A Day on a World

This is a short story I wrote for my astronomy assignment. We had to write an account of how a typical day on a colonized planet might pass. What I actually extracted from the assignment prompt was: write a story about some dudes on a planet. So here is my contribution:

 

Liberty.

Ha! What a farce.

The world darkened and quietened as fifteen-g’s of acceleration attempted to fuse my back with the metal. My skin became a series of ripples trapped in space: constantly undulating but never quite moving. I could have plucked it away along with the flesh if I wanted. Alas, I did not. The blood in my torso rushed to my limbs, numbing my senses. One by one, in agony, and electrocuted by nervous impulses, the organs gave up their share of the scarlet nectar. Until at last only two remained: the mind and the heart, pulsating in their reluctant congress. Dichotomies in symbiosis. It was so ironic I wanted to smile. Alas, my lips could not. Just then I felt warmth spreading across my thighs. I willed it to stop. It didn’t; my bladder would not.

Not a moment too late, the pneumatics in my suit hissed into life. The ringing silence in my ears gave way to the faint hum of the ship. I tasted rust on my tongue as blood surged with a renewed vigor through my body. I shook my head to clear my vision. My neck protested with a surge of pain, but I would not listen. No, not today. I was about to witness a monumental reformation in the Sol system. The outcome of this mission would ripple across the solar colonies, changing them forever. Change is good, they said.

“Liberty to Freedom, come in.”, the radio crackled to life somewhere on the control panel. “You are approaching terminal velocity. ETA to corrosive atmospheric drag is sixty seconds. Mark. Engage reverse thrusters. Initiate ion sheath generators. Acknowledge.”

Engage what? With a sudden wave of crippling horror I realized that I had been hearing without listening and looking without seeing. I had been in such awe of the glory of my mission that I had forgotten where I was. Now I was in awe of the prospect of my death. I looked and saw the Jovian North Pole looming ahead, its majestic swirls in a controlled stasis, belying the 360 kilometers an hour winds ripping the clouds apart. The ship was hurtling towards the surface at Mach twenty. At least it would be a quick death.

“Freedom to Liberty. Acknowledged.” The silhouette beside me stirred to life. Ah, the captain; I’d forgotten. “Blackout in ten seconds. See you on the other side.”. He flipped a couple of switches, then solemnly added: “Light in darkness…”

“… and Liberty in chaos” came the reply from the radio, “Godspeed”. The captain gave me a cursory nod as he went about prodding the controls. He was a quiet person, perhaps that was why he was chosen for this mission. Mission: the word seemed grossly inadequate. I recalled our training. My selection had been such an honor. They had told us how our actions today would affect humankind. But our work had to remain a secret, they said, for to put a face on a task of such gravity would polarize the revolution. That was a good reason, I thought, so it was alright.

The emergency light started blinking. Blackout. I braced myself. The ship was getting closer to the north pole. The magnetic field was getting stronger. It would soon disrupt communications and power. Soon afterwards, the ship would leave the Sun below the horizon as it descended into darkness. And then there would be light. I smiled, closing my eyes.

Liberty and Chaos. Chaos and Liberty. Like the light and the dark, opposites in symbiosis. I remembered the struggles of my ancestors two centuries ago. They had rebelled against the tyranny of an empire for liberty. There was chaos, and there was blood, and then there was peace. My struggle was not so different: Man’s curiosity had taken him to the edge of the solar system. All of the planets had been colonized in the name of the Allied Union of Earth. It was a small leap from there to the United Empire of Earth. There was prosperity and peace. But like the light that becomes insignificant in the day, and the darkness that loses meaning in the night, men mistakenly thought that liberty was lost in the peace. And so was formed the Patriots’ League, intent on bringing back the prosperity. The Union, also confounded by the stagnated utopia, enforced new measures to reform the empire. The two groups eventually came into conflict over the colonies’ freedom. Lines were drawn. In the name of liberty, the subjects were forced to choose. My parents chose the wrong side, the side that lost the war. The League went into hiding in stations in the asteroid belt, in underground complexes on Titan, and in the shadow of Olympus Mons. And so I was born, a refugee and an immigrant. Always running and hiding. I lived a life of a prey, indoctrinated to fear the Empire, until one day, tired of running, I just could not. Someone noticed my rebellion. My name came up in the Patriots’ clandestine meetings. And five years later, I was on the mother-ship Liberty, preparing to ride Freedom into the heart of the Jovian stronghold of the Empire.

