Handwavium: Paragravity

Okay, let’s talk about paragravity.

First up, a note on nomenclature. Paragravity is one of the two things that an Imperial habtech might be referring to when they talk about artificial gravity, the other being spin gravity. Unlike spin gravity, which is “powered” by good old centrifugal force, paragravity is produced by ontotechnological space magic that does wonderfully complex things involving information physics and grand unified theories and other such things to poke the universe in exactly the right way – basically, one branch of the mass-inertia-and-momentum manipulating vector control.

Which is to say that it is produced by gravity rotors, suitcase-sized boxes with a power connector, a ‘weave connector, and a thermal management connector on the outside, filled with solid-state hardware that is a proprietary product of Mariseth Gravitics, ICC. And into whose internal workings we shall thus respectfully avoid going.

What we’re talking about here is how they work on the outside.

The field of paragravity (the gravity envelope) can only be created between two gravity rotors of opposed polarity. That gets you a straight field (with perhaps some convex distortion at the edges) between the two, which imposes a force functionally identical to mass-generated gravity (i.e., affecting all atoms, etc., equally) on everything with mass inside it.  This creates a consistent down direction towards what, for the sake of designation, we shall call the “positive” rotors.

(You have to have a closed envelope, and can’t operate an unpaired gravity rotor even if you wanted to: since the universe is functionally infinite in whatever direction you’re pointing it, energy requirements for the half-field head asymptotically for infinity, at which point the circuit breakers save you from a messy ‘splosion.)

Both momentum and energy are conserved, as they would have to be.

The former is the reason that you gravity rotors should be bolted firmly to the structure of the hab; whatever force they exert is, per Callaneth’s Lemma (or Newton’s Third Law, whatever name you prefer), reciprocally exerted too, half to each rotor in the pair.

While difficult to arrange even deliberately, this does imply that if you can get enough mass in one spot and move it just right, you can get the gravity rotors to tear themselves free and leap in the appropriate reciprocal direction.

With regard to the latter: it takes energy to establish the gravity envelope, but once it’s up and running, maintaining it takes only minimal energy physically speaking. (I.e., it still consumes quite a bit of energy in the rotor while it’s up and going, because rooting the universe ain’t cheap; that energy just doesn’t go into the envelope.  It’s this waste that makes paragravity a real expensive thing to run.)

That, however, is only true so long as nothing is moving within it. Falling objects, moving in the down direction of the envelope, take energy from the envelope as they gain kinetic energy.  (Likewise, when you lift an object within the envelope against its downforce, that pushes energy into the envelope, which is a surge effect that the hardware has to cope with. Alas, it’s not something that can be harvested in the majority of applications.)  You could call this paragravitational potential energy if you like, since it sits in essentially the same place in the relevant equations.

While it takes the rotors a little while to initialize from a cold start (although some of this time is self-diagnostics and the like), once up and running, though, you can change the parameters of the gravity envelope very quickly; and you can generate pretty much any amount of gravity you want up to their capacity so long as you’re willing to spend the energy (which varies proportionately) needed to do it.

This is what lets you use the exact same technology for inertial damping; you just have appropriately oriented gravity rotors cancel out your engine thrust inside the starship – while bearing in mind that this will have certain effects on your structural load. (Likewise, you can use them when grounded – but since they don’t block planetary gravity, if you want 1G in the cabin when landed on a 3G world, you will actually be running the paragravity system at -2G.)

The drawback, however, is that the same lack of “inertia” in operation that lets you change your gravity quickly means that they fail equally quickly – and shut down essentially instantly if the power fails, just like an electromagnet’s field collapses – so failing to keep up maintenance schedules may mean being abruptly smashed to the deck with a force of twelve gravities! Caveat engineer.


Handwavium: Muon Metals

A reader recently asked the relevant question: how do they stabilize the muons in muon metals, muons not being known for their stability, and when binding metals together, not exactly capable of being stabilized by moving at very high fractions of c, either?

Well, that would be space magic!

(Alas. But with sufficient futureward advancement, SFnal hardness inevitably becomes SFnal firmness.)

Which is to say, so far as I know, there isn’t a known process to do it. (Unless the people who claim that muons should be stable in electron-degenerate matter, like white dwarf material, due to Fermi suppression [the lack of free quantum states to accomodate the decay electron] are correct, but there are good reasons to suspect that they aren’t.)

What lets them do it is another by-product of ontotechnology – hinted at in this reference to a “boser” – that enables mucking about with the bosons that mediate the weak interaction, rendering the stuff stable or at least metastable by oh-look-a-furious-handwave means. If it can be done in reality, it’ll require a whole lot more knowledge of quantum flavordynamics than we have right now, at least.

