Writing Update- The 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest

Feldspar

I am pleased to announce that my short story, “Feldspar,” won the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. It is an honor to be chosen as the grand prize winner from such a pool of talented finalists.

The contest.

Baen books describes the contest as follows:

“Since its early days, science fiction has played a unique role in human civilization. It removes the limits of what “is” and shows us a boundless vista of what “might be.” Its fearless heroes, spectacular technologies and wondrous futures have inspired many people to make science, technology and space flight a real part of their lives and in doing so, have often transformed these fictions into reality. The National Space Society and Baen Books applaud the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science and have teamed up to sponsor this short fiction contest in memory of Jim Baen.”

If you follow my blog, you can tell why this contest came to my attention. I am a scientist, but my narrow field of research only satisfies a small portion of my fascination for science, space, and innovation. I decided some time ago that the only way I could make a real difference in science (beyond my own research) was to write about it. With any luck, my stories will inspire other scientists to invent what I do not have the time, intellect, or resources to create on my own. Winning this contest means a lot to me.

As the winner, I will be professionally published by Baen Books sometime in June. This will be my first professional publication, so it’s kind of a big deal for me. Along with publication, I will be given a year’s membership to the National Space Society, free admission to the 2017 International Space Development Conference in St. Louis, an engraved trophy, and tons of other prizes. Needless to say, as both a scientist and writer, I am most excited about attending the ISDC conference in May. It will give me the chance to speak to leaders in the field of space development about topics such as living in space, the space elevator, planet colonization, and innumerable other topics of mutual fascination. A previous Baen winner was able to sit next to Buzz Aldrin at lunch *cue two months of giddy excitement*. With any luck, I may be able to discuss my own scientific research and how it could help prevent the muscle atrophy associated with low gravity. I hope to come away from the conference with many new contacts as well as exciting story ideas.

The story.

“Feldspar” is the story of Blake, a lonesome rover operator in the city of San Francisco. With the help of the gaming industry, space exploration has boomed, and Mars has become the largest sandbox game in human history. Over a hundred rovers prowl the surface of the red planet, harvesting regolith for smelting. The iron wire they receive in return is used to 3D print any object these gamers desire.  But they aren’t the only ones on the red planet. When Blake comes across the footprints of a NASA astronaut over a hundred kilometers from the Eos Basecamp, he becomes her only hope of staying alive.

My thanks.

I’d like to thank Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, Michelle, the “slusher of doom,” and all the judges, including author David Drake, for choosing “Feldspar” from the slush pile. I worked on “Feldspar” for months, gathering feedback from friends, family, my writers group, and even my uncle Wade, a NASA employee. I appreciate their valuable feedback. This was my first short story contest, and it gives me hope that there is a place and perhaps a need for my unique voice in the world. I will diligently continue my writing, hoping that my vision for the future of space exploration will inspire scientists to make it a reality.

Links to award announcement.

Locus

File 770

Baen

The Science of Time Travel

time-machineLet us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space.

-Arthur Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World (1928)

Time travel features heavily in speculative fiction. It provides a useful means of foreshadowing and helps to heighten suspense as the characters try to avert a looming disaster or manipulate the future for their own ends. It appeals to all of us who have ever experienced guilt or loss and want to go back and fix it. It is rife with unintended consequences and can trigger exciting conflicts. However, it also provides a great source of frustration for writer and reader alike as they try to contend with the plot holes, paradoxes, and skewed logic associated with tampering with the fundamental laws of our universe.

In this post, I will address the most common problems and paradoxes associated with time travel, and then discuss the science that could make it possible.

Causality.

Cause and effect. That is how the universe works. Nowhere in nature can an effect cause itself, which is to say that energy cannot spontaneously manifests itself to perform an action. Thermodynamics and all of Newton’s laws require a cause and effect, but time travel inevitably breaks these laws.

Like the Billy and Rubin comic above, if the Professor succeeded in going back in time to stop Billy from building a time machine, he would then have no time machine with which to make the journey. Traveling to the past, for even a few seconds, can violate causality and initiates all kinds of paradoxes.

Grandfather paradox.

There is no better example of a causality violation than the Grandfather Paradox. If a time traveler kills his own grandfather before he meets his grandmother, the traveler will have never been born. Most disturbing of all, are the implications for “free will.” If the traveler sees his grandfather, he will be physically incapable of killing him, for doing so will prevent his own existence. Imagine a knife that physically cannot interact with a person, because if it were to interact, it would prevent its own interaction. *Mind blown*.

Butterfly effect.

