Philae, the comet, news reports, and the possibility of another planet.

The big news on the science front this week was the landing of Philae on a comet, and I found it interesting to note how the news media reported it. One of the most fascinating things for me was the announcement of the comet’s velocity. Yes, it is travelling very fast, but what is important when it came to landing on the comet is not how fast the comet is going, because that is meaningless. The important thing to consider is the relative velocity of Philae and the comet, and that was rather small.

There is no absolute velocity; velocity only has meaning when you consider it in the frame of reference of something else, in which case it is called the relative velocity. It is from this sort of thinking that we get relativity, the first version of which came from Galileo when he noted that if you are inside a ship you cannot tell how fast you are going – and even outside the issue is questionable. Outside, you can see how fast you are travelling relative to the water, but the water may be travelling relative to the land. In the case of trying to land a vehicle on a comet, the trick was to match the mother ship’s velocity as near as possible to that of the comet, and then let Philae approach and land at a relatively small change of velocity. In fact the hardest part of this was not to get Philae safely down, but rather to keep it down. The danger was always that it would bounce off, as the comet has only an extremely small gravitational force. In fact it appears that Philae did do some bouncing, and unfortunately it landed in a shady spot from where it cannot easily recharge its batteries through its solar cells. That means the information we get back will be dependent on what it could do for the day or so the original charge in the batteries lasted.

So, what will Philae tell us, assuming all goes well with its experimental equipment. We probably will not get an analysis of gas coming off the comet, because gas emissions probably do not get underway sufficiently well until the comet gets closer to the sun. However, we should get a good account of the composition of the very top surface of the comet. Unfortunately, that may not be very informative because the interesting more volatile material has probably been given off on previous encounters with the star, and any organic material there will have been subjected to considerable UV radiation. Comets spend their lives in very cold places, and the colder the site, the slower chemical reactions are (although this does not apply to photochemistry, because the energy to get these started comes from the light). The problem is, the comets would have formed when the solar system formed, which was 4.5 billion years ago, and while such reactions might be slow, 4.5 billion years remains a long time.

I have seen some reports saying that it will show that comets brought water to Earth. It will show nothing of the sort. At best, it might show comets are a possible source, but the evidence that we have so far is that cometary water has too much deuterium in it, so that is not where our planet’s water came from. It might have organic molecules in it, such as amino acids. It might, but that does not mean that is where the chemicals that permitted life to form came from. These issues are very complicated, and for those interested, I outlined the issues in my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis.

Finally, what I would like to see is evidence of neon secreted into the ices. My mechanism for how planets accreted involves the melt fusion of bodies with a particular ice encased in water ice acting as the fusing agent. The mechanism is a little like that of forming snowballs, and the outer giants in this solar system are predicted to total four, based on four different temperature ranges of known ices. However, there is a possible fifth: neon. Was neon encased in ice? For neon to act as such an agent, the ice probably had to be below fifteen degrees above absolute zero as it started to approach the star. Would it? If it did, the comet might contain neon, but whether we can detect it is another matter because any such neon would have been lost from the surface of the comet in previous stellar encounters. Degassing from the centre might show it, but Philae probably won’t have the power to tell. For me it is important because if neon was encased in the ices that were in our accretion disk, then there is a possibility of another planet out there, probably in the order of 3-4 times further from the sun than Neptune. It would be a lot smaller than Neptune (because growth there is slower because everything is more dilute) so it would not be easy to find, but it would be nice to know if there were a reason to look for it.

Materials for the first Martian settlers

In the previous post, I discussed the difficulties settlers on Mars might have with making things to construct domes, etc in which to grow food. Now, let’s suppose they have got that under control, where are the next difficulties? The settlers have a place to live, they have grown food in their domes, but they still have to cook it. Yes, we have energy (assuming all has gone well) but there are other things as well, assuming the settlers want more than the ability to survive. For example, in cooking there is often a lipid, such as olive oil or butter used. Even assuming they have big enough domes, are they going to wait around for olive trees to grow? Fortunately there is a way out of this. Microalgae have lipids in them, and if we grow them then mature them in a nutrient deficient solution, the oil content can rise to over 60% by weight. If there are plenty of nutrients, then the microalgae grow very rapidly (more rapidly than most plants) and largely contain protein, which makes them a desirable food, but for two things: the taste, and the fact they have a rather high content of nucleic acids. In my novel Red Gold, set in a proposed colonization of Mars, I suggested there would be a variety developed with much lower nucleic acid content. I suggested the settlers would start off by eating a lot of chlorella because it takes a long time for plants to grow.

