The Coming World of Magic

I was not too surprised to see an article titled U.S. millennials post ‘abysmal’ scores in tech skills test, lag behind foreign peers in today’s Washington Post. The article says that in a test of literacy, math and technological problem-solving skills, US millennials (defined as age 16-34) ranked very low against their peers in other countries no matter how the data was cut by race, gender, and education.

This ties to a recent revelation of mine. I have been coaching an FTC robotics team this year. The team has done well and has designed a very innovative robot. The boys on it are all bright, eager, and have learned a great deal. In many ways, they are much like me at that age: geeks fascinated by technology, computers, military history and so on. But there was one surprising difference: not one of them knew any programming.

There are kids out there at this age (15-16) who do know how to program. But in a sample of 5 hard-core geeks, not one knows how to code? I was rather shocked, to be honest.

But it comes back to a trend that the test cited in the article above gets at: users of technology do not necessarily understand it. Today’s technology with its ready games, images, social media, suck up a lot of the time. This has already had a noticeable effect on the reading of books. Less recognized is the effect it is having on the sorts of skills mentioned in the article.

If a teenager is spending an hour on social media and another few hours on gaming or surfing, that’s the same time in their busy lives they might have spent in the past reading, learning to program, learning how a radio works or fixing a lawnmower. It can lead to a generation of people who are savvy about navigating the web, have an innate sense of how a GUI should work, but have little idea of the technology behind it.

In the case of this particular study, the results are relative: the US scores low, other countries score high. Some of the distractions for US youth must be present for youth in other countries. This may mean that the scores have little to do with technological distractions but, then again, the US may be worse because it was an earlier adopter of the new marvels.

We’ll see how this plays out but for the science fiction author in me, it’s not hard to imagine a future where most of the world population has a superficial understanding of technology: they know how to order a pizza online or track down an old friend, but they have little idea of what happens behind the scenes. It’s not like 20 or 40 years ago, the average person understood the underpinnings of technology but if the geek portion of a generation isn’t learning how the technology works, then there may be very few technologists and very little innovation down the road.

From a story point of view where conflict is necessary to drive the story arc, one can imagine a future where the rich countries are complacent and comfortable in their technological cocoon but have lost the ability to create new technology. Or perhaps this is what happens to very mature civilizations: maybe Earthlings encounter a space-faring race where very few of the aliens really understand how their technology works, leaving them unable to react quickly enough to an aggressive, more flexible race (us).

It would be an interesting turn-around from the uber-dominant, militaristic alien races to have one that, while more advanced, is more like a clumsy giant, out maneuvered by a still agile humanity.

As to the article itself, I can’t say it is all doom and gloom for the US. These things always have a way of coming and going. What I wouldn’t advocate as a response, however, is more homework. I think homework has been over done. Free time to explore is what kids really need. And maybe incentives to understand their world better: maybe more tangible rewards for the ones who start writing or programming, ‘doing’, instead of soaking up all that lovely media out there.

To circle back to the title: if we do create generations of descendants who have no understanding of the technology in their bright and shiny world, they will essentially look to technology as magic.

Arthur C. Clark’s 3rd law is:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

I think most of us, when seeing it, imagine it applies to a less advanced race experiencing the technology of a more advanced race. But what if, instead, the technology of the advanced race appears to themselves as magic?

SpaceEngine: Go Anywhere in the Universe

Sunset on a Brown Dwarf
Comets around a Brown Dwarf

Along with the Universe Sandbox, here’s another great tool for the science fiction author: SpaceEngine. This fascinating program is still in beta, and a bit buggy, but to get an idea of what it can do, take a look at these pictures, all of which are unmodified screenshots. Most are from my son’s exploration over a few hours. The first two are my own effort after about 30 minutes of playing around.

Aurora on a Distant Planet
Aurora on a Distant Planet

Whereas Universe Sandbox is an orbital dynamics simulator, great for playing around with solar systems and disrupting them by blowing up a planet or shooting black holes through them, SpaceEngine takes a different route. It models a huge number of known astronomical objects, from every moonlet in our solar system, to nearby stars, globular clusters, nebula, galaxies, etc.

Gas Giant
Gas Giant and Galaxy

Where it really gets interesting is the vast number of astronomical objects for which there is no known data because where current observational data runs out, it creates the rest procedurally.

