Sciency Words: Bunny Suit

December 9, 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 expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

BUNNY SUIT

Okay, I’ve snuck into a top-secret government research facility in Nevada. I’m not entirely sure what they do here, but as a science fiction writer I have to know stuff about science. Specifically, the kind of futuristic science they do in top-secret government research facilities.

As I crouch behind some crates labeled “Roswell materials,” I overhear two of the scientists talking. “I’ve got to go put on my bunny suit,” one of them says.

Bunny suit? I couldn’t have heard that right. At first, I picture something like the Playboy Bunny outfit, in part because the two scientists happen to be women. Then a less sexist part of my brain suggests that they might be talking about an Easter Bunny costume. But that doesn’t make sense either.

Fortunately, I have my smartphone with me, and I’ve already hacked into this research facility’s wifi (the password was “password”). So I google “bunny suit science” and find out that they’re actually talking about this:

Image courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

Image courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

The more proper, more technically accurate term would be cleanroom suit. Cleanroom suits are those loose-fitting, papery outfits that go over your regular clothes and cover your entire body. They sometimes include a mask and goggles to cover the face, but not always.

Think of the perfectly smooth mirrors being made for the James Webb Space Telescope, or the highly precise laser instruments used at LIGO to detect gravitational waves. If you’re working with that kind of extremely sensitive equipment, the kind of equipment that could get screwed up by the slightest speck of dust from off your skin or off your clothes, then you have to wear a cleanroom suit.

Except people who work in the science biz don’t call them cleanroom suits. They call them bunny suits. That’s the kind of insider lingo that I, as a science fiction writer, can totally use in a story at some point.

Now, let’s see what else I can learn for my stories—uh oh, gotta run. The dogs caught my scent.


IWSG: Return of the Christmas Muse

December 7, 2016

Last year, I asked my muse what she wanted for Christmas. This is what she told me:

Dc01 Christmas Muse

Muses can be rude sometimes, but they do know how to spur their writers into action.

One of the nice things about writing quotas, and the record keeping that goes with them, is that they can help you track your long-term progress. Right now, my average weekly word count is almost double what it was in years past.

Average Weekly Word Counts

2013: 9,293 words per week
2014: 9,003 words per week
2015: 9,416 words per week
2016: 15,837 words per week

So at least in terms of raw productivity, I’m a better writer today than I was a year ago. And there are other, less easily quantifiable ways I believe my writing has improved.

I think I do a better job integrating science into my science fiction. I feel like I’m better with dialogue and characterization. I think I’m better at picking and choosing meaningful details in my descriptions, or at least I’m better at leaving unimportant details out.

I’ve also finally gotten over my addiction to so-called writing rules—which should really be called writing suggestions or, at best, writing guidelines. The only rule I still believe in is do whatever you have to do to get the story right.

I’m not sure if I can call myself a “good” writer yet. I still have a lot to learn about the writing process and a whole lot more to learn about the business side of writing. But with 2016 coming to an end, I think this is a good time to take stock of how far I’ve come in the past year.

So what sort of progress did you make in 2016? And if your answer is “none” or “not enough,” what do you think you’ll do differently in 2017?

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

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.


Molecular Monday: What Color Are Atoms?

December 5, 2016

Molecular Mondays Header

Welcome to Molecular Monday! On the first Monday of the month, we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe. Today, we’re looking at:

CPK Coloring

When I first introduced this Molecular Monday series, I knew I’d be drawing a lot of atoms and molecules, but I wasn’t sure if there was a right way or a wrong way to draw them. For starters, I wasn’t even sure what colors I should use.

Atoms and molecules do not really have colors, in the sense that they’re too small for visible light to reflect off them. At one point, I wondered if I should color them based on their spectroscopic signatures, but that line of research got complicated really fast.

Eventually I discovered that chemists have a (mostly) standardized color-coding system for modeling the atoms in a molecule. It’s called CPK coloring, in honor of Robert Corey, Linus Pauling, and Walter Koltun. Apparently Corey and Pauling created this system in the 1950’s, and Koltun improved it by adding more colors in the 1960’s (improving things by adding more colors is basically what the 60’s were all about).

