Category Archives: Science fact

Wishing and hoping doesn’t make it real

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Look, I’m a space nut. It says so on the header up there. So when NASA announced the discovery of “Earth 2.0” I was as excited as the next space nut.

But let’s put this into context, people. What do we really KNOW about this planet, as FACT?

  • It’s in the constellation of Cygnus, 1,400 light years from Earth.
  • It orbits a star slightly larger than our sun, but of the same solar type.
  • The planet has an orbit of 385 Earth days.
  • It’s slightly larger than Earth.

And that’s it.

Let’s face it folks, astronomers have done a LOT of conjecturing on what amounts to a slight dip in the brightness of the star as the planet passes across its face. Science Alert has a rather good article about the discovery, with a little less hype.

We don’t know how long its day is. We don’t know the composition of its atmosphere. We might think it’s rocky but we can’t be certain. We certainly can’t suggest for a moment that its surface looks like the wonderful artist’s impression at top left. We should remember that Mars and Venus are in our sun’s habitable zone. Venus, in particular, could be seen as Earth’s twin – from a distance.

That said, (and to quote Captain Piett) it’s the best lead we’ve had. He was promoted to Admiral not long after that. Maybe we should send a star fleet to check Kepler 452b out. Maybe we’ll meet some Klingons.



Future Politics – is democracy dying?

picture of Sunset on the Houses of Parliament, London

Sunset on the Houses of Parliament, London

I recently read an article in iO9, about the potential shape of future political systems. And it got me to thinking, as these things do. I have a BA(Hons) in history. Part of my honours year was a fascinating study of the French, American and Russian revolutions, and the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany. The broad brush similarities between these apparently disparate events is there for all to see. In essence, a powerful autocracy is weakened by allowing the influence of the educated middle class. It all looks like everything will be rosy in the garden, but then the rabble rousers see an opportunity and rouse the rabble. That’s when the random killing starts, and mob rule and fanatics take over, while the people at the top get rich. Animal Farm, anyone? After a while, everyone recognises that this can’t continue. A small group sets up rule, which, more often than not, leads to a new dictatorship, for example Napoleon, or Stalin. Yes, I know this is an over-simplification. Spare me the detailed ‘yes but’s. Let’s look at a few modern examples.

  • Yugoslavia. Tito kept a lid on the ever-present simmering ethnic tensions in the Balkans. He died, the attempt at democracy failed, war and genocide broke out. Without Tito, a state like Yugoslavia cannot exist.

  • USSR. Gorbachev recognised the writing on the wall. He was the moderate intellectual wave. Then Yeltsin took over in Russia and attempted a form of democracy, but the economic situation was such that the poor became poorer, gangsters became rich and lawlessness was rife. Now, Putin is working steadily at establishing himself as a second Stalin. Including grabs of territory.

  • Iraq. Nobody disputes that the late Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. But while he was in power, most ordinary Iraqis could go about their business. Sectarian violence didn’t happen – not that we heard about, anyway. When the Americans invaded his country, all bets were off. We only need to look at the newspapers to feel sympathy for that strife-torn country. It will not survive the overflow of sectarian violence pouring in from Syria.

  • Iran. Under the Shah, this was a westernised, modern country. Then the Ayatollah Khomeini took over. Salman Rushdie, a resident of another country, was in fear of his life for writing a book, and the American embassy was besieged. Now it’s an Islamic state where women are second class citizens and ‘democracy’ is a farce.

  • And these are just a few.

Which leads to the question, what about democracy? Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of democracy. Does it work? I wonder, I truly do. I believe democracy can only work where it develops within the country. It cannot be imposed by anybody else. It’s a fantasy to imagine that Western armies can roll into Afghanistan and impose democracy on the population. Democracy must be based on an educated population which understands the concept. Let’s remember that the original Greek democracy didn’t include everyone. Slaves and women weren’t considered part of the voting population. For a true democracy, everyone must be enfranchised. In Australia, women were able to vote in Federal elections in 1902 – but aboriginal people were not able to vote until 1962. So real democracy in Australia only goes back to 1962.

