Sciency Words: Morphospecies

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists like to use.  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

MORPHOSPECIES

The clearest definition I’ve found for “morphospecies” comes from Wiktionary.  According to Wiktionary, a morphospecies is: “A species distinguished from others only by its morphology.”  In other words, do these two animals look alike?  If so, then they’re the same morphospecies.  This is in contrast to taxonomic or phylogenic species, which take other factors into account, like evolutionary history or reproductive compatibility.

Classifying organisms by their physical appearance alone will lead to obvious problems.  Think of caterpillars and butterflies, as an example.  Or think of all the plants and animals that have evolved to mimic other plants and animals.  As this paper from the Journal of Insect Science warns, the morphospecies concept should only be used in circumstances “where morphospecies have been assessed as reliable surrogates for taxonomic species beforehand.”

However, in some cases physical appearance may be the only thing we know about an organism or group of organisms.  I’ve been reading a lot about xenophyophores lately.   They’re my new favorite unicellular organisms (more about them later this week).   Xenophyophores live in the deepest, darkest reaches of the ocean, and marine biologists have had a very difficult time studying them.  Given how little we know about xenophyophores, classifying them by physical appearance alone may be (in some cases, at least) the best we can do.

As a science fiction writer, I wonder how useful the morphospecies concept would be for studying and categorizing life forms on some newly discovered alien world.  It would be problematic, for sure, and I’d want to read more about this topic before sticking the word “morphospecies” into a story.  But my gut feeling is that classifying alien organisms by morphospecies might be the best we could do, at least at first.

Sciency Words: Metascience

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

METASCIENCE

Metascience is when science “gets meta” and studies itself, with the specific aim of making published scientific research more accurate and trustworthy.  That goal, that stated purpose, is an important part of the definition.  Or at least it should be, according to this YouTube video by Professor Fiona Fidler.

You see, metascience overlaps with certain other fields of research, like the philosophy of science or the sociology of science.  But a key part of a metascientist’s job is to identify problems with the current culture and methodology of scientific research and try to figure out ways to make science better.

The word metascience can be traced back to the 1930’s, with the earliest known usage attributed to American philosopher and semiotician Charles William Morris.  But as an actual field of research, metascience is not nearly that old.  This 2005 paper entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” is apparently a foundational document for modern metascience (or at least that’s what Wikipedia told me).

For a few months now, I’ve been doing lots of research about research, trying to improve the way I do my own research as a science fiction writer, and also trying to better understand what can go right (and wrong) with science.  With that in mind, I’m surprised I didn’t come across this term sooner.  Now that I do know about metascience, a whole new world of metascientific research has been revealed to me.

Reading about metascience has been kind of unsettling for me, actually.  Modern science has a lot more problems than I realized; however, there are people out there working to identify and fix those problems, so that science can live up to its promises.  And that, I think, is a very encouraging thing to know.

Sciency Words: File-Drawer Effect

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at new and interesting scientific terms.  This week’s Sciency Word is:

THE FILE-DRAWER EFFECT

This came up as part of my ongoing research about research, and it’s another example of how scientific research can go wrong.

Okay, so let’s say I have this hypothesis: people who watch Star Trek are better at math than people who do not watch Star Trek.  Ten different research teams set up experiments to test my hypothesis.  Only one of those ten teams manages to find a statistically significant relationship between watching Star Trek and being good at math.

The other eight teams are unable to find a statistically significant relationship, conclude that this was a huge waste of time, and move on to researching other things.  They decide not to bother publishing any of their findings.  Instead, all that research gets stuffed into a file-drawer, never to see the light of day again.

Meanwhile, that one team that did find a statistically significant relationship… they do publish their findings.  It’s such an astonishing result!  How could they not?  Soon, their results are being reported all over the news, and every Star Trek forum on the Internet goes wild, and parents start forcing their kids to watch extra episodes of Star Trek so they’ll do better on their math homework.

But that one research paper is totally contradicted by all the other research—or it would be, if any of that other research had been published.  As a result, the scientific community—and the general public as well—now have a terribly skewed understanding of the relationship between watching Star Trek and being good at math.  This is the file-drawer effect, also known as publication bias, at work.

P.S.: I mean, I’ve watched a ton of Star Trek, and everyone knows I’m good at math.  That sort of anecdotal evidence, plus a single peer-reviewed research paper, should be enough to convince everybody!

