Final Post of 2019

So this is going to be my last post for 2019.  There are several reasons for this.  First off, I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather.  Secondly, it’s Christmas season, and that is always a bit distracting.  And thirdly, I have big plans for 2020, so as soon as I’m feeling better, and once all the presents are wrapped, I want to get straight to work on stuff for next year.

Seriously, I am so excited for next year.  Some of you can probably guess why!

In the meantime, here are some pictures of my Christmas tree, fully decorated with Star Wars action figures, as has been my custom for many years now.  Because Christmas is about love and family and stuff… sure.  But we all know it’s really all about the toys.

And I’ll see you all on January 1st for the first Insecure Writer’s Support Group of 2020!

Correction: January’s I.W.S.G. has been postponed until January 8th, so I’ll have something else for you on January 1st!

Sciency Words: Meme

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

MEME

I don’t know about you, but when people talk about memes, I’m not always 100% sure what they mean.  However, it turns out that meme is, in fact, a scientific term, or at least it started out as one.  And you know how I am about scientific terms!

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the word meme.  In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins posits that culture develops, changes, and spreads when humans beings imitate the behavior of other human beings.  Explaining the origin of his new word, Dawkins writes that he wanted:

[…] a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.  “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene.”  I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.  If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory,” or to the French word même.  It should be pronounced to rhyme with “cream.”

In the decades that followed Dawkins’ book, a whole new field of research began to emerge.  The science of memetics would take the analogy between genes and memes to an extreme by applying the core concepts of Darwinian evolution.  To quote from this 2015 article:

Memes are naturally selected and adapted by human beings based on “competition” within our consciousness.  The fittest and best adapted memes will have a better diffusion than the ones which do not fit into the cultural systems they are competing within.

Now if you’re like me and you’re still not 100% sure what, exactly, a meme is, don’t worry.  We’re not alone.  As that same article goes on to explain, the field of memetics seems to have fallen into decline in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.  The problem: no one, not even the memeticists, could agree on what the word meme means, specifically.

Personally, I think this is a case of an analogy being taken one step too far.  Memes are supposed to be like genes.  Okay.  But genes are tangible things.  They exist within your cells.  It is possible to test for the presence of a gene in an organism’s D.N.A., and you can link genes to the traits that organisms do or do not have.  But memes?  This “unit of imitation” thing is intriguing, but it’s also a rather abstract concept.  How do you study, in a scientific manner, an abstract concept?  How do you test for the presence of an abstract concept?

If we’re talking about the survival of the fittest, perhaps meme is not fit enough for the ecosystem of scientific terms.  However, through the process of linguistic evolution, the word seems to have found a different ecological niche to fill.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded reference to an Internet meme (or rather a “net meme”) was in 1998, around the same time that the science of memetics was in its heyday.  The term was used in a news report about this video clip:

Sciency Words: The X17 Particle

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

THE X17 PARTICLE

If you want to know everything there is to know about particle physics, there are only four things you need to understand:

  • Gravity
  • Electromagnetism
  • The weak nuclear force
  • The strong nuclear force

See?  Particle physics is easy!

Okay, maybe particle physics is not so easy.  Even the professionals will tell you they don’t understand those four fundamental forces nearly well enough.  And now, to make matters worse, we may have to add a fifth fundamental force to the list, thanks to the newly discovered X17 particle.

The story of the X17 particle begins with this 2015 paper published in Physical Review Letters.  A team of researchers in Hungary were studying a radioactive isotope of beryllium when they noticed something odd.  Click here if you’re interested in more details about what the Hungarians noticed and what was so odd about it; but for our purposes here on Sciency Words, I think it’s enough to say that this odd thing implied the existence of a previously unknown subatomic particle.

After doing some calculations, the Hungarians determined that this unknown particle (or X particle) must have a mass just shy of 17 megaelectronvolts (hence the name X17 particle).  Follow up research at the University of California, Irvine, strengthened the case that this new particle is real, and furthermore the Irvine team argued that X17 might even be a force carrying particle—meaning we might have discovered a fifth fundamental force of nature!

