Sciency Words: Alienist

February 12, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Not every word that gets added to the scientific lexicon stays in the scientific lexicon. We’ve previously studied the now defunct terms sciential and jiffy. So now let’s talk about alienist.

This word is not, as you may suppose, related to our modern understanding of extraterrestrial aliens, nor is it related to the “people from foreign countries” definition. At least not directly. Instead, alienist is traced back to a French word, aliéné, which is an adjective meaning insane.

Both English’s alien and French’s aliéné ultimately originate with the Latin word aliēnus, and both share a certain flavor of meaning: that of “otherness.”

In a sense, you could think of insanity as a state of the mind being “alienated” from the body. Or in a more pejorative sense, the mentally ill could be seen as being “alienated” from normal society.

So an alienist (or aliéniste in French) was a physician who treated the mentally ill, and alienism was the study of mental illness. It seems these terms remained in use until the mid-20th Century, by which point this entire field of science had rebranded itself as psychology.

Fb06 The Alien Alienist

At the beginning of today’s post, I said (or rather implied) that the word alienist has become defunct. That’s not entirely true. There’s a process called semantic narrowing whereby a word with a general meaning transforms into a word with a more specific meaning. Examples include:

  • Meat: originally meant food in general but now only means a specific kind of food.
  • Vest: originally meant clothing in general but now only describes one specific type of garment.
  • Wife: originally meant any female person but now refers only to female persons who are married.

The word alienist has undergone this process as well. Today, an alienist is a specific kind of psychologist who works in the criminal justice system. An alienist evaluates the mental competency of a defendant in a trial. (I guess you could say criminals are “alienated” from the law.)

Semantic narrowing is just one mechanism of linguistic change. In a distant Sci-Fi future, it might be interesting to see how a word like alienist continues to change and what new shades of meaning it might take on.

Where Does the Solar System End?

February 10, 2016

You may remember that the Voyager 1 spacecraft officially “left the Solar System” back in 2012, bidding us all a fond farewell.

Fb05 Voyager 1-1

Specifically, Voyager 1 crossed a boundary known as the heliopause, beyond which the solar wind no longer blows. Out there is true interstellar space, in the sense that the ionized particles Voyager encounters and samples are more likely to come from other stars or other sources than our Sun.

However, Voyager 1 has not quite left the Solar System.

Fb05 Voyager 1-2

This depends a bit on how we define our terms (as so many things do in science), but by one fairly conventional definition, anything that orbits the Sun (or, like the Moon, anything that orbits something that orbits the Sun) is part of the Solar System. So taking that into account, just how big is the Solar System, and where exactly does the Solar System end?

  • Earth: By definition, Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of 1 astronomical unit (AU). Obviously the Solar System is larger than 1 AU.
  • Neptune: As the most distant known planet, Neptune orbits the Sun at distance of roughly 30 AU. Neptune’s orbit is an important boundary line in astronomy, but it’s definitely not the end of the Solar System.
  • The Kuiper belt: The Kuiper belt, the region Pluto calls home, extends from 30 AU to about 50 AU.
  • The heliopause: Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause at about 121 AU.
  • Voyager 1: As of the writing of this post, Voyager 1 is just over 134 AU from the Sun.
  • Sednoids: By definition, sednoids come no closer to the Sun than 75 AU, but they’re free to travel much, much farther away than that. Sedna, the first known sednoid and the object for which this category of objects is named, reaches a maximum distance of about 936 AU from the Sun.
  • Planet Nine: If such a planet exists (and that’s still a pretty big if), its orbit is estimated to range somewhere between 200 and 1,200 AU from the Sun.
  • The Oort cloud: The Oort cloud has not yet been observed directly, but its existence is inferred from the orbits of long-period comets. It is believed the Oort cloud exists somewhere between 2,000 and 200,000 AU from the Sun.

By the way, Alpha Centauri is 4.35 light years away, which equals about 275,000 AU. If the Oort cloud does extend all the way out to 200,000 AU, that means our Oort cloud and Alpha Centauri’s Oort cloud might overlap (assuming Alpha Centaur has its own Oort cloud).

It would be interesting to know how two overlapping Oort clouds interact with one another and how many comets, asteroids, dwarf planets, etc have been exchanged from one cloud to the other. If only we had a space probe that could go check on that.

Fb05 Voyager 1-3

Molecular Monday: Putting the Acid in Amino Acid

February 8, 2016

Amino acids: they’re still too complicated for me. So instead, I present to you a carbonyl group.

Fb04 Carbonyl Group

A carbonyl group is composed of a single carbon atom double bonded to a single oxygen atom. The carbon still has two free bonding sites, so the carbonyl group can bond to at least one—maybe two—other chemicals.

Up next, we have a hydroxyl group.

Fb04 Hydroxyl Group

It’s a single oxygen atom bonded to a single hydrogen atom. The oxygen still has one available bonding site.

Now, let’s put the two together.

Fb04 Carboxyl Group

Let’s call this a carbonylhydroxyl group. Actually, no. Let’s not do that. Let’s cut out the middle of that word and just call it a carboxyl group, because that’s less of a mouthful. Notice, by the way, that the carbon still has one bonding site left.

Like the amines we met last Molecular Monday, carboxyl groups are free to bond with other stuff, forming larger molecules known as carboxylic acids.

Examples of carboxylic acids include acetic acid (found in vinegar), fatty acids (which I probably get too much of in my diet), and—wait for it!—amino acids!

Okay, so now that we know about carboxyl groups and amines (a.k.a. amino groups), we’re ready to start building amino acids. Right, guys?

Fb04 Amino and Carboxyl Groups

Dang it. Back to my research.

P.S.: In the process of researching today’s post, I stumbled upon a new word: zwitterion. I have no idea what a zwitterion is, but it’s now my #1 favorite word.

