Archive for February, 2013

SciFi Round Fourteen: Biotech Problems

After I put up the description of the ursians and their technology from my Fermi Problems setting and discussed alien psychology in the context of religion/lack thereof, it was suggested that I should read John Brunner’s Crucible of Time, which I had somehow missed reading before.  So, here we go:

Crucible of Time describes various episodes in the history of an alien race called the folk.  The folk evolve intelligence just before their planet and the star it orbits passes through the center of a starforming region that contains, among other things, an object that is described in terms consistent with either a Type-II supernova remnant or a luminous blue variable that just had a big outburst.  They escape the obvious problems with that by developing interstellar spaceflight and a lot of biotech.

Artist's concept of The Folk, which may not correspond to Brunner's initial vision (too much like Earth insects).  This is the great teacher Jing, who is an expy of Galileo.

Artist’s concept of The Folk, which may not correspond to Brunner’s initial vision (too much like Earth insects). This is the great teacher Jing, who is an expy of Galileo.

What Brunner Did Right

First, the positives.  The folk are physically very much unlike us.  Although they are bilaterally symmetric, they are not vertebrates.  They have no bones at all, and support themselves by pressured tubules full of fluid (convenient when they do eventually get to space).  To assert dominance, they inflate the tubules to maximum and stand up straight.  To indicate deference or to better resist a shock, they go limp and hug the ground.  They have a single eye; mandibles rather than teeth; claws rather than hands; and navigate on spongy pads rather than feet.  Their bodies are covered by articulated mantles, the relict of a distant aquatic past via ancestors who lived in the equivalent of forests.  Those are used to speak, and as an outer layer of armor.  Reproduction is sexual, with sexes describable as male and female, by budding rather than by internal pregnancy.

They are also biochemically and psychologically unlike us.  Folk excrete airborne pheromones which have powerful effects on each other, ranging from triggering aggression and confrontation to conveying emotional emphasis to inducing dream-like hallucinations accompanied by destructive mania.  They also have a different cognitive structure, with physically different parts of their brains that perform functions like what we would call memory, dreaming, and abstract reasoning.

And the folk are dramatically affected by the supernova / outburst, even though their star and planet were still relatively far away from it at the time.  The high-energy photon flash caused a round of mutations and some climatic changes.  One of the mutations caused low fertility, but in some folk it was masked by another that offset it in some environments.  Those folk spread both mutations; but eventually the environment changes and most of the folk have low fertility.  Exogamy and less in-group favoritism than humans have keeps the population up for a while; but in the long term there is a population crunch.  The folk manage to do sufficient genetic engineering on themselves to correct the imbalance, but that leads to a population explosion in advance of the food supply and a temporary collapse of society.

But given all of that, things get a bit worrisome.  How would such aliens have a person like Jing?  Jing is a folk who is the equivalent of Galileo – complete with getting the feudal lord of a city as his patron and then offending the religious sensibilities of much of the population with his discoveries with the newly-invented telescope.  But since I haven’t spent the time to work through the sociology of a species like the folk in detail, let’s focus on some simpler problems.  Brunner’s first mistake was misunderstanding what goes on inside a starforming region / supernova remnant.

What Would Actually Happen If A Star Runs Through A Nebula?

Not that many impacts.  In Crucible, there are always meteors in the sky and the dark side of the folks’ planet’s moon constantly sparkles from impact flashes.  Where are all these objects coming from?  Brunner was inspired by early (and now disproved) claims of periodicity in mass extinctions, in this version supposedly caused by the Sun’s passage through the galactic plane.  He proposed something similar to happen as the folks’ star ran through the dust cloud around the supernova remnant, and most of those impactors were debris flying in to the system from outside.  Up to and including a rogue planet.  That doesn’t work.

Even in a relatively dense interstellar dust cloud, there are very few large solid objects and even the interstellar gas and dust density is too low to matter much.  Unless you run right through a protoplanetary disc, in which case you have the more immediate problem of the planet you are standing on being scattered onto an unlivable trajectory by the star that you almost hit.  The comet showers invoked to explain mass extinctions on Earth, which again aren’t actually necessary to explain the fossil record, were supposedly caused by gravitational perturbations to the Oort Cloud dropping a lot of comets onto low-perihelion orbits.  But that doesn’t cause mass extinctions on as short a timescale as in Crucible: it takes hundreds of thousands of years for those comets to fall down, and they aren’t likely to hit on the first flyby.

The real problem for the planets around the folk’s star is the supernova remnant / massive star they’re flying past.  Consider Eta Carinae, which I mentioned before.  It hasn’t exploded yet and is putting out 5,000,000 solar luminosities, with a lot of high-energy photons coming out at any moment.  The high energy dose at 0.15 lightyear is greater than that from the Sun on the Earth; and the nebula around Eta Car is thick enough to cause problems.  Up until the folk run into that, they would be relatively safe, but for the several hundred years around closest approach they would be thoroughly cooked.  Good time to leave.  So Brunner made some mistakes on the details of astronomy, but that part of the plot can be handwaved fairly easily.  On to other problems.

