A chat with Elvis about Nibiru and other woo

Every other Tuesday, Elvis* – who’s living on Mars disguised as a walrus – drops in for a burger from the slider joint just down the road, because nobody on Mars knows how to make a good one. This week, as we chowed down on Chicken Anchovy Supreme, I mentioned that somebody’d posted a comment on my blog about Scholz’s Star – the red dwarf that skidded past the solar system around 70,000 years ago.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

By this guy’s proposal the star – sorry, ‘Nibiru’ – hosted a planet with intelligent life who’d come to Earth and coded secrets into our genes, and he pointed me to a website that – er – proved it.

Actually, when I looked at the site, it was filled with stuff about aliens – aka Sumerian gods – wanting to steal Earth’s gold in order to warm their planet. A prelude, I suppose, to the way aliens always wanted to steal women and water in the 1950s.

Elvis wasn’t worried. Between mouthfuls, he told me this sort of argument is common enough among the woo brigade. There’s no point trying to counter-argue using science because the people who peddle this stuff believe what they say as an act of their own faith in it and merely get angry if you question it.

I still thought science might offer something and pointed out that red dwarfs are the smallest and most innocuous looking stars ever, but they have an unfortunate habit of suddenly exploding into a wild fury. Their brightness can increase 400 times or more on the back of a major flare. They make our local solar flares, even the biggest, look feeble. And if you’re in the way of that licking – well, there you are, an innocent little cell just starting out on the evolutionary tree, and suddenly you get the world’s worst dose of radiation poisoning and die. Oops.  And before life can re-develop, the broken bits get radiated. And again…and again…and again…

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).

That happened on early Earth, too, when our Sun was young and boisterous. Life didn’t start developing until after the Sun had stopped lashing us. Turns out that life needs a stable environment. Red dwarfs don’t offer one – ever. And that, I explained to Elvis, was quite apart from the fact that alien life is – well, alien. The chances of an alien planet producing a biota identical to ours is pretty low.

Not to mention that Scholz’s Star is orbited by a brown dwarf companion at the distance of Venus – a companion that has three-quarters the mass of the star, meaning they’re actually orbiting a mutual point in space where their gravitation balances, the barycentre. Planets could stably orbit the barycentre, providing they were further out again – but that would put them too far away to have human-type life on them.

And the other problem is the travel. Sure, Scholz’s Star came close by astronomical standards. But that’s the point. Astronomical. It never came closer than 0.82 light years. Yup, light – the fastest thing you can get – still took eight-tenths of a year to reach it. In everyday terms, that’s 7,800,000,000,000 kilometres. Woah! As I told Elvis, our fastest space probe, New Horizons, would take 16,000 years to cross that distance.

He nodded throughout. Obviously he didn’t dispute it. But I hadn’t addressed his basic point.

‘The problem,’ Elvis suddenly said, ‘is that as a species we humans suffer terrible delusions about self-importance.’

‘Don’t say that too loudly,’ I said ‘you’ll upset people.’

‘What do I care? I live on Mars.’ He crumpled his burger wrapper.

‘Tuesday week?’

‘Yeah.’

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

*Well, he says he’s Elvis, anyway. But even if he’s AN Elvis (as I actually suspect) rather than THE Elvis, who cares? He talks sense, which isn’t bad for someone who lives on Mars most of the time and has to hide inside a walrus costume to avoid being mobbed by Elvis impersonator fans.

How Stephen Hawking reconciled the irreconcilable

I finally caught up with The Theory of Everything the other week – an awesome biopic about Stephen Hawking, the British physicist whose life’s goal is to find a theory – a single equation – that explains – well, everything. And what they didn’t mention in the movie is that he’s already made the first big discovery along that path.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

Let me explain. There are two main theories of the universe. Albert Einstein’s ‘General Theory of Relativity’ of 1917 totally explains space-time – the macro-scale universe. Quantum physics, which emerged a little later at the hands of Paul Dirac, Max Planck, Neils Bohr and others, works brilliantly in the micro-world – specifically, scales around a Planck length (1.61619926 × 10-35  metres). But the two don’t play nicely together. Not at all.

