Category Archives: Science

Life on Mars in fiction

For today I am going back to my series looking at how writers have thought about life elsewhere in the solar system… and it’s the turn of Mars this week.

Cover - The War of the Worlds (Goodreads)
Cover – The War of the Worlds (Goodreads)

It’s fair to say that Mars has been a firm favourite of writers for a long time. The discovery by the 19th century astronomer Schiaparelli of surface markings which he called canali – immediately if incorrectly Anglicised to canals – spurred a vision of Mars as a dying planet. In this vision, the inhabitants were desperately husbanding their dwindling water resources to delay their inevitable fate. This picture of a dying world drove HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and a host of other books including CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, though in his religious reworking, the cause of decline had less to do with natural process than spiritual.

The question that authors faced, then, was how long ago had the surface been benign and habitable? Authors like Leigh Bracket pictured open lakes and oceans in the past, providing a lush surface life  a few million years ago, but all now swallowed up by the deserts.

Cover - Sea Kings of Mars (Goodreads)
Cover – Sea Kings of Mars (Goodreads)

Oddly enough, this is not a very different picture to that painted by scientists from the data returned by surface and orbital probes… though the timescale is hugely different. Yes, it seems that Mars did once have running water, but instead of the time period that Leigh Brackett (Sea Kings of Mars) proposed, we are looking at an interval much longer, more on the scale of billions of years. Surface features such as rocks formations shaped by running water have been found, as well as exposed layers of ice threading in between rock strata. Most recently, evidence has been shown that a large salt-water lake may still exist at a considerable depth below the Martian south pole. All this water has kickstarted the debate about life on Mars, by analogy with microbial life found here on Earth in the seemingly inhospitable cold under the Antarctic ice.

A number of authors have tackled the question of terraforming Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson for one, with his (extremely long) trilogy beginning with Red Mars.  This basically looks the other way at the situation – rather than how a once-habitable Mars declined into its current state, how might we reverse this process and restore a decent atmosphere and surface water? If possible, it would be a very long-term goal, and it’s not clear how the process would resolve some of the other Martian issues such as excessive radiation. It seems more likely to me that, at least for the foreseeable future, living on Mars will have to be done under domes, not out in the open air.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Meanwhile, here’s an extract from my own vision of a near-future Mars, taken from Timing. Mitnash and Slate are on Mars, at a financial training school. One of the staff members, Linnea, has come to them and is describing a recent hack during which the school was held to ransom…

She hesitated for a long moment, then nodded.

“That will have to do. That night, the system locked up completely. The infra team tried their best to recover, but they had no idea what was wrong. Neither of the main hubs would boot up. It’s some sort of paired system, I don’t know the details, but they’re twins, certainly. One of the technicians said it was like they had gone catatonic. In a coma. Now, four or five days before that, every staff member had received the same message, an ultimatum threatening to close us down if we didn’t pay a ransom. Principal Pulkkinen told us all to ignore it, said it was just a prank. Well, we all thought he was right. Nobody would have done anything different.”

She glanced around. I tried to look reassuring.

“So what happened then?”

“Well, that night, just when the message predicted, that’s when the system crashed. And all the staff screens showed just one message which couldn’t be cleared, with a countdown timer and a single button labelled ‘Pay Now’. And there was a ticker showing that the credit being demanded was going up every second that the clock went down. Look, nobody wanted to find out what would happen when the timer ran out. The principal got the department heads together, and they decided quickly enough they would just pay up.”

“But you have backups, surely? Why not call their bluff and let the timer run out?”

“That was the first thing we thought of. You don’t get it, any more than we did at first. The whole system was locked, everything. We couldn’t get at the backup storage, or the main comms network, or anything. The techies had no idea what to do. Then we started wondering about the life support. If that was compromised, it’s not just teaching records that would be gone. They say you can’t survive more than about a minute unprotected on Mars. You couldn’t get anywhere safe in that time. And your body would be ruined long before the minute was up. We don’t have suits for everyone. I think we could all get into the trucks at a pinch, just squash in together on the way over to the shuttle groundstation. But what if the trucks wouldn’t work either? What if they had been hacked and wouldn’t go where we wanted? It was a nightmare.”

