The Face of Mars

Image

In 1976, the Viking 1 mission began taking photographs of the surface of Mars, in part to find landing sites for future missions, and also to get a better idea of what Mars was like, to determine the ages of various parts of Mars (done by counting craters, which assumes that once the great bombardment was over, the impacts were more or less regular over time if we think in terms of geological timing.) On the Cydonia Mensae, an image came back that, when refined, looks surprisingly like a face carved into a large rock. Two points are worth mentioning. The first is, if it were such a head, the angle of the light only allows you to see the right side of the head; the rest is in deep shadow. The second is all we received of this object was 64 pixels. The “face” is clearly a butte standing up from the surface (and there are lot of these in the region) and it is about 2.5 km long, about 1.5 km wide, and something like up to 800 m above the average flat ground at its highest point. As you might imagine, with only 64 pixels, the detail is not great, but there is a crater where the right eye should be, a rise that makes the nose, and some sort of “crack” or depression that hints at a mouth, but most of the “mouth” would be in the shade, and hence would be invisible. The image was also liberally splattered with black spots; these were “failed pixels” i.e. a transmission problem. What you see below is that primary image.

640x472 pixels-FC

So, what was it? The most obvious answer was a rock that accidentally looked like a face. To the objection, what is the probability that you could end up with that, the answer is, not as bad as you might think. There are a lot of mesas and rock formations on Mars, so sooner or later one of them might look like something else. There are a number of hills etc on Earth where you can see a head, or a frog, or something if you want to. If you think about it, an oval mesa is not that improbable, and there are a lot of them. There are a very large number of impact craters on Mars, so the chances of one being roughly where an eye would be is quite high (because there is quite a bit of flexibility here) and there are really only two features – the eye and the “mouth”. The rise for the nose only requires the centre to be the highest part, and that is not improbable. As it happens, when you see the whole thing, the left side of the head has sort of collapsed, and it is a fracture offshoot from that collapse that gives the mouth.

However, the image caught the imagination of many, and some got a little carried away. Richard Hoagland wrote a book The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever. If nothing else, this was a really good selling book, at one stage apparently selling up ot 2000 copies a month. Yep, the likes of me are at least envious of the sales. So, what did this say? Basically, Hoagland saw several “pyramids” near the Face, and a jumble of rocks that he interpreted as a walled city. Mars had an ancient civilisation! Left unsaid was why, if there were such “Martians” did they waste effort building pyramids and carving this Face while their planet was dying? For me, another question is why does something this fanciful become a best seller, while the truth languishes?

So what caused this? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It is reasonably obviously caused by erosion, but what the eroding agent was remains unknown. If you believe Mars once had an ocean, the Cydonian region is roughly where one of the proposed shorelines was. It could also be caused by glaciation, or even wind erosion, aided by moisture in the rock. The freezing/thawing of water generates very powerful forces. What we need is a geologist to visit the site to answer the question, although there would be far more important things to do on Mars than worry about that rock.

Suppose it was carved by a civilization? I included that possiblity in my novel Red Gold. In this, one character tried pulling the leg of another by announcing that it was “obviously carved” by aliens with the purpose of encouraging humans to go into space. “It is worth it,” the aliens would be saying. So why is it so rough? Because the aliens were plagued by accountants, who decided that the effort to do it properly was not worth the benefit; if humans cannot take the hint from the roughly hewn rock, so be it.

It also figures in another of my novels: A Face on Cydonia. Again, it is intended as a joke in the book, but on whom? Why did I do that? Well, I started writing when I heard that Global Surveyor was going to settle this issue, so I thought I should try to have something ready for an agent. However, Global Surveyor, which took very narrow strip images, and could have taken two years to cover this area, took only a few weeks. Out of luck again! Fortunately, the story was never really about the rock, but rather the effect it had on people.

A quick commercial: if anyone is interested, the ebook is at 99 cents on Amazon (or 99p) for the first week of September. The book is the first of a trilogy, but more about people being taken to levels higher than their abilities, and also about what causes some to descend to evil. It also has just a toiuch of science; while you can ignore this and just consider it a powerful explosive, it has the first mention of a chemical tetranitrotetrahedrane. That would be a really powerful explosive, if it could be made, but the more interesting point is why is that there?

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Why Are Countries Separating?

