Book Discounts and Video

From November 8 – 15, two ebooks will be 99c or 99p. These are:

Scaevola’s Triumph

The bizarre prophecy has worked, and Scaevola finds himself on an alien planet that is technically so advanced they consider him a primitive, yet it is losing a war. According to Pallas Athene, only he can save this civilization from extermination, and his use of strategy is needed to win this war. But what can he do, when at first he cannot even open the door to his apartment?  Book III of a series.

The Manganese Dilemma

Charles Burrowes, master hacker, is thrown into a ‘black op’ with the curvaceous Svetlana for company to validate new super stealth technology she has brought to the West. Can Burrowes provide what the CIA needs before Russian counterintelligence or a local criminal conspiracy blow the whole operation out of the water?

Finally, for those who what to know what I look like:

A link to Red Gold:

Problems of Sustaining Settlements on Mars: Somewhere to Live.

People who write science fiction find colonizing Mars to be a fruitful source of plot material. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote three books on the topic, ending up by terraforming Mars. I have also written one (“Red Gold”) that included some of the problems. We even have one scheme currently being touted in which people are signing up for non-return trips. So, what are the problems? If we think about settlers making a one-way trip to New Zealand, as my ancestors did, they would find a rough start to life because much of the land was covered in forest, although there were plains. But forests meant timber for houses, some fuel, and even for sale. Leaving aside the stumps, the soil was ripe for planting crops, and you could run sheep or cows. It would have been a hard life, but there would be no reasons to fear instant death.

Mars is different. It has its resources, but they are in an inconvenient form. Take air. Mars has an atmosphere, but not a very dense one. The air pressure is about two orders of magnitude less that on Earth. That means you will have to live in some sort of dome or cave, and pump up the atmosphere to get adequate pressure, which requires you to build something that is airtight. The atmosphere is also full of carbon dioxide, and has essentially no oxygen. The answer to that is simple: build giant glass houses, pump up the atmosphere, and grow plants. That gives you food and oxygen, although you will need some fairly massive glass houses to get enough oxygen. So, how do you go about that? You will need pumps to pump up the air pressure, some form of filters to get the dust out of the inputs, and equipment to erect and seal the glass houses. That will need equipment brought from Earth. Fortunately you can make a lot of glass houses with one set of equipment. However, there are three more things required: glass, metal framing, and some form of footer, to seal in the pressure and stop it leaking back out. Initially that too will have to come from Earth, but sooner or later you have to start making this sort of thing on Mars, as otherwise the expense will be horrendous.

Glass is made by fusing pure silica with sodium carbonate and calcium oxide, and often other materials are added, such as alumina, magnesium oxide, and or borate. It is important to have some additives because it is necessary to filter out the UV radiation from the sun, so silica itself would not suffice. It is also necessary to find a glass that operates best at the lower temperatures, and that can be done, but how do you get the pure ingredients? Most of these elements are common on Mars, but locked up in basaltic rock or dust. The problem here is, Mars has had very little geochemical processing. On Earth, over the first billion years of ocean, a lot of basalt got weathered by the carbonic acid so a lot of magnesium ended up in the sea, and a lot of iron formed ferrous ions in aqueous dispersion. The earliest seas would have been green. Once life learned how to make oxygen, that oxidized the ferrous to ferric, and as ferric hydroxide is very insoluble, masses of iron precipitated out, eventually to dehydrate and make the haematite deposits that supply our steel industry. Life also started using the calcium, and when the life died and sunk to the bottom, deposits of limestone formed. As far as we know, that sort of thing did not happen on Mars. So, while sand is common on Mars, it is contaminated with iron. Would that make a suitable glass? Lava from volcanoes is not usually considered to be prime material for making glass.

So, how do you process the Martian rock? If you are going to try acid leaching, where do you get the acid, and what do you do with the residual solution? And where do you do all this?

While worrying about that, there is the question of the footer. How do you make that? In my novel Red Gold I assumed that they had developed a cement from Martian sources. That is, in my opinion, plausible. It may not be quite like our cement, which is made from limestone and clays heated to about 1700 degrees C. However, some volcanic eruptions produce material which, when heated and mixed with burnt lime make excellent cements. The main Roman cement was essentially burnt lime mixed with some heat-treated output of Vesuvius. Note once again we need lime. This, in turn, could be a problem.

