The Auckland Housing Crisis – politics and economics in conflict.

I end my latest futuristic novel (editing in progress) with the protagonists searching for a better economic system. Now, some may say, we have an excellent one now, so what is wrong with it. The Auckland housing market illustrates one symptom that something might be wrong. Yes, by itself, apart from those living there, who cares about the Auckland housing market? The fact that other cities also have ridiculous house prices may indicate the problem is more general, even though the causes will probably be different in detail, but that in turn is not the problem, in my mind anyway.

The problem in Auckland appears to be simple. House prices are so high that many people are paying up to half their income in servicing mortgages, in short, they are working their butts off for the benefit of banks. A secondary problem is that right now we have record (ridiculously?) low interest rates, so what happens when these revert to more usual levels? Now the banks have a problem, but so does every other saver, because if the banks go bankrupt, the elderly lose everything and the economic system collapses. And it is not the poor who are in this position; the poor tend to be packed in like sardines into whatever accommodation they can find for they cannot afford a family home. The reason: there are not enough houses.

As to why not, the problem goes back to politicians. Some long time ago, local politicians decided that Auckland occupies too much area, and it needs to stop sprawling and go up. The advantages are obvious, if it happened. The denser the living area, the more successful is public transport. Currently, the sprawl makes it difficult to pay, or provide, so the automobile is king; well, up to a point, as one could argue at times the road system is more a slow moving parking lot. So what happened is that in a fit of enthusiasm, politicians passed regulations to stop the sprawl by not giving building permits outside certain limits. They also did not help by putting in a whole lot of building regulations, and started raking in money through fees for obtaining permits.

What they forgot was just because they insisted in going up, not everyone wanted to go up, but worse, nobody was particularly interested in providing the apartment blocks. That was partly because nobody was sure they would work, and some that were tried probably did not work. The reason why not was that developer greed took over, and they built to maximize return, and not to maximize desirability. Postage stamp sized apartments with few facilities are not big sellers! So, with no agreed design that was acceptable to the regulators, and probably serious legal/regulatory difficulties in trying to bring in something like terrace housing, what happened is, well, nothing. With immigration increasing, all we got was price being the allocation tool. Even then, when rules on obtaining new land were relaxed, it appears much of the potential land is “banked”; recently a small number of sections were released, and a huge number of people queued up to purchase them at over the average price for house and section elsewhere in the country. These were at the very edge of the city, and with rural land nearby, and the interesting thing was, the land was going for at least an order of magnitude more than its value as a productive asset. A final problem may well be that ever-increasing prices make a speculator’s heaven.

This is not “market failure”; the market is doing exactly what is expected. The politicians have imposed strategy, but they have done so without any idea whatsoever as to how it should be implemented, and this is plain incompetence. Strategy is incomplete unless there is a clear method for how it could be implemented, and that method must be practical. And that, to my mind, is the basic problem with modern politicians: they are never happier than when devising rules but they never consider the unintended consequences, and they are always happy to plan, based on what they think ought to happen based on inadequate analysis, but they seldom work out how to implement it to give the outcomes they expect. The exceptions are taxation and spending money.

So, what to do about it? In my “First Contact” trilogy, I had it that candidates putting their names forward for election to an office had to demonstrate that they had the necessary skills to carry out the functions of the office properly. Of course, the trilogy also had the underlying subplot or subtheme of why this would not work either. Fortunately, in my next book, it ends with the protagonists “forming a new Constitution”, but nothing that is in it is mentioned. Whether I shall ever do a follow-up depends on whether I can think of what it should be. If you have any thoughts, please comment.

Excessive pharmaceutical costs.

A recent item in a local newspaper on the price of pharmaceuticals caught my attention. The question is, are the drug companies price gouging? Thus in the 1960s, Thalidomide was sold as an “over the counter” drug as a sedative, and to help with morning sickness, so that was relatively cheap. It got into trouble, however, because there were birth deformities associated with its use. Notwithstanding that, it has had a resurgence and is of value for certain form of blood cancer, and prolongs life by a few months to a year. In New Zealand, however, and using $NZ, in 2002, a month’s course cost $360 (or so the news item quoted). Now we expect a higher price when a drug has only a specialist use, and there has to be allowance for inflation, but this seems grossly excessive.

