Somewhere Over the Rainbow: The Discovery of Infrared Light

Hello, friends!

The way I see it, there are two kinds of people who call themselves skeptics.  There are skeptics who question everything because they genuinely want to learn more, and then there are skeptics who question everything that does not conform to their own particular worldview.

I was once sitting in a bar with a young woman who turned out to be that second type of skeptic.  The conversation turned to outer space (as conversations inevitably do when I’m around), and this young woman kept asking: “How could they possibly know that?”  And when I said I honestly didn’t know, she concluded: “I think scientists just make all this stuff up!”

So today, I’d like to start what I’m hoping will become a series of posts on this blog answering the question: “How could they possibly know that?”  And we’ll begin with the discovery of infrared light.

HOW DO THEY KNOW THAT?
INFRARED LIGHT

You may be surprised to learn that infrared light was discovered in the year 1800.  Sir William Herschel (the same Sir William Herschel who’d previously discovered the planet Uranus) was tinkering with his telescope, trying to find a safer way to observe the Sun.  He thought that, perhaps, different colored filters might do the trick.

So Herschel set up an experiment to measure the temperatures of different colors of light.  It was an elegantly simple experiment.  A ray of sunlight passed through a prism, and the rainbow of light that came out of the prism hit some thermometers.

Herschel found that the blue/violet side of the spectrum was associated with lower temperatures; the red/orange side was associated with higher temperatures.  This was not, actually, what Herschel had expected.  He’d thought temperatures would peak somewhere in the middle: in the yellow/green part of the spectrum.

Curious, Herschel decided to place a thermometer outside the visible spectrum, somewhere beyond red.  The dark area beyond red turned out to be hotter than any of the visible colors.

Herschel called this new, invisible kind of light “calorific rays,” from a Latin word meaning “heat.”  The word calorie comes from the same Latin root.  The term infrared light would not be introduced until many decades after Herschel’s death.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Of course you do, because you’re the first kind of skeptic I mentioned, not the second!  Here are some links, organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.  Enjoy!

P.S.: The word infrared literally means “under red.”  So this blog post really should have been titled “Somewhere Under the Rainbow.”

Are Scientific Papers Worth Reading?

Hello, friends!

So over the course of the last few months, I’ve been learning about metascience.  I’ve been reading lots of metascientific articles and papers, and I’ve been watching a few metascientific lectures on YouTube.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, metascience is the scientific study of science itself, for the specific purpose of identifying fraud, correcting errors in the scientific process, and making science overall a more accurate and trustworthy thing.

Before I go any further with this topic, I think it’s extra important for you to understand who I am and what my perspective on science (and metascience) is.  I am not a scientist.  I have no professional or educational background in science.  What I am is a science fiction writer who wants to do his research so that science (as I portray it in my fiction) is accurate.  Well, somewhat accurate, or at least somewhat plausible.  At the very least, I want to make sure the science in my stories is not laughably implausible.

In order to do my research (as a science fiction writer), I have challenged myself to read peer-reviewed scientific papers.  I try to read at least one peer-reviewed paper each week.  As you can imagine, this is not easy.  These papers are packed full of jargon (some papers define their own jargon; most do not) and a whole lot of math (the kind of math where you see more of the Greek alphabet than Arabic numbers).

And now I learn, thanks to metascience, that the peer-review process is deeply flawed, and that science has way more problems than I ever realized.  There’s a lot of fraud going on, and also a lot of laziness and complacency, and scientists are not double checking each other’s work the way that they should.  That last problem—scientists not double checking each other’s work—is commonly known as the replication crisis.  It’s a problem which this article from Vox.com calls “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”

No branch of science is immune to these problems, but I can take some solace in the fact that some branches of science seem to be more afflicted with problems than others.  Fields like medical science, computer science, and engineering (i.e.: the big money-maker sciences) are far more prone to fraud than fields like cosmology, astrophysics, or planetary science (i.e.: fields that I, as a science fiction writer, take the most interest in).  But still, as I said, no branch of science is immune.  Lazy and/or biased and/or unscrupulous researchers are everywhere.

