Colonizing Mars: basic problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military intervention – what justifies it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS, labels and unintended consequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloaking demonstrated in the lab

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

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

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

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

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

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.