She shivered at the memory, her arms wrapped round herself. I could empathise with her. I was imagining the situation – the teachers at a loss what to do, the students still oblivious, the senior staff ensconced in a room trying to make a difficult decision. With a deeply inhospitable world just outside the dome, and no guarantee that the environmental controls would continue to function.

“So Mikko decided to pay?”


And I couldn’t possibly close this blog without linking to Dave Bowie… Life on Mars?

 

A first Audiobook review, plus… British Spaceports

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

This week I saw the first review of the Audiobook version of Half Sick of Shadows, and very pleasing it was too: “Half Sick of Shadows… takes Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallott” and gives it a speculative twist, keeping the measure and wonder of the original, but suggesting a plausible (perhaps) root to the story, in the vein of Jules Verne. The writing is lovely, in Richard’s mature and manly style, and with obvious care. The narration in the audio version by Menna Bonsels has a lovely Welsh lilt that brings the setting alive“.

And if you wanted to set up an Audible account, I suspect that Amazon’s Prime Day is a good time to do it. You can use it out for free for a trial period, get yourself Half Sick of Shadows as your first listen, and see how you like it. Links are Audible UK or Audible US, and here is the free sample…

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Now, in Far from the Spaceports I presumed that there would be a spaceport in the British Isles. From there, Mitnash would catch some sort of shuttle to make the trip up to his deep-space vessel, the Harbour Porpoise.

Finally, a second briefing with Elias, and a scramble to Euston to catch the overnight to Findhorn.

I had intended to gaze forlornly out of the window as I hurtled past Alnmouth again, this time heading north. However, fatigue had got the better of me and I was dozing at the time, propped up in a corner. I surfaced again somewhere well north of Dundee, just as it was getting light. On the east coast line, most of the trains stopped in Edinburgh, but this was the Spaceport Special, non-stop right the way through.

Catching the shuttle was slightly less exciting than boarding the train at Euston…

Now, at the time of writing there were several sites being considered, several of them in Scotland. So I picked the Findhorn peninsula, and assumed that our current East Coast railway line from London via York, Newcastle and Berwick up to Edinburgh, would simply be extended northwards around the Cairngorms to give a high-speed link.

Artist's impression, Sutherland Spaceport (The National Scot)
Artist’s impression, Sutherland Spaceport (The National Scot)

This week, however, I saw two news items indicating different sites. One is indeed in Scotland, but right up at the extreme north coast. The plan for Sutherland is specifically for a vertical take-off site, in the way we have become used to see rocket launches. The development would mean a lot for local employment and development, but will be balanced against environmental concerns. Follow this up in The National Scot newspaper.

Artist's impression, satellite launched from winged booster (Cornwall Live)
Artist’s impression, satellite launched from winged booster (Cornwall Live)

But at the other end of the country, Newquay in Cornwall has been chosen by Virgin Orbit as a launch site. Here, the initial plan is for horizontal launch – a satellite with booster rocket is first carried to high altitude on a winged craft which takes off and lands conventionally (check out the video below). This certainly makes the transition from airport to spaceport easier, and leaves vertical launches open as an option in the future. Follow this one up at Cornwall Live, or (perhaps more excitingly) at Pirate FM.

It’s great for storytelling – but it’s also great for the space industry in the UK. We make a lot of space equipment here, especially in Glasgow and the home counties, but in order to actually launch it we’ve had to ship the finished products to launch sites in other parts of the world. Hopefully, by 2020 we might be launching from home soil. Mitnash may well be able to take the train from London to his shuttle launch site before much longer, though it might be a bit further north than Findhorn!

Space and Alexa news

This week has been busy, with tidying up one Alexa skill, and getting another two ready for release. Of which more later. But first, some space news I caught this week which links to my thoughts about looking for life in the upper atmosphere of Venus. It’s much easier – comparatively speaking – to look at the upper atmosphere of Earth, and that’s just what scientists have been doing.

North India from the air
North India from the air

When you fly on a long-haul flight, you’re at roughly 35,000′ (say 6 1/2 miles, rather higher than Mount Everest). If, like me, you keep an eye on the information readouts about speed, temperature, and so on, you’ll know that it is ferociously cold outside the little bubble of the cabin. In fact, it’s not only cold, but also at a tiny fraction of the air pressure at the surface, with hardly any water vapour, and subject to huge amounts of ultraviolet light. For humans, it is totally inhospitable.