Does the Folk’s Biology Make Sense?

As I said above, some of aspects of the folk’s biology, and the psychology and sociology that develop from that, don’t really work.  It is an important and often-emphasized theme in the book that when folk are starving, or even marginally malnourished, they become unable to distinguish reality from dreaming, or to think logically as effectively.  Malnutrition causes hallucinations that a folk will often interpret as religious visions.  The pheromones from other folk can trigger the same thing.  Malnutrition does induce cognitive changes in humans and other real animals, but only in extreme starvation or in the case of particular long-term dietary deficiencies.  Short-term lack of food doesn’t lead to cognitive impairment, because that impairs the ability of the animal concerned to find more food.  Why haven’t the folk been out-competed by mutants who remain entirely aware of their surroundings when they don’t eat?

One of the episodes related in Crucible is how the folk discover uranium and other radioactive elements.  They find a pond that has been heated to near boiling by uranium oxide that has somehow been concentrated until it looks like yellowcake (that’s more concentrated than anything natural on Earth, but let that pass).  Ingestion of a saturated uranium solution has been poisoning the local wildlife; they figure out that it is radiation because it causes streaks on their analog of a film camera.  Folk that have consumed too much uranium and other radioactive elements too quickly go mad from radiation poisoning.  Note the go mad, as opposed to Earth life, which merely has a higher incidence of cancers at that level of exposure.  We can excuse the folk for having different reactions to radiation dosage than an entirely different evolutionary progression, but the going mad is a strange one.  Radiation exposure causes biological effects by scrambling chemicals.  In that sense, it is no different than being exposed to many reactive chemical toxins.  Biological systems have to evolve defenses to those and, again, the folk should have been out-competed by people who didn’t lose their cognitive edge so easily.

At one point in their history, the folk genetically engineer themselves to cure infertility.  That causes a population explosion, followed by a crash as the food supply can’t keep up and the starving population goes mad.  There is a brief social collapse, followed by rebuilding.  That’s a theme in Crucible, and one of the reasons for the folk’s focus on getting off-planet (they know how society can be nearly destroyed).  But they don’t attempt to engineer away the tendency to hunger-induced madness, even when they have later engineered away their need to sleep.  The folk aren’t consistent in their use of their biotechnology skills.

And that leads into the biggest problem with Crucible.

Biotech Does Not Work That Way

Starting very early in their history, the folk use biotechnology rather than readily available and easier mechanical substitutes.  Rather than building boats, they tame and later domesticate several species of large ocean-dwelling animals that only swim on the surface.  Wouldn’t someone have figured out how to make a hull and oars in short order, followed by sails?  Rather than building houses, they grow them out of special varieties of tree-like lifeforms.  Where the trees cannot grow, or have not grown yet, they live in caves or do not live at all.  Why are there not buildings of brick or dead and cured wood?  This extends to a lot of barely-mentioned techniques that are included to flesh out the worldbuilding rather than to advance the plot.  Why print books using a specially-bred plant that extrudes ink in the pattern of the text you scratched into its surface, when you could simply have carved out a block print (or movable type) and used ink from less specific sources to coat it?  Why breed a plant specifically to be stable living supports for telescope mirrors, when you could just use adjustable screws?

I appreciate Brunner’s commitment to having the folk use biotech as much as possible, but that doesn’t make much sense.  Specific techniques are used for specific tasks because they are optimized for the purpose.  One way to keep the alien feel without such outrageously inefficient technology would have been for them to discover technologies by very different ways than humans did.  Instead of discovering radioactivity by seeing gamma-ray hits on film, how about by somebody seeing Cherenkov in an otherwise dark cave pool?

The biotech outrageousness is even greater at the book’s climax.

To escape the impending destruction, the folk have begun a massive space program.  Their first launches into orbit are chemical rockets (made of metal, not bombardier beetles), lit after being lofted to high altitude by specially cultured balloon plants.  Why not carry a bigger rocket by making a balloon far too thin to be alive and pumping it full of hydrogen from something else?

Then they launch shells of carefully-selected spores to their moon and the other terrestrial planets of their star, attempting geoengineering without having sent any other spacecraft to any of them – let alone having been there in person.  Apparently a good fraction of the spores take.  That’s doesn’t work: you can only learn so much about a place from remote sensing, and how can you engineer a plant that would be able to grow on Mars (or worse, an airless moon) without knowing the soil that the plant would be growing on?  No mention is made of meteorite samples, but even those would not have been sufficient.

Finally, the folk start assembling a space station on-orbit, sufficient to support scores of folk, done all remotely without a single folk on-site until the first one launches up on a chemical rocket lofted by a very long railgun built out of biological superconductor.  Even with some manner of biological computer artificial intelligence on-station, and granting that growing the plant with superconducting fibers is cheaper than bulk synthesis of just the superconductor, that is pushing things too far.

