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

Cool! New Zealand joins the orbital rocket club – for real

Private-enterprise orbital ventures aren’t just an American dream. Last week, New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab unveiled their commercial booster.

Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977. Photo: NASA, public domain.

OK, this is a generic rocket pic, but you get the picture. Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977, by Titan. Photo: NASA, public domain.

It’s called Electron. Very cool. It’s not a big rocket – 10 tonnes of carbon composite and 18 metres long. But it’ll put 110kg into a 500 km orbit, with the help of locally developed Rutherford LOX/ kerosine engines. And in this day of micro-sats, that’s plenty for a whole host of commercial uses. The company states that it already has 30 launches pre-booked.

Space boosters? We are a country of 4 million people previously known for our large numbers of nervous sheep. I’m put in mind of the ‘mouse that roared’.

But of course New Zealand long ago ditched the ‘No. 8 wire’ notion. We have world-class scientific minds (Lord Rutherford led the way – and don’t forget JPL head Sir William Pickering, or Sir Ian Axford, a friend of my family who ran the Max Planck Institute). It’s over half a century since we designed and built the world’s first jet-boat. Today we design and build world-leading quake-proofing systems. We build yachts that ‘fly’ with underwater carbon fibre wings, literally, at double wind speed. We have the world’s leading SFX studio, right here where I live in Wellington.

I was wondering. What could Kiwis put into orbit? Here’s my list.

1. Justin Bieber. Of course, a 110kg payload doesn’t leave much room for niceties like a pressure suit, life support or space capsule, parachutes, heat shield etc, I suspect we’re looking here at just Mr Bieber and a one-way trip to orbit. But hey…
2. Can’t actually think of a No. 2.
3. A radio endlessly suggesting to the world that it’s best to buy the books variously written by me, and by my blogging writer friends.

I’m leaning towards (3), but given (1), it’s…well, pretty evenly balanced…

What’s your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Remembering ROMBUS and days of future passed

They were heady days, the 1960s. Back then nothing seemed too big to engineer on Earth. Or off it.

Launch of Apollo 11, atop a Saturn V booster. One of the readers of this blog's Dad was the pad safety officer for Apollo 11. How cool is THAT? Public domain, NASA.

Apollo 11 departs by Saturn V. Public domain, NASA.

When the moon race began in 1961, humanity had barely begun to step into space. But the job was done – twice. The Soviets had a serious programme, but started late, were under-funded, and work was divided between rival bureaux. Then Sergei Korolev died. With him died any chance of their N-1 moon booster working. The US equivalent, Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V, won the day.

Both derived from technologies von Braun pioneered in the 1930s. The Saturn V was a direct descendant of the V-2, with the same arrangement of  traditional rocket engines and massive fuel tanks.

Project Deimos departs Earth orbit with one of Bono's colossal ROMBUS boosters. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS leaving for Mars, 9 May 1986. Public domain, NASA.

What that added up to was weight. It’s why a conventional single-stage rocket can’t make orbit with useful payload; too much mass is taken up in structure. Von Braun’s Saturn V managed a mass-ratio of 22 because it had three stages. The problem was that each stage was discarded after one use. Costs were astronomical.

However, they weren’t the only way ahead. In 1964, Douglas Aircraft engineer Philip Bono proposed a ‘plug nozzle’ engine that did away with the combustion chamber and complex cooling systems. Fuel (liquid hydrogen) was stored in jettisonable external tanks, with the oxidiser (liquid oxygen) inside the booster.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away for landing, late November 1986. Public domain, NASA.

Bono called it ROMBUS – Reusable Orbital Module-Booster & Utility Shuttle. The design he and his associates came up with was enormous, with a launch mass of just over 6,300 tonnes. That was nearly twice the mass of a Saturn V, but the mass-ratio available in ROMBUS was good enough to fly to orbit in one hit, dropping external tanks along the way. What’s more, it could re-enter using the plug as a heat shield, pumping residual fuel across it as a coolant. And fly again, up to five or six times per booster. It was a different approach from carpeting the bottom of the Atlantic with dead Saturn stages.

Bono calculated that ROMBUS could put 450 tonnes into low Earth orbit, nearly four times that of Saturn V. The Moon was within reach of the system – and then Bono came up with a plan for flying one of his colossal boosters to Mars and back.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the huge ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit. Public domain, NASA.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the gigantic ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit, September 1987. Public domain, NASA.

Bono estimated that ROMBUS could be flying by 1975 and drop launch costs to $12-per-pound to orbit, in 1964 terms. That compared wonderfully with the $150/pound of Saturn. Development costs were estimated at nearly $4.1 billion in 1964 dollars, this when the entire Apollo project was budgeted at $18 billion.

