Flash Fiction: a complete story
in one thousand or fewer words.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Physicist: Watch Your Quantum Step, Writers

By way of The End of the Universe: a physicist, Sidney ­Perkowitz, a professor of physics at Emory University, prayerfully suggests that writers, especially screenwriters, violate physics no more than once per script. Dude, are we supposed to FTL ourselves to a distant galaxy and then use picks, shovels and Winchesters to kick out the space aliens there? Oh...we are. Okay, noted.

Especially egregious and offensive was Angels and Demons, according to this related Guardian (UK) article:

"The amount of antimatter they had [to blow the Vatican to Kingdom Come] was more than we will make in a million years of running a high-energy particle collider," said Perkowitz. "You can't contain it using an iPod battery."

That offends even me. They could've used flashlight batteries or a car battery. Sheesh. (And I like Tom Hanks, but isn't there someone else to play professorial adventurers (who is not Sean Connery)?)

Seriously, folks, I like mundane SF (another term badly needed), which doesn't violate any present laws of physics. Those stories are closer to home and have more realistic protags and bad guys, rather than the Gothic figures we're grown accustomed to. But I liked Angels and Demons and Avatar, too, even though my BS meter pegged the red zone several times in each.

A humble suggestion to Professor Perkowitz: watch a few adventure movies. It is not uncommon to see someone leap from a roof down a couple of stories and manage to grab onto a ledge, or leap from speeding car roof to speeding car roof...etc. Don't get me started on video games....

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Another Death Knell To FTL Space Travel?

According to this The Register article, faster-than-light travel has another obstacle besides relativity: the lowly hydrogen atom. Since that article is quite brief, this post will be all the more brief. As a craft approaches light speed, it compresses what would ordinarily be the sparse hydrogen in space, resulting in incredibly high voltages...more than 1000 times the lethal dose of ionizing radiation. (That's bad.) As the author points out, they'll think of something. SF authors will, for sure.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Take a Black Hole Tour

Science fiction writers for various media like black holes. They solve many story issues (while creating some thorny theoretical ones). If you enjoy reading or writing such inventions, you might appreciate this post.

By way of SlashDot, New Scientist is reporting a simulation published in the American Journal of Physics of what the sky would look like if you entered a black hole. (Warning: do not try this at home; serious bodily injury may result from approaching or falling into a black hole.) The simulation uses actual star data (100,000+ stars). The authors of the American Journal of Physics article (and apparently of the simulation) are Thomas Müller and Daniel Weiskopf at the University of Stuttgart (Universität Stuttgart).

The short New Scientist article includes a video of a simulation run (and then gives options for other related videos). If you are more adventurous or interested, you can download the simulation and simulation data files and run/tweak it yourself. They have a Windows executable and Linux source files.

Here is the New Scientist article and video about a black hole simulator that uses star data. Here is the University of Stuttgart black hole simulator for Windows and Linux.

Ad: Injured falling into a black hole? Call 555-555-5555 to learn about your legal rights. Blackheart & Blackheart, Personal Injury Lawyers.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Space Travel Weasel-Physics in Movies & TV

Satellite Internet has a nice, concise piece with good movie pics about 'Ten Ways Space Travel Isn’t Like Television or the Movies.' Some movie weasel-physics and sociological mistakes are obvious (but still abused in the movies). One was particularly interesting, the affect on the human body of unprotected exposure to space. Do not try this at home:

...Thanks to Henry’s Law the drastic change in pressure would cause all the liquid in your body to evaporate at once, from your saliva to your blood to your urine. Because of this, your body expands to about twice its size, while you slip into unconsciousness (don’t worry, the whole process takes about fifteen seconds). Within a few minutes all the liquids and vapors remaining in your body will be sucked out into the void, leaving a dried husk of a corpse behind....

And we all know this, but it bears repeating since it is so ignored in movies, as it's quite an inconvenience for movie making: aliens don't speak any Earth language or any language that would be easily understood.

Go to the article for the rest of the movie trespasses and the nice pictures.

Here are a few that were not included in that article:

11. Space aliens probably don't go ga-ga over Earthling blonde women. They might even be repulsed by them...except Marilyn Monroe, of course.

12. If you have a replicator, why can't you make anything vital, including dilithium crystals for your warp engines when you're stranded?

13. And speaking of replicators: if you can make Saurian brandy and practically anything out of a Betty Crocker's Cookbook, wouldn't operation of the machine be a little more complicated than a microwave oven? They're way smarter than the ship's battle and navigation computers.

14. Space aliens probably wouldn't side with children over their parents.

15. They probably wouldn't come all the way to Earth just to snag a whale. They'd want some booty.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Amazing Interstellar Travel Method

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has revealed an amazing method of interstellar travel first proposed in 1998 by Dr. Robert Metzger, physicist and SF writer. Dr. Metzger dubbed his scheme the take it with you plan. You must read the article to get all the gory details, but to summarize: you use the sun as an engine using advanced third-law-of-motion techniques to scoot the star along. Naturally, the sun will drag along the rest of the solar system with him. So instead of deciding whether to take your lucky ball cap or your teddy bear on your life's journey, you take everything.

