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.

Easter. A scientist’s peek

As Easter approaches, the scientist in me asks, bearing in mind the number of strange events told in the bible, what really happened? What the scientist does at this point is to examine the evidence and ask questions, so let us do that now. First, when were the accounts written? The answer is, apparently decades later, which means that details may not be correct, even with the best of intentions. Then, the text was revised under Constantine’s orders over 250 years later. The priests at Nicaea had a choice: do what Constantine wanted, in which case Christianity would be a permitted religion in the Roman empire, or reject Constantine, and get thrown over some cliffs. If they wanted to bring the message of Christ to the world, then surely a little softening of the Roman position was a small price to pay? Who would Constantine want to blame? Surely not the Romans, so that left “blame” to be more liberally apportioned to the Jews. This strongly suggests which way variations would go.

Thus in the bible, contrary to what Hollywood states, Jesus was not arrested by Roman soldiers but rather by representatives of the temple, who came bearing swords. Temple representatives bearing swords? They then needed Judas to “betray” Jesus. Exactly how this was a betrayal beats me; Jesus had clearly stated that he would be crucified because it was prophesied, so in principle, it was needed. But stranger still, a man has come into the temple, overturned all the money-lenders tables and had started preaching, so why not use one of them, who would most likely do it to get revenge? Why not find someone who had seen Jesus preach? If they were worried about his following, someone must have known what he looked like. Why did these Jews of the temple not care about saving the temple 30 pieces of silver? In my view, Judas was given a bad write-up.

Then consider the arrest. For some reason, one of the disciples has a sword, and he proceeds to cut off the ear of a priest. My first question: what were all the others with swords doing while all this was going on? Just standing around? Actually, only cutting off an ear would be extremely difficult; just how would you do it, without doing more serious damage elsewhere? Then why was a disciple of the prince of peace bringing a sword to there? Did they always carry swords? If not, why then? If so, why is this never mentioned elsewhere? Then, according to Luke, but not the others, Jesus put the ear back on and healed the man. Now, put yourself in the place of some of the priests. Here is a man who claims divine powers, and he just picks up a fallen ear and puts it back on a priest, and the man is healed. Would you not just pause and ask yourself, could he really be divine?

Now, consider Pilate. Pilate had faced mobs before. On one occasion he had a cohort of soldiers dressed up as Jews, and when the Jews got out of hand, he had the soldiers lay into the mob with clubs, and the floor was littered with Jews with broken bones. Pilate was not the man to give in to a Jewish mob, and had he, his future would be bleak. Tiberius had little sympathy for governors who gave in to mobs. Then why did Pilate say he could find no fault? No Roman governor would say that and order a crucifixion, again because word could get back to Tiberius, who could very well say, “No fault on you, so come to Capri and be thrown over the cliff.” No, if Pilate ordered a crucifixion, he would say something like, “He is guilty of leading a revolt,” even if he knew he was not. Then there was the crucifixion itself. Jesus was declared dead and brought down a few hours into it, without having his legs broken. He was then wrapped in cloth, and given away for burial. That never happened in any other Roman crucifixion. Criminals were literally left “hanging around” for days while the crows fed on the bodies, and eventually the remains would be discarded.

What could have happened? In my novel “Athene’s Prophecy” I offered the possibility that since there had been over 200 claimants to be the Jewish Messiah, and all had died but failed the resurrection test, Pilate offered the Jews exactly what they did not want: a Messiah that preached peace. (The Jews believed their Messiah would get rid of Rome, so Pilate had an incentive to stop the appearance of more Messiahs.) That would explain the label put on the cross. Accordingly, he permitted the body to be cut down at a time when in principle the crucifixion might be survivable. Pilate would not care one way or the other, as senior Roman soldiers were not full of our feelings of political correctness. That, of course, is mere speculation, but I believe the Muslims believe he did not actually die.

Is that what happened? We have no way of knowing what actually happened. What we do know from Tacitus is that according to the accounts he had, Cristus was crucified, and his disciples had started a serious religion that promoted peace. (The fact that throughout history Christianity has been responsible for uncountable murders is beside the point; the message given is that of peace.) In my opinion, the story told in the bible cannot be literally true, and what probably happened at Nicaea is that the priests, in massaging the story to be accepted by Constantine, effectively wrote it as a parable, showing up various character flaws while discarding that which would not be acceptable to Constantine. In this context, recall there is apparently a Gospel of Judas, and that was most certainly discarded.

In my opinion, we should forget the details because they are probably wrong, and instead concentrate more on the fundamental message of Christianity.