Phlogiston Forty-Four, 1995
We live with the literature of the impossible. Indeed that is one of its major attractions. There is a strange thrill involved in the exploration of outré speculations. However many non-SF fans (and even one or two SF fans) do not always realise that many of SF's wilder improbabilities are actually common, everyday occurrences. It is just that the authorities go to great lengths to conceal and camouflage the evidence so that none of us will know that we really do live in a science fictional world...
My first introduction to the mysterious manner that SF speculations have of intruding into everyday life came from Avram Davidson's Hugo award winning story Or all the Seas With Oysters. The story took the commonly observed phenomenon that you can never find safety pins when you need them and that wardrobes are always full of clothes hangers that weren't there yesterday, and extrapolated from these facts a hitherto unsuspected alien life form sharing the earth with us. Safety pins were the pupa-forms which later hatched into the larval-forms that look just like coat hangers. Eventually the coat hangers grow up into the adult form -- bicycles! The argument is so persuasive that the hero of the story puts his elegant red French racing bike out to stud and makes a fortune.
I was discussing this story with my friend Steve one day and he went very quiet. "I don't know about that," he remarked, "but I'm sure I've come across something very similar". He went on to explain that he was currently renovating the house he was living in and he had a room upstairs that was full of old-fashioned wardrobes. He couldn't understand what they were doing there and he didn't like them so he smashed up a few and used them for firewood. However he must have left a breeding pair behind because when he went back in the room six months later it was full of wardrobes again.
I was intrigued and Steve took me and showed me the wardrobes -- there were eight in the room. We spent a happy (and sweaty) day carrying them downstairs. Then we dug a huge hole in the front lawn and buried them. This left rather a large hump in the lawn, so tall in fact that it obscured the view from the lounge windows but that didn't matter since Steve hadn't cleaned them for ten years and couldn't see out of them anyway.
Over the next few months the grass grew again over the hump in the lawn. It was such an inconvenient shape that Steve never bothered mowing it (he never bothered mowing the rest of the lawn either) and the grass grew tall and thick and obscured the view (if there had been one) even more. Steve became very proud of the number of different ways he had of being unable to see out of his lounge windows.
This incident confirmed to me that my interest in science fiction was a perfect preparation for an interest in the real world. The two became indistinguishable in my mind and I began deliberately to collect strange phenomena in an attempt to see behind the veil with which THEY, for THEIR own reasons, obscured the reality of the universe.
Just recently, for instance, I had occasion to travel from Auckland to Wellington. We boarded the plane and for once it took off exactly on time at ten past five in the evening. Shortly after takeoff the captain came on the intercom and announced that the flight would take 47 minutes and we would be on the ground at Wellington on schedule at ten past six. Now my watch claims that there are 60 minutes between ten past five and ten past six and I began to wonder what sort of arithmetic the captain was using. Then I realised what must be happening -- if 60 ground minutes corresponded to 47 air minutes then time must be passing more swiftly in the aeroplane than on the ground. Out came the trusty calculator. Hmmmm...
A ratio of 60:47 means that 1.28 ground minutes is equivalent to 1 air minute. The Lorentz transformation assures us that an event which takes place in a time t0 to an observer in a moving frame of reference takes place in a time t to a stationary observer where:
(v = velocity of aeroplane, c = speed of light in a vacuum)
Consequently we see that:
Squaring both sides we find that:
Taking square roots of both sides we deduce that:
Aha! I was right. The aeroplane must be travelling at slightly more than half the speed of light. I had never realised before that aeroplanes travelled so fast. I knew that I was getting shorter and fatter as the years advanced, but I'd put this down to the effect of too many expense account meals. Obviously a much more reasonable explanation for the shape of my body was its constant exposure to relativistic velocities between Auckland and Wellington. It is a good job that aeroplanes don't travel at the speed of light or else I'd be infinitely heavy and infinitesimally short which would make it difficult to reach up and put my expense account claim forms on my boss's desk.