Increasingly, I’m seeing ‘democracy’ around the world going to hell in a hand basket. Minorities and women are being marginalised. Equality is a farce. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Big business runs our countries for the benefit of a few. Some super-rich individuals earn more than some nation states. Only a handful of democracies work as they should, places like Finland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland; small countries with educated populations – where the state pays to educate people. Sure, workers pay high taxes, but the state provides education, health care and social security for all.

I wish it was like that everywhere, where people got off the endless ‘productivity’ bullshit bandwagon and recognised this is the only Earth we’ll ever have. Forget about why the climate is changing. It is. And our oceans are dying, the rainforests are being cleared for palm oil, extinctions are soaring, population is ballooning, fundamental fanaticism is exploding as marginalised people grope for simplistic answers.

From all of this I see two things.

  • Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory, as postulated in his Foundation books,  will probably exist in the future. We will be able to predict what is likely to happen next in a society on a large scale, with reasonable accuracy.

  • And the best, most stable, most efficient form of government is a benevolent dictatorship or an oligarchy based on merit. No wonder Asimov postulated a Galactic Empire.

Yes, I think ‘democracy’ has run its course, or will have run its course in the foreseeable future. What do you think?

Recurring patterns

Picture of the earth's tectonic platesWhen I was at primary school I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who noticed the way some of the continents kind of fitted together, like a (rather ratty) jigsaw puzzle. Some scientists did, too. As early as 1912,  Alfred Wegener proposed all the continents were once joined together. (Although I’ll bet he wasn’t the first to notice the patterns) But he couldn’t explain how they could have drifted apart. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that scientists mapped the sea floor, found spreading, and were able to explain how the continental drift worked. These days, it’s known as plate tectonics and it’s accepted fact.

So what do you think of these?

picture of a whirlpool, a cyclone, Jupiter's red spot, a galaxy

From left to right, a whirlpool in a pond, a cyclone, Jupiter’s great red spot, and a galaxy. In particular, the similarity between the cyclone and the galaxy is compelling.

Picture of a galaxy in Pavo


picture of a cyclone


And now you see why I think some day down the track, scientists will prove that the Universe is fractal. Nature is frugal. She re-uses patterns that work. I talked about this in my earlier post about dark matter, dark energy and fractals.

And now I’ll get back to writing the next Morgan’s Misfits adventure. Thank you for your time.

Dark energy, dark matter and fractals – Cosmology according to Greta


This guy could be causing snow in Scotland

I’m not a scientist, folks. This is mainly because I suck at maths. I’m good at logic, though. You have to be if you want to be a half reasonable computer programmer. And along with that, I’m curious. As a kid I looked at the stars and wondered, I looked at animals and plants and wondered, I looked at history and wondered… So I read books and magazines and found out about the night sky, constellations, the moon and planets. Ultimately, I started reading about Cosmology. Where did the universe come from and all that stuff. Those subjects are not easy, either from a science/maths point of view, or from a philosophical, get-your-head-around-it point of view. Take the Big Bang theory. We have to ‘believe’ that 13.5 billion years ago, everything was nothing, until it exploded, and there’s plenty of measurable evidence to support that contention. Rather than mess my head with numbers, I particularly enjoyed reading Isaac Asimov’s many articles which explained complex science to intelligent lay people like me, without peppering us with too many mathematical formulae.

That’s why I’m delighted with the Science of Discworld books; real science iced with a bit of Discworld. I’ve just finished The Science of Discworld 4: Judgement Day, by Terry Pratchett and Doctors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, which delves into Cosmology and Divinity. I’m not going to discuss God. I don’t care what others choose to believe, but I don’t. End of argument. What I’m very happy to discuss, though, is dark matter, dark energy and fractals.