My solution in Red Gold to the elements problem was simply to smash sand into its atoms and separate the elements by electromagnetism, similar to how a mass spectrometer works. The energy input for such a scheme would be very high, but the argument there was they had developed nuclear fusion, so energy was not a problem, nor for that matter, was temperature. No molecules can survive much more than about ten thousand degrees C, and nuclear fusion has a minimum temperature of about eighty million degrees C. Fine, in a novel. Doing that in practice might be a bit more difficult. However, if you don’t do something like that, how do you get the calcium oxide to make your cement, or your glass? And without a glass house, how can you eat and breathe? Put you off going to Mars? If it hasn’t, I assure you once you have your dome your problems are only beginning. More posts on this some time later.

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.

Theory and planets: what is right?

In general, I reserve this blog to support my science fiction writing, but since I try to put some real science in my writing, I thought just once I would venture into the slightly more scientific. As mentioned in previous posts, I have a completely different view of how planets, so the question is, why? Surely everyone else cannot be wrong? The answer to that depends on whether everyone goes back to first principles and satisfies themselves, and how many lazily accept what is put in front of them. That does not mean that it is wrong, however. Just because people are lazy merely makes them irrelevant. After all, what is wrong with the standard theory?

My answer to that is, in the standard theory, computations start with a uniform distribution of planetesimals formed in the disk of gas from which the star forms. From then on, gravity requires the planetesimals to collide, and it is assumed that from these collisions, planets form. I believe there are two things wrong with that picture. The first is, there is no known mechanism to get to planetesimals. The second is that while gravity may be the mechanism by which planets complete their growth, it is not the mechanism by which it starts. The reader may immediately protest and say that even if we have no idea how planetesimals form, something had to start small and accrete, otherwise there would be no planets. That is true, but just because something had to start small does not mean there is a uniform distribution throughout the accretion disk.

My theory is that it is chemistry that causes everything to start, and different chemistries occur at different temperatures. This leads to the different planets having different properties and somewhat different compositions.

The questions then are: am I right? does it matter? To the first, if I am wrong it should be possible to falsify it. So far, nobody has, so my theory is still alive. Whether it matters depends on whether you believe in science or fairy stories. If you believe that any story will do as long as you like it, well, that is certainly not science, at least in the sense that I signed up to in my youth.

So, if I am correct, what is the probability of finding suitable planets for life? Accretion disks last between 1 to even as much as 30 My. The longer the disk lasts, the longer planets pick up material, which means the bigger they are. For me, an important observation was the detection of a planet of about six times Jupiter’s mass that was about three times further from its star (with the name LkCa 15) than Jupiter. The star is approximately 2 My old. Now, the further from the star, the less dense the material, and this star is slightly smaller than our sun. The original computations required about 15 My or more to get Jupiter around our star, so they cannot be quite correct, although that is irrelevant to this question. No matter what the mechanism of accretion, Jupiter had to start accreting faster than this planet because the density of starting material must be seriously greater, which means that we can only get our solar system if the disk was cleared out very much sooner than 2 My. People ask, is there anything special regarding our solar system? I believe this very rapid cleanout of the disk will eliminate the great bulk of the planetary systems. Does it matter if they get bigger? Unfortunately, yes, because the bigger the planets get, the bigger the gravitational interactions between them, so the more likely they are to interact. If they do, orbits become chaotic, and planets can be eliminated from the system as other orbits become highly elliptical.

If anyone is interested in this theory, Planetary Formation and Biogenesis ( )

will be available for 99 cents  as a special promo on (and 99p on on Friday 13, and it will gradually increase in price over the next few days. Similarly priced on Friday 13 is my novel Red Gold, (  ) which is about fraud during the settlement of Mars, and as noted in my previous post, is one of the very few examples of a novel in which a genuine theory got started.

Discounted and new ebooks

Talk about getting something wrong. I had heard that there was a really good reason to discount my ebooks on Black Friday, and Amazon offers a means of discounting. Accordingly, I decided to get ready, I had plenty of time, after all (and Americans, please, contain your mirth here) I was going to set everything up for Friday December 13. Two things went wrong. The first was, oops – for Americans it appears Black Friday is something else. The second one was that I decided to discount my “Mars books”, but it turned out that I may have trouble with “A Face on Cydonia” because the KDP select period expires this week. Watch this space next week, but sooner or later it will be discounted.

Nevertheless, there will be discounts on the scientific ebook on my theory of planetary formation:

Planetary Formation and Biogenesis ( )

will be available for 99 cents  as a special promo on (and 99p on – these are the lowest prices permitted on each case) on December Friday 13, and the prices increase daily for about 5 days until they reach normal price.

