Saturday, November 24, 2012

LIfe on Titan--Metabolism Inverted

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon. With an atmosphere about twice as thick as Earth, but much colder (the average temperature on the surface is around minus180 Celsius—approaching 300 below in Fahrenheit), life on as we know it on Earth would seem to be impossible on Titan. Liquid water forms the common solvent of all life on our planet, of all sizes, for plants, animals, bacteria, and everything else. On Titan, water is a rock as much as slate is on our world. As on Earth, internal heating can cause the rock to melt—but on Titan, this would mean that liquid water would flow as a cold version of lava, only to solidify again into water rock. On the surface, no life could exist that depends on liquid water.

It could be that if there is a permanent reservoir of molten water under the surface of Titan, just as there is a permanent flow of magma under the surface of the Earth. If so, liquid-water based bacteria might live below. That perhaps could be, but what interests me is the possibility of life on Titan’s surface.

It so happens that Titan has another form of liquid on its surface, lakes of liquid methane and ethane, as imaged by radar on the Cassini probe and shown in false color below:

A number of scientists think it’s possible that liquid forms of the hydrocarbons methane or ethane could serve as a solvent for the chemicals of life. It also has been proposed that this life in liquid  hydrocarbon would gain metabolic energy on Titan by breaking down more complex molecules like ethane into methane, releasing hydrogen molecules as a byproduct (as discussed in this Wikipedia Life on Titan link). 

In contrast to the most-widely accepted theories of possibilities of life on Titan, I think it would be interesting to create a story that features life there as more of a direct inversion of life on Earth. To illustrate what I mean, think of a jet airplane. For fuel, the jet carries a hydrocarbon chemically related to methane (but more complex) in liquid form in its fuel tanks. As it flies through the air, the fans of the engine capture atmospheric oxygen and combine in with the fuel in a reaction that generates a lot of heat, causing expansion of the propelled exhaust, driving the plane forward.

On Titan, a jet could fly through the atmosphere by fueling up with liquid oxygen (which would only require a small amount of refrigeration at Titan’s temperature and pressure) capturing atmospheric methane in its turbofans and combining the two for propulsion. The chemical reaction would be the same as on Earth (or nearly so) but the means by which the chemicals enter the reaction would be inverted.

So imagine plant-like creatures on Titan that ingest solid water and incorporate it into their body structure (at least in part). For them energy would come from some analog of photosynthesis, but would probably function pretty slowly, since Titan gets around 1% the sunlight Earth receives. The plant might easily produce oxygenated compounds other than water, such as hydrogen peroxide, which is also a solid at Titan’s temperatures.

Then an animal of Titan could consume the leaves of this plant and the oxygenated compounds would be digested and pushed through liquid ethane-based blood into each body cell. This sort of animal could also inhale atmospheric methane (like Earth, most of Titan’s atmosphere is nitrogen, but the next most common gas is methane), maintaining just enough body warmth to maintain the fine balance where methane is gaseous but the ethane stays liquid, doing what water does for us. Just as our blood carries oxygen and dissolved hydrocarbon (for us, glucose) which are combined in each cell to provide the energy it needs, the blood of these Titan aliens could carry both fuel (for them, methane) and oxidizer to each cell, where they would combined for energy much the same way as life on Earth, only inverted in terms of means of entry into the body system.

Carbon dioxide, the exhaled waste product of human metabolism, is a solid on the surface of Titan, but carbon monoxide is a gas and could be exhaled by Titanian life. Other waste products of metabolism could flow out with ethane “urine” or pass out in semi-solid form with the undigested body ejecta.

So life on Titan could in effect operate much as we do—they could even look virtually the same as Earth life forms—only with the means of metabolism inverted and at a much colder temperature. The lower temperature would have the effect of making chemical reactions run much more slowly. Giant tree sloths might easily outrun the speediest life form on Titan…

Note though that the temperature difference between liquid methane and ethane I referenced above is only about one degree. A human’s body easily maintains its core temperature within one degree on a regular basis, so it does not seem improbable to me at all that a complex multicellular organism could do the same on Titan. But note that a single-celled organism would be very unlikely to maintain such precise temperature control (Earth microorganisms can’t do that).

