Thursday, March 22, 2012

Destroying the Earth

This post is inspired by a question I got on my Ask Tsana page. Katrina asked:
I'm trying to come up with a simple (haha) and plausible way to destroy a planet to kick things off for a story but am having trouble getting the science right.

One of the first sites I visited to figure this out was this Geocide site:

Under the Geocide in fiction page (, the author says, "The Sun Crusher is a relatively small ship which carries a small number of missiles, each of which is tough enough to shoot into the centre of a star and cause it to go nova, which would certainly annihilate any nearby Earthlike planet."

My question is, don't stars that get massive enough to go nova have brief lives and thus not live long enough for a habitable planet to develop? I'm just basing that on Wikipedia (, though, so I was wondering if you could tell me more. Can the habitable zones of massive stars ever actually be inhabited (and then later die in a supernova)?
Excellent question!

The answer depends a bit on to what extent you want to destroy your planet. Geocide pretty much defines "destroy the Earth" as "annihilate in the particle physics sense, or dismantle/tear apart on either a macroscopic (large) or microscopic scale". He doesn't count Earth as destroyed if there's still a planet-like object there. However, for many narrative purposes, rendering the Earth entirely uninhabitable will do the trick.

So, leaving the dismantling and annihilation to Geocide (the website is amusing, although be warned that some of the details of physics are slightly off, but close enough), what are some ways of rendering Earth unfit for life?

Destroy all humans

So maybe what you want is not so much to destroy the planet as to destroy all the people on it. That's not really that hard. Or, at least, destroying most of the people isn't that hard. Some methods, which generally don't require elaboration:
  • Widespread nuclear holocaust
  • Some sort of plague
  • Climate change. No, really, melt the icecaps and raise the temperature enough so that it is too hot and humid to survive without air-conditioning and eventually you'll run out of people. Or throw in some crazy weather disasters too. The Rhesus Factor by Sonny Whitelaw touches on this a bit (see my review here), also on the plague scenario.
  • Very large volcano eruption. This is one of the things thought to have caused at least one of the prehistoric dinosaur(ish)-era extinctions. A less epically large volcano (actually, a few of them probably contributed) in 1816 caused the Northern Hemisphere (or Europe and America at least, not sure that Asia was affected as strongly, but google it if you're interested) to not thaw out in the summer. This was "the year without a summer". (And now I have that Rasputina song stuck in my head. Click the link and you will too.)
  • Asteroid -- this one's a toss up between destroying all (most) humans and destroying all life. Ultimately, I suppose it's a matter of scale. Let's say this asteroid kills human life but not necessarily all the microbes. It would be somewhat similar to the volcano in the throwing dust and rubbish into the atmosphere, blocking out light and generalised doom.
  • Magnetic field of the Earth turning off in the process of flipping. This is something that happens spontaneously every so often. It's bad because a whole bunch of ionising radiation (miscellaneous charged particles) from space is kept at bay thanks to our nifty magnetic field. Taking it away would give us a lot more cancer and sterility and could wipe out a large chunk of humanity. Microbes and probably a lot of (some?) sea life would be OK. Good luck artificially killing the magnetic field, though.
All of those methods probably won't wipe out all life and, frankly, it's possible/likely that some tenacious dregs of humanity will hold on. Generally, evacuation is the surest way to avoid these apocalypses. Or prevention, but that's only really applicable in two or three of those scenarios.

Destroy all life

Why aim low? Bugger humanity and everything else with one of these sterilising scenarios:
  • Self-replicating nanobots (von Neumann machines) which consume all the [insert important chemical here -- carbon is popular]. This is also know as the grey goo scenario. Depending on the nanobots, this is likely to render the Earth inhospitable to life while they're still doing their thing.
  • Large asteroid/comet or small moon colliding with Earth. Where a small impact would cause natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis) and potentially block out the sun with dust, a large impact could do many detrimental things. It could change the Earth's rotation, knock it into a slightly different orbit (or send it spiralling into the sun, but that would require a particularly large body), it could smash the Earth into chucks (which, thanks to gravity, would probably later re-collide to form Earth 2.0), render an appreciable fraction of the surface molten... Actually, I now have a brilliant mental picture of two or six asteroids hitting the Earth simultaneously from opposite sides and sort of turning it into molten goop... Not actually sure that would work with two, but six seems faintly plausible in a hand-waving way. Anyway, point is, hit Earth with something big enough and bye-bye life. Depending on conditions, it's possible life could spontaneously arise again, depending on how reliably life arises and how long it takes (before, for example, the sun goes red giant).
  • Supernova/nearby gamma ray burst. The main problem with this notion is the lack of suitable supernovaing stars nearby, as Geocide mentions. However, you mentioned destroying a planet, not specifically Earth. A planet orbiting a star when it went supernova would be toast. Probably, it would be fairly inhospitable before the actual explosion, if Eta Carinae is anything to go by. A planet orbiting a non-explosive star near another star that went supernova could well end up sterilised, which is what I talked about in my post about the galactic habitable zone (and near in the astronomical sense isn't that close by). And, actually, if we're talking about Type Ia (which is to say not core-collapse supernovae; not the death throes of a large star) supernovae, which involve white dwarfs and (probably) ordinary stars going through their red giant stage, we might not even see the supernova coming. That's a slightly unsettling thought.
  • Some sort of implausible doomsday device. Really, you can make up whatever rubbish you want for this one if you're so inclined. (But if you do, I don't promise not to tear your science apart if I read/see/whatever it.)

