Putin and the West

One of the more unexpected items that I saw recently on the web noted some accusations made by Vladimir Putin to the effect that the West, and particularly the US, has made a continual attempt to destabilize Russia. By itself, that is not exactly surprising that he would say that, but the way he argues the West went about it is, assuming this has any truth. And, of course, this continues my theme of asking for actual evidence behind accusations. The following is a précis of Putin’s accusations, together with my comments. The more complete accusations can be found here:


The first point that Putin made was that when Afghanistan was under Soviet control, the Mujahideen were funded from the CIA and the Saudis. That is almost certainly true, but the Soviets should have expected that. The next point was that when the Soviet Union collapsed and fell into total disarray the American attitude was, “kick them while they are down”. There was certainly considerable glee in the western press when the Soviet Union collapsed, but that does not mean they set about to make the situation worse. My guess is the West would be really concerned about what happened to the Soviet nuclear material, so they would not welcome a total collapse.

The next point Putin made was that Halliburton had surveyed the oil potentials of the Caucasus region, and it was huge. That is a mixed statement. The oil reserves are huge, but that was known well before, and in World War II, Hitler had decided that if he could get there, his fuel problems were over. (They would not be because there was still a transport problem, but the oil was certainly known.) Halliburton knowing about Caucasus oil reserves is unsurprising, but that does not mean Halliburton did anything. However, Halliburton can clear itself by proving none of their agents visited the region nor did they send any particular amounts of money there. So far they have not.

Putin then accused the West of trying to keep this oil from Russia. That, to me, doesn’t make sense. Putin then accused a General Richard Secord of organizing revolts. He persuaded two thousand of the Wahabbis of the Afghan Arabs to redeploy into these areas, and he was helped by a CIA agent called Osama bin Laden. Again, multiple accusations. The “Afghan Arabs” had little effect on getting rid of the Soviets from Afghanistan, and were apparently intensely disliked by the Afghans who were doing the fighting, nevertheless there were about 35,000 of these Afghan Arabs who received military training and about $800 million from the US. You can make what you will of that, and more details are at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegations_of_CIA_assistance_to_Osama_bin_Laden However, you can reasonably argue that from Putin’s point of view, he is not that interested in fine detail, and Putin’s statement was about these Afghan Arabs. Furthermore, there is evidence that people who were Osama’s closest associates did benefit from US funding. However, there is no clear evidence I could find that anyone from the CIA ever met Osama bin Laden.

General Richard Secord’s plan (according to Putin) was to set up a front company, MEGA oil, which was the agency for bringing the terrorists and arms into the Caucasus. Again, this is a multiple point statement. If MEGA oil was a registered company, the shareholding should be known, but of course these might be nominees. Thus Secord may well have helped set up that company but even of he did, that does not show he had anything to do with bringing in terrorists, i.e. the Afghan Arabs. We need supporting facts. The first success of this strategy, according to Putin, was to topple the elected President of Azerbaijan in a military coup, and replace him with an American puppet. Certainly, the President was deposed, but we have no reason to suspect the Afghan Arabs had anything to do with this.

The Afghan Arabs then turned their attention to Chechnya. A flood of US dollars allowed bin Laden to ensure that Chechen moderates were soon out of the way. Prior to this intervention, Chechens were mainly moderate Sufi Muslims but the Afghan Arabs quickly spread al Qaeda’s hard-line philosophy. Leaving aside the role of Osama, we know the Afghan Arabs did have a serious role in Chechnya, and we have no way of knowing whether the accusation of cash is true, although that would not be surprising if there was such cash, or if there was such cash, its origins. Again, a shortage of facts.