A term used in chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect is coined after the concept of a gentle disturbance in the air caused by a butterfly’s wings, which eventually leads to a hurricane.

Some writers insist that any disruption to the timeline will “heal,” and all will be set back on course, but this is unlikely. If the person went back just to witness an event, they talked to no one, and received no more than a passing glance by others and were quickly forgotten, then I could see the future not changing… much. But even if something small happens, like the traveler buys a slice of pie from a street vendor, it could initiate a chain of events that divert the future substantially. What about the person who was supposed to buy that slice? That person might then continue walking to find another vendor, and chat with friend he met on the street. If that friend subsequently misses a trolley and arrives late to work, failing to smile at the woman who would have been his future wife, then generations of people will have ceased to exist in the future, and all of their actions, and achievements, will have been erased… just because of a slice of pie. This is another example of causality, and every major and minor moment in our lives can be traced back to equally minuscule events.

Foresight and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Time travel isn’t the only thing that violates causality, it can also be violated with foresight. Having knowledge of a future event can allow the future to be changed, but is it really the future if it can be changed?

Prophecy is a common plot device in Fantasy novels. If a seer or prophet sees the hero’s future or reads their fortune, what will happen if that hero decides to do something completely different? If the hero changes the future, was it ever the future to begin with? What is to stop a person from just sitting down and not doing anything if they learn of their future? If that future depends on them performing an action, yet that person refuses to do anything, how can that future exist? This is the Idle (or Lazy) argument. For example, if a man learns he will die by being hit by a bus, that man can refuse to leave his house, thus preventing the future. I have seen authors stretch the limits of believability by having the hero walk into situations, saying and doing exactly what the prophecy says they will, even though they know exactly what fate awaits them.

This only works if the prophecy aligns with the main character’s own motivations, or if they are somehow duped into causing the situation they were hoping to avoid. We call these self-fulfilling prophecies, wherein the hero makes something happen because he or she believes there is no avoiding it, or because they want it to happen. For example, there is a prophecy that a castle will be invaded; so on the day of, the character leaves his guard post at the gates and flees the city. The enemy notices this new weak point in the castle’s defenses and decides to invade.

The science behind time travel:

Paradoxes aside, it should be noted that time is very strange. Some scientists suggest it is nothing more than a product of our minds trying to make sense of the universe. Time can go faster for some, and slower for others, all depending on how much gravity is around or how fast an object is travelling.

Black holes.

Time is inherently linked to the three dimensional fabric of space. Therefore, a force that can condense that fabric, can also affect time. Gravity is such a force, and a black hole is a near infinite supply of gravity. If it were possible to survive the spaghettification (gravity literally stretching you out) associated with entering a black hole, you would most certainly be crushed by the pressure of the mass surrounding you. There is a theory however, that a zone exists around a black hole where the centrifugal forces of its spin counteract the forces of its gravity. Thus, time would be slowed (possibly even reversed), but you would not be pulled into the center.

Special relativity.

Satellites in orbit are actually experiencing time a little slower than we are, largely because of the speed at which they circumnavigate the globe. Einstein introduced the concept of special relativity, which basically states that, while nothing can travel faster than light, light will still appear to travel at light speed, even if the light source is traveling at close to light speed. So, depending on your reference frame, time will move differently based on your speed. This time dilation can make a person’s 300 year journey near light speed feel like 20 years. This is probably the closest humanity will come to “traveling though time,” but it is a one-way ticket. Traveling faster than the speed of light, theoretically, would reverse the flow of time. Most scientists maintain this is impossible, because it would violate causality.

Quantum mechanics and the Many-Worlds interpretation.

Some writers have gotten around the causality argument by suggesting that time might be like a river. If a significant event disrupts the flow of time, it can branch off into another stream, parallel to the first, creating two different timelines of different pasts and different futures.

Based on observations of quantum entanglement, and particle-wave duality, it is clear that, at the quantum state, an object can be in two places at once, and doing different things. Physicists have since theorized that any and every action creates a parallel universe, in which the opposite action was taken. These infinite worlds can be very similar to our own or very different. While this concept doesn’t quite offer up a solution to time travel, if proven true, it can help eliminate many of the causality paradoxes associated with it.

Conclusions:

Because there are so many theories regarding time, its nature, and how to travel through it, there is no correct way to portray it in speculative fiction. I would advise, however, to thoroughly outline your book if it contains elements of time travel. For many readers, time travel paradoxes are indistinguishable from plot holes.

What other considerations should writers take when writing about time travel? Did I miss a theory? Leave your comments below.

