Proxima b

The news this week is that a planet has been found around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our solar system. Near, of course is relative. It would take over four years for a radio message to get there, or 40 years if you travel at 0.1 times light speed. Since we can never get anywhere near that speed with our current technology, it is not exactly a find critical to our current society. The planet is apparently a little larger than Earth, and it is in the so-called habitable zone, where the star gives off enough heat to permit liquid water to flow, assuming it has sufficient atmospheric pressure of a suitable composition. That last part is important. Thus Mars and Venus might permit water to flow if their atmospheres were different. In Venus’ case, far too much carbon dioxide; in Mars’ case, insufficient atmosphere, although it too might need something with a better greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

Proxima Centauri is what is called a red dwarf. Its mass is about 1/8 of the sun’s, so it gives off a lot less energy, however, Proxima b is only 0.0485 times as far from the star as Earth is, so being closer, it gets more of what little heat is available. The question then is, how like Earth is it?

Being so close to the star, standard wisdom argues that it will be tidally locked to the star, i.e. it always keeps the same face towards the star. So half of the planet is unaware of the star’s presence; one side is warm, the other very cold and dark. However, maybe here standard theory does not give the correct outcome. That it should be tidally locked is valid as long as gravitational interactions are the only ones applicable, but are they? According to Leconte et al. (Science 346: 632 – 635) there is another effect that over-rides that. Assuming the planet does not start tidally locked, and if it has an atmosphere, then there is asymmetric heating through the day, and because the highest temperature is at about 1500 hrs, the heat causes the air there to rise, and air from the cold side to replace it, which leads to retrograde rotation through conservation of angular m omentum. (Prograde rotation is as if the planet went around its orbit as if rolling on something.) Venus is the only planet in our system that rotates retrogradely, and Leconte argues it is for this reason. The effect on Venus is small because it is quite far away from the star, and it has a very thick atmosphere.

Currently, everyone seems to believe that because the planet is in the habitable zone then it will be a rocky planet like Earth. This raises the question, how do planets form? In previous posts I have outlined how I believe rocky planets form, ( and ). These posts omit the cores of the giants, which in my theory accrete like snowballs. There are four cores leading to giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) and there are four sets of ices to form them. (There are actually potentially more that would lead to bodies much further out.) The spacing of those four planets is very close to the projected ice points, assuming Jupiter formed where water ice would snowball.

Standard theory has it that we start with a distribution of planetesimals about the star, and these attract each other gravitationally, and larger bodies accrete until we get protoplanets, then there are massive collisions. The core of Jupiter, for example, would take about 10 My to form, then it would rapidly accrete gas.

There are, in my opinion, several things wrong with this picture. The first is, nobody has any idea how the planetesimals form. These are bodies as large as a major asteroid. The models assume a distribution of them, and this is based on the assumption all mass is evenly distributed throughout the accretion disk, except that the density drops off inversely proportional to rx. The index x is a variable that has to be assumed, which is fine, and it is then assumed that apart from particle density, all regions of space have equal probability of forming planetesimals. It is the particle density that is the problem. Once beyond the distance of Saturn, collision probability becomes too low to form planets, although the distribution of planetesimals permits Uranus and Neptune to migrate out of the planet-forming zone. Now, for me a major problem comes from the system LkCa 15, where there is a planet about five times bigger than Jupiter about three times further away from a star slightly smaller than our sun that is only 3 My old. There has simply been insufficient time to form that. In my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis I proposed that bodies start accreting in the outer regions similar to snowballs. As the ices are swept towards the star, when they reach a certain temperature the ices start sticking together, and such a body can grow very quickly because as it grows, it starts orbiting faster than the gas. Accordingly, what you get depends on the temperatures in the accretion disk. Unfortunately, for any star we have no idea of that distribution because the disk is long gone. However, to a first approximation, the temperature is dependent on the heat generated less the heat lost. The heat generated at a point would depend on the gravitational potential at that point, which is dependent on stellar mass M, and the rate of flow past that point, which to a very rough approximation, depends on M2. That is by observation, and is + over 100%. So if we assume that all disks radiate equally (they don’t) and we neglect accretion rate variability, the position of a planet depends on M3. That gives a rough prediction of where planets might be, within a factor of about 3, which is arguably not very good.

