Friday, June 24, 2016

Are Humans So Special? Guest blog

Guest Blog by Noted SF Author Steve McEllistrem

What does it mean to be human?

We like to think we’re special, we’re different than the rest of the animal kingdom. We can reason and communicate and imagine and empathize and manipulate our world in a way no other creatures can. We have consciousness, self-awareness. All these attributes allegedly make us human.

But what does that mean?

Other animals, like dolphins and elephants, are self-aware. They communicate and reason and empathize and even occasionally manipulate their habitat. Do they imagine? Probably. So what makes us special?

The truth is: We make us special. We’re special because we say we’re special, not because of any inherent quality or virtue we possess. We observe the world around us and note that no other species does quite what we do, even though many species do similar things.

And up until relatively recently, we didn’t even appreciate the similarities that other creatures have to us. We thought: Isn’t it cute that the crow over there is playing with a coin? or Look at my cat toying with that mouse.

But the more we’ve studied the animal kingdom, the more we’ve come to appreciate how little difference there is between humans and many animals. We have an evolutionary advantage in that we developed all these wonderful abilities at a high level whereas most animals can claim only one or two of these attributes.

Dogs, for example, can communicate, empathize and reason, but not to the same level and not in the same way we do. At least, that’s what we think. But we might be wrong. 

Dogs can communicate by sense of smell in addition to vocally but we didn’t understand that until recently. For instance, dogs can tell time by using their noses. They know that when the number of “owner” molecules in the air decrease to a certain level, their owner is going to return. That’s why they’re often waiting by the door when we come home from work.

Monkeys have a sense of justice and will scream in outrage if they’re treated unfairly. No different than us. Deer and cows can sense magnetic north; dolphins and bats use sonar; people can’t do either of those things. 

So why do we think we’re better than them? Mostly, because we have power over them. It’s not that different than white privilege or Nazi superiority. If you look at the historical record, you see that the people claiming whites were somehow better than blacks were white people. The blacks didn’t think of themselves as inferior. It was the people who had the power who made that determination.

The same thing is happening still, with the folks in power (humans) claiming that they’re superior to the folks not in power (animals). Yes, humans are different than zebras, but zebras are different than ostriches and ostriches are different than pumas. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. It’s just that our strengths tend to be stronger than the rest of the world’s creatures and our weaknesses tend to be fewer.

So it’s okay to think of yourself as human. It’s okay to see yourself as a member of the dominant species on the planet. But I’m not certain it’s okay to think of ourselves as inherently superior to the creatures around us. We’re different, that’s all. 

Note from Kenn Brody:
Steve McEllistrem is a noted SF author whose “Devereaux” series covers themes of post human and trans human development, opposed by devastating forces that almost wipe us out.  He is also a futurist who writes on forthcoming trends and technologies. 

The opinions in this issue are entirely Steve’s.

We welcome feedback.  Email to  The first hundred email responders will get a free copy of “The Sage of Sagittarius” in ebook form.  

You can look inside Steve's book here:

Monday, June 20, 2016

Gravity Sucks

Gravity Sucks

Gravity always sucks, it has sucked since the Big Bang and it will suck until the whole shebang goes away.

This true statement has nothing to do with sex.  It simply means that the force of gravity is unipolar and cumulative.  There is no such thing a negative mass, and apparently no such thing as repulsive gravity.  Electrogravitics is probably not a gravity thing but an electromagnetic thing, if it exists.

Higgs Boson at CERN

Electrons and protons come in positive and negative, so, on the scale of the universe, the plusses cancel out the minuses.  This is a good thing, since the forces between them is much, much stronger than gravity.  

When enough mass gets together, their gravity gangs up on the stronger forces and overwhelms them.  Particles all have mass and therefore they have no choice but to clump up.  The other forces, electromagnetism, the weak and the strong nuclear forces, cancel each other out or cannot work at a distance.  They are handicapped when it comes to cooperation.  Not so with mass and gravity.  That’s how we get neutron stars and black holes.  Gravity wins the contest by sheer numbers.

But what about antimatter?  Exotic particles?  Could they have negative mass? 

There is a recent test, the Alpha Experiment, that has accumulated some antimatter in a “box” of laser beams.  The amount is tiny but enough to weigh.  Damn it, they weigh the same as their normal particles.  Science Fiction does’t get a break there, either.
Standard Model

What about other exotic matter?

