Sciency Words: Outgassing

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science or science-related terminology.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


Okay, I’m tempted to start this blog post with a fart joke.  But I won’t.  I’m too classy for that.  Outgassing is a normal and natural process that occurs on all the rocky and/or icy planets and moons of our Solar System.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known usage of “outgas” or “outgassing” is this 1919 paper titled “The Relative Adsorption of Mixtures of Oxygen and Nitrogen in Cocoanut Shell Charcoal.”  It’s a thrilling read.

Basically, solid substances (cocoanut shell charcoal, planetary regolith, etc) can get gas particles stuck to their surfaces or trapped inside them.  Gradually, these gas particles will escape.  The process of gas particles gradually escaping from a solid material is called outgassing.

On a planetary scale, outgassing is a major contributing factor in the formation of a planet’s atmosphere.  Or at least that’s true for small, terrestrial planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.  Gas giants tend to form their atmospheres through a different process (so before anyone makes a comment about this, there is no outgassing happening on Uranus).

So the main takeaway of today’s post is this: solid materials often have gas particles trapped inside them.  On a planetary scale, the gradual release of these gas particles helps to form planetary atmospheres.  This is known as outgassing.

Or you could just say terrestrial planets fart, almost constantly, and that’s where their atmospheres come from.

Sciency Words: Oxidation

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


You may think of oxygen as something good and wholesome.  It’s what we breathe.  It gives us life.  How easily you forget all the other things oxygen can do.  It corrodes metals.  It degrades organic materials.  And under the right conditions, oxygen supports and perpetuates combustion reactions (a.k.a. fire).

French chemist Antoine Lavoisier usually gets credit for coining the words oxygen and oxidation.  He was the first to write about the principe oxygine (French for the acidifying principle).  The words oxygen and oxidation appeared soon afterwards in English translations of Lavoisier’s work, so maybe the English translators should get some of the credit too.

Anyway, oxidation originally referred to chemical reactions involving oxygen, specifically.  But then through a process of semantic generalization, the word oxidation came to refer to any chemical reaction similar to the kind of chemical reaction oxygen could cause.  Oxygen is no longer considered a necessary ingredient for oxidation, and some chemicals (i.e.: chlorine and fluorine) have turned out to be better oxidizers than oxygen.

So what actually happens when one chemical substance oxidizes another?  Well, oxygen and other strong oxidizing agents are greedy for electrons.  Oxidation is the act of stealing electrons from another chemical substance.  Or, if outright stealing doesn’t work, then oxidizing agents will try to form chemical bonds that allow them to “share” electrons—but it will be a highly unequal kind of sharing, one that does not favor the atoms that originally owned those electrons.

A whole lot of energy can be released in oxidation reactions.  That’s what makes them so destructive.  However, life on Earth has found ways to control the energy released by oxygen oxidation and put that energy to good use.  That’s why oxygen is generally thought of as something good and wholesome, even though it’s really one of the most dangerous and destructive chemicals in the world.

P.S.: It’s important to remember that whenever an oxidation reaction occurs, a reduction reaction also occurs.  And reduction is another Sciency Word with an interesting history.

Sharing Some Science Love

Hello, friends!

You know, spending time on the Internet can be a truly disheartening experience.  But there are good things on the Internet too.  For me, I love finding and interacting with other people who share my enthusiasm for science (and also science fiction).  So today, I’d like to spread some of that science love around.  Here are a few of my favorite science or science related posts that I’ve seen in the last week or so:

First up, Fran from My Hubble Abode has a great post about the history of the Crab Nebula.  I’ve found that the best way to learn about science is to learn about the history of science: to learn the stories about how we figured all this science stuff out.  Turns out the Crab Nebula played a much bigger role in the history of science than I thought.  Click here to learn more!

Next, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of stamp collector.  Well, Stamp of the Day recently shared a neat stamp from Germany commemorating Weltraumlabor (Spacelab), which was a joint project between NASA and the ESA back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Click here to check it out!

And Twinspiration has a cool post called “6 Space Activities for Children.”  I think some of these activities could be fun for adults too, especially if you’re stuck at home in these COVID-ful times.  Anyway, if you’re looking for fun ways to teach your kids (or yourself) about space, click here!

Lastly, on a more serious note, speculative fiction author Del Sandeen recently wrote a thought provoking article for Uncanny Magazine about the Black Lives Matter and Black Voices Matter movements.  For anyone who wants to see more representation and more diversity in science fiction and fantasy, this article is well worth a read.  Click here!