However, if we use that relationship on a red dwarf of Proxima’s mass, the Jupiter core would be about 0.01 A.U. from the star. In short, Proxima b is at the very centre of where the Saturn equivalent should be, although I think it is far more likely to be the Jupiter core. The relationship is very rough, as the rate of accretion varies considerably from that relationship, and also, as the distances collapse, the size of the star now becomes significant, and back-heating will push the ice point further out. However, what is important here is that this “ice point” is relevant to any accretion theory. If ice is a solid at a given distance, then the ice should be accreted alongside any other solid.

So my opinion is that Proxima b would be a water world, with no land on the surface at all. Further, if it is the Jovian equivalent, it probably will not have an atmosphere, or if it does, it will be mainly oxygen from photolysed water. So I am very interested in seeing the future James Webb telescope aimed at that planet, as water gives a very clear infrared spectrum.

Money and Sport

Now the Olympics are over, we can admire what most of the athletes have achieved. Yes, they are professional, and they get paid to do it, nevertheless those there have shown genuine dedication. Whether professionalism is bad depends, I guess, on your point of view. The original games were also professional, and the Greeks designed them to ensure their soldiers were fit and skilled. In those times, throwing a javelin was not for fun. No need to let good ideas moulder away; I pinched that concept in my novel “Miranda’s Demons”, where an insurrection was taking place on Mars. The rebels took time out to hold games, with contests such as cross-country running, throwing and shooting in pressure suits. The objective here was to find the best way to carry out these activities when it became time to fight in the open.

In the earliest revitalized games the contests were for amateurs, but that was not quite as noble as some would have you think. It had one primary purpose: to reinforce the class structure of the time. To illustrate that point, consider the opprobrium deposited on Harold Larwood for his “bodyline” bowling against the Australian cricket team. Larwood came from the “working class” hence was designated a player; a gentleman would not do that. Of course that was quite wrong. His team captain was one of the “gentlemen” and he more or less ordered Larwood to bowl like that. Hypocrisy has always been strong in sport too.

Anyway, while such professional athletes do extremely well in the field, there raises a question about the nature of sport outside the actual events. One example was the vociferous attacks on Russian doping, which I mentioned earlier. This would have been more valid if the loudest voices were not supporting replacement athletes who could only get there if spaces were made available. The concept of conflict of interest is rather weak these days.

However, more publicized was the account of some American athletes who claimed to have been hijacked by Rio police, then as villains dressed as Rio police. Eventually, this was shown to be quite wrong and what had actually happened was that the group who had had far too much to drink had trashed a Rio business. (The details are still somewhat obscure as there have been different versions published.) Why would someone do that, then make up such a silly counter story? Much better would have been to come back, apologize, and offer restitution for the damage, in which case this would probably have blown over, but what actually happened was that the lies continued, in a sequence of watered down versions.

I should add that this sort of behaviour is not restricted to Americans. I know in New Zealand every now and again, a famous sportsman has far too much to drink and does something stupid, and hence hits the headlines, but usually there is at least some semblance of contrition when sobriety returns. The usual explanation is that when such young people are suddenly showered with money outside any of the wildest dreams of the ordinary members of their age group they simply cannot control themselves. It is almost as if some of them need minders on certain occasions.

