Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

What's the scoop with Dark Matter?

There's still no experimental proof of the existence of dark matter and dark energy. We can't see it, feel it, reflect it, or find it. BUT it balances many GUT (Grand UnificationTheories) that proponents say it's got to be there. They point to many examples of physical realities that we couldn't prove when they were theorized that later were confirmed. On the other side, theorists who don't want to rely on unsubstantiatable (is that even a word?) phenomena to balance their equations are reluctant even skeptical to put dark matter into the mix.

There is no right or wrong here. It's all still theory so the search for a TOE (Theory of Everything - ain't it great when you can have a bunch of acronyms that mean the same thing) continues. The key is in balancing gravity on the large scale with planck scale. So, of course, dark matter weighs a TON (theory of nothing - that one was mine).

I wonder who might be hiding in the dark matter? What if there is a consciousness that doesn't want to be seen? Wouldn't it be frightful if we discover the existence of God in dark energy? Reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Nine Billion Names Of God. In that tale, a computer calculated all the incarnations of God and ended existence as we know it.

What if we light up this dark matter and don't like what we see.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Tangle of Strings

I really love string theory - all of them.
It reminds me of the Mark Twain quote, "Man is the only animal with the true religion -- several of them!".

Friday, September 25, 2009

I'm Dreaming of a Planck Universe

The novel I'm writing has developed an odd mix of mysticism and quantum science. I didn't really mean to have floating consciousness and mystical effects enter into it, but in the end I couldn't avoid it. You see, the universe I'm trying to create has a root in quantum gravity theory, one I mixed and matched from several thinkers, so that the shifting tides of reality are being manipulated at a planck level.

That's where a 'mystic' element creeps in. Who manipulates it? If someone controls it, how can they do so without conscious effort? Sure, I suppose I could invent a machine with lights and buttons and circles and arrows on the back that heats particles on a string level. But I want to get closer to the bone on this one.

The question becomes: how much energy does it really take to create a black hole? The more I read and understand the physics the more relative that question becomes. At our place in the scheme of things, that is our size, our velocity, our low energy, it would take a particle accelerator with a circumference the size of Jupiter's orbit to create anything near the Planck energy. That means right now we're safe from creating an energy burst so awesome that it begat the Universe. I can live with that. It also means to invent such a machine in SF requires a jump to future time and technology for my story. But shift into a different paradigm, a different plane of mass/energy, and we could spark it up with much less fuss.

How do we get there from here, you ask? Let me answer with a question: what is the relative density of a thought?

We have no idea what the power our brains really have. We tinker with technology and language while we scrape out an existence on Earth and think we're damn clever. But we haven't scratched the surface of our potential any more than we've scratched through the crust of the planet. A lot of our brain is unused, at least, so we tend to believe. But if we focus on the simple transfer of energy, add a dash of Heisenberg, imagine that thought may relate subjectively to the speed of light, we got us a whole new ball game.

Then the question is: what would a Planck universe look like through such a mind's eye?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Beware the Martians

My wife said I should write about Mars. Okay.

There have been lots of great stories about Mars going back to the good old days. My classic faves are Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and, for a real change of pace, C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet. More recently, especially since we've been to Mars on more than one occasion and know there are no cities or lost worlds waiting to be reborn, science can take a different role in Martian stories and many stories involving the complications of colonizing the planet have come along. I have to admit that I haven't read many of these. I'm actually remedying that with Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars series.

In the movies my vote goes to Red Planet written by Chuck Pfarrer staring Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss. The plot involves colonizing Mars and the problems encountered by the astronauts on their first manned voyage there. What sets this story apart from many is that it is about man vs. the elements in the struggle to tame a new frontier. The first job is to create a breathable atmosphere. Unfortunately, the story plows straight into several cliche conflict devices, not the least of which is AMEE, their homicidal robot. They had enough conflict without it but...that's the movies for you. However, on the plus side, it's not about meeting aliens who require dispensing with.

Back in the 70's when the first surface pictures from Voyager hit the magazine shelves, I was enthralled at our close up look at, well, not much at all. Just a red hillside covered in rocks. Kind of a let down. Kind of like looking at galaxies through a small scope. Tiny grey puffs of smoke. What's the big deal, right? For us geeks, both images tug the imagination with the realization of where they are and what you're looking at. In the past decade robots on Mars dug down to look for signs of water. Our measuring stick for possible life.

That's where I get on board with the scary SF ideas. The first plot I thought up was "The Second War Of the Worlds". What happens when we bring the sample home? What if has a dormant virus in it that treats us worse than anything H. G. Wells could ever dream up? Martians that we can't even see. Now there's some seriously hard science fiction.

