Sciency Words: Clarke Orbit

November 2, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


So I was once again flipping through my copy of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction when I discovered a small fact that gave me a big surprise.  It involved Arthur C. Clarke, the legendary science fiction writer who’s best known for co-writing the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but who was also a prominent thinker, futurist, and inventor.

In 1945, Clarke wrote this article for Wireless World describing a method for transmitting radio and television signals to the entire globe.  Clarke’s idea involved placing artificial satellites in a very specific and somewhat peculiar orbital arrangement.  Clarke explains:

It will be observed that one orbit, with a radius of 42,000 km, has a period of exactly 24 hours.  A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincides with that of the equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet.

Clarke admits that this idea may sound a little too fantastical to some, but he argues that it’s entirely plausible to do this using current (as of 1945) technology.  His only concern was whether or not radio transmissions would be able to penetrate Earth’s ionosphere, though he was confident that at least some radio frequencies would work.

And of course Arthur C. Clarke was right (he usually was about these sorts of things).  We now know this orbital arrangement as a geosynchronous orbit, or to be more specific a geostationary orbit.  A geosynchronous orbit allows a satellite to move around in Earth’s sky, so long as it always returns to the same positions at the same times of day. A geostationary orbit does not allow a satellite to move at all in Earth’s sky.

And according to Brave New Words, these kinds of orbits are also known as Clarke orbits.

So which term should we be using?  Personally, I’m not sure.  I like how the term Clarke orbit honors Arthur C. Clarke for inventing the idea.  On the other hand, I appreciate how the term geostationary orbit helps define itself, thus making verbal communication a little easier.

So which of these terms would you prefer? Clarke orbit or geostationary orbit?

My Favorite Planet: Venus

October 31, 2018

I’m thinking of doing a few of these kinds of posts, if people are into it: my favorite planet, my favorite moon, my favorite asteroid… that sort of thing. Today I’d like to tell you a little about Venus, my favorite planet in the Solar System and also the best chemistry teacher I’ve ever had.

Venus has been my favorite planet for a long time now.  I used to say to people, “It’s because Venus has the most personality.  It’s the personality of a serial killer, but still… so much personality!”

It’s true that Venus is excessively, unreasonably, incomprehensibly hostile toward life.  I mean, all the planets are dangerous (even Earth is a dangerous place in its own ways), but if you ever go to Venus, Venus will try to kill you at least a dozen different ways before you touch the ground.  And when your crushed and crispy remains do reach the ground, Venus will try to kill you again in at least a dozen more ways.

No other planet is so creative and so gleefully enthusiastic about murder.  As a science fiction writer, one of my goals in life is to set a novel on Venus or a Venus-like planet, because no other setting makes for such a deadly antagonist.

But upon further reflection, I think there’s a better reason why Venus holds such a special place in my heart.  I’ve done a lot of space-related research over the years.  It’s all part of my ongoing quest to become a better science fiction writer.  Venus was the first planet to really challenge me intellectually.

Why is Venus so deadly?  In many ways, Venus is Earth’s twin.  The two planets are about the same size, they have almost the same surface gravity, and their chemical compositions are similar. Venus is slightly closer to the Sun, but it’s still within our Solar System’s habitable zone.  So what gives?

It was hard work getting the kind of answers I was looking for.  Venus forced me to learn a lot of new things.  In particular, I had to learn more about chemistry, a subject that I despised in school and had really hoped I could avoid.  But in struggling to understand Venus’s sulfur chemistry, and later its carbon chemistry, I was rewarded not only with a deeper understanding of one planet but of how planets in general are put together, and how they each end up with their own distinct “personalities.”

Picking a favorite anything is obviously a subjective thing. For me, studying Venus was an eye-opening experience in ways I never would have expected.  For that, I’m forever grateful to the planet Venus, and Venus will always be my favorite planet.

So what’s your favorite planet?  If you say “Earth, because I live there,” I’m going to be a little disappointed.  But whatever your favorite planet is, and whatever your reasons for that, please share in the comments below!

Wisdom of Sci-Fi: Silence is Often the Best Thing to Say

October 29, 2018

Frank Herbert’s Dune is among my all time favorite books.  It’s had a profound impact on my life and my writing.  I also read the other books Frank Herbert wrote for the Dune series, and I read one of the spinoff novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  Those other books were… well, they didn’t have the same kind of impact.

Even so, there was one line from one of those other books that really struck a chord with me.  I remember the line well, but I had to do a little digging to figure out which book it came from (it was Chapterhouse: Dune).

Silence is often the best thing to say.

A close friend recently told me some disturbing news.  He’s going through some difficult stuff right now, and he wanted to talk about it.

