Sciency Words: Pandemic

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this week’s episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

PANDEMIC

I normally write about space stuff.  Life on Mars, Pluto’s planet status… things like that.  But I thought I’d change things up a bit and talk about a medical science thing.  Why?  Oh, no particular reason.

In 1666, English physician Gideon Harvey wrote a book called Morbus Anglicus.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that book includes the earliest known usage of the word pandemic.

Pandemic comes from two Greek words meaning “all” and “people.”  For Gideon Harvey, it seems that pandemic diseases (leprosy, the bubonic plague, and most especially tuberculosis) are diseases that afflict all people, regardless of social status.  At least that’s my inference after reading the first chapter of Morbius Anglicus.

In modern usage, the meaning of the word pandemic has changed.  The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) use several different terms to categorize disease levels.  According to this online textbook from the C.D.C., those terms include:

  • Endemic: a level of disease that is normal for a given population.
  • Outbreak: a sharp increase above the endemic level of a disease within a geographically small area.
  • Epidemic: a sharp increase above the endemic level of a disease within a geographically large area.
  • Pandemic: an epidemic that is no longer geographically contained, i.e.: an epidemic that has crossed national borders or spread from one continent to another.

Those may seem like clear, straightforward definitions on paper, but according to several sources (like this one or this one or this one), that official definition for pandemic may be inadequate.  Lots of diseases cross national borders.  Lots of diseases hop from continent to continent.  The W.H.O. and the C.D.C. don’t issue pandemic alerts every time this happens.

The problem apparently came to a head in 2009 with the H1N1 swine flu.  Yes, swine flu was crossing borders, but public health officials started quibbling over whether swine flu was new enough or infectious enough or deadly enough to qualify for pandemic status.  Those qualifiers aren’t included in the official definition, but for a lot of people, it feels like they should be.  Otherwise, the seasonal flu would be a pandemic.

Now I’m not particularly well versed in medical science, so allow me to end this post by talking about a space thing.  In the early 2000’s, astronomers started arguing about whether Pluto was truly a planet.  This led to the International Astronomy Union issuing a new, more detailed definition of the word planet (and nobody had an argument about Pluto ever again).

Based on everything I read while researching this post, I feel like a similar story is unfolding over the word pandemic.  Perhaps, as scientists learn more about the spread of infectious diseases in our modern, globalized society, a new, more detailed definition for pandemic will emerge (and I’m sure it will be as universally accepted as the I.A.U.’s planet definition was).

Next time on Planet Pailly, it’s time to reveal my theme for this year’s A to Z Challenge.

Giving the Gift of Coronavirus

Hello, friends!

I have recently returned from my trip to visit family.  My grandmother just turned 100 years old.  Happy birthday to Grandma Pailly!

But today’s post isn’t about that.  Nope.  For today’s post, I have some new artwork to share, artwork that was inspired by that one guy—you know the guy I mean.  I’m talking about that guy in the public restroom who never washes his hands.

Of course I didn’t say anything to that guy.  Instead, I did the most passive aggressive thing I could think of: I made art about the incident and posted it on the Internet.

But I mean, come on!  It’s always gross when people don’t wash their hands after using the restroom.  But seriously, at a time like this?  Seriously?!?

If Proxima c Exists, It Must Be Beautiful!

Hello, friends!

For over a week now, I’ve been teasing you with promises of a very pretty picture of a very pretty planet.  Proxima Centauri is already known to have at least one planet, named Proxima b.  Now a second planet, Proxima c, may have also been discovered.

So how do we know Proxima c is there?  Well, we don’t.  I would be an irresponsible science blogger if I didn’t make this 100% clear: astronomers do not know for certain if Proxima c exists.  The evidence, as it currently stands, is highly circumstantial.

  • First off, we have the possible detection of asteroid belts encircling Proxima Centauri.  The presence of asteroid belts would imply the presence of planets, since it would take a planet’s gravity to keep the gaps between those asteroid belts clear.
  • Second, as reported in this paper, we have the possible detection of a “compact source” of thermal emissions.  There could be multiple explanations for this, but one possibility is a planet with a large, Saturn-like ring system.
  • Lastly, according to this paper, Proxima Centauri is wobbling in place.  That sort of wobbling in a star usually means a planet’s gravity is tugging on that star.  Usually.

