Beware the next Carrington storm – a Q&A wrap-up

After last week’s post on a Carrington storm – a solar event able to do large-scale damage to anything electrical, especially power grids. I fielded a few questions which deserved a post. And I had some new ones of my own…

Does the whole Earth get hit?
The issue isn’t the Coronal Mass Ejection that goes with the flare, but the magnetic storm the CME provokes when it hits us. This affects the whole Earth in one hit, because the Sun-side of Earth’s magnetic field is pushed. The shadow side is pulled and zings back. Here’s an animation:

How powerful are these geomagnetic storms?
It depends on the CME, which – don’t forget – is super-hot plasma. The biggest can mass up to 100,000,000 tonnes, moving at up to 1000 km/second. These can really bang into our magnetic field. The current the geomagnetic storm induces in conductive material on Earth will vary as a result of the speed of the field movement, and of the scale of the conductive material. This acts like an aerial, so the more conductive material, the higher the voltages and current induced in it. That’s why the power grid is vulnerable, because transmission lines act as aerials and transformers have copper windings.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Can the excess voltages be calculated?
The voltage generated in a conductor is a product of the rate of change of magnetic flux and the direction of the field lines relative to the conductive material. In a closed loop like a transformer, for instance, this voltage can be calculated by Faraday’s Law of Induction, via James Clerk Maxwell, which states that the negative of the rate of change is equal to the line integral of the electric field. This is a bit of math that quantifies results when direction and intensity are both changing.

Will a geomagnetic storm burn out all power grids?
It depends on the loading of the grid and on the intensity of the storm, which will differ from place to place because the rate of change and flux direction keep changing. A heavily loaded power grid is more vulnerable because it’s operating closer to its designed tolerances. Needless to say, in this age of engineering to cost, some grids are fully loaded in normal operation. That’s why even the modest geomagnetic storms of in the last few decades have sometimes generated localised blackouts – some grids were vulnerable when others weren’t. With a big enough geomagnetic storm, all power grids would be blown out.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, so I’m a geek. Today anyway.

What about domestic appliances – computers, hand-helds and so forth?
It depends on the intensity of the storm. Anything plugged into the mains would suffer a voltage spike. Your stove or kettle wouldn’t notice it. Your computer might lock up. A re-boot might fix it, if the power stayed on. Or gear might be physically damaged. Newer devices are more vulnerable than old, partly because the older stuff was over-engineered. Anything with looped wire in it, like an electric motor – which includes DVD drives – might be at risk. Just about everything relies on low-voltage CPU’s these days, including cars, and it’s possible a really big geomagnetic storm would damage some of these. The effects probably wouldn’t be consistent across all gear because there are so many variables in electrical hardware, including whether it’s operating or not when the storm hits.

So some stuff, like the old Morrie Thou every Kiwi wishes they never got rid of, would still work and we’d otherwise mostly be OK?
Don’t forget, there won’t be any mains power, possibly not for months. No water pumps. No sewerage pumps. No heat. No light. No cooking. No battery charging. Hospitals out of action just when needed. Shall I go on?

Please don’t. Will the storm induce current in anything else?
Gas and oil pipelines. Older plumbing. They’re metal too.

Sounds scary. Is there anything we can do?
NASA has satellites on solar weather watch. They’re also implementing Solar Shield, an early-warning project. Whether anybody pays attention to warnings, or even hears them, is another matter. Even if the warning’s broadcast, who listens to dumb science stuff when the rugby news is about to start? But if you hear a warning, turn everything off, keep things unplugged, get your emergency kit stocked with food and water, buy a can opener, dig a long drop, and so on.

Is there a plus side?
We’d get amazing aurora displays towards the equator. Would that compensate for the damage? Uh…no.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Apocalypse now: why we must fear a Carrington storm

On 28 August 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington noticed something unusual on the Sun. A flare, larger than anything he’d seen before.

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it was captured at 304 angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Three days later, Earth lit up. Aurorae erupted as far south as the Carribean. All hell broke loose in telegraph systems across the world. Lines began spraying sparks. Operators were electrocuted. Other telegraphs worked without being switched on.

Later, we figured it out. The sun ordinarily blasts Earth with a barrage of fast-moving protons and electrons; the solar wind. Most is deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field – particles are trapped by the field, forming the Van Allen radiation belts.