If you enjoy any of these articles/blog posts, please be sure to leave a comment letting the author know.  And if you have some science you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Until next time, keep it sciency, my friends!

Sciency Words: Oxygen

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


Earth.  Fire.  Air.  Water.  Only the Avatar can master all four elements.  Only the Avatar… or Antione-Laurent Lavoisier, the 18th Century French chemist.  As described in this article, Lavoisier originally intended to study each of the four elements in turn, starting with air.  But Lavoisier’s air research quickly “bent” the concept of the four elements so hard that the whole concept broke. And thus…

Lavoisier did not discover oxygen, but he did name it.  You see, when oxygen was first discovered in the early 1770’s, it was called “dephlogisticated air.”  That’s a mouthful of a name, but it made perfect sense to anyone who was familiar with the phlogiston theory of combustion.

Now I’m not going to waste your time explaining what phlogiston theory was, except to tell you that it was an updated-for-the-18th-Century version of the theory that fire is an element.  The important thing to know is that Lavoisier’s experiments on dephlogisticated air poked some pretty big holes in phlogiston theory, and so that theory had to be abandoned in favor of “oxygen theory.”

So where did the word oxygen come from?  Let me try to reconstruct Lavoisier’s thought process.  Among other things, Lavoisier found that burning stuff in “dephlogisticated air” tended to produce substances that were more acidic than the original reactants.  “Oxy” is Greek for acid.  So some sort of acid-generating process was occurring… an “oxy-genesis,” if you will.  Or “oxy-gen” for short!

The term Lavoisier actually used was principe oxygéne, meaning “the acidifying principle.”  The words oxygen and oxidation start appearing in English shortly thereafter, thanks mainly to translations of Lavoisier’s work.  But by that point, it was clear that oxygen was more than merely an acid-generating gas.  It had other properties too. Lavoisier demonstrated that oxygen played an important role in both combustion and animal respiration, as well as other natural processes like the rusting of iron.

But we’ll talk more about oxygen’s many abilities in next week’s episode of Sciency Words.

P.S.: Lavoisier also named hydrogen.  Burning “inflammable air” and “dephlogisticated air” together produced water.  “Hydro” is Greek for water.  So some sort of water-generating process was occurring… a “hydro-genesis,” if you will.  Or “hydro-gen” for short!

P.P.S.: And since you can make water by mixing two different kinds of air, water must not be an element.  Also, how can air truly be an element if there are different kinds of air? This whole four elements thing fell apart pretty quickly as Lavoisier continued his research.

#IWSG: Frank Herbert, Will You Be My Beta Reader?

Hello, friends!  Welcome to September’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a support group for insecure writer’s like myself.  If you’d like to learn more about this amazing group, click here!

This month’s optional I.W.S.G. question is:

If you could choose one author, living or dead, to be your beta partner, who would it be and why?

I’d have to pick Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, one the greatest science fiction novels of all time.  Of course there are other Sci-Fi authors I’d love to meet and chat with.  I wish I could talk politics with Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells, and I feel like Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov would be great people to turn to for career advise.  But for the purposes of beta reading, it’s got to be Herbert.

First off, have you read Dune?  I mean, forget about all the Sci-Fi stuff.  Forget about all those planets and spaceships and psychic superpowers.  Forget about the giant sandworms and Fremen warriors and the plans within plans within plans.  At the most basic, most fundamental level, the way Frank Herbert strings a sentence together is marvelous.  It’s prose elevated almost to the level of poetry.  Even if Herbert wrote in some other genre, I’d love getting feedback from someone who had such mastery over the English language!

But of course, Frank Herbert does (I mean, did) write science fiction, and there are precious few Sci-Fi authors who handle the sciency stuff so artfully.  When you read Dune, you might not even notice all the ecology lessons sprinkled throughout the book.  That’s real science.  You’re learning real science!  But the science is integrated seamlessly into the story, like any other aspect of setting or plot would be.   I’d love to get a little guidance from a man who could pull off a trick like that!

Now I’ve worked with a lot of beta readers over the years, some good, some not so good.  The not-so-good ones make writing feel like a chore, with lots of rules and regulations.  Based on what I’ve read about Frank Herbert, I don’t think he’d be like that.  Shortly after Herbert’s death in 1986, Sci-Fi author Ben Bova wrote this about him:

He knew pain.  But to Frank, pain was something you got around, one way or the other, so you could get on with the main business of life: having fun.  Creating great novels was fun.  Being with friends was fun.  Living life to its fullest was the real goal of existence, and he did exactly that.  Life was a banquet, as far as Frank was concerned; his advice was to pull up a chair and enjoy yourself.

