Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Quantum Of Distress

Science is hard.

But more than that, science is hard to keep up with. Everyday it seems like there's a new discovery being made that completely changes our understanding of the Universe. If you had told me a couple weeks ago someone invented a real-life reactionless drive using only the magnetron from a microwave oven and the contents of his garage I would have said you're a dirty liar. But now look, NASA is experimenting with a reproduction of that very same device and they still haven't come up with a good explanation for how it works.

As someone who writes science fiction semi-regularly I find the burden of scientific accuracy a little overwhelming at times. I could spend months designing a fictional rocket and all it's components; the nuclear reactor, the deck plan, weapons and give it the most robust and accurate engineering I can. And sure, I could sell the idea to Reader's Digest and rake in millions. But it will all mean exactly zilch if a few weeks after publishing NASA appears and announces they've invented honest-to-God anti-gravity. It's impossible to keep up with every new scientific discovery and sooner or later any piece of science fiction will succumb to what TVTropes calls Zeerust.

I accept that everything I write here and now will one day be seen as dated, even quaint. But if my fictional universe is doomed to being hopelessly antiquated then at least it's going to be consistent.

Here in 2015, there are dozens and dozens of theories regarding the possibly quantum nature of gravity. Some of these were formulated simply to reconcile General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics (two very very different fields with completely incompatible equations), while others have the lofty goal of becoming a so-called Theory of Everything, a theory so complete in it's description of the physical world that it can predict and explain every aspect of the physical Universe.

As for potential Theories of Everything or the less ambitious Grand Unified Theories, there's plenty of candidates to choose from. Of course you have String Theory, the lesser known but still very interesting Loop Quantum Gravity and ugly ducklings like Supergravity or Euclidean Quantum Gravity. The problem is that there's so many to chose from and none of them can be experimentally verified. All these theories concern themselves with either very small or very energetic environments; conditions we're physically incapable of interacting with. So who knows what's really going on down there. We certainly don't, because our giant, fat instruments make a mess of everything we're trying to observe. This is part of the reason why some believe the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal isn't due to the actual nature of subatomic particles, but is actually a result of the limitations of our giant Human measuring equipment.

The point is that any one of these theories could be correct and I have no way of knowing which one that might be.

I'm getting ahead of myself of course. Because before we can even hope to unify Relativity and Quantum Mechanics we need to figure out how we've even supposed to interpret Quantum Mechanics. As you know, Quantum theory is very strange, some would say frightening. Much of what goes on down there is open to interpretation and the math supports plenty of daffy ideas. For example, when you take a measurement of a particle's position or momentum (but not both), what's really going on? Was the particle behaving like a wave and you've just collapsed it into a particle? Are you getting interference from an unseen pilot wave? Or have you inadvertently created an alternate timeline where your measurements were different? Nobody knows.

The most common interpretation by a wide margin is of course the Copenhagen Interpretation. It has the distinction of being the most widely accepted and visible interpretation and also the one with the most crazy stuff going on under the hood. This is the one that gives us such weirdness as wave-particle duality and wave function collapse; strange circumstances that probably don't even accurately describe the nature of subatomic matter but is as close as we're going to get to really understanding it using our feeble Human minds.

Then there's Pilot Wave Theory which asserts that the bizarre behavior of particles has less to do with them being probabilistic bundles of energy and more to do with 'hidden variables' called pilot waves: ripples particles leave in the fabric of space-time as they pass through. These waves 'remember' the path the particle took and influence the motion of all subsequent particles that pass through it, providing a handy explanation for unusual behavior like what's observed in the famous double-slit experiment.

Or you could stick with the old sci-fi standby of the Many Worlds Interpretation and toss all those sticky questions regarding wave-functions in an alternate timeline.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There's a plethora of unanswered questions in physics and each one could have a potentially bizarre answer that totally changes our understanding of reality. For example, what is the origin of mass? We don't know because the concept of mass is so intertwined with gravity and like I said earlier, we don't know what gravity even is at the quantum level. Is mass actually the symmetry breaking Higgs field? W Z Bosons we haven't detected yet? Nobody knows.

