Would anybody who lived on Pluto be called a ‘Plutocrat’, or something?
I might not be the first to ask this question – I think Heinlein did it in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, where his hero ended up being kidnapped by the Wormface aliens and taken to Pluto. Being Heinlein, the story was a lot better than it sounded – his hilarious riff on Smithian space opera, tangled with a general take on 1950s teen culture for good measure.
The key to its plausibility was the fact that Heinlein leavened the absurdities with some very, very solid science. He’d worked on pressure suit design in the 1940s for the US Navy, bringing that experience to the party when he described the eponymous spacesuit used by the story’s hero, Kip.
The first half of the novel was set in our solar system – as scientifically known in the mid-twentieth century. And when Kip got to Pluto, Heinlein covered the physics of low temperature. These are very cool indeed. In every sense.
So what happens when everyday stuff gets cold-soaked down to the temperature of (say) liquid nitrogen? There’s that party trick where you dip a rose into a thermos of the stuff and watch it shatter when you bang the blossom on the table (don’t touch it with your bare hand, OK?) But that’s true of a LOT of materials – like nylon. It’s also true of tool steel. Super-cool a hammer and watch what happens when you try to hit something with it. Both happened to Kip when he had to go outside on Pluto, in the space suit, to plant a beacon made by the Mother Thing to call for help from Vega. (Don’t ask).
Actually, you don’t have to drop metals to super-cold to get that effect. During the Second World War, German armoured vehicles caught in the Soviet winter ran into problems with cast metal becoming brittle for the same reason. That winter’s positively balmy by Plutonian standards.
The only thing Heinlein didn’t get right in terms of low-temperature chemistry – and, I suspect, possibly because it would have ruined the plot – is the fact that on the edge of the solar system the main building material for worlds isn’t rock. It’s water. On Pluto, water ice is so cold it behaves like rock, and that’s likely what the mountains New Horizons discovered are made of.
Which I think is pretty cool. Er – as it were. And Pluto is still far too warm to produce an Einstein-Bosen condensate. More on that anon.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015