Someone who sees writing as fun—pure fun—just another part of the sheer joy of living?  Now that sounds like the best recommendation for a beta reader anyone could ever make.

P.S.: Oh, and if I were beta partners with Frank Herbert, that would mean I could give him a little feedback too, right?  Because I would like to talk with him, just a bit, about gender roles in his books.  That’s one thing I think he could’ve handled better.

Sciency Words: Orthofabric

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we explore the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


If you’re planning to spend any amount of time floating around in outer space, you need to dress appropriately.  You’ll need protection against solar and cosmic radiation.  You’ll need protection against extreme temperatures, both extreme cold and extreme heat (direct sunlight in the vacuum of space can make things super hot super quick).  Oh, and there are lots of tiny micrometeoroids whizzing about up there.  You’ll need protection against those too.

Around the same time that the space shuttle program got going, NASA started using a new fabric for the outermost layer of their spacesuits.  That fabric is still used today for spacesuits aboard the International Space Station.  It’s called Orthofabric (sometimes spelled with a hyphen: Ortho-fabric).

Orthofabric is made by a company called Fabric Development Inc., based in Quakertown, PA.  Orthofabric is made using three different synthetic fibers: Gortex, Nomex, and Kevlar.  As reported in several research papers (like this one or this one), Orthofabric consistently holds up well against the harsh conditions found in space.  That’s why NASA keeps using it.

For these Sciency Words posts, I think it’s important to say something about the etymology of the word we’re talking about, but I had an extremely hard time finding any sort of etymology for this one.

The prefix “ortho-” comes from a Greek word meaning righteous, virtuous, or pure (hence the word orthodox).  “Ortho-” can also mean upright or straight (hence the word orthopedic).  But what do either of those meanings have to do with Orthofabric?  The prefix “ortho-” also has a specialized meaning in chemistry, but based on my research, the chemistry sense of “ortho-” didn’t seem relevant to Orthofabric either.

So finally, I picked up the phone, called Fabric Development Inc., and asked.  I was told the name Orthofabric was chosen after some back and forth consultation with NASA.  The name doesn’t mean anything in particular.  It’s just a name.  I guess somebody thought it sounded good.  End of story.

P.S.: NASA’s new Perseverance rover will be searching for life on Mars, but as a little side experiment Perseverance is also carrying a small sample of Orthofabric, along with samples of other commonly used spacesuit materials.  NASA wants to see how well these spacesuit materials hold up in the windy and dusty Martian environment.

So Betelgeuse is Back to Normal?

Remember Betelgeuse? The red giant star named Betelgeuse, over in the constellation Orion? Remember a year ago when astronomers thought Betelgeuse was about to go supernova?

My Hubble Abode

A few months ago, well actually almost a year ago, astronomers studying Betelgeuse noticed some major dimming in the star, and the news spread like wildfire!

The issue arised when in 2019 astronomers observed dramatic dimming in the Southern part of the star, making it about 3 x fainter! With Betelgeuse being an enormous red supergiant we know its days left are few, so many thought extreme dimming meant the star is about to go supernova!

This comparison image shows the star Betelgeuse before and after its unprecedented dimming. The observations, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in January and December 2019, show how much the star has faded and how its apparent shape has changed. Credit: ESO/Montargès et al.

So what caused the dimming?

A large group of astronomers lead by Andrea Dupree from multiple observatories have gathered evidence to suggest that the reason behind…

View original post 186 more words

Sciency Words: How Words Change

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those highly specialized words scientists use.  Words like:

I thought we’d do something a little different today and talk about some linguistic terms.  Linguistics is a science too, right?  Right.  So let’s go!

  • Semantic Generalization: a process of linguistic change where a word with some specific meaning ends up having a more general meaning.  My favorite example is the word “escape,” which originally meant “to get out of your clothes” (ex-cape) but has since generalized to mean getting out of all sorts of things.
  • Semantic Narrowing: a process of linguistic change where a word with a general meaning comes to mean something more specific.  A good example is the word “meat,” which used to refer to food in general but now refers specifically to food that comes from animal flesh.
  • Amelioration: a process of linguistic change where a word with a negative meaning or connotation comes to have a more positive meaning or connotation.  An example of amelioration that I’ve witnessed in my own lifetime is the word “geek.”  Geeks are cool now.  We didn’t used to be.
  • Pejoration: a process of linguistic change where a word with a positive meaning or connotation becomes more negative.  A great example is the word “awful.”  Originally, awful meant “worthy of awe.”  But if something’s worthy of awe, it could also be worthy of fear, and that no doubt contributed to the negative meaning we know today.

