Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hard Science: It's Not Necessarily a Limitation

Science fiction, or 'speculative fiction,' to use a more current term, would seem to be easier for a writer to handle if he or she doesn't bother with 'hard science' - that is, what we know today about how the universe works.

In a way, that's true. The Andre Norton stories, for example, often had science-fictionish accouterments like starships and blasters - but the author didn't bother with serious science: apart from generally seeing to it that things fell down, rather than sideways, for example.

Quite engaging stories can be written with a blithe indifference to quarks, specific heat, or tensile strength.

But, I think sometimes knowing a little science can help.

Take interstellar spaceships, for example.

Just Make it Look Cool

We're pretty familiar with the Star Trek or Star Wars approach: make a model that looks cool, and go with that. No problem: it works in the movies, and in written fiction.

But, there's something to be said with sticking with science as we have it.

Although there are some really promising theoretical possibilities on the horizon, involving aggressive warping of space-time, we probably won't be seeing 'warp drives' any time soon. In another blog, I opined that, depending on how you looked at current knowledge and technology compared to milestones in rocket technology and orbital mechanics, we might be anywhere from fifty to two thousand years away from having a practical 'warp drive.' (May 7, 2009)

But, that's wild guesswork at best.

Take Current Science and Technology, Add Imagination

There are quite a few might-work ideas out there, including light sails pushed by titanic laser arrays. Many of these have the advantage of both being something that might, plausibly, work - and having specific requirements that restrict what a vehicle would look like, and how it would perform.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. While it might be cool to imagine a spaceship shaped like, say, a teddy bear or a tennis racket, I think the appeal might fade a bit after a few chapters.

I went digging in my notes today, and found a design that isn't all that different from the rockets we use for space travel today.
Steam-Powered Space Ships?!
A philosopher in ancient Greece, Archytas of Tarentum, made what may be the first rocket-propelled vehicle about twenty three centuries back. It was a model bird, suspended from a ceiling, with a container of water and a heat source inside. The water turned to steam, shot out the back of the bird, and made the thing swing around, 'flying.'

Don't knock it: the gadget may have been a blast at parties. But it wasn't of much practical use.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and you get to Hero of Alexandria's aeolipile. It shot steam out of two nozzles , rotating a sphere. Quite an accomplishment: but there wasn't an effective method for getting work done with steam until the 1700s.

Gunpowder was developed in China, maybe as early as 850, and possibly as a spin-off from other research.

It would be possible to have a steam-powered space ship, provided there was a way to get the steam hot enough. Steam rocket engines have been built: one was used in the 1960s as the engine of a drag racer.

The idea of an atomic rocket - a vehicle using a nuclear reactor to heat water or some other liquid and squirt the resulting gas out a nozzle to produce thrust - is decades old, and will probably be done some day.

But, since there are limits on how fast the gas can be pushed out, even an 'atomic rocket' probably wouldn't be practical for an interstellar space ship. The problem is that a rocket's performance is linked to how fast it can push stuff off the vehicle - how fast its exhaust is.

And no, it's not that 'a rocket can't go faster than its exhaust.'

On the other hand, in the case of rockets: Faster is generally better when it comes to exhaust.
Beamed Core Antimatter Drive: Better Than a Steam-Powered Space Ship
The fastest that matter or energy can travel is the speed of light. Actually, there may be some work-arounds for that - but that's the sort of 'warp technology' that we aren't even close to having. Probably.

For rockets, the ideal would be to have an exhaust velocity around speed-of-light.

There are a few ways to do that. One is to get duct tape and attach an ordinary flashlight to your ship. Turn on the flashlight, and photons shooting out at speed-of-light will produce thrust. Not enough to measure, let alone move anything significant: but it does produce thrust.

Another is to use a beamed core antimatter drive.

We don't, quite, have the technology to build one: but we're very close. The beamed core antimatter drive is described on a website associated with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, along with some other rather theoretical ways of getting to the stars.