Another problem the settlers will have involves clothing. Clothing is made from fibres and most fibres now come from the oil industry. Of course we can get free of synthetic fibres by returning to cotton and linen, which come from plants, as long as someone remembers to take them. But if settlers are going to do that, they will be growing a lot more than they are eating. Wool would not be available in most scenarios because sheep need a significant area to graze on, and that means building giant domes, AND finding enough material to make soil. Eventually, as they start growing crops, the dead waste plant material will be used to make more soil, but it will be gradual. Soil means more than “dirt”. Then, after that, they will still need polymers from the chemical industry to make suits that can be used for going outside, because it is important to be able to seal the air in the zone in which you intend to breathe. Where do they get the raw materials for such polymers? They will have to take something that will generate them. As it happens, chlorella can be processed to help make some such polymers.

Speaking of dirt, settlers may want to wash. Yes, you can wash in just water, to some degree of efficiency, but you might want soap. Can they make that there? Soap is made by treating lipids with caustic soda, whereupon you make soap and glycerol. Needless to say, you have to get the ratio of caustic soda right. Interestingly, pioneers often did this on Earth. I can recall as a boy, my father elected to do what his father had done, and make soap in the back garden. The family carefully kept the fact from roasts, clarified it, and it was heated up in a kerosine tin (4 gallons) in the back yard, then the caustic soda was added. This was largely used for laundry. The point is, soap making is not difficult, although it is more so if you want quality. But this brings up another point: when settlers get to Mars, they will have to do just about everything themselves, and unlike pioneers on Earth, there is no grass ranges, nor forests for timber. Worse, many of the things we take for granted involve several steps. Even for soap, the settlers first have to find and mine salt, then they have electrolyse that (doing something with the chlorine that is also made) then they have to react that with lipids that have been collected and purified, then they have to separate out the glycerol and do one or tow things to make an attractive cake. Most things we take for granted have a lot more steps, each requiring a specific skill. There are just so many things to do that involve a lot of different skills that you need a reasonably large number of people to do them. But then you have to take an awful lot of stuff to sustain all these settlers while they get going.

Perhaps now you see the trend of what I am trying to say. The cost of lifting stuff from Earth into space is horrendous, so settlers on Mars simply could not afford to purchase anything other than the most valuable materials from Earth. They have to make everything they want there, except possibly the most valuable pharmaceuticals, and there are very few raw materials that are easily obtained there. Life for such a settler would be extremely spartan, and it will not work unless there are a number of skilled people to carry out the tasks that require advanced technology.

Energy for Martian settlers

In a previous post on colonizing Mars, the question of energy arose. How would we generate energy on Mars? There are more issues here than is immediately apparent, because in thermodynamics we see a clear distinction between heat and work, there is the issue of energy and power density, and there is the issue of portability. The forms we use on earth that we cannot use on Mars include burning fossil fuel (there is none, and no significant oxygen to burn it in), hydro and tidal (because there is no liquid water), geothermal (because we do not know where any fields are, if there are any) or wind (because atmospheric pressure is too low for it to be useful). We can use solar, except the power density during the day is only half that on earth, which means we have to have twice the area of solar cells to get the same effect. This will be fine for electric lighting, or other light uses, but it will not provide a high power density, and you need batteries to store the electric energy. What happens when the batteries need replacement? Nuclear fission and nuclear fusion would be available, always assuming we had developed nuclear fusion technology.

