Handwavium (in General)
I try to write the technology in my universe in such a way that at least 95% of it falls within the laws of physics as we know them, or at least as we mostly know them and assuming that they’re being fairly kind to us when it comes to technologies we haven’t developed yet.
The other 5% is powered by handwavium.
My chosen handwavium, for those who are new and haven’t heard the term before, is ontotechnology, a lovely term for “those technologies which let you reach into the mechanisms underlying reality and poke them in useful ways”. A fully mature ontotechnology would, arguably, be “that technology which you build universes with”; fortunately, what they have in the Eldraeverse is a very, very immature ontotechnology. From an in-world perspective/in the parlance of the Worlds, ontotechnology usually refers to some product of one or more of Information Physics, Matrix Theory, or Ontological Precedence, those three being the leading contenders for the Next Big Thing in physics.
(Unfortunately, the evidence seems to be suggesting that all three of these mutually contradictory theories appear to be true, which most physicists and philosophers take as evidence that (a) the universe is far more complicated than anyone imagined, and (b) may just possibly be having a laugh at our expense.)
From an out-of-world perspective, ontotechnology means handwavium. Specifically, it means one of these:
- The handwavium that enables FTL travel (generating wormholes from entangled singularities, probably very related to type 2);
- The handwavium that enables FTL communication (tangle channels of the non-quantum entanglement kind, which implies that the universe is just full of non-local hidden variables); or
- The handwavium that enables a decent degree of control over gravity and/or mass (vector control).
All of which share certain characteristics, such as having been invented by transsophont geniuses in symbiosis with very large computing facilities, having theories behind them which – in detail – are very hard if not downright impossible for people without rather enhanced brains to understand, and so far as the vast majority of people are concerned, might as well come in black boxes with “Big angelic powers within. No mortal serviceable parts inside.” stenciled on the outside.
Apart from those, it may also mean one of the assorted gap-filling assumptions I’ve had to make in inventing the details of advanced technologies, in re everything from whether P=NP to enough theory of mind to have a decent handle on AI mental architecture; while none of that actively violates what’s known, that I’m aware of, it’s certainly extrapolating well beyond reasonability for anyone except… well, an SF writer.
Here endeth the summing up for newbies, ’cause we’re here to talk about the parameters wrapped around a particular example of handwavium:
So let’s talk about inertial damping. The first rule of inertial damping is that you don’t talk about inertial damping —
Ahem. Sorry. The first rule of inertial damping is that there’s no such thing as inertial damping, as a separate technology. There are “inertial dampers”, but they happen to be an application of the same underlying techniques – as a bundle, called vector control – which are your generic mucking-with-the-shape-of-space-time-without-needing-inconveniently-huge-masses tools, and which underlie related technologies such as, say, artificial gravity, techlekinesis, kinetic barriers, tractor-pressor beams, hopelessly inefficient reactionless drives (which aren’t even actually reactionless – in this universe, we OBEY the Law of Conservation of Momentum), and so forth. I prefer not to multiply handwavium beyond necessity, obviously, so I make all of these – and I didn’t actually start with all of them, some were just logical implications – examples of the same family of phenomena.
All inertial damping actually is is… artificial gravity.
This brings with it all the associated limitations. For example: you can only create the a-grav field between matching and opposed sets of gravity rotors. (Well, that’s not technically true – but not having the second one there means you’re trying to attract about half the universe with your a-grav field, energy requirements head asymptotically for infinity, fuses blow, and you’re done here.) It’s basically an internal closed field, with very little spillover at the fringes. Forget a-graving anything in open space or cheating your way to a reactionless drive with them; you need something to mount the rotors on, and that thing is not going to be within the field of effect.
It’s also quite energy-hungry, because it’s not like we’ve repealed the energy conservation laws or the inverse square law, either. That’s why it’s being used to damp only two small habitable areas and not, say, the entire length of the ship so you wouldn’t need all that heavy trusswork supporting the cargo and the fuel against the engine’s thrust; it’d be grossly uneconomic even if you had somewhere suitably strong – they would be holding the whole weight of everything, after all – to mount the rotors. The material construction is essentially always more cost-effective when doing jobs that construction can do. Also, of course, if your spacecraft is primarily held together by an inertial dampening field, under whatever name your universe calls it, then you’re pretty much going for a design that is guaranteed to undergo rapid unplanned disassembly as soon as the power goes out for the first time. Consolidated Mutual Mitigation & Surety aren’t going to write a note to cover that.
