Are there solutions to the Syrian conflict?

In my last post, I commented that there was a problem for ceasefires without a solution potentially acceptable to both sides: ” they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible.” Since writing that, the ceasefire has disintegrated and the Russians and Assad-loyal troops are resuming operations against the rebels in Aleppo with more vigour than before. The West accuses the Russians of barbarism, but then again, what war is not barbaric? A number of politicians have attacked the UN for doing nothing to stop this, but in my opinion, that is just simply grandstanding unless the politician also comes up with a possible solution. That raises the question, what are the options to end this violence? Since I write novels with political/economic backgrounds, what can I come up with?

Any option must comply with the major rules of strategy. These include that any strategy chosen must be feasible, and have a realistic chance of success. For the latter, there must be an operational route that can be managed with the resources at hand, and could in principle lead to success. It seems to me there are limited possibilities: one side wins; all sides agree to stop fighting and agree on a common peaceful way the country can continue; one side gives way. Maybe I am too unimaginative to think of other ones, but that list is not very promising.

Suppose one side wins, either though the other side having had enough, or having run out of supply, or through being eliminated. While that would stop the fighting, is it plausible? There is no sign that either side will lay down their arms, and there is no sign that either side will run out of supply, other than through supply not being able to get through. The rebels seem to have unlimited supply through pro-Sunni governments around the Gulf, and from US supplies, much of which probably comes through Turkey. Accordingly, it is in the interests of Russian and Assad-loyal air forces to destroy such convoys. For this option to work, one side has to prevail militarily. If the West does nothing different from what it is doing now, Assad has the best chances of winning, and his chances are better the quicker and more vigorously he can get on with it. The West may not like that, but that is the logic of it.

One option is that the various factions agree to stop fighting, and . . . The problem is, what follows “and”? Someone has to form a government. The rebels could accept Assad, but my betting is, they won’t. The rebels themselves have only one thing in common, and that is a hatred of Assad and his men. They range from soldiers who thought they could dislodge Assad through to al Qaeda, and the West would find the latter even worse. If the rebels were to try to form a government, it probably would not take long before it became an ISIS dominated government. The Alawites would have no option other than to resume fighting, or die because ISIS has shown very little tolerance for any other than those who follow its extreme form of radical Islam. So, if the factions did agree to stop, it would not be long before the Alawites had to resume, except that now they would be far worse off strategically. The UN could claim to guarantee the peace, but the fact of the matter is, the UN are only useful if both sides genuinely want peace, and the UN can sort out minor differences. I would have no faith in them if things got really bad.

Suppose someone “gives way”. Civil wars tend to generate very intense hatred, and the various parties want “justice”. “Justice” means those on the losing side, or the other side, are appropriately punished. The rebels will not trust Assad, and if Assad were to stand down, the rebels, and probably the West, would want Assad either in jail or more likely, his head. So this is not practical for Assad, because if he stepped back, he is a dead man. Further, all his senior aides, and the senior members of the Syrian military would also be dead men, so even if Assad stepped back, the rest would not and the fighting would continue.

The rebels could give way. They would know they could never trust the Assad government either, so they could not remain in Syria. Therefore one option for peace that could work would be for the West to guarantee them asylum, and assist in rebuilding Syria if Assad allows the UN to guarantee the process of extricating the rebels who wish to be extricated. You could argue that the same could be applied in reverse to Assad, but we know that the West would try to get Assad for war crimes the minute Assad is not President of Syria. Accordingly, on questions of trust, only the rebels could be guaranteed believable asylum. That now begs the question, is any country prepared to offer such asylum to a few million Sunni Muslims, many of whom are fairly radical? My guess is, no.

Unless someone can see a flaw in this analysis, the only workable solution appears to be to leave the various parties to slug it out. Yes, that is a terrible option, but it seems to be all that we have left ourselves with. I suppose in principle, an external force could send in an overwhelming military force that removes one of the sides, but I cannot see that as happening either, because that force has to take sides. If the West sent in such a force, either Russia goes away and leaves its ally to its own devices, or it stays, with the risk of WW III. For the West to do that, it would need to commit about three quarters of a million men for at least ten years, and it would have to govern. Practically, the US would have to provide about two thirds of those, or maybe the lot. I cannot see that as either possible or desirable.

So my conclusion is there are no obvious solutions that could reasonably work.

Air strikes over Syria

This was the week of air strikes that demonstrated at best, general incompetence, and at worst, something more sinister. Deir al-Zour is, or was, the seventh largest city in Syria and has an unfortunate history due to its being on the Euphrates river and being on an important trade route. Consequently it has been a target for various invaders until the Mongols simply wiped it out and thus removed the misery. However, its location led it to rise again. Now it is one of the very few centres in Eastern Syria still held by the government, although ISIS has been attacking it and by surrounding it, has meant that resupply is only possible by air. This makes the local airfield important. Overlooking, from a distance, is the al-Thardeh mountains, although I might more likely call them hills.