One thing I’d noticed when reading New Scientist and the like, was the introduction of this stuff called ‘dark matter’ and a force called ‘dark energy’. It seems there wasn’t enough matter in the universe, and that certain interactions didn’t work as they should. With these two ‘dark horses’ introduced, the calculations worked as expected. I thought at the time that scientists seemed to be making up stuff so their equations would work. And in SoDW4, Cohen and Stewart said just that! They also mentioned the search for the elusive Higgs boson, and what scientists have – and have not – discovered from inferring the existence of something based on its destruction.

To me, Nature works by the KISS principle. It all looks very complex, but break things down far enough and it isn’t. One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this is fractals, those beautiful, enigmatic patterns which go on forever, never quite repeating. We see them at work in coastlines, leaves, snowflakes, weather and the storms on Jupiter. You’ve probably heard of the famous Chaos weather butterfly (top left) which can cause storms on the other side of the world.  This video plunges into the most famous fractal of all, the Mandelbrot set. This BBC documentary explains the whole idea.

Cohen and Stewart included a chapter in their book, discussing whether the Big Bang theory had had its day. The need for additional constants to make the calculations work was one of the reasons given. Dark energy, dark matter and the Higgs boson are just three examples. I can’t help thinking that it’s not going to be so complicated. Nature isn’t like that.

One solution that makes lots of sense to a lay person like me, is that the Universe itself is fractal. I’d seen a tiny article in New Scientist to that effect, some several years ago. And now I’ve just found this slideshow. To me, it’s simple, and elegant. Circles and spirals, repeating patterns. Will it need dark matter and dark energy? I don’t know – but it sure does explain why the universe is lumpy.



How does Superman fly?

Osprey flyingI used to love Superman when I was a kid. I enjoyed the TV series, when Superman wore what looked like woolen undies over his tights and I quite enjoyed the movies. The special effects were much better, of course. Chris Reeves didn’t look like he was standing, one fist out, in a wind tunnel.

I’ve no particular interest in seeing Man of Steel, but the release of this new movie, in which several of the core assumptions percolating through from the comics have been ignored, has got me to thinking.

What is Supe’s most amazing power? I have to tell you, for me it’s his ability to cause selective myopia in all humans. You know what I mean. He puts on a pair of clear glass specs and nobody seems to be able to work out that Clark Kent (mild mannered reporter) is really Superman. As an aside, I recall reading a comic where Superman insisted that the photo of him the Burmese government used for a stamp had to be side on, not facing the camera. And why was this? Because the stamp might be post marked ‘Rangoon’ and the double O might have formed glasses over his eyes. Gosh.

Anyway, back to Superman’s powers. How does he fly?

Think about it. What flies – or floats in the air? Gas rises in air if it has a lower density than the air. So hot air, helium, hydrogen, smoke, water vapour etc. Birds fly by flapping their wings, creating an area of lower pressure above their wings That’s what aircraft do, too. I guess magnetism is a contender if you don’t want to fly too high. Rockets have explosive propulsion at their rear, using brute force to overcome gravity. Of these, rockets are the only ones able to pass beyond the planetary atmosphere. As the atmosphere thins and becomes colder balloons burst, water vapour condenses, jet engines have nothing to push against. Yet Superman can ‘fly’ in space – without a protective suit or breathing apparatus. Unlike Ironman, who has the suit and jets and things.

So okay, let’s accept Supe can levitate. That current magician, Dynamo, claims to be able to do that and some mystics have been reported to be able to achieve the feat. But getting up there is only part of the deal. Then you have to move. Birds and planes can glide and change direction by changing directions. They can go faster by applying more energy. But balloons are at the mercy of the wind. And while winds can be brutally fast, they’re not as fast as Superman. (faster than a speeding bullet, in fact and with more power than a locomotive). So now somebody will trot out the Alien card. Sorry, it doesn’t work for me. Kal El looks just like us. I’ve never seen any suggestion he’s a shape change, like the Thing. But hey! Maybe that’s the deal! He can be anything he wants to be, yet we’ll all see this well built hunk of a man with a rippling cloak, even when he’s emulating a speeding bullet. Cool. Somebody whould write a story.

