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SpecFictionGuy

Science roadblocks in Sci-Fi

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Working on another story and it seems research into the science of terraforming and related matter throws up more roadblocks for me.
I wanted an MC who would run collected nitrogen from a gas giant to a terraforming world, but the process of converting ammonia to nitrogen seemed to be the process of plants and led to more stops. 
For the SF writers here, at what point do we make the leap from science to fiction? When we start to scratch our heads in bewilderment? 😁

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46 minutes ago, SpecFictionGuy said:

I wanted an MC who would run collected nitrogen from a gas giant to a terraforming world

 

Gas giants are planets that have mostly hydrogen and helium, but there's enough ammonia to crack.  The real problem is oxygen, which you can split the water clouds to make (electrolysis).

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51 minutes ago, zx1ninja said:

What was the nitrogen going to be used for?

If I understand it right, nitrogen is converted by plants from its gaseous state to ammonia which is used as food. It also acts as a diluter to keep the oxygen from igniting. 
I was going to use it for these reasons while another species supplied the water-based and land-based plants to create the oxygen. I would also need a minimal amount of it hauled from off-world since plants do need a slight amount for their processes. 
I may just turn to methane collection as certain gas giants have this as well and use it to heat the planet as a greenhouse gas. The problem with this is it’s harder to collect when it’s in the atmosphere. 

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3 minutes ago, SpecFictionGuy said:

If I understand it right, nitrogen is converted by plants from its gaseous state to ammonia which is used as food. It also acts as a diluter to keep the oxygen from igniting. 
I was going to use it for these reasons while another species supplied the water-based and land-based plants to create the oxygen. I would also need a minimal amount of it hauled from off-world since plants do need a slight amount for their processes. 

This sounds pretty all right to me. Scientifically valid. What exactly is your concern?

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2 minutes ago, SpecFictionGuy said:

If I understand it right, nitrogen is converted by plants from its gaseous state to ammonia which is used as food. It also acts as a diluter to keep the oxygen from igniting. 
I was going to use it for these reasons while another species supplied the water-based and land-based plants to create the oxygen. I would also need a minimal amount of it hauled from off-world since plants do need a slight amount for their processes. 
I may just turn to methane collection as certain gas giants have this as well and use it to heat the planet as a greenhouse gas. The problem with this is it’s harder to collect when it’s in the atmosphere. 

Methane might be better because it also helps produce the amino acids needed for life. I can't quickly find a use for Nitrogen other than fertilizer, so some will be needed depending on the terraforming process. Unfortunately I don't have a good general understanding of that at this time to go farther than that.

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3 minutes ago, zx1ninja said:

Methane might be better because it also helps produce the amino acids needed for life. I can't quickly find a use for Nitrogen other than fertilizer

My understanding of the Nitrogen Cycle is that Nitrogen is used for amino acids and DNA as well, but it's been a while since I really brushed up on my biology. 

 

At any rate Methane is super critical as well. 

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Ammonia and methane can both be supercritical fluids, although nitrogen and oxygen cannot.  Water can be supercritical as well.  In general, you can achieve supercritical status with any compressed gas that is shipped as a liquefied gas under its own pressure- methane being an exception.

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Posted (edited)

For amino acids which you'll need for life, or most biological materials for that matter, you'll primarily want Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen, sometimes grouped together as CHON. Since water gives a lot of what you're after, you might save transportation costs on the rest by transporting the carbon & nitrogen as the gas cyanogen, all carbon and nitrogen, which can be frozen at easily workable temperatures. A big handling problem is that the stuff is deadly in this form (essentially, it's two cyanide radicals glommed together...)


Yet this saves the cost of transporting the mass of the hydrogen in the methane and ammonia (roughly 12-15% "dead weight"), which you might not have much to bond to, once brought to the destination, anyway. Yet if you can break the cyanogen into its constituent elements at destination, you do save big on those transportation costs.

