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.

Is it science in science fiction?

Recently, I have seen a number of discussions on the web on the difference between science fiction and fantasy, and the answers were in the range of science fiction involves science that “could be”, and fantasy, that which could not be. That raises the question, what is science? Where does it draw the line at “could be”? The question will have a number of variant answers, ranging from the collection of facts, to devising mathematics to find a theory of everything. Both have an element of truth, but both are, in my opinion, inherently wrong. Science needs facts, and therefore the collection of them is fundamentally important, but for me, the issue is like mowing the lawn; sharpening the blades is essential, but the grass is yet to be cut. Similarly, mathematics is one of the most important tools in science, but while physics is almost impossible to describe without mathematics, mathematics alone does not lead to physics. Some will not believe me and say, what do I know? A clearer way of saying that can be found in the Feynman Lectures, which are now available for reading online from Caltech. Generally, I hate resorting to authority (the fallacy ad verecundiam) but I am ready to bet that no reader of this will have an understanding of physics vaguely approaching that of Richard Feynman.

So, back to the question: what is science? In my view, the strictest form involves the forming of statements along the lines of, “If proposition A is correct and this is done, then that will happen.” The point of the experiment is to test the statement, which will be found to be false (that does not happen) or it might be true (that did happen.) There is a third category: can’t tell, because while the proposition outlines an experiment that will answer the question one way or another, and you can’t do the experiment, at least yet. You will often see statements along the lines that you cannot prove theories. That actually is not true, although it often comes close to it. You can prove a theory if you can say, “If only proposition A is correct and if this is done, then you will see that.” The problem is to justify the use of the “only”.

However, for the purposes of ascertaining whether what you find in fiction is science, we need a milder form of the definition, which might be that we have a proposition (or premise) and a number of facts should follow from it. In stories, what we are told are the effects, so the question then is, is there a sensible premise that might lead to the observation? This gives rise to what is “sensible”? That, in turn is debatable. Now, as an example, are the premises in Star Trek “sensible”?

The first technology is faster than light travel. According to Einstein’s relativity, that is impossible. So, superficially, that is not science, but was put there for convenience so that people can go away, then come back and report to the same people. In other words, the author tends to be writing a story that could have been on Earth, but it is put on a very much larger canvas. For me, that does not make it fantasy either; something for convenience is merely that, and may reflect more the limitations of the storyteller. Of course in the original Star Trek series, they did not come back, but rather went from planet to planet, so how long they took was actually irrelevant. Further, if they travelled at or near light speed they would not age, so perhaps it also showed a limited appreciation of relativity.

But maybe it did not, as there is something postulated called the Alcubierre warp drive, which is argued to come from the mathematics of General Relativity. This has the unusual property of stretching spacetime behind the vessel and contracting it in front. If you contract the spacetime sufficiently the ship is in a bubble that can effectively move it faster than light, so not so impossible? That depends on whether “spacetime” is a thing or a mathematical construct. By that, I mean you cannot get somewhere quicker by simply adjusting your Cartesian coordinates! On the other hand, even if it is wrong, and you cannot, since you do not know it is impossible because as yet you cannot do any test it remains a valid proposition for fiction at least, so yes, it is clearly science fiction.

The alternative is to write the story based on the fact that you cannot exceed light speed, but you can take advantage of what relativity offers by moving characters into their future. This is what I am doing in my book Scaevola’s Triumph, the third of a trilogy that is being edited now, which has the purpose of explaining how a Roman Legatus could end up on Earth in the 24th century. For me, the use of relativity actually makes the story. As an example, when the Romans were abducted by an alien space ship, a husband and wife were separated. Later, how do you tell a wife that she cannot ever see her husband again, because even if the ship turned around and went back, he would have been dead for 600 years? See the possibilities?

I shall have a little more on this topic next post.

More political chicanery

Last week I posted about accusations of political dirty tricks being released in a book in New Zealand at the same time that an election was just getting under way. One of the problems last week was that these arguments were overshadowing announcements of policy and all campaigns were in danger of stalling. Well, two days later, it almost looked as if the campaigns were going to implode.