It’s a bit of fun, folks. Tell me who has your favourite super power. Or explain to me how YOU think Superman flies?

Is telepathy science fiction – or should we shove it in the fantasy basket?

Picture of a neuronI’ve always had a thing about telepathy in a science fiction novel. To me, it smacks far too much of ouija boards, mind reading and charlatanism. So when I come across telepathy as a skill in an SF book, I roll my eyes, sigh – but if it’s somebody whose work I like, I’ll keep reading. One such is Linnea Sinclair. Her book Games of Command has two story arcs, one which is high tech SF, the other concerning telepathy. I really enjoyed the book, but I much preferred the high tech action half. Because of my preferences, it took me a long time to actually get around to reading An Accidental Goddess. And again, while I enjoyed the book, the whole mental powers higher human thing required me to not analyze too deeply.

Anne McCaffrey had her telepath type series, too. That was To Ride Pegasus and its sequels and it didn’t press buttons for me. In fact, it was a did-not-finish.

So this article in io9, entitled how much longer until humanity becomes a hive mind, left me somewhat bemused. Because a form of mental telepathy does seem to be… well… just around the corner. Granted, you need electronics to make it work, but even so. Lots of novels (including mine) foresee humans enhancing their mental capability with a neural chip. Not many novels consider the dangers, though. One of my regular readers mentioned the idea of Facebook playing in one’s head. And, of course, viruses, worms and the like. It’s a scenario I consider in The Iron Admiral: Deception. Then there’s who controls the systems? And what about privacy?

But as far as the nuts and bolts are concerned, the thing about this article which really had me thinking was the transmission of ideas. Let’s take something really simple, like colour. As it happens, my husband is colour blind. I’ve often wondered what he sees when he looks at (say) a red rose. I know the flower sort of disappears into the foliage for him, so I’m guessing that his brain sees that wave length the same as what I call green. But really, I don’t know, because his brain is interpreting the signals in a different way to my brain. The same thing takes place when we talk about objects such as trees, or mountains – or anything else you care to name. As the article points out, we use a thing called language to kind of code what we’re talking about. The fact that the tree you visualise in your brain isn’t the same as the tree I visualise in mine, doesn’t matter. So given all that, speech is much, much easier to transmit than a mental picture.

So has all of this changed my mind about telepathy in SF? Show me how its done – with some sort of neural net or nanotech or a chip or something, and yes, I’ll go along for the ride. Otherwise – it sits over in the corner marked ‘magic’, I’m afraid. Don’t worry, though. It’s in good company. The Force is lurking around over there, too.

Thoughts? Telepathy in SF – yes, no?

Moons and tides and stuff like that

Picture of low tide

Low tide at Hervey Bay

I think everybody knows that the moon has an awful lot to do with the height of the ocean’s tide, and so it’s self evident that the highest tides would coincide with the full moon. But hang on a minute. There are two tides each day. Why would that be?

It has to do with gravitational attraction. I wrote about that when I discussed how much you would weigh on an exoplanet. We have established that there is gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Moon. That’s why the Moon orbits Earth. Water, being a fluid, is able to respond to this attraction better than solids, such as mountains. Now while this neatly explains why we have a high tide when the Moon is visible, why would there be a second high tide twelve hours later? The Moon isn’t in the sky, it’s on the other side of the Earth. By rights there should be a low tide, as all the water is attracted to the Moon down there (author points down at her feet).