Sometimes, however, it seems that others need minders, the others being organizers and officials. One of the best-known sporting teams in New Zealand is the All Blacks, the national rugby team, and who currently are world champions. (Yes, it helps that in most countries rugby is a minority sport.) The All Blacks spent all of last week in Sydney, preparing to play Australia on the Saturday. On the Friday (I think) they announced that they had found a bug in the room they used to hold team meetings. An initial response by the Australians was, they must be paranoid to be looking for bugs. Hold on a minute – they found a bug. You are not mad if you have suspicions that turn out to be true. This is particularly the case where there is a clear record of Australians having secretly video recorded team practices prior to games, and not only against New Zealand, as the South Africans caught them out once too. Why do they do these sort of things? Why is a game that important? The answer to that, of course, is money. Winners tend to get far better sponsorship deals.

So, the outcome of this debacle? Well, the All Blacks thrashed the Wallabies. There may be some poetic justice here because after the game was over the All Blacks announced that they actually found the bug on the Monday, but they left it there. I would like to think they managed to concoct up some totally erroneous plans to teach their opponents not to do that sort of thing.

Where to with the European Union?

Is the European Union a grand concept in the making, or merely a muddled mess? I suspect the latter. The British voters have now warned the European Union that Britain will exit, however since then nothing much has happened. One reason that I saw recently is that there will be elections in the next year or so in France and Germany, and the British want to know who they will be negotiating with before they start negotiating. At first sight that seems sensible, except consider how many countries there are in the EU. There is always going to be an election sometime in the near future somewhere. Does that mean that France and Germany are more important? (Yes, they are, but it is not politically correct to say so.) So it appears the first problem with exiting the European Union is there is no actual central part, other than an issuer of regulations conceived essentially by bureaucrats.

Herein lies a great problem for the EU. By permitting individual countries to have their own political systems that are nominally subordinate to a number of regulations from Brussels, and this is a very large number, there is a chaotic situation in terms of economies. The Union may have started as a common market, but it has changed considerably since then, and not in any clear direction. This was made worse when the European countries decided to move towards union via a common currency, apparently hoping that the various countries would adopt common economic policies. However, in representative systems of government, where politicians have to win elections, a common policy is very difficult unless there is some overall federal government. Thus in the US, while the various states can carry out independent actions to a certain degree, Washington still has overall control. That is something the EU has seemingly rejected, even though its structures seem to be heading that way by stealth. And it may be the stealth that has annoyed the British voters.

When the Euro came into being, there were marked structural differences between the various economies, and there was never a plan to harmonize these. Going further, the concept tended to involve a right wing economic view that markets were rational and would self-correct themselves. Just leave it to the market. So they did, and in 2008 there was chaos with a number of casualties. The ordinary Irishman had to pay, under edict from the European Central Bank, to rescue the corrupt Irish bankers. It continues with Greece. There is no plausible mechanism I can see how Greece can get out of the mess the German bankers got them into. It is true that the Greek politicians made the situation much worse, but why should the average Greek have to pay for their politician’s inability to accept policies that might lead to their being voted out?

The question then is, what can the European countries do? Superficially, the simplest “cure” would be to restructure debt and adopt countercyclical measures to fix productivity. The fact seems to be that you can have all the austerity you want, but you cannot have increasing productivity at the same time. It would also be necessary to heavily regulate the banking sector. However, none of this is going to happen. Germany wants to focus on price stability because its economy is, on the whole, doing much better than most. Further, it thinks that austerity on others is the only way its big banks are going to get their money back. That is unlikely to be true, because with economies like Greece, austerity has led to a major contraction, and it is difficult to get more money out of a severely contracting economy.

I suppose there is also the question of whether economic measures can increase productivity. They can certainly destroy it, but increasing it requires more than investment, although investment is certainly critical. The point is investment has to be the right investment. A machine might do the work of ten people, but if it makes something nobody wants, it is actually destructive. So the problem now reduces to finding the right people in the right place at the right time to see what the right things are to do, and then ensuring that there are adequate resources so that these things actually get done. It is here that Germany shines. The problem then is, while it is great that Germany shines, if the rest of Europe does not then Europe as a whole performs indifferently, none of which is helped by a prolonged uncertainty about the position of Britain. This would not matter if the rest of the world was vibrant, but it is not. Now the world has become so interconnected, we cannot have various parts of it performing poorly because it is highly likely that there will be serious difficulties at some time in the future. Economies always seem to go in cycles, and we cannot seem to get ourselves out of the 2008 downturn. We need to put that behind us before the next downturn arrives.

