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.


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.

Solstice Promo Special

And now, a quick commercial break! Four of my fictional ebooks are on special at Amazon from the solstice for a few days, including the one that was actually the cause of my developing my alternative theory of planetary formation. The fiction required an unusual discovery on Mars, I invented one, and an editor had the cheek to say it was unbelievable. Now editors in publishing houses have a right to criticize grammar, but not science, so I ended up determined to do something about this. So, to celebrate/get over the midwinter solstice (our Saturnalia!) there are significant rice reductions on these novels.

Specific details:

On June 21 my four “Mars novels” are price reduced to 99c on Amazon.com, and 99p on Amazon UK. The prices gradually increase through to June 27. The ebooks are:

Red Gold: the colonization of Mars, which gives the opportunity for a stockmarket fraud. Also possibly unique in that the writing of this led to an original scientific theory (outlined in an appendix). http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y

Then the “First Contact” trilogy.

A Face on Cydonia: a small number of mutually incompatible people form an expedition to find out for once and for all whether the “Face” is an alien monument, and they each find exactly what they do not want. Also an outline of a future economy starved of resources. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BQPUG6Q

Dreams Defiled: One member of the party, who received the Greek gift, sets out to ensure that nobody else thrives. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D0HOV5A

Jonathon Munros: A tale of revenge, and unintended consequences, including self-replicating androids intent on their revenge. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EK5T6WE

Science in fiction II

In my previous post, I tried to show that science is a way of thinking, but that left the main issue of the title, “Science in fiction” more or less free of comment. On television, at least, there has been a glut of programs showing forensic science, with various level of realism, but the general rules of cause and effect are generally followed, and given that most of the audience would know nothing of forensic science before these programs started, and given their apparent popularity, I think this shows that if properly done, there is no reason to suspect that readers would be put off by science. The important point of such forensic science programs is that there is usually someone present, like the policeman, who knows nothing about it, and hence can be told what is going to happen. I think the concept of “No surprises!” is important. If the reader is told in advance what is going to happen, and why, the reader accepts it, provided the explanations are reasonably clear.

However, you cannot do that with a surprising discovery, and sometimes the story needs just that to drive the plot along. Thus in my novel Red Gold, which was about fraud during the colonization of Mars, I needed a very big surprise of considerable economic significance to expose the fraud. Up until the critical point, it was believed that colonization of Mars might be very difficult because the soil, or more specifically, the regolith, is rather nitrogen deficient. At the same time, the atmosphere of Mars has very little nitrogen in it. These are standard facts and are correct, as far as we have been able to find out. Rather remarkably, we have found very few nitrates, which is something of a surprise since we have found perchlorates, and it would be something of a surprise if chloride in the regolith was oxidized to perchlorate, and nitrogen did not convert to nitrates. The obvious conclusion is that there has always been very little nitrogen in the Martian soil, although there is a reason why that reasoning might be superficial.

Accordingly, one question is, did Mars accrete with almost no nitrogen, or did it have some, and that nitrogen has disappeared. This is important, because unless nitrogen is plentiful in what is called a reduced form, life is very unlikely to evolve. Suppose the nitrogen was there in the reduced form: that means there was a lot of ammonia around. If it were, as the atmosphere oxidized and carbon species turned into carbon dioxide, the ammonia would be slowly turned into urea, which would then be carried more deeply below the surface by water. Any urea or ammonia left on the surface would be oxidised to nitrogen, and would contribute to the residue in the atmosphere. The surprise could therefore be simply the discovery of urea, which would act as he fertilizer and make the settlement viable. The important point of this, at least for me, was that the story could have the settlement declared viable at a point where the fraudsters were building up a case to cash in on compensation when the settlement failed.

A feature of a genuine scientific discovery is that once you make it, in most cases it also explains a number of other problems that had been a puzzle. In this case, the problem is, where did Martian rivers come from, Mars is too cold for water to flow now, and when these rivers did flow, the sun was only about 2/3 as strong as now. There is significant evidence that Mars has never been above – 60  for any reasonable length of time. Had there been ammonia around, water can flow down to -80,  so the story can be given more credibility. This, admittedly, is something of a special case, but I think there are other options if we do not need to know too many genuine facts. Thus, if something ‘amazing’ only applies to one thing, it looks suspiciously like the proverbial ‘magic wand’, designed to do nothing more than get the author out of a plot hole.

For interested readers, on December 13, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk will have promotional specials of both Red Gold and Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, the latter of which gives far more details of this theory.