Saturday, September 22, 2012

Superconducting Superheroes

As previously mentioned in my post Carb Loading for Superheroes, Superheroes are really the stuff of fantasy more than science fiction--though some superheroes come close to obeying the laws of Physics (I used Batman and Spiderman as examples), they still don't really account for all the energy required to perform their amazing feats of strength and prowess.

But just as a huge increase in food intake could go a long way to explaining the how Spiderman leaps from building to building, a generous use of superconductors could make an Iron Man-type suit much more realistic.

Superconductors transmit electricity down a wire with no loss due to electrical resistance. So it's possible to loop a superconductor, put a charge of DC current into it, and the current will go around and around the loop, effectively making a battery of near-perfect efficiency. The amount of current the wire can hold is mainly a function of its length, though current flowing in a loop will create a magnetic field that has a tendency to crash the property of superconductivity, so there is a limit to how much electrically-generative magnetism the circuit will support. A Wikipedia article on Superconducting magnetic energy storage includes (under "technical challenges") the estimate that it would take about 100 miles of wire to hold a gigawatt of power (of course, actual energy storage would vary according to the type of wire and the arrangement of the system).

Current superconductors have to be kept very cold, so any storage of electricity requires bulky refrigeration…and running the refrigeration system also burns power. But imagine a superhero of the Tony-Stark-inventor-type, who invents a superconductor that requires no refrigeration, is ductile (easy to make into wire), and is resistant to collapse from high magnetic fields. This guy could make huge money selling this wire to the world if it were cheap to produce (or even if it were relatively expensive), but let’s imagine as a story idea that this wire is far more expensive than platinum—hey, platinum could be one the wire components for story purposes. So our hero has enough money for to use this for himself, but not for the whole world…so naturally he makes a superhero suit, powered by coiled superconducting wire.

The suit would have to be made of something resistant to magnetic fields, or the metal would get warped out of place immediately—a composite carbon material probably would do…and you’d have the problem of all metal objects outside of the suit flying at your superhero worse than taking metal into an MRI…really to make this work, the suit probably would have to be very large, so the magnetic field would remain mostly inside the suit.

A large powered suit (say, at least 20 feet tall) would be a lot different from the iron man suit—it’d be more like something from Gundam. Still, a powered suit, if there were only one of them, would be more like a superhero scenario than a Japanese-imagined future filled with massive combat robots…

A small version of the suit could possibly work if the superconducting material were in the shape of a toroid (so the suit would have a ring on the back, like a bigger, rounder version of the disc on the back of suits in Tron). A small suit probably could never get a hundred miles of wire in a coil, but depending on the thickness of the wire, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to think you could fit a mile’s worth of superconducting wire in there.

So, using the figure from the Wikipedia article of 1 gigawatt for 100 miles of wire, 1 mile would hold 10 megawatts of instantly-available power. How much would that move the suit? Consider that 1 watt equals 1 joule per second. One joule equals the force of 1 newton through one meter—10 newtons are approximately enough to move an object of one kilogram upward one meter against Earth’s gravity.

So, assuming I understand the units of force correctly, the maximum power of 10 megawatts can be considered the same as 10 million joules, which is enough power to lift something weighing one kilogram against Earth’s gravity a million meters, or around 620 miles—straight up into the sky—easily into Earth orbit. That’s some shot put, right?

Of course, mechanically speaking, it would probably be impossible to harness all the power of a major superconductor in a single throw…but it does illustrate that really good superconducting power system would store a lot of power, enough to qualify for superhero status—though this isn’t quite as awesome as it might first seem. To illustrate, let me translate this into what it would take to hop around in this suit:

To be conservative (and to give a simple calculation), let’s assume even a relatively small suit with human passenger included would be pretty heavy—1,000 kilograms. So doing the math, a 1,000 kilo suit would be able to thrust itself straight up into the air about one kilometer in a single leap. This is assuming perfectly efficient motors and very strong materials and a number of other things that aren’t realistic, but let’s ignore all of that for the moment, since very efficient motors are at least possible and materials could be stronger than we expect—plus, we’re trying to identify the limitations of available power here.