As I said, all this evidence is highly circumstantial.  Proxima Centauri is known to have extremely violent solar flares, which may also explain why the star is so wobbly.  And that compact source of thermal emissions could be lots of things other than a planetary ring system (it might even be an error in our data).  And as for Proxima’s asteroid belts, we haven’t confirmed those exist yet.  It would be premature to say anything about possible planets based on possible asteroids.

But as this article from Scientific American explains it, all this circumstantial evidence seems to be lining up in such a way that you have to go hmmm.  If Proxima Centauri’s wobbles are caused by a planet, astronomers can make an educated guess about where that planet must be located.  And that location lines up with that compact source of thermal emissions.  And that compact source of thermal emissions is right where a planet would need to be to keep the gap between the asteroid belts clear. Coincidence? Well, maybe.

Again, this is highly circumstantial evidence.  It will take a lot more observation and data analysis to determine whether or not Proxima c is really there.

But for a planet that may not exist, we know an awful lot about what Proxima c should be like.  Based on Proxima Centauri’s wobbliness, we know Proxima c must be more massive than Earth, but less massive than Neptune.  We also know it must be very cold.  It’s a long way away from the habitable zone.  Due to Proxima Centauri’s intense solar flare activity, we’d expect Proxima c to have some crazy bright aurorae.  Oh, and as we already established, Proxima c would have a large, Saturn-like ring system.

In short, Proxima c sounds like it must be a very pretty planet.

If it exists.  Which is still a pretty big if.

Quick programming note: I’m going to take a few days off from blogging.  I’ll be away on a trip to visit family.  My grandmother is turning 100 years old this weekend, so it’s going to be a party!

I’ll be back some time next week with updates about my book and an announcement about this year’s A to Z Challenge.  See you soon!

Sciency Words: Null Hypothesis

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

THE NULL HYPOTHESIS

Whenever there’s a big scientific discovery in the news, my first question is always: should I take this seriously?  The answer is usually no.  The popular press may say one thing, but when you dig into the actual science, you often find the facts do not support the hype.

So when I started reading about a second possible planet in the Proxima Centauri system, I wanted to know: should I take this seriously?  In this article from Scientific American, the astronomers who discovered this possible planet are quoted as saying:

Since the very first time we saw this [potential planetary] signal, we tried to be its worst enemy.

The astronomers are then quoted saying:

We tried different tools to prove ourselves wrong, but failed.  However, we have to keep the doors open to all possible doubt and skepticism.

For me, this is the most reassuring thing any scientist could say.  Too often in popular culture, scientists are portrayed a certain way.

For a multitude of reasons, this is not a real scientist.

But no, good scientists are not out to prove to the world that they’re right.  They’re trying as hard as possible to prove to themselves that they’re wrong.  Which brings me to the null hypothesis.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources (like this one), the term “null hypothesis” can be traced back to British statistician Ronald Fisher.  Fisher first wrote about the null hypothesis in 1935, in a book titled The Design of Experiments.

As a way of introducing the concept, Fisher tells us the story of a woman who claimed to have an oddly specific talent.

A lady declares that by tasting a cup of tea made with milk she can discriminate whether the milk or the tea infusion was first added to the cup.

The Design of Experiments, by Ronald Fisher

Fisher then describes an experiment to test this woman’s claim.  She’s given eight cups of tea, four with the milk added first, and four with the milk added afterward.

In the context of this experiment, the null hypothesis predicts that the woman will not be able to tell which tea is which—she’s only guessing.  Or to put that in sciencier language, the null hypothesis asserts that there will be no statistically significant relationship between the way this woman’s tea was prepared and the way she believes her tea was prepared. As Fisher explains:

[…] it should be noted that the null hypothesis is never proved or established, but is possibly disproved, in the course of experimentation.  Every experiment may be said to exist only in order to give the facts a chance of disproving the null hypothesis.

The Design of Experiments, by Ronald Fisher

A null hypothesis is usually paired with an “alternative hypothesis,” which asserts that a statistically significant relationship does exist.  In Fisher’s tea tasting example, the alternative hypothesis would be that the woman really can tell which tea is which.  You can never really prove that either the null hypothesis or the alternative hypothesis is true, but a well designed experiment should be able to prove that one hypothesis or the other is false.

