeds, and running-mode is the more metabolically efficient way to travel at higher speeds.

So what happens when you alter the force of gravity?  The transition point where running-mode becomes more efficient than walking-more changes too. Lower gravity means your body will naturally want to switch modes at a lower speed.

On the Moon, for example, walking-mode only works well when you’re moving very slowly.  To achieve what we might consider a normal walking pace, you’ll have to switch to running-mode.  And if you want to reach Earth-like running speed, you’ll probably have to try hopping-mode or jumping-mode—modes of locomotion that we don’t use often here on Earth except under certain specialized circumstances. Skipping-mode also seems to be more metabolically efficient on the Moon than it is on Earth.

Moon-Walking or Mars-Walking in Science Fiction

I’ve read plenty of Sci-Fi stories set on the Moon or Mars. For the most part, I feel like science fiction writers just mention the reduced gravity thing in passing and then move on with the story as quickly as possibly.  I don’t blame them.  It’s really hard to imagine what hypogravity must feel like, and even harder to communicate that feeling to readers.

But one of my highest ambitions as a writer is to write something that makes you feel like you’re there on the surface of a hypogravity planet like Mars.  I want to capture that experience of “running in order to walk” and “hopping in order to run.”  Hopefully this line of research will someday help me pull that off.