In shorter hops, a 2.5 meter accelerating jump at a 45% degree angle would yield significantly more distance in fall and would be a lot more efficient than a straight vertical leap. I offer a rough order of magnitude estimation that such an upward leap would cover 10 meters distance horizontally. So that would mean the suit would have enough power for a series of impressively high and fast jumps (ten meters is over 30 feet at a shot), but for only about 4 kilometers total distance—only a few miles.

So the system could yield enough power for a very impressive performance, superhuman leaps and jumps, punches, and running at an amazing speed…but only for around five minutes or less, depending on exactly what the hero was doing. Please note, though, that many fights are finished in less than five minutes…

Superconductors would allow for some other interesting superpowers—the magnetic force of a coil could be focused to a degree, not as much as Magneto does without a sweat, but there are things you could do with it—for a limited time. For an essentially unlimited time, superconductors in the feet would allow someone to suspend a supersuit over a strong magnetic field. And a superconducting rail gun could hurl bee bees or ball bearings at dangerously high speeds, much faster than a rifle bullet.

So there are lots of variations for scientifically-plausible superheroes who have suits powered by superconductors. But it would seem that one feature all of them would share in common—their special kryptonite—would be the extreme limited time such a suit would have at its highest performance level. Imagine the inventor-genius superhero staging suits for rapid change as each one powers out…or changing the toroid on the back…while any villain, of course, would seek to sabotage these essential pre-staged pieces of superhero tech…or catch the hero while he was low on power…

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Where Science and Magic Collide: Kat Heckenbach's Finding Angel and Seeking Unseen

Finding Angel and Seeking Unseen are sequels in my friend Kat's story universe geared toward a young adult audience. She portrays magic as a special talent that each character has, a special skill that is stronger than any other magic he or she might be able to perform. Her tales center around the individual journeys of self-discovery for these characters—just as every person over time learns what he or she is best suited to do over time, her protagonists work to learn and develop their "talents."

Kat's a fine writer and I've enjoyed the quality of her writing and character development for a long time. But what interests me for this post—the story idea that has my own creative juices flowing--is her decision to make her magic creatively compatible with science.

In Finding Angel, Angel, whose special talent is, well...finding described as learning to focus on moving air molecules to create lift in order to levitate objects. Or in a similar way, magic in this world would create diamonds by compressing coal...or put out a fire by driving air molecules away, denying the flames the oxygen it needs, or cooling a room by selectively driving out the fast-moving particles of air and allowing the slow-moving ones to stay...

This means Kat’s universe is orderly and regular, something her magicians can study and understand, just as scientists would…except they have access to a power that goes outside the realm of what is currently known by the science of planet Earth. I really like that—it’s not 100% original, because some other worlds of magic work at least a little like that, but it’s uncommon enough to be fresh—it’s an elegant little thought, one that Kat executes well.

If I were to expand on this sort of wizardry for a story of my own, I’d make a whole set of talents focused on what we’d call on Earth scientific discovery and investigation. So one person might have a talent of knowing rocks, another details of life forms, or another the stars…or the molecules of air that we’ve already talked about…or maybe even talents of knowing about antimatter, neutrinos, or the Higgs Field…though of course, they would have other, more “magical” names for them…

(Follow the links to purchase Seeking Unseen and/or Finding Angel - I believe you'll be glad you did...)


