23. Star Drives

Wormhole_travel_as_envisioned_by_Les_Bossinas_for_NASAAssembled odd bits of other equipment, looking more like the product of a boy’s workshop than the output of a scientist’s laboratory, the gadget which Libby referred to as a “space drive” underwent Lazarus’s critical examination. Against the polished sophisticated perfection of the control room it looked uncouth, pathetic, ridiculously inadequate.

Heinlein had a technical background, but when he needed something to move a story forward, he invented it in the fewest possible words. He didn’t waste a lot of time consulting his slipstick.

Slipstick. Archaic. Slide rule; a device with two fixed and one sliding rectangles of wood or plastic, with scales attached, used to estimate mathematical calculations to three significant figures. Origin of the nickname Slipstick Libby, who invented the stardrive mentioned above after about an hour’s  thought.

I learned to use a slide rule in high school physics in 1965-6, just before Texas Instruments’s hand held calculators became cheap enough to toss the slide rule into the ash bin of history. In the movie Apollo 13, you will see all the engineers at mission control using them as they try to figure out how to save the crew.

The quotation at the head of this post is from Methuselah’s Children. The Number of the Beast was full of pseudo-mathematical jibber-jabber but the actual description of the space-time machine was simple.

”It’s on that bench, across the table from you.”

“All I see is a portable sewing machine.”

“That’s it.”

FTL star drives are so far beyond present knowledge that they are easy to invent. In my first science fiction novel Jandrax, I used an FTL drive to strand my colonists, and never referred to it again after the first two paragraphs. If I ever write another novel in that era, I’ll have to reverse engineer the thing to figure out how it works.

Getting to the stars without FTL is much harder for a writer. He has to work within the parameters of relativity and Newtonian mechanics. Lightspeed sets a limit, and getting near to it causes no end of fuel mass problems. Again from Methuselah’s Children, referring to the ship before Libby’s space drive was added:

The New Frontiers had no such limits, no tanks; her converters accepted any mass at all and turned it into pure radiant energy.

Although Heinlein is a little vague, it seems that he is referring to a kind of ram scoop, something much loved by hard science fiction writers.

Here we go again, cribbing from Einstein. Matter can be converted to energy, but how? With present day technology, you can’t burn a rock unless it’s coal, and you can’t convert mass to energy unless you start out with one of a very few elements. Science fiction writers, even in a relativistic universe, require a breakthrough allowing any element to be converted to energy. Usually, as in the New Frontiers, that breakthrough is simply assumed.

In my novel Cyan, due out in January, I wanted to do more than assume. I had an ulterior motive. As a non-physicist, I have been underwhelmed by the last half century of theoretical physics. It looks like as a lot of brilliant people running up blind alleys. If that seems disrespectful, I have three words for you – ether (the concept, not the gas), phrenology, and phlogiston. The history of science has more blind alleys than a slum in Calcutta, and a healthy disrespect is the only thing that keeps us from turning it into a religion.

My real world expectation is that the next great breakthrough in physics will come out of left field, violating our present understanding of the universe so completely that we cannot anticipate it. I built Lassiter’s anomaly out of that belief:

In 2048 Lassiter discovered that the Luna fusion reactor was producing a fraction of a percent more power than Einstein’s equations allowed. After a decade of research, he concluded that reduced gravity was the reason. Nothing in any theory supported him, and he was all but laughed out of physics, until the deep space probe Dirac settled the controversy.

Once the scientific community had recovered from the shock, these facts had emerged: that the power overage came from a larger portion of the reactor’s fuel being converted into energy, that gravity was indeed the inhibitor to the reaction, and that anyone who could provide sufficient heat to initiate a nuclear reaction beyond thirty-seven light minutes from Sol would have a self sustaining nuclear torch that would eat ice, asteroids, cosmic dust . . . anything. And it’s efficiency would rise with further reduction of gravity so that within a half light year it would approach one hundred percent conversion.

Total annihilation of matter. A power source for attaining near light speeds. A stardrive.

In an essay I read in high school, it was postulated that a race of creatures living on the bottom of a sea of mercury (the metal, not the planet) could never predict the existence of electricity, because an unbalanced charge could never build up. Exchange mercury for gravity, and you will see where I stole Lassiter’s anomaly. If anyone recognizes that essay, probably from Arthur C. Clarke, let me know. I would love to read it again.

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