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?

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

I’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. 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?

Time to call it a day?

Time. 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?

A little bit of moonshine in the night

A 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?

Humans are such fragile entities

The more I read about the strangeness of our universe, the more I wonder if we, humanity, will ever colonise other planets. There’s not much chance we’ll settle on a diamond planet and I have to wonder how we’d go on many of the ‘earthlike’ planets already pinpointed. We are such fragile entities, we humans.

I’m in the throes of writing a sequel to my space opera Morgan’s Choice, which accepts the existence of political groupings of star systems into coalitions, federations and the like. Hey, I’m not special in that respect. Lots of SF writers have done the same thing, with great success – Elizabeth Moon, Jack McDevitt, Isaac Asimov etc etc and of course, Star Trek, Star Wars and the like. But how likely is it really?

Like all other animals we are closely attuned to our environment, more so than many of us actually realise anymore. In these days of electricity we can heat or cool our homes, spend half the night watching TV, or reading books, source food from all over the world so nothing is ever out of season, cross distances that took years in days. Yet we cannot escape the factors which shaped us.

I think there are five vital factors we will not easily overcome.

The first is our perception of time.

I use the word ‘perception’ advisedly, because time is something we measure for ourselves to put ourselves into context, if you will. But whether we think the sun is rising where we are, or setting, our bodies are built to expect a ‘day’ of twenty-four hours or so, because that’s how long it takes for the planet to revolve on its axis. What’s more, if we are suddenly wrenched from one time of day to another, as happens with long distance air travel, it takes time for our bodies to adjust. (It’s called jet lag)

Next is gravity, what we call weight.

We have evolved to suit the amount of force the planet exerts upon is. The advent of space travel and weightlessness has proved how important gravity is to our ability to function. Without gravity our bones lose density and muscles atrophy.

Then we move on to air.

Most of our atmosphere, what we breathe, is nitrogen, with twenty-three percent oxygen and a bunch of other gases in smaller quantities, including carbon dioxide. It also has a level of density. There’s more of it at lower altitude (see gravity). See what happens to mountain climbers if they climb before becoming acclimatised. Their bodies can’t cope. And if that mixture of gases changes past a certain level of tolerance, then what?

Then there’s temperature.

Humans exist in an apparently wide range of climates, providing they can find protection from the elements. But the range is actually not that wide in the scheme of things. This article in New Scientist speculates that global warming of only about 11° would render many places on our own planet ‘unliveable’.

The last factor is light.

Earth orbits a G class star which emits light towards the red end of the spectrum. We’re used to seeing colours in that light. If we lived on a world orbiting a cooler star with redder light, or a brighter star with more bluish light, we’d see colours differently.

Humans are adaptable. That’s why the species has been so successful. But even so, we’ve only ever had to adapt to the extremes of one planet. If humans are to venture to other planets I believe we will have two choices; terraform the planet into another Earth or modify the settlers to cope with the conditions. That would mean physically very different races of humanity occupying different planets. And here again, SF can offer plenty of examples. One that springs to mind is Moon and McCaffrey’s joint effort, Sassinak, where members of the Star Fleet have different body characteristics, depending on which planet they come from.

I admit I don’t take that route in my own writing. I simply assume all planets are earthlike, with only small variations in light, heat, time and gravity. I reckon I’m in pretty good company. Come on SF fans and writers, what do you do, what do you prefer?

An unforgettable milestone in the journey of life

I woke this morning to the news that Neil Armstrong had passed away.

To me, that means two things; the end of an era and that unenviable feeling of being old. The things I’ve seen, the things that are a part of the parade of my life. On Twitter I learned a friend’s husband had been born just before that day in 1969; on Facebook another friend talked about reading a book about 9/11 and mentioned that there are teenagers around who were babies when the twin towers came down. So true. Milestones in the wheel of life. And sure, there are days, like JFK’s death, 9/11, the Japanese earthquake, Chernobyl, that are etched into my brain with acid. But the ones I look back on with pleasure and pride are the space days.

I was 18 when Apollo 11 left for the moon, in my second year of a BA degree in history. Like many of my colleagues, I stayed home to watch history being made. The whole western world quivered with excitement. President Kennedy’s goal of a man on the moon within a decade was about to be fulfilled. We’d seen the dark side of the moon from Apollo 10 (and the Russian probes, but we won’t go there). And now it was all about to happen. You’ve all seen the pictures as the three men in their bulky suits took their last walk to the tiny, tiny module on the top of the Saturn V rocket. So did we, on CRT TVs.

Now was the day, morning in Perth, Australia, and I sat on the edge of my seat in the lounge room, eyes glued on the TV while on the other side of Australia the signals came in to Parkes. We never knew, of course, that Armstrong had taken over landing the module himself, looking for a flat piece of Moon. Never knew he had 30 seconds of fuel left. That came out later. I peered at grainy black-and-white footage. First, the lander’s leg resolved itself and then you could just make out the ladder. Then a boot appeared and Armstrong eased his body down onto an unknown surface and uttered his famous words, ‘that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. Even then I wondered how long he’d been rehearsing; and who had written it for him. Here’s the footage

The next few days went by in a blur of extra-terrestrial shots of footprints on an ancient landscape, attempts to raise a US flag fitted with an arm because there was no wind, the famous photo of the moon reflected in a visor. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong cavorted like a couple of kids in the weak gravity, while Collins stayed up there in the capsule. I held my breath on that final day when they blasted off to dock with the capsule and cheered when they splashed down in the Pacific.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1893642

It was years later before we all began to realise how dangerous the whole thing had been. These men were pawns in a race with the USSR – which had its own pawns, of course. NASA took a lot of risks and I’ll bet Mission Control had its fingers crossed many a time. What happened on Apollo 13 is a case in point. If you don’t know, go see the excellent movie of the same name, starring Tom Hanks. So the USA won the race. But interest waned quickly; the last manned flight, Apollo 17, was in 1972 and we don’t look like going back any time soon.

But Neil Armstrong’s name is in the history books forever. A brave but humble man who stood on the edge of eternity.

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 later at 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).

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.