Rest assured, if time travel is possible, I will travel back in time to this very moment to ensure that I got everything right…

…nope. No Phil from the future. I’m a little disappointed, actually.

The science of enclosed ecosystems

billy-and-rubin-ecosystem

Earlier today I did a guest post for fellow blogger, writer, and scientist, Dan Koboldt. I came across his blog about a month ago. He and I share the same mission, to promote the use of accurate science in sci-fi. But rather than do all the background research on his own, he wisely seeks out professionals in related fields and asks them to write about scientific misconceptions in sci-fi and how to get it right. Since my own lab work concerns cellular respiration, I offered to write a post for him on enclosed ecosystems, and he generously agreed. You can see the original post by clicking on the graphic below:

ecosystems-and-life-support-in-scifi

Enclosed ecosystem and life-support systems in sci-fi

A Closed Ecological System (CES) is a broad term that encompass any self-sustaining and closed system in which matter does not leave or enter. These artificial habitats can be built in space, underground, or underwater, but no matter where they are, chances are they are closed for a reason. Whether it is an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic setting, a distant planet in the early stages of colonization, or a spacecraft carrying the last remnants of humanity, the environment outside is not hospitable. To ensure long-term survival, the occupants must maintain a well-balanced air and water system, a continuous food supply, and a reliable source of energy.

So far, no artificial enclosed ecosystem has successfully supported human life for long periods of time. Even the astronauts on the International Space Station get regular supply runs and have to exchange personnel. The largest CES was Biosphere 2, which sustained 8 crew for 2 years; however, they had to resort to some extreme measures to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in normal ranges, and many of the plant, animal, and insect populations died off.

Creating and maintaining a CES is difficult, as many fluctuations or imbalances can cascade into environmental collapse without continuous monitoring and support. Here I will discuss a few of the misconceptions about Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support systems and suggest ways to get it right in Sci-fi.

Myth: Waste is useless and should be disposed of.

You see this in many sci-fi stories set in space; the airlock door opens and a stream of garbage is ejected into the vacuum. This might be acceptable for short-term missions, where all the supplies needed are carried along, but for an ecosystem intended to last for a long time, being wasteful is not an option. It is a matter of mass balance. In most situations, it won’t be possible to obtain resources from outside the enclosed system, so if your characters are ejecting waste of any kind out the airlock, soon there won’t be anything left. By the same principle, if some waste product cannot be recycled, it will build up and eventually consume all of the precursor materials.

Getting it right

When creating a life-support system for a fictional crew, they must adhere to a strict recycling policy. Most solids, such as plastics and metals or glass, can be melted and recast into any number of shapes. Of greater importance is the conversion of gaseous, liquid, and solid wastes into breathable air, drinkable water, and edible food. Solid organic wastes such as material from dead plants, animals, or their excrement, contain large amounts of nitrites and nitrates, phosphates, and other inorganic compounds that serve as fertilizer for plants.

Having a ‘living soil’ or cultured hydroponic system is also necessary, as bacteria, like those found in the human gut, are great at breaking down complex organic molecules and making them assessable to the roots of plants. So far, there is no easy way to convert waste, carbon dioxide, and water into an edible food source, outside of a biological system, such as a plant. Such plants can be consumed as food, and the cycle is repeated.

Myth: Water evaporates and condenses, but the total amount doesn’t change.

You hear this often in terms of a large environment like the Earth, where water rises from the oceans and falls again as rain, and it is true for the most part. Only a few processes create or break down water, but in a small, highly balanced environment, they can make a huge difference. Water is made and destroyed in biological systems during condensation reactions and hydrolysis reactions, respectively.

But the most significant of these reactions occurs in the mitochondria, the ‘energy’ producing organelle in nearly every cell. In the mitochondria, oxygen receives 4 electrons from the Electron Transport Chain and is reduced to water. Yes, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb through your lungs is converted into water. The reverse happens in plants, where water is hydrolyzed into oxygen during the construction of carbohydrates during photosynthesis.

Getting it right

The balance between animal and plant life on the ship should ensure a stable supply of water, but water can be made and eliminated artificially if there is ever an imbalance. Electrolysis, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen, can be accomplished with a little electricity. That processed can be reversed by burning hydrogen in the presence of oxygen. A means of storing oxygen and hydrogen or water should be in place to deal with small fluctuations. Humidity and condensation can cause severe damage to electrical systems, especially in zero gravity, where air currents can become stagnant. This also increases the risk of mold. Cold surfaces or specialized air filters can trap the water vapor and return it to storage.