So following the CPK coloring scheme, hydrogen atoms are white, and oxygen atoms are red. (Example: water molecule, H2O.)

dc05-water-cpk

Nitrogen atoms are blue. (Example: molecular nitrogen, N2.)

dc05-nitrogen-cpk

Sulfur atoms are yellow. (Example: hydrogen sulfide molecule, H2S.)

dc05-hydrogen-sulfide-cpk

And carbon atoms are either black or grey. I draw them in grey because otherwise you couldn’t see their little smiley faces. (Example: benzene molecule, C6H6.)

dc05-benzene-cpk

Personally, I think it would make more sense to switch the colors of oxygen and nitrogen. That way, water molecules would have blue in them, rather than bright red. But otherwise, CPK coloring is a pretty good system.

Typically green is assigned to either chlorine or fluorine, or sometimes both. Beyond that, modern chemists seem to have strayed from the original psychedelic system Koltun invented. I guess the rarer an element is, the less we worry about sticking to a standardized color code.

For my purposes, that hasn’t been a problem. Almost every molecule I write about on this blog is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and maybe oxygen and/or nitrogen. Occasionally sulfur gets into the mix, but that’s basically it.

For next month’s Molecular Monday post, I think we’ll continue looking at some of the other issues involved with drawing molecules. I settled on ball-and-stick models, but that’s not the only way to do things.


Sciency Words: Kosmikophobia

December 2, 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:

KOSMIKOPHOBIA

I stumbled upon this word while researching last week’s posts on asteroids (click here or here). Kosmikophobia is the fear of cosmic phenomena.

To be fair, there are cosmic phenomena to be genuinely concerned about, such as potential asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts, or the kinds of solar storms that could trigger another Carrington Event.

But this is a phobia, meaning its an irrational or over-exaggerated fear. It’s one thing to one thing to worry that an asteroid might one day wipe out human civilization; it’s another to live in existential dread that it might happen at any moment.

Kosmikophoba can also cover totally irrational fears of auroras or eclipses or the phases of the Moon. Or if you’re excessively terrified of comets and planetary alignments because you believe they are bad omens… that could also be considered kosmikophobia.

There are just two things I’m not clear on: first, has anyone actually been diagnosed with kosmikophobia and received treatment for it? And second, why is it spelled with k’s rather than c’s.

Regarding the spelling, I’m guessing the k’s are supposed to be a more authentic transliteration of the original Greek spelling of cosmos. I just can’t find any etymology to back me up on that.

As for the first point, I know not all phobia-words are meant to be taken seriously. For example, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (the fear of long words) seems to have been made up as a joke.

Since I can’t find any case studies about patients suffering from kosmikophobia, I can’t be sure how seriously to take this condition. The only thing I can say for certain is that this is a real word. I found it in a real dictionary. And as a space enthusiast, I’m really glad I don’t have it.


The EM Drive: Is It for Real?

November 29, 2016

This weekend, I read the recently published paper on NASA’s “impossible” EM drive. Or rather, I read about the “closed radio-frequency resonant cavity” designed and tested by Eagleworks Laboratories (which is part of NASA).

Basically, this closed radio-frequency thing is a box with radio waves bouncing around inside it. Because of the box’s unusual shape, the radio waves end up pushing more on one side of the box than the other, which generates thrust. Supposedly. Even though that violates conservation of momentum.

This post is a review of the paper itself, and nothing more, because I’ve found that responsible scientists and quack scientists often reveal themselves in the way they write their papers. And whatever else might be going on with this physics-defying new engine design, the paper does not appear to be quack science.

  • Experimental methods and equipment are documented in meticulous detail, and sections are included describing “force measurements procedures” and “force measurement uncertainty.”
  • The researchers appear to be presenting all of their data, or at least they don’t appear to be deliberately hiding anything. They also make a point of explaining the data analysis techniques they used.
  • There’s a lengthy section on potential sources of experimental error. The paper explains how each possible error was corrected, or it tells us why the researchers believe the error is not statistically significant. The important thing is that these possible experimental errors are acknowledged to the reader.