This particular 'star drive' uses protons and anti-protons for fuel. They're brought together, annihilate each other, and then things get interesting:
"...Protons and Antiprotons are injected into the magnetic nozzle, where they collide and annihilate producing a collection of pions. The uncharged pions are unaffected by the magnetic field and fly off, almost immediately decaying into gamma rays. These gamma rays would have to be stopped by some sort of high-density shielding. The charged pions shoot down the magnetic nozzle at what is essentially light speed, after traveling a distance of 21 meters in 70 nanoseconds, they decay into muons and neutrinos. The muons are longer lived, they travel 1.85 kilometers in 6.2 microseconds (99.5% light speed) before decaying into electrons and positrons (and more neutrinos). As you may be aware, the performance of a rocket is mainly limited by its exhaust velocity. The Beamed core drive would have an exhaust velocity of near light-speed. Allowing (with sufficient amounts of antimatter) acceleration up to almost any arbitrary percentage of the speed of light...."
(Beamed Core Antimatter Drive)
There are some huge engineering issues to be resolved before anything like this can be done. A few particle accelerators have been set up to sort out protons and anti-protons, and store the things in very tiny quantities: but something like this would need tons of both. And this is a case where you definitely do not want to be anywhere near a fuel spill.

Also, we don't have the magnetic containment devices that would be needed. Superconducting magnets may be the route to go on this and (somewhat) high-temperature superconductors are around now.

So: What Would a Starship With a Beamed Core Antimatter Drive Look Like?

The drive itself would be huge. Besides whatever is used to contain the protons and anti-protons, there's the reaction chamber, then a 21-meter-long section to contain and direct positive and negative pions, and finally a 1.85-kilometer-long section that contains and directs positive and negative muons. After that, a stream of electrons and positrons, plus neutrinos, shoots off into space, pushing the ship in the opposite direction.

The engine, because of how fast the exhaust particles travel and how rapidly they break down, would have to be 1.871 kilometers long, plus the reaction chamber - or, in English units, a tad under a mile and a quarter long.

If built, it might be mostly an open framework holding coils, rings, or whatever geometry is required to generate the magnetic fields.

Impressive, I think. Add a plausible-looking set of containment vessels for the fuel, habitats for the crew, cargo modules, and you've got a whacking great starship: based on a bit of science and a bit of imagination.

Related posts: Background:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Green Lantern Oath: Something to Think About

The Green Lantern oath goes something like this, I understand:

"...and I shall shed my light over dark evil.
For the dark things cannot stand the light,
The light of the Green Lantern!


'In brightest day, in darkest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power... Green Lantern's light!

The Wikipedia article indicates that there were several versions of the oath: hardly surprising, since Green Lantern Stories have been made for decades.

The Green Lantern, Plausible Superhero - Really!

The Green Lantern, and the Batman, have struck me as the less-improbable superheros.

Superman, although the quintessential superhero in many ways, requires quite a stretch of that willing suspension of disbelief. It's not his X-ray vision, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and all that so much as the wild improbability that Earth would be the closest, most practical, or most promising refuge for Krypton's last survivor.

The same goes for so many superheroes: their origins rely, if my memory serves, on their powers being possible in the first place - and then on the wildly improbable chance that someone on Earth, in or near the 20th century, just happened to get them.

In the case of the Green Lantern, the big stretch for the imagination is the existence of Green Lantern powers - essentially very high-tech involving extreme levels of energy and impressive miniaturization. The other hurdle on the way to a willing suspension of disbelief is the existence of something like the Green Lantern Corps.

After that, someone on Earth being assigned as the local Green Lantern becomes a matter of routine. What's a little surprising, given the starting premises, is that it wasn't done long ago - or maybe that's covered in the stories. As I said, I haven't read that many.

The Green Lantern Oath: Okay, it Reads Like Something in a Comic Book - - -

The Green Lantern Oath reads like something you'd find in a comic book - because that's what it is. The oath is also an example of how an author can tell a great deal about a culture or an organization, without descending into a morass of exposition.