The settlers need continual low-grade heat (because the temperature on Mars is generally below freezing temperature) electric power for working machines, some form of transport fuel, and very high energy density for making things. It is this high-density power that is the problem, and it would seem that nuclear energy, fission or fusion, is required. That in turn requires the settlers have adequate engineers to fix things if they go wrong.

How do we make materials? There are two problems, as illustrated by trying to make iron. The obvious one is to get it hot enough to melt and cast objects (although with 3D printing, you may merely want a powder). But the other is how to get the metallic iron in the first place. One of the problems with Mars is that there has not been a lot of chemical action, as far as we know. At the Meridianum Planum, we know there is some haematite, but generally the iron and most other metals are present in the form of silicates. Silicates are very difficult to break up. Earth has broken them up through chemical weathering, by which carbon dioxide dissolves in water and makes carbonic acid, which in turn very slowly breaks down basaltic type rocks to form silica, and iron and magnesium carbonates. The carbonates have subsequently either been oxidized (basalt contains FeII, but then is oxidized by air to Fe III, and on earth we end up with large deposits of the oxide Fe2O3 that are the major sources of iron ore now, and were deposited from ancient oceans almost three billion years ago when oxygen started to be made by plants. The magnesium has ended up being dissolved and is recovered from sea-water as magnesium sulphate. However, it is not clear whether Mars has had water for long enough to do this. One clue is that when these weathering processes go on, the calcium ends up as limestone. Our admittedly limited survey of Mars has failed to find significant iron or calcium carbonate.

If we were to get some oxides, on earth we reduce those with carbon, but that won’t work on Mars because we are short of carbon. (No coal. We could eventually make charcoal, but it would take some time to grow enough biomass to do that, and of course we have to have the energy to make the charcoal.) We might also want to make glass. Besides having to melt it, we need the raw materials, and they are not readily found, and probably not at the same place. Either we tear silicates to bits, or we have to do a lot of exploration to find the various basics we need. Worse, if we use something like nuclear power to get the energy density, then that has to be somewhere at a distance, and you will need a lot of electric cable. If everything has to be brought from earth, it is going to be a very expensive settlement. In my novel, Red Gold, I had my colonists simply tear apart dust and separate the elements by electromagnetic fields, the same way a mass spectrometer works. That would require extreme energy, and for that I used the two fusion motors that drove the first ships there. That is extreme, and better for fiction, but the point remains, how are settlers going to get raw materials? If the settlers do not have an answer, very soon they will die. This leads to a conclusion: any settlement on Mars will require nuclear fission or fusion to be viable in the longer term. A second conclusion I had for Red Gold is that when making raw materials, the most predominant materials that will be made include iron, aluminium, magnesium and silica. Silica is necessary for glass, in turn needed for glass-houses, while the other metals would be useful for construction, so all is not lost.

Meanwhile, a reminder that Red Gold, and in the UK the first two of my Gaius Claudius Scaevola ebooks are available on promotion over the weekend. (In the US, only the second, Legatus Legionis is on promotion, thanks to an error on my part.)

Colonizing Mars: basic problems

Apparently there is a reality program being made where the prize for winning contestants is a one-way ticket to Mars, so the question may well be asked, who would want to go? Is this a booby prize? Suppose you went, what would be the problems and what could be done about them?

The one problem you cannot do anything about is the fact that the gravity is about 40% of Earth’s. Will it matter? I have no idea because I do not know everything that gravity does, but I suspect not. If the argument is there will be insufficient forces on your body, you can get around that by lifting weights, and if you are building things, there should be plenty of heavy things. Another problem is the UV radiation and the lack of deflection from a magnetic field of charged particles. That one is more easily dealt with: live underground, and only come up on benign days. Being underground means digging a cave, finding one, or burying your building. A building with thick enough walls would probably be sufficient, so no real problems here if you are prepared to make the effort.

Your next problem is water. As it happens, there is plenty of water on Mars, but it is buried, and it will be in the form of ice. There are massive deposits at the poles, but also moderate deposits elsewhere that would be enough for any settler, but will they be easily accessible? Water can be obtained from the air by compressing the air and freezing it out. That is energy intensive, but you have to compress air anyway because the atmospheric pressure is on average less than 0.6% Earth’s atmospheric pressure, although it gets to about 1.15% at the bottom of Hellas Planitia.

