Category Archives: science

Writer’s Log: Time & Calendars

TatooineClock

Do your stories transpire in hours, days, weeks, months and years? Do your characters say, “give me a minute,” or “just a second?” Are your characters old if they have reached the “age” of 80 or more?

Your answers might vary if you’ve every tried to write a science fiction or fantasy tale.

Humanity’s time and calendar are entwined as one. 3600 seconds makes up an hour. Twenty-four hours makes up the day. A day is the smallest celestial unit which we tally together in blocks that make cultural sense. The month was based on the revolution of the Moon about the Earth. And the year, the Earth’s trip around the Sun as documented by our calendar.

When we write, we seldom consider such things. Only rarely do we stop to think that our protagonist might use some other measurement of time to mark the passing of their life. To this theoretical challenge, most would say, “Why bother confound the story? It’s the concept of time that is contained within our minutes and seconds, our days and weeks.”

True. A day on Tatooine may take an Earthly 41.82 hours to rotate about its axis, but so what? An hour is an hour, doesn’t matter how long it “really” is.

“What time is it, C3PO?”
“Sir, I am versed in six-thousand measurements of time, to which…”
“Shut-the-fuck-up, you sanctimonious Oscarian-statue wanna-be.”
“Well, I never…”
Hero’s journey protagonist gives the robot a threatening look.
“It is ten-ten pre-noon, local Tatooine time.”

But what if we wanted to create a Universal measurement of time? One that would be exact no matter what planet or moon or star-bound journey one found oneself upon.

Turns out the concept is moot. And it’s due to the fact that time is relative.

For what purpose do we use time and the associated calendar? Planning. When the time zones were laid out across the United States, it was the railroads that set the clocks. They did so for efficient scheduling. When sundials, and stone henges were created, it was to plan for meals and plantings—many of which had religious foundations—when do we know to do a thing?

What would we do with a Universal time constant? Perhaps plan our conversations with extra-planetary colonies? Or use Le Guin’s ansible to speak across the vacuum of space using Quantum Entanglement? Well, we have to recall that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity included this concept: that time, itself, is relative. To us, here on earth, a second is 9,192,631,770 radioactive oscillations of Cesium 133. But, to anyone traveling at some distance from us, to or away, at some fraction of the speed of light, their actual measurement of time would be different; their oscillation count would change—relative to ours.

Their “second” would be different from our “second” and although we could probably calculate how those two seconds might differ, why bother? The work involved would not provide any meaningful payoff.

In the past, I’ve taken issue with the use of English-word time measurement in stories. What does an Orc know of the “hour”? The Thranx the minute? An Arrakis second? But it turns out, such a controversy existed only in my mind. It IS the story that transcends all mundane human assumptions. Tell a good tale and such frivolous details dwindle away in the telling.

 

 

 


Apocalyptic Scenario 7.b

Surrounding the Arctic Ocean, the continental shelf harbors thousands of gigatons of of methane in the form of methane hydrate, fire-ice. This substance, methane gas surrounded by water ice, forms when microbes eat organic sediment and release methane (like in the bowels of a bovine) which gets trapped by high water pressure and low temperature.

Were just five of these gigatons of methane to be released into the atmosphere the concentration would double methane’s current contribution of 25% of global warming.

Fifty gigatons would wreak an environmental catastrophe. Five hundred, released in a continuous stream around the Arctic would induce another PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum).

Deep beneath the East Siberian Sea stretching across the straight into the Beaufort Sea and around to the Barents Sea the earth is shifting. Tectonic forces have been pulling apart the crust, magma is seeping upward, and now the once frozen methane hydrates are thawing. Swelling. Bubbling to the surface.

Vents along the Siberian coast crack open and haphazard lightening strikes have ignited the plumes of methane. Volcanoes of flame burn hundreds of meters into the sky. What doesn’t burn, drifts high into the atmosphere where it traps the reflective solar energy. The Arctic has become a tepid bath. Greenland’s ice cap and its hundreds of glaciers steam and melt. Measurements along the Eastern Seaboard measure an inch a month sea level rise.

Life is about to experience Sauna Earth.

Bring your beer and spruce brushes because we’re gonna get sweaty.


Interstellar trash

In 2017 the asteroid/comet Oumuamua whizzed through our solar system. Recently Comet 21/Borisov, another interstellar wanderer has been detected. Two objects in as many years. This got me thinking about astrophysical opinions regarding the “emptiness of space.”

What if it’s not empty at all? What if it’s full of solar system trash, the debris of billions of years of supernovas spewing out the stuff of stars?

If the void between stars is not a void at all, if it’s chock full of debris, stellar-bits that we’re just now starting to detect, then there is no way in hell we—or anyone—could traverse the trillions of miles between stars. Were we to get a starship up to a fraction of lightspeed, anything larger than a grain of rice would destroy us.

The Sci-Fi theory of creating force-fields or “shields” to protect us is fantastical at best. “Passengers”, a great movie, showed us how tenuous the theory. All it would take would be one failure, out of thousands of successful avoidances (lasers, magnetic pulses, kinetic diverters, etc), would still be a failure.