Convergent evolution says that animals that evolve into similar ecological niches will acquire similar forms, although those can be similar only in the sense that bony fish and squid are similar.  But technological convergence is stronger still, and straight up biotech – and especially as it is laid out in Crucible – is so far from an optimum solution that it doesn’t make any sense.  That’s why I designed the ursians to have jet aircraft, aerogel islands, and electronics made from metals sucked out of galane and arsane: they outperformed strictly biological alternatives.

SciFi Round Thirteen: Science Gone Mad

2013/02/22 Leave a comment

Everybody loves a good mad scientist, right?

I was originally going to just write up about that phenomenon… then I remembered A Miracle of Science.  It’s a webcomic with good drawings and some of the best semi-squishy sci-fi I’ve come across, as well as a few relatively unusual features.  As ever… spoilers!  Big spoilers!  I strongly recommend you read the comic first — it’s awesome.  (Also, when reading, don’t forget to read the titles on your browser window.  I hadn’t noticed them before, but they add some bonus hilarity.  Also the comments underneath by the authors.)


Science-Related Memetic Disorder

Hey, I said there was mad science, right?

Best quote ever:  “When you’re a recovering mad scientist, you’re always afraid you’ll wake up some morning with a half-built time machine in the living room and a plan to go back in time and pants Hitler.  You know how it is.”

That pretty much summarizes the main idea.  Mad scientists have a particular mental health issue, communicable via memes (particular ideas), which results in them being… well, mad scientists cackling about making a robot utopia, for example.  Of course, there are standard diagnostic criteria (mad cackling, crazy ideas, not playing well with others, using a lab coat to handle the chill…) and appropriate medical treatments.

To match the SRMD, there’s an appropriate amount of mad science.  Mars, Venus, and Ganymede have all been terraformed to the point of habitability.  Faster-than-light communications are ubiquitous, and Mars has figured out how to do FTL travel.  There are nanobots, antigravity “vector fields”, AI, disintegrators and ray guns.  It’s not hard sci-fi by any stretch, but it does a nice job of remaining relatively consistent throughout.  For instance, the antagonist is smart enough to immediately realize that a craft seen taking only two minutes to get from Mars to Earth is going faster than light-speed, and acts on that intelligence.  Our mad scientist is also smart enough to sometimes accept advice from his minions.  (Yes-men… or bots… aren’t terribly helpful, after all.)  Nanobots are used for healing on multiple occasions.  And so forth.  But one technology is particularly interesting…

The scary part?  Mars and the martian in this picture are sane.  The other person is the mad one.

The scary part? Mars and the martian in this picture are sane. The other person is the mad one.

Is All AI A Crapshoot?

There are a lot of settings where AI just… go nuts.  In various different entertaining and dangerous ways.

This is not one of them.

The AIs fall into two classes — dumb ones, which essentially just do as they’re told like contemporary computers, and smart ones, which appear to have a degree of personhood close to that of humans:

“Uh.. beep, click!  That does not compute!”  “Don’t play non-sentient with me, buddy…”

These smarter AIs are smart enough that Benjamin Prester, our investigative hero, manages to talk a couple of them out of killing him and into helping him against their mad scientist creator — on the grounds that having their creator surrender to the authorities, going to jail and getting treatment would be safer for him.  Another nice touch is that the sentient AIs are treated by humans and other AIs as if they are people.  As a result, there are no faceless mooks that can be mowed down without guilt.

Resolving the Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox gets wrapped up in this story, too.  Bluntly — why haven’t we gotten messages from all the aliens?

The answer:  They’re all dead.

The dozen alien races that existed in the Milky Way all self-destructed by one means or another, with ages since death from many millions to, tragically, only a thousand years ago.  The Martians discovered this shortly after exploring the galaxy with their FTL handwavium.  They are as a consequence very seriously concerned about the human race’s continued survival.

Admittedly, this is a very depressing resolution to the Fermi Paradox, but, given that in reality we have less than two centuries’ worth of use of radio and no data on what real aliens are like, it’s plausible.

Then again, given the size of the universe, there are almost certainly currently-live intelligent aliens elsewhere.  Maybe Mars just hasn’t had the time or resources to start scouring other galaxies yet.


In this setting, Mars is particularly fascinating.  It is a rare example of a benevolent hive mind.

Mars (and Martians) are not the Borg.  Martians are normal-looking humans carrying around massive quantities of nanotech, plus FTL radio in their heads.  Individuals still have their own minds and personalities, but are all components of Mars.  Also unlike the Borg, each individual is valued as such.  It also cares enough about its individual members that when the Martian who’s been working with Prestor, one Caprice Quevillion, suddenly loses her connection with Mars, it sends an FTL fleet to Venus to find her.  We also get a view of Caprice’s mother’s reaction… which roughly lines up with that of Mars as a whole.  Meanwhile, this makes me wonder how Mars handles the more natural deaths of individuals… sadness, loss, certainly.  But are there no Martians who have flying accidents, or other sudden deaths that would be a similar shock?  Given their tech, perhaps such sudden, accidental death is quite rare.