Technical issues relating to the plug nozzle would likely have taken some solving. Still, we can imagine the what-if scenarios. Project Selena looked towards a 1000-person lunar colony by 1984, and – providing ways could be found of stopping the cryo-fuels from boiling off during the 800-day mission – Project Deimos would have landed six astronauts on Mars by November 1986.

Bono’s huge rocket was a vision of its age – a vision of the 1960s, a vision of the era before humanity lost the dream, when anything seemed possible. But it never came to pass – and I can’t help thinking that today, that vision simply isn’t there.

What happened?

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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My hypothesis that English is a loose language

I’ve always thought English is a loose language. Take the words ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’, for instance. Even dictionary definitions sometimes mix their meanings up.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientifically, the word ‘theory’ means a ‘hypothesis’ that has been established to be true by empirical data. Take Einstein’s two theories of relativity, Special (1906) and General (1917). We call them ‘theories’, by name, but everybody with a GPS-equipped cellphone or GPS system encounters proof that Einstein was right, every time they use it.

This is because GPS satellite clocks have a correction built into them to cope with Special Relativity time dilation that occurs because they’re moving at a different velocity than the surface of the Earth. It’s miniscule –  6 millionths of a second loss every 24 hours. There’s also the need to cope with General Relativity time acceleration relative to the surface of the earth, because they’re in orbit, putting them further away from the mathematical centre of Earth’s mass than we are on the surface of the planet. That totals 45 millionths of a second gain every 24 hours.

If all this sounds supremely geeky and too tiny to worry about, millionths of a second count,  because its on differences at that order of magnitude that GPS calculates positions. If the net relativity error of 39 millionths of a second every 24 hours wasn’t corrected, GPS would kick up positional errors of up to 12 km on the ground. Einstein, in short, was totally right and if we didn’t use Einstein’s equations to correct GPS, we’d be lost. Literally. Yet we still call his discovery a ‘theory’.

Hypothesis,on the other hand, is the idea someone comes up with to explain something. Then they run tests to figure out the rules. Take gravity. Everybody knew it existed. However, Newton figured he could come up with rules – his hypothesis. Once Newton had a hypothesis, he was able to run experiments and sort out actually how it worked – creating his theory of gravity.

Neptune. A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation (cool, free science software).

Neptune. Discovered by mathematics, thanks to Newton’s theories. A picture I made with Celestia (cool, free science software).

One of the reasons why these explanations are called ‘theory’ is because science sometimes finds refinements. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is also a theory of gravity, integrating the extremes of time and space Einstein described in his Special theory. It replaced Newton’s theory. But that didn’t mean Newton was wrong in the terms he observed and described. On the contrary, his equations still work perfectly for the things around which he developed the theory.

So in the strictest sense, ‘hypothesis’ means ‘how we think things work’, while ‘theory’ means ‘how we’ve shown things to work’. Science sometimes creates supersets of theories, like onion skins, that explain things differently – but usually don’t invalidate the core of the earlier theory.

And my hypothesis, which I think should be elevated to theory status on this evidence, is that English is a pretty loose language. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Two interesting but possibly silly factoids about Star Wars

A while back Peter Mayhew – the 7’6” guy inside Chewbacca’s costume in the original Star Wars – released a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stills from the production.

They’ve got a period look – the movie was shot in the age of disco, flares and vinyl-topped cars. But it’s kind of cool to think Star Wars still has the power to capture our imaginations despite its stylistic origins in the decade taste forgot. Which leads me to a couple of factoids:

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

1. Tattooine is a real place. Most of the movie was filmed at Pinewood (hence the surfeit of British seventies brat-packers in bit-parts) but Lucas filmed the desert sequences in Tunisia near a town that looks like the Star Wars version. The name of that town? Foum Tataouine. Though before you all go ‘squee, how cool is it that they found a town of the same name’, think about how movies are actually made.

Not only is Tataouine a real place – it was liberated from the Nazis in 1943 by New Zealanders. I’ve met some of the guys who were in on the drive. (Just to compound the trivia, Luigi Cozzi’s Italian spaghetti version of the Lucas epic, Star Crash (1978) was filmed in part at Bari, where the Kiwis landed later the same year).

 2. Darth Vader’s real accent. Darth Vader was played by British actor and weight-lifter Dave Prowse, but he lost his voice to James Earl Jones. Prowse is from the West Country – Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who was also West Country, spoke the same way. A soft, lilting accent that is one of England’s quintessential classics. But not, it seems, suitable for the movie’s chief villain.

Call it meta-entertainment. The story behind the adventure. Or something.

I can’t help thinking that the story behind the forthcoming Disney knock-offs won’t be anywhere near as interesting.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410