Sciency Words: Thalassocracy

April 24, 2015

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Sciency Words is a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at new and interesting scientific terms—but today, we’re making an exception. Today’s word is actually a historical term, although it may have some relevance for futuristic space-faring societies.


Thanks to the ideal rocket equation, launching yourself into space is difficult and highly expensive (and will likely stay that way barring enormous changes in science and technology). In fact, it’s so difficult and expensive that, once you’re in space, it might make more sense to just stay there.

Landing on alien planets might not be worth doing unless you plan to settle there permanently. Instead, you could wander through space, harvesting all the resources you need from asteroids and comets and perhaps smaller planetoids like the Moon.

That brings us to the world of ancient thalassocracies. Thalassocracies are empires of the sea, as opposed to traditional land empires. The word is Greek for “rule of the seas.”

Well known examples include the Phoenicians, Athenians, and Carthaginians. The British Empire might also be described as a thalassocracy, except the British controlled a lot of land in addition to most of the world’s waterways.

Traditional thalassocracies possessed enormous navies. They rarely bothered waging war on land, preferring instead to exert their military power through piracy, naval blockades, and near unrivaled dominance of maritime trade routes.

I’m guessing that space-faring societies will end up behaving more like ancient thalassocracies than modern nation-states. This might be especially true for space-faring civilizations still early in their development and still struggling with the high costs of takeoffs and landings.

So what do you think? Will futuristic space empires act like thalassocracies, or is there some other historical model that might make more sense?

Earth Day and the Value of Planetary Science

April 22, 2015

What a fun coincidence that Earth day happens to fall in the middle of Earth month here on Planet Pailly! I thought we’d take a moment to see how some of the other planets in the Solar System have helped us better understand and appreciate the planet we call home.

Ap10 Earth Day


NASA’s original mission statement included the words “to understand and protect the home planet.” One of the best ways to learn about Earth is to compare and contrast it with its neighbors. We’re just beginning to locate Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, which will no doubt teach us even more.

And that is one of the big reasons why it’s worth celebrating planetary science on Earth Day.

Molecular Monday: Oxidation, Part Two

April 20, 2015

Molecular Monday is a special series here on Planet Pailly about the atoms and molecules that make up our universe, both in reality and in science fiction. Today, we’re continuing our investigation of oxidation-reduction reactions by taking a closer look at:


Most of us will remember from school that when atoms join together as molecules, they share each other’s electrons.

Ap09 Sharing 1

However, atoms don’t always share their electrons equally.

Ap09 Sharing 2

Chemists assign oxidation states to atoms within molecules to represent how many electrons each atom has effectively gained or lost in this unequal sharing.

An atom with an oxidation state of -1 has effectively gained one electron. An atom with an oxidation state of +2 has effectively lost two electrons. (Yes, positive numbers mean losing electrons and negative numbers mean gaining them. This is the convention we’re stuck with, even though it might make more sense the other way around.)

There’s a list of rules to guide you through the process of figuring out the oxidation states of each atom within a molecule. I’m not going to go through those rules here because a) it’s a rather long list and b) if you really want to see it, you can find it easily enough with a Google search.

Studying the rules for oxidation states reminds me of trying to memorize all the rules for comma usage in English grammar. On the surface, the rules seem simple enough, but then there are exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions, and obscure situations that you’re told you’ll probably never encounter, but if you do enough writing and/or chemistry, I guarantee you’ll encounter those obscure situations eventually.

So oxidation states end up being somewhat messy and complicated, which reflects the rather messy and complicated reality of atoms. I remember getting frustrated in high school chemistry class because chemical reactions (especially oxidation/reduction reactions) never seemed to jive with my preconceived notions about atoms and molecules. But that’s an important truth about science: nature does what it wants and doesn’t care what you or I think about it.

I’m planning one more post on oxidation-reduction reactions. You can expect to see that two weeks from today. Then we’ll be moving on to some of the other chemical reactions that I found so frustrating in school.

Sciency Words: Ideal Rocket Equation

April 17, 2015

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:


April is Earth month here on Planet Pailly, but after two weeks of blogging about the planet Earth, I’m ready to move on.

Ap08 Earth's Pull

Unfortunately, escaping Earth’s gravity is far easier said than done. The high, high cost of getting to space can be quantified using something called the ideal rocket equation (also known as Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation or simply the rocket equation).

The equation is as follows:

∆v = vln(m0/m1)

Delta-v (∆v) represents the total change in velocity you’re aiming to achieve in any rocket-propelled maneuver, including liftoff. In order to reach low Earth orbit from the ground, your delta-v must equal at least 9.4 kilometers per second. To get that value, you’ll need to adjust the other variables in the equation.