The latest update is that the same team of Hungarian researchers have noticed something odd happening with another radioactive isotope, this time an isotope of helium.  And according to this prerelease paper, we are once again dealing with an unknown particle with a mass just shy of 17 megaelectronvolts.

This could be a huge breakthrough in the field of particle physics, and according to the Irvine team the X17 particle might even shed some light on the mystery of dark matter.  However, as reported in this article from Quanta Magazine, this particular team of researchers in Hungary have a history of discovering “new” particles that turn out to be errors in their data.  Furthermore, there’s some suspicion that the Hungarians are withholding some of their experimental data regarding X17.  As I’ve written before, withholding data is a huge red flag.

That being said, both professional physicists and the popular press seem to be abuzz with rumors about X17, and I can’t tell you how many people have been asking me about this whole “fifth force” thing.  So I definitely think it is worth knowing about the X17 particle (and now you can impress your friends at parties by explaining what the name means!).

However, do not be surprised if, in another few years, the X17 particle gets thoroughly discredited and debunked.

#IWSG: Write, Rest, Repeat

Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in any way insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this awesome group!

For today’s episode of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, I’m going to turn things over to my muse.  She has something to say, and maybe it’s something your muse needs to hear.

My fellow muses, I’m sure you all remember what they taught us during muse training: writers are weak-willed and lazy.  They’ll invent all sorts of excuses to avoid writing.  So it’s up to us to use whatever deception, manipulation, or coercion we can in order to force our writers to do their writing!

But after spending so much time out in the real world working with a real life writer, I’ve discovered that what they told us in training isn’t quite true.  Writers want to write.  They really, really do.  The problem is that they set their expectations too high and then feel disappointed and discouraged when they fall short of their goals.

My own writer is obsessed with tracking his daily and weekly word counts.  He’s also started keeping a tally of the total number of words he writes per year.  Word counts can be a great way for writers to measure their own progress.  However…

I know many of you have been dealing with similar problems.  Maybe your writer just “lost” NaNoWriMo, or worse… maybe your writer “won” and is now stuck with a total mess of a manuscript.  Either way, your writer may be feeling a bit frustrated, a bit discouraged—even a little bit (dare I say it?) insecure right now.

Challenges like NaNoWriMo can test your writer’s limits and help them grow.  However—and this is the part I wish they’d teach us in muse training—writers also need recovery time.  This past year, I have allowed my writer to settle into a rhythm of intense writing days followed by periods of slower, more relaxed writing.

My writer didn’t like this new rhythm at first.  He thought I was being too easy on him.  Truth be told, I was a bit nervous about this myself because, as I said, this really isn’t what they taught us in muse training.  But then my writer noticed that, while his daily word counts were all over the place, his weekly word counts were steadily going up.  He stopped complaining, and I stopped worrying.

Write, rest, and repeat!  That’s our writing mantra now.  So if you’re having trouble with your writer, don’t presume they’re being lazy.  Don’t be too hard on your writer, and don’t let your writer be too hard on him/herself.  Let your writer rest.  Give your writer a chance to recover.  Then move on to the next writing challenge!

The Great Red Spot: More Than Skin Deep?

You and I may think of the Great Red Spot as Jupiter’s defining characteristic, but Jupiter himself is rather embarrassed about his spot.  He’s been trying for some time now to get rid of it.

The Great Red Spot (or G.R.S., as all the cool kids call it) has been shrinking for decades now, and the rate of shrinkage has been accelerating.  Just this year, long streams of red stuff seemed to break free, as it the G.R.S. were “unspooling.”

So why has the G.R.S. gone into decline?  Well, a better question might be why did it last so long in the first place?  Apparently, according to most fluid dynamics models, the G.R.S. should have only lasted a few years.  Instead, it’s been going strong for centuries.  Astronomers first noticed it as early as 1664.