Now I’m not a scientist or an engineer, so I can’t personally evaluate the data being presented here. But the fact that the Eagleworks team share so much information and go into such extensive technical detail is a good sign (even though it makes for rather dull reading).

It means they’re not asking us to just take their word for it. Anyone with the necessary knowledge, resources, and technical skills could evaluate the data for themselves or attempt to recreate the experiment in order to independently verify the test results. And that’s how science is supposed to be done.

That does not necessarily mean the EM drive works. A paper like this should be seen as the opening of a conversation. The Eagleworks team discovered something. Something that seems to violate conservation of momentum, or perhaps undermines the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Follow up papers will continue the conversation, most likely by investigating those possible sources of error the Eagleworks team mentioned, or by trying to find sources of error the Eagleworks team may have overlooked. And my guess is that the conversation will end at that point.

But if it turns out the EM drive really does work, if the test results can’t be explained away by an experimental error, then the conversation will move on to trying to figure out what’s wrong with our current understanding of the laws of physics.

Regardless of how this plays out, it’s always good to see real scientific discourse in action.


Sciency Words: Apollos and Atens

November 25, 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 we’ve got two terms:

APOLLOS and ATENS

Asteroid are classified into different “groups” based on their orbital properties. The Apollo asteroids and Aten asteroids are two such groups, and these groups are of particular interest to anyone who doesn’t want a repeat of the K-T Event (which wiped out the dinosaurs) or the Tunguska Event (which flattened a forest and could have done the same to a whole city).

Technical Definitions

  • Apollo asteroids have a semimajor axis greater than 1.0 AU and a perihelion less than Earth’s aphelion of 1.017 AU. The first known Apollo was 1862 Apollo, for which the group is named.
  • Aten asteroids have a semimajor axis less than 1.0 AU and an aphelion greater than Earth’s perihelion of 0.983 AU. The first known Aten was 2062 Aten, for which the group is named.

Less Technical Definition

  • Apollo asteroids spend most of their time beyond Earth’s orbit, but cross inside at some point.
  • Aten asteroids spend most of their time inside Earth’s orbit, but cross outside at some point.

nv25-apollo-and-aten-orbit-diagrams

The important thing to know is that both Apollos and Atens cross Earth’s orbit at some point. Keep in mind that space is three-dimensional, so their paths don’t necessarily intersect with Earth’s. They might pass “above” or “below” Earth, so to speak.

But the orbits of enough Apollos and Atens do intersect with Earth’s orbital path that they might one day hit us. Atens are particularly worrisome. They spend so much time inside Earth’s orbit, in relatively close proximity to the Sun, that it’s hard for astronomers to find them.

So if a giant asteroid ever does sneak up on us and wipe out human civilization, my guess is it’ll be an asteroid from the Aten group. Those are the asteroids that frighten me the most.

nv25-aten-asteroid


Don’t Panic: It’s Just Another Asteroid

November 23, 2016

People ask me all the time: “Hey, did you hear about that asteroid?” These people then tell me about some asteroid that’s supposed to “just barely miss us” is the next day or so. Sometimes, they also ask, “Aren’t you worried?”

There are certain kinds of space news that I simply can’t get excited about anymore. This is one of them. Why?

nv23-asteroid-flybys

There’s actually a newsletter about asteroid flybys. It’s called Daily Minor Planet, and I have a subscription (it’s free). Every day in my inbox, I’m notified of the latest asteroid or other object skimming past Earth. Every day. Sometimes there are more than one per day.

Occasionally, one of these objects will pass within the radius of the Moon’s orbit. That’s not an everyday thing, but still… it happens more often than you might think.

So when people ask if I’ve heard about the latest asteroid flying past Earth, the only thing I can really say is, “Which one?” And if someone asks me if I’m worried, my answer is no. The asteroids that make headlines on the news and the asteroids that appear in Daily Minor Planet… those are asteroids we know about. It’s all the asteroids we don’t know about that scare the bejesus out of me.