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: http://wp.me/p2IwTC-3e , http://wp.me/p2IwTC-3g , http://wp.me/p2IwTC-3k , http://wp.me/p2IwTC-3n . 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 http://wp.me/p2IwTC-5y , 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 Amazon.com. 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.

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.