Does Evolution Want You to “Become Crab”?

Hello, friends!

So as far back as the mid-to-late 1800’s, scientists noticed that crab-like animals were oddly commonplace.  It seems that, for one reason or another, evolution favors crab-like body structures over other crustacean body types.  Well, maybe “favors” is the wrong word.  I wouldn’t want to imply that evolution plays favorites or that evolution has any sort of intended outcome.  That would be misleading.

When I read articles in the popular press about carcinization (the surprisingly common process of evolving a crab-like body), I feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding at work, not just about carcinization itself but about evolution in general.  Evolution doesn’t “prefer” this and it certainly doesn’t “intend” that.  There is no end-goal to the evolutionary process.

Evolution works by trial and error.  Organisms have problems, problems like “how do I find food?” or “how do I avoid becoming food?”  Some organisms manage to solve these sorts of problems; others do not.  The ones who solve their problems get to live, and they have the opportunity to pass their genes on to the next generation; the others?  They do not get to do that.

There are a surprising number of crab-like animals out there.  That must mean that being a crab helps you solve certain problems.  It does not mean that you’re evolution’s favorite, that evolution “wants” to create more crab-like creatures like you, or that being a crab is some sort of evolutionary end-goal.

All that being said, I have to admit it’s hard to avoid anthropomorphizing the concept of evolution just a little bit.  I mean, look at the stuff I do on this blog.  I anthropomorphize everything from atoms and molecules to planets and stars.  I imbue all sorts of things with wants and needs and strange personality quirks.  It’s only natural for me to say evolution “wants” this or “prefers” that, and I totally understand why so many other science writers fall into a similar trap.

So I guess what I’m saying is this: whenever you hear people talk about evolution’s “preferences” or “intentions,” bear in mind that those words are really just shorthand for something else.

Are Scientific Papers Worth Reading?

Hello, friends!

So over the course of the last few months, I’ve been learning about metascience.  I’ve been reading lots of metascientific articles and papers, and I’ve been watching a few metascientific lectures on YouTube.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, metascience is the scientific study of science itself, for the specific purpose of identifying fraud, correcting errors in the scientific process, and making science overall a more accurate and trustworthy thing.

Before I go any further with this topic, I think it’s extra important for you to understand who I am and what my perspective on science (and metascience) is.  I am not a scientist.  I have no professional or educational background in science.  What I am is a science fiction writer who wants to do his research so that science (as I portray it in my fiction) is accurate.  Well, somewhat accurate, or at least somewhat plausible.  At the very least, I want to make sure the science in my stories is not laughably implausible.

In order to do my research (as a science fiction writer), I have challenged myself to read peer-reviewed scientific papers.  I try to read at least one peer-reviewed paper each week.  As you can imagine, this is not easy.  These papers are packed full of jargon (some papers define their own jargon; most do not) and a whole lot of math (the kind of math where you see more of the Greek alphabet than Arabic numbers).

And now I learn, thanks to metascience, that the peer-review process is deeply flawed, and that science has way more problems than I ever realized.  There’s a lot of fraud going on, and also a lot of laziness and complacency, and scientists are not double checking each other’s work the way that they should.  That last problem—scientists not double checking each other’s work—is commonly known as the replication crisis.  It’s a problem which this article from calls “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”

No branch of science is immune to these problems, but I can take some solace in the fact that some branches of science seem to be more afflicted with problems than others.  Fields like medical science, computer science, and engineering (i.e.: the big money-maker sciences) are far more prone to fraud than fields like cosmology, astrophysics, or planetary science (i.e.: fields that I, as a science fiction writer, take the most interest in).  But still, as I said, no branch of science is immune.  Lazy and/or biased and/or unscrupulous researchers are everywhere.

And yet, despite some very valid concerns, I intend to keep reading these peer reviewed papers.  Why?  Because my alternative would be to get most of my science news and information from the popular press.  When it comes to science, the popular press has an annoying tendency to dumb things down, to gloss over boring (but important) details, and to hype up hypotheses that are the most likely to attract clicks and views but are the least likely to actually be true.  If I wrote my Sci-Fi based solely on what I read in the popular press, the science in my fiction would be laughably implausible.

