Friday, November 18, 2011

The Space Opera Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Alien Sings

Not sure why, but lately, people in Russia have been actively searching for this blog's URL. Not sure what that all that is about, but to my curious Russian friends, I say "Привет!"

I'd say more, but my college Russian is really rusty, and about all I remember now is obscenities and, you know, phrases like: "The pencil is on the table" or "Your sister is very hot".

(Although I am told that my spoken Russian is impressively native-sounding. A big shout-out to my former professors at Indiana University for stressing correct pronunciation).

In the previous essay, in my response to observation on intelligence being the absence of stupidity, Barry queries: "Isn't dark the absence of light?"

A ZPE Formula
Well, you know, Barry, that all was just metaphor, not to mention anthropomorphic metaphor, but, no. No. There is no such thing as dark. If one examines what the emptiest empty is, one finds out that this state is called the Zero Point Energy state.

This can be empirically demonstrated through the Casimir effect. And in fact, a much more dramatic experiment has recently been conducted where light was created out of a vacuum. Sadly, harvesting the Zero Point Energy violates Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, but this has not stopped bad science fiction scriptwriters or crank inventors from utilizing it.

But you know when it comes to bad science fiction, space opera is up there. I'm not ashamed to admit that I can't enough of that. And I've often considered a realistic space opera story. You know, one that obeys the laws of physics, or at least recognize the established physical limits?

Some say it can't be done. They claim such a story would be boring.

Take the speed of light limit. (Yes, I know, they claim to have broken the light barrier, but I suspect some unknown characteristic about neutrinos that is much more interesting). It eliminates the whole Horatio Hornblower in Space treatment favored by the likes of Star Trek. Difficult to keep the plot moving when it (optimistically) takes decades or centuries to move a scene or episode from one interstellar location to the next. It either calls for a new cast every episode (generation ships), or an immortal - and incredibly patient and persistent - cast of characters.

Is that it? Is that about the only road block to space opera? Well, yeah, within the context of a TV series or a Hollywood movie, yes.

Are there other limits to worry about? Well, perhaps, although it is hard to see how it would affect a story line. Some could put a damper on technological progress for us and any aliens that are out there.

That emptiest empty, that puts the kibosh on free energy.

Coldest cold? Absolute zero. You can only suck so much energy out of something. Again you run into Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle with that, but it still allows you to do cool things with Bose-Einstein condensates, and perform all sorts of optical tricks, possibly for computing (and also living into the bleakness of cold, thin soup era of the universe after the end of the all-too-brief Stellar Age). But effects on space opera? None, I think.

Densest dense? Well, neutron star dense, as far as we know, and applications effected might be for data storage. Although again QM suggests no information is lost in a black hole. In which case the ultimate servers and nodes for the Cosmic Internet are those supermassive black holes at the heart of quasars.

Smallest small? I don't know. Plan on shrinking anything? That plot device really verges more on fantasy, and anyway is of limited dramatic potential. It does put a limit on just fast data can be processed, or how closely something can be scanned. The old teleporter may not need the granular resolution of the Planck length, but that's your strict limit. (And if it turns successful matter transmission requires a scan length/time less than the smallest small, then no beaming down to planets).

Here's one that actually may be important: the hottest hot. Theoretically (depending on who you talk to), you can go all the up to 10 to the 30th degrees kelvin. That's... that's pretty hot. Although practically, you are limited to about 4 billion degrees C before you start to see virtual particle/antiparticle pair creation kick in. This again, if you are needing to transmit something over a small volume or bandwidth, like information or teleported objects, can get into trouble. (If for example, to incorporate all the information, you need a 14 petawatt laser beam confined to .001 millimeter aperture to beam your crew to the surface of a planet, then it, ooh, it gets messy and ugly).

Astrofood by Waldemar von Kozak
On an unrelated note, in keeping with the theme, a British company named Shackelton Energy plans on setting up Moon mines by 2020.  I assume they will want to use robots more extensively than they plan on doing. The idea is to mine the Moon's estimated billions of tons of buried water ice at the poles to manufacture rocket fuel. Presumably, it would be better to wait on that, and consider perhaps that the future may find a wiser use for these one-time resources? No?

Oh well, perhaps by 2020 most people will be too fat to be ferried to the Moon. Americans, at least.

Hah! Stupid, fat, lazy, dumb, stupid, fat Americans! You're fat!


  1. It all goes to show that no one should ever listen to me talk about particle physics, or any other kind of physics.

    Actually I was thinking in terms of black and white, when my fingers typed light and dark, not that I knew anything about Casimir before. Colorlessness is rare, and I was trying to twist the metaphor, but I only ended up tripping.

    Nevermind the moon for a minute. I wonder how much petroleum we waste here on earth because people are fat. I looked around and found that not only do fat people burn more gas, but they buy bigger cars, and they are at greater risk of injury because they don't really fit the seats and seat belts.

  2. Your comment made for a good opportunity. No need for self-deprecation.