In the case of the Green Lantern Oath, we discover that the Green Lantern Corps has traditions, is somewhat formal (it has an oath, after all, that's said at regular intervals), and is based on a code of ethics.

All that, in three or four short lines.

Cordwainer Smith, in Scanners Live in Vain, shows a world about 4,000 years ahead of where we are now, in which interstellar travel is made possible by the efforts of Habermans and Scanners.

"Scanners Live in Vain" is notable for several points, including a sort of prediction of contemporary texting
"... He dramatically flashed his tablet at them:

" 'Is Vmct mad?'

"The older men shook their heads...."
("Scanners Live in Vain" Cordwainer Smith 1950)
More to the point, for this post, Cordwainer Smith's Scanners have a code: a set of statements and responses which summarize who they are, what they do, and why they're proud of it. A fairly large part of "Scanners Live in Vain" is devoted to a recitation of this code. I think it's worth reading, because it shows a great deal about the scanners.
"...'Are we habermans then?' Vomact's eyes flashed and glittered as he asked the ritual question.

"Again the chorused answer ... 'Habermans we are, and more, and more. We are the chosen who are habermans by our own free will. We are the agents of the Instrumentality of Mankind.'

" 'What must the others say to us?'

" 'They must say to us, "You are the bravest of the brave, the most skillful of the skilled. All mankind owes most honor to the scanner, who unites the Earths of mankind....' "
("Scanners Live in Vain" Cordwainer Smith 1950)
Get the idea that scanners have at least a sufficient supply of self-esteem?

An English professor I had - and a capable one - said that "Scanners Live in Vain" was far from the best short story ever told. He was right - although part of his criticism was, I think, due to aesthetic preferences which Cordwainer Smith insulted with his writing style.

Great literature or not, though, I think it's helpful to study works like "Scanners Live in Vain" and the Green Lantern stories. The authors of works like this manage, somehow, to describe complex societies which don't exist - and which cannot be evoked with intellectual shorthand like 'he had a German's love of beer,' or references to West Point.

The Green Lantern Oath and the scanners' code are examples of how a great deal can be shown, by describing a ritual.

  • "The Best of Cordwainer Smith"
    Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by J. J. Pierce
    © 1975 Nelson Doubleday, Inc., Garden City, New York

Friday, July 3, 2009

"...Into the Future..." - Excerpt; Attitude; Comment and Theme

"...Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law....
"Locksley Hall," Alfred, Lord Tennyson
"Happily, some of us got off the planet in time."
"Notes of a Traveler," Otha Sisk
Don't bother looking up Otha Sisk. He won't be born for quite a while yet.

Visions of the Future: Doom, Gloom, Vistas of Wonder and Fast Food Stands

As I wrote the other day, I think the doom-and-gloom vein has just about been mined out, as far as science fiction is concerned. (June 30, 2009) I'm sure someone could write a fresh, compelling story about a devastated, post-apocalyptic Earth where mutant frogs and humanity's survivors battle for survival. But I'll let someone else try.

That excerpt from Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" is part of a longer section that starts with these lines:
"...For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be....
All things considered, I'd rather write about "all the wonder that would be."
No Utopias, Please
Which isn't to say that I prefer stories set in futuristic utopias where all of life's problems are solved, and people don't have to work if they don't feel like it: You get the idea.

For starters, that sort of setting would, in my opinion, make a monumentally boring story to anyone who wasn't enamored with whatever model of human culture is being extolled.

And, I'm quite convinced that a society composed at least partly of human beings wouldn't conform to that lotos-eater ideal. Not without some rather drastic alterations to the human beings. ('Now that you've had your lobotomy, and all your fears and neuroses are gone, along with most of your personality....')
Utopia, No: Optimism, Okay
There's nothing wrong with the youthful optimism expressed in Tennyson's "...the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe...." I think that one reason that democracies have endured for over two centuries is that, by and large, most people aren't the hapless fools that some 'experts' think they are.

