Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cold Science

"After carefully adjusting his breather mask, Catz climbed down out of the lander. The great ship's repellers had worked well, in spite of the jury rigged repairs, and in the final seconds of the descent, when the turbines were blasting to slow the ship, only a little of the ice had melted. The water was now draining away in clear runnels, and the slight breeze was blowing the steam away. Catz looked around."

I checked Darwin's simulator. It was a cheap program I'd bought for pocket change off a street vendor's rack, so I wasn't hoping for much. But I did hope there was enough there to get some feedback from the great man - or at least a cheap facsimile of him. So far there had been no response, so I continued.

"The ice stretched as far as the eye could see. Catz hadn't expected to see much, not when he'd already surveyed the entire planet. This spot had seemed promising, though. Near the equator the ice should be thin enough to drill through to the ocean below."

"Young man, do you seriously expect me to do something with this story?"

Darwin's voice was strong, accented as you'd expect from someone who lived hundreds of years ago in the almost forgotten kingdom of Britain.

"Yup, I had hoped you could help in spots."

"But on what basis, sir? This is no world I am acquainted with."

"Can't you just use what you know of the north pole?"

"I never went there, so my knowledge of that place is mainly by hearsay. I am certain you can do better than that."

"What about the south pole?"

"The Beagle ran 'round Tierra del Fuego, but we did not seek to go south. No, at most I might rely on what I learned from my good friend Hooker of his travels, but again, that is hearsay."

"Well, damn. Could you at least just follow along and tell me what you think?"

"I can do that, if you think it would be of assistance," he said.

So I continued writing. I thought I had a good idea of what I wanted this world to look like. I just didn't want anything to be terribly wrong.

"Catz unlimbered the drill from the side of the lander and set it up. After an hour's work the bit was positioned on the ice, with the driver attached and suspended by cables from a tripod he had erected over his drill site. After double checking all the connections, he threw the switch that started the driver. With a whine the turbines set into motion. After a few moments the bit started to rotate, and with satisfaction Catz watched as it started to eat its way into the ice. A cloud of steam started to rise from the site, and Catz had to step back to avoid getting scalded.

As the drill vanished out of sight, Catz turned his attention to the readouts on the controller he had lashed to the tripod. The cables were five kilometers long, but the ice at this spot was supposed to be just two kilometers thick, so the cables should be long enough. The drill was moving at a good clip of 10 meters a minute, so it should break through the bottom in less than four hours. Catz returned to the inside of his lander to wait."

I prompted Darwin again.

"What do you think so far?"

"I do not know what to think. You are describing things for which I have no basis for judgment."

"Well, OK. I guess I'll just keep going, then."

"When the controls signaled him, Catz put his mask back on and returned to his drill hole. The drill had slowed down, and the steam billowing from the hole had thinned considerably. Suddenly the cables jerked, and the controls indicated breakthrough. Catz stopped the driver and activated the sensors in the drill. Then he returned into the lander to use the larger view screen there.

There was no light in the human visible range down there. That was to be expected. It was part of the thrill. Catz ran the sensor through the longer wave lengths. There were heat sources down there, of course. Catz used radar to map the ocean floor, and noted the hot spots on the map. When that was finished, he climbed into his diving armor.

At the drill hole, he attached friction rings to the cables to let himself down into the hole. He stepped off the edge and began his descent. He allowed his speed to increase to 100 m per minute before checking it. When his readouts indicated that he was reaching the bottom he slowed down, turned on his flood lights, and looked down. Below him the waters of the unnamed ocean formed a dark disk at the end of a brilliantly lit tube of ice."

"Excuse me," came Darwin's voice.

"I thought you didn't know anything about these things."

"You are correct, I don't know the machines you are describing. I have to assume they work as you say they do. However, is the ice you describe in your story water ice?"

"Yes, why?"

"Because I do know Archimedes' Principle. Once the drill broke through the ice, the water should have risen up the hole. In fact, the force at a depth of 2 km should have been on the order of 10,000 kg per square centimeter, quite enough to blast it out of the hole in a pretty fountain, unless your drill installed a valve at the bottom of the hole - assuming the ice didn't collapse into the drill hole before the drill could manage that."

I was impressed. When Darwin told me he didn't know this stuff, I was disappointed, but now it turned out that this little simulator was doing more than I had thought it could.

"Good point," I said. I changed the circle of dark water into a disk of metal, the top part of an airlock.

"Catz opened the airlock and climbed in. Minutes later he left by the bottom, and swam out into the ocean. The light projected by his suit lamps stabbed into the featureless darkness. He ran a sample of the water through the suit's analyzers. Nothing. Finally he oriented on the nearest hot spot on his map. He ran his suit's impellers up to their maximum rating, and watched as the infrared image swimming in his HUD grew larger. When he was within about one kilometer, he shut down the impellers again and drifted to a halt.

The heat seemed to be emanating from a volcano, fitfully squeezing its lava out into the supercooled water on the ocean bottom. Catz imagined the forces that must be at play down here. Nothing could live here, and yet...

He dialed up the sensitivity on his sensors and started scanning the vicinity. At a one-meter resolution he should be able to pick up what he was looking for, if it was here. If luck was with him... but an hour later found him jetting to the next hotspot.

Once he reached the next vent he restarted the scans. Almost immediately the HUD lit up with a bright spot about 500 meters from the vent. Could this be it? He finished his scan, but that one hit remained the only result. Catz started up his suit's impellers again and slowly drifted towards his target, at the same time slowly lowering himself towards the ocean floor. When he was just 10 meters up he stopped his descent. His suit lamps illuminated virgin ocean floor, covered with great coils of cooled lava. As the floor rose towards his target, so he ascended again, maintaining his altitude. Rounding a shoulder of tortured geology, his target came in range of his lamps.

Catz stopped. About 200 meters in front of him crouched a humongous creature. Its skin shimmered in reflected light, casting off rainbows of iridescence. A head almost the size of his landing craft at the end of a long and powerful neck began to turn in his direction. Catz hurriedly took the safeties off his weapons. When he felt the creature's eyes fasten on him, he let loose his first volley. The rockets streaked at their target, but halfway there a blast of brilliance erupted from the creature's great maw and struck the rockets. Their detonations rocked Catz in his suit. This beast was indeed what he had been promised it would be. The greatest game in the galaxy!"

"Excuse me?" came Darwin's voice.

"What's wrong now?" I asked. I never thought I'd feel defensive in front of a cheap computer program.

"Could you tell me who put that creature there on the ocean floor?"

"No one put it there, I guess. It's always lived there."

"How is that possible?"

"Huh? Didn't you write that evolution book, what, "Where Species Come From," or something like that?"

"Do you mean "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection"? Yes, I published that book in 1859. But this world you are describing shows no evidence of evolution."

"What do you mean? Are you saying those people who say you recanted evolution on your deathbed are right?"

"No, those people lie. But even if they told the truth, it would mean nothing to the theory of evolution, which is not affected by a dying man's fears. All species on Earth arose by evolution, but I see no reason to suppose that evolution produced this monster you are describing, not on this world, in any event."

"How do you mean that?"

"To start with, it's the only living thing you have described. Evolution happens when you have many individuals, enough to show a range of variability, all living in the same environment. Finally, there should be no entirely uninhabited environments, unless they are totally hostile to life, and even then I expect living creatures to encroach on the margins."

I considered Darwin's advice for a while. Then I decided to ignore it. It'd be too much trouble, and in the end it wasn't worth it.

"I suppose you're right. Someone must have brought the dragon there," I said, and continued my story.

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