So someone who believed in random evolution of life probably would say my proposed method of metabolism is impossible for complex life, since simple life could not use it, meaning there would be no opportunity for simple life employing that mechanism to evolve to a complex form. 

But what if a story portrayed complex life existing on Titan without any single-celled organisms of the same metabolism type in existence? Would human scientists landing on such a Titan speculate the simpler life forms must have gone extinct? Or that life on Titan evolved somewhere else in the galaxy, only to be somehow transported to our Solar System? Or would they wonder if these creatures had been directly generated by some kind of creator, perhaps even the same one I would call “God”…


Friday, November 16, 2012

Libertarian America: An Alternate Earth Story Setting

Libertarianism can actually mean a lot of things, actually, but for the sake of this post, let's imagine that the American government as it originally existed remained in that form, that is, a small federal government with low taxes (including no income taxes), a mostly laissez-faire attitude toward business, and a non-interventionist attitude toward foreign powers, but otherwise as much as possible like America as we know it. If a science fiction story took place in a setting where America had followed that path (either through some kind of time travel intervention or quantum alternate universe), what would that look like--how would American Libertarianism have influenced world history?

First off, America's largest war, the internal conflict between the Confederate States of America and the United States Federal forces, would almost certainly have kicked off anyway. Some Libertarian types might argue that Federal overreach caused the war, because otherwise the North would have let the South leave the Union, thus no conflict. But the actual fundamental point of friction of the war was whether or not it's legitimate to consider another human being private property. To this, a commitment to follow Libertarian principles offers no unequivocal solution--thus I believe the war still would have happened...(please note that I am not a Libertarian, but do not consider myself inherently hostile to Libertarianism)

But without the expansion of federal power (under the Lincoln administration) that included the creation of income taxes to fund Union Armies, it's unlikely the North would have won. The history of an America split into two immediately becomes very difficult to predict. Certain Southerners always advocated expansion of the South into Latin America in order to counter-balance the power of the industrial North. If the CSA had won the war, it's hard to even guess what would have happened next--would the slaves have been freed eventually anyway, but live in virtual serfdom? Or eventually be equal citizens? Would the South expand into Latin America? If so, how much? Would Southern expansion cause another war between the USA and the CSA--or perhaps even a whole series of wars? Would an expansionist South eventually conquer a United States committed to limited government (and hence, a small military)?

To be able to continue with this thought experiment requires keeping America as much as possible like it is today, so let's assume that somehow the North won the Civil War anyway, perhaps through a temporary expansion of federal power that it eternally regretted afterward, going back to the small government the United States started with and never straying away from it again. So, America would exist as a nation from sea-to-shining sea, but with no later foreign intervention in the Spanish American War, thus no expansion into Latin America or the Philippines (and other locations in the Far East), so there would probably be no statehood for Hawaii or Alaska, and no Panama Canal.

A strictly neutral, non-interventionist, small government, 48-state America would not have built the large navy required to support the limited overseas empire our America had at the turn of the twentieth century. When World War I kicked off, not only would a non-interventionist America be unlikely to join Britain and France in a war against Germany, it would not have been able to fight even if it had wanted to, since it would not be able to defend its own troop transports against U-Boat attack (if it somehow it decided to violate Libertarian principles and enter the war). Without American intervention, it is virtually certain that Germany would have won WWI, which was a rather close thing as it was.

And what then? Germany winning WWI would not have destroyed Western liberty. German imperial ambition was to become a first-rate colonial power like the United Kingdom and France, to have the right to build its navy and expand it's commercial interests. It's unlikely they would have demanded permanent possession of the piece of northern France they occupied during the war--though they probably would have forbidden permanent armaments in regions bordering Germany and would have perhaps limited the British navy or something similar. That means the German Empire would have remained in Africa and probably would have expanded, possibly taking over French African colonies as recompense for returning occupied northern France to French control. A weak Spain, still corruptly in control of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines (due to US non-intervention), likely would have lost these territories after WWI to an expansionistic Germany--though Imperial Japan probably would have taken the Philippines, as without America intervening, only Britain would have a major interest in curtailing Japanese power--but after a losing war with Germany, they would only have limited means to do so.