In many of my futuristic novels, I have selected a form of government to be in the background. Thus I have had a theocracy, a dictatorship, essentially no government (for the initial settlement of Mars), anarchy, crumbling “democracy” (i.e. our representative republic), real democracy, and finally, something else that I shall call federalism. The concept behind federalism is that a number of countries willingly join a Federation, and on most issues they continue on as they have always done, but there was also an over-riding Council whose function is to set a limited number of rules, and act as referees to make sure the various politicians in the countries behave. Another function is to provide factual information, and prevent political movements from achieving goals by lying. (Hey, I thought about “fake news” before it was popular, but that of course is hardly true either. Telling lies to get votes was bread and butter for the politicians of the Res Publica, and many of the inscriptions on the walls of Karnak by Ramses II had little relation with the facts.) This Federation also has to deal with the futuristic problems that we can see now, such as energy availability, resource allocation, climate change, etc. Interestingly enough, at least for me, the problems upon which the novels depended invariably arose from a similar source: people gaming the system. That may merely reflect my lack of imagination, but I rather fancy that any system will work well if all the people try to make it work. Most Romans thought Augustus was a great leader, even though he was effectively a dictator and probably the greatest manipulator ever.

The plots of these novels focused on how people were trying to get around the various rules. If there were an underlying message here, it was that rules only really work when people can see the point in them. A classic example is road rules. I suspect most of us have, at some time broken the speed limits, and while I have no intention of being specific and attracting unnecessary tickets, I know I have. I actually try to obey parking limits, but some times, well, something happens and I can’t quite make it. However, wherever I am, there is a rule on which side of the road I should drive on, and I keep to that assiduously. There is no specific preference – some countries drive on the right and others drive on the left, but a country has to choose one and stick with it, otherwise there are messy collisions all over the place. Everybody sticks to that rule because they see the point. (Confession time – once I did not. I came over a rise in Czechoslovakia, it was pitch black, and there was a little fire to my left. Suddenly, I realized the problem – there was a tank with camouflage netting parked in the middle of the road. I evaded around the left, not the right, because being in a British car I could better see the space I could use on my right, and also because I was better trained in sliding on gravel, etc, at speed and getting back on the road from that side. Must have given the tankers a bit of a fright. They would see a car first coming straight at their tank at 100k, then it would evade towards them and start sliding sideways, sending up showers of gravel from the side of the road.)

However, the point is, in general people will happily accept such rules if they see a point to them. Which side of the road you should drive on has a very clear point. The speed limit, perhaps less so. We recognize that road construction usually requires speed limits but I know that in some hilly terrain, overtaking a truck would be more important than sticking to a number. The problem with such rules, though is the rule makers seem to get carried away and think there should be rules for everything.

Some may recognize this Federal system. I made it up in the 1980s, and I was inspired in part by the European Union. You may recall at that time there was talk of the currency being the ecu, or European Currency Unit. Accordingly, in my novels I invented the fecu, however I put in one rule that Europe ignored. (They should have consulted me!!) In the novels, the fecu is used for transactions between companies and major corporations, and has a fixed value, a sort of resource standard. However, salaries in different countries, and goods in different countries, are paid in dollars, drachmas, whatever, and the average citizen never sees a fecu. I think the euro is a weakness of the EU because I don’t think you can run a common currency when countries have different economic policies.

Another question is whether the UE, through Brussels, has too many rules. Some say yes, others say no, but in the various discussions on Brexit, there is a lot of talk about untangling the thousands of rules. If that is a problem, there are too many of them. Good rules have a wide acceptance, and they could stay.

Which naturally brings me to the French election. All the commentators I have read say the French were upset over EU rules, and wanted change. So, what do they do? They elect a plutocrat, a banker! Trust the French – reminds me of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr) which translates out as “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing”. So, how do you get rid of the rule of plutocrats? The French elect one. The British go the indirect way and try the “go it alone” way. Neither will probably work, but in answer to the title question, I think it is because so many voters have given up on traditional representatives acting in the interests of the population at large they are prepared to try anything.

KDP Discount from April 13th over Easter.

Dreams Defiled, 99c. US and UK only, thanks to Amazon. A tragedy wherein after receiving an alien message, five characters are involved in separate ambitious goals: terraforming Mars; building a massive space station at L5 to house a million citizens; preparing to defend against aliens; and to make life better on Earth for the oppressed. The fifth is merely to be more important than the others, and the easiest way to do that is to sabotage their efforts. Action, some real science, and multiple tragedies, as all failures arise in part from character flaws. One such character bears a certain resemblance to my interpretation of the downfall of Michael Flynn. Technically the second in a trilogy, but intended as stand-alone if you can accept the background outlined in the first pages.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N24ATF7

An “invention” in Science Fiction, or reinventing the wheel!