How can neutrinos of a specific lepton flavor suddenly have an entirely different flavor? Do they spontaneously transform into a different particle?

Why is there so much more matter than anti-matter in our universe?

What is dark matter and dark energy? Is it zero-point energy? The cosmological constant? Another universe absorbing our own?

Who knows how long it'll take to answer all these questions. Some of them might never be answered. Well, I am not a scientist. But I am someone aiming to write a gripping sci-fi yarn so a few weeks ago I decided I wasn't going to wait for real results from the LHC. Instead, I'll come up with my own fictional Grand Unifying Theory; one that was complete in it's description of the physical universe, that was consistent with all our experimental data so far and allowed for plenty of wacky circumstances like negative mass, anti-gravity or the Alcubierre drive; phenomena conducive to a good science fiction story that haven't been disproven yet.

I call my fictional theory the Theory of Choice as it'll be fine tuned for exactly the sort of stories I want to tell and take all of what I consider the most interesting and probable explanations that are floating around in the physics community right now.

In all likelihood, my pet theory will be disproven ten, maybe twenty years from now. But in the meantime it'll serve as a good framework for the physics of my fictional universe, providing consistent and (hopefully) reasonable explanations for how all the technology therein works. And if any particular element gets disproven (like dark energy ends up being angry ghosts or something), well, I never said my fictional universe was supposed to be our universe. I'll just say in a press conference that my intellectual property takes place in an alternate timeline, similar to our own but with subtly different laws of physics. Until then I can claim perfect scientific accuracy.

How the Theory of Choice works is that I make a few sweeping assumptions about physics and from there, pick the real scientific theories that best fit those assumptions and slowly move down the list of unanswered questions , using explanations from the aforementioned theories until everything is more-or-less ironed out. It's slow going, partially because there are just that many unanswered questions in physics but mostly because I am dealing with heady scientific topics most laypeople don't even know exist. I still have no idea what CP Violation is but it's important and because it's important I have to pretend I'm an actual astrophysicist and try to wrap my head around it.

First, the assumptions: in the ToC, the universe is probabilistic, not deterministic. Second, gravity is quantum but Relativity and Quantum Mechanics go ultimately unreconciled. Third, the origin of mass lies in the Higgs field, the Higgs Boson is not the only such particle of it's type and there are many more left to be discovered, each one capable of more and more bizarre gravity-like effects than the last. Finally, no matter what, the ToC must allow for travel to alternate realities, each more terrifying than the last. This last point is the most important as it allows the antagonists of my work to kill far more people than the total population of any one universe.

Right away, I can say that String Theory has no place in my fictional universe. It's not that I think String Theory is necessarily wrong or bad. I just feel like String Theory has ballooned far out of proportion and makes a lot of assumptions that aren't going to hold up to real-world experimentation. As of this writing, there's virtually no experimental evidence for String Theory and yet it enjoys widespread acclaim and support as the most likely candidate for the fabled Theory of Everything. Plus, String Theory's implication of an orderly and elegant universe is totally at odds with the kind of story I want to tell. String Theory describes an intricate tapestry of 11-dimensional manifolds, where matter arises from the subtle vibrations of mysterious bundles of energy. Well not here it isn't. My universe is a violent, unwholesome place; a cosmology of terror where life counts for nothing and there are only three spatial dimensions.

In my universe, there is no Theory of Everything and the interaction between gravity and the three fundamental forces is ultimately hazy and indistinct. There might not be a Grand Unifying Theory either, meaning there was never a time when electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces were unified as a single fundamental force. This goes back to the idea of a probabilistic universe. Here at least, God really does play dice with the universe. Everything that occurs in the subatomic world is hazy and left to chance, meaning that at it's most basic level, the universe is open to all sorts of unsettling unrealities.