It's my firm belief that one day Earthlings will survive the end of the Earth, travel to Mars and beyond to the stars. I'm just not so sure they'll be human beings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Humankind: a waste product of the Universe?

In the beginning there was heat.

According to all that is holy in the physics world, the universe is energy. Energy transfer, to be specific and lots of it. So much so that it couldn't contain itself inside such infinite density and blew its brains out to create what we call space. As it cooled and spread out, particles formed to assist in this transfer across greater distances. Now, at that time (the first microseconds of the universe), we're not talking lightyears. No, sir. While muons begat leptons begat quarks begat protons begat electron which begat hydrogen, we've barely moved from the planck length to the atomic length. All for the glory of energy.

As the universe expands and energy is swapped and diffused, hydrogen begat helium and so forth down the line forming cooler and cooler atoms (consult a periodic table near you). At this point the background temperature of the universe is barely above absolute zero. Energy transfers take place mostly in stars. They swap hydrogen for helium for as long as poss and when the juice is sucked out, the cooler metals get spit out like seeds from a grape. That grape seed becomes a planet and when it's energy has bounced around enough to disperse and cool, it forms a crust of molecules in the cold, cold reality of space .

Welcome to our world. The universe is finally cold enough to form water, that refreshing lava of life! There's not much energy going around the surface of the Earth but what there is gets batted around until somehow we evolve from amino acids in the water to rush hour on the Long Island Expressway.

The upshot here is that in essence, from the big bang on down we human beings are a part of the universe's waste stream. Simply a byproduct of spent energy. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Rising from ashes, the wretched refuse...something.

What I wonder is what happened to all that energy? It's still out there somewhere...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Black Hole (2006)

I bought a bundled DVD of 4 SF movies for cheap the other day and watched the 2006 TV movie The Black Hole with Judd Nelson and written by David Goodin. The story was about a research lab that discovers a black hole has formed in their accelerator. As it begins to eat eastern Missouri, some kind of electrically charged being jumps out of the black hole and starts sucking up energy off power lines, relay stations, and wherever it can find it.

For the most part this film was full of more holes than Bonnie and Clyde. The dialogue needed mouth to mouth and the acting was phoned in from Mars. But it followed the fundamental rules of Quantum SF, albeit with a very cheezy execution.

First, the beast had no interest in human beings. It wasn't there to wage war. In fact, it wasn't even aware of human beings. It simply went about it's business. Second, it was an alien lifeform that had no connection to 'humanoid' or 'terrestrial' lifeforms. It used the black hole to travel through space and time. It didn't care that the hole was devouring Earth. Thirdly, the humans couldn't communicate with it because there was no common frame of reference. They had to understand it on its terms.

This kind of story pits human against himself, his resources, and a universe he has yet to comprehend. The human/alien connection has to be made through other means than a simple "na nu, na nu". Unfortunately, this particular story did none of those things with this nice creative setup because it was trying to keep the audience from changing channels for 90 minutes. However, that's another issue.

For my money, grappling with the unknown in science fiction should be more challenging than exchanging weapons fire with Klingons.

Monday, September 14, 2009

When is a jetpack really a flying broomstick?

There's a lot of talk about where the line is between science fiction and fantasy. The line in hard SF is usually clear. You build a rocket, you go to Fbiblinar, meet the aliens, and blow them to kingdom come. Job well done.

But what about tachyons (a highly unlikely particle favored by Star Trek writers), or gravity boots, or warp/hyper drive? These and thousands of other devices are sheer fantasy and can't be dressed up as 'coming to a reality near you' simply by giving them a funky name. A Plesnian Ion Field Emitter that creates a barrier between you and your enemy is no more plausible than a Twallzari Druidian Separation Spell. But for some reason, one works in genre A and the other in genre B.

This kind of gray area gives plenty of food for fandom to blog about. So let me throw a couple more photon on the fire. In Quantum SF, where our world connects to the world of quantum mechancis, how do we bridge that gap if not with some kind of fantasy? It borders on mysticism.

I have a friend who leans more towards mystic consciousness in his preferences to the uber quantum world whereas I tend towards the hard science. He postulates that if you can think it, it can exist. Standard enough “I think therefore I am” stuff, but he goes further to suggest that if a mystic monk can control his body environment (ie: keep healthy, cure internal disease, etc.) then why can’t he control the surrounding reality, too? Can we change reality through our deeper levels of consciousness? Would that change the equations? Would we know? This gets to the fundamental question of reality and there is a huge population that believes in mysticism, higher consciousness, etc. as firmly as physicists believe in dark matter. Neither can be proved imperically but it doesn't shake their belief.