In 2013, physicists Philip Marcus of U.C. Berkley and Pedram Hassanzadeh of Harvard gave us a partial answer.  According to this article from phys.org, they were the first to model the G.R.S. not as a 2D surface feature but as a 3D structure, with a vortex extending into the depths of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Marcus and Hassanzadeh found that vertical flow (hot and cold air moving up and down inside the G.R.S.) was doing a lot to help keep the storm system going.  As Hassanzadeh explains in that same phys.org article:

In the past, researchers either ignored the vertical flow because they thought it was not important, or they used simpler equations because it was too difficult to model.

Late last month, Marcus and Hassanzadeh gave a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society, and according to that presentation, fans of the Great Red Spot have nothing to worry about.

As Marcus explains in this article for Astronomy Magazine, we can monitor the vortex beneath the G.R.S. by observing the behavior of other nearby storm systems.  And based on those observations, Marcus says, “[…] there is no evidence that that vortex itself has changed its size or intensity.”

Personally, I think Marcus and Hassanzadeh make a pretty compelling case that the G.R.S. is as strong as ever, even if it appears, superficially, to be shrinking.  But I still don’t really understand what’s caused that superficial shrinkage, and I’m left wondering how long it will be before the visible part of the G.R.S. starts to expand again.  Surely it will start expanding again, right?

I guess there’s always more to learn.

Sciency Words: Artificial Intelligence

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

In 1955, American cognitive scientists John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky sent out an extraordinary proposal:

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.

McCarthy and Minsky go on to write that that machines can be made to learn, solve problems for themselves, and “improve themselves.”  They also claim that “significant advancement” can be made toward these goals if a group of experts were to “work on it together for a summer.”

Ah, such optimism!

That 1955 proposal is the first documented usage of the term “artificial intelligence.”  Apparently McCarthy initially wanted to use the term “automata studies,” but even among scientists and engineers, “automata studies” didn’t sound sexy enough.  So McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” and ran with that instead.

According to this article from the Science History Institute: “The name implied that human consciousness could be defined and replicated in a computer program […].”  Whether of not that’s true—whether or not computers really can reproduce human-style consciousness—is a topic of ongoing debate.  Regardless, McCarthy’s new term got the attention he wanted, and the 1956 conference at Dartmouth was a success.

However, it turns out it would take more than “a summer” to trigger the robot apocalypse.  Still, the 1956 Dartmouth Conference started something important, and today, we are living with the consequences!

Oh No! It’s the Internet!

Here in the U.S., we’re about to celebrate my favorite holiday: Thanksgiving.  It’s a holiday all about good food and spending time with good friends, and… that’s basically it.  And that’s why I love it.  No need to agonize over finding just the right gift, or anything like that.  Just relax and enjoy being human.

This year, I am most thankful for the Internet.  Now you might be thinking how could anyone be thankful for the Internet?  There’s so much online harassment going on.  Political disinformation campaigns are plentiful.  People are being cheated and scammed, and faceless corporations are collecting personal data on each and every one of us.

Yes, the Internet can be a scary place.  Without a doubt, some bad things have happened to me online, and I know far worse things have happened to other people.  But as a wise woman once told me: nothing good in life comes without risk or without sacrifice.  And at least in my personal experience, the good stuff on the Internet far outweighs the bad.

The Internet has fed my passion for writing and art.  It’s fed my passion for science and space exploration.  It’s given me access to so many resources, and I’ve read so much original research (unfiltered by the popular press) thanks to the Internet.  I’ve learned so much, and I’ve been exposed to perspectives and worldviews that I, as someone living in one specific region of the United States, never would have encountered otherwise.  And the Internet has left me with an awareness that, despite all this knowledge I’ve gained, I still have so much more to learn.