This is why Pilot Wave Theory has no place in my universe either; it offers a logical, deterministic explanation for the strange behavior of particles with the introduction of pilot waves, injecting reality back into the study of Quantum Mechanics. Determinism and the idea that there is a logical, mechanical explanation for everything his has no place in my chaotic, ultimately nihilistic universe. Instead, I'll probably end up sticking with a modified form of the Copenhagen Interpretation, but it has problems of it's own.

The crux of the Copenhagen Interpretation is the wave function collapse: before observation, particles are in superposition where they occupy any number of energy states and locations. But after observation the wave 'collapses' and the particle inhabits a single energy state. Many have interpreted this as meaning a conscious observer is an essential part of quantum mechanics and that the conscious mind plays a large part in shaping the nature of reality itself. I want to avoid this as it opens the door to a lot of New Age mysticism and other hippy-dippy nonsense I don't want to be involved with. Plus, this mindset kind of implies magic is involved.

Now don't get me wrong, there is magic in my setting, but it has it's own rules unrelated to physics at large and the less said about the quantum mind, the better.

Instead, I'll probably stick with something closer to the idea of Quantum Decoherence. But it's implications are little more far reaching than what I'm comfortable with. If I end up sticking with this route then I might not be able to justify the existence of quantum computers in my setting, something I'm not too eager to let go of.

As for dark matter and dark energy; I think I'm going to stick with main stream opinion on these two. I'll claim that dark energy has actually been the cosmological constant this whole time, similar to what's proposed by the Lambda-CDM model. Dark matter  is composed of weakly interacting massive particles (also known as WIMPs). This is the detritus left over after the Big Bang which have been counteracting the force of gravity ever since. Of course, there have been a few other interesting ideas regarding the identity of dark energy. My favorite comes from Christos Tsagas who in a paper published in Physical Review D claimed that there is no such thing as dark energy. Instead, the apparent expansion of the universe we observe is actually an illusion caused by the relatively fast motion of our corner of the universe compared to our neighboring galaxies. If he's right then all this fuss over phantom forces is ultimately pointless.

Beyond that, I like the idea of there being no supersymmetry as it reenforces the idea that this universe is altogether 'broken' or 'inelegant'. What this means for the aforementioned CP violation, I don't have a clue, but I might allow for spontaneous symmetry breaking. It's just something I'll have to work out later.

Finally, there's the question of the ultimate fate of the Universe. Personally, I prefer a scenario like the Big Rip destroying everything in the end, because it's more horrifying that way.

The Theory of Choice is an ongoing project, probably one I won't be finished with for many years, if at all. It relies on the work of actual physicists for me to iron out, so really nothing has changed. I'm still have to follow the latest news from scientific journals and letting their discoveries inform the nature of my science fictional universe. But the point is that the Theory of Choice is consistent and will make it easier to make a timeline of technological progress in this nightmare vision of the future. Plus, it'll be easier to keep track of just what each technology is capable of.

Do I think the real, physical universe is as probabilistic and inelegant as this fictional universe? It's hard to say really. Pilot Wave Theory was suppressed throughout much of the twentieth century in favor of the Copenhagen interpretation. Given the chance, I think it could have gone a long way to describing the physical world. But as it stands, Pilot Wave Theory is tragically under-researched and nowhere near as robust as the Standard Model, which I think will stand the test of time no matter how clunky it is. I think our desire to unify all the fundamental forces and find the superpartners of all the particles is a natural human tendency to see order and symmetry in every system we encounter. We just naturally like things to make sense, even if the universe might not on some hidden, fundamental level.

With that in mind, I still think String Theory is a load of malarkey.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hooked On Phonics

I've been working on a Chmatran alphabet, partially for the game, but mostly just to develop the setting more. It's been an arduous experience but I think I finally came up with a group of symbols I'm happy with:

The Chmatran writing system is very simple, befitting such a primitive culture. Their alphabet is unicase, with some symbols representing multiple consonant sounds. There's only one symbol for C and K. There's also only one symbol for G and J. For words with a C sound, readers must rely on cues from the rest of the word to determine what sound it makes. Incidentally, a native Chmatran would actually spell it 'Khmatra'. G sounds are represented by an H after the symbol. Going by Chmatran rules, to make the G sound in a word like 'go' it would have to be spelled 'jho'.