Now, obviously these hills are strategically important, and ISIS has been trying to capture them from the Syrian army for some time. So what does the US do? It sends in warplanes from Iraq and bombs the Syrian positions, thus allowing ISIS to capture some key strategic positions. Shortly later, a Syrian warplane tried to bomb ISIS troops, and was seemingly shot down by a US made surface to air missile operated by ISIS soldiers. What do you make of that?

The Russians argue that the US is helping ISIS. While strictly speaking this is true, I really don’t believe it is intentional. The problem, of course, is if you are bombed, it makes little difference to those on the ground whether the bombing was intentional. If you are dead, you are dead. The Russians also argue that the US refuses to coordinate air attacks with the Russians, and that seems to be not in dispute. The US spokesperson countered by accusing the Russians of point scoring, which it undoubtedly was, but that is irrelevant because the point was valid. I see a real problem here. Both claim they are trying to bomb ISIS, but the US seems to have a pathological hatred against Assad. The Russians do not have this problem so the Russians are far more likely to be aware of the Syrian army deployments, and of current conditions. To make matters worse, this is the second time this year that the US warplanes have attacked the Syrian army in this district. Either these are not mistakes, or the USAF is not learning from its mistakes.

The US says it did not knowingly strike the Syrian military, and it confused them with ISIS fighters. For me, there are several difficulties with this statement. The first is the obvious one that it should be prepared to talk to the Russians and accept intelligence. If you really do not want to kill members of the Syrian military, should you not take the trouble to find out where they are? What also bothers me is a parallel with the old hunting advice: do not shoot until you have positively identified your target. That simply did not happen. Given the strategic nature of these hills, and given that the US knows that ISIS has a number of the surface to air missiles it has given so-called moderate rebels, then it knows that either the hills must be kept in Syrian hands, or the city will have trouble with resupply and it will probably fall to ISIS.

So, what is the problem? In my view, a mixture of arrogance and incompetence. The question then is, do we accept that as an excuse? The US Air Force appears to be so technically superior to anything else around that might fight it that it can effectively do what it likes. Does that not give greater responsibility to use that power responsibly?

The second air strike was against a UN relief convoy heading to Aleppo. The US has accused the Russians of being responsible. I do not believe a Russian plane did that, but the US then counters by saying Russia is responsible for the Syrians because it is supporting them. Assad denies doing it, but he would. He may well be right. It is possible that some Syrian pilot decided to do this on his own volition, and it is unlikely Assad could find out. It is also unlikely he would try very hard.

Why would a Syrian do it? Because the UN is sending food and medical supplies to the rebels who are busy shooting at the Syrian Army. I suspect the average Syrian soldier considers such supplies will largely go to the rebels, which relieves that major problem for them, other than ammunition. This is the problem for cease-fires; they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible. The only time a cease-fire can achieve anything is if there are grounds by which the two sides can agree to end the fighting. That requires a resolution to the issue that caused it to start. The Western politicians all want this resolved, but they also want Assad to go, and they have no idea what to replace him with, having seemingly learned nothing from Iraq. Assad would have to be mad to step down now because all and sundry would want to try him for war crimes, and such trials have only one outcome: what the victor wants. So, with no means of resolving this conflict, the ceasefire is actually counterproductive to the innocent civilians, because it merely extends the misery as the rebels get stronger. (The fact that Assad is guilty is irrelevant; he has to have some reason to step down.)

If a politician rambles on about how the various parties should end this fighting, then they should specifically state how it could be resolved, and what will happen next. Otherwise, all they are doing is point scoring, and who cares?

Dark Energy and Modern Science

Most people think the scientific endeavour is truly objective; scientists draw their conclusions from all the facts and are never swayed by fashion. Sorry, but that is not true, as I found out from my PhD work. I must post about that sometime, but the shortened version is that I entered a controversy, my results unambiguously supported one side, but the other side prevailed for two reasons. Some “big names” chose that side, and the review that settled the issue conveniently left out all reference to about sixty different sorts of observations (including mine) that falsified their position. Even worse, some of the younger scientists who were on the wrong side simply abandoned the field and tried to conveniently forget their work. But before I bore people with my own history, I thought it would be worth noting another issue, dark energy. Dark energy is supposed to make up about 70% of the Universe so it must be important, right?

Nobody knows, or can even speculate with some valid reason, what dark energy is, and there is one reason only for believing it even exists, and that is it is believed that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. We are reasonably certain the Universe is expanding. Originally this was discovered by Hubble, who noticed that the spectra of distant galaxies have a red shift in their frequencies and the further away they are, the bigger the red shift. This means that the whole universe must be expanding.