Now I’ve been going through some difficult stuff myself lately.  It would have been easy to steer the conversation toward my own problems.  It also would have been easy to start handing out trite, simplistic advice.  You know, the kind of advice that sounds wonderful in theory but doesn’t work so well in practice (see just about any self help book).

But no, I remembered those words from Frank Herbert: “Silence is often the best thing to say.”  My friend wasn’t looking for advice, nor was he looking to get into a contest with me over whose problems are worse.  He just needed to talk—to vent, really.  What he needed from me was someone willing to listen.  So I kept my mouth shut and listened.

Sciency Words: Asparagine

October 26, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


Asparagus is my favorite vegetable.  Some people may not believe me when I say that, but it’s true.  It has a unique, hard-to-describe flavor that really makes my mouth water.  It’s also a pricier vegetable than most, so it’s something I’ve come to associate with special occasions.

But aside from the taste, part of the reason I like asparagus is that it’s played an interesting and important role in the history of science.  Several chemicals were first discovered in asparagus and have been named in asparagus’s honor, the most noteworthy being asparagine (chemical formula C4H8N2O3).

One fateful day in 1806, two French chemists—Louis Nocolas Vauqueline and Pierre Jean Robiquet—were performing experiments on asparagus juice when they managed to isolate a new and unusual chemical. Vauqueline and Robiquet named their discovery asparagine.  Little did they know they’d just discovered the first of twenty fundamental building blocks for life on Earth.  Asparagine was the first known amino acid.

This very random illustration was inspired by Google auto-suggesting “asparagus disco” while I was typing the words “asparagine discovery.”

Asparagine is considered a non-essential amino acid, which I feel is a misleading term.  Asparagine is essential in the sense that you need it to stay alive, but it is not essential that you get it in your diet.  Your body can make it out of other things.

I guess that’s fortunate for those of you who don’t like asparagus as much as I do.

P.S.: I have long been under the impression that asparagine is responsible for making pee smell funny after you eat asparagus.  Apparently that’s not correct.  That smell is more likely caused by a sulfur-containing compound called asparagusic acid.

Which Planet Has the Weirdest Magnetic Field?

October 23, 2018

When I did my yearlong Mission to the Solar System series back in 2015, the planet Neptune stood out as having the weirdest and wackiest magnetic field.  Here’s a totally legit photograph from 1989 taken by the Voyager 2 space probe.  As you can see, Neptune is really confused about how magnetic fields are supposed to work.

But since 2015, science has learned more about the other three gas giants in our Solar System.  Neptune’s magnetic field is still really weird, but it’s no longer clear that it is the definitive weirdest.

  • Jupiter: Based on data from the Juno mission, it looks like Jupiter has three poles instead of two.  There’s a north pole, right about where you’d expect it to be.  Then the magnetic field lines emanating from the north pole connect to two separate south poles.  The first south pole is about where you’d expect a south pole to be. The other one is near the equator. Click here for more about Jupiter’s “non-dipolar” magnetic field.
  • Saturn: As Sherlock Holmes says in one of his many adventures, “Depend upon it, there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.” According to data collected during the Cassini mission’s Grand Finale, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost perfectly aligned with its rotation.  At first blush, that might seem quite normal.  Commonplace, even. Except no other planet’s magnetic field is so perfectly aligned.  Not even close.  Apparently planetary scientists didn’t think such a thing was even possible.  Click here for more about the “negligible tilt” of Saturn’s magnetic field.
  • Uranus: The planet Uranus is tipped over sideways, and its magnetic field is tipped over further still.  According to recent computer simulations, these two factors combine to cause Uranus’s magnetic field to tumble over itself “like a child cartwheeling down a hill,” as one researcher put it. This leads to a “periodic open-close-open-close scenario” where the solar wind can flow in toward the planet then suddenly be blocked, then suddenly flow in again, and then suddenly be blocked.  If these simulations are correct, the Uranian aurora may flick on and off like a light switch. Click here for more about the “topsy-turvy motion” of Uranus’s magnetic field.
  • Neptune: In 1989, Voyager 2 discovered that Neptune’s magnetic field is lopsided. The magnetic field doesn’t run through the planet’s core. Instead it runs through a seemingly random point about halfway between the core and the “surface” (by which I mean the topmost layer of the atmosphere).  Also, only one of the poles ends up being near the planet’s “surface.”  The other pole is buried somewhere deep in the planet’s interior.  For more about Neptune’s “badly behaved” magnetic field, click here.

If I had to choose, I’d probably still give Neptune the award for weirdest magnetic field.  But the competition is a lot tighter than it used to be.  Maybe the real lesson here is that gas giants in general have wild and crazy magnetic fields.

