Roger Floyd, BA, PhD Science, writing, writing science fiction, environmental.
Posted in Uncategorized on November 18, 2018
One of my three science fiction novels is about a group of explorers who land on a distant planet in an attempt to see if it could be colonized by people of their civilization. Many things go wrong on that planet, and that leads most of the group to consider it as dangerous and unattractive, a place to be avoided at all costs. But a couple of explorers find the planet exciting and beautiful. They are willing to look beyond the death and destruction to see the planet for what it is, a lovely and inspiring place on which they could live.
Fine. But that got me to thinking, what are we likely to find when we get into outer space and see planets and moons and asteroids and comets up close? What will we think once we land on them and take a good look around? Will we think of them as “beautiful?” Or will they be little more than desolate blobs of dust orbiting a hot, blistering sun?
Over the past fifty or so years of the US space program, we’ve seen a lot of images taken on the surface of two major celestial objects in our solar system, Mars and the moon. Astronauts on the moon (the only body outside the Earth mankind has walked on) took many spectacular photographs of their moonwalks (largely on film, mind you) and brought them back for us to wonder at. Several unmanned robotic travelers have landed on Mars and tantalized us with more vivid images, and the European Space Agency landed an unmanned probe on a comet. All three sets of images show a largely barren landscape, though to a great extent that was planned since it’s much easier and much safer to land a spacecraft on a smooth surface than on one littered with rocks. (The Russians did land a spacecraft on Venus, but its few images don’t show much.) I don’t know about you, but I found the landscapes of Mars and moon to be rather plain and not terribly lovely or “beautiful” in the usual sense of that word. They are stark, and in themselves compelling in a minimalist sense. But not “beautiful” in comparison to, say, an evening sunset on the Rocky Mountains, or an autumn landscape of the woodlands of Vermont. Just my opinion here.
Still, in our solar system are planets and moons that we haven’t landed on (and in most cases I hope we don’t), and from above they show many various mottled and unique surfaces. I imagine that the surface of Jupiter’s moon Io would be a fascinating place on which to stand. With volcanoes that spout liquid sulfur, and lava flows and what not, it might be intriguing. (Dangerous, too.) But would we characterize it as “beautiful,” especially in comparison with the Earth? I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We might have to come up with new adjectives to describe the new worlds we encounter.
Nothing we’ve ever seen on any image returned from outer space even begins to compare with the beauty of the surface of the Earth. But we’ve only just begun to explore. Who knows what we will encounter when we land on planets and moons of other solar systems. Will we think of them as “beautiful?” Do you think of the moon or Mars as “beautiful?”
Posted in Uncategorized on November 4, 2018
I’ve been submitting queries about my trilogy of science-fiction novels to agents and a few editors for about fifteen years now (possibly more), and I would say that probably around half of those agents and editors now have a regular policy of not responding to an unsolicited query if they don’t intend to pursue it further. Some don’t even bother to respond to submissions that they actively solicit (!) (That is, if they asked for it at a meeting.) This refusal to respond is a big part of the publishing world now, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. It may even get worse, and most, if not all agents and publishers may eventually decide to stop responding to unsolicited queries. I hope not for reasons I express below.
The usual reason given for the decision not to respond is the large number of queries agents and editors receive. “A thousand a month,” is a typical measuring point. Sometimes it’s even more. I can certainly understand their reasoning and ultimate decision to forego a response. Were I in their shoes and subject to all the submissions they get, I suspect I would at least give it serious consideration.
But for those of us who submit to hundreds of different agents and a fewer number of editors, not receiving a response can be frustrating. I know in my own case—and I’m speaking only for myself at this point—it is somewhat, though I try to accept it knowing that they are very busy handling the inundation of emails/letters/other stuff they regularly get, along with their other duties. But I want to make it clear to all those editors and agents that their decision has repercussions beyond the simple decision not to respond. Many agents say that if the submitter doesn’t hear back within a certain amount of time, they should either contact them or query again because the submission may have gotten lost in the mail or within the email server. Now we have to contact the agent or whoever a second time just to find out that the query has been rejected. Time consuming and, really, unnecessary.