Crime doesn’t exist on Mars (except that caused by visitors who are not Martians), since Mars always knows what Mars/Martians are thinking.  Martians find it odd to not know what other people are thinking.  Mars is also smart enough, between all its individual members, to have invented FTL drives, among other things.

From the story, it’s not clear how this got started, aside from most of the current Martians being descendants of the original American and Chinese colonies.  So I wonder:  How did Mars begin?  Did the people individually get the head-radios, and the personality that is Mars was an emergent result?  Or was Mars deliberately engineered as an overall intelligence drawn from the combination of the individuals?  Either way, there are significant issues that aren’t closely addressed in the story — such as, what if an individual doesn’t want to be a part of Mars?  Can a normal human from elsewhere join the hive mind?

Naturally, the interaction between Martians and normal humans is of interest.  Prester eventually gets used to the idea, but his initial reaction to Mars is to call it “creepy.”  Mars is… somewhat amused by this.  And works to demonstrate its pleasant society, high technology, and general non-evilness.

Of course, Mars does have an ulterior motive.  It wants to have Prestor’s help in preventing Mars from ever contracting SRMD.  Given that having the super-powerful hive mind go all mad scientist is a bad thing, this probably still falls under the benevolent category.  Plus, rather than strapping him to a table and screwing various machinery into him, Mars made a job offer.

Mars also sets him up with Caprice.  Because it thinks they’re compatible.  And as Caprice says to Prester… “Mars likes you.”

Superheroes Round 6: Super-Spies

“Bond.  James Bond.”

“My name is Jason Bourne.”

“The next time, Jack, put it in a goddamn memo…”

You may wonder what those three have in common.  If you recognized the last one as being Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October, you’ll get the theme: these are all from spy action series.  You may now wonder why I’m lumping them in with the superheroes.

While the worlds of fictional spies may bear superficially more resemblance to reality than those of comic books, they share a number of similar impossibilities.  There are also some common conventions to both genres, although some authors do try to avert them.  So here we go.

One-Man Army

This overlaps with a lot of other action movies.  The hero, who is usually a man, despite some notable exceptions, is portrayed as a one-person killing machine.  Jack Ryan is a relatively subdued example, but still manages to outsmart and defeat a car-full of heavily armed assassins.  Bond shoots people.  Bourne kills anyone with anything.

There are times when a single person can kill tens or even hundreds of armed opponents.  But those situations are limited.  They require the person of mass destruction to stack everything in their favor, and are short on drama (although high on suspense).  The enemy is hunting you?  Stay in the forested mountains you’ve lived in for 30 years, where you know every trail and hiding spot.  They have rifles?  Have a longer-range rifle.  They look to shoot anyone they see?  Hide under the snow.  They look for flashes of light off a telescopic gun-sight?  Don’t use one.  The enemy has camped for the night?  Stay in the dark and shoot them as they thaw out next to their fire.  Those are all examples of the tactics of Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper who killed several hundred Russian soldiers during the Russians’ attempted invasion of Finland during the winter of 1939/1940.  But the Russians reacted – they sent in counter-snipers and artillery.  Häyhä was eventually shot in the jaw and put into a coma for a week.  Modern counter-sniper tactics are more effective, rapidly locating the shooters and minimizing the potential for a large number of causalities.

And notice something else.  Häyhä spent his early life farming and hunting, and 14 years as a marksman in the Finnish militia and military before he went around killing every enemy he came across.  He very carefully and patiently developed a very particular set of skills – how to use a rifle to put bullets exactly where and when he wanted them, and how to navigate a familiar landscape without being seen.  That’s not what spies are trained to do.

In reality, spies – like any other diverse profession – specialize.  Some are experts in languages.  Others are trained as journalists.  Both are good professions for getting information, and for justifying certain amounts of foreign travel.  Some are trained as scientists or engineers or, more recently, computer programmers – necessary to understand whatever device or information they should pass back to their handlers.  When an espionage agent finds something that requires large-scale violence to resolve, they don’t do the job themselves in a massive rampage of gunfire.  They either call for backup, or try to figure out something more subtle to avoid the need to shoot everyone.  This gets to our next point.

Super Hero super-spy.  See the similarity?

Super Hero super-spy.

Spy movie super-spy.

Spy movie super-spy.  They’re both going to shoot you in the face.

Implausible Omnicompetence

Jason Bourne is a former US military officer who speaks at least four languages without an accent (the films have him at nine), has implausible fighting skills, blends seamlessly into every culture in Europe, and can drive just about any vehicle.  Jack Ryan is a self-made multimillionaire who graduated from the US Navy Academy, recovered from breaking his back in a helicopter accident, becomes a highly-respected historian and CIA analyst, and can still take angry Irish terrorists in a fight.  James Bond speaks whatever languages are necessary for the plot; and can fly British helicopters, American airplanes, and Russian fighter jets; drive tanks; pilot submarines; do high-altitude paradrops; and is immediately proficient with whatever gadgets his bosses give him.