I believe World War II would have still happened, but not the way we know it. Consider that the conditions that allowed the rise of the Nazi Party were as much a product of the Great Depression and the post-war cultural malaise of Germany as of Germany's defeat. In other words, I think there still would have been Nazis or similar Rightist parties that would have challenged the authority of the then-legitimate German government. In my opinion, the Kaiser would do a better job controlling the expansion of Nazi power than the Weimar Republic  managed, but I believe he would have done so by co-opting their nationalist positions and harnessing their energy, rather than by destroying them. After all, Communism swept through Western nations in the wake of its victory over Czarist Russia (in part because of clandestine support from the Soviet Union), and the Kaiser would want the help of Rightist militants to fight insurgent Communists and Anarchists in his empire. Keep in mind that Fascism took over Italy, which was on the side of the victorious allies in WWI, and did so without supplanting the monarchy, while vigorously fighting Leftist parties. On the other hand, it's possible that France or Britain could even have become officially communist states after a WWI defeat, but I doubt either of these nations would have ever become Communist in the Soviet sense or would have stayed in that camp for long.

So, a post-Great Depression Germany, influenced but not controlled by Nazis, surely would have declared war on the Soviet Union, the Rightists echoing Hitler's cry for "Lebensraum" in the East. The nations of Eastern Europe would face the hard choice of allying themselves to German power or being destroyed. After a loss to Germany the first time, it's possible France and Britain would never have dared to intervene. If they did intervene, a non-interventionist America would have guaranteed their defeat.

I think this would lead to the Soviet Union ceasing to exist, with a German-installed puppet government in Moscow, and probably the entire Baltic region dominated by Germany--and perhaps the Black Sea as well. Japan very likely would have taken this opportunity to continue to expand its empire in the Pacific region by conquering all of Russia that borders the Pacific Ocean. In fact, it's very easy to imagine the entire world-wide British Empire (and other European empires) eventually falling mostly to Germany but also to Japan.

In fact, I believe a historically non-interventionist America would have realistically led to a world divided into two spheres of influence. Japan would control the Pacific rim, probably including Alaska and Hawaii and likely Australia and New Zealand (and Southeast Asia). Germany would be the dominant power in most of Europe and Africa, have tremendous influence in South America, control part of the Caribbean, and would take the role in the Middle East that in our history had belonged to Britain and the United States. India might have a precarious independence between the two powers (or be German-controlled), but with China almost wholly subject to Japan.

Hypothetical science fiction story settings like this allow an author to comment on real world conditions. I think any realistic examination of the results of American interventions in our world show themselves starkly in contrast with a story world like this, showing easily that if America has always stayed non-interventionist, the world as whole would be much worse off. Much--most of the world would easily suffer under totalitarian control, ethic minorities would be brutally oppressed, and forget about any establishment of a modern-day Israel.

But the same story would show in fairness how many things in a Libertarian America would be better. Taxes would be very low, simultaneous with no budget deficit to speak of. Government social services would be non-existent, but church and charitable organizations would do a remarkable job of picking up the slack. American business would prosper--playing economic middleman between competing Japanese and German interests. And there would be no Defense Authorization Act, no government spying, no department of Homeland Security, and no intrusive checks at airports. Islamic terrorism would largely be a German problem and to a lesser extent, a Japanese problem (assuming they controlled the Islamic nations that in our world include countries called "Indonesia" and "Malaysia"). The throes of insurgencies fighting against occupying powers would be entirely their problem, not ours.

Since America would have a well-armed citizenry and a tiny but highly professional military, neither Germany nor Japan would want to invade us, because doing so would give the other world power an automatic ally, an economically powerful one. So they would leave us alone as they competed with one another to gobble up the rest of the globe. Unless, one of the two should somehow manage to conquer the other...then nothing would keep the militarily dominant (and overwhelmingly powerful) victor from adding the United States to its empire (perhaps in the story linked to Canada), fulfilling the strange ancient human greed to rule the entire world.

