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.

KDP Countdown deal: Apologies and what went wrong

To celebrate the release of my ebook, Scaevola’s Triumph, the third in my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy, I arranged (or thought I had) a price reduction over a short period for the first two in the trilogy (Athene’s Prophecy and Legatus Legionis). I went to the US Amazon website, organized the price reductions for between October 3 – 6. Amazon confirmed the reduction. I then went to the UK Amazon, only to find they would not permit it. The reason was that when I published, I set the US price at $2.99, the bottom of the range required for KDP select, and arranged for the other currencies to be set at equivalent prices in local currencies. That, apparently, corresponded to £1.95, the bottom of the range for price reduction promotions in the UK. However, thanks to currency variations, this had slipped to £1.93. I was 2p short. So, I changed the prices there to £1.95, only to find that the promotion in the UK could not now be carried out for 30 days, because this corresponded to becoming a new publication. So, in my advertising, I excluded the UK, and in most of them undertook to give the UK a promotion in due course.

What I did not realize was that this meant that the US Amazon took this as a republication as well, even though nothing had changed and I had not done anything on their site, and they cancelled the promotion. All I can do is apologize. Yes, I could have checked, but really, would you have checked that they had withdrawn what had been agreed without any notification? You would? Good for you. Oh, as another interesting point, US Amazon, having republished (presumably) at my price of $2.99, have raised them to $3.50. The UK Amazon is closer, at £1.99. And they made all that fuss over 2p!

Anyway, all I can say is I am sorry if I have wasted any of your time. I will run the promotion about the beginning of November.

Space warfare

For some reason, there have been a number of articles on the web recently on the realism of fictional space wars. Some of the points in fiction are obviously wrong, thus space vehicles travelling in a straight line do not need to have motor firing, and using wings to bank and turn is, well, just plain wrong because wings do not do anything in a vacuum. On the other hand, the purpose is to be entertaining, and in a film, being technically correct my merely leave the average viewer wondering. But what about in fiction? Technical explanations may turn off many readers, while correct physics without an explanation may just seem to be incomprehensible.

I had this problem in my ebook, Scaevola’s Triumph, which is now available from Amazon. This concludes a trilogy and the basic plot is that the planet Ulse is losing a space war and faces extermination. However, the future has engineered a small party of Romans to be abducted by aliens so that Scaevola could save Ulse by turning around the war. It may not seem realistic that an ancient Roman could change anything, and that is what the Ulsians believe too, nevertheless he can, and can you see why?

The purpose of the first two books was to show how science works, and what it is like to make a discovery, so it was important to try to get the science right in this book, particularly with the battles. So, what would a space war look like? If you are writing a story where you need a space war, you have to take some liberties, if for no other reason than to keep the story interesting. The first point is that distances would be very great, and would extend over light centuries. This had the problem for my civilization in that if an invasion force could travel near the speed of light, and they deployed enough military force, the invasion could proceed at near the speed of light, and hence the civilization would lose most of its dominions in that direction before they even knew there was a war. Actually, this problem first occurred with Alexander, who moved about as fast as a messenger sometimes.

What scientific issues arise in a battle? One issue is relative velocity. If two vessels are going in opposite directions, the time they have together is trivial. In one battle in my book, it took hours to approach, and a few seconds in a battle zone. Since such short contact time is undesirable, ships attacking others in my wars usually spend much of their time slowing down. Even then they might pass through the enemy, and then take at least half an hour to turn around and come back. Looping around the back of a planet is a good way to turn.

What about weapons? My view is that lasers are useless because if you depend on them, the enemy merely has to get bright and shiny, and reflect the energy. One solution is to fire otherwise undefined constrained bursts of mass/energy approaching light speed. They are difficult to avoid because the energy arrives almost as soon as the light signature of the firing. Some people have suggested that small pieces of matter are all that is needed. Chaff hitting your ship fast enough will do extreme damage. However, if ships are capable of travelling at velocities approaching light speed, they must have some means of dealing with bits of rock, etc, so that will not work. (The fact you do not know how they could do it is beside the point; we do not know how to approach light speed either, but if we did, we must have the other.) I have also seen criticisms of “fireballs”. Strictly speaking, fire cannot occur, but if you see fire merely as a plasma, then there is no reason why jets of metal vapour in a plasma could be realistic. Of course, in science fiction you can be inventive. The weapon I “invented” is one that within a locked zone the weapon exerts a field that changes the value of Planck’s action constant on a given vector direction. All nuclear structure on that axis disintegrates. Defend against that! (I know – a variable constant is uncouth, but then the question arises as to why it is constant. We don’t know that there are no circumstances when it could not have another value, do we? And this is fiction.)