However, there is worse. Lenalidomide is a very similar drug (for those with any chemical knowledge the phthalic anhydride part that is converted to a substituted imide is replaced by phthalide, with the equivalent substitution, except the substitution is to the amide rather than the imide). Now phthalic anhydride is extremely cheap, phthalide not seriously more expensive, and the more difficult part, the substitution, is the same. Lenalidomide apparently costs $8350 per month, while Wikipedia quotes it as $US163,000 per annum per patient. What justifies this price? More to the point, what justifies and annual difference of over $US 80,000 between two countries? Now, all prices here are list prices, and apparently negotiation can often lower this, but the point remains. Further, studies have shown no significant benefit in survival rates between these two. There is another drug that does the same job: bortezomib, which costs a little under $10,000 per month, and while its starting materials are arguably a little more expensive, they are not that much more.

According to the World Health Organization, over half the expenditure on health is on medicines. Here is another example. There is a drug called Sovaldi, which treats Hepatitis C with about a 90% success rate. Note that patients can survive with the disease for decades, but eventually they have a high probability of liver failure of one sort or another. The prices for a twelve-week course are of interest. In New Zealand, the cost was quoted in this article as $NZ 239,000 (~ $US 180,000). According to Wikipedia, the cost in the US is $84,000, in the UK about 2/3 of that, in Germany, about $US 46,000, and in India, $US 300. Now, these are listed prices, there are probably discounts around, but persuade me this is not price gouging. The company is getting what it thinks it can get from each country. One can argue for charity for India, but the other countries have prices depending on who knows what, other than greed?

The issue for me is the effect of this corporate greed on families of those affected. Thus if we look at this Solvadi, in New Zealand it would cost 1 billion dollars more than the total annual health spending to treat all those with the virus. It is simply not practical to send that sort of money on one subset of patients, yet by not treating them, do they die of liver cancer at some later date? In fairness, there are alternative treatments, and I have no idea what the real situation is. However, I understand the problems. My wife recently died of metastatic cancer, and as it happened, she died before the oncologists could sort out what, if anything, to do. But what would I have felt had I been left with an option that would require all my money to buy a few months more life for my wife? That is a terrible situation for both to be in. The patient will probably not want to beggar the survivors, while the spouse does not want to not take every chance for more life for the patient.

You will hear various justifications for such expense, such as the need to develop new drugs. This is true, up to a point, but if the drug companies can just charge what they like later, there is not much incentive to be efficient, is there? There is also the issue of the cost of getting approvals. Yes, this is expensive, but persuade me it is not in the interests of the drug companies to make this as expensive as possible. The point is, they can price what they like, and the higher the costs, the easier it is to keep upstart competition at bay.

The issue for me is simple. The provision of best medicine is a public good. There is an element of pure luck whether someone suffers cancer, and whether it is aggressive or not. Certainly you can help yourself by not smoking, and by taking care in the sun, but there is no guarantee, and the same goes for many other diseases. So the question then is, should your future, if you are unlucky, depend on the loading of your wallet? Would it not be better for the state to at least keep some check on the approvals process, and remove waste? What do you think?

Where goeth Russia?

One of the themes of my futuristic ebooks is how economies might work, and one of the conclusions is that it may not matter all that much, because whatever economic system a country adopts, the outcome depends largely on the competence or incompetence of those in key positions. If we now look at Russia, we can see why, despite it having a very wide range of resources, it is in the economic doldrums.

Russia’s problems start with various Tsars, who basically wanted to control everything themselves, but did not want to do the required work. Probably the most successful economy led by a single person would have been Rome under Augustus. Augustus had several things going for him, namely the people of Rome wanted an end to civil wars, with Roman killing Roman, he had an economy that was working reasonably well considering the times, Rome had recently conquered a considerable amount of territory so it had a good income through taxing the conquered, the Roman system was essentially free enterprise, or at least much freer than anything else of the time, and also he had one of the most exceptional people who could get things done in Marcus Agrippa. Even so, Augustus was a workaholic, and even then, Roman civilization started its decline in terms of creativity. The Tsars were bone lazy, and spent most of their time terrifying the population.