And most importantly of all, I’ve made new friends here on the Internet.  I may not have met you in person, but I love you all the same!  I know some people would take a dim view of me for claiming my online friends count as “real” friends, but it’s true.  I really do consider many of you to be good friends.  For that, I am very thankful.

Okay wait… do I really want to share that in a blog post…?

Sciency Words: Love Numbers

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

LOVE NUMBERS

My friends, I was recently doing research about the planet Neptune.  Astronomers have a new model for the Neptune system, a model that seems to do a better job predicting the orbits of all those unruly and rambunctious Neptunian moons.  While reading about this new model, I came across the following statement: “We also investigated sensitivity of the fit to Neptune’s Love number […].”  And that gave me a delightful mental picture:

“Love numbers” are named after English mathematician Augustus Edward Hough Love.  They’re also sometimes referred to as “Love and Shida numbers” to recognize the contribution of Japanese scientist T. Shida.

In the early 20th Century, Love introduced two ratios—traditionally represented by the variables h and kh has to do with the elasticity (stretchiness) of a planetary body, and k is related to the redistribution of mass within a planetary body as it stretches.  Shortly thereafter, Shida introduced a third ratio—represented by the variable l—involving the horizontal displacement of a planetary crust.

Taken together, h, k, and l tell you how much a planet, moon, or other celestial body can flex due to tidal forces.  As explained in this paper on Earth’s Love numbers:

If the Earth would be a completely rigid body, [its Love numbers] would be equal to zero, and there would be no tidal deformation of the surface.

But of course Earth is not a completely rigid body.  Tidal forces caused by the Sun and Moon cause Earth to flex “up to tens of centimeters,” according to that same paper.  Tens of centimeters doesn’t sound like much, but as we all know, it’s enough to keep the ocean tides going!

In conclusion, I guess you might say that what’s true for planets is also true for people.  Being completely rigid produces Love numbers equal to zero.  So be flexible.  Allow yourself to stretch a little, and your Love numbers will go up.

P.S.: Being flexible is healthy in any relationship, but at the same time don’t let others tug on you too hard.  Know your limits—your Roche limit, I mean—because you don’t want to end up like this:

Origin Stories: The Hype About Hyperspace

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Origin Stories, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we trace the origins of popular concepts in science fiction.  Today on Origin Stories, we’re making the jump into:

HYPERSPACE

As you know, nothing can travel faster than light.  Or it least, not in our universe.  But what if there were another universe next door to our own where the laws of physics were different, where faster-than-light travel were possible.  Wouldn’t that be convenient?

At least that’s how the concept of hyperspace was first explained to me.  I can’t remember if I picked that up from a Star Wars novel or an episode of Babylon 5.  Either way, I remember having an instant dislike for this idea.  It’s always seemed to me to be a little too convenient.

But then I started researching this post and learned that hyperspace is—or at least used to be—a much more interesting concept.  Let me explain by telling you a story:

Once upon a time, there was a happy little square living in a two-dimensional world with all his two-dimensional friends.  Then one day, this square met a rather extraordinary circle, a circle that had strange and mysterious powers.  The circle could grow larger or smaller at will, expanding out to a certain radius or shrinking down until it completely disappeared!

“What are you?” the square asked in awe.

In a booming, god-like voice, the circle answered: “I am a sphere.  As I pass through the two-dimensional plane of your realm, you perceive two-dimensional cross sections of my three dimensional form.”

This is the story of Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, published in 1884.  Or at least that’s part of the story of Flatland.  Our protagonist square also encounters one-dimensional beings living in a one-dimensional world (Lineland) before learning about the world of three dimensions (Spaceland) from the sphere.

Flatland was one of many books published in the late 1800’s toying with other dimensions.  Another is, of course, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which postulates that time might be the fourth dimension.  But other writers assumed the fourth dimension would simply be another spatial dimension.  And just as the protagonist of Flatland struggled to understand the third dimension, we humans, as three-dimensional beings, can never fully comprehend the fourth dimension.