But my most vehement concern about agents and editors who don’t respond comes from something else that agents and editors emphasize when writers communicate with them. We submitters must always act “professional” they say. We must always come across as someone who knows the rules of the business of writing and publishing, and act in a manner consistent with that knowledge. Follow the rules of each individual agency, they say; don’t be “cute” in your submission; don’t send flowers or candy with your submission; know the agent’s name and how to spell it; don’t send a letter with the salutation “Dear Agent;” don’t tell them your mother-in-law liked your book; don’t send blanket queries to a hundred agents; and so on and so forth. Always good advice, certainly.
But it seems to me that while we submitters are always supposed to always be “professional” in our dealings with those who hold the keys to our publishing success, the reverse is also true: agents and editors must always be professional in their dealings with the writers they represent and publish. And ensconced firmly within that requirement is a response to any and all communications. A negative response doesn’t have to be much, just a note telling the writer they have decided not to further pursue publication. Any query, and this applies especially to one that was actively solicited by a publishing professional, deserves a response. That’s only professional. After all, if publishing people don’t want to work with unprofessional writers, then those publishing professionals must realize that writers sure as hell don’t want to work with unprofessional agents and editors either. It’s a two-way street.
Posted in Uncategorized on October 21, 2018
In 2013, I posted a blot entry about how the Earth is drowning in plastic, and we should all be willing to do something to help minimize the problem. In my own inimitable way, I decided to start cleaning and reusing both plastic bags and plastic wrap. (See “Drowning in Plastic” of 2013/12/01). Now, five years later, an update is due. What’s happened since I made my decision?
I initially tried to clean and re-use both plastic bags (the Zip-Lock kind) and the Glad Wrap I use occasionally to cover the tops of food containers that don’t have their own top. (As far as bags are concerned, keep in mind I’m talking only about the “zip-lock” type. The “fold-over” type of sandwich bag is a different matter. I’m not using those any more and haven’t used them in years.) At the time I made my decision, both seemed relatively simple to clean. The bags have to be turned inside-out to clean, and I’ve grown accustomed to washing them every now and then. I’ve been doing that for these past five years, and haven’t had any real problems. But the plastic wrap has become a different matter. I started washing each piece, but it soon became clear that washing plastic wrap is neither convenient or simple. The wrap has a mind of its own, and is difficult to keep flat while it is being washed. After about a year, I gave up trying to wash and re-use Glad Wrap. Now I—admittedly and improperly—throw it away. I can’t recycle it because recyclers don’t recycle plastic wrap, and besides, they don’t take plastics with food on it.
But washing and re-using the bags has worked. I have several boxes of plastic bags in my cupboard, and in the five years since I decided to wash out bags, I haven’t bought any new boxes at all. The bags seem to wear well; I rarely throw a bag away. Most bags in my stock have been washed many times—way too many to count. In short, while washing takes a little bit of time, it seems well worth it to do one’s part in helping to minimize plastic waste. Bag manufacturers may not like it, but it is at least something anyone can do.
Posted in Uncategorized on October 14, 2018
In the first two entries in this series of brief examinations of the difficulty of traveling in outer space to new planets and stars and worlds, I looked at how difficult it is for humans to travel in outer space (we’ve only just made it to the moon), and whether the knowledge of the ability to travel to other stars and their planets really exists at all. Is such knowledge universally available, or are we condemned to travel long distances in spacecraft at well below the speed of light?
In this post, I want to look at the development of life on a fledgling planet and ask the question, what does it take for intelligent life to develop? In fact, I want to go back not only to the development of life, but further, to the birth of the planet itself. What conditions are necessary for a planet to develop life? This will be a tricky question to ask properly because we have only one known example where such conditions have arisen, the Earth, and we can’t be sure that what happened on Earth is a reasonable example for life developing elsewhere. But what the hell, let’s take a look.