A story could be set on the cusp of a war that Americans in the tale believe will destroy the status quo and give, say, the Germans, supreme world dominance. The American characters in the story could struggle among (and perhaps within) themselves over whether or not the time had finally come for the USA to intervene on behalf of the weaker power, even though there has been no direct attack on US soil, coming to Japan's rescue before the balance of power has been irrevocably destroyed, before it's too late for America to be able to defend itself...


Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Interchangeable Brain

The "black box for the brain" idea I discussed in my suggested video game idea (REVIVE) carries with it some interesting implications:

If it really were possible to record the total neuron function of the brain and map its structure in such a way to capture its memories, allowing the brain to be rebuilt, that would also logically allow a person's brain to be placed in a head other than the one it came from. For my story idea, that would mean that people would not just medically come back from the dead, they might come back as someone other than who they used to be--a futuristic, surgical-based version of reincarnation...

Please note I'm not stating it actually would be in any way possible to record total neuron function. It might be possible, but I think even if so it would be very difficult--there are just so many neurons. Nor do I consider it probable that any such surgical reconstruction on a cellular level will ever really happen--though it makes sense to me that bringing a person back from the dead with the exact same brain they used to have would require cell-by-cell replacement, exactly reproducing each cell of the original brain. As I understand it, it's the exact configuration of your brain that makes it carry the specific information that makes you who you are. Nothing short of total reconstruction is plausible to me as a means to bring someone back from the dead--or to make a brain "interchangeable."

"What about the soul?" someone is probably asking. Bringing someone's brain back should not bring back the soul, according to how most of my fellow Christians think of it. They would object that totally rebuilding the brain is not the same as having the person return in the way that they used to be. 

That's actually something a story like this could play with--those so operated on could be portrayed as seeming subtly different somehow, not themselves. Or perhaps even radically different. But since it's at least theoretically possible that the soul is a product of brain function (the soul would then be immortal because God retains a copy of it in His memory), I think a story could also portray people coming back exactly as they used to be--or very close anyway. Again, not that I think such surgery will ever be possible, no matter how advanced medicine may become...

That I doubt this could ever happen shouldn't stop a writer from crafting a story where it somehow does happen.  And if a brain can be reconstructed to bring someone back to life, that would allow bringing them back with their brain in someone else's body.  Applied to the REVIVE game setting, that could mean the very rich who revive themselves perhaps would choose to come back in a different form on a regular basis--switching from male to female, or between races, for example (though some individuals or the majority even might prefer to always be themselves). They could have the procedure done even if they had not passed away, in fact, though waiting for death would seem to be a good idea, since such radical surgery might well be risky and certainly would be expensive--many might choose to undergo the procedure only when strictly necessary, i.e. after death. But some might have it done at other times. In story terms it could mean that the villain is very difficult to find because he is always changing who he is--or who she is. 

And if a brain can be surgically reproduced in such a way it could be placed in a body other than the one it belongs to, why couldn't someone make multiple copies of the same brain? Especially if this were frowned upon or illegal--the law may say you are allowed only one brain and doctors are forbidden to do more than that. But the antagonist has found a way around that rule so that he and she, or she, she, and he--they--act together to foil the hero in a way he never understands at first, because there is only one of him (or her) and many of them, many exact copies of the same interchangeable brain and personality working together, masked by differing bodies...


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Impossible Water Zombies

I seem to have a zombie fixation...

Blame it on AMC's The Walking Dead--as noted in part in a previous post reacting to the show (where is the military?) I'm having a hard time with how improbable the basic "Zombie Apocalypse" setting is. As I noted, any zombie attack would be easily dealt with by any halfway decent military unit. Seriously--I used to be in a US Army Reserve maintenance company which had some of its own vehicles and a little compound with a security fence. The unit had just enough weapons for each person in the unit but didn't keep any significant amount of ammunition. Still, I'm confident that if things started to get bad with everyone in the world turning into zombies, the Sergeant First Class in charge would have bought M16-compatible .223 caliber rounds out of his own pocket, would have arranged the purchase of fuel and goods to support the unit, and would have no problem organizing his handful of mechanics into a defense that would hold up against a zombie tide for a long time. Because zombies are so dumb, it's not really that hard to defeat them...