A linguistic convention soon emerged.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional sphere, you’d call it a hyper-sphere.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional pyramid, that would be a hyper-pyramid, and a four-dimensional cube would be a hyper-cube (or a tesseract, as Charles Howard Higgins proposed calling hyper-cubes in 1888).  And where would all these hyper-shapes exist?  Why, in hyper-space!  Where else?

According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, it would still take a while for hyperspace to make the jump from mathematics and philosophy into the pages of science fiction.  Initially, the term seems to have retained its esoteric, philosophical sense of a world beyond our limited human perception.

Are we not justified in supposing, […] that the boundary lines of space and hyper-space may not be so rigidly drawn as we have supposed?

“Invisible Bubble” by K. Meadowcraft, 1928.

But Sci-Fi writers quickly started exploiting hyperspace as a plot device to allow faster-than-light travel.

Well, in this hyperspace we are creating, matter cannot exist at a velocity lower than a certain quantity […].

“Islands of Space” by J.W. Campbell, 1931.

Speeds, a mathematician would hasten to add, as measured in the ordinary space that the vessel went around; both acceleration and velocity being quite moderate in the hyperspace it really went through.

“Legion of Space” by J. Williamson, 1934.

I’m still not a big fan of hyperspace, or at least I’m not a fan of consequence-free hyperspace.  If you’re going to pop out of normal space—whether you’re entering another universe where the laws of physics are different or you’re taking some sort of four-dimensional shortcut—I feel like there should be some side effects, either for you or your spacecraft (or both).  Otherwise, hyperspace just seems a little too easy, a little too convenient.

At least that’s how I feel about it.  But what do you think?  Am I being too picky?  Am I overthinking things?  Or do you also roll your eyes whenever hyperspace comes up in science fiction?

Moons Gone Wild: Naiad and Thalassa

Naiad is one of the more rambunctious and troublesome moons in our Solar System.  She was first discovered in 1989 when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Neptune.  Naiad then spent more than a decade playing hide and seek with us, to the annoyance of many professional astronomers, I’m sure.

In 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope happened to catch Naiad in a few images of Neptune, but no one noticed she was there.  It wasn’t until 2013, thanks to new and improved image processing techniques, that astronomers found Naiad in those pictures.

Articles from the time (like this one or this one) described Naiad’s orbit as “wibbly wobbly” or said Naiad had somehow “drifted off course.”  That’s why we’d had such a hard time finding her.

But new research published this month in the journal Icarus gives us a clearer sense of what Naiad’s been up to all this time.  Naiad’s orbit is just… I don’t know how to describe it.  Just look at this orbit!  It’s bizarre!

According to that paper in Icarus, Naiad is caught in an orbital resonance with the neighboring moon of Thalassa.  That orbital resonance, combined with a high inclination (orbital tilt), causes Naiad to travel in a “sinusoidal pattern,” as the authors of that paper call it.

Naiad and Thalassa orbit dangerously close to each other.  Naiad zips past Thalassa every seven hours, approximately.  But because of that weird sinusoidal thing Naiad’s doing, Naiad always passes safely over Thalassa’s north pole or safely under Thalassa’s south pole.  The two moons are in no danger of getting into any sort of accident with each other, at least not in the near future.

But there are still a lot of uncertainties baked into our models of Neptune and his family of moons.  Even our newest, most up-to-date model—the model that revealed Naiad’s orbital resonance with Thalassa—still depends heavily on data collected by Voyager 2.  And as the authors of that Icarus paper note: “The orbital uncertainties show that the positions of the satellites are known within several hundred kilometers until at least 2030.”

But beyond 2030?  I guess we can’t accurately predict where Naiad, Thalassa, or any of Neptune’s other moons might end up.  If only somebody would send another space probe out to Neptune!  I’m really glad we have Voyager 2’s data, of course, but that data is from 1989.  A follow up mission is long overdue!