  • Initial mass (m0): The total mass of your spacecraft plus the mass of your fuel and fuel tanks.
  • Final mass (m1): The total mass of your rocket after the maneuver is complete.
  • Effective exhaust velocity (ve): This is basically how much thrust your rocket can produce.

Increasing your rocket’s initial mass (by adding more fuel) will help increase your delta-v. Decreasing your final mass (by not only using up fuel but also shedding empty fuel tanks as you go) will also increase your delta-v. In fact, the greater the difference between the initial and final mass, the greater your delta-v will be, according to this equation.

However, increasing the difference between initial and final mass only creates a logarithmic increase in delta-v (the “ln” part of the equation is a natural logarithm). This means that adding more and more fuel produces diminishing returns. At some point, this is no longer a cost effective way to increase your delta-v.

Your other option is to use a more energetic fuel, increasing your effective exhaust (ve). Unfortunately, modern rockets already use some of the most effective chemical fuels available. With current technologies, the only way to significantly improve the ve part of the equation is with nuclear powered rockets, which might raise a few safety concerns, to say the least.

What Does All That Mean?

Due to the rocket equation, fuel constitutes 80 to 95% of a rocket’s mass at launch. Even a tiny satellite requires absurd amounts of fuel to reach space.  This means launching anything into space is expensive (sometimes prohibitively expensive).

The problems associated with the ideal rocket equation are usually glossed over or ignored in science fiction by invoking new technologies or new laws of physics. But embracing the rocket equation and world-building within its limitations could lead to an intriguing setting for a Sci-Fi story. More on that in next week’s edition of Sciency Words.

P.S.: It’s possible that somewhere in the universe, life has evolved on a planet with even higher surface gravity than Earth’s. If so, these aliens would have an even harder time reaching space than we do. In fact, for some alien civilization out there somewhere, the rocket equation may make it effectively impossible to leave their home planet at all.


The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation by NASA astronaut Don Pettit.

Rocket Golf from What If?

Artsy Science: Make Time for Crayons

April 16, 2015

Artsy ScienceToday’s post is part of a collection of posts on the artistic side of science. Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

* * *

I don’t usually write about popular trends, but I can’t resist this one. Coloring books for adults have recently topped Amazon’s best sellers list. It’s claimed that coloring provides therapeutic benefits for highly stressed grownups, and supposedly there’s scientific evidence to support that claim.

When it comes to crayons, bigger is not always better.  Oh, who am I kidding?  Everyone loves oversized crayons!

When it comes to crayons, bigger is not always better. Oh, who am I kidding? Everyone loves oversized crayons!

I’ve traced the scientific claim to a paper in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (see links below). The paper focuses on “recovery experiences,” which are experiences that help people recover from stress (especially work-related stress), and evaluated the quality of creative activities as recovery experiences in terms of their effect on overall job performance.

You might think that the best recovery experience would be to relax and unwind. To completely disengage from the world around you. To lie back and do nothing. But that might not be the case.

According to this study, engaging in creative activities tends to result in better overall job performance than just relaxing. This is something of a paradox. Creative activities require concentration. They require the expenditure of mental resources that, logically speaking, you should conserve for work. In many cases, creative activities do not seem like “rest” in any sense of the word.

And yet, this study found that creative activities can boost your overall job performance. The authors of the paper provide several explanations for why this might be. My favorite is that having a sense of control over a work of art can help a highly stressed person regain a sense of control over other aspects of his/her life.

In the context of this study, creative activities need not be traditional art forms like painting or music. Cooking might count as a creative activity. Redecorating your office might count. Even telling jokes counts, according to the authors of this paper. Although adult coloring books are never mentioned specifically, I see no reason why they shouldn’t count as well.

Now you may be thinking all this seems fairly obvious. And it is. Try to remember that the next time you need a recovery experience and have a choice between lounging on the couch watching T.V. or grabbing some crayons and a coloring book.

So what do you do when you need a “recovery experience”?


Benefiting from Creative Activity: The Positive Relationship Between Creative Activity, Recovery Experience, and Performance-Related Outcomes from The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. You may encounter a paywall for this article, but you should at least be able to read the abstract for free.

Make Your Job Feel Less Like Work with 20% Time from Lifehacker.

Break Out Your Crayons from Stories and Soliloquies.

Good News About Climate Change

April 13, 2015

In a recent post, I suggested a story setting: a future where Earth, ravaged by a runaway greenhouse effect, has transformed into a clone of Venus. Today, I’d like to suggest an alternative: a future where Earth’s climate stabilized, more or less, thanks to the efforts of resourceful human beings.