New material emerged, in which the Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, was accused of conspiring with right wing bloggers to undermine the Head of the Serious Fraud Office, the reason for this being to undermine an investigation regarding fraud following the collapse of a major finance company during the 2009 financial meltdown. The purpose of the bloggers was allegedly to subvert the investigation and thus save one of the Directors of the failed finance company Hanover Finance from being prosecuted. Whether the bloggers really achieved anything is unclear, and in the end no criminal proceedings were undertaken, although apparently a major civil court case is being prepared. No criminal proceedings may, of course, mean that no crime was committed, or alternatively there was insufficient evidence to believe such a prosecution would be successful. New Zealand is probably not the only country where there seems to be difficulty in dealing with fraud that may or may not have occurred during the financial collapse. In many cases, financiers sailed very close to the wind, and may have been saved because technically the law was being followed, at least on one interpretation of it. Faulty law is also a problem in many countries because one suspects that lobbying by corporate lawyers manage to get the laws in a form that gives them plenty of latitude. Anyway, Collins denied any part in this program of undermining the SFO and the efforts to prosecute this particular person, but had to resign while this is being investigated, and so the Prime Minister has had to set up a Commission of Enquiry, presumably to be headed up by a retired Judge (yet to be announced) right in the middle of election campaigning. My guess is, he is furious. Now the criticism is that the terms of the enquiry are too specific, and not enough attention is being given to the wider problem, assuming there is one.

However, that is far from the end of it all, because it now turns out that the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security is initiating an enquiry into the possibility that SIS reports were specifically declassified for political purposes and the information handed over to such right wing bloggers, in one case to specifically undermine the election campaign of the Leader of the Opposition. Just what we need in an election campaign! This enquiry may be different, because it has not been initiated by a politician who may or may not have something to protect. Nevertheless, so bad was the situation that on a TV program where the two most likely to be Ministers of Finance following the election were supposed to be debating economic policy, one of them, in frustration, finally came out with, “We are half way through the allotted time, and when are we going to discuss finance?”

As one might expect, when politicians suspect that they might lose, they get desperate. Power is addictive. In this case, two weeks ago, the government was playing on fiscal responsibility. There would be no tax cuts, the Finance Minister said, because there was no room, and the government was pledging to have a small surplus to start paying back debt incurred since 2009. Now, suddenly, they have announced the possibility of tax cuts. What has changed? Well, economic forecasts suggest a loss to the economy equivalent to $1250 for every man woman and child, although that loss will actually be incurred in the food export industry, particularly dairying. Why? Because when Russia banned certain food imports, that food has to be sold on the open market, thus knocking back the price our farmers receive. So, with a significant cut in tax revenue (because the top of the income stream, i.e. the profits, is the taxed part) and no room before, now suddenly, oops, we have to try and buy this election. Now, there is “democracy” in action.

Dirty Politics and the Misuse of Power

Currently, New Zealand has entered an election campaigning season, and a little over a month out from the election, Nicky Hagar published a book called “Dirty Politics”, based upon emails apparently hacked from Slater’s computer, in which he alleges the governing party has used, or more specifically, misused, its information obtained as government, including some of the work of the Security Intelligence Service (the government organization involved with countering espionage, terrorism, etc) to discredit opponents. For people in most other countries, what happens in New Zealand may not seem important, but it goes to the heart of the problems that I have highlighted in some of my futuristic ebook novels. These have various forms of governance, but the problem is invariably that someone in power finds the flaws of the system, either deliberately or occasionally accidentally, and exploits those flaws for nefarious purposes.

I have not read “Dirty Politics” so my remarks here are dependent on the media reports, nevertheless there are some points that seem to be undisputed. Thus in the previous election, a right wing blogger Cameron Slater used a connection to someone in the Prime Minister’s Office to obtain information hacked from an unsecure computer belonging to someone in the Opposition, and used the information to smear the Leader of the Opposition. The accusation is that people working in the Prime Minister’s Office, and apparently one or two senior cabinet Ministers or people working for them, have used information obtained as of right by government, including from SIS surveillance reports, to smear people they do not like by tipping off such bloggers. As an example, it is alleged that the Minister of Justice suggested to Slater that a specifically named senior public servant had leaked information to the detriment of the Government. There are several problems with this, not the least being that the man smeared appears to have been innocent, and worse, the priming was made without a shred of evidence of guilt. The culture appears to be, “I don’t like him so let’s wreck his life.” In this particular case, the Prime Minister denies responsibility, and in the most basic sense he is probably correct in that he was out of the country at the time. And this is the policy: the man at the top must appear Teflon Clean, while the dirty work is done a level below. Straight out of the Richard Nixon philosophy!