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Molecular Mondays. Every other Monday, I struggle valiantly to understand and explain some concept in the field of chemistry. Please note: I suck at chemistry, but I’m trying to learn. If I made a mistake, please, please, please let me know so I can get better.

Sciency Words: Detached Object

February 5, 2016

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


The defining characteristic of detached objects is that they are, in a sense, “detached” from the rest of the Solar System.

They do orbit the Sun. They are part of the Solar System, but they keep their distance. Their orbits are so far away that they have no significant gravitational interactions with the eight known planets. As far as the detached objects are concerned, there may as well be no planets in the Solar System at all.

Fb03 Confused Sednoids

Hmm… Sedna and 2012 VP113 bring up a good point. While researching last week’s edition of Sciency Words, I initially thought “sednoid” and “detached object” were synonyms. But the list of known detached objects is a bit longer than the list of known sednoids.

The definition of sednoid is clear and specific: sednoids never come closer to the Sun than 75 AU. So if an object’s perihelion (point of closest approach to the Sun) were at 74.999999999 AU, that object would be disqualified from the sednoid club.

Detached objects don’t have to live with this kind of arbitrary restriction. If they stray within about 40 AU, they run the risk of gravitationally interacting with the planets. But it is that gravitational interaction that would change a detached object into some other kind of object; not the crossing of an imaginary 40 AU line in space.

Sednoids and detached objects are so new to our knowledge of the Solar System that the terminology is still evolving. You could choose to think of sednoids and detached objects as distinctly different groups, or you could think of sednoids as a subset within the larger population of detached objects.

It’s also possible that as we learn more about the Oort cloud (the existence of which has not yet been observationally confirmed) and the Ninth Planet (the existence of which has not yet been observationally confirmed), we may abandon this terminology in favor of new names that make more sense.

So in a distant Sci-Fi future when humanity ventures out beyond the orbit of Neptune to explore these strange objects and harvest their resources, perhaps we’ll invent some new sciency words that better describe them.

IWSG: Do You Believe in Muses?

February 3, 2016

Some people may think this is silly. Normal people (or “norms” as we often call them) don’t get it. Even other writers don’t always understand. Not everyone believes in muses.

But for me, muses are very real. They’re magical beings. They’re annoying beings. They’re ungodly frustrating sometimes. For example, my muse does this to me…

Fb02 Muse Amnesia

… all the freaking time!

So do you believe in muses? Is your muse as difficult to work with as mine?

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Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a bloghop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by Allison Gammons, Tamara Narayan, Eva E. Solar, Rachel Pattison, and Ann V. Friend. Click here to find out more about this amazing group and see a full list of participating blogs.


I Spy with Hubble’s Eye…

February 1, 2016

Fun fact: the Hubble Space Telescope has observed and photographed every planet in the Solar System except Mercury. Mercury’s just too close to the Sun. I’m sure you know what a magnifying glass can do to ants, so imagine what would happen if we pointed Hubble—with all its oversized lenses and mirrors—in a sunward direction.

So does that mean Hubble has photographed Earth? The answer is yes, sort of.

Fb01 Earth Picture Day

A Hubble image of Earth would not look like this. Hubble orbits at a distance of only 550 kilometers (340 miles). That’s too close, so the image would look more like this.

Fb01 Earth Awkward Close Up

No, that’s still not close enough. Also, Hubble is moving at a velocity of over 25,000 kilometers per hour (16,000 miles per hour). So our snapshot of Earth turns out something like this.

Fb01 Earth Blur

But that doesn’t stop Hubble from snapping blurry photos of Earth anyway. Believe it or not, they’re useful to scientists. As the always brilliant Phil Plait explains (click here), the Hubble team uses these pictures, called flat-field images, to test and calibrate Hubble’s cameras.

Sciency Words: Sednoid

January 29, 2016

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


There are currently only two known sednoids. The first is Sedna (from which the word sednoid is derived). The other is named 2012 VP113 (or “Veep,” as I like to call it).

A possible third sednoid was discovered in late 2015. It has the fun, easy-to-remember name V774104. It may take a while for astronomers to determine V774104’s orbital path. It will take a bit longer for them to think up better names.

There’s a lot of ongoing debate over what exactly these two (or three) objects are. They might be former Kuiper belt objects, or they might be part of the Oort cloud, or they may even be objects captured from other star systems.

For our purposes, the defining characteristic of sednoids is that they keep their distance from the rest of the Solar System, coming no closer to the Sun than 75 AU. For the sake of comparison, Neptune orbits the Sun at a distance of approximately 30 AU, and the Kuiper belt terminates at a distance of about 50 AU.

This means sednoids are so distant that they don’t have any significant gravitational interactions with the eight known planets. As far as Sedna and Veep are aware, there may as well be no planets in the Solar System at all.

Ja10 Sednoid Secrets

Okay, the orbits of both Sedna and Veep are a little too strange. They’re too eccentric. Way too eccentric.

At perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), Veep is approximately 80 AU away; at aphelion (farthest distance from the Sun), Veep is over 400 AU away. Sedna’s orbit is even crazier, with perihelion at 75 AU and aphelion at a distance of over 900 AU!

It’s hard to believe the sednoids ended up in these bizarre orbits on their own, so they must have had gravitational interactions with something. If the eight known planets couldn’t have influenced the sednoids, does that mean there’s another planet out there? Could the elusive and controversial Planet X be responsible for these weird orbits?

Assuming Planet X exists at all.

P.S.: I’ve been highly skeptical of the whole Planet X thing, or as it is now being called the Ninth Planet hypothesis. However, after yesterday’s post on the clustering of scattered disk objects and today’s post on sednoids, I have to admit that something odd seems to be going on beyond Neptune’s orbit.


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