(Side digression: I like to think that this and its general treatment illustrates what I consider one of the guiding principles of “firm SF”, as I call it. It is acceptable to invoke a little handwavium to generate your unobtainium, but having done it, your unobtanium will-by-Jove follow the laws of physics as they would apply to it. Hence my trying to figure out what exactly hypothetical muon metals would look like, why tangle channels absolutely do violate causality, etc., etc. Just because it’s not currently possible and may be absolutely impossible doesn’t mean that it’s magical, and certainly doesn’t mean that it’s inconsistent.)

The Incidental Problems of Handwavial Correctness

Today’s vexing aesthetic physics of handwavium problem:

INASMUCH as the energy levels and resulting orbitals of muon-proton atoms are completely different from those of electron-proton atoms –

WELL, obviously, or what would be the point in making muon metals in the first place –

AND INASMUCH as this makes muon-photon interactions differ remarkably from electron-photon interactions, thus changing radically the emission spectrum and other optical properties from their electronic equivalent –

WHAT do the blasted things look like?

(It is on those mornings when I find myself contemplating this before my first cup of coffee, inasmuch as said metals are a vitally important and visible component of a hypothetical fusion torch drive, that I have some sympathy for the technobabble approach to doing things. Somehow, I doubt the Star Trek writers ever had to deal with this sort of thing…)

What is Ontotechnology?

…a reader asks.

Well, let me say right up front that ontotechnology as I describe it is pure-quill handwavium. Its connection to contemporary, real-world physics is that I endeavor to avoid coming right out and stabbing said contemporary, real-world physics in the face; after all, anything discovered in the future has to be consistent with the present. Rather, it is my speculation as to what the physics of the future as expanded by posthuman intellects running on hardware the size of small moons would look like – and as pure speculation, that means I don’t want to see any “but I read in this book that it was possible” arguments made anywhere, ‘kay?

Disclaimer over with, I stole the term from Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, who coined it as a neologism for “technology that permits manipulation of the fundamental rules of reality”. Which is exactly what ontotechnology does.

(How does it do it? Well, I postulate that the fundamental realization behind ontotechnology – by any of the three theories you care to use – is that at a very basic level, the map is the territory. Information and mass-energy are essentially equivalent. Mathematics doesn’t just represent the fundamental structure of reality; it is the fundamental structure of reality. Think of the universe, if you will, as a computer program, database, and processor all of which are also each other; ontotechnology, in those terms, is the skillful application of the root password and a debugger to it to make it work differently.)

You want to change the laws of physics? It does that. Treat space and time as building material? It does that, too. Set the speed of light to 60 mph, abolish the weak nuclear force, make gravity attract in proportion to the cube of the distance instead of the square, invent an entire new universal force that affects particles based on their heretofore-unknown qualities of shiny, fluffy, and matte? Sure, no problem. Can do. A fully mature ontotechnology would let you invent your very own personal version of physics that works exactly the way you want it to and impose it on whatever bit of the universe you want to work that way – or, hell, just reach outside, take hold of the brane, and make a new universe that runs according to your principles.

The problem, of course, is that even for weakly godlike moon-brains, programming universes is very, very complicated. The set of self-consistent/self-sustaining physical laws is a very, very tiny subset of the set of expressible physical laws, and the set of physical laws that are compatible with the existence of mass-energy as we know it is an even tinier subset of that subset, and the set of physical laws that are compatible with the existence of complex informational structures like, well, us is… you get the picture – and that’s without taking into account whatever laws control ontotechnology itself. (And, to further extend that debugging analogy, when you crash the universe tryin’, you don’t get a nice friendly exception message, or even a blue screen of death.)

All of which is why no-one, in the present time of the Eldraeverse, has a fully mature ontotechnology, and probably won’t for millions if not billions of years to come.

But they have been able to figure out a few applications that can be made to work safely and reliably, and that’s where technologies like the controllable wormhole, and the tangle channel, and vector control (which lets you do interesting things to gravity and the linkage between inertial and gravitational mass, starting with breaking mass into those two distinct concepts) come from – and where any future breakthroughs along those lines (say, if I decide at some point to let dimensional transcendence be invented) and/or mysterious rule-breaking alien artifacts dug up will draw from.

Handwavium: Inertial Dampers

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:

  1. The handwavium that enables FTL travel (generating wormholes from entangled singularities, probably very related to type 2);
  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
  3. 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:

Inertial Damping

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.