Ringed Waterworld
Ringed Waterworld

Pick a galaxy and fly into it. Find a star in that galaxy and zoom to it, visit its planets and moons, search for life, exotic planet rises, there’s really no limit. I’d consider some of these for cover art for certain classes of novels.

Over a Desert World
Over a Desert World

When poking around the universe can keep you busy for days, who knows what story ideas you might find?

Ice Moon orbiting gas giant in a binary star system
Ice Moon orbiting gas giant in a binary star system

SpaceEngine not only creates lovely visuals, it backs it up with  physical data: object mass, gravity, atmosphere, orbital period, mean temperature, even modeling presence of life. It’s fun if you just want to poke around alien worlds and its a dream come true for Science Fiction worldbuilders. Plus it has more lens-flares than the last Star Trek reboot!

An Alien Shore
An Alien Shore

Has anyone else given it a try yet? What do you think of the pictures from it?

Coruscant, Heat Dissipation, and Basic Worldbuilding

Coruscant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing along the lines of world-building for science fiction settings, I had planned a post on just how much heat Coruscant (of Star Wars universe fame) would generate and the fact that the planet would almost certainly require giant polar heat radiators or something along those lines. Trouble is, I did the math and… it doesn’t work out that way.

Coruscant supposedly has a population of one trillion, which sounds like a lot, and is, but that’s only about 125x Earth population and in the end, if you figure something like 2500 watts per person of energy (above anything but Iceland on Earth today), you end up with about 1% of the energy received from the sun. That would likely cause noticeable global warming but nothing that couldn’t be dealt with easily in the Star Wars universe (like putting out umbrellas in space to reduce solar radiation by 1%). So, no need for super-duper lasers beaming hear from Coruscant.

As with all my posts on these sorts of things, I’m not saying authors can’t use tropes, in this case, the planet-wide city. But some of the overlooked details from such tropes can make for useful technical hooks for authors. Imagine if Coruscant did have huge polar laser beams. This would give the planet a very different look, wouldn’t it? Sort of like the polar jets on a black hole. Makes for an interesting aesthetic touch you could add. But take it further: the polar jets would be dangerous to fly through, so now you have a peril for an out of control ship to deal with (drama!). Or maybe you could envision space stations that harvest this waste heat, legally, or not. Or maybe this energy can be targeted via mirrors or the like and now you have a very high power weapon.

Starspeeder 1000 flying in the planet of Corus...
Starspeeder 1000 flying in the planet of Coruscant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have planet wide cities and don’t want to deal with the waste heat, no problem. I don’t recall anyone complaining about it regarding Coruscant (other than me of course, but I’m weird that way). But if you do want to deal with it, the possibilities range from the aesthetic to the dramatic.

But let’s turn back to why I thought waste heat would be a problem for Coruscant. There are really two reasons:

  1. In the movies, the entire planet looks like it is covered by a continuous city
  2. The various on-line Star Wars resources indicate that at times: The entire surface of Coruscant was covered by sprawling kilometers-high ecumenoplis. (Wookieepedia, which provides references). The population is given as, variously, 1 to 3 trillion.

Let’s take that data and do some number crunching, something any worldbuilder should consider doing to “kick the tires” on their premise. Coruscant is basically earth sized, which means we can use Earth data for surface area, etc. We also have Earth data that a high-rise like the World Trade Center towers in NYC had about 20,000 people in them during the day. Let’s assume Coruscant has about 20,000 people in a 100x100m area, as a starting point. Now Coruscant probably has factories and various open spaces but it is supposed to be covered with “city” multiple kilometers thick so 20,000 people for the relatively short WTC tower is spread out over a taller Coruscant structure, as partial offset. This would yield a population of: one million trillion people.

Hold on you say, the poles aren’t necessarily populated and you have too little room for factories and such. Okay, scale it back by 10x or even 100x, this is still one to ten thousand times higher population than per the Star Wars cannon. Not that it really matters, the Star Wars setting is a lot of fun regardless, but the population estimate is just way out of whack. As a check, one trillion people seems like a lot but if spread over the earth, that’s about 2 people per square kilometer. For comparison, Hong Kong has a population density of 6500 per square km and applied across the world, would  result in a population of 3300 trillion. You can scale that back for a lower population density but to get to the stated population of Coruscant, you’d have to scale it back by 1500x which doesn’t qualify as “city-wide planet” in my book since Wyoming has a population density of 2.3 people per sq. km. and the only US state less dense is Alaska, at 0.5.