The ship shuddered as the aero-brakes deployed and the generators came online, bringing me back from my reverie. We were in the upper clouds of Jupiter, being swept along with the winds, and in a downward spiral towards the core. My muscles sagged under the planets’ gravity. My breathing became labored, but I held on to my senses. I could see the first thunderstorms through the ammonia and the ammonium hydrosulfide clouds. The flashes were bright and the thunder reverberated through Freedom’s body. Down we went, plunging through the starlit sea of gases tinged with red. The pressure was increasing noticeably. Occasionally the ship would creak, and seem to cave under the pressure, but the graphene nanolayers held the fuselage in place.

Once we had passed the water clouds, the ship started accelerating again. The layer below was of supercritical hydrogen cooled to more than two hundred degrees Celsius below zero. It was almost frictionless, and eerily transparent. The lightning flashes above would light up the sky, but just sink through the gas below. It reminded me of the dark pictures of earth’s deep oceans I had seen as a child. No. I could not afford to show fear now. We were almost there.

“Higgs Field Drains activated” the captain informed Liberty. “Walking on water in five…four…three…two…one…success”.

My seat harnesses cut into my shoulders as invisible parachutes slowed down the ship until it was floating on hydrogen. The Higgs Field Drains, they were the cornerstone of our operation. They punctured the Field and decoupled the ship’s atoms from their mass until it was so light that it could float on a gas. They worked the other way around too. We had stolen them from a shipment to Ganymede’s fusion reactors. They would have noticed the missing pieces by now. It didn’t matter to me; it wouldn’t matter to them too in a short while.

“Liberty to Freedom, prepare the canisters.”

“Copy that. Suspension activated. Injecting anti-protons. Stand by.” The Captain nodded at me. I was up.

The Patriots had had their sights on the Jovian system for quite some time. It was the Allied Union’s industrial jewel. If it were rendered useless, the Empire would crumble. The plan was simple. Ever since the colonization of the outer planets, the settlements there had to deal with extremely low temperatures. A lot of solutions had been proposed over the centuries. In one of our raids, we had discovered a two hundred year old document about a project called Operation Lucifer. It was divine intervention. The project files had stated that Jupiter’s thermal energy output could be enhanced by several orders of magnitude. Jupiter was three quarters hydrogen by mass. Hydrogen could be fused to provide the required heat. The only condition was that a stable fusion reaction would need Jupiter to be seventy-five times more massive. That would disrupt its protective magnetic fields, bringing down radiation on the orbiting colonies, thus forcing the imperial loyalists to flee from the Galilean moons. Nobody could manufacture enough field drains to make it possible. My suggestion had solved the conundrum: we would only need a few Drains and a few kilograms of the exotic anti-matter. The drains would increase the mass of the antimatter canisters so that they could sink through the metallic sea of hydrogen and settle near the rocky core of the planet. Then I would turn off the insulating suspension.

If no loyalists was all that the Patriots wanted, then no loyalists was all that the patriots would get.

I finished calibrating the Field Drains. The captain noticed and relayed the progress to Liberty. The radio played static for a few seconds until:

“Liberty to Freedom. Acknowledged. Commence operation Doosra Aaftab.”

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

One by one the canisters left Freedom. Their descent would take several hours. By then we would be in the safe embrace of Liberty. I harnessed myself in my seat. The captain powered up the Drains, and we started our ascent. At T minus one fifty minutes, we rose through the thunder clouds. At T minus one hundred minutes, we were being buffeted by the rusty swirls of ammonia. A while later, we were in orbit around the planet, rising in small increments. It was several hours before I could make out Liberty orbiting one of the smaller moons in Jupiter’s shadow. It was good that we had completed our mission within a Jovian day. Any stay longer than twelve hours would have registered with the surveillance grid. By the time we boarded Liberty, the canisters had already landed. I was anxious to feel Jupiter’s new warmth, even if it would be there only for a few moments.