Meanwhile, according to Putin, the Saudi terrorist Ibn al-Khattag was organizing terrorists for a more general jihad. The CIA and Saudi financed terrorists also carried out the October 2002 massacre at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, and the September 2004 Beslan school massacre. According to Putin, this activity was funded by, and many fighters were provided by, Osama bin Laden from Kandahar. The objectives were, from the CIA, to destabilize the collapsing Russian federation, while the Saudis wanted to spread Wahabbi fundamentalism. The two named massacres certainly happened, but this was after 9/11, and I find it very hard to believe the US was funding the terrorists then. The more unexpected the statement, the stronger must be the supporting facts, and they are absent. Following the Beslan massacre, which the Russian troops handled poorly, Putin noted that the western media demonized him and Russia, but no mention was made of al Qaeda or the Saudi involvement. That may be because the western media had no reason to suspect Saudi involvement.

The item then noted that by late 2004, Putin had had enough of Chechnya, and ordered a more vigorous response by Russia into Chechnya. What they found was that most of the Afghan Arab terrorists had already fled, and had safe havens in NATO member countries, or reliable US allies. The allegation that the Afghan Arabs had fled Chechnya was presumably true because there is fair evidence they were there, and they were not there when the Russian troops came in, but where they went to must be unknown. My guess is many of them ended up in Iraq or Syria.

So the problem is, many of Putin’s allegations are not supported by evidence that I could find. On the other hand, just because I could not find evidence does not mean they are not true, or, for that matter, they are false. As for Halliburton, their general involvement and incompetence in Iraq may have made them a convenient whipping boy. However, the role of al Qaeda in the Chechen revolt and the two pieces of terrorism in Russia were outlined in a report that the Putin allegation asserts was published by the UN Security Council in 2010. That report is verifiable. Accordingly, I believe that is an endorsement of the truth of that part of Putin’s accusation.

In short, what Putin alleges about the Afghan Arabs and their role in Chechnya appears to be verified, but the argument that the CIA was backing them then has no support that I could find. So, my overall conclusion is there is no direct evidence that the CIA actively tried to organize terrorism in the Russian Federation, BUT they had almost certainly funded and trained the people who were to become terrorists when the US thought they were liberating Afghanistan. In short, our current problems were bred by CIA intervention, and the CIA simply did not understand the motivation behind those it was funding. Assuming it is true, the spending of $800 million on some militant religious fundamentalists may have seemed a good idea at the time, but it ended up being very silly.

Hack and be Hacked

Much has been made of hacking over the last few months, so for two reasons I cannot resist commenting. The first is obvious, while the second will become clearer later. However, the issue for me is that while there has been a lot of noise, we are strangely short of light, i.e. evidence. So what can we accept? Obviously, everyone will have their own criteria, but here is my view. The first thing to accept is that spying has been going on from time immemorial. Hacking is simply a more recent addition to the spying (if they are doing it) or intelligence gathering (if you are doing it) toolkit.

The first accusation was that the Russians hacked the Democrats and swung the election, thus appointing Trump instead of Clinton. Apparently there is a document around produced by various intelligence agencies, including the FBI, that says they have high confidence this occurred, although interestingly, the NSA gave it only moderate confidence. Given the political status and the positions of the other agencies, that probably means the NSA doubts it, and the NSA is probably the agency most capable of assessing hacking.

Do you see what is wrong with the accusation? Basically it is a multiple statement, and the simplest error is that if one part is believed, people believe it all. The first statement is, “The Democrats were hacked”. Strangely, there is very little real evidence that this happened, but I am reasonably convinced it probably did. One fact that swings me this way is that an accusation came that their security was so lax that a child could have hacked them. How did the accuser know if he did not try? The second statement is, “Some Russians did it.” Some hacker’s IDs have been published, and while this is hardly proof, I can accept it as quite possible. Another implied statement is, “Putin ordered it.” There is absolutely no evidence for that at all. Maybe he did, although two of the named hackers were more like private individuals, and why would he use them?