So far, nobody’s been able to reconcile them – despite the profusion of hypotheses such as string theory, where the maths work out fine, but where nobody has been able to find any evidence to prove it. (I can’t help thinking this is why Sheldon is a string theorist…)

Finding a ‘theory of everything’ has long been Hawking’s goal; and with Jacob Bekenstein he was the first to discover a way in which both Einstein’s General Relativity and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics could work together. They found that way in 1975, at the extreme edge of the possible – inside a black hole. Here’s Hawking’s original paper, ‘Particle Creation By Black Holes’ Commun. math. Phys. 43, 199—220 (1975).

A bit of explanation first. A ‘black hole’ is actually a ‘singularity’, a mathematical point where the curvature of space-time becomes infinite. The normal laws of space-time – the ones our friend Albert Einstein described – totally fail at that point. Even causality doesn’t apply. As Hawking once pointed out in a lecture, we can’t even imagine what might happen inside a singularity (he suggested a singularity could emit Cthulthu – it wouldn’t violate the laws of physics. I disagree. I can’t even pronounce Cthulthu. I think it would emit Sauron instead.)

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Luckily for us, the everyday universe is shielded from singularities by the event horizon – the point where the escape velocity of the singularity exceeds light-speed. Stuff can fall in. But nothing gets out. Hence the term ‘black hole’. Hawking disputed that. Quantum theory states that particle pairs – positive and negative – are always appearing out of nowhere, then annihilating each other. It doesn’t violate thermodynamics because the net energy outcome is still zero. The effect is known as ‘quantum vacuum fluctuation’.

What I’m about to describe is the heuristic overview – the physics of it is complex and involves some mind-exploding mathematics (‘Bogoliubov transformations’). Basically, Hawking reasoned that if a quantum vacuum fluctuation occurred on the event horizon, there was a chance that one particle, the negative, would be drawn in while the other escaped. They couldn’t annihilate each other, because nothing can escape the horizon. Being negative, the falling particle would reduce the mass of the black hole. Meanwhile the positive particle would escape – effectively as heat – from the black hole.

The result was that ‘black holes’ weren’t actually the black dead ends previously imagined. They were glowing. And they’d eventually evaporate. And THAT is Hawking Radiation.

This also meant that black holes had life limits, and while larger-mass holes had lifespans measured in billions of years, small ones would disappear quickly – which, incidentally, is why nobody’s worried about forming one with a few tens of particles in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which is about to be deployed at full power for the first time this year. It’d evaporate in way less than a microsecond. And so Hawking showed that, yes – at least in this extreme case – quantum physics and Einsteinian determinism could play nicely together.

The next question was whether the two could be reconciled in more everyday terms. And that’s been the stalling point. But if anybody can solve it – well, I figure it’ll be Hawking.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Getting winked at by a mystery star! Really

The latest wow-find from astronomers has snuck up on us by stealth. A small red dwarf star discovered in November 2013 by German astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz looked, first off, to be pretty ordinary.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

It even had a boring name: WISE J072003.20−084651.2, courtesy of being found lurking in data collected by the WISE Satellite. It is estimated to be 19.6 light years distant – in our neighbourhood, as stars go, but not exceptionally close. It has around 86 times the mass of Jupiter, making it a M9.5 class red dwarf, one of the smallest possible.

It is orbited – at the equivalent distance of Venus – by a ‘brown dwarf’ companion, a body with 65 times the mass of Jupiter. This world is warmed to near-luminescence by gravitational compression and – potentially – deuterium fusion, but isn’t massive enough to trigger hydrogen-1 fusion and light up like its star.

Yawn. Red dwarfs are the most common stars around. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, is a prime example. In fact, of the 60 stars known within 16.3 light years, 46 are red dwarfs. We’re finding lots in our neighbourhood lately because many are so cool and dim – by stellar standards – they’re invisible even to high-powered telescopes. It takes satellites with sensitive infra-red detectors to pick them up. Brown dwarfs are also appearing to these instruments – singly, or orbiting stars that (wait for it) are often red dwarfs.