Science fiction also has the “cloaking device”. In my space war, that is there – all electromagnetic radiation that strikes the vessel is absorbed and re-emitted on the other side, on the same vector. (Really, more a chameleon device.) Now, supposing there were an enemy using such a technology, how do you defend against that enemy, which means, how do you locate him? There is a way of seeing ships using such technology. Can you work it out?

Yes, it is all fiction, and I am sure that there are a number of faults there too, but the question then is, is it entertaining, and does it encourage anyone to think? If so to either, then it was worth writing it.

What would an exoplanet look like if you landed on it?

Your intrepid space explorer lands on an alien planet. What would it look like? For practical reasons, in series like Star Trek, they looked somewhat like Earth, or occasionally some other planet in our solar system. Is this realistic? I am going to say, yes, with one or two reservations. The first is, our intrepid explorer lands. By definition, that excludes “water worlds” and giants. From our lists of exoplanets, giants are rather common, although this may also be because they are the easiest to find.

In previous posts, I discussed the possibility of forming planets suitable for alien life, specifically at: , , , . To summarize these posts, if planets are formed, then at least initially all stellar systems form the same sort of planets. Most importantly, my theory suggests star formation is aided by planetary formation because while the star contains most of the mass, the planetary systems contain most of the angular momentum, and a transfer of angular momentum makes transferring material to the star easier. The general consensus is that the disk gases should sweep accreting bodies into the star, but that will not happen if the gas transfers its angular momentum to the planet, and I suggest there is a mechanism by which this could happen, and in my opinion it is the easiest way to transfer angular momentum from gas to planet.

In standard theory, all planetary formation commences with the formation of planetesimals, and these then form planets through gravitational attraction, collisions getting more and more violent. There is only one thing wrong with that theory: while it has been around for about seventy years, nobody has a clue how the planetesimals are formed to start with. In my theory, outlined in my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, initial planetary accretion occurs through chemistry, including physical chemistry, and such chemistry changes with temperature, and hence specific types of planets occur at specific temperatures. Accordingly, each different zone forms planetary systems that are chemically different, at least in their cores and satellites. The giants, of course, acquire gas from the accretion disk by gravity. Our solar system is of only moderate probability, because the evidence is our system formed and growth was then stopped through an early T Tauri disk cleanout, when the star shoots out very strong winds that sweep away the accretion disk. If the accretion disk is longer lived, as more than half will be, planets get bigger, are more likely to form gas giants, then they start playing gravitational billiards when they get big enough. This gravitational billiards is also more likely to occur around red dwarfs because the systems become more compact, and closer together makes gravitational interactions stronger. Each different planet has a different basis for forming, it has a different chemical composition (although the great bulk of rocky planets comprises silicates) and so each planet in our system may have an equivalent in other systems where the size of the planets are moderate. That means our intrepid space explorer would see planets similar to ours.

Of course, care has to be taken with “similar”. The positions of the planets depend on the temperatures in the accretion disk, which also depends on the rate of stellar accretion so the positions of predicted planets will vary considerably. Also, how much variation in semimajor axis there might be for a given planet around a specific star is unclear, but it certainly will not be precise. On the other hand, the habitable zone depends only on the size and age of the star, and so an equivalent planet may have quite significant differences in stellar distance. Without that uncertainty, the zone that forms Earth only overlaps neatly with the habitable zone for stars similar to our sun, i.e. G type stars and the heavier K type stars. As noted in a previous post , the planets in the habitable zone around the red dwarf Kapteyn’s star should correspond to Jupiter and Saturn in composition. Because such planets largely form through ices, such planets would be “water worlds” and our intrepid explorer could not “land” in the usual meaning of the word.

One comment about Venus. My conclusion was that rocky planets do not accrete gases from the disk, because any such gases are essentially removed by the violent solar winds around an early star. Accordingly, the necessary materials must be accreted as solids, and water is essentially accreted by attraction to silicates, and in particular, aluminosilicates that can act as cements. Carbon is accreted either as a carbide, or as a pyrolytic char on silicates during the heated stage. Nitrogen has to be accreted as nitrides, and the materials for life, and the atmosphere, are generated by the action of water on these solids as the planet heats up. Does this matter? Well, in my opinion, yes. Have you seen threats that Earth could have a runaway greenhouse effect and end up like Venus? Well, if I am correct, there was no runaway greenhouse effect as such and the Venusian oceans were never boiled off. There was never much water accreted by Venus, and what was there was used to make the atmosphere. The excess deuterium on Venus did not arise through photolysis of water (which actually stops once the oxygen forms a protective ozone layer) but from the chemical isotope effect, which is a much stronger means of enhancing deuterium concentrations. The oxygen in the Venusian water is now there in the carbon dioxide atmosphere, and with no excess water, Venus could not fix its carbon dioxide.