And yet, despite some very valid concerns, I intend to keep reading these peer reviewed papers.  Why?  Because my alternative would be to get most of my science news and information from the popular press.  When it comes to science, the popular press has an annoying tendency to dumb things down, to gloss over boring (but important) details, and to hype up hypotheses that are the most likely to attract clicks and views but are the least likely to actually be true.  If I wrote my Sci-Fi based solely on what I read in the popular press, the science in my fiction would be laughably implausible.

I’d rather struggle through reading a peer-reviewed paper once a week.  Those papers may not be perfect, but reading them will get me much closer to the truth than relying on any other source of information currently available to me.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you’d like to learn more about metascience and the replication crisis, I suggest checking out some of the links below.  These links are organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.

No Gospel Truth in Science

Hello, friends!

So there’s this notion in the popular press that when a new scientific paper comes out, that paper should be taken as the final definitive word on an issue.  Science has spoken.  This is a scientific fact now.  But that is not how science works.

When new research is published, you should expect there will be followup research, and then that followup research will be followed up by even more research.  A new scientific paper really shouldn’t be seen as a proclamation of fact but rather as the beginning of a dialogue among scientists, or perhaps as the continuation of a dialogue that’s already in progress.

The recent detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus has turned out to be a fantastic example of this ongoing dialogue in action.  The initial research was published in two separate papers (click here or here).  Basically, astronomers found the spectral signature of phosphine (PH3) in the Venusian atmosphere, and they were at a loss to explain where all that phosphine could be coming from.

Based on everything we currently know about Venus, those two papers tried to rule out several possible explanations.  Such a large quantity of phosphine could not be created by Venus’s atmospheric chemistry.  It could not be spewing out of volcanoes on Venus’s surface.  It could not be delivered to Venus by asteroids or comets.  One very intriguing possibility that could not be ruled out: maybe there’s life on Venus.  On Earth, phosphine is produced almost exclusively by living things.

But those two papers were not the definitive final word on the matter.  A dialogue had begun.  Soon, followup research came out suggesting that phosphine could be spewing out of volcanoes after all.  It would still be pretty shocking to discover that Venus has enough active volcanoes to produce that much atmospheric phosphine—but it be nowhere near as shocking as discovering Venus has life.

And then even more followup research came out with this paper, which points out possible errors in the original research and suggests that we may be dealing with a false positive detection.  Venus might not have phosphine after all, or maybe it doesn’t have as much as originally believed.

And the dialogue continues.  More research will come.  More responses will be published, and then there will be responses to those responses, and so forth until the scientific community reaches some sort of consensus about this Venusian phosphine business.  And even then, that scientific consensus still might not be the 100% final word on the matter.

Based on the way the popular press reports science news, you could easily get the impression that scientific papers should be treated as gospel truth.  You would be understandably confused, then, when one scientific paper comes out refuting the findings of another.  Subsequently, you may come to the conclusion (as a great many people apparently have) that science must not know anything at all.  Science just keeps contradicting itself, it seems.

But scientific papers are not meant to be taken as gospel truth.  They’re part of an ongoing back-and-forth dialogue.  So the next time you hear about some new scientific discovery on the news, remember that scientific papers are not intended to be bold proclamations of fact.  And when you hear about some new paper refuting older research, you’ll understand what’s going on.

Sharing Some Science Love

Hello, friends!

You know, spending time on the Internet can be a truly disheartening experience.  But there are good things on the Internet too.  For me, I love finding and interacting with other people who share my enthusiasm for science (and also science fiction).  So today, I’d like to spread some of that science love around.  Here are a few of my favorite science or science related posts that I’ve seen in the last week or so:

First up, Fran from My Hubble Abode has a great post about the history of the Crab Nebula.  I’ve found that the best way to learn about science is to learn about the history of science: to learn the stories about how we figured all this science stuff out.  Turns out the Crab Nebula played a much bigger role in the history of science than I thought.  Click here to learn more!