Body shape is actually very closely related to science fiction, life the universe and everything, and none of us can escape from the effect. Consider for example the bottle of beer which is sitting on my desk as I write this article. It contains 330ml of liquid. The full bottle weighs 500 grams and the empty bottle weighs 200 grams from which it becomes obvious that the beer itself weighs 300 grams. The thing that I find most puzzling is the inescapable fact that when I drink this 330 ml of liquid I will pass 500 ml of urine and put on 500 grams of weight. Where has the extra mass and liquid come from? This phenomenon was first observed by that indefatigable scientific researcher and occasional SF writer Bob Shaw and was reported by him in 1976 in a paper entitled The Return of the Backyard Spaceship, which may be found in his collected papers, The Complete BoSh Volume 2, Paranoid Inca Press, 1979, pp. 23-31 with illustrations by Jim Barker. The paper states, in part:
I've checked with other beer drinkers and they confirm the same thing -- every time they have a pint of beer they gain a couple of pounds in weight as well. Now the really intriguing scientific aspect of all this is that a pint of beer weighs only one and three quarter pounds. This means that three quarters of a pound appears from nowhere!
Incredible though it may seem, this process of matter creation within the human body is well authenticated -- and it doesn't just happen with booze. Anybody who is a bit fat will tell you that eating just one measly little two-ounce cream bun makes them two pounds heavier the next day. It is even possible that the entire mass of the universe was created by people eating cream buns and drinking beer. But I'm not interested in cosmology -- it is much too airy-fairy and theoretical for me.
It is a pity that Bob Shaw did not pursue the cosmological significance of his discovery for it seems to me that here we have a quite profound insight into the structure of the universe. One of the great unsolved mysteries of cosmology is the problem of the missing mass of the universe. Calculations suggest that the universe does not contain enough matter to account for some of the observed phenomena in it. There is currently much puzzlement and much peering through telescopes at distant galaxies in an attempt to track it down. Cosmologists are, however, searching in the wrong place. All the missing matter in the universe is here on earth, hiding in bottles of beer and cream cakes.
Perhaps science fiction's ultimate speculation concerns the possibility of perpetual motion; an idea that is pooh-poohed by the establishment. Lin Carter (a very under-rated writer who is not generally noted for his serious scientific speculations) described the phenomenon well in his novels about Thongor of Lemuria. In these books the hero often travels from place to place in a flying machine powered by two enormous springs. As one spring unwinds it turns the propeller that drives the craft and simultaneously tightens the other spring. When it is wound down the second spring is wound up tight and takes over the tasks of propelling the craft and winding up the first spring again! As I recall, Thongor is very grateful that he never has to stop and take fuel on board, fuelling depots being few and far between in the wild barbarian lands he spends so much time adventuring in.
I don't want to get a reputation as a crank. Some things are just plain silly and in my opinion perpetual motion will never amount to much. I know British Patent 11318 granted in 1901 for Tredinnick's Improved Self-Driving Hydraulic Motor suggests that THEY take it very seriously indeed. But the second law of thermodynamics is not easily mocked. This is proved by the fact that all the stories from New Worlds magazine in the 1960s which took the notion of entropy as their guiding metaphor, contain no jokes whatsoever. See for example The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline.
No -- I feel that if we are ever to travel to the stars the answer probably lies in the probability waves of quantum physics, a scientific discipline which can best be described by the remark, "Everything happens in lumps".
Perhaps its most practical applications come from the tunnel effect. Particles are observed to be here and then over there without having been observed at all in the space between. There is generally much waving of hands and erudite discussions of Hamiltonian Operators when the subject is raised. Particles which exhibit the tunnel effect are always in motion (this seems to be important) and I once described the effect to an incredulous listener in these words: "If you walk up and down outside Buckingham Palace for long enough, eventually you will find yourself inside". Judging by the number of reports in the press in recent years about people to whom this has indeed happened (much to the consternation of the Queen) I think the reality of the tunnel effect has been well and truly authenticated. Therefore space travel based upon the effect cannot be far away; indeed it may already be in use. The authorities just haven't admitted it yet.