 

Note that, rather than dipping into the atmospheres of gas giants for these materials (low-grade ore...) you might look to large moons of gas giants, like Titan orbiting Saturn in our solar system. It has much more concentrated amounts of ammonia and methane (atmosphere, and lakes of the stuff!!), which you could more easily collect and then transport to destination, in whatever way you eventually like.

 

There are other materials you might posit are already available at your destination world, like phosphorous, sodium, potassium, calcium, etc...

Edited by Wes B
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Posted (edited)

But modern manufacturing uses all sorts of noxious, toxic, rude materials, because the manufacturers learn how to control them. (Check out what's needed simply to gold-plate a child's trinket...) For terraforming, we're looking at engineering and manufacturing on a far, far, far grander scale than anything we even remotely have experienced. The complexity of the process would likely be even worse than its scale. Running a process at that scale means controlling a process at that scale. If we can't run a simple process like gold plating with childproofed methods, we'd probably not be expecting to build a world  that way.

 

Besides, transporting vast slugs of frozen toxicity just has to be useful in the storyline, somewhere...

Edited by Wes B
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I don't know diddly about chemistry, though I just learned a whole bunch! I know that bean plants put nitrogen into the soil. Could you harvest that on your planet?

 

As for your question about the dividing line between science and fiction, I'd say use as much science as you can and make it up from there on. But be careful. When you provide enough details for science minded people to string a theory together, they will expect their theory to match yours. 

In my terrasphere, (spellcheck doesn't like that word) I have engines flinging chemicals back and forth. That's as much detail as I give. The emphasis is on the human drama, not the science and I beg forgiveness from every science mind that cannot follow my theory. I did once speak with an atmospheric chemical engineer and she said my theory was plausible.  I'm happy with that! 

Thank you for the terrific discussion, all of you! Isn't it terrific how writers have to know everything about everything. Like that meme about the police getting hold of a writer's internet history and throwing the book at them. 😜

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One thing about plants and the creation of atmosphere.  It is believed that algae produces most of the earth's Oxygen (I've read that in a couple of places).  If you were to terraform a plant, the first thing you'd want is liquid water.  The next thing would be to produce algae.  In a story setting, I'd just have it introduced from earth, because it's easy to mass produce algae.  We do that now.

 

There is one last thing that should be taken into account, and that is the influence of magnetic poles.  The ONE reason we have life on the earth today is because the magnetic field that surrounds the planet shields us from cosmic radiation.  Without that, everything would be fried.  So, I'd take that into account as well.

 

I don't thing grabbing gasses from off-worlds would be a feasible, or even necessary function.

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10 hours ago, Nicola said:

I don't know diddly about chemistry, though I just learned a whole bunch! I know that bean plants put nitrogen into the soil. Could you harvest that on your planet?

 

This is a fine suggestion, and it would be useful in some stories. However, it presupposes that a biosphere already exists, and that elements, like nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon (in the form of CO2) already exist in the atmosphere. They cannot be made from nothing, and the only way to make them from something else would be with a massive nuclear reactor (massive as in big-as-a star massive...) so if they're not already there, they must be imported. Since the OP suggested doing this, we presume that his starting point is a world that doesn't have 'em.

 

10 hours ago, Nicola said:

 

As for your question about the dividing line between science and fiction, I'd say use as much science as you can and make it up from there on.

 

Some would put this as the dividing line between SciFi and fantasy, which is more a wide and blurry region, as it should be. See, the more science a reader understands, the more science in many stories resembles Harry Potter's magic wand, with a bunch of blinking lights stuck on. This is not a bad thing; those readers would categorize such stories as fantasy, and move right on. Others will see SciFi, and everyone's still happy. The interesting thing is though, that if you have reasonably deep knowledge in a certain subject, there's something really special about a story in which the author has taken the time to also learn it. It gives a very special sense of deep immersion in the story world. James Michener was astonishing in his ability to do this repeatedly, for dozens of different settings in his various books (more on him in a moment) but with the "hard" SciFi stories, we can have that experience with many different authors.