Let’s assume a lot of the planet is factory and other “empty” space, it still seems like the population of Coruscant should be something more like 100 trillion or higher. Now, if you assume 2500 watts per person, and that might actually be a pretty paltry number for a super high technology society that seems to fly everywhere, the power dissipation per person is on par with the total energy received from the sun. Aside from that being a large amount of power to generate, that’s a lot of heat to dissipate: without heat radiators you are going to quickly fry the planet. And if population is 300 to 1000 trillion, now you talking about 10x solar power. The planet would burst into flames.

Of course, you can ignore this. The Star Wars guys do. But wouldn’t it be a cool setting that did not ignore it? You’re the author. The only limits you have are  your imagination. How would you handle that much energy? The power conduits and power plants probably not as much a problem as it sounds: the planet is after all, entirely city. Plenty of room to ship power around and plenty of space for power planets. But how do you extract the waste heat and export it into space? Maybe all over the planet there are cooling towers. But these aren’t your nuclear power planet cooling towers: these extend out of the atmosphere and are in a vacuum within their walls. They literally pipe heat out from the surface of the planet into the space. Aside from being really cool because they would be really tall and really big, imagine how the planet would look: it would be studded with cylinders. Plus intersolar space is a not a total vacuum, there would be plenty of particles to “light up” in the path of these heat export beams: the planet would have hundreds or thousands of beams of light radiating from it. In short, it would look very different from how Coruscant is shown in the movies. Not a bad way to differentiate your planet-wide city from ones your readers have already seen, right?

Just to be clear, this is not something I’m demanding science fiction writers address. Instead, I’m just pointing out that if you take your worldbuilding to the next level, you might find ways to enhance your setting, even find a cool hook for an entire novel premise.

In addition to heat dissipation, a planet like Coruscant would have interesting issues with regard to food (where does it come from, how many planets does it take to feed Coruscant, how many food freighters per day would have to arrive?) and even simple oxygen replenishment: what is converting the CO2 back to O2? Could be oxygen processors but that will take yet more power. Would make for an interesting touch on your world though, wouldn’t it: vast oxygen regeneration plants to go along with the waste heat towers. And really big freighter ships to feed the planet, star destroyer size!


Happy world building!

Worldbuilding & Teleportation

Magic portals are a familiar trope of fantasy worlds, especially in paper & pencil and computer games. They make a lesser appearance in science fiction settings (like Stargate) but don’t forget wormholes are basically portals. And they happen to feature in my current project where, like most other folks, I ignore the aspect of portals I’d like to discuss today: momentum compensation.

The "kawoosh" effect of the Stargate.
The “kawoosh” effect of the Stargate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with a thought experiment: an instantaneous, magical doorway connects Quito to Jakarta, places pretty much on the equator and on opposite sides of the earth. Step through the portal and, voila, you go from Quito to Jakarta. Pretty cool, eh? Except the rotational velocity of a person at the equator is 1000 miles per hour. And two points at opposite sides of the globe are actually moving at 2000 miles per hour with respect to each other. Pop through that magic gateway and you appear in Jakarta moving at 2000 miles per hour. Assuming you didn’t first vaporize from friction with the air, you would smash into the nearest solid object with the same energy as a loaded tractor-trailer moving at 100 miles per hour. That would be the end of you, but it would be so swift, it would merely be an unfortunate end, rather than a painful one.

During a test of the effects of Kinetic Energy...
Little things going very fast can still make big holes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clearly, the portal needs to not only move you, it needs to impart the appropriate velocity at arrival, which means it has to instantaneously change your velocity by 2000 mph, which is a G force of infinity. It’s an even faster death but you now arrive as goo. (Or a burst of gamma rays if it really was nearly instantaneous.) Okay, maybe the teleport “magic” also accelerates you without splattering you. But it would be an interesting little fact, a nice touch of verisimilitude, if your teleportation device actually allowed a reasonable amount of time for you to match velocity. Maybe instead of moving instantaneously from place A to place B, you take a second. Let’s do the math… that’s about 80Gs, still not too good for flesh and blood (or really anything but a strong, solid object). But dial it back to about a minute for the transit and now you’re in the realm of a G, noticeable but quite tolerable. Make it ten minutes and its a tenth of a G, a fairly minor force.