Where and more importantly when did they learn how to do all of these things?  Sometimes it is not something that anyone could plausibly know.  What’s the wiring like on a custom-built Chinese nuke?

It’s just as fantastic and wish-fulfilling as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark or Reed Richards.  It is possible to know a bit about everything.  But it is impossible or at least incredibly implausible for someone to be as much of an expert about as many different things as super-spy characters are.

Family Trouble

One thing that some spy stories do address is the problems associated with that choice of employment on your family life.  Jack Ryan is married, and has a daughter and a son.  And when a terrorist figures out who his family are and decides to take things personally, bad things happen.  But, like with superheros, spy authors like to ramp up the angst factor by making their character’s back stories incredibly tragic.  James Bond’s and Jack Ryan’s parents all died in accidents.  Jason Bourne’s first wife and their children were murdered.  Bond gets married once, and his wife is immediately assassinated.  Just like Peter Parker and Uncle Ben, these are often used as a way to justify the character taking on or continuing a high-risk high-stress job.  But why doesn’t anyone have somewhat less trauma in their backstory?

Made of Iron

This one bothers me too.  Bond gets beaten up and tortured repeatedly, and doesn’t have the debilitating side effects you’d expect from that. Ryan recovers nearly completely from serious injuries to his spine.  Jason Bourne is an interesting variation.  He’s shot and nearly dies, but after he’s had some horribly inadequate medical care his remaining disability is entirely mental and with effectively zero cognitive impairment beyond very precisely restricted amnesia.  Notice the similarities to what we’ve described before for comic book and movie superheroes?

But these are just some of the simplest and most obvious impossibilities with the super-spies.  There are worse ones.  I’m going to touch on just two of them.

Complicated Problem 1: Ethics

The real-life ethics of espionage are already complicated enough.  You’re considering lying, cheating, stealing, blackmail, extortion, torture, sabotage, assassination, enabling mass murder, and a long list of other things that would otherwise be considered crimes.  You’d better be thinking that what you’re doing is justified in the service of a greater goal, and that it is the least-bad way to achieve that goal, and that that goal is in fact a good one.  In real life, we can and should carefully consider the ethics of both individual acts of espionage and of the political decisions that codify those acts as acceptable.  But in super-spy stories, the ethics get just as bad as for comic-book superheroes.

Bourne wakes up with no memory, a bank access code, and a compulsion to stay off the grid until he understands what has happened to him.  In the process, he beats up several innocent bystanders, steals guns, steals cars, wrecks cars, defrauds businesses and individuals, blows up a house, and kidnaps a woman (the last in the books, it’s “not-quite-kidnaps” in the film).  How is that any better than anyone else going on a rampage?  His bosses aren’t any better than he is: if an agent appears to go rogue, the indicated procedure is not to immediately send assassins to shoot them.  It is to contact them as best you can and bring them in quietly.  Cuts down on both the body count and the exposure.

Bond is worse, because he blows up more stuff.  Tanks running around the streets of MoscowWhen that happened in the US, the guy was chased by the cops and eventually shot.  Exploding airplanes.  Setting hotels on fire.  Blowing up elaborate underground bases and all of the goons inside.  Wanton destruction may look cool, but it equals lots of property damages and potentially many deaths for otherwise uninvolved civilians.  How is that heroic?

Complicated Problem 2: Misogyny

This one is a bit complicated because not all super-spy series or super-hero series are equally misogynistic or are misogynistic in the same way.  But there are some distinct patterns.

Remember how I said that the super-spy character is usually male?  Notice how most of the iconic superhero characters are also male?  There have been female spy characters, just like there have been female superhero characters.  Some were deliberately designed to counter the male-hero stereotype.  But many of those are portrayed in implausible ways – deliberately impractical costumes, with even more of a focus on their appearance than for male characters.  And far more common are female characters that exist solely for the male hero to assert a form of masculinity based on the women needing to be rescued and then being seduced by the hero.

This shows up in comic books – Superman, Tony Stark, and others.  But the Bond series is the worst offender for this one.  There is at least one such character, and sometimes as many as six, in each book and each film.  This is pretty absurd, and quite misogynistic.  And in addition to the misogyny, there are other unfortunate implications.

I could also talk about about impossible plots.  A small part of a single keiretsu out-performing the US and Russian space programs put together, the wreckage of one submarine being mistaken for that of another, a billionaire somehow hiding a space station in orbit and six space shuttles in the Amazon jungle, and on and on.  But I think this is enough to make the point that there are lots of problems with the super-spy genre.  This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching Jason Bourne do parkour across Europe.  But we should think about the implications of the story.

SciFi Round Twelve: Pocahontas in SPACE!!!!

2013/02/09 6 comments

Avatar (not the one with the last airbender) is one of the prettiest films I’ve come across.  Beautiful cinematography.  Nice constructed language for the aliens.

Now, it’s time to look for problems with the science and internal consistency.

It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel, but let’s have a go at it anyway.