I don't have 'faith in the masses,' any more than I have faith in princes: and I've known some remarkably daft people. But I've also known many who do have "common sense."
"The Federation of the World" - Eventually, Maybe
As far as "the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world" goes, I've noticed that, over the last few millennia, there's been a trend for the largest administrative units to get larger. Sure, there are times when large units break up: like the meltdown of the Roman Empire about one and a half millennia back.

A Future That's Plausible Enough for a Story

I'm not trying to predict what will happen, although I'm trying to be plausible. My goal is to create a future world that's plausible enough to allow the willing suspension of disbelief.

The setting I'm working hardest on is about one and a half millennia in the other direction. It's in the period mentioned I mentioned earlier:
"In ancient times, after humanity reached the stars, but before the Mandate of Heaven was restored to the Middle Kingdom, there were heroes." ("Prologue" (June 23, 2009))
My intention is to make the Earth, and other places where humanity has made a home, interesting. And, where appropriate, show "all the wonder that would be."

But perfect? No. I'll be getting more into how I see people as this blog develops.

As for "the Federation of the world" - that may happen, given time. But I don't see it as a slam-dunk certainty. My Earth of 3450 or so has around a dozen or so more-or-less independent administrative units - including a few nations, in the contemporary sense of the world.

I don't see why not: we've still got a few city-states, although they're not the biggest thing around: and haven't been for thousands of years.

The Association of Terrestrial Authorities is about as close as I'll come to Tennyson's "Federation of the world" - at least for this setting.

What's the Point?

"Theme is the dominant idea that a writer is trying to convey to his readers in a work of literature...." ( So, what's my point?

At present, I'm not entirely sure what I'll end up with. Right now, I'm working around the idea that in the far future, with humanity spread among the stars and Earth a place of towering cities, vast open landscapes, and multi-story farms (more about that later): People are still people.

There will be awe-inspiring monuments and fast-food stands, great thinkers and shallow minds, everyday routines and journeys into the unknown.

At least, that's the plan.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Thought for the Day

Good choices come from wisdom.
Wisdom comes from experience.
Experience comes from bad choices.

I saw that, or something very much like it, on a bank sign in Fargo, North Dakota, several decades ago. There's a bit of truth there.

Excerpts and Inspirations II

"...The gods thought otherwise...."
Aeneid, Virgil
"...the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode before me....
Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abey William Wodsworth
"On the horizon the peaks assembled;
And as I looked, the march of the mountains began.
As they marched, they sang:
Aye! We come! We come!
On the Horizon the Peaks Assembled, Stephen Crane
"...Til day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-like, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye....
Wind, Ted Hughes
"...where the Statue stood
Of Newton with his prism, and silent face,
The marble index of a Mind for ever
Voyaging throu' strange seas of Thought, alone....
Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abey William Wodsworth
"A man said to the universe:
'Sir, I exist!'
'However,' replied the universe,
'The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.'
A Man Said to the Universe, Stephen Crane
"I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away'.
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
"...You have suffered worse things; God will put an end to these also...."
Aeneid, Virgil
"It could be worse."
Minnesotan proverb
"...What, me worry?"
Alfred E. Neuman
Related post:

Privacy Policy

Nothing spooky here.

These days it's important to have a "privacy policy" available: so here's mine.

I do not collect information on individuals visiting this blog. If you leave a comment, I'll read what you wrote: but I don't keep a record of comments, apart from what Blogger displays. (In other words, the only record of what you write or who you are will be what people see at the bottom of the post.)

I do collect information about how many hits this blog gets, where they come from, and some technical information. I use the WebSTAT service for this purpose - and all that shows is which ISP you use, and where it's located.

You can stop most of Webstat's data gathering by disabling cookies in your browser. I don't know why you would, but some folks do.

I'm also an AdSense affiliate, so Google collects information on what I've written in each post: but that's mostly my problem.

I'm also considering starting an affiliate relationship with DAZ Productions. You should be able to keep DAZ and Commission Junction, their provider of affiliate services, from collecting information by - again - disabling cookies in your browser.

And you can keep DAZ Productions from finding out anything about you, by not buying any of their products.

Again, I don't know why you would: but some folks do.

Or, rather, don't.