IWSG: My Secret Weapon

May 4, 2016

We writers are a diverse lot. We approach writing with different goals and objectives. We have different styles. We use different tools. Some of us have secret weapons. Today, I’m going to share my secret weapon with all of you.

My02 You Fool

But first: April was a pretty good month for me. I did a totally awesome interview with Sue Archer at Doorway Between Worlds. We touched on a number of things, but mostly we talked about sciency research.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. Like the proverbial frog who doesn’t realize the water around him is gradually coming to a boil, I never realized how much research has come to permeate every aspect of my writing life. I’ve become a research-oriented type of writer.

And this is where my secret weapon enters the story. It’s called Google Scholar. A few of you may be nodding your heads, but I’m guessing more of you have never heard of this particular resource before. For a long time, I didn’t know about it; now, I can’t imagine life without it.

Google Scholar is basically Google with a twist. Rather than searching the entire Internet—including all the political rants, conspiracy theories, and “simple tricks” for weight loss that make the Internet such a special place—Google Scholar zeroes in on academic publications and academic publications alone.

That’s not to say Google Scholar is flawless. It’s only as good as the publications it searches, and not all academic journals are created equal. Even the best peer-reviewed journals make errors.

But if you’re a research-oriented writer—like I apparently have become—this is a resource that can really help you find the kind of reputable sources of information you need.

So there you have it. I’ve revealed my secret weapon. Well, one of them.

My02 Operation Sassafras

So fellow writers, now it’s your turn. What’s your secret weapon?

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Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a bloghop where insecure writers like myself can share our anxieties, offer advice and encouragement, and sometimes give out tips to help us all get better at this writing thing.

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group is hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by Stephen Tremp, Fundy Blue, M.J. Fifield, Loni Townsend, Bish Denham, Susan Gourley, and Stephanie Faris. Click here to sign up and to see a full list of participating blogs.

New Mission Statement

May 2, 2016

After my recent interview on Doorway Between Worlds, I realized the mission statement on my blog is seriously out of date. It was mostly about the 2015 Mission to the Solar System, which is over now. It’s been over since, like, December of 2015.

So today, I’m proud to introduce my brand new mission statement for 2016 and beyond!

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Space… the final frontier. These are the research voyages of science fiction writer J.S. Pailly.

His mission: to learn about planets and stars. To learn about spaceships and alien life. To NOT just make stuff up but to study real life science.

To research physics, chemistry, astronomy, astrobiology (yes, astrobiology is a real science)… and to take all that research and use it to write really cool science fiction stories.

My00 Astro-James

Why am I doing this? Because real life science is far stranger and more exciting than anything I could have possibly imagined.

My00 Boldly Going

And to boldly go where no science fiction writer has gone before!

Sciency Words: Panspermia

April 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 term is:


What if bacteria have their own space program? What if microorganisms can travel from planet to planet all by themselves?

Ap13 Panspermia Adventures Part 1

Admittedly, this bacterial space program is a poor man’s way to explore the universe. Single-celled astronauts don’t know when they’ll be launched into space, nor can they predict where they’ll be going. There are no rocket ships. There’s no mission control.

And if you think a lot of human astronauts have died in the name of space exploration, the fatality rate for bacterial astronauts is way, way higher.

Ap13 Panspermia Adventures Part 2

Panspermia comes from the Greek words for “all” and “seeds.” It can be loosely translated as “seeds in all places” or “seeds everywhere.” As a scientific concept, panspermia hypothesizes that microorganisms can hop from one world to another via asteroid impacts.

There’s very little proof for panspermia, but scientists have gathered plenty of circumstantial evidence.

  • Many asteroids (especially C-type asteroids) contain water and amino acids. It’s not much, but very simple organisms might be able to eek out an existence there.
  • Life didn’t appear on Earth until after an event known as the late heavy bombardment, when loads of asteroids pummeled our planet. Mars and Venus, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn… they all got pummeled too. Life could have been seeded across the whole Solar System at that time.
  • The earliest fossilized microbes on Earth appear to have already developed a certain degree of complexity. Maybe they evolved this complexity before coming to Earth.
  • Tardigrades have become famous for their ability to survive in space, but a surprising number of other microorganisms can survive in space too. Some apparently grow better up there than they do here. Why are these life forms are so well adapted to space? Maybe it’s because they’re from space.
  • Plenty of meteorites found here on Earth originate from other places in the Solar System, and there’s good reason to suspect that Earth rocks have made it to other planets too. Any of these rocks could have had microscopic passengers aboard.