But some microbes flourish here. We don’t exactly know how many, as the study of such things is in its infancy. Certainly life is less dense up there than it is down in our comfort zone. But the total number of organisms living up there in the stratosphere, added up across the whole planet, is truly prodigious.

Earth's stratosphere (the white band) with space shuttle Endeavour silhouetted (NASA)
Earth’s stratosphere (the white band) with space shuttle Endeavour silhouetted (NASA)

It’s important for a few reasons. The first, and most relevant to this blog, is that the living conditions are not unlike those on Mars. If we’re able to understand how life works in our own upper atmosphere, we have a better chance of identifying it as and when we come across it elsewhere. Also, it helps us assess the risk of taking microbial life with us by accident, as our rockets leave Earth. If we take Earth-based life with us, we need to be sure we don’t then mistake it for an alien organism when we find it! And conversely, we can decide if there is any serious risk of bringing something home that we weren’t expecting. All very exciting.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Right, back to some quick notes on Alexa skills before finishing. My latest published skill is Jung North West, promoting an occasional experiential training course in Jungian thought. This takes place in Grasmere, Cumbria: the first in the series was earlier this year and was a great success.

The next course is in March 2019, looking at Dreaming and Dream States. But don’t ask me… ask Alexa… “Alexa, open Jung North West… tell me about the next course…” And if you wanted a regular web page version, you could look at jungnorthwest.uk.

After that, there are a couple more skills in the pipeline, including a game (something of a departure for me). And I am in the process of overhauling some of my existing skills to keep them up to date. Some of the Cumbria ones need to be brought in line with the latest hardware changes and opportunities. Coding life never stands still!

AI in space… or, how close are we to Slate?

There has been a whole bundle of space news this week – so much, in fact, that I had to temporarily postpone my series of going through how the different planets have been portrayed in fiction. Instead, I picked a couple of key stories which most appealed.

The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

The first – and much the shorter – is to do with the Dawn space probe. Readers may remember that a few months ago, the decision was taken to use the remaining fuel to lower the orbit as far as safely feasible. This means better images (and results from other instruments) as the orbit now goes down as low as about 20 miles. The first pictures have started to appear, and very striking they are, and over the next few months I expect that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the surface chemistry. The first approach to Ceres revealed enigmatic bright spots on the surface (known as faculae), which are now recognised as salty deposits of carbonates – the largest such deposits away from the Earth, in fact. But do they ooze up through cracks and fissures from deep underground, or is there a reservoir of brine just below the surface? It is possible that the new low orbit wil shed light on this.

But the main story-telling event of interest was part of the contents of the Soyuz shuttle which docked with the ISS a little while ago. As well as three crew and a bunch of science experiments, a mobile AI called CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile Companion) arrived…

CIMON - the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)
CIMON – the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)

CIMON is powered by the IBM Watson software, has a digital “face”, and is capable of interacting with the Station crew via facial expressions, emotions, and voice.  Excitingly – so far as I am concerned – CIMON is European in origin, having been developed by Airbus. The enclosing shell was 3d printed, and weighs about 5kg (which only matters if it collides with something, as the ISS is routinely in microgravity). It wil remain free-flying and able to navigate to the various parts of the ISS at need.

CIMON has several purposes – first, it gives the internal neural networks plenty of new material to learn from, but the intention is that the crew will work with the AI to find collaborative solutions to problems. The science objectives are listed as:

The Pilot Study with the Crew Interactive MObile companioN (Cimon) is a technology demonstration project, and an observational study, that aims to obtain the first insights into the effects on crew support by an artificial intelligence (AI), in terms of efficiency and acceptance during long-term missions in space. Spaceflight missions put the crew under a substantial amount of stress and workload, and it is thought that AI could provide operational support to crew members.

So although CIMON can certainly provide early warning of particular categories of technical problems, and will assist with a number of predefined experiments, the goal is to provide social interaction.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Which brings me, naturally, to Slate! Slate, the main persona AI in Far from the Spaceports, is several generations of AI beyond what we enjoy today. Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana and so on are currently Earth-tethered in the sense that the software and database needed to comprehend and respond to a user’s request lives in cloud-based servers here on the planet. Even a trip to the moon (just over a second light signal time each way) would seriously strain conversational ability, and a trip out to the asteroids – say half an hour signal lag – is entirely out of the question. I don’t know whether CIMON relies on Earth-based data to understand what the astronauts will say, or whether a data source has been uploaded to the ISS itself. Keeping tethered to Earth would certainly be feasible at the ISS orbital height – but to go further afield we will need to crack the problem of large-scale localised data storage (maybe using DNA?).