There's no letter for Q or X which are represented by a the KW or KS diagraph respectively (kwantum instead of quantum or ekssterminate instead of exterminate). Dropping these two from the list was a hard decision to make as Q and X are easily my favorite letters of our own alphabet. But the Chmatrans are a simple people and they need a simple writing system.

Words are spelled phonetically for the most part. But since International Chmatran lacks accent marks, they need another way to differentiate between long and short vowel sounds. To make a long vowel it's written twice. Ka is pronounced 'kah' whereas Kaa is pronounced 'kay'.

I don't have very many words in the dictionary yet. But once the grammar rules are robust enough I'll have time to work on a complete list of words and etymologies. Right away, I can say that many of their words related to the natural world could come from the root word for their fertility goddess, words related death could share their origin with the name of their god of death and so on. They'll probably have a dozen different words for genocide.

The only hard and fast rule for Chmatran words is that it must have a lot of hard consonant sounds and sound very rough and unsophisticated. Words I have stashed away so far include: ajhiir, jhaljhash, kalajhn, kefez, kreledesh, meka, nafas, otesh, radijastk and teratsk.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fear and Loathing on Chmatra

Since I've had no time to make a proper blog post in, like, weeks I'm going to give you all the highlights reel from my tabletop game. Nick, one of the players, was kind enough to provide pictures of all the best moments of their adventure so far. So because I don't have time for anything anymore here's the growing collection from the scrapbook with the bare minimum of context.

First, the players themselves: Nick is playing as Minamillion, human sorcerer. Haydn's character is Wilfred Sanddrinker, kobold tabloid journalist and all around sociopath. Then there's Obtuse Goose who's been playing as 0M-4R-U, an enormous, ten foot tall nuclear powered robot with a mining laser attached to his shoulder.

All that needs to be said about the plot of my game is that everyone's been living in a vast radioactive desert, inhabited by all manner of prospectors hoping to strike it rich mining the deposits of uranium ore. There were a few competing factions who the players could either ally themselves with or fight but the players killed all the important characters almost as quickly as they met them. So as of right now, there isn't really a plot or story so much as there's three crazed bandits roaming around the desert looking for people to kill.

In this picture we see 0M-4R-U and Wilfred riding through a brush fire they started. There used to be an important alchemist living in the thorn thickets north of town, but the players never got around to doing his quest. Instead, they burnt down his home, destroyed all his research and tried to convince him he started the fire himself. When that didn't work they shot him to death.

You'll notice 0M-4R-U has a gaggle of women perched on this shoulder. A few weeks ago his character started experimenting with being a bit of a robotic sugar daddy and managed to muster an impressive number of babes to join his entourage.

To be honest, one of my favorite things about this game has been Nick's interpretations of the events, especially his idea of Obtuse Goose's character. But as you can see below, Haydn had his own ideas:

Later, the players got trapped in an abandoned research facility and faced a fearsome creature known as a Hadris, which is a malevolent cloud of ammonia nitrate gas that seeks to destroy all life. The players struggled to find a way to defeat the evil cloud until Minamillion realized he could cast a spell that would break down the atomic structure of the otherwise invulnerable Hadris. His spell exposed them all to deadly radiation but they did manage to dissipate the cloud so we counted it as a victory. They're still sterile though.

Here's Minamillion getting half his faced dissolved by the Hadris' deadly acid touch.

It was around the same time that they were trying to kill the evil ammonia that Wilfred decided to try and kill off all of Omaru's babes. Since he's only one foot tall and didn't want to attract any attention to himself he tried to lure them, one by one, into the waiting mist of the Hadris. In spite of his best efforts, only Amber succumbed to the acrid wraith of the cloud.