Going back to that possible planet in the Proxima Centauri system, the article from Scientific American does not explicitly mention the null hypothesis; however, the spirit of the null hypothesis is clearly in play.  Astronomers are trying their best to prove that that planet does not exist, and so far they can’t do it.  And that’s enough to convince me that I should take this new planet seriously (at least for now).

Next time on Planet Pailly, we’ll find out what this not-yet-disproven planet might look like.

#IWSG: Editing on Valentine’s Day

Hello, friends!  Welcome to March’s meeting of 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 amazing group!

This year, I was fortunate enough to spend Valentine’s Day with my one true love: writing.

Well, actually I spent Valentine’s Day (and many other recent days) reading and reviewing the notes from my editor.  I had to invent an elaborate color coding system to keep track of everything.  I marked changes I agreed with in blue, changes I disagreed with in orange, and changes that I had questions about in pink. Thank goodness I bought all those pens in pretty colors a few months ago!

Having my manuscript professionally edited has turned out to be a slower, more contemplative process than I expected.  My editor has given me a lot to think about.  It’s tough.  But I’m not going to dwell on that today, because if you’re a writer, you already know how tough every aspect of the writing process can be.

But I do want to share something about this process that I wasn’t expecting.  For those of you who feel anxious about turning your manuscript over to an editor, this might help alleviate some of your fears.  There were several sections of my manuscript that I was especially worried about.  I’d agonized over these sections for months and couldn’t find a way to make them any better.  To my surprise, my editor did not flag these sections as problems.

At our last meeting, I asked about this.  My editor read through a few of those sections again, shrugged, and told me I was worried about nothing.

Writing is still tough.  Editing is still tough.  But to have a professional look at my manuscript and tell me to stop worrying about this part or that part or those other things—what a huge relief!

Next time on Planet Pailly, we’ll compare a real scientist to a movie scientist.

Touring Proxima Centauri’s Asteroid Belts

Hello, friends!

As you know, sometimes things don’t go according to plan.  For today’s post, I was planning to draw a really pretty picture of a really planet—a planet that astronomers may (or may not) have found in the Proxima Centauri system.  But as I did my research about this possible planet, I realized I needed to draw something else for you first.

As reported in this 2017 paper, temperature readings indicate that Proxima Centauri may have at least one and as many as three asteroid belts.  Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like the presence of these belts has not been definitively proven yet.  But no one seems to be able to definitively disprove them either.

So here is a map of everything we currently know or suspect exists in the Proxima Centauri system.

As you can see, the planet Proxima b is in an extremely tight orbit around its star.  But since Proxima Centauri is much smaller and cooler than our Sun, Proxima b is technically in the star’s habitable zone.  Click here for my post on whether or not Proxima b could actually support life.

Beyond the orbit of Proxima b, we find our first possible asteroid belt.  In that 2017 paper I cited above, this innermost belt is described as the warm dust belt.  It appears to be located approximately 0.4 AU away from its star (roughly equivalent to the orbit of Mercury in our Solar System).

A little farther out, we find a second possible asteroid belt, which the authors of that 2017 paper describe as the cold dust belt.  Remember: we suspect these dust belts exist because of temperature measurements, hence the names.  The cold dust belt appears to be spread out between 1 AU and 4 AU (roughly equivalent to the space between the orbits of Earth and Jupiter in our Solar System).

And then farther out still, there appears to be a third belt, referred to as the outer dust belt (in my opinion, it should have been named the colder dust belt).  The outer dust belt appears to be located approximately 30 AU away from its star (roughly equivalent to the orbit of Neptune).

I want to emphasize again: as far as I can tell from my own research, no one has definitively proven or disproven these dust belts exist.  All we have are some temperature measurements that suggest something might possibly be there.

But if all those dust belts do exist, that tells us there should be planets orbiting in the gaps between the belts.  It would take a planet’s gravity to keep those gaps empty.  And now that you know that, I think we’re ready to take a closer look at Proxima c.

Except tomorrow is Insecure Writer’s Support Group day, so our trip to Proxima c will have to wait.  But I promise the wait will be worth it.  Science predicts that if Proxima c really exists, it must be the most gorgeous planet you’ve ever seen!