I’ve never committed to an exact year for the events of Far from the Spaceports or Timing, but my feel is something like a century. I feel that probably I have been a little too cautious with this, and that in reality there’s a fair chance that AI having close to Slate’s capabilities could be around within my lifetime. On the other hand, my guess is that human colonies out at and beyond the asteroids won’t be around for a few years after my guess, so maybe it evens up!

Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video (at https://youtu.be/KnpJI3WeiBg for those getting this through email) showing part of CIMON’s development…

 

 

Mercury and fiction

Last week we looked at how views of Venus had changed in fiction: this time it’s Mercury’s turn. Like Venus, Mercury is never visible far above the horizon – indeed, it never gets above 17 degrees here in London, less than half that of Venus. It’s another morning and evening star candidate, though far fainter than Venus, and far easier to miss unless viewing conditions are good. In classical times, Mercury was the swift messenger of the gods, presumably because of his elusive presence, rapid shift across the sky, and proximity to the sun.

North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Once telescopic study of the planets began, it became obvious that Mercury was going to be pretty inhospitable. It orbits at just over 1/3 of the Earth-Sun distance, has virtually no atmosphere, and experiences temperatures up to 450°C on the sunlit side (oddly,  that is much the same as Venus, but for quite different reasons). Lead, zinc, and a whole bunch of other metals would melt under these conditions. Bizarrely, even here, there are a few shady places where water ice can still exist on the surface – water is one of the most persistent and universal features of our solar system.

“Lava Falls on Mercury”, cover art by Ken Fagg for If magazine, June 1954

For a long time it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, always showing the same face to the sun. More recently we have found that this is not the case – Mercury’s day is 59 Earth days, while its year is 88 Earth days – 2 Mercury years contain just 3 Mercury days. The combination means that every time Mercury is closest to the Earth, we see the same surface features… one of those mutual rhythms which appear all over the solar system.

Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)
Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)

You’d think that fiction writers would struggle to place a story on Mercury, but numerous people have tried. ER Eddison, in his fantasy series starting with The Worm Ouroboros, located his events there – though he was singularly unconcerned with the real planet, and simply used “Mercury” as a handy, mysterious location, at which very Earthlike deeds took place. In his writing, Mercury is simply an elsewhere location outside his readers’ everyday life.

When it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, several authors assumed that humans would build a settlement somewhere on the dividing line between unbearable heat and implacable cold. Plots often revolved around the (supposed) vast difference between light and dark sides. For example, Hugh Walters’ Mission to Mercury supposes that the extreme heat (and cold) would lead to different personality problems (interestingly, this book also features another occasional trope, that of identical twins who can communicate telepathically).

Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)
Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)

The discovery that Mercury actually does rotate put paid to the idea of a temperate band, leaving us with a largely undesirable planet! It is a long way “down” in the sun’s gravity well, so needs a disproportionate amount of fuel to get there and back. Unless there turns out to be plentiful and easily accessed resources of some kind – gloopy patches of pure platinum, or some such – then it’s hard to see why it would ever be more than a solar research base. Authors and technologists have contemplated terraforming Mars (of which more next time) or Venus (AE van Vogt suggested that it could provide an exotic home for the elite in The World of Null-A) – I can’t think of anyone who has suggested terraforming Mercury! Kim Stanley Robinson, in several novels and short stories, suggested one solution would be a city built on rails which very slowly moved around the planet and hence always stayed in the twilight zone.

In fiction, it has become, and most likely will remain, a hostile place which might contain or provoke mystery. And in keeping with that, I’m not (currently) planning any books in my science fiction series which are set there.

Finally, you’re not (quite) too late to take advantage of the giveaway offer on the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows – details in a former blog post

The changing view of Venus in storytelling

Before starting, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There are just a few copies left on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)
Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)

The planet Venus has played an important part in our imaginative view of the solar system. Originally recognised and personified as the Morning or Evening star, visible at certain times of the year as a bright companion to the sun, it came to represent something beautiful but elusive. The logic of orbital movements means that it never rises more than about 36 degrees above the horizon (here in London), and is frequently much lower. It is also easily lost in cloud, haze, or the ambient glow of the sun as it rises and sets. All of which added to its allure and air of secrecy.

