Science for Fiction 2017

Yesterday and the day before (6/7 July) I was in the audience at the annual Science for Fiction event at Imperial College London. This is organised and presented by the brilliant Dr David Clements,  astrophysicist and SF writer.

There were 6 presentations over the two days:

– The Square Kilometre Array and the Epoch of Reionization: Dr Emma Chapman
– Titan and Cassini: Dr Ingo Mueller-Wodarg
– Ending the Universe: Prof Arttu Rajantie
– Visiting Mars: Prof Sanjeev Gupta
– Extremophiles and Synthetic Biology: Dr Robert Weinzierl
– Forming Stars & Planets: Dr Tom Haworth

Everything was brilliant, the presentations were fascinating, exciting, and on more than one occasion mind-blowing. During and after each talk we had many questions and moments of enlightenment.  One highlight was the VR demonstration of Mars. Yes it was VR, but I walked on Mars!
Here, in approximate order, are just a few of the things I learned:

1. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is one of the next great big-science projects – a radio-telescope comprised of thousands of small dishes and aerials with a total collecting area of 10^6 square metres. The data rate from the finished array will be hundreds of gigabits/second. This is about 10x current global internet traffic and it  will need to be processed in near real-time. That will need supercomputers more powerful than any that yet exist, equivalent to one hundred million 2013-era PCs.

2. Titan is the only other place in the solar system known to  have precipitation and open liquid on the surface. Large lakes of liquid methane and ethane, about the same size as the North American Great Lakes, lie towards the north. Elsewhere mountains of solid water ice rise up to 3.5 kilometres high. All this at -180C under a chemically active atmosphere of nitrogen and methane 1.4 times as dense as ours.

3. The Higgs field gives mass to particles. Unlike other fields energy does not rise steadily as field strength rises, it dips then rises again. Higgs particles repel each other until extremely high energy levels (10^10GeV), when they attract. This attraction could lower the field strength to below zero. If this does happen, and as more Higgs particles are spontaneously produced from vacuum, a bubble of negative energy would form and expand at the speed of light annihilating everything it touches, destroying the universe!
Fortunately we can’t make particles of that energy – yet. Unfortunately quantum tunneling could allow a Higgs particle to tunnel under the high energy curve of the field to the low energy zone beyond and kick-start the annihilation process! Even more fortunately this is unlikely. Quantum mechanics is probabilistic, the probability of this happening is in the order of 10^600 years, longer than the life of the universe.

4. A significant problem of looking for life on Mars is the likely places for life are banned for exploration because of the risks of contamination. Manned missions and all they imply with regards to organic contamination will pose a severe problem.

5. Archae are a new kingdom of life unknown until about 40 years ago. Externally they resemble bacteria, internally their biochemistry is more like multicellular life.  Many are extremophiles, living in very salty, high temperature and pressure environments (up to 120C and 200 atmospheres).
Archae and bacteria are the earliest living life forms. As the earliest forms of both archae and bacteria are thermophiles (heat-loving), it suggests life originated in a very hot environment.

6. It’s currently believed around 50% of stars have a super-earth type planet (one to a few earth masses). Most planets discovered so far are very big and orbit close to their sun. Free-floating planets do exist, in unknown numbers. An earth-analogue planet has not yet been discovered and neither has a solar system similar to ours. One reason for this is the detection methods used, based on the dimming of a star as a planet passes in front of it. Multiple events are needed to confirm a planet and the orbits of planets in our system are too slow, or the planets are too small, for current survey methods.

My thanks to Dave Clements for organising the event, and also to  Emma, Ingo, Arttu, Sanjeev, Robert, and Tom, for their time and sharing their expertise and knowledge. My apologies if I made any mistakes transcribing the information above. If you want to know more I suggest you follow their links and check out their websites, publications and other notes. Science for Fiction 2017 was inspirational, informal and great fun. I am really looking forwards to next year’s event.

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