Since 2013, though, Scholz’s Star has rung alarm bells. First was its proper motion – the way it tracked tangentially across the sky, relative to other stars. Eric Mamajek of the University of Rochester in New York led a team looking into that, using data collected by the South African Large Telescope and the Las Campanas Observatory’s Magellan telescope in South America. They discovered the proper motion was very slow. But the star itself had very high radial velocity – its actual speed. Around 83 kilometres a second, in fact – four times the usual velocity of stars in this part of the galaxy.

This added up to a star that was travelling fast – but which from our viewpoint didn’t appear to be moving. That’s no paradox – imagine you’re looking up a straight road at a car disappearing into the distance. It’s moving fast, but from where you’re standing, it isn’t moving left or right (‘proper motion’). That’s because it’s moving directly away – and that’s true of Scholz’s Star.

Comparison between stars and brown dwarfs. Not strictly to scale. Public domain, NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Comparison between stars and brown dwarfs. Not strictly to scale. Public domain, NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Mamajek and his team ran 10,000 mathematical simulations to find out how close it had been. And – just announced this month – they discovered that, some 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star skimmed past our solar system. With a closest approach of just 0.82 light years – some 52,000 times the distance of Earth from the Sun – it banged through the outer fringes of the Oort cloud, the icy cloud of debris left over from the formation of our solar system, which extends out to a light year or so.

The star was far too small and far too distant to affect the orbits of the Sun’s planets. Here on Earth, the Moon has 2,000,000,000,000,000 times the tidal effect exerted by Scholz’s Star at closest approach. But it will have perturbed some of the the ice-and-dirt clusters of the Oort cloud.  Passing stars are thought to do this every so often, and it’s thought that Scholz’s Star was far from the most serious. Some material will probably have been lobbed sunwards, and will still be on their way in – meaning there will be a small scattering of comets arriving in about 2,000,000 years. Yah, we’re talking about astronomy here – which means having a barrel full of zeroes by your desk.

Did ancient humans see the star? If we draw a circle around the Sun at 100,000 times Earth’s distance and plot Scholz’s Star’s path through it, we find the star took around 10,000 years to traverse that line. Back then it had huge ‘proper motion’ by stellar standards – enough to move across the sky by the angular width of the full Moon in 26 years.

But even at closest approach Scholz’s Star would have been around 11.8 magnitude and thus utterly invisible to the naked eye. But the thing about red dwarfs is that they’re often magnetically unstable – and emit huge flares. In some cases that can increase the brightness of the star, briefly, about 400 times. That would have been enough to make it visible as it tracked through our skies – intermittently. The jury’s out on Scholz’s Star, but Mamajek has speculated that it probably did flare regularly.

Yup, Scholz’s Star was probably winking at us. Which is kind of cool. And begs a question – what would happen if a star came even closer? More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

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

Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Yes – a Kiwi might go to Mars, but I still wish it was Justin Bieber

A New Zealander’s reached the short-list of 100 possible candidates for the one-way Mars One mission proposed for 2025-26 by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of the project.

Personally I’d have preferred they despatched Justin Bieber and left it at that. But the presence of a Kiwi isn’t bad given that the original long-list ran to 202,586 individuals.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I can’t quite believe the plan. Settlers will be lobbed to Mars in batches of four, inside modified Space-X Dragon capsules. They’ll land, build a habitat based on inflatable modules and several Dragons, and remain there for the rest of their lives. Kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with all of it beamed back to us for our – well, I hesitate to use the word under these circumstance. Entertainment.

I doubt that the show will run for many seasons. The development timing for the mission seems optimistic – a point I am not alone in observing. There have been a wide range of practical objections raised by engineers at MIT. But apart from that, nobody’s been to Mars before. Sure, we’ve despatched over 50 robots, 7 of which are still operational. But that doesn’t reduce the challenges involved in keeping humans alive in a hostile environment for their natural lives, and I figure from the Apollo experience that there’ll be curve balls along the way.