The early telescopic age only added to the mystery. Unlike the other planets, Venus revealed no constant surface features, and so allowed no mapmaking. Astronomers knew that Venus was like a sister planet to Earth – the size is about 3/4 of our own, the year is about 2/3, the surface gravity is 90% – but came to realise that the surface was hidden behind a dense veil of clouds. Indeed, the cloud cover is so sustained that Venus is the most reflective body in the entire solar system.

Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus - Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)
Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus – Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)

Many early science fiction authors – including authors such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as late as the 1940s and 50s – envisioned the planet as covered by ocean – in keeping with some scientific models of their day. Others chose a desert planet, or one covered in swamp: all trying to make sense of the perpetual cloud cover.

One example is the second book in the science fiction series by CS Lewis, Perelandra. Lewis trod a middle road regarding accuracy – quite apart from any astronomical input, he wanted the veil of cloud cover as a vivid symbol of the secrets held within. He wanted Perelandra to represent a younger planet than Earth, in contrast to Mars (Malacandra) which he paints as older, more long-suffering. So Perelandra is almost entirely an ocean planet, with almost no fixed land. Perhaps one of the most striking descriptions of the planet is “the queen of those seas views herself continually in the celestial mirror“.

Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)
Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)

When space probes like the Soviet Venera and American Mariner series started exploring the solar system, a wholly different picture of Venus started to emerge. The idea of an aquatic world was so prevalent that early Venera probes were designed to splash down in water. However, as data began to arrive, the surface was exposed as vastly inhospitable. Air densities up to 90 times that of Earth, average temperatures over 450°C,  typical wind speeds up to 200 mph, and an atmosphere containing acidic gases like sulphur dioxide all added up to a seriously inhospitable environment. The winds at ground level are sufficiently strong that they cause changes in the day length where they rush over mountain ranges.

This looked like the end of the line for fictional life on Venus… but recently there have been suggestions that although the surface may be uninhabitable, the upper atmosphere might be a suitable habitat. You might imagine rafts of tiny organisms, drifting in sheets well above the rigours of the surface. We don’t yet know, but it’s a sufficiently real possibility that science teams have started thinking how we might detect and recognise life in that floating environment. If we ever decided to colonise Venus, then high above the ground might be a better bet than contending with the surface conditions!

But maybe our better bet for habitats is in orbit anyway. Given that conditions on Venus – or Mars, for that matter – are so difficult as to need major levels of protection, why go to the effort of constructing some sort of protected dome, when we necessarily have such a thing in orbit anyway? I read an interesting statistic the other day. There are at most a few hundred people living in Antarctica. But at any time, there are something like a million people travelling on air flights. The environment outside a plane is even less hospitable than the south pole, but large numbers of us are willing to move about in it, with only the comparatively frail protection of an aircraft. Perhaps – at least until we can pursue exotic solutions like terraforming – orbital stations are the way to go.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a story to appear based around finding upper atmosphere life on Venus…

Dunes

With The Liminal Zone foremost in my writing mind just now, I’m always eager to read space news about Pluto. And just recently another paper has been published analysing the surface features as revealed by the New Horizons flyby back in July 2015.

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

But before that, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There were 5 copies each on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Back to Pluto. The specific surface feature that the report found was dunes. Not, of course, sand dunes, but ones made of ice granules, moved about very slowly by the extremely light winds which stir the extremely thin atmosphere there. It’s a remarkable tribute to the way physical phenomena tend to mirror each other. The conditions on Earth and Pluto are radically different in ever so many ways, yet they share the ability for dunes to form on their surfaces. Like everything on Pluto, it all takes place on an immensely slow timescale – I doubt that these dunes move appreciably over a human lifetime. But nevertheless, there they are, adding to the richness and complexity of the surface features of a world which, not so long ago, was assumed to be utterly boring.