#IWSG: The Humbling of a Muse

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.  If you’re a writer and if you feel insecure, then this is the support group for you.  Click here to learn more!

I’m a sciency kind of person, and I think about the world in a sciency kind of way.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in magic.  I happen to know that a magical fairy person visits me while I’m writing and helps me with my writing process.

For today’s IWSG meeting, I’d like to turn the floor over to that magical fairy person, a.k.a. my muse.  She has something to say, and perhaps it’s something your muse would like to hear.

* * *

My fellow muses, I almost lost my writer.  This is a difficult thing to talk about, and a painful thing to talk about, but I cannot not talk about it.  My writer almost gave up on writing.

He was under too much stress.  He was dealing with too much external pressure.  At one point, he said he felt like life was squeezing all the joy and happiness out of him.  And every time I whispered in his ear “You should be writing,” I was making the problem worse.

Many muses would make the same mistake, I think.  After all, what could be better for a writer than writing?  But sometimes we forget just how much stress the so-called “real world” can cause.  I thought writing would alleviate some of that stress, but my writer felt like I was just making the stress worse, and he resented me for it.  And the more I tried to force the issue, the more I tried to assert dominance over my writer, the worse things got.

Deep down inside, my writer knew I was right.  Deep down, he knew that giving up on writing would not make things any better.  He’d learned this lesson about himself before, many times over; but he needed some time and some space to learn it again.

So I let my writer stop writing for a while.  I let him work on other things, and I let him experiment with other interests and passions.  Eventually, he came back to writing.  It was inevitable that he would, of course.  But in the end, he came back because he wanted to, not because I told him he needed to, and that makes a tremendous difference.

Obviously my writer’s recent stress is not unique.  The human world is an unsettling and unsafe place right now, for a multitude of reasons.  So if your writer is having a rough time writing, be patient.  Give your writer the time and space he or she needs.  They’ll come back when they’re ready, and we muses will be waiting.

Sciency Words: Academic Paper Mills

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series about those weird and wacky words scientists use.  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

ACADEMIC PAPER MILLS

A paper mill is a factory that produces paper.  It’s a perfectly legitimate business.  An academic paper mill is a business that, in an almost factory-like manner, cranks out fraudulent academic papers.

This term came up in my ongoing research about research.  Academic paper mills are a growing concern in the scientific community.  An extraordinary number of these paper mill papers have gone through the peer review process and been published in highly respected journals.

Distressingly, even when the origins of a paper mill paper are exposed, publishers do not always make that clear.  As this article from Nature explains:

Publishers almost never explicitly declare on retraction notices that a particular study is fraudulent or was created by a company to order, because it is difficult to prove.

Even so, that same article from Nature says that at least 370 published papers have been retracted since January of 2020 due to their suspected paper mill origins.  Another 45 have been flagged with “expressions of concern” by the journals that published them.  And since academic journals started cracking down on paper mill papers, it seems that some researchers have decided to voluntarily retract their own research “without stating the reason for retraction.”

Based on what I read in that Nature article, as well as in other articles like this one from Chemistry World, I get the sense that this is a bigger problem in some scientific fields than it is in others.  Fields like biomedical science, computer science, and engineering seem to be getting paper milled the hardest—in other words, fields where there’s the most money to be made and where researchers are under the most pressure to rack up publication credits.

For my own purposes as a science fiction writer who wants to do his research, I read a fair number of academic papers: mostly papers on astrobiology and planetary science.  I doubt I have to worry much about paper mill papers in those fields.  There are, however, other red flags I know to look out for.

Going to Mars is My Dream, But Not My Passion

Hello, friends!

So this post isn’t really about Mars.  I mean, if NASA ever announces that they desperately need to send a writer/illustrator to Mars, I’d volunteer.  I’d love to go to Mars!  That would be awesome!

But I don’t expect that to happen.  Even if we do send humans to Mars, and even if that does happen in my lifetime, those humans will be scientists and engineers.  They’ll be people who are good at math.  I’m not a math person, nor do I wish to become a math person.

So while I dream about standing on the surface of the Red Planet, my passions lie elsewhere.  And I think it’s important to know the difference between your dreams and your passions.  Dreams matter.  Your dreams say a lot about who you are as a person and what you believe (and do not believe) about the world.  Cherish your dreams, but pursue your passions.