Some details of this solar scooter technology are still in the making. Warning: there is some arithmetic in the article.

As if that were not enough for one post, Dr. Metzger also gives some news you can use about fusion, strange sightings, fuel-less orbital boost, turb0-evolution and table-top black holes.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Quantum Mechanics in Football

Here is some astounding science news that may rock the way naive science fiction writers approach quantum mechanics in their mundane SF stories. The Onion has reported how NFL physicists proved that quantum mechanics affects (American) football:

Citing the extremely low level of entropy present before a normal set of football downs, scientists from the NFL's quantum mechanics and cosmology laboratories spoke Monday of a theoretical proto-down before the first. "Ultimately, we believe there are an infinite number of proto-downs played before the first visible snap,...."

Here is the rest of The Onion's quantum mechanical football story.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Science: an Inexact Science

Here are a couple of articles that invite hard science fiction stories, both from PhysOrg.com:

Orbital mechanics
: we're used to quantum physics and other edgy sciences to play badly and make us rewrite the textbooks. But the basics of orbital mechanics go back centuries. PhysOrg reports a Jupiter-like planet (but tens-time larger) with a one-earth day orbital period around its star (i.e., its year is one earth day) . It is very unlikely that we would see such a planet since it most likely would have spiraled into its star. We may see evidence that this is happening to the planet within a decade. Here is the story.

Thermodynamics: in another PhysOrg article, the second law states that entropy can only increase or stay the same, which leads to a paradox concerning the reversal of time. A new theory proposes that entropy can decrease, but it erases any evidence of its existence:

Entropy can decrease, according to a new proposal - but the process would destroy any evidence of its existence, and erase any memory an observer might have of it. It sounds like the plot to a weird sci-fi movie, but the idea has recently been suggested by theoretical physicist Lorenzo Maccone.

This makes it more than difficult for physicist to study it.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

New Scientist: Gravity and Storytelling

There is a sort of gravity in good storytelling that pulls a reader towards the conclusion, but this post is not about how gravity affects storytelling. It is about gravity and separately about storytelling.

Gravity is so much a part of science fiction...mostly how to sneak past it. Yes, Newtonian physics describes its effects adequately for practical uses, and quantum physics has a placeholder for it in the form of gravitons, but what is it? That still eludes physicists. New Scientist has easily understood, concise (about 300 words) articles on each of seven aspects of gravity: What is it? Why does it only pull? Why is it so weak? Why is it so fine-tuned (friendly towards life)? Why does life need it? Can we counter it? Will quantum theory ever explain it?

We've had quite a few posts on storytelling, including these: 1 2 3. Here are three from New Scientist, which mostly look at storytelling from an evolutionary perspective, storytelling ape (a.k.a. The Science of Discworld II: The Globe by Terry Pratchett), origins of storytelling, and storytelling shaping human minds.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flash Non-Fiction: Warpships

Do you have a guilty pleasure in reading or writing faster-than-light (FTL) SF stories? Here is something to take the edge off your guilt.

Dr. Richard Obousy, a physicist with M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Leicester and Baylor, has looked at some avenues for FTL travel and has made some buzz with a diversity of publications, such as Discovery Channel (online), EE Times (Electrical Engineering), Science Daily and, most importantly, FlashFictionOnline.com. Here is Obousy's warp drive summary from his web site, but I'll go with the Discovery Channel explanation because (this is a bit technical) they have pretty pictures.

In a nutshell, the idea is to harness the sizable dark energy in the universe to distort spacetime in the vicinity of your warp-drive ship.

...the extra dimensions as predicted by superstring theory could be shrunk and expanded by the warp drive through manipulation of local dark energy. At the front of the warpship spacetime would be compressed, and it would expand behind.

That's how I'd do it. Here is an interview that preceded the above-linked slide show article.

FFO Skeptic's Report: to be fair, I've found a completely unqualified skeptic (moi), to give balance to this article: dark matter and dark energy are the asterisks attending quantum mechanics that should scare the pants or skirt off theorists. Enough said.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Axis of Evil in Space?

This by way of SlashDot.org.

Okay, what is the axis of evil? A Ronald Reagan notion? Yes, but that's a different one. This one is a disturbing disturbance in what's supposed to be the even (isotropic) distribution of heat in the universe. Noted by Kate Land and João Magueijo of Imperial College London, they called it the axis of evil for what it meant to the beloved standard model of the universe. This summary is from an article in New Scientist "not long ago" in 2007.

Voyager 1 and 2 to the rescue.

Just last year, researchers viewed data from the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft when the craft passed through this area. The researchers noted that "far from being spherical as had been expected, the termination shock is asymmetric, distorted by some unknown forces." Now some think this apparent malign distribution is actually a phantom caused by a much closer sharp change in "pressure, temperature, density, magnetic and electric field properties of space," called the termination shock. The termination shock occurs where our solar system's outflowing supersonic solar winds are slowed to subsonic speeds by interstellar winds. This has a lens effect that distorts our view.