Cover - Dune (Goodreads)
Cover – Dune (Goodreads)

A science fiction reader’s first reflex, on hearing of dunes, is naturally to jump to Frank Herbert’s Dune. That world was bakingly hot, dry, and life was absolutely dominated by the survival need for water. The dunes there – sand dunes – covered the vast majority of the desert world’s surface, and concealed both exotic wildlife and a radical human culture. It seems unlikely that much life frequents Pluto, with a surface temperature around -230° Centigrade. But these days, it would be a brave person who would say it’s impossible. And The Liminal Zone is – among other things – about the human settlement on the margins of our solar system.

Finally – and since my main enthusiasm is not so much for Pluto as for its largest moon Charon, here is a video put together by NASA from the New Horizons flyby. It’s partly for fun, and partly because next week – June 22nd – is the 40th anniversary of the discovery of Charon! It’s only short, but quite cool.

After enjoying that, don’t forget the giveaway for Half Sick of Shadows!

Planet 9?

Another space blog post today, complete with some thoughts about life out there, and an extract from my work-in-progress The Liminal Zone.

First, though, the elusive Planet 9. For some time now, astronomers and space scientists have been speculating that an additional planet, of considerable size, lies out beyond Pluto. The evidence is indirect, in that such a planet has not been observed via telescope. Hence the matter is currently unresolved. But a recent paper argues that its presence would solve several unexplained issues, while its absence would create several more.

Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)
Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)

So what are the problems? Essentially, they come down to the logic of orbital dynamics, which says that you can’t just put a bunch of planets in random orbits around a star and expect them to be stable. Even though the gravitational attraction between two planets is small, it nevertheless exerts a steady regularising influence on the two paths around the sun. So the orbits of our sister planets show all kinds of patterns of ratios which at first sight seem remarkable (they’re still remarkable when you take gravity into account, but in a different way). And the more patterns that you see, the more you can infer about things you can’t see.

This, for example, is how the outer planets beyond Saturn were deduced before they were observed. The planets from Saturn inwards have been known since prehistory. But when careful observations with a telescope could be made, small but noticeable perturbations in their tracks were found. These pointed to the existence of unknown planets further out. The same principle explains why the orbits of Neptune and Pluto are synchronised – two of Pluto’s orbits match 3 of Neptunes. So, although Pluto dips inside Neptune’s orbit for a couple of decades every 248 years (one Pluto year), they are never at risk of colliding. These synchronisations happen all over the place – for example within the moon systems of Jupiter and Saturn, within the asteroid belt, or forming the delicate internal patterns of Saturn’s rings.

Now, Pluto is the first major body in the Kuiper Belt, a disc of space outside Neptune which we now know contains a decent number of small asteroids and similar objects. So it starts around 30AU from the Sun (AU = Astronomical Units, the distance between Earth and Sun). But it then Belt stops, quite abruptly, around 50AU. Why should this be? Why not feather off gradually?

Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)
Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)

Additionally, as we have built up a catalogue of these asteroids, a picture is emerging in which a surprising number have orbits around the sun which are aligned with each other. The simplest way to explain this is to suppose that some sizeable, but as yet unknown, object is synchronising them.

So, why has it not yet been found? Well, first of all, as Douglas Adams said, space is “vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big” (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 8). So although the potential planet is several times larger than the Earth, it is on average 20 times further from the sun than Neptune is – 600AU – with an orbit that is quite noticeably elliptical rather than circular. That means that there is a lot of space to search in, and also that it is dark and cold out there. There is not a lot for optical or infrared telescopes to detect. But each new discovery helps narrow the search window down, and some lucky group of astronomers may well announce a discovery soon.

Or, of course, not. It may be that the apparent alignment we see will be eroded by more observations. Which would be a bit of a shame, in that it is always nice to have unknown things to discover. It would also leave several other problems unresolved. Other things being equal, I’d like Planet 9 to be found!

Artist's impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)
Artist’s impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)

So, what might it be like to live there? For one thing, cold and dark. Our sun is still the nearest and brightest star by a huge margin. But at 20 times further away than Pluto, it gets just 1/400 of the solar radiation of any kind. Or if you like, 0.0003% of what we enjoy on Earth. You’d want to know you had reliable sources of heat and light, if you went there. And it will take a long time to get there. It is not a place for a quick jaunt. For reference, Voyager 1 is a little over 100AU from Earth and has spent about 40 years getting there.