The Soviet Union might well have worked, but for top management. Stalin actually had some ideas as to what had to be done, but his basic insecurity (kill anyone who looks like a political threat) and his total lack of care for the population (much better to kill a hundred innocent than let one guilty person escape, and, guilt merely involved disagreeing with Stalin, or even being disliked by Stalin) meant that not a lot really got done properly. Stalin was in too big a hurry to bring the Soviet Union into the modern age and he spent no time bringing the people with him. The reason: he feared an invasion from Hitler. He was correct.

Let us look at what happened at the end of WW2. Stalin offered the west a buffer zone. Stalin would withdraw to the Soviet boundaries IF the West left Germany to be neutral. What Stalin wanted was to have a good neutral barrier between him and the West because he believed the Americans hated Communism. He was not that wrong. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy was heavily distorted towards military manufacturing, with very little effective consumer goods being made. The agricultural sector was a mess because first collectivization led to few incentives, and second the transport and storage infrastructure was poor. Then when the Soviet Union fell, Yeltsin permitted a number of fly-by oligarchs to take over the industries, many of which they let collapse and after asset stripping, too much of the money ended up being shipped offshore. The net result was that Russia’s manufacturing base fell backwards, the agricultural sector still had a hopeless infrastructure, and as oil production grew, too much of that income simply went to oligarch’s offshore accounts.

Now, with sanctions and a falling rouble, the Russian economy can either collapse in a heap and western financiers can pick over the residues, but only if the military let them, or they can reorganize themselves and start up their own manufacturing base and make products. They may not be brilliant ones, BUT they will be competitive because in Russia there will be little else affordable. So Russia may finally construct a balanced economy. No guarantees, but their choices are do or not do, and not do leaves them in a real mess.

So, this is a triumph for the West? Anyone who thinks that is a clod. Russia is in trouble because oil prices have fallen, thanks to US fracking. What that does is to depress the price of oil to the extent that it is no longer economically sensible to proceed with many of the biofuel options, so oil replacements will stay not implemented. What that means is the sea level rises are inevitable, and the biggest losers from this may well be the Western economies. This is an example of the unintended consequences of something that is immediately good. Fracking has been great for the US economy, but not so good for global warming. Oddly enough, Russia, and Canada, will probably benefit from global warming, as most of it is not beside a coastline, and the north is horribly cold. Useful land will move north.

For the time being, though, Russia is in for a very hard time, no matter what happens, or what they do now. Even if they pulled out of Crimea and Ukraine and bent over and took their whipping from the West, that would not make a jot of difference. They must now pay the price for their history. The only question is, how do they do it? Their only real option is to use their resources and regenerate their economy themselves. Western investment is useless to them, because again, all the wealth from the resources will disappear offshore, leaving the average Russian as little better than an impoverished peasant. At present, Putin may not be what everyone wants to see, he is not exactly a genius leader, but he is all that Russia seems to have at present to avoid the worst of the collapse. Remember that while the West dislikes him, they do not care at all for the benefit of Russians; they only care about themselves, for that is the reality of the invisible hand of the market.

A prediction in my SciFi novel “Red Gold”

Time to brag a bit! I know, bragging is BAD, but here I cannot help myself. Around science fiction, there are always these comments about things that SF predicted. You know, like the “flip-open” communicator in Star Trek that looks suspiciously like some mobile phones. Well, I am going to claim a partial success. There are two tricks with such predictions. The first is to find a need, which, of course, drives all successful inventions. The second is that nobody recalls the failures, so, predict away! However, in my case, unlike most others, the prediction is not what it is, but how it would work, and that is a lot harder. The reason I put science into my novels is not to predict or show off, but rather to try and show those interested some of the principles under which science works.

One problem in my novel Red Gold was, how would settlers on Mars power their transport? Since there is no air, any combustion motor would require carrying your own oxygen, so the obvious answer is, electricity. There are now two problems: how to get power, and how to get enough total energy. Electricity could come from either rechargeable batteries or fuel cells, and both use the same basic chemistry, although some chemistry for one is not suited to the other. For example, most fuel cells now run on hydrogen and air, and a rechargeable battery that generated gas on recharging would soon blow up. Similarly, a sodium – sulphur system that works in batteries might provide a challenge as to how to feed a fuel cell.

