Tag Archives: science

This is why I read Science Fiction #sfrb #scifi

Lately I’ve been sharing my views on what I think science fiction romance is. And I said that if you take the science fiction out of SFR, all you have left is romance.

Science fiction takes me away to places I’ll only ever see in photographs. This graphic is a NASA image of Alnitak and the Flame Nebula, one of the three stars of the belt of Orion. The other two are Mintaka and Alnilam, and those three names alone show what an important place Arab astronomers have in our knowledge of the stars. I suspect the names should be written Al Nitak and Al Nilam – but that’s another story.

But a photograph is just a pretty picture. And here’s another quote from the same book, to illustrate that sometimes a picture isn’t worth more than a thousand words. A skilled writer can take you there, ignite a fire in your soul, show you the very edge of infinity. I wrote a sort of review of Slow Lightning. Should you be interested.

Orion Slow Lightning copy

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

Galaxy

picture of a cyclone

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

butterfly

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.

 

 

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?

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?

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?

What would you weigh on an exoplanet?

picture of an exoplanetI was reading an article from somebody, all enthusiastic about the exo-planets the Kepler probe keeps finding. They’re all many times larger than planet Earth even if they’re in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. You know the one – not too close, not too far, just right. That is, a planet neither too close to its primary nor too far away, where liquid water could exist. My immediate reaction was ‘sure, but we’d weigh too much’.

Then I began to wonder how much more. I’m not a mathematician – never have been. In truth, I can’t add up to save my life. So I’m counting on you (ha ha) to correct me if I get this wrong.

I discovered this site http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/weight/ and learned that gravitational pull weakens by the radius squared. So let’s say you weighed 60kg on planet Earth. Planet Gliese 581g is estimated at 2.6 Earth masses and 1.4 Earth radii. So yes, you’re going to weigh more on Gliese 581g, but not 2.6 times as much. If I’ve got this right, the increased diameter of the planet means you’ll weigh about 1.3 times as much – so about 78kg. That’s certainly not a huge imposition. And all of a sudden, I’m bouncing in my chair, going oooh oooh.

Here’s some estimated figures about Gliese 581g, taken from this fascinating website http://phl.upr.edu/projects/habitable-exoplanets-catalog

Mass = 2.6 Earth Radius = 1.4 Earth  Temp = average surface temperature, so this place, at 10, is rather cooler than our 15 degrees (NASA’s figure from 2008), but the estimate of average temperature assumes an Earth-like atmosphere, which is a pretty big assumption. On the face of it the planet zips around its sun in a fraction of the time it takes ours, taking only 32 days as compared to 365. But that might not be the case, since the Gliesean day may be much longer than Earth’s. The figures don’t mention period of rotation, which I find a tad surprising. As a comparison, Venus’s ‘day” (the time it takes to rotate on its axis) is actually longer than its year (the time it takes to orbit the Sun.) (http://www.universetoday.com/14282/how-long-is-a-day-on-venus/)

So there you have it. I found out today that a candidate for Torreno (capital of the Coalition of Worlds in Morgan’s Choice) may be only 20.2 light years away. And with the shift drive of the future, that’ll be a place to add to your holiday plans.

Ain’t science grand?

What’s this ‘hard SF’ stuff, anyway?

Lately I’ve been pondering the term ‘hard’ science fiction. Probably because I used the expression myself when referring to Jack McDevitt’s books. But once you start to ponder, the mind turns to ‘but what does it mean’? And if there is ‘hard’ science fiction, what is ‘soft’ science fiction?

Wikipedia says hard SF is ‘a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.

There is a degree of flexibility in how far from “real science” a story can stray before it leaves the realm of hard SF. Some authors scrupulously avoid such technology as faster-than-light travel, while others accept such notions (sometimes referred to as “enabling devices”, since they allow the story to take place) but focus on realistically depicting the worlds that such a technology might make possible. In this view, a story’s scientific “hardness” is less a matter of the absolute accuracy of the science content than of the rigor and consistency with which the various ideas and possibilities are worked out.