Breathing is your next problem, and there are three such problems. The first is a lack of oxygen. You cannot take a lifetime of oxygen from Earth, so you have to make it. As it happens, plants will do that for you, and growing plants has another benefit, namely you can eat them, so if you manage this properly, you get both oxygen and food. The second problem is the Martian atmosphere has about 96% carbon dioxide, and humans cannot breathe it, even if supplemented by oxygen. Plants can, but the settler cannot, so atmospheric control is needed with a means of expelling surplus carbon dioxide. That can be done by pressurizing the atmosphere, so that process also gets you water. The third problem is you cannot breathe pure oxygen either, so you need to dilute it. The Martian atmosphere has about 2% nitrogen, and about 2% of argon, which is just as useful, if not more so. So, theoretically, we have solved breathing and eating, provided we have the equipment, and we can grow plants.

To grow plants, you need something to maintain the pressure. Science fiction tends to use huge tents made of transparent plastic. What sort of plastic? Most plastics have a rather short lifetime under the UV radiation you would find on Mars, in which case they go very brittle and opaque. I personally would prefer something more permanent, such as glass. Glass also has the advantage that it contains a UV filter, and you can adjust its composition to give it more filtering effect. There is a further problem in that any such structure is liable to being struck by a small meteorite. Immediate decompression would destroy the plants, so you need the structures to be compartmentalized, or to be lucky. These have to be outside, to get sunlight, or inside caves with light guides from outside. Ultimately you may want to bury the growing systems, but initially you will want to get started quickly, because eating and breathing cannot be suspended and left until construction is finished. So to start with, the initial settlers will have to be supplied with kitset structures from Earth, and with redundancy. The real bad news would be if the glass got broken on landing.

Growing plants may seem easy, but note there is no soil as we know it, because there is no organic matter on Mars. So, the settler has to create soil, which means adding fertilizer, organic material, and so on, all brought from Earth. The initial farming may well be hydroponic. Fortunately, the settlers will generate solid waste, excreta, etc, and this can be treated with good bacterial cultures to generate the organic composition of soil. So basically, growing food needs some good scientific and engineering skills. I wonder do those entering that reality show know that?

There are a lot more problems, which I shall leave for a later post, but some are outlined in my ebook, Red Gold, which is about fraud during the colonization of Mars, and is on a kindle countdown promotion from November 7 – 12. At the same time are promotions for Legionis Legatus, the second in my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy that I thought I had on promotion earlier, and for UK readers only, the first in that trilogy, Athene’s Prophecy.

Military intervention – what justifies it?

Currently, a number of countries seem to be thinking about intervening against ISIS, but that raises the question, should they, and if they do, under what conditions? In my science fiction trilogies, I have introduced an alien race that rarely intervenes in another civilization, and that is because they have two rules:

  • They do not intervene unless they can be reasonably sure that the end position will be clearly improved for those suffering the intervention,
  • They take total responsibility for the intervention.

In my opinion, these are good rules. Now, let’s see what has happened in recent times.

The intervention in Afghanistan is of interest because it had a clear objective: get bin Laden. They failed in that, but of course failing to reach an objective does not mean the objective was not valid in the first place. However, in my opinion it is clear that a real failure happened next. The US then seemed to lose interest, preferring to take on Iraq, and the failure to come to a quick and firm consolidation in Afghanistan meant that we had years of turbulence. The best outcome would have been to do whatever they had set out to do, then to get out, after setting up an Afghani replacement government that included the Taliban. What would have happened had they offered the Taliban the option of the US leaving provided the Taliban accepted some very basic Afghani rights? If they accepted then all would have been well, and if they did not, by informing the Afghani population as to why they were staying, they may well have got much more support. On that, we shall never know, perhaps it would not have worked, BUT did it hurt to try?