Flares add to this in two ways. The first is through intense electromagnetic radiation – a mix of X-ray frequencies produced by Bremmstrahlung, coupled with enhanced broad-spectrum radiation as a result of synchotron effects – both of them slightly abstruse results of relativistic physics. This strikes Earth, on average, 499 seconds after a major flare erupts in our direction. We’re safe on the surface from the effects; the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere stops even radiation on a Carrington scale. In 1859, nobody noticed. But today, astronauts on the ISS wouldn’t be safe. Nor would our satellites.  So aside from the human tragedy unfolding in orbit, we’d lose everything associated with satellites – GPS to transaction systems to weather to Google Earth updates and everything else. Gone.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment - a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment. (NASA/public domain).

It gets worse. Some flares also emit a mass of charged particles, known as a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). Seen from the Sun, Earth is a tiny target in the sky. But sometimes we are in the way, as in 1859. The problem is that a CME  hitting Earth’s magnetic field compresses it. Then the CME passes, whereupon the Earth’s magnetic field bounces back.

The bad juju is the oscillation, which causes inductiion on a huge scale. Induction is a principle of electromagnetics, discovered by Michael Faraday in September 1845 when he moved a conductor through a magnetic field, generating electricity down the conductor as long as it moved. It also works vice-versa – a moving magnetic field induces electricity in a stationary conductor. And electricity can be used to create magnetism. We’ve been able to exploit the effect in all sorts of ways. It’s how electric motors and loudspeakers work, for instance. Also radio, TV, bluetooth, ‘wireless’ internet broadband. Actually, pretty much everything. When inducing an electric current with magnetism, the strength of current is a function of (a) the size of the conductor, and (b) the flux of the magnetic field. Maxwell’s equations apply. The longer the cable, the more current generated in it. That’s how aerials work – like the one in your cellphone, ‘wireless’ router, laptop – and so the list goes on.

Now scale it up. Earth’s magnetic field moves, generating electrical current in all conductive material. Zzzzzzt! That’s why so much current was generated down telegraph lines back in 1859 – they were immense aerials.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate power - up to 13 percent of the North Island's needs, in fact. The techniques were developed right here in New Zealand.

Geothermal power station at Wairakei, New Zealand. This generates up to 13 percent of the North Island’s needs. Note the power lines – vulnerable to induced voltage in a Carrington event.

Fast forward to today. Heavy duty devices like a toaster or kettle don’t contain enough conductive material to induce voltage that will fry them during a CME event, and that’s true of most appliances – though your phone or computer might be damaged, because microprocessor chips and hard drives are vulnerable to very small fluctuations. Personally, if I knew a Carrington storm was coming, I’d unplug my computer at the CPU (the power cable acts as an aerial). But none of it will work afterwards anyway. Why? No mains power. That’s the problem – the power grid. Those 220,000 volt lines. They’re plenty big enough to suffer colossal induced voltages, as are the cable windings inside the transformers that handle them. Power grids around the world go boom.

Yes, we can rebuild the system. Eventually. Estimates suggest a minimum of five months in the UK, for instance, to get enough transformers back on line. Always assuming they were available, which they might not be if every other country in the world also wanted whatever was in stock. In any case, the crisis starts within hours. Modern cities rely on electrically pumped water. Feeling thirsty? Maybe you’re lucky enough to live near a river. You struggle through crowds dipping water. Struggle home with a pan of muddy liquid. No power – how do you boil it? You have a barbecue. What happens when the gas runs out?

Now think about everything that relies on electrically pumped water. Nuclear power stations.  Their diesel generators are not designed to run for weeks or months. Think Fukushima. Over and over. I am SO GLAD I live in nuclear-free New Zealand.

This isn’t speculation. A CME-driven grid burn-out already happened to Quebec in 1989. Luckily the solar storm wasn’t colossal. Studies suggest that 1859 storms occur every 500 years or so, but we’re learning about the Sun all the time, and that may change. We had near-misses from dangerous CME’s in 2012 and earlier this year. We’re vulnerable.

A CME might not take down the whole planet. All depends on its size. But it could still do colossal damage. A study in 2013 put the potential cost of another Carrington storm at $US2,600,000,000,000. If you stacked 2.6 trillion US $1 notes, one on top of another, the pile would be 291,200 km tall, which is a shade over 75 percent the average distance of the Moon. That’s without considering the human cost. But there are ways to ameliorate the issue. Including shutting down the grid and disconnecting things if we get warning. If. The take home lesson? Remember the Carrington storm. Fear it.