A few words on supernovae and novae

Supernovae are how stars bigger than about 8 solar masses end their lives. Novae are not small supernovae. I know, that's what I originally learnt as a child/teenager by osmosis from SF novels. I think the connection between the words nova and supernova are primarily historic; a star suddenly appeared or became much brighter and acquired the label (nova meaning new), but the different causes weren't understood until much more recently.

Stars smaller than around 8 solar masses don't explode. They expand relatively slowly (well, y'know, compared with a supernova explosion) when they run out of hydrogen to fuse in their cores, then contract then expand again when they run out of helium. At this point, a large star going through the stages much more rapidly would collapse again under its own gravity and then kaboom supernova. Smaller stars aren't massive enough to collapse again under their own gravity. Instead, after the helium is used up, leaving either carbon or oxygen (or a combination) in the star's core, what was once the stellar atmosphere will keep expanding indefinitely. Initially, it forms a planetary nebula (not actually anything to do with planets), but eventually it will all dissipate and be undetectable. What's left behind is a white dwarf; basically a small, hot star which was once the core of the red giant star.

Suppose there were two stars near each other, and one went through the red giant to white dwarf steps before the other. When the companion star undergoes its red giant phase, maybe it expands enough that some of it's outer atmosphere is close enough to the white dwarf to accrete onto it. The reason these stars didn't supernova is because they were too small. There is a very definite upper limit to how massive a white dwarf can be before it collapses in on itself and explodes. That limit is 1.4 solar masses (but remember, most of the original star's mass is lost when it's doing the expanding thing, which is why the original star can be up to 8 solar masses). If the companion star accretes too much matter onto the white dwarf, the white dwarf will go over the 1.4 solar mass limit and explode. This is a Type Ia supernova. For the record, the alternative explanation for Type Ia supernovae, which is presently gaining more traction, is two white dwarfs colliding.

Since white dwarfs are small (1.4 solar masses in a volume roughly the size of Earth), they're not very visible, especially once they start to cool down. See how we might not see that kind of supernova coming? It could potentially not be that difficult to artificially orchestrate, either, if you have enough spare matter to throw at a conveniently placed white dwarf. Well, y'know, sort of easier than some large-scale astro-engineering projects could be.

 Back to the point

 If you recall the original question, Katrina asked:
My question is, don't stars that get massive enough to go nova have brief lives and thus not live long enough for a habitable planet to develop? Can the habitable zones of massive stars ever actually be inhabited (and then later die in a supernova)?
In general, the bigger the star, the shorter its life. Our sun's total lifespan is something like 10 billion years, a blue giant could live only 10 million years, and a red dwarf's lifespan is in the trillions of years. The current theory is that it took a couple of billion years for (very basic) life to arise on Earth. It then took a long time to progress to where we are now (Earth's age is 4.6 billion years, from memory). If we see this as typical, it seems like there isn't enough time for life to arise around a much larger star. On the other hand, if there was a planet at a suitable distance from the star, it could be inhabited by sufficiently motivated humans with spaceships. They wouldn't be able to stay there indefinitely, but even a few million years is more than ages on human scales, so that's OK.

The other issue is metallicity. Planets like Earth have rocky cores, which means they have high metallicity. Remember, metallicity in an astronomical sense refers to the abundance of elements heavier than helium, not necessarily just the things chemists/sane people identify as metals. Very massive stars generally form in metal-poor environments and are metal-poor themselves. This makes the presence of heavier elements as requires for rocky planet building less likely. Not necessarily impossible, but much less likely.