Also on the promo is my novel Red Gold, (  ) which is about fraud during the settlement of Mars.  This ebook was written in the early 1990s, and to expose the fraud, a surprising discovery was required. The surprise was the discovery of what remained of the Martian atmosphere, which provided the nitrogen fertilizer necessary to make the settlement viable. The very first version that led me to the theory in the first book is outlined in the appendix, so this is one of the very few examples of how a theory got started. How important this is depends on whether the theory is correct, and I would love to know the answer to that one. A review, to help you decide:

Finally, and not on promo (because it has to be there for more days than it has) I have just published my latest ebook, Athene’s Prophecy ( ). Below, I have copied out the first paragraph, which I think gives some idea of what the book is about:

Pallas Athene was in disgrace, but she felt that it was worth every gram of it for she had immortalized herself, starting over three thousand years before she was born. Yes, she knew that her career as a serious classical historian was over, and being consigned to this miserable cell was not exactly a career highlight, but on the bright side the cell did not have a means of evacuation. If it had, and if there were even a remote possibility that such an evacuation could have been reported as accidental, she was quite certain she would have been consigned to the depths of space. Instead, all they could do was to put her in a shuttle and return her to Earth tomorrow. They would also make certain that she would never be given permission to use the temporal viewer again.

Terraforming Mars

In the 1990s, there was much speculation about terraforming planets, particularly Mars. The idea was that the planet could be converted into something like Earth. To make Mars roughly like Earth, the temperature has to be raised by about ninety Centigrade degrees, atmospheric pressure has to be raised by something approaching a hundred times present pressure, and a lot of water must be found. That presumably comes from buried ice, so besides uncovering it, an enormous amount of heat is required to melt it. The reason Mars is colder is that the sun delivers half the power to Mars than Earth, due to Mars being further away. The gas pressure depends on two things. The first is there has to be enough material, and the second is we have to get it into the gas phase. The most obvious gas is carbon dioxide, because as dry ice, it could be in the solid state, but would be amenable to heating. The problem is, if carbon dioxide is present with a lot of water, it will be absorbed by the water, particularly cold water, and slowly turned into material like dolomite. Nitrogen is the major gas in our atmosphere, but that would be a gas on Mars, and there is very little in the Martian atmosphere.

Why did anyone ever think Terraforming was possible? One reason may be that about 3.6 Gy ago (a gigayear is a thousand million years) it was thought that there were huge rivers on Mars. The Viking images found a huge number of massive river valleys, and so it was thought there had to be sufficient temperatures to melt the water. Subsequent information has suggested that these rivers did not persist over a prolonged wet period, but rather there were intermittent periods where significant flows occurred.  Such rivers probably never flowed for more than a million years or so, and while a million years might seem to be an extremely long period to us, it is trivial in the life of the solar system. Nevertheless the rivers meandered for that period, which is at least suggestive that they were relatively stable for that time, so what went wrong?

When I wrote Red Gold, I needed the major protagonist to make an unexpected discovery to expose a fraud, and it was then that I had an idea. The average temperature on Mars now is -80 degrees C, and while we could imagine some sort of greenhouse effect warming the early Mars, the sun only emitted about two-thirds the energy it does now, so temperature would have been a more severe problem. To me, it was inconceivable that the temperature could get sufficiently above the melting point of ice to give significant flows, but there is one way to make water liquid at -80 degrees C, and that is to have ammonia present. If the volcanoes gave off ammonia as well as water, that would give some greenhouse gas, and the carbon would be present as methane, this being what is called a reducing atmosphere. Sunlight tends to act with water to oxidize things, giving off hydrogen that escapes to space. This has happened extensively on Mars, indeed at many sites where chloride has been deposited on the surface, it has been converted to perchlorate. So methane would oxidize to carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide would react with ammonia to make first, ammonium carbonate, then, given heat or time, urea. So my “unexpected discovery” was the fertilizer that would make the settlement of Mars possible. I had something that I thought would make my plot plausible.

Funnily enough, this thought took on a life of its own; the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, because it helps to explain, amongst other things, how life began. (The reduced form of nitrogen is a set of compound called nitrides. Water on nitrides, plus heat, makes ammonia, and also cyanide, which is effectively carbon nitride.) Standard theory, of course, assumes that nitrogen was always emitted as the nitrogen gas we have in our atmosphere. Of course you might think that all the scientists are right and I am wrong. Amongst others, Carl Sagan calculated that if ammonia was emitted into the atmosphere, it would be removed by sunlight in a matter of a decade or so, and he had to be right, surely? Well, no. Anyone can be wrong. (Of course you may say some, such as me, are more likely to be wrong than others!) However, in this case I maintain that Sagan was wrong because he overlooked something: ammonia dissolves in water at a very fast rate, and in water it will be protected to some extent. To justify that, we have found rocks on Earth that are 3.2 billion years old and that have samples of seawater enclosed, and these drops of seawater have very high levels of ammonia. These levels are sufficiently high that about 10% of Earth’s nitrogen must have been dissolved in the sea as ammonia at the time, and that is after the Earth had been around for about 500 million years after the water flowed on Mars.