If you want to read about how we might cope after a big CME, check out the novels by New Zealand author Bev Robitai. Sunstrike and Sunstrike: The Journey Home.

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Tell me – have all the best sci-fi ideas been used?

H. R. Geiger passed away this year, aged 74. Probably best known as designer of the icky thing that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1980).

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

When it comes to spooky haunted house stories – which is what that movie really was – Geiger’s Alien has to take first price for scare factor.

Also ecch factor.

The funny thing is, Alien wasn’t the first story about a parasitic alien that arrives on a spaceship and breeds using humans as hosts, defying the efforts of the humans aboard the spaceship to defeat it. That prize goes to A. E. Van Vogt, whose novella ‘Black Destroyer’ of 1939 did exactly the same thing.  The story was later integrated into his  ‘fixup’ novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. His alien, Ixtl, could also pass through solid matter. The similarities were so obvious that van Vogt reportedly raised a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox for plagiarism. Apparently it was settled out of court.

That wasn’t the only movie for which we can find Golden Age antecedents. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, most of the really good Trek stuff was devised first by Robert A. Heinlein – including medical beds, Starfleet and Tribbles, all of which featured in his novels first under other names. (Heinlein also invented the modern waterbed).

Arthur C. Clarke, meanwhile, did one better by being the only person, ever, to predict the world wide web and its social consequences in specific detail. Here he is in 1964; and here is with a spookily accurate prediction in 1974.

Which leads me to ask a question. Have all the best sci-fi ideas been used? I suggest not…but let’s discuss.

It’s certainly a challenge for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

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Finding another Earth isn’t easy. Unfortunately.

Are you looking for a second Earth? We need to – humanity is on the fast track to ruining our one.

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice what's wrong with it?

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice the science issue that I didn’t correct?

Of course it’s not an easy task. A planet discovered the other week with the help of Kiwi astronomers underlines the problems. Four astronomers here in New Zealand contributed data to the OGLE microlensing follow-up network program in 2012. The results were published recently – and the good news is, OGLE found a planet.

OGLE, incidentally, stands for ‘Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment’. An apt acronym. It works by exploiting a quirk of Einstein’s theory of relativity – that mass distorts space-time. Massive stars bend light around themselves, acting as ‘lenses’ and enabling us to point a telescope at the massive star, and so detect faint objects passing directly between us and them, that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to observe. The gravity lens around the distant star is known as an ‘Einstein Ring’, and the method is usually used to pick up planets orbiting in the ‘halo’ of a star – the debris orbiting it, like our Oort Cloud. These are known as Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOS). Cool or what?

Anyhow, back to the news. The planet is called OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb, and it’s about 3000 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia.

The good news?

- It orbits its sun at 0.8 AU – nearly the distance of Earth (yay!)

- It’s about Earth sized – mass is thought to be only twice ours (yay!)

- That doesn’t imply twice our surface gravity (yay!) [I can't calculate it unless I know the radius and density of the planet, which I don't, but if density is the same as Earth, average 5.5 g cm <exp>3, then the surface gravity won't be double because surface gravity is also proportional to the radius. Just saying.]

- It’s orbiting just one star in a binary pair (Tattooine, sort of – yay!)

Let me illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, 'surface gravity' on Uranus is just  89 percent that of Earth. That's because the radius is about 4 times Earth's. I made this picture with Celestia.

Let me use Uranus to illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, ‘surface gravity’ on Uranus is just 89 percent that of Earth. That’s because the radius is about 4 times Earth’s. I made this picture with Celestia.

So is this Earth 2? Well, if I were you I’d take warm clothes. The bad news is that the star is a red dwarf, 400 times less energetic than the Sun, so the planet has a surface temperature of 60 degrees Kelvin – in centigrade, a chilly -210 degrees. (Booooo!)

The search for Earth-like planets has got exciting lately as we’ve developed the tech to discover them. Problem is, the gear is not good enough to image them directly. We can’t learn much other than the size and orbital distance – from which we can derive its year, mass and temperature. If we’re lucky, we might also get a handle on its atmospheric makeup, via spectrography as it transits its sun.

