Sciency Words: Carcinization

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a regular series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today, we’re talking about:


In time, we will all evolve into crabs.  Crabs are the ultimate life form, evolutionarily speaking.  At least that’s what certain Internet memes would have you believe.  But like most Internet memes, this whole “we will all become crabs” idea is an oversimplification of the truth.  Carcinization is a surprisingly common evolutionary process, but it doesn’t happen to all animals in all situations.

Definition of Carcinization: In evolutionary biology, carcinization is the process of evolving a crab-like body structure, especially a crab-like carapace (shell) with the pleon (tail) folded underneath the belly.  A surprising number of animals have evolved to have this body structure independently of one another.

Etymology of Carcinization: The term was coined in 1916 by English zoologist Lancelot Alexander Barradaile.  It uses a Greek root word meaning “crab.”  Although the term carcinization was coined in 1916, scientists had noticed the unusual prevalence of crab-like animals well before that.  Research on this phenomenon can be traced back to the mid-to-late 1800’s.

Carcinization seems to happen a lot in nature, but it does not happen to all animals equally.  It is far, far, far more likely to happen to an animal that already has a few crab-like characteristics.  For example, if you’re a lobster, a shrimp, or a prawn—in other words, if you’ve already got a bunch of legs and a pair of claws, and if you’re already living on the ocean floor—then there may be some real benefits to evolving even more crab-like characteristics.

It’s hypothesized that the compact body shape of a crab (compared to the more elongated shape of a lobster, for example) may make it easier to defend yourself against predators.  A lobster’s pleon (tail) is very exposed; crabs have their pleons neatly tucked beneath their bellies.  The compact body shape of a crab may also make it easier to scuttle about on the ocean floor, which could help crabs evade predators, and crabs may find it easier to fit into tight spaces as a way to hide from predators.

As a science fiction writer, I’ve long wanted to include some crab-like extraterrestrials in my Sci-Fi stories.  All those memes about crabs being the “ultimate life form” led me to believe this would be a good idea.  The actual science behind carcinization makes me think otherwise.  Carcinization certainly happens a lot with certain animals (i.e., crustaceans) living in certain environments (i.e., the ocean floor).  But it’s not a universal principle of evolution.

All that being said, I’m going to put some crab-like extraterrestrials in a story anyway, because I still think it’s still a fun idea.


Here are the research papers I have read or am in the process of reading on the topic of carcinization.  I will have more to say about carcinization later this week.

Sciency Words: Spiritual Bypassing

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms, in order to expand our scientific vocabularies together!  In today’s Sciency Words post, we’re talking about:


I am, first and foremost, a science fiction writer.  That’s why most of the research I share on this blog is so heavily focused on outer space: because most of the stories I write are set in outer space.  But I do a fair amount of psychology research, too, because that helps me write more believable characters.

And right now, I am working on a character who has some personal problems.  He’s experiencing a “crisis of faith,” some might say, but in psychology terms, it may be more accurate to say he’s suffering from spiritual bypassing.

Definition of Spiritual Bypassing: Using spirituality to avoid dealing with your problems, rather than using spirituality to help you cope with your problems or overcome them.

Etymology of Spiritual Bypassing: The term was coined in the 1980’s by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Woodward to describe a pattern of behavior he had observed regularly in his line of work.

I’m so spiritual that I don’t have any faults.  I’m so spiritual that I don’t have any weaknesses.  I’m so spiritual that I don’t need to “work on myself.”  I certainly don’t need to see a therapist.  All my pain and all my problems magically go away, by the grace of God or the Buddha or (insert the name of your favorite Higher Power here).  Any trauma in my past?  Through prayer and/or meditation, I’ve transcended that traumatic experience.  It no longer affects me.  I’m too spiritual to have P.T.S.D., depression, anxiety, or anything like that.

That attitude… that is spiritual bypassing.  It’s avoidance behavior.  It’s not about letting religious or spiritual practices help you grow or change; it’s about using religion and spirituality as an excuse to stay the same.  This may be an effective short term coping mechanism for some, but in the long run your problems (whatever they are, wherever they’re coming from) will catch up with you.

In real life, the line between healthy and unhealthy spirituality is not always so clear cut.  I suspect some people may see spiritual exercises and rituals as a quick fix for whatever emotional issues they may be struggling with.  But even people who live happy, long-term spiritual lives may, from time to time, fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing.  As John Woodward (the man who originally coined this term) described it, spiritual bypassing can be an “occupational hazard” for people who follow the spiritual path.

That is certainly the case for a certain character I’m working on—a person who, in the distant future, becomes an accidental and initially reluctant religious leader.

These are the articles and papers I read while researching this blog post:

Sciency Words: Volatility

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms and expand our scientific vocabularies together!  In today’s Sciency Words post, we’re talking about:


Wow, it’s been a while since I did a Sciency Words post.  I’ve really missed writing these things.  Once I decided I was ready to bring this series back to life, I knew right away that volatility was the first word I wanted to cover.  I cannot think of any scientific term that is more frequently misused and misunderstood.

Definition of Volatility: In chemistry, volatility refers to the tendency of a chemical substance to switch from a liquid or solid state to a gaseous state.  The faster a chemical will evaporate or sublimate under ordinary environmental conditions, the more volatile that chemical is said to be.  As examples, alcohol is a highly volatile liquid, and dry ice is a highly volatile solid.

Etymology of Volatility: Words like volatile, volatility, and volatilize trace back to a Latin word meaning “to fly away.”  So you could think of it this way: the individual atoms or molecules of a volatile chemical substance are prone to “flying away” as gas.

Rather strangely for a scientific term, there is no precise mathematical definition or formula for volatility.  It’s not something you can measure, per se, but vapor pressure and boiling points are closely related concepts.  You can measure those things.  If a chemical has a high vapor pressure and/or a low boiling point, you can safely call it a volatile chemical.

As a science fiction writer who does a lot of research about science, I come across the words volatile and volatility a lot.  Most science articles—even articles written for a general audience—do not spell out what these words mean in the context of chemistry.  This can lead to some confusion.

A volatile chemical is not necessarily a dangerous chemical.  In some cases, a chemical that is volatile might also be toxic, corrosive, flammable, or explosive—or it might not.  To say a chemical substance is “volatile” or “highly volatile” simply means that chemical is prone to evaporating or sublimating under fairly ordinary environmental conditions.  That’s all.

Click here for a short article from Chemicool Dictionary titled “Definition of Volatile.”
Or click here for a video from eHow titled “Volatile vs. Non-Volatile in Chemistry.”