To me, this smacks of ‘Rules’, as well as snobbery – the kind of distinction that says literary fiction is a ‘better class of literature’ than genre fiction. Needless to say, Star Wars doesn’t get a jumper in the ‘hard’ SF team. I’m okay with that. The science is often ordinary but regardless, the Star Wars galaxy has held millions enthralled for over thirty years.

Back to ‘hard’ SF. Let’s take Jack McDevitt as an example. Most of his books include FTL so die-hards would discount them as ‘soft’ SF. I don’t because he so rigorously depicts his worlds and his physics. An example is the wide array employed in ‘Black Lightning’ to collect signals sent out thirty years before. Let’s say he squeezes in, then, under the ‘enabling technology’ rule. A foot in the door. What about Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Pern’? Yes, it has dragons – but they are genetically engineered animals based on a beast native to the planet. And the planet’s destructive scourge (thread) is in itself a logical reason why the dragons developed the ability to teleport. Then we have Elizabeth Moon, where humans have spread throughout the Galaxy by terra-forming planets (McDevitt has this, too). We can’t do this now and it seems a monumental task. So I assume we cross off Moon and McCaffrey.

As is so often the case, science fiction offers a spectrum starting from scenarios set (of necessity) in the present or near future which adhere strictly to the known – or perhaps I should say, the currently accepted – rules of physics or an extrapolation thereon. Something like Star Wars would be at the opposite end and everybody else would sit along the line somewhere.

Where would they put my books?

To be honest, I really don’t care. I’ve tried to think through my universe and make it plausible, so I avoid some of the more obvious mistakes. Some spotty student with nothing better to do may well be able to tear apart my world-building but my aim was to tell a story that would grab and hold a reader. I’m never going to please everybody and if readers wish to ignore my work as ‘soft’ SF – so be it.

Oh, and before I finish, I must point out that science is not immutable. In 1920 the Galaxy was estimated at 65,000 light years in diameter. With better equipment and more knowledge, we now estimate the diameter at nearly double that amount. That picture at the top of the post shows galaxies – hundreds of them. Maybe one of them is a Galaxy ‘far, far away’. We now know that stars and planets are much weirder than we could ever have imagined. We know that there are no rainforests on Venus and no four-armed Martians on Mars. It’s mathematically accepted that there are more than four dimensions. Etc etc.

At the crux of the matter, though, this is fiction. It takes people to other places, other worlds, other times. Isn’t that why we read this stuff?

Is a ‘Star Wars’ type galaxy starting to look likely?

Remember that scene in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ when Luke and Obi Wan go into the Mos Eisley cantina? The place was full of aliens. Leaning on the bar, arguing, drinking various foaming substances and playing cool, swing music. If you’ve any sort of interest in science, you’d be like me and go directly into ‘go along for the ride’ mode. It just isn’t probable.

But wait a minute. Just the other day we were told that our very own Milky Way could contain up to 2 billion (yes, billion with a ‘b’) ‘earthlike planets’. Gosh. Two billion planets that could potentially support life like us. http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2011/12/the-milky-ways-two-billion-earthlike-planets-an-update.html

Wait a moment, though. What does ‘earthlike’ mean in this context? The report comes from Kepler’s search for planets orbiting planets like our sun and in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. Which means the planet is ‘not too hot for liquid water and not too cold’. Kepler can’t actually see any of these planets, their presence is surmised from periodic dimming of the sun’s light as something passes in front of it and from slight perturbations in the sun’s orbit. But scientists can calculate the likely size of the body. For instance, Kepler 22-B is estimated at 2.4 times the size of Earth.