And From a distance far, far away. Operation Second Sun did not get its name from dramatic exaggeration. I closed my eyes in wait.

 

Liberty and Chaos. Chaos and liberty. The two seasonal gods of the human race. Each heralding and shadowing the other. Every time in history when they exchanged reins, a human sacrifice was required. Last time, during the first Solar War between the Patriots and the Union, the price had been a million lives. The Galilean moons’ population was only a quarter of that number.

The gods, I mused, were getting cheaper.

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Holes and Wrinkles

There is a lot of misconception about two of the more arcane forms of proposed space travel: Warp Drives and Worm Holes. They work on the same principles but function in wholly different ways.

General Relativity explains that any mass or energy can bend space and time. Since there is energy everywhere space and time are already curved. We can there fore tweak with the curvature of space-time in different ways to produce different effects.

For example, Worm Holes are analogous to tunnels. When there is enough mass or energy concentrated at two points, the space-time bends to form a tunnel between the two locations.

time-travel-wormhole1

 

This means that we can reach another point before light, not because we are faster, but because we have a lesser “distance” to travel. So for example if a wormhole were to connect earth to the moon, you could step into the wormhole and go to the moon, and then quickly get back. But since light had to travel a longer distance, your image on the moon might reach you when you came back to earth. You would literally be able to make a thousand virtual copies of yourself. However, wormholes are extremely unstable. Some equations predict that they will immediately collapse as soon as something passes through. Negative energy and negative matter will be needed to stabilize a wormhole. Mankind is still far away from producing and using antimatter at a large scale, so worm holes will remain, for the near future, a fantasy.

Warp Drives also use the same principle. However they only distort space and time around the traveler while keeping him in a “bubble” of normal space-time. Imagine a small toy car on a bed sheet. The car can only travel a few centimetres per second. But you want to reach the other end of the bedsheet quickly. So you scrunch up the sheet in front of the car, effectively reducing the distance it has to travel. Once the car has traversed the wrinkles, you stretch out the sheet again. In a sense a Warp Drive is a less extreme version of the Worm Hole. A worm hole is just like the portals in the game Portal: the distance between destinations is effectively zero. But in a warp drive, you still have to cover some distance. Consequently it is also easier to make. But where worm holes can facilitate inter-galactic travel, warp drives are only viable for interstellar journeys.

240px-Star_Trek_Warp_Field

 

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Is Cold the New Hot?

Yes.

why_star_trek

A few days back, a friend shared an article with me. It talked of how scientists had managed to achieve temperatures below absolute zero. Does it mean that temperature has to be redefined? Has our understanding of thermodynamics been flawed for the past hundred years. No, it turns out. It is all a matter of semantics.

Absolute Zero. This is the temperature at which a particle has the minimum possible energy. The energy is NOT zero because that would violate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (that you cannot know the energy and its duration with absolute certainty). However that zero-state energy is a quantum quantity, so for all intents and purposes, the particle itself appears stationary. Classically, it is impossible to go below absolute zero because for all the matter that we know of, it will never have negative energy (because the zero state energy prevents energy from going past zero and into the negative).

Therefore when you talk of temperatures below absolute zero, and you know that there is nothing wrong with absolute zero, then logically there must be something going on with “Temperature”. The layperson will call temperature the hotness of something. Some one more well versed in science will call it the average kinetic energy of the particles. All of these definitions are correct in the same way Newton’s gravity is correct i.e. it works for our observations. But in order to really understand temperature, you need to understand entropy.

