All posts by mmolehill

Halting State

Y’all Stross haters oughta have a read at this:



Laughably Bad Science

#1 In an intermittent series

Today I want to pick on two examples, one near classic and another, more obscure opus.
First up we have Wolfbane by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, and secondly we have The Ion War by
Colin Kapp.

Kornbluth and Pohl describe evil organic/robotic aliens conquering Earth and using humans as a source of
spare parts. The “science” gets entertaining when they explain how the alien overlords make humans
mysteriously disappear, gone in 30 milliseconds. Which works by charging them to such a high
electrostatic potential that they blast through the roof into orbit without a trace. First off, if you accelerate
someone so fast that their exit can’t be perceived exactly how many Gs does it take? I’m guessing at least
20 to 30, minimum, so already your human has been reduced to goo. Next, there’s still that ceiling in the
way. Imagine a 165 pound man slamming into a ceiling at several miles per second. Splat, at the very
least, followed by a big explosion, followed by a ginourmous gaping hole in said ceiling.

In fact, there’s even more wrong with this idea. If you charge some object up it doesn’t repel away
from the surroundings, it draws opposite charges from the environment and is attracted towards it. But,
assume we can charge both the subject and the floor to the same potential at a high enough voltage such
that they are repelled at 30 Gs. Just how much charge does that take?
Lifting a 165 pound man 1 foot at 30 Gs takes 3648 joules. The human body exhibits approximately 150
pico farads to the environment. 3648J = 1/2 CV^2, solve for voltage; = 6.97 MV.
So, on top of all the other rediculousness here, a lightning bolt blasts everything in sight.                           

The Ion War
Secretive special forces can walk through walls. By being turned into plasma contained by wire mesh
suits. Lots of problems with this one. Firstly, even if plasma could pass through a wall, there’s that metal
mesh suit in the way. It’s not plasma, why would it pass through anything? And plasma won’t pass through
in any case. A 165 pound man somehow turned into plasma is 165 pounds of plasma. Which is basically a
165 pound cloud of charged gas molecules. Not only do they not pass through, they go splat all over the
surface and attract enough opposite charges out of the environment to neutralize the ions. Leaving a big,
fat glob of homogenized crap all over the place, Yuck.

Special Mention – Red Planet (2000)
When the biologist discovers the giant Martian cockroaches he states, with authority, “Definitely some sort
of nematode”.

Let’s put the science back in science fiction.

Michael Z. Wiliamson vs High School Algebra

Moderately entertaining Baenish author despite the occasional grammatical solecism. But the real howlers are his attempts at mathematical language. For example:

A character described as “logarithmically exponentiating” hmmm… These are inverse operations, so do both and get back where you started, Like subtracting addition or something.


Or someone’s wealth described as rising “asymptotically” An asymptote is a limit, so that’s exactly what you don’t want. This is the right place for describing it as exponential, which is a function which rises without bound, and actually rises faster as it increases.

Quick quiz: which function is the non-trivial solution for d/dx = f(x)?

Spooning in Speakerisms

Sometime around 1981 Stephen Hawking gave a series of three lectures about gravitational physics at Harvard.  This was before he had the vocoder; one of his grad students sat next to him and translated. So, the phrase “this then is the third law of black hole physics” came out as “this then is the third hole of black law physics”. Hawking cracked up along with the audience and a very embarrassed grad student.

The Japanese in SF

The Japanese are still showing up in recent sf as being a dominant force in the future. The problem is that the fertility rate in Japan is 1.4 per woman. That says that the Japanese population is on an exponential decline. In 100 years there will be less than 10% of the current population. As Mark Steyn says, the future belongs to those who show up.  There won’t be any Japanese to dominate the future.

With their fascination for robots I see the Japanese future as an island playground full of robot samurai, robot ninjas and robot anime schoolgirls.