I’d rather struggle through reading a peer-reviewed paper once a week.  Those papers may not be perfect, but reading them will get me much closer to the truth than relying on any other source of information currently available to me.


If you’d like to learn more about metascience and the replication crisis, I suggest checking out some of the links below.  These links are organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.

A Brave New Blog

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Planet Pailly!  I’ve spent the last two or three weeks redesigning this website, and I’m pretty pleased with the results.  Today, I’d like to give you a brief tour of what’s changed.

Firstly, I’d like to draw your attention to the menu bar at the top of the page.  If you click on “About J.S. Pailly,” you’ll be taken to an article called “Three Things You Might Want to Know About J.S. Pailly.”  In the future, that article may be expanded to cover four things, or five things, or maybe even six things!  But three things seems like enough for now.

You’ll also notice that I’ve added a contact form, which you can also access from the menu bar at the top.  It was recently brought to my attention that I didn’t have any sort of contact form for people who needed to get in touch with me directly.  Now I do.

Over on the right hand side of the screen, you’ll see some new posters promoting my professional writing and illustration work.  Clicking on the Tomorrow News Network poster will currently take you straight to Amazon, where you can buy the first book of the Tomorrow News Network series.  That will eventually change.  The plan is for the T.N.N. poster to take you to the T.N.N. website, but I need to finish redesigning that website first.

Next, you’ll see a poster advertising the Planet Pailly store on RedBubble.  Clicking on that will take you to my store, where you can look at some of my art and buy prints, T-shirts, notebooks, etc.  I’ll be adding more art to my RedBubble store soon.

Oh, and the “Buy Me a Coffee” link is also there, for anybody who’s feeling a little generous.

I think that pretty much sums up the changes to this blog.  I hope you like it.  And now regular blogging shall resume.  I’ll have an Insecure Writer’s Support Group post on Wednesday, and then on Friday we’ll get back to talking about science and outer space.  See you soon, friends!

P.S.: For anybody who might be curious, my new WordPress theme is called “Penscratch 2.”

What’s Inside a Xenophyophore?

Hello, friends!

So I’ve recently become obsessed with xenophyophores.  They’re these unicellular organisms found only in the deepest, darkest reaches of the ocean.  And for unicellular organisms, xenophyophores are huge.  One species (known as Syringammina fragilissima) grows as large as 20 cm in diameter, making it almost as large as a basketball!

But how large are these unicellular organisms, really?  You see, the xenophyophore “body” is composed of both living and non-living matter.  Xenophyophores collect all this sand and debris off the ocean floor and glue it together to create a special kind of shell, called a “test.”  Xenophyophores also hold on to their own waste pellets (yuck!) and incorporate that waste material into their tests as well.

So when we talk about these gigantic single-celled organisms, how much of their size is “test” and how much is the actual single cell?  Most sources I’ve looked at are a little vague on that point, but I did find one research paper that helped me understand xenophyophore anatomy a bit better.  In the paper, researchers report on the micro-CT imagining of three xenophyophore specimens.

The word “granellare” refers to the actual living portion of a xenophyophore, and as that CT imaging paper describes it, the granellare forms a “web-like system of filaments” that spreads out through the entire structure of a xenophyophore’s test.  And the micro-CT images included in the paper show exactly that: tiny filaments, spreading out everywhere, almost like blood vessels branching out throughout the human body.

So if a xenophyophore test measures 20 cm in diameter, then you can safely assume the system of web-like filaments inside the test must be 20 cm in diameter as well.  However, each filament is still very thin, and overall the total biomass of the granellare is tiny compared to the mass of waste and debris that makes up the test.  I’m sure there’s a lot of variation by species (or morphospecies), but it sounds like the granellare only takes up between 1 and 5% of the total volume of a typical xenophyophore “body.”