One thing expected of science fiction authors is they should “invent” something, although obviously only in fiction. Remember the Star Trek “communicator”, which now is recognizable as a flip-open cell phone. In other words, Star Trek anticipated it. How? Well, obviously, as with other real inventions, there was a need. People exploring need to communicate with others, so they had a communicator. Obviously, you want it to be small and convenient, so it was small and convenient.

So, what has this got to do with me? Well, in my novels about the colonization of Mars, there were obvious things that had to be done, and one of these was I thought it desirable to have some sort of plant that would live outside of specialized domes. The reason for this is that people badly need the products of plants, and it would be really helpful if you could grow something out in the wastes. This led to the need to “invent” a plant that could grow outside, and hence the genetic engineers developed the “Mars cactus”. So what would it look like?

One thing that a Mars cactus would not need is spikes. No need to defend against plant eaters because there aren’t any. Obviously it had to defend itself against the bitter cold of night, so what I envisaged was a thick-skinned plant that was more like a “flat rock”, and was very thick. Inside, it had antifreeze. It would still need water, so to start with, some form of watering had to be carried out, and more on that in a later post. The next thing it needed was protection against the UV light, and it needed to absorb heat, and fortunately both of these could be achieved with a dark absorber. Many plants on earth actually have UV absorbers. Also, it had to make something useful, but fortunately it is not that difficult to envisage a plant containing cellulose.

However, the really big problem is any plant growing outside has to be able to reproduce to be useful, so I envisaged what I thought was a sneaky strategy, based a little on my experience with seaweeds. Seaweeds have an interesting sex life. They have male and female forms, and these reproduce if they can be close enough together to fertilize each other. Seaweeds, of course, have the advantage that the water currents may et the gametes get together. The offspring of such fertilization are sporophytes, which do not need fertilizing and they send out clouds of spores that if they take hold of anything, they grow into the male and female forms.

So, my Mars cactus had the following reproductive strategy. It grew tendrils underground, and if these touched a tendril of the opposite sex, an entity grew that would reach up and grow on the surface and when mature would send out clouds of spores. The spores would settle, dig into the ground, and form the tendril form. Does that seem plausible? You may think that is ridiculous, but, as I found out later, it is quite plausible. It is, after all, the reproductive strategy of the mushroom, and mushrooms, and other fungi, have existed for a very very long time. Not reinventing the wheel, perhaps, but reinventing the fungus.

Something about me

I recently released my latest ebook (Miranda’s Demons) which is a little like my effort at writing a “War and Peace” and I thought I should give some background somewhere as to where the series I have been writing came from, and why. At first sight it looks like a culmination of some of my previous ebooks, and in particular, my two trilogies, but oddly enough, Miranda was written first (although it has had a lot of revision since then). What had happened was that I had been involved in a major commercial deal that involved making the first chemical to permit low-cost high-temperature plastics, but the supply agreement from the New Zealand government for the raw material turned sour and on top of that there was the late 1980s crash, and as the dust settled, I was rather cash-poor and I had plenty of spare time. This supply agreement arose because the New Zealand government had arranged for a plant to convert natural gas to petrol through the Mobil process, and this made a byproduct called durene (1,2,4,5-tetramethylbenzene) in large amounts. This was a one-off opportunity because the conversion plant was built and it was large. While we had been trying to get the supply agreement in the first place, I had spent quite a lot of time in the presence of very senior politicians, and I also got to be a Director of two ICI companies, so I became aware of quite a lot of the good and the bad of both. So, I decided to write, and obviously it had to be other than “close to home”, but I wanted to take advantage of what I had seen. That also applied to the settings. I had been to all of them, except one, and, of course, the rest of the solar system. The reason for picking on Miranda was that it is a really weird place, and it had just been visited by Voyager 2. In a sense, this was my effort at offering a tribute to NASA and JPL.