Let me digress and try to explain the Doppler shift. If you think of someone beating a drum regularly, then the number of beats per unit time is the frequency. Now, suppose the drum is on the back of a truck. If you hear a beat, and expect the next one at, say, 1 second later, if the truck starts to move away, the beat will come slightly later because the sound has had further to go. If the truck goes away at a regular speed, the beats will be delayed from each other by the same interval, the frequency is less, and that is called a red shift in the frequency. Now, the sound intensity will also become quieter with distance as the sound spreads out. Thus you can determine how far away the drum is and how fast it is moving away. The same applies to light, and if the universe is expanding regularly, then the red shift should also give you the distance. Similarly, provided you know the source intensity, the measured light intensity should give you the distance.

That requires us to measure light from stars that produce a known light output, which are called standard candles. Fortunately, there is a type of very bright standard candle, or so they say, and that is the type 1A supernova. It was observed in the 1990s that the very distant supernovae were dimmer than they should be according to the red shift, which means they are further away than they should be, which means the expansion must be accelerating. To accelerate there must be some net force pushing everything apart. That something is called dark energy, and it is supposed to make up about two thirds of the Universe. The discoverers of this phenomenon won a Nobel prize, and that, of course, in many people’s eyes means it must be true.

The type 1A supernova is considered to arise when a white dwarf star starts to strip gas from a neighbouring star. The dwarf gradually increases in mass, and because its nuclear cycle has already burnt helium into carbon and oxygen, where because the mass of the dwarf is too low, the reactions stop. As the dwarf consumes its neighbour, eventually the mass becomes great enough to start the burning of carbon and oxygen; this is uncontrollable and the whole thing explodes. The important point here is that because the explosion point is reached because of the gradual addition of fresh mass, it will occur at the same point for all such situations, so you get a standard output, or so it is assumed.

My interest in this came when I went to hear a talk on the topic, and I asked the speaker a question relating to the metallicity of the companion star. (Metallicity is the fraction of elements heavier than helium, which in turn means the amount of the star made up of material that has already gone through supernovae.) What I considered was that if you think of the supernova as a bubble of extremely energetic material, what we actually see is the light from the outer surface nearest to us, and most of that surface will be the material of the companion. Since the light we see is the result of the heat and inner light promoting electrons to higher energy levels, the light should be dependent on the composition of the outer surface. To support that proposition, Lyman et al. (arXiv: 1602.08098v1 [astro-ph.HE] 2016) have shown that calcium-rich supernovae are dimmer than iron-rich ones. Thus the 1A supernova may not be such a standard candle, and the earlier it was, the lower the metallicity will be, and that metallicity will favour lighter atoms, which do not have as many energy levels from which to radiate so they will be less efficient at converting energy to light.

Accordingly, my question was, “Given that low metallicity leads to dimmer 1a supernovae, and given that the most distant stars are the youngest and hence will have the lowest metallicity, could not that be the reason the distant ones are dimmer?” The response was a crusty, “That was taken into account.” Implied: go away and learn the standard stuff. My problem with that was, how could they take into account something that was not discovered for another twenty years or so? Herein lies one of my gripes about modern science: the big names who are pledged to a position will strongly discourage anyone questioning that position if the question is a good one. Weak questions are highly desired, as the name can satisfactorily deal with it and make himself feel better.

So, besides this issue of metallicity, how strong is the evidence for this dark energy. Maybe not as strong as everyone seems to say. In a recent paper (Nielsen et al. arXiv:1506.01354v2) analysed data for a much larger number of supernovae and came to a somewhat surprising conclusion: so far, you cannot actually tell whether expansion is accelerating or not. One interesting point in this analysis is that we do not simply relate the measured magnitude to distance. In addition there are corrections for light curve shape and for colour, and each has an empirical constant attached to it, and the “constant” is assumed to be constant. There must also be corrections for intervening dust, and again it is a sheer assumption that the dust will be the same in the early universe as now, despite space being far more compact.

If we now analyse all the observed data carefully (the initial claims actually chose a rather select few) we find that any acceptable acceleration consistent with the data does not deviate significantly from no acceleration out to red shift 1, and that the experimental errors are such that to this point we cannot distinguish between the options.

Try this. Cabbolet (Astrophys. Space Sci. DOI 10.1007/s10509-014-1791-4) argues that from the Eöt-Wash experiment that if there is repulsive gravity (needed to accelerate the expansion), then quantum electrodynamics is falsified in its current formulation! Quantum electrodynamics is regarded as one of the most accurate theory ever produced. We can, of course, reject repulsive gravity, but that also rejects dark energy. So, if that argument is correct, then at least one of the two has to go, and maybe dark energy is the one more prone to go.