Don't you love Voyager 1 and 2? I think that since Voyager 1 became V*ger and gained self-consciousness, she is trying especially hard to please us back home. Voyager 2, a jealous lass, is trying very hard to keep up with her older sister.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hawking Followup: Much Better

Despite the seeming gravity of yesterday's report of Stephen Hawking's health, he seems to be much improved now:

Professor Hawking is being kept in for observation at Addenbrooke's hospital this morning. He is comfortable and his family is looking forward to him making a full recovery.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Two on Physics: Stephen Hawking Very Ill & Your Quantum Mind

I. Professor Hawking Very Ill

Stephen Hawking is very ill according to CNN, BBC News and other news services. He is in a hospital in Cambridge, England, suffering from motor nueron disease. He is a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at nearby Cambridge University.

Professor Hawking managed to appeal to a wide audience with his accessible trade books on physics, such as A Brief History of Time, while advancing the edge of theoretical physics.

II. Your Quantum Mind

It is not clear to me how abstract the author is being in the PhysOrg article when she says that quantum theory is perhaps a good model of human decision making. Using games, the researchers showed that humans often made less-than optimum decisions, even when a more likely option was clearly perceived.

In one example, people played a simple even-chance game. Afterwards, they were asked if they would play again to win $200 or lose $100. Their answer depended on the outcome of the previous game:

One-third of the participants were told that they had won the first game, one-third were told they had lost the first game, and the remaining one-third did not know the outcome of their first game. Most of the participants in the first two scenarios chose to play again (69% and 59%, respectively), while most of the participants in the third scenario chose not to (only 36% played again).

The article gave another example of a "defecting" game, where participants could guarantee a win through cooperation but either partner could defect. The outcome seemed to have more with giving the partner the benefit of the doubt than probability. Quantum theory is now gaining attention from cognition researchers where probability theory was only considered.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Science Fiction/Science Fantasy

One fantasy for physicist and mathematicians is to work out the math to show that something is possible, mathematically, regardless of the practicality of it. Yes it can be done, at the cost of the GNP of Earth for the next 12000 years...and then the hard part starts.

Warp drives: yeah, Star Trek. This physicist thought he might have the numbers worked out. To use slashdot's summary:

...while relativity prevents faster-than-light travel relative to the fabric of spacetime, it places no restriction on the speed at which regions of spacetime may move relative to each other. So a small bubble of spacetime containing a spacecraft could travel faster than the speed of light, at least in principle.

But when quantum effects are considered, it falls apart. Dang.

And in a different but quasi-related slashdot article, a video simulation of what falling through a black hole would look like.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Invisibility Cloak?

Some scientists have made some semi-serious noise about a Star Trek-ish invisibility cloak. The proposed system would comprise the object to be cloaked and a complementary object to cloak the first object (mutually, I suppose). It is a sort of light-canceling notion. However, the practicality is limited to one "wavelength." (Here, the HK scientist is referring to wavelength broadly, such as the wavelength of visible light.) So, as the author suggests, if you cloak an object in the visible light spectrum, an x-ray radar could still see it. A little more work is needed.

I have similar problems with my own invisibility project, too. For example, if I go into a room full of runway models, I'm totally invisible to them, but not to their bodyguards.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Extremophiles and God Particles

Two articles of science to spark your imagination and world-building. Both leads for these are by way of slashdot.

The first, Extremophiles in Kamchatka, is a set of four annotated photo albums about a joint American and Russian scientific expedition to study natural life in extreme conditions in the Russian Far East, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and NASA. Some of the life they studied thrives in scalding steam baths of 90 degrees C/194 degrees F. Even if you're not interested in the science, the photography is excellent.

The second story illustrates the intense rivalry of science, the race for the "God particle" (Higgs boson). In a nasal voice: "The European Cern Lab's LHC is ahead by two lengths. Fermilab is holding tight. But wait! Cern has stumbled. Oh no! It's limping. Fermilab is catching up quickly. Will Cern regain to its stride soon enough to win the Nobel Prize? Stay in your seats, ladies and gentlemen."

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Quark of Nature? Single-Element Compound

A compound comprised of a single element? Yes, boron boride, was formed through high temperature and pressure experimentation, discovered by an international team led by Florida International University. Throw away your chemistry books; they're being re-written. Their results were published in Nature magazine.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Crayon Physics and other Weirdness

You see, you draw boxes, circles, lines and such and realistic physics immediately takes over. The goal is to touch the jewel with an object you've set in motion. Perhaps it sounds boring, but it is infecting. The game, Crayon Physics, is a bit like the Mousetrap game of old, but in 2D graphics. It only runs in Windows (XP/Vista), but a user reported success running it in Linux under Wine. Perhaps Parallels or Fusion will run it on a Mac. The link above has a video of the game in action. Here is an NPR report. There is also a trial version (starts immediate download).

Other weirdness: She stole his heart so he gave her his kidney. And now he wants it back.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Robert J. Sawyer: Writer-in-Residence at Canadian Synchotron

Canadian sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer will be the first writer-in-residence at Saskatoon's Canadian Light Source synchrotron. According to the Nebula and Hugo Award winner, he'll learn the "day-to-day grind of the work" rather than getting the normal VIP tour. Says the CBC article, "Budding writers will be able to book one-hour consultations with the sci-fi legend."

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