NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

NEWS and a REVIEW: Quantum theory, photons, sanity and science fiction [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

For SuUper Bowl Sunday, this is SUPER NEAT stuff!   Scientists create light from vacuum (  Quantum physics is confusing stuff.  It has been said that if a person actually understands it, they should immediately roll a SAN check (a roleplaying game player's term for rolling dice to determine whether you've gone insane)!  I don't pretend to understand QP, but I do read about it, and I have friends that  understand it (and yes, their sanity can definitely be questioned at times - then again, one of them is an SF author!).

This article is neat because it actually demonstrates a theory that has been in existence for over 40 years - that the vacuum of space isn't really empty, but that there are "virtual" particles that are neither here nor there until forced into existence.  Think Schroedinger's Cat - you don't "really" know what state the cat is in until you look in the box.  In quantum terms, the cat actually exists in multiple states at once - the same with particles in vacuum - they exist as in potentia until observed.  Understand?  Make your SAN roll...

So here's the scientific reference:
Observation of the dynamical Casimir effect in a superconducting circuit" C. M. Wilson, G. Johansson, A. Pourkabirian, M. Simoen, J. R. Johansson, T. Duty, F. Nori, & P. Delsing, Nature 479, 376–379 (17 November 2011), doi:10.1038/nature10561
The neat thing about the experiments at Chalmers University of Technology (Gothenburg, Sweden) is that the found a way to make vacuum particles change from a "virtual" state to one that can actually be observed - in this case, the particles are photons, and the light from these photons can be observed appearing out of vacuum.

The 42-year old theory that predicted the experiment stated that since photons travel at the speed of light, a mirror moving at nearly the speed of light would transfer some of it's own energy to virtual photons, making them appear as pairs of  real photons.  In the experiment, the Chalmers scientists substituted a superconducting quantum interference device (aka, a "SQUID") for the mirror and "vibrated" it a nearly 25% of the speed of light by rapid switching magnetic fields.  The result, called a demonstration of the "Dynamic Casimir Effect" produces photons, since photons do not have measurable mass, they require the least energy to create - other particles such as protons would require transfer of a lot more energy.

Neat stuff indeed, and one step closer to a future in which making something from nothing just requires the right technology and lots of energy.

Which brings us to this week's SF book review: "Guardian of Night" by Tony Daniel (Baen Books).  The reason for tying the NEWS and REVIEW posts together, is that the science of Guardian of Night relies heavily on SQUIDs and quantum physics.  The future is not too distant, where Earth was forced into rapid development by a war with an alien species which either enslaves all of its enemies.  Humans are resourceful, however, and have reverse-engineered much of the alien technology and managed to hold their own for over a decade.

However, during that time, the alien "sceeve" have been distracted, dealing with internal dissent and insurrection.  They've settled their internal problems and taken a good hard look at "those pesky humans," deciding that Earth is too dangerous to enslave and needs to be exterminated.  The sceeve are sending a fleet with a novel weapon to finish the job, but they hadn't counted on one of their own deciding to defect.

Fans of "The Hunt for Red October" will find familiar ground in this novel.  It is said that the best science fiction is that which successfully files off the serial numbers of an existing idea and adapts it to a new, exciting story.  Author Tony Daniel has certainly done so with this book, the adventure is first rate, and the familiarity with the premise actually helps the enjoyment of the book - it is by no means an exact copy, and the climax of the book, along with believable, likable characters is great.

This book is definitely HARD Science Fiction, the highly advanced human starships are hardly physical creations at all, but manifestations of virtual quantum particles held together with SQUIDs.  The navigation through space utilizes quantum uncertainty in a manner that actually allows a ship to almost be in two places at once during a critical battle.  The alien creatures are a bit far-fetched, but the author sketched in only enough detail to let our minds fill in the rest, and didn't try to make all of the pieces fit.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it is a good premise and makes a fine story.  However!  And it's a big one - this is a blog about science, and uses a lot of complicated terminology - but I try not to abuse my readers with it, and I use (and define) only what is necessary to explain.  Unfortunately, there is a near-fatal flaw in the writing style of this book.  Mr. Daniel - I hope you are reading this - I loved the story, but you thoroughly abused your readers with jargon.

The book starts out using no less than 13 futuristic, alien and pseudo-scientific jargon terms with absolutely no references to allow the reader to understand them.  I am no fan of extensive infodumps, but seriously, Tony, you needed some.  From the very start of the book, we had an exper monitoring the beta for signs of the sceeve.  The exper was functioning in chroma and interacting with geists and servants.  Transmission from the alien vessel weren't transmissions, but conditioning beta. Ships and signals traveled through Q but then certain devices and constructs were also materialized out of Q.  Back on Earth we find that Earth had been attacked by churn and the remnants - curd - are still around, causing problems.  Members of the Extry in ships made of Q bottles are attempting to decode alien beta conditioning and decide what to do about the alien fleet approaching through the Q.  Civilian and military leaders are meeting with the President with part of their interaction occurring via salt which enables them to see geists, servants and information in chroma.  This is not science, it is throwing out jargon terms in the hopes that someone will think that it is science.

Granted, the reader eventually gained enough context to get some, if not most of the terms.  Many of them are explained in infodumps about two-thirds of the way through the book, but it seriously took about a third of the book to get contextual meaning (for example, the sceeve have no discrete brain as such, but have a distributed nervous system like an invertebrate - however, they are symbiotic life forms, and one of those symbiots is the gid which serves as a personal and racial memory).

I am used to jargon.  I have to use it all day long; however, I have been burned professionally with scientific papers that have been rejected for too much use proprietary terms and jargon.  If Science can declare a hiatus from jargon, perhaps we need to do the same for Science Fiction.  Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the premise and the story, but I am afraid that some readers will hit the jargon, realize there is no immediate explanation, and drop the book.  If they've paid prime prices for a physical book, they may even decide to reject other writings from this author and publisher.  That would be a shame, so I figure I need to be upfront in this review and suggest that the reader hang in for the rest of the story.

Guardian of Night by Tony Daniel will be released in paperback next Tuesday, Feb. 7 at Amazon and is available now in every conceivable electronic book format at Baen eBooks (

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