But worse than that is the fact that the Prime Minister denies knowledge of what went on in his own office. He may be speaking the truth, but he is not there to be ignorant. If he is truly is ignorant of what is going on in his own office, then in my view he is unsuitable to lead the country. Of course I don’t believe that he did not know, but that is not the point. If he claims not to know, then he is admitting dereliction of duty. If he does nothing to clean out the guilty, which, like Nixon, he shows no sign of doing, then he now takes on the guilt.

What these people seem to do is to enjoy the idea of wrecking other people’s lives. In other words, they are total slime balls. All of which suggests that the whole idea of government for the people is decaying. One of the dangers for governance is that as systems of governance age, people may start to forget the principles that were once held sacred. Little by little, the unscrupulous take advantage, to the detriment of all but themselves. Any form of governance can only work if the people make it work. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, exposing the truth disinfects bad governance, but this requires the truth to be available. Too many parts of government seem to think that secrets are power, to be used as those with it feel free. I believe that the use of government power to smear and discredit those with views that differ from theirs is totally unacceptable.

The current Israeli/Gaza/Palestine conflict.

Over the past few days, like many, I have been concerned about what is happening in Gaza, I have posted comments on some web news sites, and it occurred to me I should explain myself more fully. According to both my fiction and non-fiction writing, problems should be able to be solved logically, and that may seem a rather strange thing to say, given the morass that is Gaza/Palestine, and there is a reason why it may fail. Logic depends on premises, and I feel part of the problem is that different people start from different premises.

While many people tend to think this specific conflict started when Hamas started firing rockets, for me, the problem started before the formation of Israel. There had been a Zionist movement for some time, but it probably got a boost in the mid 1930s when Germany tried to export Jews, and in particular, Reinhardt Heydrich promoted Palestine as a place for Jews with strong Zionist tendencies, in the hope that such Jews would embarrass Britain. These Jews did do that to some extent during the war, and then there were the strong terrorist groups, such as the Stern Gang. Many countries were embarrassed by the holocaust, and the UN voted part of Palestine to form Israel. The problem was, it was not theirs to give. Many Jews immigrated, consequently there was a housing problem, and this was followed by the Nakba, where, straight out of the Speer/Himmler re-housing textbook, about 600,000 Palestinians were ejected and their property confiscated. Since then, the Palestinians wanted to go back and various Arab countries have supported them, while the US and other countries have strongly supported Israel. The cold war became entangled in this, there were various Muslim-initiated fights, ranging from irritation to general war, and this culminated in the six-day war, when Israel thrashed its opponents and occupied a very large amount of territory. There followed UN resolution 242 in which it was argued that territory could not be acquired by conquest, and Israeli troops should withdraw from {} occupied territories to secure boundaries. There were two immediate problems: in the English version there was no definite article to replace {} but there was in the French version, so they argued, based on whether it was “the conquered territory” or just “conquered territory” about how much withdrawal was necessary, and seemingly ended with essentially none, then there was argument over “secure boundaries”. So, Israel remains in the occupied territories, but not Gaza, where it has withdrawn, not from charity but because it does not want the Palestinians in there. Since then there have been a number of UN resolutions drafted to reduce Israel’s occupancy, and the US has vetoed them. The rest we all know about. Basically, there is enough hatred here to spark endless wars. There has been even more incompetence from Palestinian leaders, but then the question arises, should the young suffer through incompetence of their parents?