(Side note: These associated costs are why, artificial gravity or no, most habitats that want gravity spin to get it, and ships – including the Greed and Mass-Energy use gravity wheels, and so forth. One of my general rules of thumb in handwavium design is that handwavium that reproduces something that can be done comfortably by regular physics tends to be more costly, in one way or another, as roundabout, over-complex ways of doing things often are. In this case, the upshot of that is that artificial gravity is very useful for small-scale applications in the lab and industry, curiosities like the zero-g bed, and interesting spin-off applications like inertial damping and techlekinesis, but if all you need is regular old pretty constant gravity… start spinning.
Meanwhile, if you’re traveling on one of those dirthugger-friendly passenger lines that has gravity in the passenger sections and doesn’t have gravity wheels? There’s a reason you’re paying a damn sight more for your ticket than the people willing to live like spacers for the duration.)
What makes it function as inertial damping is that the gravity rotor network is tied into the engine controller, and the reaction control system, and – were this ship capable of atmospheric flight – the flight data computer, and various other systems which together understand the forces the spacecraft is about to apply to itself, or coming from sources which are reporting to it, and generates the appropriate matching vector on the contents of the damped area – insert assorted technobabble here – such that the net differential acceleration vector between them and the ship they’re in is zero.
The key limitation here is that it can only do anything to compensate for accelerations that it knows about; it can’t read the future or identify force-about-to-be-applied, it just follows in sync with the systems that accelerate the ship. If you’re in a collision, if something explodes unexpectedly on-board, if you’re being shot at, or in other ways you get hit by unknown sources of acceleration, the inertial damping system can’t do a damn thing about that. It gets you comfort, either as a luxury on half-gee freighters or as a practical necessity on twelve-gee fast couriers, but the bridge still needs seatbelts, the corridors still need handholds, and in the event that none of this works out, it may still be chunky salsa time.
Have you read Ted Chaing’s fictional essay he wrote for Nature about the the effects of transsophant research and technology on the sociology of science from the point of view of baseline humans?
“Catching crumbs from the table”, right? In which case, I have _now_ .
Some of the same effects are, I would say, at play in some places in the Worlds, but it play out rather differently for several reasons – the obvious one being the transferability of minds and upgradability of brains, the picture rather changing when understanding Imogen Andracanth’s General Theory of Wormhole Physics is less an uncrossable gap and more the economic problem of renting or buying a sufficient mass of quantum processors. Modulo whatever issues your home culture might have about grandiose acts of self-improvement and/or personal identity, of course.
Also, for that matter, I figure that even by that point in the future there’s plenty of science for baseline – well, okay, nowline – brains to do. Hell, biology gets bigger with every life-bearing body discovered, and there are doubtless lots of obscure corners of physics that someone could stick their nose into. And which is good, useful work, not just makework science – sure, the Big Brains _could_ do it, but they’re better off thinking about the things that only they can think about, not wasting time on problems that lots of other people could solve. It’s just good business.
All of which is to say that while I’m sure they can understand the temptation to turn just to picking the crumbs of the big mind’s table, or indeed of adopting a similar strategy on discovering that, hey, there are older civilizations out there and they have better stuff, I’m pretty sure most people in the Worlds are rather sarcastic when it comes to the people who actually do it.
I’m also curious as to how the Vonnies worked out how to build wormholes and vector control.
Did they steal it?
That’s, alas, something I have to say nothing about, as I have potential plot thoughts that might use it later.
Thinking my way through the options: they stole it, they have a percursor artifact that will create wormholes and agrav rotors on request, they once were less resistant to transsophontism, but then pulled back after getting those two toys, they have a transsoph hidden away, or they are a front for an old pervision. No matter which one is the case, they would keep it extremely highly classified secret, especially from their own population.
Huh. That was interesting to re-read now. 🙂
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