Basically, a fuel cell (or a battery) works by burning something in a controlled fashion such that instead of generating heat, the energy comes off as electric current. I decided that a fuel cell would be better than a rechargeable battery because the battery can only store so much charge, whereas a fuel cell can go indefinitely if you recharge the fuel and remove the waste. Further, I rejected the use of hydrogen and oxygen because both would have to be in gas bottles, and as we know from the use of compressed natural gas, compressed gas takes up too much volume for a given range. That suggested the use of metal. The metal I opted for was aluminium, which is desirable because each atom gives up three electrons, and it is a solid that is easily available. At first sight, this may seem strange because to get power the reaction must be fast. Thus iron rusts, but that is so slow and fuel cell might make snails win a race with the vehicle, yet iron rusts faster than aluminium corrodes.

Aluminium has been postulated for fuel cells for about 30 years, but no real progress has been made. There are two problems with it. First, the aluminium cation with three positive charges strongly attaches itself to solvent, which means it moves very slowly, which in turn means any possible fuel cell will have a very poor power output. The second is that aluminium reacts strongly with oxygen and forms an oxide coating on its surface that effectively protects it from all sorts of reagents, which is why aluminium corrodes so slowly. Aluminium was the metal of choice to contain white fuming nitric acid for the German rocket fighter in WW 2. (White fuming nitric acid was mixed with aniline, and the spontaneous combustion gave an impressive power output. Since the fuel tanks were just behind the pilot, he was effectively flying a bomb if something went wrong.)

To get around this, I opted for chlorine as the oxidizing agent, and there were three reasons for this. The first was that chlorine and chlorides totally disrupt that oxide layer, and hydrochloric acid reacts furiously with aluminium. The second was that chlorine would be a liquid at Martian temperatures, and hence apart from its corrosive nature, which can be got around with ceramics, it would be easy to handle. The fact that it is toxic is beside the point because everyone has to wear their own breathing system on Mars because it has no significant atmosphere. The third is that the reason aluminium is usually a problem is because when it burns, it forms a small cation with three positive charges on it, and these charges polarize the solvent and large amounts of solvent stick to each cation, they then do not move very quickly, and hence the power output is very low. However, if aluminium is burned in chlorine in a fuel cell, chloride anions bond to aluminium chloride to give (AlCl4)-, an anion with one negative charge, even though the three electrons have been given up. Of course, this was a bit detailed for a novel, so I just left it with the fuel cells, and left it to those with a bit of chemical knowledge to work out why I put it there. So, why the brag?

Last week, in Nature (vol 520, p 325 – 328) Lin et al. have developed an aluminium-chloride battery that has quite dramatic properties: charge/discharges over a minute with 3 kW/kg are claimed. If it works in a battery, it should work just as easily in a fuel cell. One of the key aspects is that the reaction is that (AlCl4)- reacts with Al to make (Al2Cl7)-, which makes the whole process so fast. Another important point is that the product of burning the aluminium, namely AlCl3, actually helps further reaction and does not impede the reaction, although of course, from a volume point of view it would have to gradually removed. There is a long way to go yet, and I doubt there would ever be such a fuel cell on Earth because chlorine is a rather dangerous gas, but it should work on Mars. Not, of course, that I shall live long enough to see. Nevertheless, the fact that I could predict some chemistry that would work when up to thirty years of work by others had not is very satisfying to a chemist.

If anyone is interested in Red Gold, it will be on a Kindle count-down special from May 1 for six days.

Remembering Gallipoli

You may agree with me that war is futile, but during WW1 futile as a word seems quite inadequate. Appalling seems better. I have been reminded of this because in Australia and New Zealand the 25th April is known as Anzac Day, to celebrate that 100 years ago, Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought together for the first time at the ill-fated campaign at Gallipoli. Unfortunately, the commanders were British, and were officers that were not required for the Western Front, and hence were down the list of competence. Given that the Western Front was not exactly overloaded with competence, the residue was just plain awful. The New Zealand and Australian forces were landed at what we call Anzac Cove, and if you search Google Earth, you might well ask, why there? There is a small amount of flattish land, behind which there are fairly impressive hills. The Turks, not unnaturally, occupied the high ground. If you look a bit further with Google Earth, you will see there are much better landing spots from the point of view of having room to maneuver later. As it was, the Anzacs got ashore, and were peppered with fire from the word go.