However, then we get to the really crunch bit: “the Russians then swung the election.” To me, this is highly implausible, and the only evidence produced is that some unknown hacker provided information to Wikileaks. My question is, even if the Russians hacked the Democrats, how did that affect the election? Is the average American voter a devoted fan of Wikileaks? What did the Wikileaks document say? I don’t know, and if I don’t know and I am reasonably interested, why does the average voter who probably does not care a toss over hacked emails care? My guess is, the Russians are busy collecting whatever intelligence they can, as are the US agencies. They are not trying to influence internal politics, because they will backfire in a big way; instead they simply want to know what to expect. I could be wrong on that.

The next accusation we have is that those dastardly Russians hacked Angela Merkel. Probably true, but then again, the main evidence we have is an admission the NSA did that some time before. Sounds like life in government. Following that, we have Trump accusing Obama of having hacked, or spied, on him during the election campaign. Again, not a shred of evidence has been produced. And again, we have the problem, did it happen, and if so, who did it? My personal view is it is highly unlikely President Obama did that.

The latest accusation is that the Russians hacked Yahoo. Here we at least have evidence of part of the multiple statement: Yahoo confirms it was hacked. The Americans have accused four Russians, two of whom are private sector criminals, and two were part of the FSB, the Russian state security service. This is where it gets interesting. The Russian government had apparently arrested at least one of the FSB men for illegal hacking of Putin. This sounds to me that the accused Russians may well have done that, but they were not acting on behalf of the Russian government, other than that two of them were drawing FSB pay.

The following is a good example why you need firm facts. For those who know nothing about rugby, admittedly a minor sport, the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national team, recently played the Australian national team. The All Blacks arrived at the site of their next game in Australia about 6 days ahead of the game, and apparently they found that the room allocated for team talks was bugged. Most people would jump to the conclusion that the Australians did this, because the Australians would seem to be those with the obvious motive, but seemingly they are wrong. The Australian police, after some serious investigation, found that the perpetrator was the man the All Blacks had hired to monitor security. So you see, jumping to conclusions can lead to quite erroneous conclusions. That is why I argue we need evidence.

So where does that leave me? Actually enthused. After I published ‘Bot War, I needed another project, and I decided to write about espionage and hacking. The trouble was, I didn’t really know much about it, and some time after I started I was seriously questioning whether this was a sensible project. After all the disclosure over these hacking activities, I have been provided with a whole lot of free research. Of course I don’t know the techniques of hacking, but there is enough information out there to at least make the background sort of plausible. So there is some good that comes out of this, at least for me.

Settling Mars and High Energy Solar Particles

Recently, the US government announced that sending people to Mars was a long-term objective, and accordingly it is worth looking at some of the hazards. One that often gets airing is the fact that the sun sends out bursts of high-energy particles that are mainly protons, i.e. hydrogen atoms with their electrons stripped off. If these strike living matter, they tend to smash the molecules, as they have energy far greater than the energy of the chemical bond. These are of little hazard to us usually, though, because they are diverted by the earth’s magnetic field. It is this solar wind that is the primary cause of auroras. The solar wind particles knock electrons out of gas molecules, and the light is generated when electrons return. As you might guess, if these particles can knock out enough electrons from molecules to generate that light show, the particle flux would be quite undesirable for DNA, and a high cancer rate would be expected if some form of protection could not be provided.

The obvious method is to divert the particles, and electromagnetism provides a solution. When a charged particle is moving and it strikes a magnetic field, there is a force that causes the path of the charged particle to bend. The actual force is calculated through something called a vector cross product, but in simple terms the bending force increases with the velocity of the particle, the strength of the magnetic field, and the angle between the path and the magnetic field. The force is maximum when the path is at right angles to the magnetic field, and is actually zero when the particle motion is parallel to the field. The question then is, can we do anything about the solar particles with this?

The first option would be to generate a magnetic field in Mars. Unfortunately, that is not an option, because we have no idea how to generate a dynamo within the planet, nor do we know if it is actually possible. The usual explanation for the earth’s magnetic field is that it is generated through the earth’s rotation and the iron core. Obviously, there is more to it than that, but one thing we know is that the density of Mars is about 3.9 whereas Earth is about 5.5. Basalt, the most common mix of metal silicates, has a density ranging from 3 to 3.8, but of course density also increases with compression. This suggests that Mars does not have much of an iron core. As far as I am aware, it is also unclear whether the core of Mars is solid or liquid. Accordingly, it appears clear there is no reasonable hope of magnetizing Mars.