I needed a plot, so I picked an alien invasion at the end of the 23rd century. Earth had to be technically primitive compared with them, but to make everything a bit easier, I decided they should be a reasonably small number, and battered from a previous war. I also wanted to get away from the obvious stereotype alien, because I wanted the reader to have some empathy for them. The next step was to have some traitorous humans, and it is these that are the cause of the war. Then the next step was to invent an economic future, and also a political structure to replace our republic-type systems. What I did was to take some comments from J K Galbraith, and extrapolate them so far that he might not even recognize them! The idea was, corporations start behaving like countries, except they have “what they do” type boundaries rather than geographical boundaries. Originally, these corporations were supposed to have behaved reasonably, but they had degraded. I must also add that under no circumstances should the antics of the characters in this book (or any other I have written) be takes as examples of what happens. Some of these people are really bad; that is what is needed for a story, but they are completely imagined.

So I wrote, and eventually had something resembling a monster. I sent it off, got rejected, and about the third rejection I realized that at least some revision was required. In some back-story, I had the end of the Soviet Union at 2018. (I thought 30 years in the future was safe. It never occurred to me it was going to fall when it did.) What I eventually did was pull a lot of back-story from it and this provided material for the two trilogies. Even so, it is still a long book. Given publishers will not consider anything significantly over 100,000 words from a new author, this could never have been published the traditional way.

For those interested in me, here is a link to the latest bio I have written: http://thestoryreadingapeblog.com/2015/06/20/32000/comment-page-1/#comment-52647

Simple relativity

During the summer break, I got involved in the issue of whether time was relative, but before I can discuss that, I need to be sure readers understand what relativity is. Most would consider relativity to be essentially mathematical. Not really. The principle of relativity is quite simple, and goes back a long way. In Il Dialogo, Galileo pointed out that if you were below decks in a boat, you have no idea how fast it was going, nor for that matter, in what direction. You could get up on deck and work out how fast you were going relative to the water, but there is no absolute velocity, for if you can see land, you may have a different velocity if there is a tidal flow or current. Then, of course, the earth is rotating, orbiting the sun, the sun is orbiting the galactic centre, and the galaxy is also moving relative to other galaxies. The point is, unless there is a fundamental reference there is no absolute velocity, but only a velocity relative to something else, and that depends on your perspective. As Einstein once remarked when on a train, “The Zurich Railway Station is approaching, and will shortly stop outside the train.” Bizarre though that may sound, that encompasses relativity.

The simplest way to look at this is to answer the question, “Where are you?” There are two probable answers. One is “Here!” Not very helpful when half the population answer the same way, in which case “here” is a different place for different people. The second answer is to give an address, or coordinates. The means you are defining your position as being at some distance from something else. Velocities represent the rate of change of position, and are vectors, which means they have magnitude and direction. Coming and going have quite different effects. Think of standing in the middle of a road and there is a car on it. However, when direction is properly taken into account, velocities are additive, at least in Galilean relativity. Suppose we have two fleets of ships heading to each other. Each is entitled to consider itself as motionless in its own frame of reference, with the other fleet approaching at a velocity that is the sum of the vectors in a third frame of reference.

James Clerk Maxwell gave physics a huge problem by writing his equations of electromagnetism in the form of a wave equation, when he found the velocity of his wave was more or less equal to the known speed of light. Accordingly, he stated that light was an electromagnetic wave that travelled at velocity c. The problem was, relative to what? His equation equated the velocity to constants that were properties of space itself. Still, if the waves moved through something, namely aether, they would have a velocity relative to the aether. When Michelson and Morley carried out an experiment to measure this, they found nothing. (Actually, they found a very small velocity, but that was put down to experimental error because it did not reflect the earth’s movement properly.) For Einstein, the velocity of light was constant to any observer, and there was no aether, nor any absolute motion. Making sense of this involves mathematics that are a little more complicated than those of Newtonian physics, and now we have a problem as to what it means. The interpretation most people accept was proposed by George Fitzgerald and Hendrik Lorentz, and involved space contraction in the direction of motion. The basis of this can be imagined by considering two space ships flying parallel to each other, and going in a fixed direction. Suppose one sends a signal to the other that is reflected. The principle of relativity is from the space-ships’ point of view, the other ship is stationary, but from an external observer, the signal does not go directly to the other ship, but rather travels along the hypotenuse of a right-angles triangle, which now requires Pythagoras’ theorem to untangle the maths. Complicated?