The whole campaign seems to have been an exercise in incompetence. It would have been possible to land a month earlier, in which case the defences could have been relatively weak, but the lack of appreciation of the need for speed stalled that. There are also reports that they landed at the wrong spot anyway, but these cannot really be confirmed. This lethargy by the command continued with the landing. Rather than make a determined advance, which admittedly would have cost lives, they stayed near the beach, which meant that when they did try something, they lost more lives. Eventually, a number of attacks were attempted but they were poorly planned and achieved nothing against the determined defence.

Eventually the command decided they had to do something more likely to lead to success, and less of the formal “turn up and fight”, so two moves were tried that could in principle have given a chance for overall success. In one, the New Zealand infantry brigade made an attack on Chunuk Bair. One battalion got held up during the advance, so the commander stopped the attack for a while to let the fourth battalion catch up. That is just plain stupid, as the plan was exposed and it gave the Turks an excellent opportunity to quickly reinforce, and thus made the whole exercise extremely costly. There was some possibility that the overall commander was drunk, but we shall never know. Eventually it was taken and held for two days before being relieved by two British battalions. There had been attempts to support them during those two days, but apparently the support got lost in the dark! At this point the two British battalions were dislodged and the Turks retook the position. This exercise was really incompetent. Either the position was critical or it was not. If it were not, it should have been ignored. If it were, either there were reserves available to take advantage of victory, or there were not. If not, again, the assault was a criminal waste of lives. The taking of ground is not an objective. The real objective is to take advantage of the gain and make whatever easy advances are available.

Even worse was the attack on Suvla Bay. Twenty-two British battalions were to land, and would be opposed by only 1500 Turks. The troops would then advance inland and take three hills that were important for the Turkish artillery, and then rout the enemy. The problem with this plan was that it required a commander with the need for energy. What they got was Lieutenant-General Stopforth, who was in poor health. Accordingly, when the landing was made, he stayed on the ship, in bed! The next level down was not much better. One, Major-General Hammersley, had recently had a nervous breakdown, and he had another on day one of the operation. The landing went badly, with many not knowing where they were or what they were really trying to achieve. Brigadier-General Hill did not even know he and his men were to land at Suvla so he had no time to plan or look at maps. Landing was difficult because those who had landed had not moved inland. General Sitwell apparently went so far and decided to stop and take a break, despite no real Turkish opposition. Logistics were awful; they even forgot to provide water. Finally, communications were so bad that nobody had any real information on what was going on other than that in front of them.

The tragedy here was that there were two plans that might have worked. One was so poorly supported that it was almost inevitable it would not, and the other was so ineptly carried out it did not. Notwithstanding that, this was the stuff of nation-building. Australia and New Zealand suddenly decided that British generals were not exactly brilliant, and the two countries became much more like independent countries. Turkey found something here to unite it, and Kemal Ataturk, a commander in the campaign, went on to build modern Turkey. Finally, the British learned two things. The first was that seniority and long service are not what makes a great commander. Secondly, they learned how to make seaborne landings, which in WW 2 was not a bad thing to know.

Martian water

To have life, a planet needs water. Mars, being cold, has ice. There is a water ice-cap at the North Pole, and presumably at the South Pole. Yet there are huge valleys consistent with once having had huge flows through them. A recent scientific paper in Science (vol 348, pp218 – 221) shows evidence that Mars once had enough water to cover an area equal to that of the whole planet to a depth of 137 meters. Since Mars is now a desert, where did it go? Some would be lost to space, but a lot probably sunk into the ground, and apparently there are large areas in the northern hemisphere where underground ice sheets have been located by radar.

Having said that, there has been a recent news item of water on Mars at Gale Crater. This might be misleading. What they appear to have found is damper soil, and this has arisen because the salt calcium perchlorate sucks water from almost anywhere and dissolves, and does so at very much lower temperatures. If you mix salt (sodium chloride) with ice, it dissolves in water from the ice and takes heat from the ice, and settles as a liquid at minus 20 oC. Calcium chloride takes the temperature much lower, and apparently, so does calcium perchlorate. Yes, water can be present on Mars, even at the lower temperatures if there is something dissolved in it that lowers the freezing point enough.

