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Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh

Orbit, 1999, 385p.

On a planet whose name we don’t learn until the seventh last line of the novel (“What a foolish thing, to name a world”) there are three kinds of things: “onworld that will fill you up but not feed you, in-between things like renndeer and potatoes that we can eat but can live on onworld things; and offworld things like dogs and people.” (In its first appearance onworld was rendered as aunworld.) The onworld life, then, can variously be eaten for sustenance, for bulk with no sustenance, or is poisonous. Its amino acids are right handed – the opposite chirality to Earth’s.

Janna of Harma clan is the titular Mission child, brought up in an appropriate technology mission in a polar area where the main source of food is herded renndeer. To trade, her clan makes whisky (spelled whiskey.) Another clan called Tekse is becoming over powerful. Tekse outrunners arrive at the Mission as the novel starts. They have rifles whereas Harma do not. The inevitable destruction of the Mission and the clan follows. In the meantime Janna has been given implants by former offworlder Wanji. These help her survive the trek to other clan grounds and her subsequent adventures wherein she manages to roam far over her home world. Early on she has to put on a dead man’s clothes as hers are ragged. To protect herself in an offworlder run refugee camp, where she subsequently takes up with a shaman, she decides to stay dressed as a man, calling herself Jan.

The novel is episodic and as a result does not feel like one story but a fix-up. For example the shaman is only present for the middle portion and may as well not have appeared in Jan’s life as far as the last chapters of the book are concerned – except in so far as Jan tries to help people affected by a plague. What stays with Jan is hir background in the clans of the north, hir middling sense of gender and hir mistrust of offworlders, though these are almost always a benign influence on hir life. (My use of the indeterminate pronoun hir.)

It did seem strange that humans would bother to travel so far that it is all but impossible to return to Earth and then display the same sorts of follies they had left behind, in many ways living worse lives in this new world. Then again that may simply be an allegory of the European migration to the Americas. We are told, though, Earth still has many problems such as pollution.

The societies Jan lives in are observed only obliquely, the only one which is fully fleshed out is the Lapp-like existence of the renndeer herding clans. McHugh’s interest in Earth’s oriental cultures (as in China Mountain Zhang) comes through, though.

Pedant’s corner:- I spotted only one typo (abut for about) but there was a “lay” for “laid”, and (twice on one page) “shined” for “shone” where shoes were not concerned.

The Sun: a Flash Spectrum

The sun gives out light across the visible spectrum (the colours of the rainbow) and beyond. We see the sun itself as yellow or red according to its position in the sky and what we experience as “white” light is made up of all the colours. If that light is passed through a prism or difraction grating it splits up into these colours.

What about when the sun’s rays are blocked?

Constantine Emmanouilidi caught a great picture of the sun’s spectrum split in this way but during an eclipse. This was Astronomy Picture of the Day for 15/11/13.

Sun's flash spectrum

Thanks to Mr Emmanouilidi for permission to copy his picture.

It was through images similar to this where a line spectrum is obtained that the chemical element helium was discovered in the sun’s atmosphere before it was isolated on Earth.

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Curious Lives of the Elements, Viking, 2011, 428 p.

The first thing to say is that, despite its title(s), this is not a Chemistry book. In its index there are eight references to Shakespeare (only one fewer than for the chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius and more than for any individual scientist barring Humphry Davy, Carl Scheele, William Ramsay, Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev) – four to Goethe, three each to Wagner and Van Gogh. Other seemingly unlikely name checks are given to Wilfred Owen and Barbara Hepworth, not to mention Hunter S Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

What it is, is a book about how Chemistry permeates our lives, not just in the biological sense – for without Chemistry our bodies could not work – but in the cultural sphere, in our day-to-day existence. (There is even a reference to Irn Bru! – in a frankly bizarre context.) As such the book ought to appeal to the general reader rather than just Chemists. But the importance of Chemistry in painting, sculpture, opera, poetry, fiction, even architecture ought not to surprise. As the back of the book reminds us, “Everything is made of them [the elements,] from the furthest reaches of the universe to this book you are holding in your hands, including you.” English words for white (apart from snow) are bound up with the compounds of calcium they embody, marble, alabaster, chalk, ivory, bone, teeth. (I object, here, that the “White Cliffs of Dover” are anything but; unless seen from a distance.) The Latin calx yields the Italian calcio for what Aldersey-Williams calls soccer, perhaps because a goal is scored by the ball crossing a chalked line. The word for railway in nearly every language except English reflects the iron from which it is constructed, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn, ferrovia, vía fería, järnväg, tetsudou. Akin to gold in its chemical unreactivity, the valuation of platinum – the only element first isolated by pre-Columbian Americans – over gold is a cultural choice; not due to rarity but snobbishness.

The book contains photographic illustrations every so often but they can at times be a little indistinct as they are reproduced only in monochrome.

