Here's a great SF premise

Thursday, 02 October, Year 6 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

Suppose there's some sort of space exploration mission underway, consisting of launching some sort of large-ish unmanned thing towards say Jupiter or whatever.

Suppose that the mission fails, unexpectedly, and suddenly. Everything seems to be in order, the launch is successful, the instrument exits Earth orbit as planned, goes for a while, and then suddenly... there's an explosion.

But not any sort of explosion, mind you. A humongous explosion. The light of it is actually seen on Earth during the day, it blots out the Sun. Early estimates put the total energy released somewhere in the range of... one ZettaJoule. Yeah, that's right, 1021 Joules. One and 21 zeros. 1`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000

Minutes thereafter, further explosions are seen, mostly on Jupiter, some on Saturn. Fortunately, the largest one, a few hundred times larger than the original, happens on the dark side of that planet, but the glare cuts a visible outline of Jupiter in the daylight sky. The electromagnetic storm ensuing ionizes the troposphere to the degree aurorae are a feature for months, all the way to the Equator.

Everybody promptly forgets about the lowly space mission, while for months the brightest minds on planet Earth scramble to figure out what to do while the brightleast minds on planet Earth scramble to "come up with policies", recognize each other for counts of minutes and thank each other for their leadership. Then one day, a chap nobody thought was particularly bright manages to add two and two together, and has an excellent story to tell the world :

On one hand, the suddenly missing craft weighed in at about eleven thousand tons. That, if one bothers to apply mass to energy conversioni would yield just about... one zettajoule. And should the craft in question have ran into a solid antimatter object, the resulting explosion could have conceivably fragmented it, and thrown it off its calculated course, enough so that the bits fell onto the nearby gas giant, causing all the other explosions. And it turns out that if you do a little geometric and gravitational modeling, it's quite plausible that in fact the object in question was just about a million tons give or take, and it was probably made of either anti-iron or anti-nickel. Or perhaps an alloy of the two. An anti-alloy.

And this anti-alloy chunk was coming straight for Earth, as it turns out, and it was painted black (except you know, with anti-paint, which isn't anti-black ie white, it's just anti-matter, but otherwise exactly paint) which is why nobody saw it. So conceivably, it was sent by a civilisation somewhere that has the technology to send large chunks of matter across space with the accuracy to make them home right on Earth, and is probablyii composed out of individuals more or less physically similar to humans.

So now the debate rages : what to do ? Was it intentional ? Should they be "punished" ? How would you know, and moreover, how does the deer punish the hunter, when but for the bullet holes it wouldn't even know there's a hunter there, and still can't make him out ?

But perhaps it was unintentional, and so the behaviour should be excused. Especially seeing how there's exactly jack shit one could do anyway. What's easier than ignoring large, flashing signs of danger ? And what's more specific, more aptly proper and characteristic of an extinct species ?

Obviously antimatter porn suddenly starts trending on derpix or whatever it's called, while the lowly probe that turned out to have serendipitously saved planet Earth from its programmed obliteration is retroactively rechristened as god, jesus and ghandi, and has a bunch of various sects "following it" and "interpreting" "its message" to mankind.

And so there you have it, a whole universe, but what's really valuable : a whole alt-universe built on a sustainable premise. It's reasonable, it makes sense, it's interesting, you can live a lifetime out of exploring the implications and intricacies attendant.

And... who knows, maybe you'd be doing future generations a favour.

  1. Einstein's famous e = m c2, that is. []
  2. At least the local anthropologists think, based on the coincidence of the unit of measure, because it takes roughly similar people to come up with roughly similar millions and roughly similar tons. []
Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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12 Responses

  1. Some quick back of the envelope math: sun yearly output is 4*10^24, so your original explosion would equal the total energy radiated by the sun over about two-three hours. If it happens over say one second, it would in fact be ten thousand times brighter than the sun (assuming same spectrum). Blotting out the sun may be an understatement. Blinding out everyone on that side of the planet, whether they were awake or asleep may be more like it.

  2. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Thursday, 2 October 2014

    Obviously the figures could be jiggled as necessary. I'm not convinced an explosion as discussed would actually cause quite the catastrophic blinding effect, even if accounting for the distance (the sun is also twice as far, say). More likely, people asleep indoors with the blinds drawn will just get strange blinds tans on their skin. People in the cellar to get a wine bottle will just think they had fixed that lightbulb. People who just then chanced to look at the sun, pilots in flight especialy at high altitude etc will definitely lose sight. In between those... well, in between those there's a novel.

    Or a series thereof.

  3. Just a technicality, that antimatter chunk would be hit by micrometeorites and all kinds of particles from solar wind long before arriving into inner solar system, I guess it would cause detectable gamma ray flares. We have satellites with such detectors (originally they were to detect nuclear blasts, but then they discovered active galaxies and whatnot).

    Also the premise that is was built by extraterrestrials would need solid supporting evidence, otherwise it will generally be thrown together with tunguska explosion.

  4. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Friday, 3 October 2014

    Those two objections actually cancel each other out : the fact that the chunk wasn't hit by micrometeors etc convincingly supports the theory that it's manufactured rather than naturally occuring - perhaps it had a magnetic field generator installed that shielded it from such, but failed to protect it from the larger, non-naturally occuring piece. Which would suggest that while they were perhaps aware of Earth being inhabited (as they selected that out of all the SS planets) they weren't aware Earth was technologically advanced enough (which may be due to the fact that 1k years ago, or w/e it was launched, it didn't look at all likely we'd get spaceflight, ever - and perhaps even exist ?)

    See ? Magic.

  5. The visible light is not even the biggest problem. UV and gamma much worse for the biosphere.

  6. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Friday, 3 October 2014

    Yes, but the beauty of that is that Earth itself is a shield for half the world. So, if you wish to kill off a lot of people, have either the US or China face that way at that exact time, according to your own preference. Alternatively, if you want it to be mostly safe, have the Pacific face that way at that time.

    A good premise is one that allows a wide swath of options to the fiction writer.

  7. > One and 21 zeros. 1`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000`000.

    That is 63 zeroes.

  8. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Sunday, 1 February 2015

    It's a rhetorical device, but good catch :)

  9. funkenstein`s avatar
    Friday, 13 March 2015

    There is an ongoing offer of 1000 BTC to anyone who can prove alpha cen is not made of antimatter. You also might be interested to look at the energies released in deep impact and schumaker-levy collisions.

  10. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Friday, 13 March 2015

    Where is this ongoing offer ?

  11. funkenstein`s avatar
    Saturday, 14 March 2015

    Hmm sorry.. rhetorical device? Hannes Alfvén was the author of the challenge, which I'd seen referenced as 1M usd but apparently is just a specially designed "alpha-centauri medal" currently in escrow with the american geophysical union.

  12. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Saturday, 14 March 2015

    Ah ok.

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