Now, one of the puzzles of Mars is that there is evidence of quite significant fluid flows, in the form of great valleys carved out of the land, and which sometimes meander, but always go downhill. There should have been plenty of water, but the average temperature of Mars is currently about minus 80 oC, and back in time when these valleys formed, the sun would have been only 2/3 as bright. Unless the temperatures can be over 0 oC water freezes, so what created these valleys? Carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas would not have sufficed, because if there were the necessary amounts available, the pressure and temperature would lead it to raining out, then as the temperature dropped with lower pressure, the carbon dioxide would frost out as a solid (dry ice). There was simply not enough heat to keep enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Finally, the evidence available is that Martian temperatures never got above minus 60 oC for any significant length of time over a significant area.

The other alternative would be to dissolve something in the water to lower its freezing point. That something would not be calcium chloride or calcium perchlorate, because there simply is not enough of it around, and if there were, there would be massive deposits of lime or gypsum now. So, what could it be? When I was writing my fictional book Red Gold, which was about fraud during the colonization of Mars, I needed something unexpected to expose the fraud, and I thought that whatever caused these fluid flows could be the answer. The problem is simple: something was needed to lower the temperature of the melting point of ice by at least sixty Centigrade degrees, and not many things do that. But, there is another problem. Some of the longest fluid flows start in the southern highlands, which will be amongst the coldest parts of Mars. The reason they start there is simple in some ways: that will be where snow falls, or even where ice that has sublimed elsewhere will frost out. So, why does it melt? It cannot be something like calcium chloride because even leaving aside the point that it may not take the temperatures low enough and there was not enough of it, there most certainly was not enough in one place to keep going, and solids do not move.

My answer was ammonia. Ammonia is a gas, and hence it can get to the highlands, and furthermore, it dissolves in ice, then melts it, as long as the temperatures are at least minus eighty degrees Centigrade. Thus ammonia is one of the very few agents that could conceivably have done what was required. Given that, why is ammonia never cited by standard science? The reason is that ammonia in the air would be destroyed by solar UV, and studies have shown that ammonia would only last a matter of decades.

I argue that reasoning is wrong. On Earth, after 1.4 billion years, samples of sea water were trapped in rock at Barberton, in South Africa, and this water had almost as much ammonia in it as there was potassium. The salt levels were very high, presumably because water got boiled off when the volcanic melt solidified and sealed the water inside, and if that were the case, ammonia would have been lost too, so my estimate that ten percent of the Earth’s nitrogen remained in the form of ammonia may have been an underestimate. Why would the ammonia not be degraded? There are two reasons. The first is that most of the ammonia would be dissolved in water and not be in the air. The second is, ammonia degraded in the upper atmosphere would react with other degradation products and form a haze that would act as a sunscreen that would seriously slow down the degradation. That is the chemistry that causes the haze on Titan.

So what happened to the ammonia on Mars? My answer was, ammonia reacts with carbon dioxide to form first, ammonium carbonate, and subsequently, urea amongst other things. Such solids would dissolve in water, and in my opinion, then sink into the soil and lie below the Martian surface. This would account for why the Martian atmosphere has only about 2% nitrogen in it, and it is only 1% as thick as Earth’s atmosphere. (Nitrogen would not freeze out.) The alternative, of course, is that Mars never had any more nitrogen, in which case my argument fails because there is nothing to make the ammonia with. Does it matter? As I noted in the novel, if you want to settle Mars, yes, it would be very helpful to find a natural fertilizer resource. As to whether this happened, something carved out those valleys, and so far suggestions of what are thin and far between.

If anyone is interested, the ebook is on a Kindle countdown special, starting May 1. Besides the story, there is an appendix that outlines the first form of what would become my theory of planetary formation.

Our closest planetary system?

One of the interesting things about science is how things can change. When I wrote my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, finishing in 2011, it was generally accepted that the star Tau ceti had no planets, and all the star had orbiting it was a collection of rocks or lumps of ice, in short, debris that had never accreted. Now, it appears, five planets have been claimed to orbit it, and most have very low eccentricities. (The eccentricity measures the difference between closest and farthest distance from the star in an elliptical orbit. If the eccentricity is zero, the orbit is circular.) Orbits close to zero indicate that there have been no major disruptions to the planetary system, which can occur if the planets get too big. Once they get to a size where their gravitational pull acts on each other, the planets may play a sort of game of planetary billiards, often ejecting one from the system, and leaving the rest with highly elliptical orbits, and sometime planets very close to the star.