Of course, it takes energy to accelerate you to that speed. This energy is on par with what it takes that tractor-trailer to go from 0 to 100mph, probably the energy content of 1-2 gallons of gas. This energy is also required even if you walk, fly, boat or drive from one side of the planet to the other but 1-2 gallons of gas (or the equivalent) is pretty insignificant compared to the energy needed to overcome friction and other losses on the more conventional journey. In case  you are wondering, a gallon of jet fuel will move the average passenger about 10-15 miles in a jetliner so to fly halfway around the world would take about 1200 gallons. The energy required for teleportation is notable because it is a fair amount of energy needed in a short period of time (i.e., high power) but in magnitude, while 1-2 gallons of gas can make a big boom if detonated at once, it isn’t a vast amount of energy. Of course, there would presumably be energy required to create and sustain the portal but since the physics for portals is somewhat vague, I don’t know what that would be.

Suffice it to say that the portal probably ought not be instantaneous (unless over short distances) and requires some way to match the teleported object or person’s velocity to the destination milieu without disintegrating said object or otherwise causing issues. And while the energy required for this compensation is much less than the energy required to move a person by conventional means to the same place, it can still be a fair amount of energy in a short period of time. I.e., teleporters might require a major power source.

So where does that leave the author? Most people ignore the issues and the trope is so well established, I see no need to change that. However, especially in a science fiction story where readers sometimes like those crunchy science bits, it might actually make an interesting aspect to the device, especially if someone uses it as a weapon: disable the momentum compensation, pop a 2 ton pallet of cargo through the teleporter, and you have a nice kinetic energy weapon that’s going to destroy anything in the vicinity of the receiver. Could make for an interesting 23rd century terrorist incident. Or the momentum compensation can be the reason you give for why teleportation takes  minutes rather than seconds (on a planet) or hours/days/weeks for interplanetary and interstellar travel, where the velocities are, of course, much higher than on the surface of the Earth.

Finally, time travel is another type of portal. In addition to the problem of where to place the exit portal, there’s the presumably even larger delta-velocity to deal with. For instance, you’re travelling 65 million years back in time, even if you know precisely where the Earth was that long ago, do you know where the level of the land was at that time and place as well? I doubt it: better to travel back in a space ship and pop out in the vicinity of where the Earth was and then land on it, assuming you match velocity so that you are moving at a rate relative to the Earth that allows a landing, and not a velocity that pops you out of the solar system in three minutes at a speed that will fry you from radiation resulting from collisions with intra-solar dust.

All this talk about energy and velocity compensation seems a bit too much for most fantasy settings, although for certain “harder” fantasy settings or urban fantasy it could be a nice addition. Maybe a portal opens in Washington, blasting the city with explosive kinetic projectiles (strangely analyzed to be organic tissue) until the alternate reality on the farside of the portal figures out how to get the velocity compensation right: the explosions were actually unfortunate ambassadors: the US isn’t under attack, someone is just trying to come through a portal and say ‘hello’!

As with other similar issues I’ve raised, my point is not to say you can’t use teleportation (again, I’m using it in my current project and don’t worry about any of this). Instead, I’m just tossing out some ideas that might prove of use in your own stories. I must confess I haven’t read much science fiction in the last few decades; I’m sure this has already occurred to other authors; but here’s my take on it.

Worldbuilding with Universe Sandbox

Universe Sandbox Icon
Image via Wikipedia

Even if you don’t create worlds for fiction or game worlds, The Universe Sandbox is a complete blast but if you do it’s an indispensable tool. It’s a multi-body simulator that lets you play with solar systems and galaxies, shoot a black hole by Earth, explode Jupiter, and much more. Selling for as little as $2.50 when Steam has it on sale, it could be the best game for less than the cost of a fast food meal you can buy.

You can have hours of fun just making your own simulations or playing with the ones that come with it. In addition to the sheer pleasure of smashing planets, you get a great feel for the forces that shape our universe. For instance, several sceintific papers suggests it was likley one or more earth size planets were shot out of the infant solar system. If you are like me, that kind of makes sense but in the end, it’s a little hard to wrap your head around it. Well, open up the Universe Sandbox, start tossing moons around or change the orbit of Jupiter and you will soon see just how easy it is for one passing object to cause another to go careening out of a solar system. No more is it an abstract idea, now it is a concept you can really feel. And when it comes to creating a world, that can be all the difference between a setting that limps along and one that really runs.