Others have tried to estimate the probability of life on other worlds, and the Drake equation is one such estimate. But the Drake equation is concerned with estimating what fraction of planets out there are broadcasting signals into space, a point in evolution we have already reached. As with any examination of the presence of life on other worlds, estimates have to be made when entering data into the Drake equation, and in reality, we have no idea how accurate those estimates are. I’m more interested in trying to find out what percentage of planets that eventually coalesce into a physical body from the dust surrounding a newly-ignited star will eventually go on to develop intelligent life that can leave the bonds of the planet and fly around. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that have to exist before this can happen.
Over the past several years I’ve jotted down a number of factors that have been proposed as essential for the development of intelligent life here on Earth, and, with a little bit of luck, might be necessary for life to develop on another heavenly body.
1. A stable sun: the star around which such a planet orbits can’t get too hot or too cold, or it could halt development of life altogether. (Earth’s sun has gone through cooling and heating phases, but never to a degree that baked or froze the planet, killing life completely.)
2. The planet has to develop at just the right distance from the star. The so-called “Goldilocks” zone.
3. There has to be water on the surface. Not just water, but liquid water, liquid because life can’t develop in steam or ice.
4. The planet has to have an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. Granted, life can develop in the absence of oxygen, and probably did on Earth, and those microscopic life forms did produce the oxygen in our atmosphere, but it most likely oxygen will be required for intelligent life to develop.
5. The presence of oxygen in the atmosphere implies ozone in the upper atmosphere to protect the life forms on the surface from too much ultraviolet radiation.
6. A magnetic field surrounding the planet. This implies a liquid iron core and traps cosmic rays and other injurious stuff from outer space.
7. Another planet in the same star system that is large enough to clear much of the excess debris around the star to prevent too much from bombarding the nascent planet.
8. Yet, some bombardment is essential to bring all the stuff (like water) to the new planet that life will require. Not too much, not too little.
9. A large moon that provides a gravitational tug on the planet, inducing tides in the large bodies of water, as well as on the land masses, pulling and pushing them around in just the right way.
10. The planet should be in a near circular orbit so that the radiation it receives from its sun is relatively constant. Not too hot, not too cold.
11. Other planets in the same system have to be in near circular orbits to prevent them from sending debris toward the newly-formed planet, and preventing their gravitational field from pushing the planet into an odd orbit, or even knocking it out of its solar system altogether.
12. Tectonic activity to keep the developing life in a constant state of evolution. Stagnation is the death-knell of advancing development.
13. Periodic extinctions, whether caused by an asteroid strike, volcanic activity, the cooling of the central star, or other factor, to, as in #12, keep the development of life going. Or, to put it more simply, everything has to be shaken up from time to time.
In so many of these factors, not only are they essential in an absolute or qualitative sense, but in a quantitative sense too. Not too much, not too little. Earth got just the right amount of some things—just the right amount of oxygen, a sun neither too hot or too cold, just the right size moon, and so forth. That’s just going to complicate the calculations.
Now, with all these factors in mind (and there may be more we don’t know about), can we make any reasonable calculation as to what proportion of planets in our galaxy fit this profile? Are there other planets out there that could have developed life like ours? To make that calculation, we have to ask what proportion of planets meet each characteristic. That’s impossible to do right now, so we have to estimate. Such estimates may be way off, but let’s give it a try. Let’s assume the simplest situation (and probably an overestimate), that each planet has a 1 in 100 chance of having each characteristic. This works out to 1/100 to the 13th power, or 10 to the −26 power. That says that only one planet out of 10 to the 26th has all the characteristics needed for life to develop. It is estimated that around one hundred billion planets exist in the galaxy. That’s 10 to the 11th power. Okay, make it 10 to the 12th. Clearly, even if we use a serious overestimate to the chances of any characteristic happening on a developing planet, we’ve just eliminated not only the possibility of life developing on another planet, but on our own too. We shouldn’t even exist. Yet, there’s good evidence these characteristics are essential. We can’t just drop two or three. The numbers just don’t add up.
So, where are we? Those numbers do give one possible explanation to Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox, but they are such an overestimate it’s hard to know if that’s the right explanation or not. It is possible that life could develop on other planets in situations we’re not familiar with, after all, we’re using Earth as an example and that may not be the most judicious model. Are we freaks in one way or another? Are we alone? You be the judge.