There are some seemingly absurd results obtained from relativity, but it should be noted that these arise from what different observers, each travelling at near light speed, interpret an event they see. The complication is each sees the light coming to them at the same velocity, and this leads to some more complicated maths. Strange though it may seem, the equations always give correct agreement with observation, and there is little doubt the equations are correct. The question then is, are the observations and equations being properly interpreted? Generally speaking, the maths have taken relativity quite some distance, using a concept called space-time, and in that, time is always relative as well. It would generally be thought to be near impossible to solve anything of significance in General Relativity without the use of space-time, so it must be right, surely? In my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy I make use of the time dilation effect. To fix a problem in the 23rd century, a small party of Romans have to be abducted by aliens in the first century. They travel extremely close to the speed of light, and when they return, they arrive at the right time, having burned through 2,200 years, and have aged a few years. Obviously, I believe time is relative too, don’t I? More next week.

Space warfare

For some reason, there have been a number of articles on the web recently on the realism of fictional space wars. Some of the points in fiction are obviously wrong, thus space vehicles travelling in a straight line do not need to have motor firing, and using wings to bank and turn is, well, just plain wrong because wings do not do anything in a vacuum. On the other hand, the purpose is to be entertaining, and in a film, being technically correct my merely leave the average viewer wondering. But what about in fiction? Technical explanations may turn off many readers, while correct physics without an explanation may just seem to be incomprehensible.

I had this problem in my ebook, Scaevola’s Triumph, which is now available from Amazon. This concludes a trilogy and the basic plot is that the planet Ulse is losing a space war and faces extermination. However, the future has engineered a small party of Romans to be abducted by aliens so that Scaevola could save Ulse by turning around the war. It may not seem realistic that an ancient Roman could change anything, and that is what the Ulsians believe too, nevertheless he can, and can you see why?

The purpose of the first two books was to show how science works, and what it is like to make a discovery, so it was important to try to get the science right in this book, particularly with the battles. So, what would a space war look like? If you are writing a story where you need a space war, you have to take some liberties, if for no other reason than to keep the story interesting. The first point is that distances would be very great, and would extend over light centuries. This had the problem for my civilization in that if an invasion force could travel near the speed of light, and they deployed enough military force, the invasion could proceed at near the speed of light, and hence the civilization would lose most of its dominions in that direction before they even knew there was a war. Actually, this problem first occurred with Alexander, who moved about as fast as a messenger sometimes.

What scientific issues arise in a battle? One issue is relative velocity. If two vessels are going in opposite directions, the time they have together is trivial. In one battle in my book, it took hours to approach, and a few seconds in a battle zone. Since such short contact time is undesirable, ships attacking others in my wars usually spend much of their time slowing down. Even then they might pass through the enemy, and then take at least half an hour to turn around and come back. Looping around the back of a planet is a good way to turn.

What about weapons? My view is that lasers are useless because if you depend on them, the enemy merely has to get bright and shiny, and reflect the energy. One solution is to fire otherwise undefined constrained bursts of mass/energy approaching light speed. They are difficult to avoid because the energy arrives almost as soon as the light signature of the firing. Some people have suggested that small pieces of matter are all that is needed. Chaff hitting your ship fast enough will do extreme damage. However, if ships are capable of travelling at velocities approaching light speed, they must have some means of dealing with bits of rock, etc, so that will not work. (The fact you do not know how they could do it is beside the point; we do not know how to approach light speed either, but if we did, we must have the other.) I have also seen criticisms of “fireballs”. Strictly speaking, fire cannot occur, but if you see fire merely as a plasma, then there is no reason why jets of metal vapour in a plasma could be realistic. Of course, in science fiction you can be inventive. The weapon I “invented” is one that within a locked zone the weapon exerts a field that changes the value of Planck’s action constant on a given vector direction. All nuclear structure on that axis disintegrates. Defend against that! (I know – a variable constant is uncouth, but then the question arises as to why it is constant. We don’t know that there are no circumstances when it could not have another value, do we? And this is fiction.)

Science fiction also has the “cloaking device”. In my space war, that is there – all electromagnetic radiation that strikes the vessel is absorbed and re-emitted on the other side, on the same vector. (Really, more a chameleon device.) Now, supposing there were an enemy using such a technology, how do you defend against that enemy, which means, how do you locate him? There is a way of seeing ships using such technology. Can you work it out?

Yes, it is all fiction, and I am sure that there are a number of faults there too, but the question then is, is it entertaining, and does it encourage anyone to think? If so to either, then it was worth writing it.