So where to for Europe? In my view, it has to make a clear decision. Either it should revert to a common market, or it should aim to be the United States of Europe. It has to get off the fence; it cannot succeed by being something in between.

Election Hazards

One of the curses of the Republic form of government that we have, where we elect representatives to govern us, is that politicians have to make statements on what they are going to do, and much of the time this tends to be made “on the hoof” so to speak, without proper consideration of the consequences. For most countries, this is annoying for the citizens who may suffer, but for America it is worse because everyone else suffers as well. We might hope that America with its greater population would produce more suitable politicians, but this may not be the case. It does not help that the American system is so prolonged, and this year it is so bitter.

What sparked this post was an item in our newspaper about Syria.

The situation is, the Russian air force is assisting the Syrian army in its advance on Aleppo, and if Assad can retake it, then he controls most of the population centres. Thirty percent of the country would be still controlled by ISIS, but that is mainly desert. What started as a sort of revolution to oust Assad, helped mainly by Saudi Arabia and the US, instead turned the county upside down and into a happy feeding ground for ISIS, helped by the fact that many of the rebel groups are essentially al Qaeda offshoots. Of course al Qaeda does not particularly support ISIS, but the rebels are indirectly helping ISIS, and there is no evidence they are doing anything directly to oppose it. They may have a different version of Islamic terrorism, but al Qaeda is still a terrorist grouping.

The good news for Assad is that Turkey is now not so eager to help the US in its efforts to get rid of Assad, the reason being that Erdogan now considers that there was US assistance to the recent coup effort to oust him. Given the US involvement in a number oustings of established governments, he is hardly likely to give the US the benefit of any doubt he might have. That there may be no real evidence to support the assertion is beyond the point, especially since the US and Europe have been heavily criticizing Erdogan for his purge following the coup attempt. They may well be right that most of those purged were innocent of the coup attempt, but being right does not mean anything to Erdogan as he cannot afford plotters. From Erdogan’s point of view, if the US wants to get rid of Assad and is prepared to even support al Qaeda affiliates to achieve that, then maybe the US is playing the same game with him. Can you blame him? When the facts are unclear, track record counts. The net result of this uncertainty is the supply of weapons etc from Turkey to the rebels in Aleppo is drying up.

So, where does that leave the US election process? Apparently both Trump and Clinton have stated that a major alteration of strategy is required, and I think that up to this point they are both right. The problem is, alter to what? According to the report in our newspaper, Clinton would order a “full review” of US strategy to get the “murderous regime” of Assad out, while escalating the fight against Islamic state. It quotes an advisor, Jeremy Bash, as saying Clinton has promised to establish a no-fly zone over Syria.

That, to my mind, is a potential disaster. What would Russia do? If Putin simply walks away, that would be the next best thing to a disaster for him. If he flies, do US planes shoot down his aircraft? The US air force would probably win any given combat, but that effectively triggers a major war. The problem is, where do the US planes come from? If they come from Turkey, and Russia attacks the base, then NATO is drawn in, and Russia has to do something about the ,missiles pointing at it from its western borders. WW III is underway. If Turkey bans them, the US has to resort to a carrier. Suppose the Russians sink the carrier, now what? At first, each side finds out how good their forces are, and the Russians may not be very happy with what they discover. On the other hand, it is unlikely to be a free shot and there will be US casualties. The next problem is how to contain this? Is getting rid of Assad really worth the risk of triggering world war three?

Trump apparently has stated (correctly in my view) the US has bigger problems than Assad, and he would assist Putin in getting rid of ISIS. On this point at least, I think Trump is right, but being right does not win votes. Now, Trump is accused of being a Putin plant. This is bad, because it means that anyone who tries to be reasonable with Russia is going to be accused of being . . . What? Is this a return to McCarthyism?