Like his Swedish compatriot Carl Scheele (who has a fair claim to have discovered oxygen) Jöns Jacob Berzelius is all but forgotten – despite pioneering laboratory staples like filter paper and (the now superseded) rubber tubing for connecting laboratory equipment together, first using the words catalysis and protein, inventing chemical symbology and coming up with the idea that elements combined in fixed proportions and hence chemical formulae. If his name had been attached to these as Bunsen’s was to his – admittedly splendid – invention that might not be the case. But it seems the Swedes were/are reticent about blowing their trumpets. Due to their chemists’ wielding of an essential piece of technology – the blow-pipe – no less than seven elements – ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, erbium, holmium, scandium and tantalum – were identified from ores that came from a single mine near the town of Ytterby but there is now no trace of the mine nor is there a visitor’s centre. The Swedes may be missing a trick there.

Discovery of “new” elements has always to an extent depended on available technology. Better furnaces and higher temperatures explain the historical progression of metal extraction through the Bronze and Iron Ages and the isolation of zinc in India by the 13th century, the alkali metals, highly reactive and thus resistant to chemical extraction, were only torn from their compounds by the greater power of electricity – not harnessed till just before 1800 – the spectroscope enabled elements to be inferred from the incursion of additional lines in the resultant spectra, transuranics could only be synthesised when atom–colliding machines became available. New liquefaction techniques allowed William Ramsay in the 1890s to conjure new elements out of thin air. (Well, since it was liquefied, I suppose it was really thick air.) Ramsay populated a whole previously unknown Periodic Table Group, the noble gases – neon et al – using this method.

Aldersey-Williams has a tendency to employ the words light or heavy instead of low/high density respectively and to refer to an element when strictly it is the presence of its compounds, atoms or ions that is under discussion. Plus he infers ozone is bonded in a triangle. Its atoms may be arranged in a triangle but its bonds are not. He also says “sodium is now the colour of the city at night” as well as “our principal means of knowing this element.” My local street may be “lit from above by the sodium lamps,” but these have been largely replaced by the blueish white of mercury vapour lights on main roads.

He has however written an interesting and informative, at times quirky, book.

The Criterion for Phenomena

I’ve just watched the third of mathematician Marcus du Sautoy’s television series Precision: The Measure of All Things on BBC 4.

There’s a lot been going on at Son of the Rock Towers over the past week or two (details may be forthcoming in due course) so I missed the first two episodes, Time and Distance and Mass and Moles – which is a pity as the second at least will have been about Chemistry – and I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to catch up on them.

Tonight’s last in the series was titled Heat, Light and Electricity and discussed how ways to measure these phenomena have been developed and extended over time.

du Sautoy irritated me though by using the word phenomena as if it were singular. I now quote Wikipedia:-

Phenomena are observable events, particularly when they are special.

A single observable event is of course a phenomenon.

The same distinction applies to the word criterion – like phenomenon, based on Greek – and its plural where too many people, especially news reporters, refer to a criteria. It makes me cringe.

In sum, the only criterion for using the word phenomena is that more than one event is involved. If there’s only a single event then it’s a phenomenon.

Irn Bru

The title to yesterday’s post was, of course, an allusion to an advertising slogan used by Barr’s, the Scottish soft drink manufacturers, to promote Irn Bru, which outsells Coca-Cola in Scotland. Barr’s use of their Scottishness is astute. I have posted their High School Musical parody before.

Irn Bru has had a few slogans, starting off in a comic, The Adventures of Ba-Bru and Sandy.

The two best, however, are undoubtedly, “Made in Scotland From Girders” and “It’s Your Other National Drink.”

The last is doubly appropriate since the first national drink – whisky – has unfortunate side-effects (hangover) for which Irn Bru is widely thought to be a sovereign cure.

And it does contain iron – at least as a compound – in the form of ammonium ferric citrate.

Here is their parody of The Snowman, which showcases some iconic Scottish landscape features. It’s just a pity the boy treble doesn’t manage to roll the “r” in Irn enough. (I’m not sure he rolls it at all, in fact.)

Irn Bru: The Snowman

Dogs Teaching Chemistry

Just because.

Thanks to my son for pointing me in the direction of the first of these two videos.

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2008, 439p.

 The Quiet War cover

Set in a time well after what is called The Overturn when global warming and other environmental disasters devastated Earth, humanity has spread through the Solar System with settlements on the Jovian and Saturnian moons large and small – even as far out as Neptune. A previous war has destroyed the Mars colony. On Earth the main political entities are Greater Brazil (which encompasses North America,) the European Union, the Pacific Community and a Chinese state. The citizens of the outer Solar System regard themselves as bastions of freedom and all Earth states as repressive. Genetic alterations known as cuts allow all sorts of bodily modifications.

The laying out of all this involves a lot of dry backgrounding and the story takes a long time to get going. Our main protagonists are Macy Minnot, who is forced into becoming a refugee from Great Brazil, Loc Ifrahim, a diplomat who is fixated on capturing her, and Sri Hong-Owen, a gene wizard who is seeking out the best in her trade, Avernus, on one of the planetary moons.