But there’s much more to life on Earth than liquid water and reasonable temperature. The article goes on to quote from “Rare Earth”, a book by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, which discusses in detail what would be needed to define a planet as an ‘earth analog’. Some of the things they list don’t readily spring to mind, such as a giant like Jupiter acting as a mine sweeper to reduce the amount of debris penetrating to habitable zones to pose a threat to life. We also need that molten metal core inside the Earth to generate a magnetic field which protects us from harmful cosmic rays. Then we need a breathable atmosphere, a year length not too much different from our own, and gravity at least 80% of our own. (Less than that and the planet wouldn’t hold atmosphere) I don’t think I’d like to live on a planet 2.4 times the size of Earth. It would be pretty hard to move around.

We just don’t know enough about any of these planets to know if they’re really ‘earthlike’. The point is made that both Venus and Earth are in the habitable zone around our sun and they are much the same size. But we won’t be setting up a colony on Venus any time soon.

Yes, but that’s humans. Getting back to the cantina scene, we are presented with a number of alien species, all presumably capable of space flight. So what about other life forms on these earthlike planets? Sure, that’s possible – but then we come up against the famous Drake equation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation), which considers variables such as technology and the life of civilisations.

Mind you, Kepler’s discoveries are a breakthrough from the time not too many decades ago (maybe only two) when scientists could do no better than to say that our sun was nothing special so other stars would quite probably have planets. The Drake equation dates back to those times. This is such an exciting time to be interested in the universe. I keep getting this feeling that space travel as written in science fiction might not be all that far away. Soon, it seems, we’ll have places to visit, too.

I’m not too sure I’ll be running auditions for a new cantina scene, though.

Planet-hopping might not be so silly

Stars in Orion's beltMy science fiction book The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy includes a certain amount of planet-hopping. In fact, all my SF does. Now, I know that there will be some sneering and lip-curling over this. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to point a derisive finger.

Come with me on a cosmic journey. We’ll start here, on dear old Mother Earth, the only planet we know a huge amount about. Journey back in time, four hundred years… The world was beginning to open up. Intrepid explorers travelled to the other side of the Earth in search of trade and riches. Dutch merchant ships sailed from Amsterdam to what is now Jakarta in Indonesia to trade in spices. At the turn of the 17th century, they sailed down the west coast of Africa, re-provisioned at Table Bay and then set off past Madagascar and across the Indian Ocean up to Java. Makes sense, really, if you look at the journey on a map; down to the tip of Africa, then up at an angle to Indonesia. The journey took a year, sometimes as much as eighteen months if the winds were poor or the storms struck hard.

Then in 1610 Henrik Brouwer did something completely counter-intuitive and sailed south from Table Bay. Makes no sense, does it? Well, yes it does. The Earth is not a 2D Mercator’s projection on a tabletop, it’s a spheroid. The distance around the equator is greater than the distance around the lines we call ‘latitude’ to the north and south. Brouwer took advantage of that fact to shorten the distance he had to travel east and had the bonus of the reliable winds of the ‘roaring forties’ to push his ships along. All he had to do was remember to turn left when he reached the longitude for the Sunda Strait, sail up the coast of Western Australia and he was home. Taking this route shortened the journey by two thousand miles and more than halved the duration. The route was not without its dangers – as you’ll find in my book ‘To Die a Dry Death’ – but that’s another story.

Over the years, sea travel became faster and more reliable. Steam and then diesel replaced sail. When my family migrated to Australia from Amsterdam the sea journey took about a month. Apart from the improved mode of transport, the ship also avoided the long journey around the Cape of Good Hope by going through a short cut – the Suez Canal.

Eventually, the obstacles forced upon us by oceans and continents were removed, too, with the advent of air travel. These days you can get on a jet at Schiphol in Amsterdam and get off twenty four hours laterat Perth International Airport. With airliners like the beautiful and now-departed Concord, you could do the journey in half the time. So in four hundred years we have shortened a journey that took about a year – let’s say 350 days – to one that routinely takes 1 day or (with the right aircraft) an awful lot less. Wow.