So, what can be done? The first question we should ask is, do we want this situation to be there, or worse, in fifty years time, when for new generations, it is possible to have calmed the hatred? If the answer is no, there has to be peace, and soon. The right of Israel to exist has to be fundamental. It may have been wrongly formed, but we cannot do anything about that now. The Palestinians must accept an Israeli border, but have territory of their own, but that requires Israel to pull its settlers out of the occupied territories, where settlements have sprung up like a pox. Then Palestinians must also receive compensation for the Nakba, and it may be these settlements are the best way of doing that. It should be noted that when Israel pulled out of Gaza it destroyed Israeli-built housing and buildings, an act of spite that seems typical of both sides in this dispute.

The Palestinians also have to have an economy with some sort of hope for the future. All those who criticize that thought should go live in the Gaza ghetto for a while and see what it is actually like. Yes, they get a lot of aid, but that aid is merely to sustain some sort of existence. One of the more disturbing aspects about this problem is the number of people who say, the other Arab countries should take them in, or the other Arab countries should provide for them. Is it not wonderful how so many are so generous with somebody else’s wealth? Further, such resolution is urgently needed, now that Gaza has no electricity or fresh water. Now, is there a logic error in the above?

Do I think such a resolution is likely? No, it is not, and the reason is that the worst of the perpetrators of hate are too comfortable. This misery is what feeds the extremists on both sides. To get a resolution, first you need a leader on each side to see the value in reaching a solution and to accept the very basic requirements of the other side. Second, each leader has to either take the extremists on his side with him, or force them to follow. Then the external major powers have to use their influence to make it happen. I believe the third requirement is plausible, but there is little sign of the first two.

Peak oil and its consequences

What is your reaction to the term, “Peak Oil”? Most people seem to think this is merely yet another doom and gloom message, but I do not see it that way. Much of our current oil production comes from some really giant fields, and these are running down. Yes, a lot of fields are being discovered, but they are relatively small ones, and in any case, as I put it in my ebook Biofuels, An Overview, oil is not being created. Eventually we must run out, and the fact that we do not know when is immaterial. Suppose we were to replace oil with biofuels. As I show in my ebook, it is physically possible to get somewhere close, but there are problems. The first is that the infrastructure we now have in place for oil is the result of 150 years of investment. Admittedly, some has been written off, but a lot is still there. The investment has involved a huge amount of money, and we cannot find equivalent investment quickly. That means that we have to start replacing oil over a long length of time. Some will say we are doing this already with ethanol, but we have problems there too. Quite simply there is a limit to how much corn or sugar we can devote to that.

Suppose we fail? In my ebook novel, Puppeteer, I outlined a future in which governments had done little about finding replacements for oil, instead, relying on market forces to come up with solutions. Unfortunately, the market has no inherent “interest” in our well-being, as can be seen from the numerous depressions that have occurred. The market is nothing more than a means of making transactions. The plot of Puppeteer assumed the following had happened. That by relying on market forces, not enough was done, and as the demand for oil rose, the price rose faster. Oil will not run out, but rather its price makes it out of the reach of most. Thus in one scene I had a car fill up with gasoline, and pay $1,000. With that sort of price, and no public transport replacement, only too many people could not travel to work, therefore the economy fell into a major recession/depression. Now the tax take fell away dramatically, and governments that were over-leveraged were now in trouble. Debt is a great thing in a rapidly expanding economy, or in a highly inflationary economy, but it is very undesirable in a rapidly contracting economy. Debt default becomes inevitable, public service salaries are cut back and people are fired, including from senior military positions. What happens next is that only too many resort to crime to make do, the bitter resort to terrorism, officials become corrupt, and only too much money is in the hands of a few. That is the background to a fictional work, but what part of that are you so sure could not happen?