Next time on Planet Pailly, the unexpected benefits of having your manuscript edited.

Sciency Words: Time’s Arrow

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Sciency Words!  Each week, we take a closer look at the definition and etymology of a science or science-related term.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

TIME’S ARROW

Which way is time going?  Prior to the 1890’s, no one would have asked such a silly question.  Time is time.  Everything about time is self-evident.  Why would anyone question it?

But then in 1895, H.G. Wells introduced the concept of time travel to the readers of adventure fiction.  And then in 1915, Albert Einstein started treating time as a variable, rather than a constant, as part of his general theory of relativity.  In his book Time Travel: A History, science historian James Gleick explains:

Millennia had gone by without scientists needing special shorthand like “time’s arrow” to state the obvious—the great thing about time is that it goes on.  Now, however, it was no longer obvious.  Physicists were writing laws of nature in a way that made time directionless, a mere change of sign separating +t from –t.

British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington gets credit for introducing the “arrow of time” as a conceptual metaphor.  Eddington’s arrow points from the past toward the future.  Unless it doesn’t.  Depending on what sort of physics problem you’re trying to solve (or what sort of Sci-Fi story you’re trying to tell), it may be more convenient to imagine time’s arrow pointing from the future toward the past.

In 1927, in a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh, and then later in a book titled The Nature of the Physical World, Eddington made three key points about time’s arrow, which I’ll paraphrase as:

  1. Gosh, time’s arrow sure does seem real to us humans.
  2. And common sense reasoning insists that time’s arrow must always point in the same direction.
  3. But when you do the math, you’ll find that none of the laws of physics actually require time’s arrow to exist, except one.

That one exception is the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that the entropy of a closed thermodynamic system will inevitably increase with the passage of time.  So time’s arrow must always point in the direction of increasing entropy.

Of course a lot of people remain skeptical about time travel.  The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is a fine piece of fiction.  As for general relativity, treating time as a variable (rather than a constant) might help make the math work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean variable time is a real phenomenon.

Still, thanks in larger part to Arthur Eddington and his arrow metaphors, the question “which way is time going?” no longer sounds like total nonsense.

Next time on Planet Pailly: have we discovered a second planet orbiting Proxima Centauri?

Orbiting the Blogosphere: Aliens, NASA Missions, and Flat Earthers

Hello, friends!

Today, I thought we’d take a quick look around the blogosphere and see what other space/science enthusiasts have been writing about.

First up, why is science fiction so obsessed with alien life?  Steven Lyle Jordan explores that question in an article for Medium.  Click here to check out that article, or click here to visit Steven’s blog.

Next, NASA has announced the finalists for the next Discovery-class mission, and one of those finalists involves a return to Neptune (frickin’ finally, am I right?).  Specifically, this would be a mission to explore Triton, Neptune’s largest moon.  Jay Cole from Digestible Space can tell you more.  Click here!

Meanwhile, NASA’s InSight mission has been gathering a surprising amount of data about earthquakes on Mars (a.k.a. marsquakes).  Maybe Mars isn’t as geologically dead as we thought?  Blaine Henry from Gimme Space can tell you more.  Click here for that!

And lastly, but not leastly, Fran from My Hubble Abode pays tribute to a prominent Flat Earther who recently passed away.  Fran has done many great posts debunking Flat Earth nonsense and other conspiracy theories.  But still, everyone deserves some compassion and respect.  Fran has set a wonderful example of how to disagree with someone without being disrespectful.  Click here.

That’s all for now.  If you read and enjoyed any of these posts, please be sure to let the author know with a comment.  It’s important that we all keep sharing and spreading our love for space and for science!

Next time on Planet Pailly: this might sound like an odd question, but which way is time going?

My Apologies to the Brevard Astronomical Society and to the Planet Orbitar

Hello, friends!

I’ve been blogging for almost ten years now.  In that time, I’ve written and illustrated a lot of posts that I’m really proud of.  But I’ve also made some stupid mistakes, and I’ve posted things that I thought were funny at the time but, in retrospect, I’m not so proud of.