The intervention in Iraq failed both tests. The end position is hardly an improvement, and it is at least a plausible proposition that ISIS would never have arisen if there had been no Iraqi war. Yes, you can protest that Saddam was a monster. No argument from me there. Nevertheless, the fact that some monster is killing his citizens is not a justification for another country to come in, kill an awful lot more, then leave the country in some form of anarchy. Irrespective of what you think Saddam was like, if you look at what life was like for the average Iraqi before the interventions, and what it is like now, I rather fancy they would prefer the “old times”. The fact that something is bad does not justify intervention; what does is a clear determination to make things better. What actually happened is that at the time, there was no plan to put in an improved government in Iraq. The major effort, under Paul Bremer, was to remove Ba’ath members from any future involvement and fire the Iraqi army. Bremer then privatized the Iraqi economy, opening it up to international investment and gave foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi legal process. That effectively dismembered the Iraqi economy in favour of western economic interests. Note that international law prohibits an occupying power from rewriting the laws of the occupied country. Here, might was right, and international law is useless when there is no means of enforcing it. There is no evidence that any major reconstruction actually took place, as opposed to a lot of money being spent on the activity. Now, guess why a section of Iraqi society is disgruntled.

All of which brings me to what I think is a question nobody is asking: suppose the West decides to take on ISIS properly, what is the end position? Why will it be an improvement? What will it take to achieve this improvement, and how do you know the various governments will keep acting on it until the end position is reached? In my opinion, if you cannot answer those questions, you should not intervene. The fact that something bad is going on is not a justification for you to plunge in and make things worse.

ISIS, labels and unintended consequences.

One thing that writers should deal with, but often ignore, is symbolism, and the related titles, labels, etc. How many times have you seen in fiction the plot involving a misunderstanding of a symbol? Sometimes? For me, not very often. So, you say, it doesn’t happen in real life, so why raise this? Well, it does happen sometimes, and there have been examples here recently.

With terrorism as a hot topic, slumbering New Zealand got a bit of a wake-up call when it was alleged that we were inundated with terrorists and we were doing nothing about it. The accusation was that ISIS is alive and well here, and even has a website. In fact there is such a website named There is also, so you see the hotbed connotations.

Now, to return to my scientific background, the way a scientist views such a proposition is to say, if that proposition is true, then we should see . . . In this case, we might expect to see some nasty terrorist publicity. So, it seems only right that the test is to click on the links and see this horrible stuff. Now we see a problem. The first link is to a company that has set itself up as building inspectors, and was registered in about 1991. Now, in this country, building inspections are sometimes imposed by the bureaucracy (at other times by potential purchasers of buildings) and there will be some on the extreme right wing who equate bureaucracy and government regulations with terrorism, but they will be on the extreme right wing and can safely be pushed to one side, preferably on a very large rocket to the other side of the galaxy. No, that is a perfectly safe company that is doing its best to earn those working there a crust or so. The second one offers computing services, and again, one could argue that computers are diabolical instruments, particularly when they don’t work, but this is another company that is of no problem whatsoever. All that has happened is at one stage, they chose an unfortunate name. (I understand one member of Isis Ltd has asserted that they got the name first and they want the terrorists to abandon it and give it back. Yes, well, we can all see that happening some time soon.)

So, all is well? Not quite. All this has stirred up a fuss when someone registered at least one dropbox company with a domain name ending in .is. Now .is is apparently Iceland’s domain, and this got some attention from the Icelandic domain name manager. The concept of the dropbox is that one person at least must be resident in the country and take responsibility wher the company is registered, but the rest of the participants can be anywhere, and in this case, the resident was in New Zealand. This raised the question, why pick the Icelandic domain name? Because it looks like ISIS? That was a good enough question to get people investigating. The resident had a Muslim name, and during its admittedly very brief existence this website was apparently transmitting ISIS propaganda. The resident denies knowledge and argues he was just a contact person, the website has been taken down, but the reader may now see the pernicious problems that can arise. (The fact that the contact name was required so that someone takes responsibility seems to have eluded this person.) A name and a symbol can be very important things.

Another symbol to hit the dirt, is a suggested change to the New Zealand flag. One possibility was a silver fern on a black background, but following ISIS I rather suspect this is one flag that will not fly.

