Sciency Words: Squiddish

August 29, 2014

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


As researchers continue to study squiddish, the language of squid, they are running into an interesting linguistic problem. The problem isn’t with squiddish. It’s with humanese.   We humans don’t have the proper terminology to describe the complex behavior squid use to communicate.


Last week, we talked about chromatophores, the special cells that allow squid to change colors. Squiddish consists of rapid combinations of color patterns and body postures. The 2003 scientific paper “Squid Say It with Skin” attempts to document squid language and suggests terms to describe the “words” or “phrases” of squid speech. Examples include:

  • Full V: a body posture where the squid extends its tentacles in a V-shape.
  • Plaid: a pattern of stripes and bars across the body.
  • Zebra: a pattern of zebra-like stripes which seems to express antagonism. I’m guessing giving a squid the zebra is a little like giving a human the finger.

My favorite is “double signaling”: the simultaneous display two different color patterns, one on each side of the body. In other words, a squid can say one thing to its buddy on the left while saying something completely different to its friend on the right.   This skill will surely come in handy once squid develop a concept of politics.

Our lack of proper terminology is a problem we humans will continue to struggle with as we learn more about nature and our universe. Scientists will just have to keep inventing new words, which means we’ll always have something to talk about here on Sciency Words.

Do You Watch Educational Television?

August 26, 2014

I don’t think television makes people stupid. It seems to me that the more people watch television, the stupider the television becomes. I hate to sound like a cranky, old man complaining about the way things are these days, but T.V. just isn’t as good as it used to be.


Self Aware Paterns recently did an interesting blog post about the Science Channel. The quality of educational television has dropped, with only a few niche channels (like the Science Channel) holding out. And even in that case, the Science Channel might be starting to slip.

I can’t really say whether I agree or disagree with Self Aware Patterns’ assessment of the Science Channel. I canceled my cable subscription several years ago, right around the time when the Discovery Channel was starting to lose my interest.

When I want to learn something about science—or any other topic—I turn to other resources than television. Such as:

Meanwhile, it seems educational television continues to try to increase its viewership by dumbing down its programming: a trend that may apply to television in general.

So what resources do you use when you want to learn something? Are there any educational T.V. shows right now that are worth watching?

Sciency Words: Chromatophore

August 22, 2014

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


Chromatophores are special cells in the skin of some animals, most notably the squid and the chameleon. These cells contain pigments. When stimulated by hormones, muscle contractions, or other mechanisms, chromatophores expand or contract, changing the animal’s skin color.

There are several different kinds of chromatophore, depending on their hue:

  • Erythrophores contain red pigment.
  • Xanthophores contain yellow.
  • Cyanophores contain blue.

As I’m sure you can guess, different combinations of cells can produce almost any color of the rainbow. Other chromatophores contain shades of black or white or can make the color look shinier.

Most animals use chromatophores for camouflage, but some species of squid may actually use rapidly changing colors as a form of communication. I’d guess their language consists of little more than phrases like “Danger!” “Food this way!” and “Wanna hook up?” Which are, to be honest, the only things worth saying anyway.

What we learn about chromatophores could be useful for helping us understand extra terrestrial life. It could also help us Sci-Fi aficionados design our own alien species. It’s important to remember that verbal language isn’t the only possible form of communication—not even here on Earth.

P.S.: If you’ve got a good idea for a new and interesting alien species—perhaps a species with an unusual method of communication—click here to submit it to the Alien August competition at Sci Fi Ideas. It’s all aliens all month long, with some truly wild and wonderful creatures making their debut appearances on the Internet.

Can Scientism Be a Good Thing?

August 20, 2014

Scientism means science is awesome and everything else sucks. Religion sucks. Art and philosophy suck. History sucks, or at least it did until we started applying scientific methods to historical research. When I began searching for a definition of scientism, that’s the overall impression I got… at first.

Chemistry 2As I continued to read more about scientism, I found I agreed with some points. Scientific knowledge is often more reliable than other kinds of knowledge, and applying scientific methodology to other fields (like history) can improve those fields.

As a writer, I’ve improved my writing by studying the science of linguistics. In a way, I’ve also used the scientific method to hone my writing technique, testing the hypotheses I encounter as “writing advice” and evaluating the results by surveying beta readers. Does that mean I’m a scientismist?


Scientismists (the awkward but apparently correct term for adherents of scientism) are quite a diverse bunch. Maybe we should think of scientism the way we think of the political terms conservatism and liberalism. Physics 1There’s a wide spectrum of beliefs contained within one -ism, ranging from moderate to radical.