In 2016, I wrote this post about an exoplanet named Orbitar.  Today, I have to issue a retraction.  In that 2016 post, I attributed a quote to the Brevard Astronomical Society, the group that won the I.A.U.’s naming contest for the planet now known as Orbitar.  The quote was about the possibility that Orbitar might have moons and that those moons could possibly support life.

Well, somebody from the Brevard Astronomical Society got in touch to inform me that no one from their organization had made such a statement.  Turns out I did a sloppy job citing my sources for that 2016 post, so I can’t figure out where I got the quote from.  Hence, the need for this retraction.

Given that Orbitar orbits a red giant star at a distance of approximately 1.19 AU, it seems highly unlikely that any Orbitarian moons could support life.  It would be pretty outlandish and unscientific to claim otherwise.  I can understand why an astronomical society would not want to be associated with such a claim.

And another thing: in that 2016 post, I made fun of the name Orbitar.  I thought it was a doofy thing to name a planet.  But I have since gotten used to the name, and I’ve come to like it.  It’s unique.  It’s a name with a lot of personality.  I’m sure lots of planets wish they had such a cool name.

So I’d like to apologize to the planet Orbitar.  Even more so, I’d like to apologize to the Brevard Astronomical Society.  This isn’t the first time I’ve made a mistake on my blog, and it surely won’t be the last.  But using that quote without clearly citing my source was an especially stupid mistake, and I’m very sorry for doing it.

Next time on Planet Pailly, we’ll check out some of the cool stuff other space and science bloggers have been up to lately!

Sciency Words: Somaforming

Hello, friends, and welcome once again to Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at some new and interesting scientific term so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  This week’s Sciency Word is:

SOMAFORMING

I’d like to begin this post with a quote.  This comes from the 2019 Sci-Fi novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers.  As the protagonist of that book explains, we humans are a remarkably versatile species, able to adapt to pretty much any environment—or at least any environment Earth has to offer.

But take us away from our home planet, and our adaptability vanishes.  Extended spaceflight is hell on the human body.  No longer challenged by gravity, bones and muscles quickly begin to stop spending resources on maintaining mass.  The heart gets lazy in pumping blood.  The eyeball changes shape, causing vision problems and headaches.  Unpleasant as these ailments are, they pale in comparison to the onslaught of radiation that fills the seeming void.

I have rarely seen the dangers of human spaceflight so artfully or so succinctly explained as in this book.

Even before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, scientists knew space would be rough on the human body.  They did not know specifically what might go wrong, but they knew there would be trouble.  The obvious solution is to create an environment that is safe and comfortable for human beings.

But as early as 1960, some scientists were considering an alternative solution.  Rather than creating space environments that are suitable for human life, why not modify human life to be suitable for the environment of space?  This was the idea proposed by American research scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in their 1960 paper “Cyborgs and Space.”

Clynes and Kline proposed some rather drastic surgical changes to the human body.  They make it sound quite easy.  Just rip out a bunch of internal organs.  Replace those organs with synthetic parts.  Pump the patient/astronaut full of drugs and use hypnosis to suppress any psychological issues that might come up during or after the process.  And now you have a human being who’s ready to go to space!  Or you have a human being who’s dead on the operating room table.  One, or the other!

Clynes and Kline introduced the word “cyborg” to describe the half-human/half-machine person they proposed to create.  What Becky Chambers describes in To Be Taught, If Fortunate sounds a little bit safer and a lot less dehumanizing.  And Chambers introduces a new term to describe the transformation her characters undergo: somaforming.  The word is created by analogy with the word terraforming, with the Greek root word “terra” (Earth) being replaced with the Greek root word “soma” (body).

As the protagonist of To Be Taught, If Fortunate explains it, human space explorers come as guests, not conquerers.  The age of colonialism is long behind us. And being good guests, we don’t want to demand too much of our hosts or cause our hosts too much trouble.  To quote Chambers’ book once more: “I have no interest in changing other worlds to suit me.  I choose the lighter touch: changing myself to suit them.”

And I think that is a wonderful sentiment!

As far as I can tell, the word somaforming has not yet been picked up by the scientific community.  But plenty of words from science fiction have been adopted by scientists.  I have a suspicion that this is going to be one of those words.

Next time on Planet Pailly: Oh no!  I made a mistake in an old blog post, and I need to issue a retraction!