Another problem is that it is assumed that type 1a supernovae are standard because they all form by the gradual accretion of extra matter from a companion. But Olling et al. (Nature, 521: 332 – 335, 2015) argue that they have found three supernovae where the evidence is that the explosion occurred by one dwarf simply swallowing another, and now there is no standard mass, so the energy could be almost anyhting, depending on the mass of the companion.

Milne (ApJ 803 20. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/803/1/20) has shown there are two classes of 1a supernovae, and for one of those there is a significant underestimation of the optical luminosity of the NUV-blue SNe Ia, in particular, for the high-redshift cosmological sample. Not accounting for this effect should thus produce a distance bias that increases with redshift and could significantly bias measurements of cosmological parameters.

So why am I going on like this? I apologize to some for the details, but I think this shows a problem in that the scientific community is not always as objective as they should be. It appears to be, they do not wish to rock the boat holding the big names. All evidence should be subject to examination, and instead what we find is that only too much is “referred to the experts”. Experts are as capable of being wrong as anyone else, when there is something they did not know when they made their decision.

Interstellar probes

I get annoyed when something a little unexpected hits the news, and immediately after, a number of prominent people come up with proposals that look great, but somehow miss what seems to be obvious. In my last post (https://wordpress.com/post/ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/603), I discussed the newly discovered exoplanet Proxima b, which is orbiting a red dwarf about 4.25 light years away. Unfortunately, that is a long way away. A light year is about 9.46 x 10^12 km, or nearly nine and a half trillion km. The Universe is not exactly small. This raises the question, what do we do with this discovery? The problem with such distances is that if we sent something at the speed of light it would take 4.25 years to get there. Apart from electromagnetic radiation, we cannot get anything up to light speed. If we got something up to a tenth of light speed, it would take 42.5 years to get there, and if it sent back messages through electromagnetic radiation, say light or radio, it would take a further 4.25 years to get back, and we would get information in 46.75 years. In other words, it is close enough that in principle, someone could get information back in his/her lifetime, provided they started young. So, how could one get even up to one tenth light speed? This is where the experts jump in.

What, they propose, with about one day’s thought at most, is to send small, almost micro, probes that have a sail attached. The reason for small is that we can get more acceleration for any applied force. The idea then is that these miniprobes can be accelerated up to a significant fraction of light speed by directing a laser at the sail. Light has momentum. There is the classic way to demonstrate this: little paddles with one side light and the other dark are suspended with bearings so the paddles can rotate, then these are enclosed in a glass jar and the air evacuated. If light is shone on it, the paddles rotate. It is very easy to show from Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory why this must be. Maxwell showed that electromagnetic radiation is emitted if charge is accelerated. The reason why light must carry momentum: if the body carrying the charge is accelerated, its momentum changes, and conservation of momentum requires the radiation to carry that momentum away. For our sail, the great advantage is all the energy is generated on Earth. The normal problem with space travel is so much weight has to be carried just for propulsion, in the fuel, the engines, the piping, and the structure connecting the engines to the rest. Here all the power is generated somewhere else, so that weight can be left behind. All the weight needed for acceleration is the sail and a connection to the probe. This proposal seems superficially to be a great idea, but in my opinion, there will be great difficulties in making this work.

The first reason is aim. If the probe has motors, they can correct for faulty aim, but if all the power comes from Earth, you have to get it right from Earth. The probe may fly by, but it has to get reasonably close. Assume you can tolerate it being anywhere on a 1000 km arc (you can put in your own number) where the arc is part of a circle with the centre at Earth. The length of the arc is r θ, where θ now represents the maximum angle that the “aim can be wrong. That means θ has to be less than 1000/40.2×10^12, or 1 part in 40 billion. Do you really think you can aim that well? Of course, the aim is for where the planet will be then. If you get the speed slightly wrong, the planet could be on the other side of the star when the fly-by happens. The velocity control has to have similar accuracy. Besides the planet orbiting, the star is also moving, so the whole system has to be there when required.

The next problem is that the laser beam must strike the sail exactly above the centre of mass of the probe. Any deviation and there is an applied torque to the probe, and the sail starts to spin. Can we be that accurate?

The final problem is the sail has to be exactly at right angles to the beam. Suppose it deviates by φ. Now the accelerating impulse is p.cos φ, where p is the mometum available to be transferred to the probe, and there is a sideways impulse of p.sinφ. Now, if the probe moves even slightly sideways, as noted above it starts to spin, and it is out of control. Alternatively, if it starts to spin in any way at all, the sail will give the probe a lateral nudge. It does not need much to exceed one part in forty billion. It will move out of the laser beam, and it would be seemingly extremely difficult to devise a means of correcting for such errors becaus eyou have no way of knowing wher eit is, once it has got underway for a reasonable distance. In short, a great idea in principle, but geometry is not going to make this at all easy. What I find hard to understand is why the proponents of this scheme do not seem to have stated how they can get around this obvious problem.