I’d call myself a moderate scientismist (emphasis on moderate). I don’t think science is the answer to everything. Some things are forever beyond science’s grasp. But I do think science is special and that scientific knowledge—when collected by diligent and skeptical scientists—trumps other belief systems.


Thanks to linguistic science, I know defining a new word is a tricky prospect. Two of my favorite blogs recently did posts on scientism, so please check out the links below to get a broader perspective on this idea. Also, click here for last week’s edition of Sciency Words, which focused on scientism.

And remember, keep it sciency, my friends!

Sciency Words: Scientism

August 15, 2014

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


Words in the English language can mean different things to different people. Relying too much on dictionary definitions can lead you astray.

Consider the word dog. I had a dog when I was a kid: a yappy, little Pomeranian with black fur and a white belly. That’s my first mental image whenever I hear the word dog, and my brain extrapolates all other dogs from that starting point. For you, your prototypical dog probably looks different.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the word scientism and try to dissect all the subtle shades of meaning contained therein. On the surface, the term seems simple enough. Scientism is the belief in the profound importance of science. But after spending some time browsing the Internet, I’ve found it can also mean:

  • Advocacy of science education or funding of scientific research.
  • The belief that taking a scientific approach to other fields of study (history, politics, etc) can improve those fields.
  • The belief that science is the best or only source of truth.
  • The belief that the only true knowledge is quantified knowledge (i.e. things we can measure). This can be extended to mean that if we can’t measure something, it must not exist.
  • The improper use of science, either by making broad claims based upon limited empirical evidence or by misapplying scientific knowledge to unrelated topics.

Whether you approve or disapprove of scientism depends entirely on how you define it. I think most of us would agree that science deserves a special place in our society, just so long as its importance is not overstated or misunderstood.

P.S.: A special thanks to Michelle Joelle for introducing me to this term. Please check out her blog, Stories & Soliloquies, by clicking here.

Sciency Words: Sciential

August 8, 2014

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


We all know that language changes over time. New words are invented. Old ones die out. For example, a few hundred years ago the adjective form of science was not scientific… it was sciential.

Think of all the things that would be different if the language hadn’t changed.

  • We’d have the sciential method instead of the scientific method.
  • Experts would quarrel over sciential evidence.
  • You could get a subscription to Sciential American

Why did the word change? Who knows? According to the Free Dictionary, the word scientific came into vogue during the 1580’s. The word sciential predated it by over a century.

Of course, if our adjective form of the word science already changed once, it could change again. I for one am looking forward to the “sciency method.”

IWSG: What I Learned on My Blogging Holiday

August 6, 2014

InsecureWritersSupportGroupToday’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh. It’s a way for insecure writers like myself give each other advice and encouragement. Click here to see a full list of participating blogs.

* * *

Most of the writing rules you hear aren’t true. Don’t edit anything until you’ve completed your first draft. Always avoid the passive voice, the verb to be, and adverbs. If you can’t write X number of words each day (even on Christmas), you shouldn’t call yourself a writer.

All of that is absolute rubbish. Granted, some of it has a kernel of truth, but people take these rules too far, preaching them as Writing Commandments, eternal and inviolable. They forget that real writers need to be flexible and that what works for some people might not work for everyone.


I know all this, yet there is one piece of advice I have clung to for far too long: you must post something on your blog at least once a week (preferably twice). Otherwise, your readers will lose interest and go away. Forever.

I guess my stats have probably dropped since I took my three week blogging break, but that’s a sacrifice I had to make. In the last year, I’ve been writing some of the best material in my whole life, but I could not remember why I was doing this in the first place.

I mean that literally. I literally could not remember why I’d decided to be a writer, though I felt pretty sure I had a good and noble reason for it when I started. I’d become obsessed with stats and schedules and getting likes and comments and hopefully someday earning an income as a writer… but I couldn’t remember the point of writing.

So I stopped.


I spent some time away from writing. I did a little traveling (San Francisco is gorgeous). I reconnected with some of my favorite books (don’t give up, Frodo!). Sooner than I expected, I got excited about writing again, and then there was no stopping me. I’d found my reason for writing. I’d remembered. That reason is a little too personal to share on the Internet, but trust me: it’s a good one. And now I’ve created a little reminder for myself just in case I ever forget again.

Going forward, I still believe it’s important to post something at least once a week (preferably twice), but that rule now comes with a caveat: take a blogging break every once in awhile, keep in touch with your reason for writing, and don’t ever take your stats too seriously.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 109 other followers