We are just about out of exotic particles.  The Standard Model shows everything we should expect to find, even the Higgs boson that gives all the other particles their masses.  Nothing new there.  

What about SUSY, supersymmetric particles?  There’s a whole ‘nother set of particles with weird names like squark, photino, selectron.  Problem is we haven’t seen any of those yet.  We don’t think they will have negative mass either.  Why?  If there was such a thing as negative mass, a particle that loses energy would go faster and faster, until it reached the speed of light.  Everything with negative energy would escape to c, and that is both chaos and the speed of light.   The universe would be a dangerous place for humans and aliens alike.

Supersymmetry Model

With my license to create “science” as an SF writer, I did create exotic particles with a negative mass in my (incomplete) novel, “The Curtain of Heaven”.  An ancient and extremely advanced alien race broadcast a complete description of the physics of this universe.  It went out in all directions from an untraceable source.  In it was the secret of unlimited power from the vacuum.  I called it a “Burgess Generator”.  As it runs and puts out stupendous power it also cooks up a batch of exotic matter.  One of my characters, a thief, accidentally discovers that an old Burgess Generator has negative mass in it.

Never letting such an opportunity go to waste, another character uses this exotic matter in an Alcubierre-Wilson Warp Drive (see last blog) and mankind goes to the stars.  

Otherwise, gravity only sucks.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Faster Than Light?

Faster Than Light?
Zila's Space Yacht in "Sage of Sagittarius"?

 Ever consider how dull it would be to read about the thousand year passage for some hero to join the war against the alien princess?  Yeah, I’ve tried that in “Cosmic Rift”, but I only managed 100 years.  

Science fiction at the speed of light is confining.  Read my last blog on the size of the universe and see why.  We are like ants crossing the Pacific.  Precisely like ants who can’t swim.

In my novel, “Sage of Saggitarius,” I invented a new method, the Allurion Seed, a 6-dimensional object with peculiar attributes, that enabled those few FTL ships that could afford one.  They cost about the same as a small country, but Zila, the protagonist, gets an FTL yacht and a crew for her adventures.  It’s made-up physics, sure, but at least I tried and it is plausible physics.  Most writers just hand-wave at the problem:  the Captain announces “Warp Speed” and the ship disappears in a cone of horizon lines.  

That’s cheating.  Why not just invoke the power of the charcoal yellow gemstone and go “POOF”?

But there is hope, all you star-farers.  Spanish physicist Miguel Alcubierre worked Einstein’s field equations for General Relativity backward and found that there was a math solution to go faster than light.  His ideas have been expanded by NASA’s Dr. Sonny White in his paper, “Warp Drive 101”.  

While no information, object or energy can travel faster than c (the speed of light in a vacuum), space itself can expand at unlimited speeds.  In fact it's doing that right now, out beyond the parts we can see with the most powerful telescopes, still stretching out after the Big Bang.  Of course, while a myriad of galaxies are retreating from us faster than c, we can never see them or have any causal interaction with them.  

Alcubierre calculated that a vehicle could stretch space behind it and compress space in front of it in such a way that it rode a wave of shaped space.  In this warp bubble, passengers would feel no acceleration and their watches would keep Earth time while the bubble traveled at, maybe, 1000 times c.

Of course there is a hitch.  Actually, a lot of serious hitches.  

The warp bubble requires negative mass, which may not even exist.  It requires so much of it that we would have to convert a moon to negative mass.  As an SF writer, I’ll call this one and just claim my people have access to “exotic matter”.  There may be such a thing.

No one has a clue as how to start a warp bubble without already having a warp bubble.  

The transition from warp to inertial motion may create a kind of Bremstrahlung, high energy rays caused by your slowing down, that would destroy your destination just as you reached it.  Imagine coming home after your successful space battle to a cooked Earth, all your fault.  

Still in all, I’ve done the research and some calculations and I’m using the Acubierre-White Warp Drive  (AWW Drive) in my new novel, the Curtain of Heaven.  I’m using the 6-dimensional version of it.  

I hope you like it!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Cosmic Catastrophes

REALLY big things that could waste us

As a science fiction writer I have a macabre attraction to possible catastrophes.  Not the kind of thing that could murder a lot of people, or even wipe out the human population of the Earth, but things that, at the very least, would wipe out the Earth and much more.  There are too many of those phenomena and every one is a potential book plot.