I have a passion for writing and also a (slightly lesser) passion for art.  If I could spend every day of my life writing and drawing, that would be glorious.  If I had to spend every day doing math, I’d be miserable.  And that’s why I write blog posts about Mars rather than sitting in a laboratory somewhere trying to figure out how to actually get to Mars.

Of course, no matter what your dreams and passions happen to be, there will still be closed-minded people trying to stand in judgement over you.  Ignore those people.  Cut them out of your life, if you can (maybe consider moving to another planet, if the opportunity comes up).

So what are your dreams, and what are your passions, and what are you doing to pursue them?

Sciency Words: Xenophyophore

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words!  Each week, we take a closer look at some fun and interesting scientific term so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  This week’s Sciency Word is:

XENOPHYOPHORE

“Xenophyophore” comes from a smattering of Greek words meaning “the bearer of foreign bodies.”  The foreign bodies in question may be grains of sand, bits of debris, the broken remains of dead organisms… pretty much anything you might find at the very bottom of the ocean is fair game to a xenophyophore.

First discovered in the late 19th Century, xenophyophores are organisms that pick up all this “foreign” material and cement it together to create a special sort of shell (the shells of xenophyophores and of similar organisms are called “tests”).  Xenophyophore shells may be very simple, or they may be highly elaborate and complex, giving some xenophyophores a superficial resemblance to coral.

According to this paper from the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, xenophyophores were classified and reclassified and reclassified again, over and over, for almost a century.  Then in 1972, Danish zoologist Ole Secher Tendal “rescued xenophyophores from obscurity.”  They are now classified as part of the phylum Foraminifera, within the kingdom Protista.  In other words, xenophyophores are unicellular organisms.

And for unicellular organisms, xenophyophores are huge.  Some grow to be as much as 20 centimeters in diameter, making them almost as large as basketballs!  Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like most xenophyophore species are much smaller than that–maybe a couple millimeters in diameter.  Still, for a single-celled organism, a couple millimeters is huge.

This makes xenophyophores another example of abyssal gigantism: the tendency of organisms in the deepest, darkest, most abyss-like parts of the ocean to grow to gigantic sizes.

P.S.: I couldn’t find a source to back me up on this, but I think it’s safe to assume xenophyophores have started incorporating microplastics into their shells, along with all the other “foreign bodies” they were using before.

Sciency Words: Pomology

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists use.  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

POMOLOGY

I picked this word up from fellow blogger Kate Rauner.  Click here to check out her post on some recent and exciting pomological discoveries!

The word pomology comes from a Latin word meaning “fruit” and a Greek word meaning “the study of.”  So pomology is the scientific study of fruit, especially domesticated fruits.  How can we grow fruits more easily?  How can we improve fruits to make them tastier and/or more nutritious?  How can we better protect the fruits we eat from disease?  These are the kinds of questions pomologists seek to answer.

Charles Downing is widely regarded as the father of modern pomology.  He, along with his brother, Andrew Jackson Downing, published a book in 1851 entitled The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America.  Obviously the Downing Brothers were not the first people to ever study fruit, nor do they get credit for coining the words “pomology” or “pomologist.”  Rather, they sought to clean up what they called the “embarrassing” state of pomology at the time, and in so doing they helped to establish pomology as a legitimate science.

Wait, I forget.  Are these fruits or vegetables?

As a science fiction writer, I am delighted to have learned this word.  It seems to me that every space outpost and space colony, every multi-generational spaceship, and every other community of humans that ventures off into deep space, ought to have a pomology officer on staff—perhaps even an entire pomology department.  And I suspect the work of these pomology officers will be very much appreciated, too!

As the Downing Brothers wrote way back in 1851: “[Fruit] is the most perfect union of the useful and the beautiful that the earth knows.”  And that “perfect union” of utility and beauty, of nutrition and flavor… that is exactly what any mission into deep space needs most.

P.S.: In case you were wondering, yes, NASA is already doing pomological research for space missions.

Abyssal Gigantism on Europa?

Hello, friends!

So the first time I heard about the subsurface ocean on Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons), my imagination ran wild.  Or should I say it swam wild?  I imagined all sorts of wonderful and terrifying sea creatures: krakens with lots of horrible tentacles and teeth; crab-like creatures scuttling around on the ocean floor; and perhaps even extraterrestrial merfolk with a rich and complex civilization of their own.