Having formed this theory, naturally I use it, and in my ebook Scaevola’s Triumph, to be published on September 30, when Scaevola is in a force about to attack an occupied planetary system, and when the issue of “which planets are important” arises, the Venus equivalent is dismissed as “the usual hell planet”. The other two rocky planets are more interesting, and I shall mention them in a later post.

Finally, one correction to a previous announcement. Because Scaevola’s Triumph, is the third in a trilogy, I have offered a promotion on the first two (Athene’s Prophecy and Legatus Legionis) on Amazon, running from October 3-6. However, this is restricted for the time being to The reason: I priced them at $2.99, and the UK price was fixed proportionately. Thanks to currency changes, the UK price drifted 2p below that where a discount could be offered, so I had to raise the price by 2p so I could lower it! Having done that, it told me I had republished, so I had to wait 30 days! Work out the logic here. I shall offer the promotion in due course.

Speculative and real science in fiction: teleportation and the cloaking device.

In my last post I mentioned some of the “science” in Star Trek, and focused on the warp drive. One of the more interesting things about science fiction is if your story involves moving between stars, either you use faster than light travel, or you use very near light speed. Most authors use the first, but that seems to be more for convenience than anything else; they also want to communicate with “home” frequently, as they did in Star Trek from time to time. In some ways, the alternative makes for a better story. In the third of my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy, four Romans wake up on an alien space vessel after abduction, and one of the women, Claudia Lucilla, wants to see her husband, but he had been put off at a different star system. How does an alien explain that if they did go back, the husband would have been dead for at least six hundred years? What is required is a basic explanation of relativity to someone who has no knowledge of simple physics. That was difficult to write. I have the alien try three different explanations, and I would be interested to hear from any reader whether they are any good.

Einstein’s relativity is unquestionably real, but is generally ignored is Scifi. On the other hand, teleportation is tolerably popular, but as presented I believe it is impossible, and to see why, we have to consider what a teleport does. It scans what is here, and reproduces a copy there. Strictly speaking, a fax machine could be considered as one. However, what a fax machine does is to accept the information and assemble the copy from material it has. Transmitting information is not a problem, but matter is different, as it would require the matter to be converted to energy, be transmitted, then be reassembled. None of those are easy. Converting a human to energy would produce energy that would make the biggest hydrogen bomb seem trivial and hence would destroy the ship using it; transmitting it without dissipating it would be a nightmare, but reassembling it and reconverting it to matter in a place without equipment to guide it verges on the impossible. So, I decided it was impossible, or at least impractical. Is there any way out? Not with our current knowledge, although something like “folding space” might do it. Is that possible? Not with our current knowledge, but if space were something that could be folded, perhaps. On the other hand, transmitting information opens up possibilities, but then again, having introduced the possibility I then found it would wreck the story.

In Star Trek the Klingons had a cloaking device. Is that possible? There are at least two possible ways that I could see it working. To see how, we have to define what we mean by being cloaked, or being invisible. The concept is, if we look at the object, we see the electromagnetic radiation from the background as if the object were not there. One way to achieve this is to have the light bent around the ship and continue onwards as if the ship were not there; the other is to have it absorbed on one side and an exact copy be transmitted from the other side. The latter is quite feasible, at least in theory, and I incorporated that in my book, BUT I also gave the enemy the technology. Now the question is, how do you locate a number of cloaked ships? In my third book in this trilogy, Scaevola’s Triumph, my Roman protagonist has to work out how to do this. Assume you are being attacked by aliens intent on wiping out your civilization, you have powerful beam weapons and your defences should hold out provided you can locate the aliens, because only concentrated bursts will destroy them. So, a puzzle. How can you locate a fleet of invisible ships? The answer requires you to use real science, and assume the cloaking device works on one of the two principles outlined above, preferably the second. The method of detection has to be practical, thus one way I mention in the book is to use gravitational effects, but these are rejected because they are too weak. My answers will be found in Scaevola’s Triumph, which will be published as an ebook at Amazon at about September 30. The first two ebooks in the trilogy (Athene’s Prophecy and Legatus Legionis) will be at reduced prices from October 3 to October 6.