Next, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of stamp collector.  Well, Stamp of the Day recently shared a neat stamp from Germany commemorating Weltraumlabor (Spacelab), which was a joint project between NASA and the ESA back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Click here to check it out!

And Twinspiration has a cool post called “6 Space Activities for Children.”  I think some of these activities could be fun for adults too, especially if you’re stuck at home in these COVID-ful times.  Anyway, if you’re looking for fun ways to teach your kids (or yourself) about space, click here!

Lastly, on a more serious note, speculative fiction author Del Sandeen recently wrote a thought provoking article for Uncanny Magazine about the Black Lives Matter and Black Voices Matter movements.  For anyone who wants to see more representation and more diversity in science fiction and fantasy, this article is well worth a read.  Click here!

If you enjoy any of these articles/blog posts, please be sure to leave a comment letting the author know.  And if you have some science you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Until next time, keep it sciency, my friends!

Alchemy: A Blemish on Isaac Newton’s Reputation

I’ve been thinking a lot about Isaac Newton lately. That’s because of this article from the Washington Post, which fellow writer and all around awesome person Jennifer Shelby recently shared on her blog.  The article wasn’t actually about Newton.  It was about alchemy.

The thing is, Newton happened to be a famous and highly accomplished alchemist (no, that’s the wrong way to say it).

The thing is, Newton happened to be a secret but highly skilled alchemist (no, that’s not quite right either).

The thing is, Newton tried really, really hard to be an alchemist.  That’s right. Newton was searching for the magical philosopher’s stone many centuries before Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter came along.  Obviously Newton never found it… unless there are more of Newton’s waste books out there that have yet to be uncovered and decoded (feel free to use that as a writing prompt, if you like).

Newton is famous for many things.  He used prisms to figure out how light works, and he was half right when he asserted that light is composed of tiny particles rather than waves.  Newton applied math to the mysteries of gravitation, and he showed that moons and falling apples have something important in common.  He also invented calculus (unless he stole the idea from someone else).

This alchemy stuff is generally seen as a blemish on Newton’s reputation as a scientist.  But the way I see it, the fact that Newton tried his hand at alchemy—along with many, many other things that never panned out for him—is one of the reasons Newton was such an admirable human being.

He tried stuff.  All sorts of stuff.  Anything and everything that caught his interest.  Most of it turned out to be a waste of his time, but a handful of Newton’s curious ideas led him to the scientific breakthroughs that made his reputation and his career, and ultimately secured his legacy as a great scientist.

So at the risk of repeating myself from Monday’s post, the lesson for today is: go try stuff.  Find out what doesn’t work, and figure out what does, and then… well, see where your discoveries might lead you.

P.S.: And speaking of Harry Potter, stay tuned for a special Harry Potter themed episode of Sciency Words this coming Friday!

Where Science Meets Fiction

We like to keep things separate.  We like to separate church and state, fantasy and reality, the left brain and the right.  But Science Fiction is a special case.  It’s one of the rare places where we allow two seemingly different subjects to mingle: science and art.

We live in a society where science is becoming increasingly important.  We know about atoms.  We talk about our genes.  We worry about germs and energy and the environment.  These are parts of our everyday world where, only a century ago, they were strange, alien concepts only an educated minority understood.

It’s only a matter of time before we add things like space travel or artificial intelligence to that list of everyday experiences.  There’s increasing evidence of bacterial life on Mars, and scientists are starting to suspect life may exist on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  We may soon learn that we are not alone in the Solar System, and that will cause a huge change in the way we think about ourselves.

Science Fiction has turned scientific language into a form of artistic expression.  It gives voice to our hopes and fears for tomorrow.  This is only natural given how much science has penetrated our daily lives.  Art is, after all, a reflection of the culture we live in.

Ultimately, that is what this blog is about: science and art blending together.  The line that separates them is slowly disappearing, and in the future what we call Science Fiction won’t be Science Fiction anymore; it will just be fiction.