Sunday, September 2, 2012

An ignorant and malevolent god: A reaction to the film Prometheus

Prometheus, the Ridley Scott prequel to the Aliens movies, features a male and female pair of scientists who persuade the Wayland Corporation to fund a trip to find aliens whom they believe were responsible for the creation of the human race—and possibly all life on Earth. According to the story, scientists know about these aliens from ancient artwork from all over the world that shows aliens interacting with humans—and which show a configuration of planetary bodies that points to a specific star system. (Warning—I commit some movie spoilers below—also this movie is rated R for a reason, though it is not far removed from PG13.)
The scientists quickly find the aliens in question, whom they call “the Engineers,” but all of them are dead—or at least they seem so at first. It turns out there is no question that these creatures are our genetic ancestors, these creatures who seem to have killed themselves on a world that soon appears not to be their home planet, but rather some sort of biological weapons research facility. It turns out that the “aliens” we know from the other movies are a kind of unintended by-product of bio-engineered weapons…
This movie has characters who openly question the origin and meaning of life. One of whom , the female scientist, is portrayed as a Christian with unshakable faith—when she finds the evidence of aliens she so eagerly sought, it in no way reduces her belief in a creator God: “Who created them?” she asks of the “Engineer” aliens.
This open search for meaning and strong portrayal of a Christian character marks Prometheus as distinctly different in philosophy from the Alien films (although granted, Alien3 does have a prominent Christian character). Questions about God as creator were never asked in the Alien series—God mostly exists in the movies as a curse word. When the origin of the malevolent aliens is pondered, evolution is credited with creating a “perfect organism,” as the character Ash said in the first film.
Evolution is portrayed as creating a perfect killing machine in the Alien films. And why shouldn’t it? If the truth is unrestricted survival of the fittest for all life, why should we imagine out in space that we humans would be the fittest? If evolution is true, why should space be full of friendly pointy-ear-near-humans like Vulcans? Why wouldn’t it instead be full of malevolent beasts who kill humans as easily as we kill bugs? Why shouldn’t the random universe, supposed to be operating randomly, without any plan, simply squash the human race at any given time—perhaps through creatures biologically stronger than we could ever hope to be.
The film Prometheus fundamentally changes this backdrop, as if Riddley Scott had been listening to Intelligent Design arguments and felt eager to reply. In Prometheus, there is an intelligent creator. But in a dialog between an android built by humans and the male scientist, the film suggests that just as we human beings might build an android “Just because we can,” perhaps likewise our creator may have built us for no particular reason, “just because,” without any guidance or meaning.
When an alien starship is discovered on the planet loaded with bio-weapons and a course laid in for Earth (whatever destroyed the aliens apparently stopped it from flying), it seems the “Engineers” were not only short-sighted and limited, but they also had malevolent intent toward the human race. When one last Engineer is in fact (briefly) found alive, his reaction to the humans who come to see him is to attack them without speaking a word. This creator, this “god,” proved ignorant of the consequences of his own actions and further, did not care in the slightest about reaching out to the human race. His purpose was straightforward and malevolent…just like the “Alien” series evolved villains (who turn out not to have evolved after all).
The movie, perhaps unintentionally, pointed out a truth. There is a big difference between believing in a creator, any creator, and believing in the all-knowing, existent from before the very beginning, all-wise, and loving Creator of the Bible. For me this means arguing that the universe creating itself out of nothing with no plan or intelligence is nonsense is not nearly enough—God must also shown to be good, which I think can be best proven not by argument, but by believers demonstrating His goodness in the actions of their daily lives.
The Prometheus movie has at least one sequel planned and may be going somewhere I won’t care for much. It turns out according to the story the aliens died out “about 2,000” years ago…and the ship landed on the planet on Christmas day… I think that might be hinting that the story will show Jesus was an alien or something and the aliens decided they would destroy the human race because we killed him…which would be undermining Christianity, saying that in effect Christians have misunderstood what Jesus was about for the last 2,000 years. I rather hope that isn’t where Scott plans the series to go…
But even if it were to go there, the funny thing is, as much as I dislike it, I could easily rewrite the story to support Christianity. I could take Scott’s story exactly as I imagine it might be and add to it so that God, the real God, providentially allowed the evil aliens to destroy themselves to protect the Earth, while Jesus, Whom the aliens thought was one of them, was actually the Son of God, God Himself in the flesh. And that God providentially wanted Him to die and rose him up again. Perhaps that means I’m like the female scientist in the story—or perhaps it means that the idea of God as I know Him is so natural that it takes quite a lot of work to convincingly eliminate Him—even from a work of fiction.
It’s interesting to note that even within the confines of Mr. Scott’s fictional story, an alien Jesus who was also the Son would at the same time be fully human—because in the story, humans and aliens share the same DNA…