So how seriously should we take the panspermia hypothesis? Even if we accept the possibility that bacteria could travel between worlds, that doesn’t mean they do or that such things are common occurrences.

But as a science fiction writer who’s in the middle of world-building for a new story, I think panspermia is a great place to start. If I decide panspermia is true, I can have a universe where life is everywhere—and perhaps where all life is genetically similar in some respects. If I decide panspermia is false (within my fictional reality), I’ll have a universe where life is rare, separated by strange and wildly dissimilar genetic structures.

Both options offer intriguing storytelling opportunities. Which to choose? Which to choose….


Panspermia: A Promising Field of Research from the 2010 Astrobiology Science Conference.

Tiny Animals Survive Exposure to Space from ESA.

Bacteria in Space! from Scientific American.

The Continuing Controversy of the Mars Meteorite from Astrobiology Magazine.

Earth and Mars Could Share a Life History from Mars Daily.

Mars vs. the Moon: Where Do You Want to Go?

April 27, 2016

Okay, fellow humans. Where should we go next? Should we return to the Moon or push onward to Mars?

Ap12 Mars vs the Moon

It would be nice if we could do both, but space exploration is expensive. So at least in the near future, we as a species will probably have to choose.

If you pay any attention to NASA’s public relations, you know the United States is aimed for Mars. Almost every new piece of NASA tech is billed as Mars-ready or Mars-capable. Almost every experiment, including Scott Kelly’s Year in Space mission, is somehow Mars related. NASA has produced tons of videos, posters, and infographics, and they’ve made #JourneytoMars a thing on Twitter.

But an actual Mars landing is still at least twenty years away. A lot could happen in twenty years, politically and economically speaking. Regarding the politics of space exploration, international partnerships play a key role. Big, expensive projects become a lot more feasible when costs are divvied up among multiple countries.

Right now, the European Space Agency (ESA) is mulling over the idea of establishing a permanent outpost on the Moon. This moon base, or “moon village” as it’s sometimes called, would be the successor to the International Space Station.

If ESA does get their moon village started, no doubt the Russians and the Japanese will want to be part of it. And so will the U.S. But where will that leave NASA’s #JourneytoMars ambitions?

Personally, I’d really like human beings to finally set foot on Mars, preferably in my lifetime. But ESA’s moon base proposal seems more achievable in the near-term. In a way, it does feel like a logical next step after the International Space Station. But that’s just my opinion.

So what do you think? Were do you, fellow humans, want to go next: back to the Moon or onward to Mars?

Molecular Monday: Delocalized Electrons

April 25, 2016

I have repeatedly complained about how much I hate chemistry. But that’s changing. The more I learn about atoms and molecules, the more I learn about how they interact with each other, the more they blow my mind. It’s hard to hate a subject that is so consistently mind-blowing.

Recently, my mind was blown by something called electron delocalization (or electron resonance, if you prefer old school chemistry lingo). Basically, this is a fancy term for what happens inside a molecule when electrons go wild.

Ap11 Quantum Party

So within a molecule, there are certain positions that each atom is supposed to take, and they’re supposed to stay put (more or less). But electrons… electrons like to run around and play. Depending on molecular structure and the types of chemical bonds (pi bonds vs. sigma bonds), some molecules turn into awesome electron jungle gyms.

For example, here’s a benzene molecule.

Ap11 Benzene

The ring shape of benzene is like a racetrack for electrons. Electrons can just run round and round to their subatomic hearts’ content. As a result benzene molecules—and other, more complicated molecules that incorporate benzene rings—are very stable. Extremely stable. This might seem counterintuitive, but the more “electron delocalization” occurs in a molecule, the more stable a molecule tends to become.

If you have even a passing familiarity with quantum physics, you might guess what’s really happening here. Electrons don’t merely run around inside a molecule; electrons exist simultaneously in multiple locations inside that molecule. And the more spread out electrons are allowed to be, the more they can help tie the molecule together.

But while electron delocalization is great fun for electrons, and while it helps stabilize a molecule overall, certain parts of a molecule can feel a little left out. Certain protons (hydrogen ions) in particular will feel neglected and lonely. In the next edition of Molecular Mondays, we’ll find out what happens to them.