This issue can be very important for an author to note too. When writing fiction, not every reader will see things in the same light as you do. The web has a number of discussion on what can be written relating to real entities, and my view is, be very very careful. On the other hand, who, like our building inspectors, can see what symbols will be bad news over twenty years later? One symbol I have used in my latest two books is safe: the finned boar, the symbol of Legio XX Valeria. Since it is about two thousand years old, I feel safe.

Speaking of books, for those interested in reading something different from the gate-kept traditional publishers, apart from trying one of mine, which I assure you, will be different, you might try from the selection listed at

Cloaking demonstrated in the lab

In a previous post ( I discussed the possibility of a cloaking device in the context of Klingon space ships, etc, but since that post there has been some activity on the scientific front, not so much with ships, but somewhat smaller “cloaks”. Perhaps one of the more spectacular, at least from the publicity status, was from Choi and Howell ( ) who demonstrated paraxial (small-angle) ray optical cloaking. They start by defining an ideal cloaking device, thus it should have sufficient volume in which to hide the object, and it should act the same way if it were not there. The device should behave as if its space were replaced by the surrounding medium and the ray angles exiting the device should be the same as it would be if the space were empty. These conditions permit the image of whatever is behind the object to be exactly the same as if the object were not there. If we accept that as the definition of a “cloak”, then the science of optics apparently allows some progress, and what I find surprising is they have already been demonstrated for some time, but we don’t think of them that way.

What Choi and Howell then do is to take the relationships of lenses that were defined by Newton and represent these conditions for a series of lenses in matrix form, replace the terms with physical conditions defined by the lenses, and then solve to determine whether the appropriate matrix is possible. This is an excellent simple example of deductive reasoning. We know the conditions required for the matrices and so we can work out the exact requirements of the simplest device, which in this case is four lenses appropriately placed. What that means is that light from an object has to pass through all four lenses for a coherent image to eventuate. Anything less, and no image is obtained. Accordingly, anything inserted in this cloaking device is invisible because light from it cannot go through the required number of lenses hence it is dissipated. The important point is not that light from the object ceases to exist, but rather that it cannot form an image. The paper has a photo of a demonstration, in which a hand is inserted into the device, and no image of it can be seen through the lens, while the background is represented uninterrupted. Check the images now by following the link, and see if you notice something before reading further on this post.

To understand this better, it might be worth recalling another example of invisibility: the Newtonian reflecting telescope. How this works is there is a long tube and a suitable (spherical or parabolic) mirror that reflects the light back to a mirror held in the centre of the tube at an appropriate distance, which reflects the light to a lens located outside the tube. The invisibility lies in the fact that the mirror assembly inside and near the top of the tube is not seen. The reason lies in the fact that any part of the primary mirror sends information of the whole image, and hence there is no “shadow” of the second mirror. The primary mirror does not have to be one mirror, although it is usually much easier to focus if it is, and the Cassegrainian telescope reflects the light back through a hole in the centre of the primary mirror. (For diagrams that show the light paths, see )

If we think about this, the trick for the “four-lens” cloaking is that it is important that enough light from the background get through the four lenses. If the intervening object were the size of the lenses, you would see nothing that was coherent because no light can get through the cylinder defined by the layout of the lenses. In this context, in the images in the paper, you will notice that the continuations of the fingers (that which is cloaked) are near the edges of the cylinder of the device. This no doubt assists getting the most light from the background image through the device. There have been similar tricks with mirrors and lighting carried out by stage magicians, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The stage magician has the advantage that nobody looks too closely, the effect is a oncer, and the audience is some distance away, nevertheless they also have difficulties because they have to deal with wider angles than those resulting from parallel rays through four lenses. If you see something like this, though, you can be sure the background will be well-lit, to ensure plenty of the light you want seen is available.

It takes little imagination, though, to see that the four-lens trick is not exactly suitable as it stands for cloaking a space ship. Nevertheless, the demonstration is impressive, as can be seen by clicking on the link and scrolling down to the examples.