Posted in Uncategorized on September 16, 2018
In the previous entry in this series of blog posts about the possibility of alien life in our galaxy, and especially about such life visiting us here, I speculated about the wide disparity between the knowledge we’ve obtained about the universe—which is substantial—and our ability to move around in that universe—which is miniscule. We’ve only just gotten to the moon. Is that the reason we’ve never been visited by aliens from other star systems—that the distances are just too immense and space travel is not as easy as our science fiction stories make it out to be? Or is it that they are really nowhere to be found?
There’s certainly no shortage of stars in our galaxy around which planets could form that potentially could harbor life. But before any civilization can visit us here, a lot of things have to happen. It has taken us 2 billion years and several major extinctions for us to reach the sophisticated level we’re at right now. We can see galaxies that are billions of light years away, but we’re a long way in time from journeying there. We’re a long way from visiting even just the nearest star for crying out loud! Any other intelligent civilization almost certainly has to go through that same process of learning about the cosmos before they can make the leap from simply knowing about the presence of other suns out there, to actually visiting them. That’s a huuuuuge step.
So, I’m wondering, how many civilizations out there have actually made that step? Or is there a limit to what a civilization can do?
There’s a hypothesis about alien civilizations that postulates a “Great Filter” that has prevented most if not all civilizations from reaching the ability to travel the galaxy and visit us here on Earth. Somewhere, the Great Filter suggests, in the evolution of a civilization, the inhabitants of a planet reach a stage where their ability to continue is blocked. That’s a legitimate argument, especially as there are at least two processes that could possibly prevent us on Earth from moving on to visit other planets and star systems—annihilation either by nuclear war or by global warming. We haven’t done a particularly good job in reducing the risk from either one lately. But it’s one thing to postulate that, on the one hand, these processes are a risk for us on Earth, and, on the other, transferring those possibilities to other planets. In some respects, the Great Filter seems almost too anthropomorphic, that what happens on Earth must, of necessity, happen on other planets.
One thing we can be sure of, however: that an alien civilization must acquire knowledge about the universe and the galaxy in which we live in order to visit us here, and it must develop the means of transportation around it. But where does that knowledge lie that would allow them to close that gap? Does it exist? Don’t look to science fiction for the answer.
It’s entirely conceivable that a breakthrough will occur in the (near?) (far?) future that will allow us to travel to distant star systems. I’m not ruling that out. And it’s also possible that knowledge is available to any and all civilizations which can reach the highly sophisticated stage where they have access to it. It’s more a question of a civilization being able to make it to that stage. How many civilizations have reached that stage? None? Or does that knowledge even exist? At least that would answer the question: “Where are they?”
Posted in Uncategorized on September 10, 2018
This is likely to be the first of three postings on a topic that has intrigued me for several years—the prospect of intelligent life on other planets. Enrico Fermi posed his famous paradox, basically “Where are they?” in 1950. He was referring to the question of why highly intelligent, highly sophisticated visitors from another planet haven’t visited us here on Earth. With the tremendous number of planets out there, say 50 to 100 billion in our galaxy alone, surely the chances must be around 100 percent that other life forms have developed, and a small population should have attained the ability to travel the galaxy in some form of advanced spaceship, perhaps with a drive system we can’t even conceive of. Many planets out there must be older than ours, giving their inhabitants sufficient time to develop space drives that can cut travel time from star to star down to a reasonable value. And that’s what I want to limit my comments to here in this post—the concept of actually travelling the galaxy. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to answer the question of “where are they,” just give some possible reasons why they aren’t.