We are used to personal impermanence, as undesirable as it may be.  People, die, countries rise and fall, civilizations perish.  But the good Earth under our feet is there to stay, yes?  Well, no.  The best scenario is that Sol, our own sun, will eventually expand to the orbit of Mars and cook our planet to a molten crisp.  Why wait a billion years though?  A nova could occur within a few tens of light years of us.  Or an active black hole with just the right orientation could shine it’s polar death ray on us.  Or a decent asteroid could visit at orbital speed and cause pasteurized planet.

If you follow astrophysics you probably know about those.  What about these?

If life here was seeded by spaceborne particles, how about killer epidemics seeded by spaceborne particles?  Water bears and cockroach eggs can survive in space.  Why not alien cockroaches and virus spores?  Oh, wait, someone wrote a book about that already (Andromeda Strain).

Still, we’re thinking too small.  


Pillars of Hercules

Near Space

People seem to think of risks that are close by and easy to imagine.  If it’s far away and I never heard of it I’m not going to worry about it, right?  Um, no.

You do know that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is going to collide with an even bigger galaxy, Andromeda?  Go ahead, you have plenty of time to finish your coffee.  Have another cup.

The immense black hole in the center of our galaxy, Saggitarius A*, is currently out of things to suck in, so it is inactive.  Stars and gaseous nebulae are circling it, however, and slowly falling in.  Pretty soon it will form another accretion disk and that hot ring will blast x-rays, gamma rays and cosmic rays on every part of the Milky Way.  There are gas clouds between us and that black hoe, but they won’t last long under the assault.  That blast will go on for centuries. 

Our universe has more than the 3 dimensions we can see.  It has ten or eleven, depending on which version of M-theory you subscribe to today.  The shape of our space is a Calabi-Yau manifold, a family of unimaginable multidimensional curves named after the mathematicians who described them.  There is the possibility of a tear in some of those manifolds.  It could be a propagating tear, like ice crystals forming in water that is below freezing.  Drop an ice seed into supercold water.  One instant we have clear water, the next, ice. A tear in space is a similar kind of phase change.   A tear in the manifold would eat our lunch and the lunch box we came in.
Once started, a tear in space would either propagate at the speed of light, in which case we might be able to see it coming, or at the speed of expansion of the Big Bang, in which case it will be so fast we won’t have any warning.  Either way, the players all leave the stage, exeunt omnes. 

There could be a tear on its way right now. 

Come here, sweetie, daddy needs a last hug.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Thinner Blue Line

There is a tipping point where the police, tasked with maintaining civil order, loses the trust of the people that pay their salaries.  On the wrong side of that tipping point civil order decays and policemen like Lt. Furseth, NYPD, stop caring.

It may not be easy to point out any single cause, but most of us will agree that the list includes a lot more than traffic tickets for overdue auto tags or for jaywalking.  Certainly, the over-representation of drug crimes in our prisons is beyond dispute.  The ability to confiscate and profit by the confiscation of property and cash in crimes, even presumed crimes, is notorious.  The hiring of 100,000 police in the last war on crime led to the hiring of many ex-military types who have not adopted an attitude of public service.  Training that uses targets of mothers holding children and assumes that force is required to control every confrontation is a problem.  Turning Farm Bureau and EPA field people into LEO's is a problem.  Using MRAPS to serve warrants is a problem.   Using cops as tax collectors for single cigarettes is a problem.  Once the police are no longer members of the community but a uniformed and menacing presence,  trust is lost.

Did cops lose the trust of the community?

Ignorant politicians do not hesitate to use police to enforce egregious and unpopular laws.  But the Lone Ranger only has so many silver bullets.  

It only takes a few incidents to ruin the law enforcement culture of mutual understanding.  It doesn't require corrupt cops.  A policeman who swaggers down the road with a chip on his shoulder to confront a guy who just had an argument with his wife is an explosive situation, and pouring gunpowder on it, from either side, is dangerous.  It is exactly that kind of discretion, that kind of situation, that shows the difference between a police professional and a military cop in the wrong uniform.

It's tough enough being a cop when he or she gets support and respect from the people on the street.  It's impossible when they do not. 

We need more Lt. Furseths who care, and when we get them, everyone will care.

We need to get rid of the few bad cops and the many more bad politicians.