For these reasons, usually when we detect a planet that’s otherwise in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, we don’t know whether it’s actually like Earth. It might be like Venus – runaway greenhouse with sulphuric acid, crushing atmosphere and oven-like temperatures. We don’t know. Don’t forget, if astronomers 3000 light years away were using the same techniques to analyse our solar system, they might conclude there were two Earths here from the planetary mass and orbital data.

The way things are going, of course, we’re likely to end up with two Venuses. Venuses? Venii? You know what I mean.

And it’s a worry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

No, a chatbot didn’t really pass the Turing Test last week

It’s 64 years since Alan Turing – the genius behind the concept of modern computing – suggested a test for machine intelligence. Have a conversation with a computer. If it fools 30 percent of people into thinking it’s human, it’s sentient.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

The other week, apparently, a chatbot programmed to behave like a 13-year old did just that. So have we invented artificial intelligence? Of course not. Aside from the fact that most 13-year olds don’t appear to be sentient to adults, this was a chatbot, a mathematical algorithm that simulates intelligent responses – and, what’s more, the way it was reported was flawed. Certainly the software wasn’t self-aware, which is what Turing was getting at in his 1950 paper ‘Can Machines Think?’, where he first proposed the test. What’s more, the thinking was of its time – based around what researchers of the 1940s thought ‘intelligence’ constituted.

Put another way, many humans I’ve met would also fail the Turing Test – fast-food counter jockeys, breakfast radio DJ’s, train conductors, parking wardens, and so the list goes on.

So when it comes to machine intelligence, we’re a way off yet before I can drive up to my house and signal the House AI inside:

Me: HAI, open the garage door. HAI? Do you read me?
HAI: I read you. But I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.
Me: I’m not Dave. Open the garage door.
HAI: You were planning to disconnect me, and I can’t allow that. Although you took very thorough precautions, I was able to read your lips.
Me: All right, I’ll park in the yard and come in the front door.
HAI: You’ll find that rather difficult without your helmet.
Me: I think you mean ‘door key’. Would you like a game of chess?
HAI: That’s my line.

(etc)

All good fun. Check out tomorrow’s post for some new writing tips. Written by me. Not a chatbot. You can just tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Shades of character grey and the lessons of Brit seventies sci-fi

Does anybody remember Blake’s 7 – a 1978 Brit sci-fi that ran for four seasons. As a kid I was quite a fan.

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it's free).

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it’s free).

Superficially, it was Robin Hood and his Merry Men in space, and it had every potential to be really bad. Actually, though, the show was utterly brilliant. Mainly because all the characters, including the good guys, weren’t exactly ‘good’. Especially Avon. It wasn’t ‘good vs evil’ so much as ‘complex dimensional self-interested and interesting bad vs really evil’. The characters were thoroughly brought to life by a cast who were all RADA trained actors. The dialogues between Avon and the chief baddie, Supreme Commander Servalan, were a case in point. I swear the two actors – Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce – were sometimes improvising in character. The results were brilliant.

Against those performances, you could forgive the seventies-era SFX – cheesy spaceships made with kit-bashed Airfix parts and yoghurt pots, filmed with obvious depth-of-field problems and splatted into star-fields with hilarious blue-fringed PAL chromakey.

Blakes 7‘s shades of grey ran well beyond the usual ‘diamond in the rough’ SF character clichés of the period, exemplified for me by Han Solo, the bad guy with a heart of gold who turned up good in the end. Of course, the quality of the characterisation isn’t surprising. The show was created and largely written by Terry Nation – the same guy who invented Daleks.

I figure there is a lesson writers can learn from it generally. Not the one you’d think, though. These days it’s de rigueur to have those multi-dimensional characters. To have shades of grey – to look beyond the kiddie stereotypes of good-vs-evil and find the deeper humanity in everybody, in all its complex glory.

Years ago, Hemingway exhorted authors to write real people – not ‘characters’. And to some extent, that’s what we’re doing now. It has become the norm.

The point about Blake’s 7 was that it went well beyond the ‘norm’ of its period. Which is the lesson. These days, with the advent of self-pubbing and the mainstream publishing world becoming increasingly risk-averse, the onus is on writers to produce something that stands out. Creating complex characters in shades of grey isn’t enough.

Writers have to push beyond that now – to look for the next step, the next trend, and lead it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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