 

10 hours ago, Nicola said:

But be careful. When you provide enough details for science minded people to string a theory together, they will expect their theory to match yours. 

In my terrasphere, (spellcheck doesn't like that word) I have engines flinging chemicals back and forth. That's as much detail as I give. The emphasis is on the human drama, not the science and I beg forgiveness from every science mind that cannot follow my theory.

 

You are kind and gracious to say this, but I hope you won't truly feel a need to ask forgiveness. A good story simply is. if you produce one, it requires no apology. If someone wants more science in their stories, it's no different from someone who wants more mystery in them. If we don't write mysteries, the wise readers will simply go elsewhere, without complaint. (And the unwise readers, well, they can't be helped...)

 

10 hours ago, Nicola said:

Isn't it terrific how writers have to know everything about everything.

 

I'm not so sure. It's helpful to have wide knowledge, but good writers work with what they've got. They may do a little research, or like Michener, they can "go huge." If you haven't read Michener, I'd suggest trying one or two, just to see what's possible. (He's not everyone's cup of tea, though.) In the spirit of this thread, his novel, Space, is fascinating. It's an alternate-world story, about a fictional US moon program, in which historical characters like President Johnson and Werner Von Braun appear "offstage," with the story told by the astronauts, scientists and engineers. I've worked in the aerospace industry, and michener caught the whole thing exactly. He got the language, the procedures, the moods, just right. It was truly like being in another world

 

Another of his works that might interest this group is The Source, which is an alternate history about a fictional town in Israel, going from ancient, pre-Canaanite times, up to the present. He caught the mood and details of all the historical periods there from then to now, as well as the details and procedures of archaeology. It's a huge series of short stories from the different historical periods, wrapped within the story of archaeologists, excavating the site.

 

Various real historical characters make appearances, including Eusebius, Josephus, and an elderly King David. I read this once long ago, as a fairly new Christian, just starting an interest in Biblical history, and then again recently, decades later, when i was absolutely floored by the depth of the research he had to do to cover so many historical periods, and for only a single novel!

 

Anyway, I do apologize for the lengthiness, but if you can find a Michener novel that includes some period of history you have knowledge of, it's really worth a read, just to get an example of what real careful and dedicated research can do for a story!!!

 

 

 

 

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42 minutes ago, Wes B said:

If someone wants more science in their stories, it's no different from someone who wants more mystery in them. If we don't write mysteries, the wise readers will simply go elsewhere, without complaint. (And the unwise readers, well, they can't be helped...)

 

Man this is really true.

43 minutes ago, Wes B said:

Anyway, I do apologize for the lengthiness, but if you can find a Michener novel that includes some period of history you have knowledge of, it's really worth a read, just to get an example of what real careful and dedicated research can do for a story!!!

 

Hey, you don't have to apologize here for the lengthiness, it's really rather refreshing!

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3 hours ago, Wes B said:

However, it presupposes that a biosphere already exists, and that elements, like nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon (in the form of CO2) already exist in the atmosphere. They cannot be made from nothing, and the only way to make them from something else would be with a massive nuclear reactor (massive as in big-as-a star massive...) so if they're not already there, they must be imported.

True. Poor bean plants asked to do something with nothing. They might get the wrong idea about being God as per that post about plants being prideful.  As for transportation, can you refer to a way that does not yet exist, but is plausable?  Like "beam me up, Scotty?" 

 

3 hours ago, Wes B said:

The interesting thing is though, that if you have reasonably deep knowledge in a certain subject, there's something really special about a story in which the author has taken the time to also learn it. It gives a very special sense of deep immersion in the story world.

Yes! I know the feeling. Resonance. Deep communion.  I am happy you have found that in Michener.  I do apply the word "soft" to my story. 