A quiet war might be thought of as one which involves little or no deaths, interfering with computer systems and such, disrupting the control mechanisms of utilities etc. We do get some of that and also the political ramifications on how a perceived threat can be parlayed into a restriction on civil liberties; an aside on recent events in our own time perhaps.
Of course the moon habitats are inherently fragile. The war when it finally arrives at around page 300 is therefore less than quiet. The focus in The Quiet War is on the politics and the various habitats McAuley describes so lovingly.

Non-review aside:- McAuley’€™s time as a research biologist at St Andrews University has not gone to waste. He deploys the wonderful Scottish word scunner at one point. He does though imply that the intermolecular attraction that holds water molecules in a solid array in ice occurs between hydrogen atoms. What is known as a hydrogen bond is in fact an attraction between a hydrogen atom in one molecule and an oxygen atom in a separate molecule. (Hydrogen atoms can form similar attractions to nitrogen atoms and fluorine atoms – of which of course there are none in water.) The possibilities of these attractions multiply with the number of molecules.

New Supernova

This was Astronomy Picture of the Day on 22/3/12.


It is a picture showing the recently observed supernova in the galaxy which is known as M95, 38 million lightyears away. The supernova therefore occurred 38 million years ago and we’re just seeing its light now. The supernova is the really bright spot towards the edge of the galaxy.

A supernova is just about the biggest explosion imaginable and occurs when a massive star reaches the end of its life. It is in supernovae like this that the universe’s (and therefore Chemistry’s) heavy elements are formed as it is only under such conditions of tempertaure and pressure that smaller atomic nuclei can fuse together to form the largest ones.

This is a video (from vimeo) which contrasts the supernova with M95’s appearance before the star exploded.

Supernova 2012aw in M95 from Adam Block on Vimeo.

Refining Your Debt

I see the BBC has reported a British oil refinery has gone bust.

In today’s world, oil products – whether they be the petrol, diesel or fuel oil most directly obtained from refining crude or the plastics, chemicals, medicines etc derived by further processing – are the most sought after substances; excepting (possibly) illegal drugs.

So with markets like that, how the hell can an oil refinery go bankrupt?

To be fair, the headline on the news was a little misleading. It is the parent company which owns the refinery which has gone bust.

But the point still applies.

There has been a lot of scaremongering about the possible effects as the refinery supplies 20% of south-east England’s fuel needs; scaremongering no doubt put about to raise fuel prices. I would expect that some other company will take it over sooner rather than later.

Menawhile Britain’s debt has reached 1 trillion pounds* for the first time.

The Coalition cuts are working well to reduce the debt then, aren’t they?

I also see UK growth was -0.2% for the last three months. Not much scope for joy there.

Why are these idiots repeating the mistakes of the 1930s?

*That amount being illustrated on the BBC news last night as £1,000,000,000,000 is, to my old fashioned eyes, actually a million million or what we used to call a billion. Well, it was before we took up US descriptions of such things.

Rocket Science?

There are two interesting posts over at Ian Sales’s blog.

The first is an attempt to (re)define “hard” SF. As far as he sees it – and I largely agree – this is SF that is bound, more or less, by known physical laws, by the restraints inherent in, for example, Physics and Chemistry.

In this regard any use of the trope of, for example, faster than light travel is – despite decades of convention and use in what might otherwise be considered hard SF stories – not hard SF in the strictest sense, as, to our best knowledge, the speed of light is an insurmountable barrier.

This is not to decry other types of SF (which are perfectly legitimate) merely to say that they go beyond the bounds of the known and, in the case of Space Opera in particular, which cleaves the paper light years with carefree abandon, actually tend towards wish-fulfillment. Though of course there is the necessity of getting characters from here to there in a reasonably efficient, non-boring manner.

It is amusing to recall here what is perhaps the most famous phrase in Science Fiction – certainly in its dramatic form, “Ye cannae change the laws of Physics, Captain.” This from a TV programme which made a habit, nay a virtue, of portraying just that.

Ian makes a distinction between hard sciences (Cosmology, Physics, Chemistry) and softer ones such as Psychology, Archaeology and Anthropology. While agreeing that the term is most often interpreted this way I wouldn’t myself say that stories featuring these could not be hard SF.

The second of his posts is an announcment that he will be editing an anthology of… hard SF; to be called Rocket Science.

No need to rush. Submissions will not be accepted till 1st August.

Rocket Science is itself a term that has often irritated me as it is most often heard in the phrase, “It’s not rocket science, is it?” as if rocket science was at the cutting edge, inherently incomprehensible. As Ian points out in his post, the science of rocketry – as opposed perhaps to some of its technological aspects – has, due to its basis in chemical reactions whose energetic outcomes are limited and, moreover, fixed – not evolved much in a century.

I know it’s use is as much metaphorical as anything else but I’ve always felt tempted to respond to anyone who trots out the, “It’s not rocket science,” line, that rocket science isn’t rocket science.

Rocket Science, however, may be.

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