Those challenges will begin as soon as the colonists are cruising to Mars, a 256 day journey jammed into a 10-cubic metre metal can along – eventually – with 256 days worth of their wastes. Think about it. Popeye lived in a garbage can. The first Mars colonists? Well, they’re going to live in a commode. Hazards (apart from launch-day waste bags bursting on Day 255) include staying fit in micro-gravity and radiation flux. That last is the killer. The trans-Mars radiation environment was measured by the Curiosity rover, en route, and turned out to be – on that trip anyway – 300 millisieverts, the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of the exposure allowed to nuclear power plant workers. A typical airport X-ray scan, for comparison, delivers 0.25 millisieverts.

I suppose the heightened risk of cancer isn’t really an issue, given their life expectancy on Mars (68 days, according to MIT). Though if the sun flares – well, that’ll be too bad. (‘My goodness, what a lovely blue glow. Nice tan.’)

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.

Unfortunately the radiation problem continues on the surface of Mars. The planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s and its atmosphere is thin, meaning radiation is a threat even after you’ve landed. The answer is to bury yourself under Martian dirt, but Space One’s plans don’t seem to include that. There also a possible problem – which we’ll look at next time – with the nature of that dirt.

Whether the intrepid colonists will get away is entirely another matter. Apart from the hilariously optimistic timetable, the project relies on a modified version of Space-X’s Dragon, which has yet to be human-rated. And then there’s funding, which I understand will come from media coverage. But I suspect the likely barrier will be regulatory. These people will be flying inexorably and certainly to their deaths, and odds are on it will be before the natural end of their lives. Will the nation that hosts the launch permit that?

Still, let’s suppose there are no legislative barriers. And let’s say the colonists get to Mars without their hair falling out or the waste bags bursting and filling the cabin with – well, let’s not go there. Let’s say they land safely. Suddenly they’re on Mars. Forever. What now? And what about those curve-balls?

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Making ancient mysteries like Gobekli Tepe go away – with science!

I am always intrigued by the way ‘ancient mysteries’ go away with new science discoveries. All without recourse to secret ancient civilisations or helpful aliens.

Gobelkili Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Gobelkli Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Take Gobekli Tepe. This construction in southeastern Turkey is made of 7-10 ton upright stones, elaborately carved, and was recognised for what it was in the early 1990s by archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. Current theory suggests it was a gathering place for worship from a wide area.

There’s no mystery about how it was built; it’s within the capability of classic late paleolithic tech, providing they had an organised labour force and surplus food. That’s the point. Archaeologists have given the technology available to ice-age humans many names and classifications, often based on where variants were found – all of which is rather academic because in the broadest sense the people who invented this technology were as smart as we are, and it was smart tech, making best use of available materials; not just stone but also fire, wood, animal products, plant products, minerals and resins.

The only problem with Gobekli Tepe is when it went up – around 11,000 years before present, before villages and agriculture. That’s the mystery. Hunter-gatherer bands were typically a close-related kin group of around 150. We know this because that lifestyle is still followed in places today, such as the Kalahari. This, it seems, is the maximum scale of community that hunter-gathering can reasonably feed (humans today are apparently hard-wired to personally know groups of about 150 - something anthropologist Robin Dunbar puts down to that hunter-gatherer ancestry).

The thing is that hunter-gatherers, theoretically, didn’t have surplus production (food) for luxuries like temple building. The conventional view is this. Between about 11,000 and 8000 years before the present, einkorn wheat opened up agriculture in the northern reaches of the Middle East. Animal domestication followed. All this opened the gates to larger communities, notably Jericho and Catal Huyuk. The latter was a curious ‘one building’ city that flourished from around 9000 years before the present in what is now central Turkey, supporting a population estimated at anywhere from 6000 to 10,000. These agricultural centres could support specialists and feed a labour force that didn’t contribute, itself, to food growing – making larger-scale constructions possible.

Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

So what about Gobekli Tepe? Humans at the end of the ice age were still hunter-gatherers. No agriculture. But – clearly – there was surplus food and organised labour. What gives? Explanations have included assertions about alien originated civilisations, unknown to conventional archaeology but obvious in ‘clues’ that only enthusiasts are able to detect. Or it has been called the Garden of Eden.

How can I put this? Folks – it’s bullshit. Even in conventional terms there’s no mystery to Gobleki Tepe once we understand how agriculture rose after the ice ages. It turns out that neither flour, nor domestication of animals, nor villages were new. All had been invented before, largely by the Gravettian culture that flourished from Bulgaria to the Crimea, around 30,000 years ago.

