17 June, 2011

[SFAP] Chapter 5:5

This is the fifth section of the fifth chapter of Sonnets from a Proton. The novel starts here.
The next section is here.

 “Sounds like magic what you’re doing.”
“Not magic no, but we’ve come a long way in the last hundred years or so; well sort of,”
“What do you mean”
“I’ll give you Laurence’s summation of history; you know the one that says humans have done very little.  Note this is when things were exploited not when they were discovered. In the 19th century it was heat engines and division of labour. In the 20th Century it was globalisation and electromagnetism. The 21st brought nuclear power and information technology. In the 22nd we should have had biotechnology and strong force mechanics, and we would have done had the Habitat not showed up.”
“Well we did didn’t we?”
“We’re only just getting the strong force things coming through now; it’s been limited to a fraction of its potential thanks to the distraction of the Habitat.”
“I thought we got the strong force stuff from there.”
“The sun does not shine out of the Habitat’s arse you know that. We are able to make scientific breakthroughs without them you know.”
“Yeah but bit of a co-incidence all that stuff showing up just after the Habitat arrives.”
“Do you even know how we discovered half this stuff?”
“Well it’s obvious isn’t it?”
“No, do tell!”
“What do you think happened? That we reverse engineered one of their drones, or some of the material that makes up the pylons on the Habitat.”
“Why not? It wants us to advance doesn’t it? Why else is it here?”
“You think the Habitat wouldn’t notice us stealing its stuff?”
“Well no, but what else is it trying to do?” Tom’s voice tailed off.
“Damn good question, no the breakthrough for strong force engineering came from before the Habitat arrived. Let me tell you a story.
“Quantum mechanics really doesn’t make sense, it’s the best we’ve got to explain the state of the universe, but it’s still so weird and counter intuitive it really does make you ask how the universe could be this way. Similarly there is a thought experiment that goes: how could we know that reality as we perceive it is not in fact some gigantic computer simulation. In fact given the speed at which computing performance improves it is highly likely that not only will it eventually be possible to simulate consciousness it will be possible to simulate a world of conscious people. The next step after that is that it will then become trivial to simulate a world full on conscious people. That would be highly useful for market research or crime scene reconstructions or historical speculation, the possibilities are endless. If this is true, then since there would be more simulations of the real world than the real world then it is highly probably we are living in a simulation. Now given this, a group of scientists set out from their understanding of some of the weird properties of quantum mechanics to postulate at what properties the computer running this simulation would have to have. Long story short they made some predictions from the assumption that the observable universe was a simulation that were proved to be true by experiments. Now just sit and ponder that for a moment.”
“So we’ve proved we’re living in a simulation?”
“No, because those equations that they came up with that proved to be correct can have a completely different interpretation that just describe another branch of quantum mechanics, some wit named it sub quantum mechanics, but if I ever find him I’ll have him flogged. No we just can’t know if we’re living in a simulation until we’re contacted by the designers and even then I won’t believe it’s not just some obscenely advanced aliens playing with us.”
“So what’s the point of this story?”
“The point is their predictions and later developed branch of QM gave us a new insight into the strong nuclear force, in the first able to create materials vastly stronger than natural atoms, much like CNTs are much stronger than wood, and second able to produce a strange effect of a surface that is very strongly repulsive both to photons and ordinary atoms.”
“Yeah I heard the advertising for that stuff: will make building with natural atoms seem as primitive as living in a cave.”
“Well there’s lots of potential there sure. Anyway no sooner were we just starting to explore the possibility of these materials and the Habitat shows up and the most basic examinations of its pylons show this stuff must be possible”
“That’s got to have helped the funding for the material research though.”
“Maybe, but it would have been ours! No-one could have said ‘oh that’s technology stolen from aliens’ it would have been us, now humanity will always owe something to someone else.”
“Pissed off?”
“Yeah, anyway, it’s done now.” Laurence looked rejected for a moment but then the light came on at the back of his eyes again “Anyway the really interesting stuff, the one that is a game changer is this weird surface effect, in fact that was the experiment those scientists first did to prove life was a simulation, they produced a microscopic area that repelled perfectly – within experimental error – everything they threw at it.”
“Perfect shielding”
“Well almost. We’ve now got the ability to produce it a few square meters at a time. Now it’s not perfect, you couldn’t cover a craft with this and fly it into the sun because you’ve still got pressure and gaps in the material, but it’s a vast improvement over normal materials. It makes things like reactor shielding a lot easier”
“Got plans for it then?”
“Oh yes, but got to be careful what I say.”
“So you say there was another breakthrough this century.”
“Two actually, well kind of. The first I’ve got the full credit for, they don’t give Nobel prizes out for nothing”