 

3 hours ago, Wes B said:

You are kind and gracious to say this, but I hope you won't truly feel a need to ask forgiveness. A good story simply is. if you produce one, it requires no apology. If someone wants more science in their stories, it's no different from someone who wants more mystery in them. If we don't write mysteries, the wise readers will simply go elsewhere, without complaint. (And the unwise readers, well, they can't be helped...)

You are kind and gracious too! Perhaps I beg leniency, and you grant it with your wise words. Thank you! 

 

3 hours ago, Wes B said:

Anyway, I do apologize for the lengthiness, but if you can find a Michener novel that includes some period of history you have knowledge of, it's really worth a read, just to get an example of what real careful and dedicated research can do for a story!!!

What SW said. I enjoyed your short response and am grateful for the time you took to create it.

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Since you're talking about a futuristic, extraterrestrial setting, does it matter that the science doesn't exist yet to describe what you're wanting to say? I mean is it that much of a leap to say that while on earth in 2020 the process looked like X, in so-and-so space colony in some distant year, the technology exists to make the process look like Y?

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That would be perfectly reasonable. The problem comes where we confuse the difference between science and technology. Technology comprises the tools needed to do things. Science defines what technology might be possible, and what technology would need a lot o 'splainin' before trying to put it forth in SciFi. You might posit that the science as we know it is wrong, but the writer has to step carefully to remain believable.

 

For example, ancient alchemists believed that they could convert base metals to gold in their tabletop laboratories. We now know that such a process requires nuclear reactions, and see no way the alchemists could feasibly have accomplished such a thing. Could a writer posit that our science is wrong? Sure, but without some good explanation, it would not convince a reader who expected science fiction. By merely making it clear from the start that the story is fantasy, the writer enters into an entirely different "contract" with the reader, and many more things are acceptable in the story.

 

But the world is rarely so simple. There are exceptions. For example, while we get a regular stream of speculative science, suggesting that things like time travel or faster-than-light travel might somehow be feasible, they get shot down almost as quickly as they appear. As such, few who understand the science are too optimistic that either will ever happen. (Hopeful? Yes! Optimistic? No...) However, TT and FTL get "special dispensation" from most SciFi fans, because they open up such a huge category of story realms that are otherwise unavailable. (We'll bend our own rules for a good yarn...)

 

And so, many SciFi fans will still be willing to suspend their disbelief for these types of stories, while a great many would be uninterested in stories that treat the rest of our scientific knowledge so loosely. In the end, it all boils down to what the readers will buy. It turns out that if the writer is honest and calls the story fantasy where appropriate, many many readers will accept most anything from sloppy science to outright-magic-unicorney, as long as the story is good. (As long as there are so many bad stories, the good ones will be treasured, in whatever form they appear.)

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47 minutes ago, Wes B said:

But the world is rarely so simple. There are exceptions. For example, while we get a regular stream of speculative science, suggesting that things like time travel or faster-than-light travel might somehow be feasible, they get shot down almost as quickly as they appear.

 

I don't know if I agree with that.  It seems to me that they are promoting it whenever possible.

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Okay... now who is this "they" you speak of, and what "it' are they promoting?

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Posted (edited)

Well, first Wes, I've got to ask who is the original "they" that you were talking about, and when do "...they shoot it down almost as quickly as the appear?"  I'm not being argumentative, just curious.

Edited by suspensewriter

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One thing to remember in science fiction: you don't need to know anything about internal combustion to drive a car.

 

This is where the "iceberg effect" comes in.  Most of the technology is invisible. Not to say that you as the writer can ignore the processes. What you have to do is find the telling detail.

 

A frequently used example is a three-word sentence from Heinlein:"The door dilated."

 

So, what's your telling detail? Cans of ammonia dropping out of the sky into a swamp of green slime?

 

It's not so much a roadblock as it is climbing to the top of a foothill before you can see the mountain beyond. You end up building an infrastructure and a society that makes the infrastructure necessary. And 90% stays behind a curtain.

 

 

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