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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: Z-Series Spacesuits

April 22, 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:


What is a spacesuit? Is it a garment? Is it a type of apparel that you wear in space? Or is a spacesuit actually a kind of minimalistic, human-shaped spacecraft?

Last week, we took a look at a new spacesuit concept that’s definitely more of a garment. A tight-fitting, super sexy kind of garment. Today, we’re turning our attention to something that follows the human-shaped spacecraft philosophy of spacesuit design.

This is NASA’s experimental Z-1 spacesuit: a big, bulky spacesuit that’s sort of reminiscent of Buzz Lightyear.

Ap10 Z-1 Spacesuit

The Z-1 is made from “soft” materials, which weigh less than the “hard” materials of current spacesuits and allow astronauts a greater range of motion. On the downside, soft suits are less durable and provide less protection.

After the Z-1, NASA’s next experimental suit was named the Z-2. This time, rather than borrowing color schemes from Toy Story, NASA went with something from Tron.

Ap10 Z-2 Spacesuit

For the Z-2, NASA went back to hard materials, at least for the torso. They also added electro-luminescent panels, because they look cool. I mean, because they improve visibility in dark environments. It’s dark in space, you know. Looking cool is just a bonus.

While the Z-1 and Z-2 have many differences, there is one design feature they have in common. Notice the body shapes of these suits. Notice that they both look sort of top-heavy. There’s a reason for that.

The Z-series spacesuits aren’t clothes. You don’t put them on like clothes. Instead, you climb in through an entry hatch in the back, which extends up over the shoulders to make room for your head. I have to admit, this does sound a whole lot more convenient than all that mechanical counter pressure stuff from last week. Just climb in, close the hatch behind you, and you’re good to go (well, I’m sure there’s still life support and pressurization stuff to do, but you’re basically good to go).

Both the Z-1 and Z-2 are prototypes. Neither has been sent to space, and I’m under the impression they never will be. Instead, they’re being tested here on Earth using vacuum chambers and such. But maybe someday, thanks to the Z-series suits, astronauts on the Moon or Mars will have the convenience of hatch-back spacesuit entry.

And by the way, if anyone at NASA is reading this, here’s my proposal for the Z-3. It’s inspired by The Fifth Element.

Ap10 Z-3 Spacesuit

So the next time you’re heading to space, what kind of spacesuit do you want? Do you want to wear a garment-like mechanical counter pressure suit, or would you prefer the convenience of something like the Z-series?


Z-1 Next Generation Spacesuit (Infographic) from Space.com.

NASA’s Futuristic Z-2 Spacesuit: How It Works (Infographic) from Space.com.

The Z-1 from NASA.gov.

NASA’s Next Prototype Spacesuit Has a Brand New Look, and It’s All Thanks to You from NASA.gov.

Saturn’s Story: Rings, Moons, and Alien Life

April 20, 2016

Where did Saturn’s rings come from? It is possible that the rings were always there, that they formed 4.5 billion years ago along with the rest of the Solar System. However, it seems more likely—a heck of a lot more likely—that the rings formed recently.

About 100 million years ago, Saturn would have had a different collection of moons than it does today. Then catastrophe struck. Moons started ramming into each other, or perhaps they strayed too close to Saturn (crossing the Roche limit) and were ripped apart by Saturn’s gravity.

Sp03 Poor Unfortunate Moon

The rings we see today are basically the icy debris left by that previous generation of moons. It’s also starting to look like many of Saturn’s current moons also formed around that time, accreting from the rubble.

Enceladus may be one of those newly formed moons. Enceladus is of particular interest to astrobiologists. Its subsurface ocean would be an ideal environment for life, but as I said last week, that’s only if life has had sufficient time to evolve. 100 million years doesn’t give evolution a much time to do its magic.

However, astrobiologists have taken a keep interest in another of Saturn’s moons: Titan. So I want to mention something important. Titan is not a young moon. It did not coalesce from lunar debris 100 million years ago. Titan is probably 4.5 billion years old, making it as old as Saturn, as old as the Solar System itself.

In fact, Titan would have been there when that previous generation of moons was destroyed. Titan would have watched it happen.

Ap09 Titan and Saturn's Rings

So while I’m less confident about the prospects of Enceladian life than I used to be, the odds of finding life on Titan are as good as they ever were.


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