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January 9, 2017

Regular readers may have noticed I missed Friday’s Sciency Words post. You may have also noticed I skipped Molecular Monday on the first Monday of the month. And I can tell you right now that I’ll be skipping a lot more of my regularly scheduled blogging days in the near future.

I did post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group last Wednesday, and in my IWSG post I mentioned that I have a top-secret master plan for 2017. And that secret plan requires me to [TEXT REDACTED] and also [TEXT REDACTED].

Okay, it’s a secret plan. I guess I can’t say much, but you can probably guess that I’m doing something with the Tomorrow News Network series. You may also see some changes coming to Planet Pailly, such as [TEXT REDACTED].

Dang it, text redactor! They’re going to see those changes soon anyway. Can’t I tell them anything? [TELL THEM YOU’LL BE BACK ON FEBRUARY 15TH.]

Regularly scheduled blogging will resume on February 15, 2017, for both Planet Pailly and Tomorrow News Network. Until then, I’ll do my best to keep you appraised of my progress, without violating the terms of my top-secret master plan.

P.S.: By some weird cosmic coincidence, February 15 happens to be Galileo Galilei’s birthday. Seems like an appropriate day for a new space adventure to begin.


IWSG: I Jinxed Myself

January 4, 2017

I’m not a superstitious person, so I don’t believe in jinxes. My muse, on the other hand, feels differently.

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In last month’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group post, I shared some statistics about my weekly word counts. I didn’t mean to brag, but the numbers were rather high for the past few years, and I was excited because they’d jumped even higher in 2016.

And then my writing productivity plummeted for the rest of December. Yes, part of that can be blamed on the holiday season. And part of it was because I caught a nasty cold. But there’s no denying that I got overconfident after reviewing my own writing records, and that led me astray. Does that mean I jinxed myself? I guess, in a way, it does.

Now I have a lot of catching up to do. January is going to be a busy month. My whole top-secret master plan for 2017 is in jeopardy. I’d tell you more about what I need to do, but… it’s a top-secret plan.

So long as I can get my weekly word counts back up to their pre-December levels, I think I’ll be okay. In fact, I’m confident that I can beat those pre-December numbers and really get my master plan back on track!

Hopefully I didn’t just jinx myself again. Wish me luck!

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Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement. Click here to find out more about IWSG and see a list of participating blogs.


Sciency Words: Ecotype

December 30, 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 expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

ECOTYPE

Let’s say you discover two groups of antelope. Both groups are the same species, but one group lives on the east side of a mountain range and the other group lives on the west side.

Again, these antelope are all the same species of antelope. But because of a geographic barrier, the two groups rarely if ever intermix or interbreed. As a result, one group has developed thicker wool than the other, or they have slightly different antler shapes, or there’s some other distinctive characteristic that one group has and the other doesn’t.

When you find distinctly different groups within the same species, the groups are called ecotypes. Typically, this sort of differentiation occurs within a species because ecotypes are living in separate ecological habitats.

I first encountered this term in a recent article in Scientific American. As a science terminology enthusiast, I find this to be an interesting kink in the ongoing debate over how to define the word “species”—but the article I read was about something even more interesting than that.

Orca Ecotypes

If we ever learn to communicate with orcas (killer whales), we should tell them about Shakespeare.

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Orca ecotypes don’t mix, even though there’s nothing stopping them. They’re genetically compatible. Their territories overlap. They encounter each other in the open ocean all the time, but apparently they don’t like to intermingle due to what Scientific America calls “cultural differences.”

We should be careful about anthropomorphizing animal behaviors. When Scientific American says orcas have “cultural differences,” they mean they have different hunting and feeding practices. And also different clicking/whistling patterns for communication.

Actually, that does sound a little bit like orcas have human-like languages, and maybe even a primitive version of human-like culture. And those linguistic and cultural barriers are enough to keep them apart. We really should tell them about Shakespeare. They’d probably understand a lot of Shakespeare’s themes.

P.S.: You may have missed it, but I was trying to make a West Side Story reference with that thing about antelope.

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Life on Mars: The Hunt for Martian Dinosaurs

December 28, 2016

Can Mars support life? Is there anything living on Mars right now? It sometimes seems like Mars is desperately trying to convince us that the answer to both questions is yes.

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If you’re hunting for alien life in the Solar System, there are four places you should pay attention to: Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Now a thought recently occurred to me—a thought that I’m sure has occurred to other people before: in an astrobiological sense, these four worlds sort of represent the past, present, and future.

  • Mars: a place where alien life might have existed and thrived in the past.
  • Europa and Enceladus: places where life may exist and thrive in the present.
  • Titan: a place where life might start to evolve and thrive sometime in the future (assuming it hasn’t started already).

Regarding Mars, there was clearly a time when rivers, lakes, and oceans of liquid water covered the Martian surface. There’s growing evidence that at least some of the organic chemicals necessary for life were also present. Therefore it’s easy to imagine a time millions or perhaps billions of years ago when Mars had a biosphere as rich and robust as prehistoric Earth’s.

Obviously that robust biosphere is gone now. Even when we hear about the possibility that life still exists on present-day Mars, it’s generally assumed that this life would be only a remnant of what came before. The microbial survivors of whatever wiped out the Martian dinosaurs, so to speak.

Someday (hopefully soon), humans will travel to Mars. When we get there, we may find that all the Martians are long dead. That might seem a bit depressing, but actually I’m kind of excited by the idea that the fossilized remains of Martian dinosaurs might be there, waiting for us to come dig them up.


