#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.

How to Be Smart

Hello, friends!

So there’s this anecdote I heard once, way back when I was a kid, about a math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  This teacher had to stop in the middle of class and look the number up in a book.  Naturally, this drew some snarky comments from the students.  The teacher replied, sagely: “Why should I waste valuable brain space on information I can easily look up?”

Why indeed?

I haven’t been doing much research lately.  Right now, I’m trying to pick the habit up again, and I thought I’d start by doing a little research on how to do research.  Specifically, I thought I could use a refresher course on how to tell the difference between facts and fabrications on the Internet.  I wound up reading several papers (this one, this one, and this one), and I still have at least one more paper (this one) that I want to read.  So what have I learned so far?

Well, the main take away from my research on research is that a lot of people implicitly share the philosophy of that math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  I may not know the answer, but I know where to find the answer, and in the end that’s good enough.  And maybe it is good enough, so long as you recognize that you’re getting your information from an external source.

Unfortunately, according to this paper from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the act of using a search engine can trick our brains into thinking we know more than we actually we do.  In a series of memory-related tests, people tended to overestimate their “unplugged knowledge” and underestimate their dependency on Internet search engines.  You don’t even have to have successful search engine results to get this inflated knowledge ego.  As the paper explains:

The illusion of knowledge from Internet use appears to be driven by the act of searching.  The effect does not depend on previous success on a specific search engine, but rather generalizes to less popular search engines as well (Experiment 4a).  It persists when the queries posed to the search engine are not answered (Experiment 4b) and remains even in cases where the search query fails to provide relevant answers or even any results at all (Experiment 4c).

I don’t think the lesson here is that we should stop using the Internet for research.  Rather, I think the lesson is that we need to stay humble.  It’s a little too easy to forget where our information comes from when information comes so easily through the Internet.  Unlike that math teacher who had to spend time flipping through a book to find the value of pi, I can just google it—or, faster yet, I can ask Siri.  But that does not mean I actually know the answer any better than that math teacher did.

P.S.: Yes, I did all my research for today’s post using Google.

#IWSG: A Brave New 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 in any way insecure about your writing, click here to learn more about this amazingly supportive group!

In the last few weeks, I have not been writing.  Not as much as I want to, nor as much as I believe I need to.  I have my theories about why this is the case.  I could tell you about those theories, but I don’t want to.  At this point, I’m tired of talking about what’s wrong.  I’m tired of examining and reexamining the situation from all these different perspectives.  I just want to get back to writing.

And that’s the whole point of the writing recovery plan, which I introduced in last month’s IWSG post.  Part of that plan involved shopping: stocking up on writing supplies, as well as art supplies and a few other creative necessities.  And part of the plan involved rereading some of my favorite books and rewatching some of my favorite movies: the kinds of books and movies that made me want to be a writer in the first place.

Well, my shopping is done, and I’ve gone through most of my rereading/rewatching list.  But the writing?  The writing still hasn’t come back, not in the way I was hoping.  It seems that there’s still one more thing I need to do.  Something I did not think of in my original recovery plan.

Regular readers of this blog have met my muse before.  She’s sort of a recurring character in my posts, especially in these IWSG posts.  I also keep a picture of her in my personal writing sanctuary, as a reminder.  I’ve been drawing my muse basically the same way for a long time: medium blue wings, a matching blue dress, high-heel boots.  But now I think it’s time to update her look.

So going forward, to the extent that there’s any sort of canon regarding my muse, this will be her canonical look:

Also going forward, this will be the picture sitting in my writing sanctuary, as a reminder.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m told that it is time to write.

The #1 Lesson I Learned from COVID

Hello, friends!

So I don’t like to say mean or hurtful things, not about anyone nor anything.  But at this point, after everything we’ve all been through in the past year or so, I can’t help myself.  This message needs to be heard:

It’s been almost a week now that I’ve been fully immunized against COVID-19.  For those of you who may be curious, I got the Modern vaccine.

I’m hesitant to say that the pandemic is winding down or that COVID is going away.  But I do feel like COVID will be less of a threat going forward, and we can safely (or semi-safely) start getting back to our old lives.  With that in mind, I think this is a good time to reflect on some of the lessons learned during the pandemic.

For me personally, the #1 lesson I learned is that I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought.  For most of my life, I’ve felt happiest when I’m alone and loneliest when I’m in a crowd.  Social interactions—even with people I like—tend to leave me feeling drained.  And that’s pretty much the textbook definition of introversion.

So when the pandemic started, I was secretly thrilled.  Social distancing sounded like a dream come true.  I thought I was going to write all the things, and draw all the things, and read all the books, and build all the Lego sets.  But being totally isolated from the rest of humanity—turns out that, for me, was a pretty draining experience, too.  Being alone all the time is almost as draining as being at a crowded and noisy party with a bunch of highly judgmental people.

Now that I’m fully immunized, and as more and more people are joining the fully immunized club, I am just so gosh darn eager to talk to somebody—anybody!  For the first time in my life, I’m acting almost like an extrovert. Yes, I do want to talk about the weather and the local sports team!  Yes, please do tell me how your kids are holding up!  And your opinions about politics?  Actually, no.  I still don’t want to have that conversation, thanks.

Maybe this is a temporary thing.  In fact, I’m sure it’s a temporary thing and that my introverted ways will gradually start to reassert themselves.  But still, a lesson was learned.  I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought, and maybe a little social activity is good for me after all.

What lessons did you learn from the pandemic?