So if an Army Reserve maintenance unit would have no problem wiping out any zombies that dared come their way, imagine what a unit like the 82nd Airborne Division would do--or Navy Seals, Green Berets, Marine Recon, or the 1st Armored Division--or even field artillery guys. 155mm cannonfire would have little trouble blowing a whole zombie horde into a quivering pile of goo...

And look, it's not just military units. Any decent police department or volunteer fire-fighting unit or even a family-owned hardware (or sporting goods) store with a large extended family should be able to organize a basically zombie-proof defense. All you would need for that is some kind of even half-way secure building, some weapons and supplies, and enough people to pull shifts to thwart the unexpected night attack.

So while a zombie uprising would create chaos, I just don't see it taking over everything--not the AMC version of a zombie, anyway. Our society has far too many pockets of people that are too resilient and resourceful for that.

Of course, if you imagine the zombie plague spreading by a means other than you-catch-it-if-a-zombie-bites-you, such as a highly infectious plague spread by an airborne virus or through insect bites, the scenario becomes more plausible. Especially if the zombies are fast moving and aggressive. But, still, as long as zombies are brainless (and if they aren't, they aren't really zombies any more), they'd actuality have a hard time taking over all the institutions of society, even if they spread to all parts of the world and did enormous damage. People can be very resourceful when it comes to defending themselves--perhaps more zombie stories need to be written portraying them as such--I mean stories in which whole towns or regions and numerous government institutions have survived basically intact...

So the zombie apocalypse as portrayed in so many zombie flicks seems impossible to me, even if you grant a lot of artistic license on how people could actually become a mindless undead monster in the first place. Part of the problem has to do with water:

The relation of zombies with water forms its own particular stripe of objection to a zombie apocalypse--the beasts aren't portrayed as being coordinated enough to swim as a general rule. And while the traditional undead version of zombies would be immune to drowning (since they are already dead) the virus-borne types would have to drown eventually. Plus, while it would be easy enough for them to cross relatively shallow bodies of water, walking across the bottom is not an option for major bodies of water, especially those that have a current. I don't think zombies would ever successfully cross the Mississippi river, for example. Or the Rhine in Europe. If they did, it would be a sheer luck sort of situation and they'd probably not come in enough numbers to threaten alerted citizens.

So what does that mean for zombie stories? Well, why not make every island in such an apocalypse a refuge for those fleeing the undead? I don't really mean major islands, but little islands, like one in the middle of a fast-flowing river (and of course people would blow up bridges and use boats). Or any one not far off the coast, especially in a place with strong ocean currents. Like Alcatraz, or any of the castles in the middle of the Rhine--these would make a natural zombie refuges.

Of course, major islands would be interesting, too. Imagine shortwave radio broadcasting that Jamaica (for example, or Guam or somewhere else) is zombie-free, so a story could revolve around people killing each other over the transportation  to get them out to that zombieless ocean-surrounded land, wherever that might be.

But what if zombies attempting to cross water were regularly attacked by fish...and what if the fish caught the plague? And anyone who ate the fish with the plague would become a zombie? (It's noteworthy that it would be challenging to tell the difference between a zombie fish and a regular fish, since fish are pretty much brainless all the time...) Because fish form a major part the diet on nearly any island, this could prove to be quiet the threat. Imagine a story setting in which normal humans are trapped on a small island separated from a zombie-infested mainland. They are safe there, but have just discovered they can't eat the fish--and there is nothing much else to eat. They are forced between choosing starvation for most of them or going back into the hellish struggle for survival they thought they had escaped...

Or what if a zombie story featured a version of the monster that actually liked water--or preferred it even? Assuming these zombies floated well and had a simple instinct for swimming, perhaps they would be in effect like crocodiles in places in Africa...imagine extremely thirsty human survivors of an apocalypse wanting to go down to the river for some water...but they have to be very, very careful, due to lurking water zombies...