Tatooine's twin suns from the Star Wars saga.
Image via Wikipedia

Multi-sun systems have always intrigued me. From Tatooine and its two suns to Helliconia, these are fun settings but I’ve always wondered just how plausible these systems are. Sure recent studies suggest this system can have planets but what does that really mean? Especially for something like Tatooine where at first glance, that planet orbits two similar sized suns at similar distances (although I suppose they could dissimilar sized and a distance where they appear the same)?

Well, fire up your Universe Sandbox and have it. With the simulator, you can create a system and see how it works. As a first step, I wondered what it would be like it Neptune was turned into a dwarf sun of about 10 Jupiter masses. It’s trivial in the simulator: load it up the solar system, click on Nepture, change its mass and there you do. It certainly perturbs the out system bottoms, although not as much as you might think. What happens to Earth? Not a lot but it perceptible makes the orbit elliptical with a precessing axis.
It’s a little hard to see in the picture below but in the simulator you can see Earth  drifting closer and farther from the sun by maybe 3%. Doesn’t seem like much but can you imagine what the seasons would be like if on top of the one year seasonal cycle, there was a 15 year secondary variation with the energy from the sun varying by about 6% (0.97^2)? That is a tremendous change for something that seems a rather minor effect. Imagine what impact that could have on a world in a science fiction or fantasy setting. Every fifteen years you have extra hot summers and mild winters, vice versa on an offset of 7.5 years. Additionally you have another bright object in the sky. Haven’t done the math but probably something on the order of as bright as a full moon although no larger than Jupiter.

My first experiment was with a fairly small second sun in a regular orbit. What about a larger second sun in a more elliptical orbit? Here the problem is finding something stable, something where the planets don’t roast or go shooting out of the system. Interestingly, even though a second sun out past Neptune seems “pretty far away” and doesn’t grossly perturb the orbits of the inner planets, a 0.6 solar mass second sun almost always causes Mercury to go shooting out of the solar system fairly quickly as it gets nudged into an orbit near the sun and sling-shotted away. Even Earth and Venus start wobbling a lot, coming to share similar orbits until one or the other gets shot out as well. And, of course, the outer planets like Neptune, Uranus, Pluto and the other outer dwarf planets get shot away pretty quickly. So one early lesson: reduce the number of inner solar system planets. But, remove Venus, Mars and Mercury and you can get a reasonably stable Earth orbit at one AU without a whole lot of wobble- less than the wobble in the earlier Neptune system. But what does that mean for setting? Well, probably not as interesting. Basically means that you can have a distant, near solar sun in a somewhat eccentric orbit that allows a stable earth but it will be far enough away to be just a very bright star and it means the inner solar system needs to be a lot more empty. I supposed you can leave Venus or Mars in the inner system but while I only simulated for several centuries, it looked unstable: sooner or later one or the other planets would go zipping off into deep space.

How about a more Hellicona type binary system with the second sun on a very long, eccentric orbit with a period of several thousand years? I’ll confess I’m  not patient enough to simulate it. I think it could be constructed if the orbit did not take the sun too close to the first one (beyond, say, Neptune’s orbit) and you cleared out the inner system to avoid any nasty dynamics that might eject your Earth-type world. But the second sun would have to remain distant enough it wouldn’t look very Sun-like, no second sun in the sky like the Tatooine picture but maybe a period of time where the earth orbit is much more eccentric and the weather more extreme. I honestly don’t think you can get a Helliconia situation where you have centuries of hot followed by centuries of cold but I think you could get a situation where you have an Earth like planet in more eccentric orbits for 50 years with hotter and colder seasons followed by centuries of less eccentric orbits although I am not sure how stable that would be or how eccentric the planet’s orbit would become.

Anyway, as you can see, there is a lot to play with. There’s much you an do with the simulator and the real beauty of it as a world building tool is you can either try to set up an interesting situation you thought of and see what happens, or perhaps easier and better, play around with it and see what interesting systems occur.

Have fun with it!