Could there be indigenous life out there? Well, life as we know it depends on liquid water, and the surface of Planet 9 is way too cold for that. But possibly, there could be subsurface heat turning ice into water at some depth? Or perhaps, there might be a moon which would be subject to gravitational flexing, just as happens to the inner moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This could – maybe – provide enough heat to give us water. We’ll have to wait and see.

I haven’t yet written anything going that far out from the sun. In the universe of Far from the Spaceports, an Earth-Mars trip takes a couple of weeks. An Earth-Pluto trip takes a few months. An Earth-Planet 9 trip would take anywhere from seven or eight months up to just over a year, depending on whereabouts in its orbit it happens to be. Not a journey you’d make lightly.

The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)
The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)

The Liminal Zone takes place on Charon, the main moon of Pluto. The New Horizons probe returned some fascinatingly detailed pictures to us of these two, transforming them from hazy blobs to detailed worlds. New Horizons is currently en route to an object further out in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69, popularly known as Ultima Thule, and is due to arrive early next year. Finding a second destination more-or-less on the flight path after Pluto was a remarkable thing in itself, as objects are so exceedingly thinly spread out there. Anyway, The Liminal Zone is not a financial fraud book like Far from the Spaceports or Timing – it’s more of a voyage of discovery, both personally for the main character, Nina, and more generally for the society she is part of. So here is a short extract – Nina is talking to Percy, one of the Charon residents, about events surrounding an emergency several years ago…


Something about his expression made Nina stop.
“But you didn’t actually see anything?”
He drew back a little.
“Seeing’s not everything. Haven’t you ever just known something for sure?”
His eyes held hers, suddenly very intense, and she felt a little internal quaver run through her body. She had hoped it wouldn’t show, but then she saw the trace of a smile cross his eyes.
“I’ve got Welsh blood, you know. It helps me comprehend things which maybe can’t be seen with the naked eye. And what about you, Nina? Where do you come from?”
She went blank.
“I grew up in Lacus Gaudii. On the Moon.”
He shook his head.
“Not that recent. Go back a few generations. Where did your family live? Before they came up to settle in that lunar lake of yours.”
The noise of the kettle was maddening. She withdrew inside herself, trying to escape the pressure.
“I… I don’t know. I suppose I could find out. It’s never mattered.”
He looked away, letting the moment pass.
“Ah, but it just might make a difference here.”
She took a long breath and tried again.
“But did you actually see anything?”


I’ll be posting more on progress into The Liminal Zone as it comes along…

“The eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety”

I was at the annual Amazon technical summit here in London last week, and today’s blog post is based on something I heard one of the presenters say. On the whole it was a day of consolidating things already developed, rather than a day of grand new breakthroughs, and I enjoyed myself hearing about enhancements to voice and natural language services, together with an offbeat session on building virtual 3d worlds.

Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)
Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)

But I want to focus on one specific idea, contrasting how we build human-computer interfaces quite differently for the eye and the ear. In short, “the eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety“. Look at the appearance of your typical app on computer or phone. We have largely standardised where the key elements go – menu, options, title and so on. They are so standardised that we can tell at a glance if something is “in the wrong place“. The text stays the same every time you open it. The icons stay the same, unless they have a little overlay telling you to do something with them. And so on.

Now in the middle of a technical session I just let that statement drift by, but it stuck with me afterwards, and I kept turning it over. Hence this post. At face value it seemed a bit odd – our eyes are constantly bombarded with hugely diverse information from the world around us. But then I started thinking some more. It’s not just to do with the light falling into our eyes, or the biology of how our visual receptors handle that – our image of the world is the end result of a very complex series of processing steps inside our nervous system.

House By Beach - quick sketch
House By Beach – quick sketch

A child’s picture of a face, or a person, is instantly recognisable as such, even though reduced to a few schematic shapes. A sketch artist will make a few straight lines and a curve, and we know we are looking at a house beside a beach, even though there are no colours or textures to help us. The animal kingdom shows us the same thing. Show a toad a horizontal line moving sideways, and it reacts as though it was a worm. Turn the line vertical and move it in the same way, and the toad ignores it (see this Wikipedia article or this video for details). Arrange a dark circle over a mouse and increase its size, and it reacts with fear and aggression, as though something was looming over it (see this article, in the section headed Visual threat cues).

https://78.media.tumblr.com/d9d3e010a958fbd345007c823d3d6580/tumblr_oojho5wyH31udk21ko1_500.jpg
Toad: Mystery Science Theatre 3000

It’s not difficult to see why – if you think you might be somebody’s prey, you react to the first sign of the predator. If you’re wrong, all you’ve lost is some time and adrenalin. If you ignore the first signs and you’re wrong, it’s game over!