Sciency Words: Frost Line

December 23, 2016

Welcome to a very special holiday edition of Sciency Words! Today’s science or science-related term is:

FROST LINE

When a new star is forming, it’s typically surrounded by a swirling cloud of dust and gas called an accretion disk. Heat radiating from the baby star plus heat trapped in the disk itself vaporizes water and other volatile chemicals, which are then swept off into space by the solar wind.

But as you move farther away from the star, the temperature of the accretion disk tends to drop. Eventually, you reach a point where it’s cold enough for water to remain in its solid ice form. This is known as the frost line (or snow line, or ice line, or frost boundary).

Of course not all volatiles freeze or vaporize at the same temperature. When necessary, science writers will specify which frost line (or lines) they’re talking about. For example, a distinction might be made between the water frost line versus the nitrogen frost line versus the methane frost line, etc. But in general, if you see the term frost line by itself without any specifiers, I think you can safely assume it’s the water frost line.

Even though our Sun’s accretion disk is long gone, the frost line still loosely marks the boundary between the warmth of the inner Solar System and the coldness of the outer Solar System. The line is smack-dab in the middle of the asteroid belt, and it’s been observed that main belt asteroids tend to be rockier or icier depending on which side of the line they’re on.

It was easier for giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn to form beyond the frost line, since they had so much more solid matter to work with. And icy objects like Europa, Titan, and Pluto—places so cold that water is basically a kind of rock—only exist as they do because they formed beyond the frost line. This has led to the old saying:

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Okay, maybe that’s not an old saying, but I really wanted this to be a holiday-themed post.


What’s Up with Juno?

December 20, 2016

It’s been awhile since we checked in with Juno, the NASA space probe currently orbiting Jupiter. So Juno, how’s the mission going?

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Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good. What happened?

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Okay, here’s a quick timeline of events:

  • On July 4, 2016, Juno entered orbit of Jupiter. The main engine worked flawlessly at the time.
  • On August 27, 2016, Juno performed its first science pass of Jupiter. All its instruments appeared to be in working order.
  • On October 19, 2016, Juno was supposed to shorten its orbital period from 53 days to 14 days, but there was a problem with the main engine. Plan B was to just do another science pass, but then there was a problem with the main computer.

According to this article from Spaceflight 101, we now know what happened with the computer, and it sounds like it’ll be a fairly easy fix. The malfunction was caused by an instrument called JIRAM. Continuing with our timeline:

  • On December 11, 2016, Juno performed another science pass, this time with JIRAM switched off. All the other science instruments seem to be in working order, and a software patch for JIRAM will be uploaded soon.
  • Coming February 2, 2017, Juno will approach Jupiter again. This will likely be another science pass, since NASA still doesn’t know what’s wrong with the main engine.

The main engine is turning out to be the real problem. According to a press release from October, some pressure valves that should have opened in a matter of seconds took several minutes to open. Until NASA figures out why that’s happening, they’re going to leave Juno’s orbit alone.

Juno can still perform its mission in its current 53-day orbit; it’ll just take longer. We’re looking at five years rather than the original year-and-a-half. That screws up the original science observation calendar, and the prolonged exposure to Jupiter’s intense magnetic field might lead to more computer glitches in the future.

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Fingers crossed.


Sciency Words: The Zero-One-Infinity Rule

December 16, 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 expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

THE ZERO-ONE-INFINITY RULE

I came across this term in Time’s special edition on Scott Kelly’s year in space, which I reviewed on Wednesday. The term was used in an article about astrobiology, but it actually originates in the field of computer science.

Zero-One-Infinity in Computer Science

The zero-one-infinity rule is sort of a rule of thumb. It’s credited to Dutch computer scientist Willem Louis Van Der Poel. According to this rule, a computer program should either never allow a certain event (zero), or it should allow it only once (one), or it should allow it an unlimited number of times (infinity).

The logic here is that it makes sense to not allow something to happen. It also might make sense to allow something to happen only once, perhaps as an exception. But programmers shouldn’t create arbitrary limits (according to this rule) on what a program can do. If you’re willing to allow something to happen twice, why not three times? Or four? Or thirty-eight? Or as many times as the user wants (computer memory space permitting)?

I don’t have a whole lot of coding experience, but the zero-one-infinity rule makes sense to me. It seems like a good rule, although I could probably think up more than one exception to the rule if I really wanted to.

Zero-One-Infinity in Astrobiology

Applying the zero-one-infinity rule to the search for alien life is, in my opinion, brilliant. How many locations in the universe can support life? There are really only three answers:

  • Life cannot exist anywhere in the universe (zero).
  • Life can exist only on Earth; Earth is a very special exception in a universe where life is otherwise not allowed (one).
  • Life can exist in an unlimited number of locations in the universe (infinity).

We already know the zero proposition is false.

There was a time (I remember it well) when many a scientist argued that Earth must be an exception: the one and only place in the universe where life could exist. Occasionally, I still hear people try to argue this.

All it would take is to find a second life-bearing world to prove the one proposition wrong (I’m looking at you, Europa). Because once we know about two living worlds, how could anyone argue that there can’t be three? Or four? Or thirty-eight? Or however many the universe feels like having?

Links

Zero-One-Infinity Rule from The Jargon File.

Willem Louis Van Der Poel from Wiki Wiki Web.