The alternative is to put an appropriate magnetic field on the line between Mars and the sun. To do that, we have to put a properly aligned strong magnetic field between Mars and the sun. The problem is, bodies orbiting the sun generally only have the same angular rotation about the sun as Mars if they are at the same distance from the sun as Mars, or on average if they are orbiting Mars, in which case they cannot be between, and if they are not between all the time, they are essentially useless.

However, for the general case where a medium sized body orbits a much larger one, such as a planet around a star, or the Moon around Earth, there are five points where a much smaller object can orbit in a fixed configuration with respect to the other two. These are known as Lagrange points, named after the French mathematician who found them, and the good news is that L1, the first such point, lies directly between the planet and the star. Thus on Mars, a satellite at L1 would always seem to “eclipse” the sun, although of course it would be too small to be noticed.

Accordingly, a solution to the problem of high-energy solar particles on settlers on Mars would be to put a strong enough magnetic field at the Mars sun L1 position, so as to bend the path of the solar particles away from Mars. What is interesting is that very recently Jim Green, NASA Planetary Science Division Director, made a proposal of putting such a magnetic shield at the Mars-Sun-L1 position. For a summary of Green’s proposal, see http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/moon-mars/a25493/magnetic-shield-mars-atmosphere/ .

The NASA proposal was focused more on reducing the stripping of the atmosphere by the solar wind. If so, according to Green, such a shield could help Mars achieve half the atmospheric pressure of Earth in a matter of years, on the assumption that frozen CO2 would sublimate, thus starting the process of terraforming. I am not so sure of that, because stopping radiation hitting Mars should not lead to particularly rapid sublimation. It is true that stopping such charged particles would help in stopping gas being knocked off the outer atmosphere, but the evidence we have is that such stripping is a relatively minor effect.

The other point about this is that I made this suggestion in my ebook novel Red Gold, published in 2011, which is about the colonization of Mars. My idea there was to put a satellite at L1 with solar panels and superconducting magnets. If the magnet coils can be shielded from sunlight, even the high temperature superconductors we have now should be adequate, in which case no cooling might be required. Of course the novel is science fiction, but it is always good to see NASA validate one of your ideas, so I am rather pleased with myself.

Trappist-1, and Problems for a Theoretician

In my previous post, I outlined the recently discovered planets around Trappist-1. One interesting question is, how did such planets form? My guess is, the standard theory will have a lot of trouble explaining this, because what we have is a very large number of earth-sized rocky planets around a rather insubstantial star. How did that happen? However, the alternative theory outlined in my ebook, Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, also has a problem. I gave an equation that very approximately predicts what you will get based on the size of the star, and this equation was based on the premise that chemical or physical chemical interactions that lead to accretion of planets while the star is accreting follow the temperatures in various parts of the accretion disk. In turn, the accretion disk around Trappist-1 should not have got hot enough where any of the rocky planets are, and more importantly, it should not have happened over such a wide radial distance. Worse still, the theory predicts different types of planets in different places, and while we cannot eliminate this possibility for trappist-1, it seems highly likely that all the planets located so far are rocky planets. So what went wrong?

This illustrates an interesting aspect of scientific theory. The theory was developed in part to account for our solar system, and solar systems around similar stars. The temperature in the initial accretion disk where the planets form around G type stars is dependent on two major factors. The first is the loss of potential energy as the gas falls towards the star. The temperature at a specific distance due to this is due to the gravitational potential at that point, which in turn is dependent on the mass of the star, and the rate of gas flowing through that point, which in turn, from observation, is very approximately dependent on the square of the mass of the star. So overall, that part is very approximately proportional to the cube of the stellar mass. The second dependency is on the amount of heat radiated to space, which in turn depends on the amount of dust, the disk thickness, and the turbulence in the disk. Overall, that is approximately the same for similar stars, but it is difficult to know how the Trappist-1 disk would cool. So, while the relationship is too unreliable for predicting where a planet will be, it should be somewhat better for predicting where the others will be, and what sort of planets they will be, if you can clearly identify what one of them is. Trappist-1 has far too many rocky planets. So again, what went wrong?