After much reading on quantum physics I keep coming back to this question: Is quantum reality simply a metaphor for the equations? After all, why create 11 dimensions in String Theory unless they make the equation balance? Same with 3 branes, multiverses, and dark matter. Are these contrivances simply metaphoric descriptions of an equation for the layman to understand?

If we reverse the question to read: is the math simply our description of reality? Then, says my friend, couldn't there be other ways to describe reality, perhaps through consciousness and other metaphysical language? In truth, consciousness is our only way to understand or describe reality.

This is a complex topic and my brief example is only meant to spark the concept that using mysticism, conscious altered reality, and other metaphysical states impacts the SF vs. Fantasy puzzle. There is much literature based in mysticsm that isn't called science fiction.

Maybe it should be...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

It's all Geek to me

Science Fiction was traditionally considered a 'guy' thing. Books boys with black rimmed glasses and uncombed hair could hide behind to avoid talking to girls. The girls had no idea what kinds of world and fantastic adventures they were competing with. For many there was no contest.

That's changed somewhat over the span of the past, say, 40 years. But not so much as we SF writers would like. One of the big drawbacks for mainstream girls getting behind our genre is the slabs of expository techno-talk and science jargon that drop into the story from time to time. Since this blog is about hard SF, I'm not talking about the flavored patter of rocket jockeys, galactic conquerors, and so forth. What I'm referring to is the background story or tech talk that writers need to help the reader understand the science behind the story.

The two basic questions are: How much is too much, and how much pre-existing understanding should you credit your reader with knowing? Quantum SF puts those questions to the test. After all, employing quantum mechanics and planck scale physics demands some conceptual understanding from the reader if you want to engage them in the story. In my YA novel The Aquanauts my 1st person narrator , Greta, is not a scientist so she describes the forces that impact the story in layman's terms. In effect, she translates the geeks into plain English. I was very pleased to hear from many readers, including women, that said they appreciated this as it helped them with some difficult concepts without having to slog through a physics course.

The Aquanauts stayed mostly with Einsteinian relativity, concepts that most of us learn in grade school. I'm writing a continuation of that story (I hate to call it a sequel because these days sequels seem to be a rehashing of the same story in a slightly different setting) and the physics involved are much more complex. The narrator is the same but I can't assume she stays ignorant of thing that have happened to her.

My goal in this genre is to make concepts that I find exciting accessable enough so that a wide range of readers will get excited about them, too. My first insticnt is to feed them small nuggets throughout the first sections of the book, so readers don't have to blink uncontrollably when confronted by larger bites as the story zooms into full throttle. At the same time, it's important to have other elements of the story moving so the 'what happens next?' impusle keeps the reader turning pages.

Too many writers in the past have just poured extended explanatory hunks of dialogue out a character's mouth forcing the reader to plow through. That's okay for geeks but less enthusiastic readers who came that far will either blip over it or put the book down.

Personally, I loved it. It was a great way to avoid girls.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Look out SETI, here comes CERN

In 1964 Sir Fred Hoyle, Astronomer Royal of Britain, wrote The Black Cloud about an immense fog that covered our entire solar system and blotted out the sunlight. Life on Earth was in danger of being wiped out so the story was about a plight that brought humans together to save themselves. The cloud was intelligent and needed ultraviolet solar waves to survive. When our scientists managed to communicate that it was starving the third planet of needed low band light, it created a hole so the sun would still shine on Earth.

As with the aliens in 2001:A Space Odyssey, soldiers couldn't meet the strangers and blast them with a ray gun. They didn't exist on our brane. In Ben Bova's Jupiter the creatures living in the dense layers of gas on that planet had no connection to how life exists on Earth, either. This meant the story couldn't be about a direct confrontation between our species.

The problem with this is it's much easier to create conflict if an alien has arms and legs and can be blasted back to Orion with teflon coated gluon rounds. This is a real challenge in hard SF: how to create 'non human' aliens in human stories. Some will have them 'take over' human beings as in Dark City or any number of Star Trek episodes where the aliens speak through crew members which make them destructable. But in the above examples of Hoyle, Clarke, and Bova, they use the alien presence to create human conflicts without the alien being a direct menace. The alien may threaten life on Earth, but shooting at it won't help. The conflict is in how the human race will deal with the unknown.