So when people say xenophyophores are the largest single-celled organisms on Earth, how large are they, really?  It depends on how you’re measuring them.  Measured end-to-end, the cell really is as big as it seems.  But if you’re measuring by volume, you’ll find that the living biomass of a xenophyophore is only a small percentage of the xenophyophore’s total “body.”

No matter how you measure it, though, a xenophyophore is still enormous compared to any other unicellular organism known to modern science.

P.S.: Xenophyophores are now officially my favorite unicellular organisms.  Deinococcus radiodurans (a.k.a. Conan the Bacterium) has been demoted to second favorite.

The #1 Lesson I Learned from COVID

Hello, friends!

So I don’t like to say mean or hurtful things, not about anyone nor anything.  But at this point, after everything we’ve all been through in the past year or so, I can’t help myself.  This message needs to be heard:

It’s been almost a week now that I’ve been fully immunized against COVID-19.  For those of you who may be curious, I got the Modern vaccine.

I’m hesitant to say that the pandemic is winding down or that COVID is going away.  But I do feel like COVID will be less of a threat going forward, and we can safely (or semi-safely) start getting back to our old lives.  With that in mind, I think this is a good time to reflect on some of the lessons learned during the pandemic.

For me personally, the #1 lesson I learned is that I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought.  For most of my life, I’ve felt happiest when I’m alone and loneliest when I’m in a crowd.  Social interactions—even with people I like—tend to leave me feeling drained.  And that’s pretty much the textbook definition of introversion.

So when the pandemic started, I was secretly thrilled.  Social distancing sounded like a dream come true.  I thought I was going to write all the things, and draw all the things, and read all the books, and build all the Lego sets.  But being totally isolated from the rest of humanity—turns out that, for me, was a pretty draining experience, too.  Being alone all the time is almost as draining as being at a crowded and noisy party with a bunch of highly judgmental people.

Now that I’m fully immunized, and as more and more people are joining the fully immunized club, I am just so gosh darn eager to talk to somebody—anybody!  For the first time in my life, I’m acting almost like an extrovert. Yes, I do want to talk about the weather and the local sports team!  Yes, please do tell me how your kids are holding up!  And your opinions about politics?  Actually, no.  I still don’t want to have that conversation, thanks.

Maybe this is a temporary thing.  In fact, I’m sure it’s a temporary thing and that my introverted ways will gradually start to reassert themselves.  But still, a lesson was learned.  I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought, and maybe a little social activity is good for me after all.

What lessons did you learn from the pandemic?

How to Make Me Absolutely, Positively, Unambiguously LOVE Your Story

Hello, friends!

So as part of my writing recovery plan, I’ve been re-reading and re-watching some of my favorite Sci-Fi books and films.  The point of this is to remind myself why I wanted to be a Sci-Fi writer in the first place.

Last weekend, I re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I like that movie.  I like that movie a lot.  But I don’t love it.  Not in the way that I absolutely, positively, unambiguously LOVE Star Wars, or Alien, or The Martian.  And that’s got me wondering: what differentiates a story that I, personally, love from a story that I merely like?

Obviously this is a subjective thing, but still there must be a pattern to my preferences.  And now I think I’ve finally figured out what that pattern is:

  • First off, a story needs good world building.  There must be enough vivid detail (and also enough internal consistency) that I can picture myself actually living in the story world.
  • Next, I have to feel like I really know the protagonist.  I have to feel like know her or him well enough that we could be best friends.
  • And lastly, there needs to be a serious threat: something big enough and scary enough that I feel genuinely frightened, either because this fictional world I now live in is threatened or because my new best friend is in danger.

Again, obviously, this is a subjective thing.  But if you are telling me, J.S. Pailly, a story and if you want me, J.S. Pailly, to absolutely love your story, then you need to nail all three of those bullet points above.  Witty dialogue, clever plot twists, hyper realistic science, insightful allegories about modern life—I’m happy to see those things in a story, too; but the three bullet points above are what really matter to me, personally.