So yes, you can potentially have planets around the sort of stars that go supernova and, while native life probably won't get very complex if it arises at all, said planets could be inhabited by plucky humans.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: The Rhesus Factor by Sonny Whitelaw

The Rhesus Factor by Sonny Whitelaw has been sitting on my harddrive for a few years, waiting for me to finally get around to reading it. The Australian Women Writers Challenge gave me the push I needed to pick it up. The Rhesus Factor can be downloaded as a free pdf from Whitelaw's website (you have to click on the link in the left menu).

In essence, The Rhesus Factor is an eco-thriller. Set in the near future when the Gulf Stream has stopped, climate change is decidedly noticeable and drug-resistant epidemics are sweeping the Earth. Since it was written about ten years ago, some of the technology of our very near future isn't quite here (no space planes to hop across the pacific in a matter of hours, not even for the US Airforce) but some of her predictions are eerily true. There was a throwaway paragraph that included severe bushfires in southern Australia and Brisbane flooding, for example. Granted, those aren't exactly outlandish predictions, and the Gulf Stream is still with us, but still, some of the crazy weather Whitelaw describes doesn't feel like it's as outlandish as it would have been ten years ago.

There was also this great line about the US congress which predicts a situation that has become slightly old news now:

"So you voted in a Democratic President—but hedged your bets with a Republican Congress that will not entertain any motion to install a fair and equitable health care system."
Sound familiar?

Anyway, back to the story. The Rhesus Factor follows a handful of characters through dramatic* climate change, the discovery of a virus which is on track to sterilising 99% of humanity, terrorist attacks, and assorted other emergencies. Some of the characters are clearly there to demonstrate consequences to ordinary folk, but most of them play some sort of governmental role (including scientific research) in mitigating the damage. A nice touch, I thought, was that almost all of the characters were quite competent and none of the disasters were because of any one person stuffing up. They were all just sort of inevitable.

My favourite character, and the one I felt was the most developed, was Kristin: an Australian marine engineer, initially based in Vanuatu, who has the unfortunate luck to be present for almost all the on-page explosions. (There are a lot of explosions.) Her back story, complete with an ex-boyfriend who has the emotional intelligence of a wet rag, is well drawn and she's not one of the people who knows everything up front, so it was nice to discover some of what was going on as she did. She also had a strong "Australian, no-nonsense" pragmatism which helped keep up the pace of the book (not that it was ever in any danger of dragging).

Another enjoyable character to read was the Australian Prime Minister. I suspect half the reason I liked him is because the world would be a better place if we had more political leaders that cut through bullshit and did what needed to be done. The other half is that his scenes — particularly some of the comments he makes when not in front of the press — were some of the most amusing and did a good job of diffusing some of the inherent doom of the novel. The most unbelievable aspect of both his character and the US President is that, before becoming politicians, both were scientists with ecology-related (I forget the specifics) PhDs. I just don't really buy that they got elected, especially the President, but it's a good thing for their world that they did.

I also enjoyed Australia being so central to many of the events taking place. Other prominent settings were Vanuatu and the US, but while the US was obligatory (greatest impact of Gulf Stream failure, powerful government), the Australian scenes were more lovingly carved. From the outback, down to Kristin complaining about Canberran weather.

The Rhesus Factor is a fast-paced, thriller crammed with one disaster after another. Set in the near future in a world a little bit more disease-ridden, with a slightly more altered climate than ours, it will keep you flipping/tapping the pages to find out what happens next. I should warn you though, Whitelaw set out to present a realistic picture of the near future. The only fabricated factor is, as the title will tell you, the Rhesus factor which acts as a catalyst for some disasters and an also-ran for others. There is no quick-fix offered in the novel and the ending isn't exactly a happy one — though it is somewhat hopeful. Nevertheless, it's an entertaining and, if you're into getting science out of your fiction, an educational# one.

4.5 / 5 stars

* I say dramatic because the Gulf Stream failed. It's not quite Hollywood dramatic, if you're wondering.
# Actually, The Rhesus Factor is available as a free pdf because at one point it was cited by an Australian MP in Queensland parliament for its realistic and alarming predictions.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sciencefail rant: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

First things first: sorry it's been a while between posts. Life has been busier of late and I haven't quite had the brain space to devote to writing a serious sciencey blog post. Until now. I was reading Across the Universe by Beth Revis, a recent YA science fiction book set on a generation ship and just as I got up to the "ooh, things are getting interesting" plot-thickening part, I was smacked in the face by an epic science fail. This is what I am now going to rant about.

There will be spoilers. Many crucial spoilers. If you'd rather read a spoiler-free review and live in science fail ignorance, then you can read my ordinary review here.


I mentioned spoiler-warning, right?


Don't read on if you don't want to be spoiled.