The blue alien is the alien "avatar" of the dude on the right.  He proceeds to learn how to be more awesome than the real aliens.  Oops.

The blue alien is the alien “avatar” of the dude on the right. He proceeds to learn how to be more awesome than the real aliens. Oops.

A Little Astronomy Goes A Long Way

Somewhere, something has gone horrible wrong.

And I’m not even referring to the outrageousness of naming a substance unobtainium, or the moon you’re visiting Pandora.  I’ll try not to open that box too much.

There is so much wrong here, it’s hard to know where to start.  According to the movie (and the wiki), Pandora is a moon around the gas giant Polyphemus, which in turn is in orbit around Alpha Centauri A.  First off, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there is no such gas giant in the Alpha Cen system.  (Though there’s a much smaller, hot rock orbiting Alpha Cen B.)

The next problem is that Alpha Cen A’s habitable zone is further out than that of Alpha Cen B.  Planets in the habitable zone of the latter may have stable orbits.  There could even be an Earth-like planet, which, while not detected yet, hasn’t been ruled out.  (They’re looking.)  However, planets in the habitable zone of Alpha Cen A are probably not going to be in stable orbits.  They would be further out, and more easily perturbed into unfortunate orbits (or possibly even ejected) by encounters with Alpha Cen B.

Next up: Polyphemus is smaller than Jupiter, but Pandora is about the size of Earth.  This… doesn’t really work.  Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, is bigger than Mercury, but much smaller than Mars… and not really close to Earth-size.  Pandora is too big, or Polyphemus is too small.  Or something.

For bonus points, gas giants and their moons presumably formed outside the “ice line.”  That means, they were cool enough that not many volatile elements were warmed up and vaporized off.  “Volatiles” includes water.  This is why so many of the outer moon are icy, and why comets actually spend most of their time in the outer solar system.  (If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have any ice left for the sun to bake off to make them into comets.)  Pandora should be an iceball or a water-world, not rocky.

There are even more astronomical issues in the wiki details, but I think I’d better stop while I’m ahead.

The Unobtainium

This doesn’t make much sense either, alas.

Supposedly, unobtainium (oh, geez, the name, the name…) is a room-temperature superconductor necessary for the production of maximally high-speed, but sub-light, interstellar travel.  Unobtainium is available on Pandora, but not Earth.  (The first expeditions, without ships using unobtainium, were slower and generally much less awesome.)

Problem one:

The floating rocks.  These are awesome.  They also don’t work.  There’s an issue with stability.  The setup is essentially a mountain sitting on a big unobtainium magnet, which then floats in Pandora’s magnetic field.  You then have to avoid having your magnet flip over and stick itself to the ground with the same amount of force.  So all the mountains have to be bottom-heavy, to avoid flipping.  And too much of a perturbation – like, say, collisions or explosions – could still knock them over.

You can get around that by having a superconductor and an external magnetic field, but those would have to be both very large solid chunks of superconductor and an absurdly powerful magnetic field to hold the mountains up.  A couple of different estimates by me and Michael suggest that for a small-ish mountain made of superconducting material, you’d need at least 5 Tesla of magnetic field to hold it up.

That’s five TESLA.  At least.  Supposedly from Pandora’s magnetic field.  For comparison, Earth’s magnetic field is about 30-60 µT.  Yes, that’s micro-Tesla.  3e-5 T.  Way, way less than 5 T.  Sunspots?  Still only up to a few times 0.1 T.  But there is something on Earth that makes that high a magnetic field.

It’s called an MRI machine.

When they wheel people into one of those things, they have you take off everything made of metal.  Now, rotating in a magnetic field or sitting in a changing magnetic field will induce currents, more easily in better conductors.  Larger currents get produced by larger motions/changes in magnetic field.  Anything made of metal that goes in the machine will conduct a current induced by the magnetic field… and dissipate heat… which can be uncomfortable.  Plus, the same thing can happen for the human body itself, which is part of the reason why they wheel people in slowly.  Another part (as discovered by one of Michael’s cousins) is that neurons have conducting parts, too.  Turn your head too quickly while in a few-Tesla magnetic field, and you see lights, taste metal, and other funny sensory effects.  (Don’t worry, he was fine shortly afterwards.)

Suffice it to say, if Pandora really had a 5 T field on its surface under the Hallelujah Mountains, communications and electronics failures are the small problems.  The presence of the mountains themselves will make the field very nonuniform.  So, you get weird effects on your brain every time you move, and all the metal surfaces of, for instance, your helicopter are getting heated to high temperatures by induced currents.  Ouch.

Problem two:

According to the backstory, unobtainium was produced on Pandora by the impact of a Mars-sized object onto Pandora early in its formation.  Unobtainium (whatever weird crystal it actually is) was produced by the high pressure and temperature, and interaction with Polyphemus’s magnetic field.  And this is why it’s not found on Earth, and can’t be manufactured.