Myth: Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, while animals do the opposite.

Unfortunately, the biochemistry isn’t so simple. Oxygen is not converted into carbon dioxide in animals. As I already mentioned, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb is converted into water. Carbon dioxide is released from the breaking down of metabolites like sugar, proteins, and fats. This takes place in the mitochondria. In plants, oxygen is made when both carbon dioxide and water are converted into carbohydrates like glucose during photosynthesis. This occurs in the chloroplast in plants.

food-water-and-air-cycles

Another misconception is that producing oxygen is all plants do. In reality, plants have mitochondria too, and they consume oxygen and carbohydrates and produce carbon dioxide and water. When the lights are on, plants tend to produce more oxygen than they consume, but without light, they will suck up the oxygen as hungrily as we do.

Getting it right

Even as little as 1% concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause acute health effects such as fatigue and dizziness, but even higher concentrations (7-10%) can lead to unconsciousness, suffocation, and death within hours. To control fluctuations in carbon dioxide, CO2 scrubbers can be used. However, carbon dioxide is an intermediate step in oxygen and carbon cycles, so this artificial means to lower carbon dioxide may cause downstream effects on plant growth and lower oxygen concentration. This occurred accidentally in Biosphere 2 when carbon dioxide was converted into calcium carbonate in exposed concrete.

Materials like metal oxides and activated carbon can be used in CO2 scrubbers and then the carbon dioxide can be released at a later time. Large variations from the normal 21% oxygen is more easily tolerated than variations in carbon dioxide, but long-term exposure to greater or lower concentrations can lead to many acute and chronic health effects. Adjusting the amount of artificial or natural light available for photosynthesis is an effective means of controlling oxygen concentrations.

Myth: Energy must be produced within the ecosystem.

No closed ecological system is completely enclosed. If it were, it would soon succumb to the laws of entropy, making it a very cold and dark place. Something has to enter the system, and that thing is energy. The energy driving the weather, the currents, and the very life on this planet is coming from the sun.

Getting it right

Most common energy sources:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Geothermal
  • Gas
  • Fusion/fission

The first four examples are the only types applicable in a completely closed ecological system, since energy can be moved into the system without any exchange of matter. A major drawback, however, is that the habitat can’t leave the source of the energy. A spaceship powered by the sun will have a hard time operating in interstellar space.

Any technology that requires the use of combustible fuels or fissionable (uranium 235 or plutonium 239) or fusible (Hydrogen 2 and 3, deuterium and tritium, and helium) materials will have to be resupplied on a regular basis, so they are not suited for long term ecosystems. By nature of their bi-products, they cannot be reused for more energy, but they have the benefit of being disposable and can be used as a form of thrust in spaceships without upsetting the mass balance.

Other Considerations for Environmental Control and Life Support.

Ecosphere.jpg

My year old Ecosphere. Going strong except for a slight algae overgrowth (The lab decided to keep lights on around the clock this past month).

Size- Closed ecological systems can come in all shapes and sizes, but the larger the better. Larger ecosystems, like the Earth, can sustain much more life and complexity and take longer to collapse if poorly maintained.

Nutrition- The nutritional demands of a human are more than getting the right amount of calories. There are many essential trace elements, minerals, amino acids (9 of them), and fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) and nearly everything that is classified as a vitamin, that cannot be synthesized by the human body. Until these things can be synthesized by machines, a complex ecosystem of many different plant and animal life forms would be required to maintain optimum human health.

Temperature regulation- Heat will build up rapidly in most enclosed systems, even in the cold of space, especially when you have heat generating electronics around. Heat needs to be dumped back into space as thermal radiation, usually a high surface area radiator that circulates a fluid capable of picking up heat in the interior and then dispensing with it outside. The opposite may be true in the deep ocean or underground, where heat may be drawn out of the enclosed system, and insulation will be necessary.

Air circulation- This is particularly important in zero G space, where hot and cold air will no longer rise and fall, respectively. To prevent air stagnation, humidity fluctuation and condensation, air needs to be well circulated. Filters are also necessary to remove any particulate matter such as skin cells or microbes.

The human element- Most enclosed ecosystems designed to support human life have not lasted nearly as long as they were intended to. Why? Because they failed to factor the human element into the equation. People get lonely and fall in love, personalities clash and people fight. Close quarters and a limited food supply can cause even the most patient and respectful of people to lose their temper. In Biosphere 2, the eight crew were barely on speaking terms by the time they exited, and two of them got married soon after.