Another promising line of research was suggested by Poul Anderson in his novel The Makeshift Rocket wherein we meet Knud Axel Syrup and a spaceship built of beer kegs bound together by gunk, upholstered with pretzel boxes and powered by the mighty reaction forces of beer. In view of my own observations about the intimate connection between beer and the fundamental nature of the cosmos, I suspect that Anderson may well have got it exactly right.
Even as we speak spaceships powered by quantum tunnelling glasses of beer are almost certainly thundering though our skies. What else could explain the mysterious absence of politicians from our television screens when parliament is in recess? Where do they really go? Certainly nowhere on Earth. I strongly suspect they go to Venus. Let me share my reasoning with you.
I make my living in one of the twentieth century's most technologically innovative and demanding disciplines. That means I play with computers all day long, and I have done so for almost quarter of a century. If I have learned anything at all in those years I have learned that complicated electronic equipment works by passing smoke down the wires between the components on the circuit boards. This is proved by the often observed fact that if the smoke ever leaks out of the wires into the atmosphere the electronic equipment stops working. As soon as you see any smoke coming out of any electronic equipment switch it off immediately to stop any more escaping.
The reverse is also true of course. The smokier the general atmosphere, the better the equipment will work since if the original smoke escapes there is always plenty more to take its place. This is why so many computer programmers used to be such heavy cigarette smokers in the early days when the technology was so much less reliable than it is now. Surrounding the delicate equipment with clouds of smoke was the only way to guarantee that it would finish printing the Snoopy calendar (which is what computers were mostly used for twenty-five years ago).
However if you look up into the night sky you will notice that the planet Venus is completely covered by opaque clouds of smoke. So much so that nobody has ever seen the surface of the planet. Obviously, in such an atmosphere, the inhabitants must have the most incredibly reliable and advanced electronic equipment. I bet they routinely reach levels in Doom that the rest of us can only dream about.
This was brought home to me quite forcibly by a story that was
published in the Wellington Evening Post of 4th August 1995. Since it was reported
in a newspaper it must be true, and since it is true it is quite worrying in its
implications for the future of one of
The story pointed out that of the 14,000 sooty terns that have been ringed since 1961 only 145 have ever been observed since and it wondered what had happened to all the rest.
I would have thought it was quite obvious. Sooty terns are not native to the Earth at all. They come from Venus and merely use Earth for their vacations (just as our politicians do in the reverse direction). The fact that only 145 sooty terns have ever seen fit to return for a second holiday suggests that we are not very good at encouraging overseas tourism. (Of course, it may be that they find our anti-smoking pressure groups far too offensive, not to mention the humiliation of the Customs and Immigration authorities forcing them to wear rings on their ankles). I think we need to make some radical changes to our official attitudes before we will be fit to take our rightful place in the society of the solar system.
So there we are. Isn't it just incredible how the study of science fiction and the application of a little bit of common sense reveals so much about the real structure of the universe?
The proofreader notes that in A Short History of Time, Stephen Hawking mentions that his publisher warned him that every time an equation appears in a book, the readership is halved. Since the Triffid has just supplied eight equations, he has therefore diminished Phlogiston's readership by a factor of two hundred and fifty-six and as there are only about a hundred and fifty people sensible enough to read Phlogiston, he has therefore demonstrated Overkill, but only to a factor of two. It was not until the global thermonuclear craze reached a factor of five or so Beaches that it was recognised as crazy, and abated, so perhaps we should cut short this procedure and execute a pre-emptive shredder strike on the Triffid.
Alternatively, we can encourage him to drink more of his special beer. If a full bottle weighs 500gms, and an empty 200gms, then the contents must weigh 300gms. Since beer has a density of one gram per cc (being water with a few dissolved extras) the contents should weigh 330gms so that there is a shortfall of 30gms. In other words, a rest mass of 330gms (in the bottle) becomes a moving mass of 300gms (in the Triffid): the formula is the same except for the use of mass instead of time, and so we deduce that the Triffid's velocity is about 45i % of the speed of light, a pure imaginary velocity. You are what you drink.
Nicky McLean (Whom God Preserve)