This does not happen because, as noted in the previous discussion, the power of gravity decreases over distance. The Moon is about 384,000km from the Earth. The opposite side of the Earth is 40,000km further away (the approximate diameter of the Earth) at 424,000km. The water on the opposite side of the Earth to the Moon is attracted less (due to the distance) than the water closest to the Moon, as shown in this simple diagram.Diagram of earth, moon and tidal forces

We have two high tides facing the Moon, and two low tides at the sides. Why Spring tides and Neap tides? For that, we have to consider the sun. The very fact that Earth orbits the Sun illustrates the power of gravitational attraction. When the Sun and the Moon are in the same side of the Earth, as at New Moon, the gravitational attraction of the Sun on the world’s oceans is added to that of the Moon, and we have unusually high tides and low tides. At Full Moon, the Sun is at the opposite side of the Earth from the Moon, so the two bodies might seem to be pulling against each other. Remember, though, the Moon and the Sun both produce two bulges, so the two forces still operate to increase the tide. It stands to reason that if the Sun was to the right of the Earth in the diagram, the forces of the Sun and Moon would tend to cancel each other out. But not completely. That’s because the Sun produces a lesser bulge on the far side of the Earth. It is larger than the Moon, has a far greater gravitational pull, but the relative difference in the distance between the Sun and one side of the Earth, as opposed to the other, is much smaller, so the lesser bulge is less pronounced.

And there you were, thinking this was simple. It is, really, I suppose. But I bet you needed to concentrate.

I love this stuff.

Now go away and work out what the tides would be like on a world with large oceans, and three moons of varying diameter, in three different orbits.

ET phone home? Really?

picture of a telephoneReal time conversations are a problem in space opera if you’re planet hopping. Why? Think about it. If light can take years to go from one star to us, how long would it take any other type of signal? (We’ll leave out sound waves, which don’t move through a vacuum.) Answer – same as light. About 300,000km per second. Sure, that’s fast. But having a conversation with someone, say, four light years away is going to be a tad tedious.

“Hi, I’d like to order the peperoni, please. With anchovies, no pineapple.” (Wait eight years)

“Sure. Would you like garlic bread with that?”

I think your pizza might be cold before it was delivered.

And yet, so often space opera ignores this fact of physics and has folks chatting from spaceship to planet, or planet to planet, as though they were using Skype back in the 21st Century on jolly old Earth. A case in point is the famous scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader’s Executor is chasing the Millenium Falcon through an asteroid field. Admiral Piett was delighted to be able to tell Vader the Emperor was on the line, so the star destroyer could be moved out of the asteroid field in order to send a clear signal. And then they had the little chat, the Emperor’s ominous figure dwarfing Vader, down on one knee, while he plotted betrayal.

Now, let’s think about this. The Emperor is on Coruscant, Executor is down in the Imperial boondocks, messing around near Hoth. I’m not suggesting the exchange was impossible. No, let’s put that another way. It’s impossible without some sort of futuristic device. Even within our own solar system, it takes anywhere from 3.4 – 21 minutes (depending on how close the planets are to each other) for a a signal to go from Mars to Earth.

It’s a known problem, though. Ursula Le Guin was the first to dream up a device which could enable people on different planets to converse in real time. She called it the ansible. The name has wheedled its way into the genre, rather like ‘hyperspace’. Elizabeth Moon wrote a whole series of books (the Vatta saga) around a company which specialised in setting up ansibles in orbit around inhabited planets, and maintaining them. And the subsequent danger when the ansibles were sabotaged, a bit like taking down the telegraph line across America in the Old West.

I don’t call them ansibles, but since my books involve much planet-hopping, I had to come up with something, which I suppose is an ansible by any other name. A multi-dim transmitter is a device which uses one of the many dimensions of space, a dimension which is not available to physical entities like ships, to transmit a signal from one place to another. They’re fitted to ships and planets have receivers.

Needless to say, if you don’t have access to an ansible or its equivalent, you can’t have a real-time conversation over a long distance.

Care to share your thoughts?

You could be excused for feeling fairly insignificant

picture of a glaxy clusterI’ve written a few posts lately about life, the Galaxy and everything. When you think we inhabit one small planet going around a pretty non-descript G class star in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, you could be excused for feeling fairly insignificant. In the scheme of things. After all, our run-of-the-mill galaxy is estimated to contain anywhere from 200-400 billion stars. That’s nine zeroes billion. 200,000,000,000 – 400,000,000,000.