The answer is that in any scientific theory, very frequently we have to make approximations. In this case, because of the dust, and because of the distance, I assumed that for G type stars the heat from the star was irrelevant. For example, in the theory Earth formed from material that had been processed to at least 1550 degrees Centigrade. That is consistent with the heat relationship where Jupiter forms where water ice is beginning to think about subliming, which is also part of the standard theory. Since the dust should block much of the star’s light, the star might be adding at most a few tens of degrees to Earth’s temperature while the dust was still there at its initial concentration, and given the uncertainties elsewhere, I ignored that.

For Trappist -1 it is clear that such an omission is not valid. The planets would have accreted from material that was essentially near the outer envelope of the actual star during accretion, the star would appear large, the distance involving dust would be small, the flow through would be much more modest, and so the accreting star would now be a major source of heat.

Does this make sense? First, there are no rocky bodies of any size closer to our sun than Mercury. The reason for that, in this theory, is that by this point the dust started to get so hot it vaporized and joined the gas that flowed into the star. It never got that hot at Trappist-1. And that in turn is why Trappist-1 has so many rocky planets. The general coolness due to the small amount of mass falling inwards (relatively speaking) meant that the necessary heat for rocky planets only occurred very close to the star, but because of the relative size of the stellar envelope that temperature was further out than mass flow would predict, and furthermore the fact that the star could not be even vaguely considered as a point source meant that the zone for the rocky planets was sufficiently extended that a larger number of rocky planets was possible.

There are planets close to other stars, and they are usually giants. These almost certainly did not form there, and the usual explanation for them is that when very large planets get too close together, their orbits become unstable, and in a form of gravitational billiards, they start throwing each other around, some even being thrown from the solar system, and some end up very close to the star.

So, what does that mean for the planets of Trappist-1? From the densities quoted in the Nature paper, if they are right, and the authors give a wide range of uncertainty, the fact that the sixth one out has a density approaching that of Earth means they have surprisingly large iron cores, which may mean there is a possibility most of them accreted more or less the same way Mercury or Venus did, i.e. they accreted at relatively high temperatures, in which case they will have very little water on them. Furthermore, it has also been determined that these planets will be experiencing a rather uncomfortable amount of Xrays and extreme ultraviolet radiation. Do not book a ticket to go to them.


By now, I suspect everybody has heard of Trappist-1, a totally non-spectacular star about 39 light years from Earth, and in terms of astronomy, a really close neighbour. I have seen a number of people on the web speculating about going there some time in the not too distant future. Suppose you could average a speed of 50,000 kilometers per hr, by my calculation (hopefully not hopelessly wrong) it would take about 850,000 years to get there. Since chemical rockets cannot get significantly more velocity, don’t book your ticket. Is it possible for a person to get to such stars? It would be if you could get to a speed sufficiently close to light speed. Relativity tells us that as you approach light speed your aging process slows down, and if you went at light speed (theoretically impossible if you have mass) you would not age, even though it would take 39 years as seen by an observer on earth. (Of course, assuming an observer could see your craft, it would seem to take 78 years at light speed because the signal has to get back.) It is not just aging; everything you do slows down the same way, so if you were travelling at light speed you would think the star was surprisingly close.

The chances are you will also have seen the comment that Trappist-1 is only a little bit bigger than Jupiter. In terms of mass, Trappist-1 is about 8% the mass of the sun, and that certainly makes it a small star as stars go, but it is about 84 times the mass of Jupiter. In my book, 84 times as big is not exactly “a little bit bigger”. Trappist-1 is certainly not as hot as the sun; its surface temperature is about 40% that of the sun. The power output of the star is also much lower, because power radiated per unit area is proportional to the fourth power of the temperature, and of course the area is much less. In this context, there are a lot of planets bigger than Jupiter, many of them about 18 times as big, but they are also too small to ignite thermonuclear reactions.