None of this is very encouraging.

From the Debt Mountain to Where?

Most of us cannot help but ask, what does the future hold? Now, any guesses are obviously fraught with difficulty because the future is not all that obliging, but since my novels are set in the future, I still have to make guesses. About 2005 I started writing a nearer to now novel (Puppeteer) and I made two guesses: terrorism would continue and grow more serious, and the economies of the world would be in trouble because of excess debt, insufficient tax collection, and the constraints of resource depletion, and in particular, oil. When I finished that, while I was trying to get an agent, I started another (Troubles) where the world economies had collapsed, and the planet had the extra problem of sea level rising. This novel was about recovery, because suddenly fusion had been developed, and energy would be plentiful. In the first chapter of that I pointed out a lot of money would be made, largely through “financial products”. (The story is essentially one of greed.) Somewhere while writing that we had Lehmans, but I decided that did not change much.

So, how good were these guesses so far, bearing in mind we have a way to go before the setting of the first story? I never saw fracking coming, at least to the extent it has, so the oil shortage is somewhat questionable, but what is interesting here is that while the price of oil has collapsed to some extent, it has not helped the economy.

In New Zealand there is a real economic problem, at least in my opinion. Statistics show that the economy seems to be doing extremely well, but it is largely due to the construction sector. The earthquake sequence wiped out about a third of the houses in Christchurch, and most of the rest needed some fixing. The central business district had to be largely demolished. (In terms of energy, the quakes were only modest, at about 7 on the Richter scale, but it was their location. The lump of basalt known as Banks Peninsula reflected the waves, leading to odd wave interference patterns and very large momentary accelerations.) Rebuilding that has strongly helped the economy.

There is also a lot of house construction going on elsewhere, but herein lies a problem: house prices are rising because of a shortage, but exacerbated by low interest rates. The low interest rates have led to an awful lot of borrowing, and that is not restricted to us. I see the national debts of the US and UK are not exactly small, at about 80% GDP (If you look at Wikipedia, there are various fudges that make an exact total impossible.) Most other European countries are somewhere around this, but Russia, interestingly enough, lies at 15% GDP. Japan gets in at 218%. Now, the question is, in the event of a major economic crisis, what happens?

In principle, with very low interest rates people could afford to invest and grow the economy, but that does not seem to be happening, at least here in New Zealand. People are borrowing to spend, and while that keeps the existing economy bubbling along, it is not getting the virtuous economic growth that is desired. Nor will it if the current philosophies towards money remain the same, and money is created at will to support debt. What happens is eventually far too many people have all of what should be disposable income devoted to repaying bank debts. Everyone works for the bank! The problem then is that they cannot purchase, and if they do not consume at all, there is not much point in producing, which leads to massive unemployment, which in turn leads to the inability to pay the interest on the debts. Now what? A major depression seems to be the minimum that could happen.

The US is a rather odd position as its dollar is also a world reserve currency, so it has gone out and printed a lot more. That should stimulate the economy, or lead to inflation, but it seems to have done neither to any serious extent, the reason seemingly being that tax avoiders are secreting away large dollops of it in tax havens, where it sits doing nothing, and is effectively being taken out of circulation. It would be a bit scary if it all suddenly reappeared.

The problem is, in my opinion, that either interest rates must eventually rise to a more normal level or they will stay where they are in perpetuity. If they rise, then all those who have taken on the maximum debt at the low rate will become insolvent because they cannot maintain the interest repayments. If they stay the same, then saving becomes somewhat foolish, particularly if the currency starts to inflate, which in principle it should be doing with all the printing, were it not for the tax evasion, and surely it cannot be in the governments’ interests to support tax evasion? So, how do we get out of this mess? The needs for plot in my two novels led to a fragmentation of society. As governments had less to offer, it became every man for himself, so to speak, and those with wealth went into enclaves to protect themselves and their wealth from the masses. Obviously that is hardly the only outcome, but what do you think will happen?