But when you start looking at some of those amazing deep space photographs… Wow, just wow.

Those smudges of light are galaxies. The Hubble telescope took some very deep space photos, looking back in time to what is believed to be the beginning of the creation of the universe. Here’s the link. Please note, half way down the page it says this one shot shows an estimated ten thousandPicture of Star Wars Arkanis sector galaxies. In one little piece of sky. Let’s see now. 10,000 multiplied by 200,000,000,000 is 2,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of stars. And that’s just a fraction, a tiny portion, of the galaxies out there.

Maybe, somewhere out there, is the galaxy far, far away, a long, long time ago. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Time to call it a day?

Picture of pink elephant with clockTime. A clock on a wall, a calendar, numbers on the top (or bottom) of your computer screen, ticking off the days of our lives. (Gee, that’d be a good title for a show or something, wouldn’t it?)

This morning on Facebook I read a couple of discussions about time keeping. One was about the decimal system, how everybody but the US seems to have taken up metric measurement. Which seems especially odd since they use the decimal system for their money. Somebody, in a fit of flippancy, remarked we could have a ten hour day, with one hundred minutes etc etc and then said, yes but that wouldn’t fit in with year. Which it wouldn’t if a minute was the same in duration as a minute is now.

The second discussion was about the pagan origins of the names of the days of the week, which I’m sure everybody knows are based on Norse God’s names, plus a day each for the sun and the moon. That can be extrapolated into the pagan origins of the names of the months of the year. Although quite a few really are based on month number.

At the end of the day, we can’t go past the three overriding fundamentals of time measurement. On this planet, anyway.

  • The time it takes for the planet to revolve on its axis (day)
  • The time it takes for the Moon to orbit the Earth (month)
  • The time it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun (year)

And we need to reconcile them. In earlier times, these cycles were extraordinarily significant for survival, since they dictated the amount of sunlight (daylight hours and the seasons) and tides. It’s how the ancients decided when to plant, when to harvest and when to celebrate, finally, the lengthening of the days and the passing of winter.

It’s hardly surprising that the Babylonian calendars were lunar based, that is, 28 days. Our 7 day week is one quarter of a month. Our ancestors probably came up with a duodecimal (base 12) system because 12 is so easily divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12. Thus 12 months, a 24 hour day, made up of 60 minutes, made up of 60 seconds. This is fine at a micro level, but it doesn’t fit the length of the year, so the length of months had to be juggled so that the end result was 365 days. In fact, the lengths of months were juggled to fir the needs of the solstices and equinoxes. And later, every four years we add a day because the orbit actually takes 365 ¼ days.

All in all, it’s an arithmetic nightmare. Trust me on this. I used to be a computer programmer and date mathematics was awful. The only way to calculate date (a) minus date (b) is to convert the dates to the day (number) in the year. Thus 28 February is the 59th day of the year.

A decimal time system would seem to be eminently sensible. The French tried it, back in 1793, without success and that experiment is discussed on io9. In this case, tradition had the weight of inertia behind it, and the French reverted to the old hours in 1795 and scrapped the revolutionary experiment in 1806. Frankly, I’m not surprised. This decimal time system is artificial. It’s interesting that the French still stuck to 30-day months and 12-month years, though.

We COULD try a lunar calendar, with 13 months made up of 28 days, with an extra day at the winter solstice (say) to bring the number of days to 365. I think that would work. The solstices and equinoxes would be predictable and fall on a given date. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. And there’s no reason why we couldn’t trade in the old 24-hour day for (say) 20 hours or 25 hours. We’d have to adjust seconds and minutes to suit. 100 seconds in a minute, 100 minutes in an hour. The length of a week isn’t so much of an issue, since we don’t use it for much except how many days we work. Plenty of people do nine days on/nine days off and the like.

What do you think? Stick with the monster we know, or create a new time elephant?