So it makes sense that our visual sense, including nervous system as well as eyes, reduces the world to a few key features. We skim over fine detail at first glance, and only really notice it when we need to – when we deliberately turn our attention to it.

Also,there’s something to be learned from how light and sound work differently for us. At a very fundamental level, light adds up to give a single composite result. We mix red and yellow paint to give orange, or red and green light on a computer screen to give yellow. The colour tints, or the light waves, add up to make a single average colour. Not so with sound. Play the note middle C on a keyboard, then start playing the G above it. You end up with a chordyou don’t end up with a single note which is a blend of the two. So adding visual signals, and adding audible ones, give completely different effects.

Finally, the range of what we can perceive is entirely different. The most extreme violet light that we can see has about twice the frequency of the most extreme red. Doubling frequency gives us an octave change, so that means we can see one octave of visible light out of the entire spectrum. But a keen listener under ideal circumstances can hear a range of seven or eight octaves of sound, from about 12 Hz to nearly 30kHz. Some creatures do a bit better than us in both light and sound detection, but the basic message is the same – we hear a much more varied spectrum than we see.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, the technical message behind that speaker’s statement related to Alexa skills. To retain a user’s interest, the skill has to not sound the same every time. The eye prefers repetition, so our phone apps look the same each time we start them. But the ear prefers variety, so our voice skills have to mirror that, and say something a little bit different each time.

I wonder how that applies to writing?

Where would be a good place to live?

Cover - Perelandra (Goodreads)
Cover – Perelandra (Goodreads)

It’s a question which besets many science fiction writers! Now, in the former days of the 20th century, when not nearly so much was known about other star systems, writers were free and easy with their destinations. C.S. Lewis, who anyway had other motivations in his writing than script scientific accuracy, cheerfully placed parts of his science fiction trilogy on Mars and Venus. E.E. (Doc) Smith had alien habitations all over the solar system, with a wild array of biological adaptations to high gravity, strange atmospheres, or whatever. And when writers got their characters out of the solar system into the galaxy at large, the diversity just kept on growing (except for those authors like Asimov, who for various reasons carefully avoided alien life altogether).

But these days we have a vast amount of data to steer our fiction. In some cases this means that environments get excluded – it would be a brave author indeed who would place a novel like Perelandra on the surface of Venus these days (unless they have a back-story of extensive terraforming). On the other hand, new opportunities for life in previously unconsidered places have emerged – like high up in the Venusian atmosphere, or in liquid oceans underneath the ice coatings of various outer system moons. These are not likely to be, as they say, life as we know it…

Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)
Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)

On a wider scale, we have a good idea what to look for as regards planets that might support life. Most thinking on the subject supposes that liquid water would be necessary – it’s just too useful a chemical in all kinds of ways to see how it wouldn’t participate in life’s chemistry. So we can plot the Goldilocks Zone for any given star (too close in, and water boils and evaporates… too far out, and it freezes)… but we know from our own solar system that this does not cover all the bases. Close-in planets are probably tidally locked to their sun, and so have a cooler side. Far-out planets may well have orbiting moons with sub-surface water, kept from freezing by a variety of factors.

Back in the day, people used to look for stars relatively similar to our own sun, on the grounds that we kind of knew what we were looking for. But these days, following the extraordinary success of planet-hunting space missions like Kepler (soon to be followed by TESS), we know that many planets circle dim red dwarf stars. For sure, the heat output is much less, but that just means that the Goldilocks Zone huddles close in. And red dwarf stars are immensely long-lived, which gives life time to develop. On the other hand, many red dwarfs also go through erratic flare cycles, potentially blasting their associated planets with X-rays. But for my money, the first place we may find life elsewhere is likely to be circling a red dwarf.

So from the writer’s point of view, it’s a great time to be postulating life elsewhere, but also a rapidly-changing one. New data is pouring in, and new ways of analysing and comprehending that data. It all adds up to a wealth of new ideas and imaginative leads…

Artist's impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)