Tag Archives: physics

The one Rule of Writing you should never break (IMO)

Picture of an X-wing fighterThose who know me would realise that I raise an eyebrow at the mere mention of the Rules of Writing. You know the ones; thou shalt not use passive voice, thou shalt avoid ‘that’, ‘as’, ‘just’ and ‘there was’, thou shalt not use adjectives and yay, verily, thou shalt not use adverbs. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. They are sensible guidelines to consider, NOT “rules” Somebody was supposed to have said, “There are three rules to writing. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”

BUT… the title says it all, doesn’t it? There is one rule you break at your peril, and that is

Do Your Research

I was involved in an interesting discussion with writers of science fiction, based on a blog post about whether the ‘science’ was important in science fiction. Specifically, the author discussed a scenario in a novel where a spaceship in deep space begins to slow down when the engines fail. There was some to-ing and fro-ing over how important it was that this would not happen. Without any drag in the almost complete vacuum of space, inertia would keep the ship travelling at a constant speed unless something else intervened. It transpired that the writer of the novel had based her ‘research’ on a few science fiction movies. This is not a great move when you consider films like Star Wars, where basic physics is either misunderstood (this ship did the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs) or ignored. Think fighters zooming around in space as they would in atmosphere, and making a quick trip to Bespin without a hyperdrive, just to mention a couple.

People who read science fiction tend to be interested in science. Authors should at least do their readers the courtesy of trying to get it right. I grew up on Asimov and Clarke, who made sure their science was plausible, and basic facts of physics were either adhered to, or if not then explained. Jack McDevitt does the same. Somebody is going to say, but what about faster than light travel (FTL)? That’s impossible. Sure. But that’s a recognised trope in SF, commonly used in space opera to move the story forward. And as I explained here, planet hopping might not be as silly as it sounds.

A similar thing can be said of historical fiction, which I have also written. Before I wrote about a lad beheaded with a sword – just for fun – I found out how this could be done and what would happen. If you’re interested, here’s the answer – murder by decapitation. When I needed to write a scene where muskets were used, I researched muskets. Here’s the post about that. Writers of crime novels face the same situation. You’re going to kill somebody. Is the mode of death feasible? How long does it take? What evidence is left behind etc etc.

I suppose not everybody will agree with me. After all, the story is the thing, is it not? And since I’m a Star Wars fan, I can hardly disagree. But I still think Lucas et al could have done their homework and come up with something more accurate and still just as exciting. Even a few nose thrusters in the fighters would have helped. And maybe the hyperdrive could have been damaged, in need of repair, but still barely operational. Sure, there’s a little more room in speculative fiction for invention. After all, it is ‘fiction’. But I think there’s a limit. Even when I wrote Black Tiger, which is about a were-tiger, I took care to find out about real tigers, the legend of were-tigers in India, and the role of tigers in Hindu theology.

So what do you think? Am I being self-righteous? Do you expect to find real science in science fiction? Real history in historical novels? Or doesn’t it matter to you?

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?

A little bit of moonshine in the night

Picture of partial eclipseA lunar eclipse happened in my part of the world on 28th November, hard on the cosmic heels of a solar eclipse earlier in the month. As it turned out, the penumbral eclipse was a huge disappointment. No shadow across the moon’s disc, not even a reddening of the light. So the cirrus cloud partially obscuring the view didn’t matter much. We had moonshine as we always do and the photos were a fizz.

However, it got me to wondering about moons; ours, and other moons in general. To start with, let’s mention the eclipse – the truly spectacular solar eclipse that happened earlier this month. It was a partial eclipse in my part of the world, but even so it is a special event. But why is it so? The moon is tiny compared to the sun.

An extraordinary cosmic coincidence

The sun is about 400 times the moon’s diameter and about 400 times as far way from the Earth and that ratio means that when the moon comes between the sun and the Earth, that shadow is just about a perfect fit.  That relationship is a coincidence. Evidence indicates that the Moon was once closer to the Earth and is gradually moving away, so enjoy your cosmic moment, knowing that in the distant future, there will be no total solar eclipse.

That factoid is not the only extraordinary thing about our moon. Not at all.

It’s not the largest moon in the solar system. In fact, going by this list it comes a creditable fifth after Ganymede (Jupiter iii), Titan (Saturn vi), Callisto (Jupiter iv) and IO (Jupiter i). Indeed, Ganymede and Titan are both larger than Mercury and let’s not talk about poor Pluto. Really, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that the largest planets have collected the largest moons.

Except ours.

Why is this so?

I have in my possession a tattered little paperback, a collection of essays on astronomy by Isaac Asimov (Asimov on Astronomy, Coronet, 1974). One of the things I loved about Asimov, who had a PhD in chemistry and an interest in everything scientific, was that he could explain complex physics in a way that an interested amateur with absolutely zippo mathematical ability could understand. He wrote papers regularly for magazines and the like and subsequently, they were published in book form. This little volume is a treasure trove of scientific fact and some intriguing speculations. True, some of it is now dated, since it was published before the epic discoveries of Voyagers I and II. Pluto had not yet been demoted. And yet before it could be proved he predicted that many planets other than Saturn would have rings.

To get back to the point, one of these essays is entitled “Just Mooning Around” in which Asimov talks about the gravitational effects of the sun, the planets and the moons in the solar system have on each other. Without going into all the details of the paper, he talks about the ‘tug of war’  ratio, which argues that in most cases, the gravitational attraction of a planet on its moons is vastly greater than the pull of the sun on those same moons. There is also a kind of ‘goldilocks’ zone around a planet in which a true moon would exist (as opposed to loosely captured satellites like Neptune’s Nereid). A moon must be between a minimum Roche limit and a maximum ‘tug of war’ distance. For the mind-bending number-crunching, go read it yourself – I told you I can’t do maths. However, I can appreciate logic. And you will see it is so.

According to his theory, of the four innermost rocky planets, Mercury could not have a moon because it has no ‘goldilocks’ zone. The other three are highly unlikely to have moons because of the narrowness of the ‘goldilocks’ zone. And indeed, Mercury and Venus do not have satellites, and Mars’s Phobos and Demos are overlarge potatoes which are expected to disintegrate.

I see you jumping up and down. What about us? Earth and that thing up there?

Ah, Asimov argues that the Earth/Moon pair is not a true planet/moon relationship because the Moon is so much larger in comparison with its primary than any other such relationship in the solar system. By a long way. He suggests that the Earth/Moon combo is really a binary planet, waltzing its way around the sun. Of course, all planets with moons have a wobble in their orbit but the Earth/Moon shimmy must be quite pronounced. Certainly I don’t think there’s much disagreement these days that our Moon was derived from the same stuff as the Earth. This article suggests accepted theory is that a Mars-sized object collided with the Earth, aggregating the material and spewing off a portion which later formed the Moon.

The next thing you have to wonder is – how important is that massive moon to life on Earth? But that’s another topic, isn’t it?

Isn’t science wonderful?