Entropy in a sense is the amount of disorder in a system. Imagine making a mound of sand on a table. Now shake the table. The sand particles will spread out as they roll down from the mound. Because the particles are now spread out, the entropy of the system has increased. The farther a particle is from the original position of the mound, the more effectively it has harnessed the energy you gave the system by vibrating the table. If the table was infinitely expansive, the particles would continue spreading out and absorbing the energy you provide and increasing the entropy of the system.

In a system with infinite states, energy and disorder have a positive relationship.

In a system with infinite states, energy and disorder have a positive relationship.

This is temperature, the ratio of energy required to the change in entropy. The greater the energy required for the same increase in entropy, the greater will be the temperature.

But there is a catch: what if you provide more energy to the system but the disorder (entropy) decreases instead. Is it possible to shake the table and make the sand particles more ordered? If it is, then that would mean that the temperature of the system is negative because the change in energy is positive, but the change in entropy is negative, so the ratio (which represents temperature) is negative. Imagine that the table is not infinite. Instead it has little walls on the edges. As you shake the table, the sand particles start to spread out (they gain energy, and increase entropy). The temperature increases. But there comes a point when they reach the edges. Then they start to accumulate again. The more you shake the table, the greater is the particle accumulation on the edges. At that point, an increase in energy of the system is in fact decreasing its disorder. Thus the temperature has become negative.

In a system with finite states, energy and disorder develop a negative relationship.

In a system with finite states, energy and disorder develop a negative relationship.

That is exactly what the scientists mentioned in the article did. They trapped the molecules using lasers and magnetic fields, so that after absorbing certain amount of energy, the barriers created by the magnetic fields and lasers would cause particles to accumulate around the same energies. In the classical sense, the particles were hotter because they had a greater energy, but since the disorder in the system was lessened, their temperature was negative i.e. below absolute zero.

Things You can Do with a WMD

If your knowledge is lacking, historically…

A WMD stands for a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Commonly they refer to nuclear weapons: fission based and fusion based. Fusion based weapons are more powerful. I will talk about fusion based weapons. Because they make a bigger bang. I like big bangs.

Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Exactly. But fusion reactions are three to four times more energetic than fission. Therefore their destructive output is significantly larger. Add this to the fact that unlike fission that requires a critical reactant mass to happen, fusion can happen for an indefinite time, given that the right conditions are present. Therefore a fusion based weapon can lead to a potentially cataclysmic, near-apocalypse outcome.

But Lets think positively: Infinite Energy

That was an overstatement. But for humans, there is no difference. Fission (usually) requires Uranium-235. That isotope is only 0.72% abundant. On earth, there are an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of Uranium, which means about 36,000 tones of fissile Uranium. Compared to this we have about 4.68 trillion tonnes of oil reserves. Fusion, however, requires hydrogen atoms. Most of the hydrogen atoms on earth are tried up in water in the oceans. Compared to these two, we have 15 million trillion tonnes of hydrogen in the oceans. How’s that for unlimited?

…and Exploring the Ends of our Galaxy

Another overstatement. Poetic licence, you see. Anyways, NASA came up with a proposal about explosion propelled space ships.

Project Orion

Project Orion

They would have a thick metal shield at the back. At set intervals a nuclear explosion would be set off and the shock waves would accelerate the space ship. With each explosion, the mass of the ship would decrease and it would accelerate even more , eventually reaching relativistic speeds. That would technically allow us to access the stellar neighborhood, if not the entire galaxy.

Alas! Fusion’s too Good for our Technology…

Fusion requires extremely high temperatures (millions of Kelvin) to occur. And no material known to man can withstand the heat. Scientists are still experimenting with magnetic  and inertial confinement. In magnetic confinement, the hydrogen plasma is confined within a solenoid so that it does not touch the surface or the container. In inertial confinement, beams of lasers heat up the particles in suspension to cause fusion. you can read more about these two methods here.

Fusion Reactor

Fusion Reactor

In the end, we’ll have to just wait for and see,

For a Genius of a Man to Solve the Mystery.

But if you really think that you are Worthy,

Step forth, Champion, and Tame the WMD!

Last semester, I took some poetry,

It seems some of it rubbed off on me.

I will stop now.

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