“They give out several hundred every century what makes yours the one?”
“Because this discovery was thought to break one of the basic laws of the universe, it seemed to reverse entropy”
“That’s bad?”
“That’s good, well kind of; as it turned out it actually was just an unexpected application of some old rules, but they’re always the fun things to discover.”
“Go on.”
“Well it started off as a simple graduate project on an infra red LED. We were trying to enhance its efficiency so that it converted more electricity into infra red radiation. The strange thing that got me straight into my PHD was noticing that its efficiency was too great, much more than we could explain. Over 54% of the energy we put into that LED was coming out as light. Now given that an LED emits in two directions and one of those is completely converted to heat it meant that we had greater than one hundred percent efficiency. It was a short step from that to the conclusion of my PHD which was that the LED was somehow converting some of the wasted heat into the emitted infra red light. You see heat is radiated by infra red light, they’re the same thing, well sort of.”
“I know that”, said Tom irritably
“Fair enough, but that was thought to be impossible, but it was the only conclusion. Now what makes this so important was once I theorised a mechanism for how this was occurring I was able to produce an LED that from the perspective of electricity input produced over 100% of that energy as emitted light out of it; the rest of the energy coming from heat energy”
“Why is this so important a fridge cools things down.”
“Yes but this was a mechanism happening at the quantum level unlike anything we’d seen before. Now I’m sure you don’t want me to talk about quantum resonance or other terms but think of it like this, how much do you remember of basic physics.”
“Dropped it as soon as I could.”
“Fine, think of it this way then if you remember the concept of a diode that only a allows electric to flow one way then one model of this is that the differently doped semiconductor produces a bandgap in the electron shells that forms a gradient that only allows electrons to flow one way. A transistor has two of these so that you get a dip in the middle and by modifying this dip you get an amplification effect.”
“Sounds familiar but I still don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to; the point was that if you can set up a lower energy state next to a high energy state then you form a one way gate. Once you have a higher energy carrier in a lower energy state it’s possible for this to be swept up into the lasing resonance that occurs in the emitter.”
“Utter technobabble.”
“Want the equations? “
“Hell no, so what’s the point of all this?”
“Look out there at the outside of the ship.”
“What about it”
“About 90% of this ship by area is used for radiating excess heat into space. Just about the biggest problem any spaceship designer faces these days is how to get rid of excess heat. Almost a third of the ships dry mass is consumed by the radiators. They make you slower heavier and more vulnerable, They are especially the Achilles heel of the military which needs vast expensive droplet radiators to lose their excess heat or the crew fry and the engines don’t work. In battle they are the biggest target and the first thing any enemy tries to attack.”
“So this makes them a thing of the past, you just fire a laser, it rewrites the book on starship design. Gone are the huge bulky cruisers of the past, now your only limitation is your budget.”
“Is that what you’re going to do then at Saturn, build something new”
“Very much so, but it’s the third breakthrough that helps there although I’m not pleased about that one”
“Because you didn’t make it”
“No, because humans didn’t make it, well not really. This is the one thing we’ve had that has really come about entirely from the technology we got from the Habitat, although given the mode of operation is so similar to that of the strong force engineering I’d like to think we’d have thought of it ourselves eventually.”
“So what is it?”
“A new type of drive, antimatter based.”
“We’ve had them for a while haven’t we?”
“Oh yes there’s nothing special about them, they’ve been around at least theoretically for just about as long as we’ve known of the existence of antimatter, the problem was always a supply of antimatter, and that again is a byproduct of the earlier breakthroughs. No the problem was a pure antimatter drive gave out its thrust as omnidirectional gamma rays – not exactly efficient, what you wanted was at least a gamma laser and the strong force shield would give us that. The problem is it is a very low thrust drive, after all light doesn’t weigh very much”
“It doesn’t weigh anything.”
“Well no, but it does have momentum, look just trust me on this you can get thrust from pure light just not very much. No the trick we learnt from the Habitat was how to couple some of the vast energy of a gamma ray into another particle. We’re basically able to build a tube that has a massive amount of gamma rays and a few slow moving particles at one end and over the length of the tube use the energy of the gamma ray photons to accelerate the hydrogen particles up to very high speed.”
“Why are you telling me all this”
“I thought you were interested in what I did?”
“I was, sort of. Are you interested in what I do?”
“I could tell you anyway”
“And I could break into the fusion reactor and feed you into it, it’s an imperfect world”
“You really do have some aggression and self absorption issues.”
“Maybe, but they’re mine and I’d rather not share so don’t force me”

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