If anyone is interested in why I think this occurred, Red Gold has an appendix where my first explanation is given in simple language. For those who want something a bit more detailed, together with a review of several hundred scientific papers, you could try my ebook, Planetary Formation and Biogenesis.

The “Face” of Mars

I start my new SciFi ebook, A Face on Cydonia, as follows:

On the Cydonian region of Mars there are two faces staring into space. Both are two and a half kilometers long, a kilometer wide and about four hundred meters high, and since both are in exactly the same place, no observer can see more than one of them. Most see a battered butte with craters roughly in the right place such that, with considerable imagination, the image of a badly torn face can perhaps be seen. Some, however, see a refinement of the enhancement produced from the original low resolution Viking photographs, a truly alien monument, a deep message to humanity . . .

I refer, of course, to the “Face”, which has gained a certain degree of notoriety as people speculated as to what might have created what we see.  Guesses run from Martians, aliens, to natural erosion. Most people would be skeptical and point out that, “You can see faces anywhere, such as clouds,” and dismiss anything other than nature as nonsense. While this face is somewhat different from cloud faces, it has one interesting thing in common: much of the face is hidden in the original image, simply because the angle of the sun shades half of it. One purpose in my novels is to try to show that reality should follow the rules of logic. So, what would logic say? The first question a scientist asks is, are the data suitable to resolve anything? If they were collected for some other purpose, they may not be. The initial data were collected by the Viking orbiter, which had the task of creating the first map of Mars. The map, perforce, had to deal with the major features, so for various reasons it settled on resolution that would give the desired map. Below, see one of the images of the Cydonia Mensae, in which the Face was first seen. Note that the angle of the sunlight shades quite a bit of the Face.



We can expand and enhance the particular region (small black dots are lost pixels and are not real):




The initial argument against erosion/adventitious craters was initially, the probability of sufficient coincidences is too low. That argument is false, because what was overlooked was that with so few pixels devoted to the face, coupled with the shading, you do not need much in the way of accidental coincidence. That does not prove it is natural, but rather suggests you need better data before reaching a conclusion.

As I noted in Red Gold, we can immediately eliminate Martians, because the face looks like ours  (if it looks like a face) rather than like a possible Martian’s, and leaving aside the inhospitality of Mars, even had there been such Martians, they would have no idea what our face would look like. There are further reasons: there is no reason why a Martian would carve a face only we could see, and Mars could never have evolved indigenous technological life forms without leaving some evidence of the process. Aliens are slightly more difficult to eliminate by logic. As one of the characters in Red Gold said as a joke, space-traveling aliens who visited Earth, say two million years ago, could have worked out what our faces would look like when we evolved sufficiently to develop the technology to see such a butte on Mars, and they could have carved something. It could then be a message to us, meaning, “Come to space; it is possible and it is worth it.” That still leaves the issue of why would they bother to do that.

All of this speculation almost certainly annoyed NASA considerably. Beside the Face, some thought they saw pyramids. That is not hard to understand, except again the specific lighting in the first picture greatly enhances the possibility, since only a pointed top and an edge is required. Accordingly, when Global Surveyor was sent to Mars, NASA promised to use its better resolution to settle for once and for all what this rock was. Meanwhile, I had thought that all the activity might make it worth while to write  a SCiFi novel about the rock. Of course you cannot simply write about a rock, so I had to construct a story around it. This was slower than I thought, and Global Surveyor settled this issue, one of its images being reproduced below:



The end of speculation about aliens! Well, not necessarily in fiction! (Actually, not necessarily in reality, as can be seen if you check the web!) I started my novel A Face on Cydonia with a television program that showed the image of the butte, intending to show how silly people were to think there could have been aliens, when the image morphed into the Viking-type image and winked. Eventually, this lead to an expedition, in which the members all have problems with each of the other members, and the book focuses on these problems. To add to the mix, there are at least three attempts from an external agent to murder at least one of them. Then, to keep the story going, each of the participants finds exactly what they did not want to find, and I set up a situation for more story by having each of them look forward to a future where they will have to carry out what they do not wish to do.

For those interested, in next post I shall give a link to A Face on Cydonia.