Still with me? Trust me, it’s all relevant to space travel. Imagine what reaction a person would have received if, in 1600, she’d said that in four hundred years, we’d be able to travel from Amsterdam to that southern continent we didn’t know anything about, in less than a day.

Yes, but that’s just the Earth, I hear you say. We’re talking inter-stellar distances. For Pete’s sake, the nearest star system from ours is over 4 light years away. Very true. We have no way of spanning these vast distances in anybody’s lifetime. Regardless, the notion of ‘hyperspace’ in science fiction to allow for the possibility of space travel has been around for a long time. I don’t think I ever saw an explanation of hyperspace – just that the ship entered another dimension, if you will, travelling externally to our normal, 3D + time. But hey ho; never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Grand Master, Isaac Asimov, did rather a lot of planet-hopping. Have a look at his ‘Foundation’ series. Many of the more modern writers like Mc Devitt and Moon have FTL (faster than light) travel but show it as still a very time-consuming business with journeys taking weeks or months..

I don’t believe that restriction is cast in concrete. Even Mc Devitt in his book ‘A Talent for War’ postulated a quantum drive, where a ship moves from one place to another instantaneously. We don’t hear so much about worm holes these days, but they would also allow for an instantaneous transfer.

I refer to my version of hyperspace as ‘shift space’. I’ve done that deliberately because in my universe the ships use the geometry of extra dimensions to get around. Ships ‘shift’ to another dimension for the duration of a journey. It’s pretty much accepted that our 3D notion of the universe is just a perception, that there are many other dimensions we are not equipped to see. Such an understanding certainly helps to explain the apparent complexities of quantum physics and the anomalous behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Way back in the 1980’s Carl Sagan in his wonderful TV series ‘Cosmos’ showed us a tesseract  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesseract), a four-dimensional object portrayed as best we could in a 3D world. To understand what you’re looking at, think about a standard, 2D drawing of a cube. According to mathematics, there are many, many more than four dimensions out there, not to mention parallel universes. The biggest limitation imposed upon us in reaching a real understanding of things like this is that we are constrained by our own world view and our ability to perceive. As far back as 1884 E.A. Abbott in his book ‘Flatland’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland) described the problems of seeing three dimensions in a 2D world. We are faced with the same thing, on a 3D scale, if we attempt to visualise four, five or six dimensions. Or many, many more.

However, I can give you some sort of idea of where I’m coming from. Take a piece of A4 paper. Let’s label two diagonally opposite corners as A and B. Starting from B, we can reach A by going straight up one side then along the top to A. Hang on, you say, wouldn’t you just go across the diagonal, thereby reducing the distance and time taken? Sure you would. Now curl the paper over into a cylinder. All you have to do to get from B to A is move along a straight line. The length of the line will depend on how you make the roll (short edges together or long edges together).

geometric shapes

Now take point A in one hand and point B in the other and bring them together so they meet. Getting from B to A in this instance is like walking from one room into another.

That’s my notion of ‘shift drive’. I have included some duration in the journey in the book because I found it useful. Don’t ask me how the shift drive (the engine that makes it possible to take advantage of the geometry) works. I’m speculating a fusion drive to do something or other. When I work it out, I’ll let you know.

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Since I wrote this article, I’ve come across the Sabre engine, which can operate in both atmosphere and vacuum, and can travel at 5 times the speed of sound. Such an aircraft could make the trip from Sydney to London in 4 hours. That’s four (4) hours. http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/sabre.html So a trip from Amsterdam to Perth would probably be a little bit less. Say 3.5 hours? So we’ve come down from 350 days, to 1 month, to 1 day, to 3.5 hours. Rams the point home, doesn’t it?

27 Jan 2013 And now there’s this. http://www.space.com/19416-hypersonic-spaceliner-fly-passengers.html. A spaceliner which will do the trip in 90 minutes!!! Wow. Just wow.