After the Hadris was defeated the players explored the rest of the facility since they were still technically on a quest from the local baker/mob boss. While looking for an advanced radiation-detecting seismograph they stumbled across an enormous jellyfish living in the ventilation system.

Here we see their minion and all around coward Mikial getting dragged back to the jellyfish's lair as Wilfred does his best to try and save him. Mikial used to be a respected mage of the Swamp King's court but Wilfred punched the king in question and plunged his kingdom into civil war. Mikial's been traveling with the players ever since. Truth be told, he has been a useful addition to their party, especially since he has the ability to magically dispel radiation on command. I've been trying to kill him off for this very reason, as he's the only thing standing between me and giving everyone radiation-induced vomiting fits.

After their adventure in the lab, the players returned to town, got into a fight with the sheriff, burned down the entire town, their previous employer and any last traces of a coherent plot that were still clinging on by that point. They also picked up another minion along the way; Travis "Boomit" Splinterpeak, elven mechanic, pyromaniac and all around lunatic.

Meanwhile, the players were planning on paying a visit to their good friends, the Bristlefur Clan. The Bristlefurs had survived a previous run in the players. They happened across 0M-4R-U carrying a bus down the road one day and were so impressed they pulled over to take pictures.

Well Wilfred wasn't having any of that so he rolled to convince Obtuse Goose that the camera was actually a death ray and the miners were trying to melt through his reactor casing. Obtuse, who was barely paying attention at the time, agreed to kill them. Using his laser, he melted clean through the armor of the Bristlefur's tank and managed to kill an intern in the ensuing explosion.

Satisfied with the destruction they had caused, the players went on their merry way to kill an unrelated group of hyena-people. What they didn't count on was the camera surviving the fight. The surviving Bristlefurs happened across the wreckage, found the singed photos of the giant robot and assumed the worst.

The fight with the surviving Bristlefurs and their last remaining tank would take too long to describe. All you really need to know is that there was an hour-long debate on whether or not they could knock Wilfred off the tank by smacking him in the head with the gun. I said they could and everyone else maintained that he was too short and it would pass harmlessly over his head.

 Haydn managed to complain enough and got his way. I let Wilfred hang on for dear life as the turret tried to swat him off, only because I didn't want to hear him complain about this for months and months afterwards. I know he would. But what everyone seemed to forget was that while he was riding the tank around like a mechanical bull, everyone else was still attacking it with all their most powerful weapons. He was nearly crushed by a typewriter at least twice, was blinded by a laser blast and actually fell off at least one other time. So I'm still happy about that at least.

Here's Nick's 'evidence' from the debate, showing the turret harmlessly passing over Wilfred's head with an ineffectual 'woosh'.

Meanwhile, Nick tried to confuse the miners with an illusion spell; trying everything from images of hundreds of tanks, piles of raw meat and the miner's own mother to get them to surrender. Here's an artistic interpretation of the event:

Finally there's this:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Bristlefur Dig Site

Here's another map for my tabletop game. I should get around to explaining what that is but I'd say eighty percent of my readership already know about it or are already playing it.

Here a small mining camp ran by a family of Gnolls (bipedal, intelligent hyenas). Like so many others in Pitchblende Flats, they've been mining uranium, hoping to strike it rich before monsters get them. In the center is the large hole/crater they've gotten most of their haul from. A little north of that is a small shack made of assorted trash and a little south is an old rusted water tank. To the east a little is a broken down truck and a little west are the piles of discarded material they sifted through and determined wasn't nearly radioactive enough to sell in town.

More on this later.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Pitchblende Flats

Here's some maps for my tabletop game. Maybe I'll make a blog post about it, but most likely I won't.

 Here's one of Pitchblende Flats, the huge mining settlement everyone's been exploring wrecking havoc in. A good portion of it burnt down recently. You can see it marked, just a little north west of Trinity:

And here's one of the research hanger the players have been cooped up in ever since a freak storm blew away their last motorcycle, Tory 401:

And finally, here's an incomplete map of the whole world: Chmatra, Planet of Death. You'll notice there's enormous craters where habitable land should be: