IWSG: Star Trek Wisdom

December 6, 2017

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement. Click here to find out more about IWSG and to see a list of participating blogs.

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I’ve been debating with myself how much I should reveal for this month’s IWSG. I’ve decided this is a case where less is more.

I had an extremely rough week last week, which was the culmination of a rough month, which was ultimately the culmination of a year that did not go according to plan. The important thing is that I feel like I should have seen all this coming, that I should have done something to protect myself or prepare myself better.

In other words, I feel like what happened was my own fault. That, more than anything else, took a psychological toll on me. That, more than anything else, is the reason why I recently took some time off from blogging and from writing in general, and I actually wasn’t sure for a while if I had it in me to ever pick up the pen again.

But then I ended up watching some old episodes of Star Trek, and Captain Picard said exactly what I needed to hear: […] it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

I’m sharing this today for two reasons. First, because I think there’s a good chance someone else out there might need to hear those words, just like I did. And second, because this is another example of what fiction (even so-called escapist fiction) can do for people.

Yes, Star Trek allowed me to escape for a little while from my real life problems; that in and of itself has some value. But it also helped me see my problems in a new light. That kind of clarity is a valuable gift. We need more of that, which is why I’m leaving my own hesitation and self-doubt behind and getting back to writing. And I hope that, no matter what insecurities the rest of you might be dealing with, you will keep writing too.

Back to Earth

November 27, 2017

Quick programming note: I’m currently dealing with a small personal matter. I’d rather not go into any details about it, but it’s nothing serious. No need to worry.

However this small matter does require me to come back down to Earth for a little while, which means I’ll have to take a brief hiatus from blogging.

I expect things to return to normal by the end of the week, so I should be able to resume my special Mars Mission next Monday. I’ll have some weird rocks to tell you about; trust me, it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. So stay tuned!

Sciency Words: Mars Direct

November 24, 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:


In November of 1989, NASA published the findings of a 90-day study on the future of the American space program. That report came to be known as the 90-Day Report and established a goal of putting humans on the surface of Mars within thirty years. The methods to achieve this goal were complicated. Very complicated. Stupidly complicated, or so thought aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin.

So in 1991, Zubrin and colleagues published a paper outlining an alternative plan which they called “Mars Direct.” Zubrin further elaborated on the Mars Direct plan in his book The Case for Mars.

Mars Direct means exactly what it says: astronauts would go directly to Mars. This is in contrast to the elaborate and expensive space infrastructure ideas proposed in the 90-Day Report, which involved enormous space stations and moon bases and orbital fuel depots and fleets of giant starships, all of which would have to be built before even one person could set foot on the Red Planet.

I won’t go through all the details of how Mars Direct is supposed to work (there’s a good reason Zubrin had to write a whole book about this); I’ll just cover the basics.

Launches would take place every twenty-six months, coinciding with the regular planetary alignments of Earth and Mars. Specifically, Zubrin advocates for launches during Earth/Mars conjunctions, when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun. That may seem counterintuitive, but because of the math and the delta-v and the orbital mechanics and… you know what, let’s just say it’s because you end up using less fuel.

Once we get this plan started, the launch schedule would go as follows:

  • First Conjunction: A single, unmanned spacecraft heads to Mars. This will be used as the first Earth Return Vehicle (ERV-1) and it will spend the next twenty-six months making fuel for itself.
  • Second Conjunction: A pair of spacecraft head to Mars. One is another Earth Return Vehicle (ERV-2) and the other will carry a habitat module (HAB-1) and four astronauts (Expedition-1).
  • Third Conjunction: Expedition-1 returns to Earth aboard ERV-1, leaving HAB-1 and ERV-2 behind. Meanwhile HAB-2 and ERV-3 launch from Earth, along with the crew for Expedition-2.
  • Fourth Conjunction: Expedition-2 returns to Earth aboard ERV-2. HAB-1 and HAB-2, now connected together, are left behind. So is ERV-3. Meanwhile Expedition-3, HAB-3, and ERV-4 launch from Earth.

The cycle keeps going after that. With each expedition to Mars, the habitat complex grows a little bigger, laying the groundwork for full-scale colonization later on, and because of the way Earth Return Vehicles are staggered, each crew on Mars always has access to two ERVs, which seems like a wise precaution.

One of the key selling points for Mars Direct is that it’s cost-effective, at least in relative terms; it certainly costs a whole lot less than what was proposed in the 90-Day Report. Also, Mars Direct would only use currently available technology, so we could start doing this right now.

But for some reason, at least as far as I can tell, no government agency or private organization (aside from Zubrin’s own advocacy group, the Mars Society) has committed to Mars Direct. Oh yes, lots of people talk about it. Sometimes people borrow bits and pieces of the plan, but no one—not NASA, not Buzz Aldrin, not even Elon Musk—seems willing to adopt it in its entirety. And I’m not sure why.

Sciency Words: Tentacle

July 21, 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:


Believe it or not, octopuses do not have any tentacles. Zero. None. They have four pairs of arms, according to cephalopod experts.

When discussing cephalopod anatomy, arms are defined as shorter, more muscular appendages with suckers all the way along their length. Tentacles are longer and only have suckers at the “club-shaped” end. So octopuses have eight arms. Squid and cuttlefish have eight arms and two tentacles.

As a science fiction writer, I’ve created a few characters who have tentacles. Or at least, I think I have. But maybe my buddy Omglom here only has arms.

However, after doing further research I’ve found that this arms vs. tentacles thing is specific only to cephalopods. In a more generalized zoological sense, just about any boneless, flexible, elongated appendage can be referred to as a tentacle.

The word tentacle traces back to a Latin word meaning “to feel” or “to test” or “to probe.” This seems appropriate to me because in most cases tentacles aren’t really for grasping or manipulating objects. They’re sensory organs used for feeling, smelling, tasting, and even seeing (for example, the eyestalks of slugs and snails are considered to be tentacles).

There’s even a mammal with tentacles: the star-nosed mole, which has twenty-two tiny tentacles arranged in a star pattern around its snout. These tentacles are extremely sensitive feelers which help the star-nosed mole feel its way around as it burrows through the earth.

As for my friend Omglom… the gelatinoids of Rog aren’t cephalopods, so his tentacles can be called tentacles after all!

P.S.: It may sound strange, but the proper plural form of octopus is octopuses, not octopi. The cephalopod expert at the end of this video does an outstanding job explaining why.

Meet the Oddball Planets

June 28, 2017

The planet Uranus is often called the oddball of the Solar System because it’s tipped over sideways.

Uranus’s axis of rotation is tilted approximately 98° relative to its orbital path around the Sun, but Uranus isn’t the only planetary body with an “odd” axial tilt.

Just recently, we learned that Enceladus, one of Saturn’s icy moons, may have been knocked on its side by an asteroid impact at some point in its history. If that’s true, Enceladus has since reoriented itself. Being sideways was only a temporary thing in that case.

But then there’s Pluto. Pluto is also tipped on its side, as is Charon, Pluto’s largest moon.

In fact with an axial tilt of 122° relative to their orbital path around the Sun, you could argue that the Pluto/Charon pair is almost upside down.

Which brings us to Venus. Venus’s axial tilt can be defined in two different ways. You could say Venus is rotating backwards, clockwise where the other planets rotate counterclockwise, with a modest axial tilt of about 3°. But it’s equally valid to say Venus’s rotation is normal (i.e.: counterclockwise) but that the planet is flipped upside down, with its axis of rotation tilted 177°.

Of course there’s really no such thing as up, down, or sideways in space. Directions are relative to your point of view. The planets simply are the way they are, a result of each planet having its own unique history, without regard for what we humans might consider “normal.”

Maybe we should keep that in mind before we start labeling planets oddballs.


May 13, 2017

I wrote a flash fiction story, and it went live yesterday over at Fiction Can Be Fun! I hope you’ll go check it out, along with two other cool stories posted with it. They’re all based on the writing prompt “uniform.”

Fiction Can Be Fun

Express Yourself

I’m here today for the second in my series of interviews with the journalist, biographer, pundit and bon vivant, Jocelyn Humpheries.  Today we’re focussing on her writing as a biographer and in particular some of the little snippets that didn’t make the final cut.  Jocelyn: which of your biographical subjects was your favourite?

Oh! That is rather invidious – I do so detest those sorts of questions.  I enjoyed writing all of them, even – perhaps especially! – the scathing ones.  I do have a soft spot for the first one I wrote where the subject was, at the time, still living.  He was such a dear!  I don’t know if people say that about me now, but he would have been about the same age as I am now when I interviewed him.

That would be Colonel Hart-More?

Indeed. Although he didn’t really like to use his…

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Sciency Words: Exoplanet

May 12, 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 International Astronomy Union (I.A.U.), an astronomical object qualifies as a planet if:

  • It orbits the Sun.
  • It’s round due to the pull of its own gravity.
  • It’s cleared its orbital path of asteroids or other debris (this is the part of the planet test Pluto failed.

The I.A.U.’s planet definition has caused a lot of grumbling and controversy, and not only because of Pluto. Let’s focus today on the first criterion for planethood: in order to be a planet, an object has to orbit the Sun. Not just any sun, but the Sun, as in our Sun. With a capital S.

Which means big, round objects orbiting other stars don’t qualify. The I.A.U. suggests calling them exoplanets or extrasolar planets, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, planets.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it seems awfully geocentric of us to have one word for objects orbiting our Sun and a different word for the same type of objects orbiting other stars.

However, I have to admit having a special term for “planet orbiting another star” is kind of handy. It saves me time in conversations and cuts down on the word counts of blog posts. So I guess it’s worth knowing the official I.A.U. definition for this handy, time-saving term.

Except the I.A.U. doesn’t have an official definition for exoplanets. Why not? Let’s try adapting the current planet definition to exoplanets and see what happens.

  • An exoplanet has to orbit a star other than our Sun. (Seems okay so far).
  • An exoplanet has to be round due to the pull of its own gravity. (Our telescopes can’t visually confirm that exoplanets are round, but based on estimates of their mass we can safely assume they’re round. We’re probably still okay.)
  • An exoplanet has to have cleared its orbital path of debris. (This is a real problem because in most cases there’s no way to confirm, visually or otherwise, that an exoplanet has done this.)

There is a proposal to change the I.A.U. planet definition again, this time based on quantitative data rather than visual observations. This, by the way, is different than the geophysical everything’s-a-planet definition I wrote about previously. The geophysical definition would make Pluto a planet again; the quantitative definition would not.

Back in 2006, the I.A.U. changed the definition of planet, excluding Pluto from the planet club, because we’d learned new information about our Solar System. More new information about planets, exoplanets, and other planet-like objects has been piling up since then, which is why we keep hearing about these proposals to change the definition again.

Personally, I like the more inclusive geophysical definition, but that’s just my preference. Plenty of intelligent and well-meaning people disagree. But I think sooner or later, the I.A.U. will have to revisit this issue to ensure the definitions of planet and exoplanet match.