When I’m researching the etymologies of scientific terms, these four linguistic processes—generalization, narrowing, amelioration, and pejoration—come up a lot.  So much so that I thought I should do a post about them.  Don’t be surprised if I link back to this post in future Sciency Words posts!

Science is Wrong About Everything

Hello, friends!  So one day when I was a little kid, I got into a huge argument with another kid in school.  I’d said something about how Earth is a sphere, like all the other planets.  The other kid told me (firstly) that Star Trek isn’t real and (secondly) that the earth is flat.

As evidence, the other kid told me to just look around.  It’s obvious that the world is flat.  If I needed more proof, I could look at a map.  More kids soon jumped into this argument.  They all agreed: the earth is flat, and also I’m a huge nerd for watching so much Star Trek.  I was outnumbered, and being outnumbered was further proof that I must be wrong.

I went home so mad that day.  How could those other kids be so stupid?  I was right.  Everybody else was wrong.  I’m tempted to turn this into a metaphor for Internet culture, but that’s not the point I want to make today.

Yes, when those other kids said the Earth is flat, they were wrong.  But when I said the Earth is a sphere, I was wrong too.  Less wrong, obviously.  But still, I was wrong.

Isaac Asimov’s essay “The Relativity of Wrong” is a brilliant summation of how science works.  It should be required reading for every human being (click here to read it).  As Asimov explains:

[…] when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong.  When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong.  But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

As Asimov goes on to explain, there was a time, long ago, when educated people really did believe the world was flat, and they had good reasons for thinking it to be so.  But then discoveries were made.  New knowledge was learned, and people came to think of the world was a sphere.  Then more discoveries were made, and people started to think of the world as an oblate spheroid (round, but slightly bulgy at the equator).  And then still more discoveries were made, and even the oblate spheroid model turned out to be slightly inaccurate.

People (including people on the Internet) will gleefully point out that science has been wrong about stuff in the past; therefore, science could be wrong about stuff today—stuff like evolution, climate change, general relativity—also stuff like vaccinations and COVID-19.  When science is wrong so much, why pay attention to science at all?

Well, it’s true.  In absolutist (this-or-that-ist) terms, science is wrong.  Science is always wrong, about everything, all the time.  Science is full of educated guesses and close approximations of observed reality.  It’s not perfect.  It will never be perfect.  But with each new discovery, science is a little less wrong today than it was yesterday.  And you can trust science to keep being less and less wrong, even if it will never be 100% right.

And that process of constant refinement and improvement, that process of getting closer and closer to the truth—that’s something worth paying attention to, something worth taking seriously, don’t you think?

P.S.: I’ll concede that those kids in school were right about one thing.  I was, and still am, a huge Star Trek nerd.

When the Muse Withholds Ideas

Hello, friends!  Sorry I’ve been M.I.A. from blogging lately.  I’ve been suffering from a severe case of writer’s block.  Or, to say that another way, my muse has been withholding ideas from me.  Why would my muse do such a thing?  I’ll let her explain.

Stress isn’t always bad.  Psychologists draw a distinction between good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress).  If you feel like you’re stretching your limits, if you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, if you’re confident that you can prevail against the challenges in front of you—that’s the good kind of stress.  But if you feel like something’s snapped, like you’re totally overwhelmed and can’t cope with it all—that is the bad kind of stress.

For me, writing is the good kind of stress, always.  But in these distressful, COVID-ful times, writing has not made things better.  I always assumed good stress and bad stress would cancel each other out, but maybe it doesn’t work that way.  Maybe it’s more like multiplying a positive with a negative—you just end up with a bigger negative.

And so my muse—the magical fairy person who’s supposed to make me do my writing—made me take a break from writing.  It was for my own good.  I needed the rest—some properly lazy and self-indulgent rest.

Now that I’ve had that period of rest, I’m going to try to get back to my regular writing and blogging routine.  No guarantees, though.  We’ll see how things go.

P.S.: My muse did help me write this blog post.  That has to be a good sign, right?