That’s happened on Earth.  It’s called the moon-forming impact.  A hypothesized Mars-sized object called Theia smacked the Earth about four-and-a-half billion years ago.  The material that blew off of Earth into orbit eventually coalesced into the moon.

For bonus points, such high temperatures and pressures as in that kind of impact… can be produced in a lab.  (You should use either an impact gun or a diamond anvil cell.)  So, if what they say about the production of unobtainium is correct, we could make the stuff.  It’d take some work to scale it up for industrial purposes, but hey, given how expensive the stuff is, it may well be worth it.  Speaking of money…

Unobtainable Economics

The economy here is impossible, too.  Supposedly, unobtainium is worth $20,000,000/kg, unrefined.  For comparison, platinum, an important catalyst on Earth in the real world, is worth about $55,000/kg, as an essentially pure metal.  And according to my old CRC manual from 2005, plutonium is worth about $5/mg, or $5,000,000/kg.  In other words, unobtainium is four times as valuable as plutonium.  (I’m assuming that inflation must have flatlined somewhere, to make the dollar costs for things in the far future equivalent to now.)

Now, in the future, unobtainium is supposedly powering both the starships used to obtain unobtainium, as well as handling Earth’s power needs.  So, if somebody running a power plant can get at least 4 times the energy with the same amount of unobtainium as plutonium, plus it has less trouble with radiation and toxicity, well, win.

But what about our sellers?  In other words — what are the shipping costs for unobtainium from Pandora to Earth?  The description of their interstellar craft apparently includes both a solar sail and a pair of matter-antimatter engines.  (What? Antimatter?  Where are they getting that?  … never mind.  I’d better stop asking questions.)

Nonetheless, let’s assume that the ship going back has minimal weight, other than fuel and unobtainium.  It travels at 0.7 c, and is powered by matter-antimatter annihilation.  So, for the rocket equation, let’s assume that our exhaust is traveling at the speed of light.  Lots of gamma-rays out the back end.  In the end, you get a ratio of initial mass (fuel plus payload) to final mass of m_0/m_1=exp(arctanh(0.7))=2.4 to accelerate to 0.7 c.  Then you have to spend just as much of your current mass to slow back down again.  So, for every kg of unobtainium you send to Earth, you must expend a minimum of 4.7 kg of fuel, half of which is antimatter.

At present, antimatter is only fleetingly produced in particle accelerators.  Via Wikipedia — current world production of antimatter is less than 10 ng/year.  At a cost of about $10,000,000,000,000,000,000/kg.  That’s $10^19.  $10 quintillion dollars.  Give or take some.  But we need the total cost of antimatter to be less than about $8 million/kg, and also industrial scale production, or else this won’t work.  Especially given that there will be inefficiencies in production, and the ship isn’t a big lump of pure ore.  You need things like space for the crew… containment for the antimatter…

In other words, you need antimatter to be way cheaper than unobtainium to make the operation worth it.  This is a problem.

Of course, all this is for naught once some clever person decides to get rich by making the stuff at home.

Pandoran Ecology

Pandora really has the Gaia thing going.  Now, coevolution is a real thing.  Certain hummingbirds with hugely long beaks that can only drink from, and thus pollinate, certain kinds of flowers are an example.  They develop a unique connection because each is dependent on the other, and a change in one will tend to promote a reasonable change in the other to maintain the beneficial relationship.

The world-tree connection to what seems like every large animal on the planet, and which allows connections between those animals… is a bit much.  Earth has no examples of such strong symbiosis among so many complex species by a related mechanism.  I can’t think of any such tight, mutually beneficial tie between anything more than pairs of species.  Especially since… some of them also prey on each other.  Food webs?  Sure, those happen, but the fundamental bond between the animals on Pandora is quite different.  Plus, the bonds are only ever made between the forest or the Na’vi and the animals.  Bonds between animals are never shown.

I might have bought it if it was just the trees having an emergent consciousness.  With everything so directly connected by the brain-wire-worm-things, yet lacking stronger evidence, I can only strongly suspect that the Pandoran forest and ecosystem are artificially constructed to a large degree.

The Plot

I have no words.

Okay, I lied.  I have a few.  In short:

If I can accurately summarize your plot as Pocahontas in SPACE, and your villains are all stereotypically narrow-minded corporate tools, you should consider changing your plot.

SciFi Round Eleven: No, You Can’t Have A Hollow Planet. Not Even A Little One.

This time, we’re going to echo back to the first post here.  I’ll be talking about another of Hal Clement’s books.  This one is called Still River.  As you’ll see, the world-building here is sloppy as compared to Clement’s usual standards.  But I still have a soft spot for the book, because it is a science fiction novel about planetary science graduate students.

Cover art for the hardcover printing of Still River (1987).  The thing in the center is a fusion-powered robot.  The person hanging from it upside down is a human graduate student.  The person in the background is an alien graduate student who just happens to have the same number of arms and legs.

Cover art for the hardcover printing of Still River (1987). The thing in the center is a fusion-powered robot. The person hanging from it upside down is a human graduate student. The person in the background is an alien graduate student who just happens to have the same number of arms and legs.