Nevertheless the system has three “earth-sized” planets in the “habitable” zone, and one that would be too hot for water to be in the liquid state, with a surface temperature predicted to be about 127 degree Centigrade provided it is simply in equilibrium with incoming stellar radiation. Of course, polar temperatures could be significantly cooler. The next three out would have surface temperatures of about 68 degrees C, 15 degrees C (which is rather earth-like) and minus 22 degrees C. Such temperatures do not take into account any greenhouse effect from any atmosphere, and it may be that the planet with a temperature of 68 degrees could equally end up something like a Venus. Interestingly, in the Nature paper describing them, it is argued that it is the planets e, f and g that could have water oceans, despite having temperatures without any greenhouse effect of minus 22, minus 54, and minus 74 degrees C. This arises from certain modeling, which I find unexpected. The planets are likely to be tidally locked, i.e. like the moon, the same face will always be directed towards the star.

So, there is excitement: here we have potential habitable planets. Or do we?

In terms of size, yes we do. The planetary radii for many are quite close to Earth’s, although d, the one with the most earth-like temperatures has a radius of about 0.77 Earth’s. Most of the others are a shade larger than earth, at least in terms of radius.

Another interesting thing is there are estimates of the planetary masses. How they get these is interesting, given the complexity of the system. The planets were detected by their transiting over the face of the star, and such transits have a periodic time, or what we would call a year, i.e how long it takes to get the next transit. Thus the closest, b, has a periodic time of 1.51087081 days. The furthest out has a period of 20 days. Now, the masses can be determined by mutual gravitational effects. Thus since the planets are close, suppose one is being chased by the other around transit time. The one behind will be pulled along a bit and the one in front retarded a bit, and that will lead to the transits being not quite on time. Unfortunately, the data set meant that because of the rather significant uncertainties in just about every variable, the masses are somewhat uncertain, thus the mass of the inner one is 0.85 + 0.72 earth masses. The second one is calculated to have a density of 1.17 times that of earth, which means it has a huge iron core. However, with the exception of the outer one, they all have densities that strongly suggest rocky planets, most with iron cores.

Suppose we went there. On our most “earth-like” planet we might have trouble growing plants. The reason is the light intensity is very low, and is more like on earth just after sunset. The reason the temperatures are adequate is that the star puts out much of its energy in the form of infrared radiation, and in general that is not adequate to power any obvious photochemistry, although it is good for warming things. The web informs us that astronomers are excited by this discovery because they give us the best chance of analyzing the atmospheres of an alien planet.

The reason is the planets orbit in a plane that means they pass in front of the star from our observation point, and that gives us an excellent chance to measure their size, but eventually also to analyse their atmospheres if they have certain sorts of gases. The reason for this is that as infrared radiation passes through material, the energies corresponding to the energies of molecular vibrations get absorbed. So, if we record the spectrum of the stellar radiation, when a planet passes in front of it, besides the main part of the planet lowering the intensity of all the radiation, where there is an energy corresponding to a molecular vibration, there would be a further absorption, so there would be little spikes on the overall dip. Such absorption spectra are often used by chemists to help identify what they have. It only identifies the class of compounds, because all compounds with the same functional group will absorb the same sort of radiation, but as far as gases go, there are not very many of them and we should be able to identify the with quite a degree of confidence, with one exception. Gases such as nitrogen and oxygen do not absorb in the infrared.

So, where does that leave us? We have a system that in principle lets us analyze things in greater detail than for most other planetary systems. However, I suspect this might also be misleading. This system is quite unlike others we have seen, mainly because it is around a much smaller star, and the planets may also be different due to the different conditions around a smaller star during planetary formation.