I want to start by looking at the development of life on Earth and see if we can extrapolate into the future. The Earth is, of course, the only planet we are aware of on which intelligent life has developed, and that could mean it isn’t the best model on which to build an example, but it’s the only one we’ve got so I’m going to use it. Life began on Earth around 2 billion years ago. (There’s some evidence life may have evolved earlier than that, but I’m going to use 2 billion as a nice round number.) In those 2 billion years, life has not once died out completely. There have been extinctions, sure, and large numbers of species have been eliminated, but life has managed to remain continuous in one form or another since then. Even the grand extinction which resulted in the eradication of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago didn’t completely eliminate all life. Small mammals survived the asteroid impact, and even the dinosaurs themselves were not totally eliminated—they survived into today as birds. Up to that time, reptiles were the dominant animal life form. They were the ultimate, the top level, the upper crust. They basically formed an endpoint, as far as evolution was concerned at that time, and it took an outside event to force a change. Now, I suppose, mammals are the top animal life form. We dominate the planet, and have made changes no other animal could ever conceive of making.
Over the last few thousand years, we humans have learned a lot about the universe in which we exist. We’ve built telescopes which can probe well beyond our own galaxy and see millions of others. We’ve learned what goes on in the interior of a star, in its core, in the atomic and subatomic interactions which produce the light and heat and all the other emissions that the star puts out. We can even detect the faint, wispy neutrinos the star emits. We know there seems to be unseen forces and masses in the galaxy which make up the majority of all mass and energy in it. We’ve seen stars and planets and asteroids, and even planets that just haven’t had quite enough mass to start the fusion reactions that make a star what it is. Behind this has been the development of elaborate mathematics that has made it possible. There’s so much knowledge we’ve accumulated over those several thousand years. All in all, we’re pretty damn astute about our knowledge of the universe and our place in it. We can be proud of that.
Yet, for all our sophistication and knowledge, we’ve never sent humans out into the void of space any farther than the moon. We’ve sent a couple of spacecraft to the edge of our solar system, but those are piddly jumps compared to the size of the universe or even the galaxy. Traveling the galaxy is a hell of a lot harder than looking at it. That’s why science fiction writers have to develop complex, intricate, and ultimately a little naïve spaceships to get their characters around, because there’s no real way to do it. Light travels at the speed of light; we travel at the speed of rocket ships. And the difference is telling.
All this suggests that if there are highly intelligent and sophisticated life forms out there capable of traveling the galaxy, or even from one galaxy to another(!), they would have to have knowledge and space drives so far beyond us they would be impossible for us to conceive. Perhaps harnessing a force we can only guess at. (Read more science fiction for a few good guesses.) Pardon the pun, but even in our sophistication, we’ve got a long way to go.
Posted in Uncategorized on September 2, 2018
Well, the Bubonicon Science Fiction convention #50 here in Albuquerque, NM is over for 2018. It ran from August 24 to 26, and as I do every year, I attended as much of it as I could, hoping to grab a rare tidbit of information or advice, or perhaps a little dirt or the real scoop on some facet of science fiction or fantasy or even real science. This year’s theme was the “Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” playing off the fact that the Convention (the “con”) is fifty years old this year (its golden anniversary), and taking a look back at the “Golden Age of SF and F, which, from what I was able to gather, lasted from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, or thereabouts. Many of today’s sci-fi writers lived through at least a part of that time, and cut their sci-fi teeth reading the popular authors of the day. A number of authors acknowledged the role that all that reading paid in the development of their writing. A debt I can well understand. I even got a few books autographed.
I will have to admit, though, that I am somewhat unfamiliar with the works of that era. I came to science fiction late in my career, and though I grew up during that time, I read more non-fiction (science mostly, especially biological sciences) than fiction, and what fiction I did read tended to be related to real life. So, in many of the sessions of this con I had difficulty identifying with the lives of the older writers. I did find it interesting learning about the development of sci-fi through the years, though. I had read a few of the works of Robert Heinlein (“Starship Troopers,” “Methuselah’s Children”) but that was about the extent of my sci-fi reading before I entered college and began concentrating on science, especially microbiology and virology (the biology of the teeny-tiny). It wasn’t until almost time for me to retire from paid scientific work and shortly after the time I began my first sci-fi novel that I read Heinlein’s most popular work, “Stranger In A Strange Land.” About that time also, I began reading quite a number of science fiction works of many other authors (I generally eschew fantasy, however). Sci-fi is my life now; I’ve graduated from science to science fiction. It’s been quite a ride.
I’m beginning to look forward to Bubonicon 51 in 2019. See you there.