So if you had to pick, based on all this new info, which planet do you think deserves the award for the weirdest magnetic field?

P.S.: Also, the Cassini mission discovered there’s an electric current flowing between Saturn and its innermost ring.

Sciency Words: Entropy

October 19, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


This is not the first time I’ve written about entropy. In fact, entropy was the subject of my very first (sort of, see footnote) Sciency Words post way back in 2011.  I was still trying to figure out this science stuff back then, and I was also still trying to figure out this whole blogging thing. It’s a little embarrassing to look at that old post now, so I hope none of you will click this link to see it for yourselves.

Back in 2011, I defined entropy as disorder.  Specifically, I said:

Entropy: (noun) A measurement of the amount of disorder in a mechanical system.

This thing about disorder is a very common and rather superficial way of defining entropy.  I’ve since seen and heard the term defined in lots of different ways, some more or less appropriate depending on which scientific field you’re talking about.

My favorite definition today is:

Entropy: (noun) a measure of the amount of energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is no longer available to do work.

And according to the second law of thermodynamics, the total entropy of a closed system will always go up.  This is true whether you’re talking about a steam engine or a living organism or the entire universe.  In any closed system, entropy keeps going up.

When I wrote that original Sciency Words post on entropy back in 2011, it didn’t occur to me to look up the word’s etymology.  That’s a shame, because this turned out to be one of the easier etymologies I’ve researched. I kind of assumed entropy would have some long, convoluted history tracing back to ancient Greece.  I mean, the word looks like an ancient Greek word to me.

But no, the word entropy was coined as recently as 1865 by German physicist Rudolf Clausius, the same person who originally formulated the second law of thermodynamics.  According to, the word is formed by analogy with the word energy, which comes from two Greek root words meaning “in work” or “in the process of working.”  So entropy derived from two Greek words meaning “in transformation” or “in the process of transformation” (so at least I was on the right track thinking the word looked like Greek).

This has led me to think up yet another way to define entropy, a definition that I feel stays a little more true to that “in transformation” meaning that I suspect Clausius was going for.  Let me know what you think of it in the comments.

Entropy: (noun) the gradual but inevitable transformation of what is useful into what is useless.

Footnote: I actually wrote several blog posts before that titled Sciency Words, but those really weren’t the same, and I wouldn’t consider them part of the Sciency Words series.

Putting STEM into the Arts

October 17, 2018

I thought I was done talking about the whole STEM vs. STEAM debate, but then it occurred to me that there’s one point that nobody seemed to be talking about.  This debate is often framed in terms of how the arts can benefit STEM.  No one ever seems to mention how STEM can benefit the arts.

About a month ago, SpaceX announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be going on a tourist trip around the Moon. Maezawa is an art collector, and he’s decided to take six to eight artists with him on a mission called “Dear Moon.”  According to the Dear Moon website, “A painter, musician, film director, fashion designer… Some of Earth’s greatest talents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they never have been before.”

Art is meant to reflect the world we live in. Therefore artists have a responsibility to understand, as best they can, our increasingly scientific and increasingly technological world.  It sounds to me like Maezawa gets this.  But aside from seeking out new sources of inspiration, there are also craft-related reasons why artists might want to be exposed to sciency stuff.

As an artist, when you’re thinking about how light and shadow play off a three-dimensional form, you’re sort of thinking about physics. When you’re mixing paints, trying to make sure they’ll adhere to your canvass, or trying to make sure the colors won’t fade over time, you’re dabbling in chemistry.  And obviously when you’re drawing a figure study (nude or otherwise), knowing a little about anatomy and biology will help you a lot.

None of the art teachers I had in school, and none of the art tutors my parents hired for me outside of school, really made this clear to me.  As I said in my post on Friday, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were totally different, unrelated things.  There was a long period of time in my life when I felt artistically stuck. I was unable to improve, and I didn’t understand why.

It wasn’t until I attended a seminar taught by James Gurney, the author and artist behind Dinotopia, that my art began to thrive again.  Why?  Because Mr. Gurney got me to start thinking scientifically about my art. I guess you could say he got me to stop thinking of myself as a left-brain-only kind of guy.

I can’t speak for every artist out there, but I know for me personally a more interdisciplinary approach to education would have done me a world of good.  And with that, I think I’ve said my peace about STEM and STEAM.  In my next post, I’ll move on to some other topic.

P.S.: While drawing that artist in space cartoon for today’s post, I thought of several reasons why painting in space like that would not work.  For one thing, I imagine those paints would do the whole freezing-and-boiling-at-the-same-time thing that other liquids tend to do in space.  If you can think of other challenges my artist/astronaut would have to deal with, please share in the comments!