Interstellar trash may be one answer why we don’t see an exo-civilization filling the galaxy; a possible Fermi’s Paradox solution.

 


Bow to your overlord: DNA

Just a brief “you should read this” note about Tim Urban’s Wait but Why site (a continual classic) and a series he’s been producing about society.

The Story of Us: Full Series

It takes hours to read, thoroughly, but worth the payoff. He exposes some clever, insightful glimpses into human behavior, couched in a Twinkie-consumable format.

I recommend it.

My personal favorite, a topic I’ve mentioned here before, DNA is our master.


Science writing: To the point

If you’re going to write about science — get to the damn point. All I need is the highlights, the topics, the bullet points. And if there are pertinent details, make them brief and absent of flourish.

So many of the literary news outlets publish narrative science articles that I’m afraid it’s become an art. A pointless and irritating art.

Take this one for instance (don’t go here, don’t give them the courtesy):

7,800 words in that frickin’ thing. I don’t have the time or patience to burn thirty minutes slogging through some “writer’s” portrayal of science dudes’ childhoods: “When he was 11, his mother bought him a subscription to a medical encyclopedia series.” Fuck-me-Alex.

Get to the point and get out. It’s science — just the pertinent facts, ma’am. All the actual data required to deliver the concepts of brain tissue reanimation could have been provided in a tenth the words. But no, the writer had to turn it into a biography.

And this happens time and time again. 10,000 word diatribes about artificial intelligence and machine learning, or meandering missives on Neanderthal DNA in modern Homo Sapiens. It seems that every sexy scientific topic begs a “story.” Sorry, I don’t want window dressing on my low earth orbit launch technologies, or thermal depolymerization of ocean plastic…

I just want the concise, to-the-point facts about the advances or failures of the science and technology. Spare me backstories, please. If you have to, write a sweeping expose’ on some social or historical topic or event — leave the science for the fact writers.

 


BodyScale: 0 to 100

Celsius is great for science. 0 freezing, 100 boiling – perfectly logical.

Fahrenheit is just bonkers. Totally screwball with no logic behind it whatsoever.

But the problem with Celsius (we’ll disregard Fahrenheit due to irrelevance) is that Celsius has only one immediately human identifiable anchoring: 0 degrees freezing. At 100°, the boiling point of pure water at sea level—yeah, great. Not exactly relatable (not really). How warm is the human body? 37 degrees. Hmm, 37, not a number that sits well in our minds. Instead…

How about a human relatable scale:

  • 0 = freezing point of water.
  • 100 = human body temperature.

Here’s how such a scale would compare to Celsius…

CelsiusvsBodyScale

0 is 0. That’s easy. We are frozen solid at 0 Centigrade as well as 0 BodyScale.

But at 100° BodyScale, we’re exactly where we need to be (37°C).

Now, based on 0-100° degrees BS we have a natural range we can understand.

At 50° BS, we’re pretty comfortable — half way from body temp to freezing.

At -50° BS, that’s damn cold (-19°C), and that’s about our limit.

At 150° BS, that’s about our top limit, frickin’ hot. Hot to the touch; sauna hot. But still, if you were outside, walkin’ around, drinking lots of fluids, 150° BS is tolerable. See how this is working?

Zero BS to 100° BS is our natural range. It makes sense to us in our ten-fingered numerical system within our human condition. Additionally, -50° BS to 150° BS would be our natural  range extent. Again, logical extensions of our 0-100 range.

Celsius has two numbers which make human sense, 0 & 100. One is relatable, the other is “touch and suffer.”

We humans like relatable numbers. That’s why the metric system is so hard to take. (See: https://anonymole.com/2015/08/18/the-problem-with-the-metric-system/ )

A weatherman, lying about tomorrow’s sunny day, who used BodyScale as their temperature gauge would make perfect sense.

“Tonight’s overnight temperature will be 60° BS and 85° BS by tomorrow afternoon—a nice day, so go have fun!”

And medically, using such a scale would also make sense.

  • 104° BodyScale, a bit of a fever.
  • At 95° BS, you’re suffering from hypothermia!
  • 100° – spot on, mate.

Even that 100° C seems misleading, “100°C? Yeah, OK”.
But at 270° BS. 270°! Shit, that sounds hot! And it is. Hot enough to boil water…

(Oh, and the “BS” initialism is an ironic coincidence…)

Celsius BodyScale
-40 -108
-30 -81
-19 -50
-10 -27
0 0
10 27
20 54
30 81
37 100
40 108
50 135
55 150
70 189
80 216
90 243
100 270
110 297
120 324
130 351
140 378
150 405
160 432
170 459
180 486
190 514
200 541

The Day the Earth Died

I don’t often share such articles, but this one sticks out as critically important. It regards the KT moment, the end-of-days for Dino the Dinosaur. And what you’ll find is that it appears that a paleontologist has found evidence of the exact moment of the Chicxulub asteroid impact.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/the-day-the-dinosaurs-died

— The KT event continues to attract the interest of scientists in no small part because the ashen print it left on the planet is an existential reminder. “We wouldn’t be here talking on the phone if that meteorite hadn’t fallen,”

— The Tanis site, in short, did not span the first day of the impact: it probably recorded the first hour or so.