Of these two possible futures, I think the latter is more believable. I say that partly because I’m an optimist when it comes to human nature, and given recent developments, I think my optimism may be justified.

  • The ozone layer is recovering: in the 1980’s, chlorofluorocarbons (or C.F.C.s) were banned due to their effect on the ozone layer. Now, decades later, the ozone layer is showing the first hints of recovery. Click here for more information.
  • We can have solar power at night: solar power isn’t perfect. Among its many problems is the rather obvious fact that it doesn’t work at night. But new facilities like the Solana Generating Station in Arizona can store excess heat collected from sunlight, and that heat energy can continue generating power for up to six hours after sunset.  Click here for more information.
  • Global Carbon Emissions Flatline: carbon emissions tend to drop only when the economy slumps, but in 2014, for the first time since we started tracking these things, the economy grew without the usual increase in carbon emissions. If this trend continues, maybe we can save the planet and have plenty of money in our bank accounts. Click here for more information.

The situation is far from ideal. Some of the chemicals that replaced C.F.C.s harm the environment in other ways. Solana still struggles with energy production during the winter. Projections still show the planet will warm slightly, even though we’ve curtailed our carbon emissions somewhat.

But we’re making progress. As a global community, we’re making smarter decisions about energy production. I think one of the reasons climate change is such an uncomfortable topic is that most of the time, the situation seems hopeless, but we now have a few good reasons to be optimistic.

Believing a problem can be solved is the first step toward solving it. With climate change, the problem is starting to look solvable. So maybe Earth in the distant, Sci-Fi future won’t look like another Venus after all.

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Today’s post is part of Earth month for the 2015 Mission to the Solar System. Click here for more about this series.

Sciency Words: The Oxygen Catastrophe

April 10, 2015

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:


If an extraterrestrial intelligence were to examine Earth from a distance, perhaps analyzing the spectral lines of Earth’s atmosphere, Earth might not seem like the most hospitable of planets. The atmosphere contains one of the most dangerous substances in the known universe: oxygen.

Ap05 Professor Xiggoloplod


Earth Before Oxygen

In the beginning, Earth had an atmosphere composed mainly of carbon dioxide. Life thrived in this environment until someone (I’m looking at you, cyanobacteria) discovered the secret to photosynthesis: the ability to draw energy from sunlight.

Unfortunately, photosynthesis produces oxygen as a byproduct. As the cyanobacteria population boomed, so too did the oxygen content of both the oceans and the atmosphere. This led to Earth’s first mass extinction event: the oxygen catastrophe.

That’s Too Much Oxygen!

Oxygen is a highly reactive gas. It’s so reactive that one of the most common types of chemical reactions—oxidation—is named after it. Oxygen will do just about anything to react with other substances, and it doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process.

Here are some of the ways oxygen harmed Earth’s earliest organisms:

  • Oxygen oxidized minerals in the oceans, robbing microbial life forms of vital nutrients, causing many microbes to starve to death.
  • Oxygen attacked microbes directly, essentially oxidizing them to death.
  • Oxygen sucks at trapping heat, so as atmospheric oxygen levels climbed, global temperatures plummeted. In fact, Earth may have briefly looked a little like the planet Hoth from Star Wars. End result: many microbes froze to death.

And that was the end of life on Earth, or at least it should have been.

Breath Easier Thanks to Aerobic Respiration

Aerobic respiration is a biological process that puts oxygen’s oxidizing tendencies to good use. Through aerobic respiration, glucose molecules (a.k.a. sugar) are disassembled, releasing enormous quantities of energy stored within glucose’s chemical bonds—far more energy than we could get without oxygen’s help.

During the height of the oxygen catastrophe, a handful of clever microbes figured out this aerobic respiration thing. They also developed special enzymes to protect themselves from the ravages of prolonged oxygen exposure. Atmospheric oxygen levels dropped to safer levels, the planet thawed, and a new balance was achieved between respirating and photosynthesizing organisms.

In fact, aerobic respiration has been so successful that it’s hard for us to think of oxygen as a deadly poison. Rather, it’s become a source of life. As for the cyanobacteria that started this whole mess, they’re still here, unrepentant, continuing to spew their oxygen waste all over the place.


So if an extraterrestrial intelligence were to examine Earth from a distance and notice the high oxygen content of the atmosphere, this might not be an obvious sign of life. But oxygen atmospheres don’t just happen. Something has to make them happen, and something has to maintain them over time. That should be enough to at least leave our E.T. friends scratching their heads.


Bacteriapocalypse from Damn Interesting.

Evolution of Aerobic Respiration from the Astrobiology Conference of 2010.

Evolution and Oxygen from Science Online.

How Did Early Bacteria Survive Poisonous Oxygen? from Universe Today.


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