The Fail of the Science

Some background

In Across the Universe we have two main characters: an American teenage girl and the future leader of the generation ship. The girl gets frozen and loaded onto the ship as cargo because her parents are part of the colonisation mission on the new planet they're going to. For reasons unimportant to science fail (and which I hence won't spoil), she is accidentally unfrozen early, supposedly 50 years before they're due to land. The entire journey was supposed to take 300 years.

When she wakes up, she finds herself in a very different world to the Earth she left behind. Blah, blah, dystopia -- if you're interested in that aspect, go read my proper review. In the course of events, the two main characters discover that among all the secrets and lies aboard ship is the secret of what's going on with the ship's engine.

The parts I don't have a problem with is that the engine nuclear and they have some sort of process which is supposed to recycle the uranium so that it keeps running long enough. I mean, I'm sceptical of the whole re-enriching uranium part -- entropy, conservation of energy, the lack of a particle accelerator on board, etc -- but I'm willing to buy future technology with fancy engines. If we didn't have future tech with better stuff than our present tech, then science fiction would be a little dull.

Unfortunately for the residents (and cryo-residents, I suppose) of the generation ship, there is something wrong with the engine. It is losing efficiency. Given the magic physics that was making it run in the first place, this isn't surprising either. Do you know what is surprising? The fact that the engine failing is somehow slowing the ship down.


I know, I know, I don't usually actually scream when I'm ranting, but this blatant disregard for one of the most basic and fundamental ideas in physics infuriated me. I shouted, in real life, and bashed the book on the couch in my frustration* at this neglect of research. Ask anyone who's taken a first year university physics subject, gosh, even anyone who passed high school physics, and they should be able to tell you what happens on a spaceship when the engines fail.

It keeps going in a straight line until it hits something.


Galileo, who lived way back in the 1500s–1600s, worked out that an object will continue to move in a straight line. Newton, in 1687, appropriated this concept and dubbed it his first law of motion:
A body in motion will continue moving with a constant velocity unless an external force is applied to it.
On Earth, friction is usually that external force. Your car's engine has to keep running while you drive because if it doesn't, you're car will eventually roll to a stop as the friction between the axle holding the wheel in and whatever's on the other end of the axle. A boat slows down because of the drag force of the water around it -- drag force being a type of friction. Your bike might roll down a hill, but if you don't pedal, friction in the axles will eventually bring you to a stop. An aeroplane needs to keep firing its engines because of the drag force of the air slowing it down (they can sometimes coast down to a landing if the engines fail, but they need to over come the drag to maintain a constant speed so that they can stay in the air because of other physics I'm not going to go into right now).

You get the idea.

The drag force happens because something -- air particles, water molecules, etc -- collide with the moving object and push it slightly in the opposite direction. If only one particle hit the much larger object, it wouldn't make a difference, but there are very many particles in the air around you right now. There are even more surrounding a boat (or person) in water. That's why it's harder to move underwater than in air. The fewer particles around to collide with an object down, the less it will be slowed down.

Space, unlike the surface and atmosphere of Earth, is characterised by its vacuum. It's lack of anything substantial. There is no air in space. Sure, there are a few stray molecules and atoms floating around but, except in the densest of nebulae/molecular clouds, they are far sparser than even the best industrial vacuum we can create on Earth.

In space, there is no drag force. There is nothing to slow you down. If your engine failed, you wouldn't slow down, you would just keep going, indefinitely, until you collided with something, or came close enough to a gravitational field (of a star, for example) to change direction. Then you would keep going in that direction unless you were particularly well aimed to go into orbit around that star.

So when the engine of the generation ship in Across the Universe starts to fail, their problem isn't that it will take them longer to reach their destination. If it fails completely, they will not be "dead in the water". There is no water. It might be called a spaceship, but that doesn't mean it shares the same watery drag force as an ocean liner.

Their problems are more likely to be related to not being able to land or go into orbit around their destination, or not being able to make course corrections, or not being able to slow down and zooming straight past their destination.

By a similar token, people or things ejected out of the airlock wouldn't get left behind. Again, space is not an ocean. Once the airlock is opened and the air rushes out (pushing any lose objects out with it, perhaps), the ejected objects would appear to float close to the ship, continuing to move in the same direction along with the ship. If someone was thrown out an airlock, their body would only stop shadowing the ship when the ship did one of: speed up, slow down or change direction.

I grant that if the ship has magic artificial gravity (which the generation ship in Across the Universe does), some strange things might happen to throw the body further away from the ship, or make it somehow react unusually with the artificial gravitational field, but there was absolutely no indication of that being the case in this book.
* Don't worry, the book was unharmed.


My first thought, in my brain's desperate attempt to fix the gaping science fail hole in Across the Universe, was that maybe the ship was accelerating and that's why they needed the engine to maintain efficiency and why things thrown out of the air lock got left behind.