In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the world building is excellent.  Just change the title to 2061, and I can totally believe this is what the near future will look like.  As for having a serious threat, well… I really, really, really would not want to be trapped alone on a spaceship with HAL.  Would you?  Where 2001 falls short for me is its protagonist.  We never learn much about Dr. David Bowman—certainly not enough to make me feel like I’m B.F.F.s with him.

Looking at other movies that fall just a little bit short for me: the villain in The Fifth Element doesn’t scare me much, and the world building in Gattaca has always felt a bit flat to me.  Each of these films ticks only two out of three of my boxes, and thus I like them—I like them a whole lot, in fact!  But I don’t quite love them.

But of course, different people come to a story wanting and expecting different things.  I’ve told you which buttons a story has to push in order to make me absolutely, positively, unambiguously love it.  What about you?  What differentiates the stories you love from the stories you merely like?

A.F.B. (Away From Blog)

Hello, friends!

So I’m going to be away from the blog (a.f.b.) for a little while.  Almost immediately after I wrote my last post, a family emergency came up.  Everything is okay.  There’s nothing to worry about, but the situation will require my undivided attention for the next few weeks.  I will be back as soon as I am able to be back.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Hello, friends!

For this Valentine’s Day, I love the planets and the stars, and I love all the galaxies, both near and far.  I love the whole universe and everything in it.  And hey, you’re in the universe, right?  That means I love you too!

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!

P.S.: In case you’re wondering what sort of research went into this post, I had to double check (and triple check) to make sure I had the correct date for Valentine’s Day.

I am COVID-Negative!

Hello, friends!

I wanted to give you a quick update: I got the results of my COVID test yesterday.  According to my healthcare providers, I am COVID-negative!!!  So it seems that, shortly after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, I coincidentally caught the flu, or a bad cold, or something like that.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do out in the real world, now that I’m allowed to leave quarantine.  This is going to be a busy week, and I don’t expect to have much time for blogging.  Therefore, my plan is to resume my regular blogging schedule on Monday.  And I really, really hope you will tune in for Monday’s post.

You see, being in quarantine for two weeks, and being sick for most of that time, gave me a lot of time to think about life and about writing—and about blogging, too.  Some new ideas are percolating, and some changes may be coming to this blog.  I’ll explain what I mean on Monday, and I may have some questions for you, dear readers, about what you want to see on this blog going forward.

Now Open: The Planet Pailly Store!!!

Hello, friends!

If you’ve ever looked at my artwork and thought it would look good on a T-shirt or a notebook cover or a tote bag, well… I have good news for you!  The Planet Pailly store is now open on!!!

You can get my artwork printed on shirts or coffee mugs or throw blankets… there’s a shockingly wide selection of stuff you can buy.  You can also get stickers in various sizes, so feel free to slap my artwork on anything and everything you want!

Now I was initially concerned about quality.  Redbubble is a print-on-demand service, and I’ve had some bad experiences with print-on-demand services in the past.  But I can assure you that Redbubble stuff is top quality.  I am really, really happy with the way this T-shirt turned out.

This spiral notebook is also really cool.

My only complaint is that Redbubble doesn’t offer free shipping.  They do, however, offer bundle discounts if you order multiple items at once.  So if you buy a T-shirt from me, and maybe a shower curtain from another artist, and a set of coasters from somebody else, your discounts should start stacking up nicely.

The Planet Pailly store currently has three “highly technical diagrams” that have previously appeared on this blog: the Sun, Jupiter, and Pluto.  More astronomical objects will be added soon (if you have requests, let me know in the comments).  Also coming soon: the cover art from Tomorrow News Network.

So if you’re looking for the perfect gift for your sciency friend, or the perfect gift for your sciency self, please check out my Redbubble store.  And be sure to check out some of the other artist stores on Redbubble too!  There’s cool stuff for everybody, and your money will help independent artists (like me) keep doing what we do.