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

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

These people were well on the way to an agricultural revolution nearly twenty millennia before ‘our’ one. They had semi-permanent habitations and had learned to make bread from wild wheat. They had grain stores. They had horticulture. They fished – indeed, analysis of nitrogen isotope ratios has shown that a lot of their protein came from fish. There is evidence of semi-domesticated animals, certainly domesticated dogs. But that came to an abrupt end when the world plunged into new glaciation some 26,500 years ago, culminating in the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago. The cause, possibly, was the Taupo super-volcano in New Zealand, which erupted with world-shattering effect and may have triggered a catastrophic climatic downturn.

World climates oscillated for a while, but began decisively warming with the end of the Younger Dryas glaciation some 11,500 years ago. Humans began moving into what is now eastern Europe. And it seems their version of hunter-gathering was supplemented with wild wheat. Grinding stones have been found as an accompaniment to their camps across a wide region, implying that flour was being ground from wheat before it was domesticated.

Mix that potential with determination and intellect – remembering these people were just as smart as we are and just as capable of doing stuff – and that, I think, is all we need to explain Gobekli Tepe. No secret ancient super-civilisation or alien woo required. Sure, later discoveries make other things possible – but that doesn’t reduce the intellect or humanity of those who achieved things with the technologies on which later developments rest.

Lest there be any doubt, New Zealand Maori, up until the point of contact with Britain, had a similar mix of technology to those who built Gobleki Tepe, and in many ways fewer opportunities. The Maori economy was a composite of hunter-gathering, with significant fishing, supplemented with horticulture north of the ‘kumara line’, but they had no wheat, corn, or metals, and no domestic animals other than the Polynesian dog (a type that went extinct in colonial times). Clay was available, but pottery – though known in the ancestral Polynesian islands from which Maori came – was not used.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

What happened? Maori developed a complex, sophisticated, vibrant and organised society able to build over six thousand pa (fortified places) across New Zealand between about 1500 and 1800 CE, all demanding surplus production and a social scale of organisation that often ran way beyond the 150-ish figure of the main Maori social structure, the hapu. Some of these, such as the horticulture on Mount Eden or the pa at Otatara, far outstrip Gobleki Tepe in scale. When the British arrived, mainly after 1800 CE, they had to invent a whole new classification (the ‘noble savage’, in settler period terms) to explain a people who, to British thinking of the nineteenth century, ran outside what was ‘supposed’ to happen by what the British knew at the time. But Maori had done it anyway, by their own capabilities. The problem, of course, was with how nineteenth century British thinkers saw the world.

Now go figure about those late ice-age folks and Gobleki Tepe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

My flirtation with the ultimate golden age sci-fi gadget

I re-discovered my slide rule a while back, the one I used in school maths lessons, way back when. I didn’t know just how utterly classic such things were, even then.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!

Aha – now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth’s water! Maybe with an app on my Surface Pro 3, but surely via my old slide rule!

These things mostly worked because of a quirk of mathematics – the logarithm, which means you can add logs, as a linear measure, to multiply. And there’s more. In the photo, I’ve set my slip-stick to do the pi times table – and believe me, it’ll calculate that to about two decimal places (which is OK for a quick estimate) faster than you can punch the same thing into a calculator. All you have to do is slide the centre piece to the right point and look along the ruler. Cool.

Time was when no self-respecting space adventurer set off without one of these. They were a staple in Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi, among others. With them you could not only defeat the squidgy aliens who were trying to make off with all Earth’s water – you could go on to conquer the entire universe.

And, just to nail how fast the world changes, NASA actually did conquer the Moon with slide rules. Apollo-era engineers carried them the same way we carry phones.

My slide rule’s linear, but they were also available as circular calculators – disks – often optimised for other functions such as electrical calculation. My father had one.

I have to admit that I’m using computers to do the maths for a hard sci-fi story I’m writing just now for an upcoming anthology. But still, the slide rule’s there as a standby. And the idea of it – well, I find that pretty inspiring. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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