Field Camp

The protagonists of the book are a bunch of students studying for the degree of “Respected Opinion” at a many-species institution of higher learning based on a number of planets around stars in the Carina Nebula.  One wonders why a galaxy-spanning federation with relatively casual interstellar travel would put their university within 10 parsecs of a pending supernova, but at least the view is cool.


The federation built their university near this thing. It may have already gone pop. I think I’d go for a correspondence course…

Although only one of the students (Molly) is human, the others are only referred to by the names given to them by Molly’s universal translator – just like “Respected Opinion” is an alias.  The limitations of the translator are carefully explored, as are some of the quirks of the aliens’ psychologies.  No two of them are identical, and while they are all Starfish Aliens, they aren’t incomprehensible.  They all want to learn about various parts of planetary science and have written up proposals for field projects at one of the institute’s standard locations for field camps.

This small planet is called Enigma 88, and has been used for field exercises for many thousands of years (apparently, the federation has reached a state of technological near-stasis).  This is where things get strange.  Rather than having a standard set of things to explore while on the planet, with an expert guiding the students through and making sure they don’t miss something important, the students are not given access to the reports of the previous expeditions and are tossed down all by themselves to figure out why Enigma still has an atmosphere despite being so small and being bombarded by lots of high-energy photons from Eta Car.  These aliens aren’t following anything like human training methods: the unnecessary lack of background information nearly leads to the deaths of half of the students.  Doesn’t seem like the best strategy if the goal is to efficiently train planetary scientists.  The thing about aliens is they’re alien?

The Pun In The Title

The students hypothesize that Enigma’s atmosphere is being sustained by outgassing from its interior, like how methane is replenished in Titan’s atmosphere.  They approach and land on Engima; track the pattern of air flow and find outflows from a series of cave mouths near one pole; and start spelunking with armored environment suits, support robots powered by miniature fusion reactors, and kilometers of monofilament line.  They are looking for ice or minerals holding lots of chemically-bound volatiles.  In the caves they find a water-rich environment, supporting life.  The life is just contamination: thousands of years of field camps dumping their waste has given a biosphere made of a mis-mash of imported microbes and assorted larger forms that were transported as spores.  They find underground rivers, flowing downward to lower caves very slowly in the low gravity.  As they go further down, the temperature rises and the different components of the fluid in the down-going rivers evaporate into the outgoing air streams, so what was once dominated by water is now dominated by such lovely things as hydrogen peroxide.  The things are slowly moving hundred-kilometer-long distillation systems.  Eventually, the students descend to a point where the evaporation rate is high enough that the river goes no further: the gas venting from still further down carries away the material that’s coming down as fast as it comes in.  And the flow rate goes to zero.

And so we have an incredibly geeky pun.  Given that Clement wrote “Mission of Gravity”, “Star Light”, “Close to Critical”, and “The Nitrogen Fix”, we should not be surprised.

The Impossibility

But it wasn’t enough for Clement to have his fun distillation system be driven by outgassing from hot areas a few hundred kilometers inside Enigma.  Instead, he had there be a planet-wide interior circulation system.  The air flow out of the vents near one pole was balanced not by local down-welling, but by a series of vents at the opposite pole.  The cave system went all the way through the planet, including a single lumpy several-hundred-kilometer-wide void right in the center.  Enigma was supposedly a hollow planet.  We can expect nonsense like that from George Lucas, but Clement should have known better.

Very obviously, it is a lower energy-state for dense material to be at the center of a planet and lower density material on the outside.  The air inside the middle of Enigma is connected to the outside by the cave system.  It is being pushed inwards only by the pressure from the air along the line of the vents.  That pressure is hundreds to a thousand times less than the pressure from the rocks that are pushing the air in the central void outwards, since it is lower-energy for the rocks to occupy that space.  The only way to maintain the central void would be if the rock shell itself could resist the pressure from its own weight.  But as I mentioned in another earlier post, rocks aren’t that strong.  The pressure on the rocks on the inside of Enigma’s shell would be much lower than that in the center of the Earth, but it would still be measured in gigapascals, way above the strength of a large mass of any geologic material.  Enigma can’t exist; it would immediately and violently collapse in on itself.

There’s another part of the impossibility: not only did the students not know the place was hollow, apparently their teachers and all of the previous testing teams didn’t know either.  When they get back with their reports and get out of hospital, the students are rewarded with their degrees and the news that Enigma is now being promoted to active research area rather than field camp.  That makes no sense.  Even without landing on the place and doing seismology, it would be obvious in Enigma’s moments of inertia that it was hollow (and also in the higher-order terms in the gravity field since the voids aren’t spherically symmetric).  The big void space would also show up on very long-wave electromagnetic work, measuring the planet’s interaction with the surrounding interplanetary medium.  That’s how we know about the liquid layers inside Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Titan.

I can only conclude that Clement let his liking for chemistry overwhelm his knowledge of astronomy for this one.