It may be a while before mainstream SF moves past the 'space blaster' genre as the standard bearer. But we can still embrace stories that don't make warriors of us all when faced with an alien presence.

As soon as next year, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN may break the 16 GeV energy barrier and demonstrate the existence of the Higgs Boson particle. This isn't science fiction. This is hard science in Geneva. The Higgs is purported to exist in more than our 3 dimensions. If we distort, destroy, or tag one in any way, might we possibly be disclosing our existence to intelligent lifeforces that may share our space but not our dimension?

What do you think they will make of finding a particle that has been deliberately altered coming from a dimension of space where they thought no life could exist?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

Time is a real bugger to define.

We observe it through the lens of decay. We grow old. Entropy. All we get is a linear view and from that keyhole perspective we drive ourselves crazy trying to understand it. From the planck view, time doesn't seem to have the same properties that we ascribe to it here on Earth. Tomorrow doesn't follow today because there is no tomorrow. It's a moment, an event, a response or simple action (a simple metaphor in the computing world would be the 1 vs. 0 binary structure) followed by another one and then another.

Many physicists speculate that the universe is simply a collection of such events. A vibration or transfer of energy from particle A to particle B and these transfers are knitted together by the exponential millions in a web that make up space-time. The make up of these particles will wait for another discussion.

Okay, where does that leave us fictitious speculators on the subject of large scale time and time travel? For me, I don't believe there's any possibility to travel back and visit Abraham Lincoln in time to save him from that fateful bullet. Makes for good fantasy but doesn't fit with where science now leads us.

In Quantum SF, time travel has to be more on a grand scale. Billions of years in a blow, traveling back to the Big Bang in the same way we do simply by following a beam of light into the past through Hubble. If we influence time on a planck scale, if we can manipulate individual time 'events' and their relationship to gravity and the transfer energy ... who knows what kind of reality we'd end up with.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

You have to dance with the Alien that brung you

If I had any readers, I'd be in a lot of trouble over this post.

I've grown tired of reading stories with all the "humanoid" alien races created in SF. I understand why they're all 6' tall and have fingers and vocal chords and think like humans - up to a point. It creates a connection for the reader and conflict for the author. We go to war with them, they land here to devour us, we travel light years to learn high tech living and warfare from them, become partners, enemies, mixed races, etc. etc. etc.

The problem is, none of this conforms with what science informs us every day about the construction of the universe and our fragile place in it. Humanoid Alien advocates (and that includes CETI participants) rely on one concept to buy into a universe is inhabited by creatures with brains in skulls on top of biped sketetal structures: the odds must be in their favor. "If only one in a million stars had planets, and only one in a million of those had Earthlike atmosphere, and only one in a million of those stustained life then there would still be..."

Ya, ya, ya. All well and good. The problem is, our understanding of the actual universe has gone beyond that. One in a million million is way too good for the odds. We live in an incredibly narrow 'goldilocks zone' (not too hot...not too cold) that defines how we can exist. So the one in a million gimmick is still way too large a number.

This doesn't mean I don't imagine there's life out there that thinks and survives. I just can't imagine it being anything like us. That's my connundrum. If I want to create a fictional reality set in a quantum universe, it forces me to create alien beings that can exits there and still be accessable to readers here on Earth.

I'm not saying I haven't enjoyed the ride with Alien, Independance Day, Dune, Foundation, Star Trek, Star Wars, Childhoods End, and a host of others. I've loved those stories. But for me, it's time to move into a different frame of reference when imagining alien life in the universe.

Arthur Clarke's 2001 Star Child, Alex Proyas' Dark City, and the Keanu Reeves rendition of Klaatu in the recent version of The Day The Earth Stood Still are on the right track.

Time to think outside of Schrodinger's box.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Quantum Thinkers

Okay, I took the summer off to, you know, get a life. Now the weather's cooling and I'm off to the races.

I've read a lot of fascinating perspectives on the TOE and GUT (Grand Unification Theory and Theory of Everything to those outside the box) and, being a moderate liberal, decided to compromise and invent my own.

For starters, let me acknowledge the great brains I cribbed from. Lisa Randall's vision of large higher dimensional braneworld. Lee Smolin spells out some outstanding concepts in quantum gravity and Loop Quantum Theory. The daddy of M theory: Edward Witten.
A fun alternative theory is the MOG (Modified Gravity) by John Moffat. Then, among a host of others, are Brian Greene and Michio Kaku for string and other quantum perspectives.

From there, I jump off a cliff and hope my own modest ideas will keep me aloft.
Coming up: Kovachi's Time-Gravity Intercommutative Force (TGIF) theory.