Unfortunately, it can't have been.

According to the original mission plan (which the book gives us no reason to believe is a trick), the voyage is supposed to take 300 years. Also, their destination is called Centauri-Earth (and our world is referred to as Sol-Earth). This could refer to Alpha Centauri, the closest star, but given the fact that the planet they're headed for is supposed to be habitable, that doesn't seem likely (Alpha Centauri is a triple star system and the chances of conveniently habitable planet being there are slim). So it must be another star with Centauri in the name. There are lots. Here is Wiki's list of stars in the Centaurus constellation. If you sort that list by distance, you see that there aren't that many stars within 300 light years.

Since no relativistic effects are ever mentioned (see this blog about travelling close to the speed of light, and this one about accelerating up to fractions of the speed of light), it seems fair to assume that they never reach an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Let's say that means less than around five percent time dilation goes on (see aforementioned links for previous posts if you're lost at this point). Well, travelling at a third of the speed of light gives us six percent time dilation, so close enough. So the maximum speed we're allowing is 0.33c. If we ignore acceleration, that limits us to stars within 100 light years. Habitability is probably limited to F, G, K and maybe M stars. Within 100 light years in the Centaurus constellation, that leaves us with... 14 viable stars (11 of which don't actually have Centauri in their name...). The furthest with Centauri in the name (not an unreasonable requirement, given the context of the book. If they were going to a star with a dull designation, surely they would have given it their own name?) is about 60 light years away.

If we assume they're accelerating until they get half way, then decelerating the rest of the way (the fastest way of getting there and also the main way to require the engine running the entire time), that requires a very low acceleration of 0.0013g or 1.3 cm/s2. Which at least explains why a uranium engine might be the fuel source of choice. (For the record, if their destination was Alpha Centauri, then this value wouldn't change appreciably - it would be about 0.05 cm/s2 less. Furthermore, for Alpha Centauri it would make much more sense to accelerate a bit and then spend most of the journey coasting until they needed to slow down at the other end.) The maximum velocity the ship would reach would be 0.37c, so that's not too far above my imposed limit of 0.33.

This low acceleration means that my point about bodies not being left behind when ejected from the airlock still stands. They still wouldn't appear to drift away that quickly.

The final piece of information we're given in the book is that the engine started failing when they were about halfway through their journey. What does this mean? It means that they wouldn't be able to decelerate, would reach their destination faster not slower and would zoom straight past it too quickly to go into orbit. Pretty much the exact opposite of the problems described in the book.


No. For two reasons. The first is just it's bad writing -- the science fail error jolted me completely out of the story and undermined my suspension of disbelief and plausibility of the whole setting. To achieve the same plot-mandated end, the author could have had the engine start to fail while accelerating or, without much consequence to the plot (as far as book 1 in the trilogy goes, at any rate) the ship could be unable to slow down, unable to correct its course or they could have found out that the planet wasn't as viable as they originally thought. Each of these things would have got the job done, but no, the author chose to not check physics.

The second reason is twofold. From a personal point of view, when learning physics for the first time, in high school or university, it's usual to relate everyday situations to the concepts you learn. In this way, you can intuitively predict basic mechanics based on experience. However, everyday situations tend to take place on the surface of Earth, so when trying to predict the mechanics of what happens in space (which, yes, does come up in physics classes -- take some if you don't believe me) the situations the student has to fall back on are what's portrayed in various media -- books, movies, perhaps computer games. However, thanks to the the generalised scientific illiteracy of most of society, half of these portrayals are plain wrong. They're why I have this blog, in fact. Honestly, having taught physics to new students, I have seen a lot of evidence for this sort of thing contributing to poor understanding and requiring a lot of unlearning.

Hollywood, poorly researched books, and other media undermine what little science education kids get. At least if the media surrounding us strived for some semblance of accuracy, perhaps people would pick up some science by osmosis. Then the climate debate wouldn't be so controversial, US presidential candidates wouldn't think a moon colony in 20 years was a viable idea, and we wouldn't have an anti-vaccination movement. Scientific literacy is important and, really, science fiction as a genre is uniquely positioned to encourage an interest in science. Sure, this wasn't a hard SF tech-centric book, but it was a giant spaceship. That's the sort of thing that can capture an imagination and ingraining wrong science while doing so is just irresponsible.

And it makes me angry.

(Other than the science fail aspect, this isn't a terrible book. I give it 3.5 / 5 stars -- half a star subtracted for the science fail. For a less science-oriented discussion of the book -- y'know, an actual review -- see my book reviews blog.)


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