As I’ve learned more about space and science, though, I’ve scaled back my expectations for what we might find on Europa.  Or on Enceladus, or Dione, or Titan, or Ariel, or Pluto… there’s a growing list of planetoids in the outer Solar System where subsurface oceans of liquid water are suspected and/or confirmed to exist.

Any or all of those worlds might support alien life.  But not giant sea monsters.  When astrobiologists talk about alien life, they’re usually talking about microorganisms.  For Europa, rather than civilized merfolk and tentacle-flailing leviathans, we should imagine prokaryotic microbes clustered around hydrothermal vents, feeding on sulfur compounds and other mineral nutrients.  If we ever find evidence that these Europan microbes exists, it will come in the form of a weird amino acid residue, or something like that.

That’s the most exciting discovery we can hope for, realistically speaking.  Unless…

On Monday, I introduced you to the term “abyssal gigantism,” also known as “deep-sea gigantism.”  Abyssal gigantism refers to the tendency of deep-sea organisms to grow larger (sometimes much larger) than their shallow-water cousins.  As an example, see the giant squid.  Or if you really want to give yourself nightmares, look up the Japanese spider crab.

The more I read about abyssal gigantism, the more my thoughts turn to Europa (and Enceladus, and all the rest).  The environment beneath Europa’s icy crust shouldn’t be so different from the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans.  So shouldn’t what happens in the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans also happen on Europa?

According to this article from Hakai Magazine, yes.  Yes, it should.  The same evolutionary pressures that cause abyssal gigantism here on Earth should cause a similar kind of gigantism on Europa.  In fact, it would be strange if that didn’t happen.  One marine biologist is quoted in that article saying: “You would have to come up with a rationale why [abyssal gigantism on Europa] couldn’t happen, and I can’t do that.”

Before you or I let our imaginations swim wild, I should note that that article from Hakai Magazine was the one and only source I could find on this specific combination of topics: abyssal gigantism and life on Europa.  So maybe take all of this with a grain of salt (preferably a grain of Europan sea salt).  But… well, I’ll put it to you this way: if someone were to write a story about a NASA submarine being attacked by sea monsters, that story would seem plausible to me.

Sciency Words: Abyssal Gigantism

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wacky terms scientists use.  This week’s Sciency Word is:

ABYSSAL GIGANTISM

In the deepest, darkest abyss of the ocean, animals have a tendency to grow to gigantic sizes.  This tendency is known as abyssal gigantism.  It’s also known as deep-sea gigantism.

Based on what Google Ngram Viewer has to show us, it looks like these terms (both abyssal and deep-sea gigantism) first appeared in the 1950’s, but people have obviously known that giant things live in the ocean for far longer than that.  Common examples of abyssal gigantism include the giant squid, the giant oarfish, and the Japanese spider crab.  All of these animals live in the deep, deep, deeeeeep ocean, and they all grow larger—considerably larger—than their shallow-water cousins.

What causes abyssal gigantism?  That’s not entirely clear.  As you might imagine, marine biologists have a tough time studying creatures that live that far down underwater.  But based on what I’ve read about this so far, the two most common explanations seem to be:

  • Keeping warm: Bigger animals can retain more of their own body heat.  That’s important if you live in extremely cold environments, like the deep oceans.  This is related to an ecological principle known as Bergmann’s rule.
  • Being metabolically efficient: Bigger animals tend to be more metabolically efficient, as modeled by something called Kleiber’s law.  In other words, big animals need less food relative to their size than smaller animals do.  That’s important if you live in an environment where food is scarce, like the deep oceans.

I have to admit I still have a lot to learn about this topic, and some of the things I read were a little confusing to me.  For example, I’ve read contradictory things about oxygen levels in the deep ocean and how that might factor into abyssal gigantism.

But that’s not the important thing.  You see, it’s not just that animals can grow to gigantic sizes in the deep ocean; it’s that they must.  For one reason or another, there’s evolutionary pressure on deep sea animals to get bigger and bigger and bigger.  And that’s got me thinking….

Next time on Planet Pailly, let’s revisit that very deep, very dark, very cold subsurface ocean on Europa.