So, what should we do? The first thing, in my opinion, is not to get too deeply into debt, because paying a high percentage of one’s income as interest when things go wrong takes away too many options. The second thing, if you want to produce fuels, is to carry out the necessary studies to work out what we have to do, and how to do it, now. I have worked in this area on and off for decades, the “off” periods usually being due to a decreasing lack of interest, and hence a lack of funding. One of the unfortunate aspects of chemical processing is that there is a very long development lead-time. It may take a week or so in the lab to get lucky and find a way to make a reaction go, although it often takes longer. However, then it may take a year or so to iron out all the wrinkles, because it is one thing to make something with carefully controlled pure materials, and another to do it under conditions that are desirable for other engineering reasons on material that can have a wide variety of compositions, such as biomass. The next step is to build a pilot plant, and run that for some length of time, because one needs to know how certain parts will behave under prolonged usage, one needs to make enough material under various conditions to test it for value, and one most desperately needs to find out about all the minor byproducts so that clean-up procedures can be designed. The next step is to design a demonstration plant, which will take some undefined time to find the finance (because we start to talk money in the hundreds of millions of dollars) design the plant, then build it and run it for several years. Under normal scenarios, this takes at least ten years, and it will often lose money for most of that time because it is still not big enough. It is only then that you can start building plants that will hopefully make money. As you can see, all of this is very time consuming, and money consuming. 

Now, some of what is being done does not have to go through this route, e.g. making ethanol from sugar. That technology has been around for thousands of years, so we know how to do it. The problem here is, it is highly unlikely that energy from ethanol will even exceed 1% of oil energy because the raw materials are agricultural, and we have to eat. In my ebook, I suggest that there are a number of possibilities like ethanol that will make a useful contribution, and we should pursue them, but we still need to sort out something that will make a really significant contribution. Some will say there are such technologies, and we are putting these into practice. Certainly, there are a lot of encouraging brochures out there, but if you think all is under control search the web for “Range Fuels” and see what can go wrong. Yes, some things are being done, but is it enough? Really think about the size of the problem, and maybe you will agree with me that we need to put in more effort now. Remember, thinking is cheap; running out of fuel is expensive.

World War 1: Stupidity and Luck

The fourth of August was apparently the anniversary of the opening of World War I as far as Britain was concerned, and also New Zealand, which, together with a number of other countries in the Commonwealth, joined in to help Britain. Thus started one of the most depressing episodes of weird luck, stupidity and criminality, possibly for ever. First, stupidity and criminality. I argue various generals committed very serious war crimes. You haven’t heard of them? No, you wouldn’t, because they committed them on their own troops! For New Zealand, the worst two were at Gallipoli and Passchendaele. The concept of Gallipoli was ill-conceived, but even then it was hopelessly executed. They landed in the wrong place, and when one landing actually could have brought success, instead what happened rated a chapter in the book “Great Military Stupidities”. Passchendaele had terrain unsuitable for tanks, weather unsuitable for artillery or any form of vehicle, so they sent in the infantry into waste-deep mud. Simple target practice. A simple strategy would have been to attack further east with tanks and artillery, which was known to work, and cut off the German army there, but that sort of strategy, known at least from the time of Tutmoses III (see the battle of Meggido), and probably earlier, seemed to lie outside the comprehension of these “professional Generals”. As the anniversaries of various battles come to pass, I shall post a few more stupidities and acts of criminality.

What about luck? The first New Zealand casualty in the war was a young soldier who was apparently the target of a long-range shooter, perhaps an early sniper. The bullet hit his rifle and ricocheted off it, into his neck and thence to spine and killing him. That has to be unlucky, although some may say he could have taken better cover. However, in war, you cannot spend the whole time taking cover.

Our History Channel has just offered a program that showed some quite remarkable aspects of luck. How true these are I do not know, but for what it is worth, two that struck me were as follows.

The first involved a British advance. The bulk of the action went somewhere else, but a lone British soldier was walking along when an unarmed German stood up. The British soldier raised his rifle and ordered the German to stop. The German faced him, then, when the soldier did not fire, and apparently did not know how to order him to surrender, he turned his back on the Briton and walked calmly away. The Briton did not fire. The German was Adolph Hitler. Think of how history would have changed had that British soldier pulled the trigger. The second involved an Italian soldier who came across three enemy, presumably Austrians. He calmly shot each of them as they turned and ran. Taking cover or shooting back did not occur to them. The Italian was Mussolini.

Young men apparently rushed to enlist, and in Britain at least, instructors in the army camps also rushed to get to the front. Apparently they believed this would be over by Christmas, and they wanted their medals. This had the effect of leaving the newly enlisted essentially untrained, although given the way the Generals used troops, it may not have mattered that much. The war was terrible, but even worse it set the scene for even worse. The war to end all wars failed miserably in that objective.