The question then is, how does my theory perform? The theory suggests that planets form due to chemical interactions, at least to begin, although once they reach a certain size, gravity is the driving force. This has a rather odd consequence in that while the planets are small, their differences of composition are marked, but once they get big enough to accrete everything, they become much more similar, until they become giants, in which case they appear more or less the same. The chemical interactions depend on temperature, and for the rocky planets, on a sequence of temperatures. The first important temperature is during stellar accretion, when temperatures become rather high in the rocky planet zone. For example, the material that led to the start of Earth had to get to at least 1538 degrees Centigrade, so that iron would melt. All the iron bearing meteorites almost certainly reached this temperature, as there is no other obvious way to melt the iron that forms them. At the same time, a number or silicates melt and phase separate. (That is forming two layers, like oil and water.) There is then a second important temperature. When the star has finished forming, which occurs when most of the available gas has reached it, there remains a much lower density gas disk, which cools.

The initial high temperatures are caused by large amounts of gas falling towards the star, and it gets hot due to friction as it loses potential energy. Accordingly, the potential energy depends on the gravitational field of the star, which is proportional to the mass of the star. The heat also depends on the rate of gas falling in, i.e. how much is falling, and very approximately that depends on the square of the mass of the star. Unfortunately, it also depends on how efficient the disk was at radiating heat, and that is unknowable. Accordingly, if all systems have the same pattern of disk cooling, then very very roughly, the same sort of planet will be at a distance proportional to the cube of the stellar mass, at least on this theory.

There are only two solitary stars within 12 light years from Earth that are sufficiently similar to our star that they might be considered to be of interest as supporting life, and only one, Tau ceti is old enough to be of interest as potentially having life. Tau ceti has a mass of approximately 0.78 times our sun’s mass, so on my theory the prediction of the location of the earth equivalent based on our system being a standard (which it may well not be, but with a sample of one, a statistical analysis is not possible) would be at approximately 0.48 AU, an AU (astronomical unit) being the distance from Earth to the sun. The planets present are at 0.105 AU, 0.195 AU, 0.374 AU, 0.552 A.U. and 1.35 AU. If the 0.552 planet is an Earth equivalent, all the others are somewhat further from the planet than expected, or alternatively, if the 0.374 AU planet is the earth equivalent, they are much closer than expected. Which it is within the theory depends on how fast the star formed or how transparent was the disk, both of which are unknowable. Alternatively, the Earth equivalent would be defined by its composition, which again is currently unknowable. The Jupiter equivalent should be at about 2.5 AU on my theory. If it were to be the 1.35 AU planet that was the Jupiter equivalent (mainly water ice) then the 0.552 planet would be the Mars equivalent, and while it would be just in the habitable zone (0.55 – 1.16 AU estimate) the core would have the chemistry of Mars, plus whatever it accreted gravitationally.

Tau ceti is thus the closest star where we have seen a planet in the habitable zone. The planet in the habitable zone is about 4.3 times as massive as earth, so it would be expected to have a stronger gravitational acceleration at its surface, but possibly not that much more because Earth’s gravity is enhanced by its reasonably massive iron core. Planets that accrete much of their mass through simple gravity probably also accrete a lot more water towards the end because water is more common than rock in the disk, apart from the initial stones and iron concentrated through melting. So, with a planet possibly in the habitable zone, but of unknown water content, and unknown nature, if we had the technology would you vote to send a probe to find out what it is like? The expense would make the basic NASA probes look like chickenfeed, and of course, we would never get an answer in our lifetimes, unless someone develops a motor capable of reaching relativistic speeds.

The Fermi paradox, raised by Enrico Fermi, posed the question, if alien life is possible on other planets, given that there are so many stars older than our sun, why haven’t we been visited (assuming we have not)? For all those who say there are better things to spend their money on, they answer that question. The sheer expense of getting started may mean that all civilizations prefer to stay in their own system. Not, of course, that that stops me and others from writing science fictional stories about them.