Monday, March 14, 2016

Wrap Around

by Bryan Singleton


                I feel content about the choice I have made. My new body is comfortable and I have earned a Ph.D. in xenobiology in my abundant spare time. This is not to imply that I am a xenobiologist. No, not by any means. It will simply make my life easier in the immediate future. Several decades previously, I lived on the Earth. I was born in the country of Benthicos, which is on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Although my people, the Benthicans, live on the ocean floor, we still consider ourselves to live on the surface of the planet.  I have never visited dry land and briefly saw it for the first time as I left for Upsilon Andromedae, which is a binary star system with four gas giants, many moons and myriad dwarf planets that is 44 light years from Earth. Upsilon Andromedae A is the primary star and Upsilon Andromedae B is a red dwarf that orbits at more than 750 AU from the planets and their satellites.
                One of my hobbies is to study the past. Five hundred years ago, individuals had automated vehicles that could negotiate water, land and air. Water vehicles typically floated on the surface of the water and the benthic regions were difficult to explore, due to the lack of femtotechnology. The land vehicles required that much of the land be destroyed and paved over with a hard surface that reduced albedo and increased surface runoff, which exacerbated droughts. Land vehicles also had the extreme disadvantage of being forced along those environmentally unhealthy predetermined paths. I, and all of my friends, was completely shocked by the air vehicles, though. I will never forget when I first learned that people manually controlled them. It is interesting to think in blocks of 500 years when comparing methods of travel. 1000 years ago, people were primarily peripatetic and occasionally used animals for making long trips. Even people with high status and power did not have access to automatic vehicles, but relied upon their own efforts or that of animals. Today, even individuals with a low income can easily afford interplanetary and interstellar spacecraft. Lifespan is especially interesting to contemplate. 1000 years ago, most people were lucky to live to age 40. 500 years ago, it was common for people to live to 100. Today, no one experiences true death and the loss of a body is a minor inconvenience. During my 44 light year trip I have learned much of my planet’s history.
                I’m currently on my first 1000 year vacation and my first stop is a moon of the third planet in the Upsilon Andromedae system, which is called Cnidaria. I’ve chosen an artificial body with radial symmetry, like that of a jellyfish, but with one major difference: the eye wraps around. It fully encircles the top portion of my body, like a latitudinal cloud band on Saturn, and the image formed in my mind is uncomfortable. There are two reasons why I chose this body. Firstly, it is a reasonably close simulacrum of the possibly intelligent life on Cnidaria. Secondly, I can accelerate at high multiples of g, which reduces the time needed to reach 99.99% the speed of light and likewise reduces the time needed for deceleration. Therefore, I can reap the benefits due to time dilation and see more of the galaxy with my 1000 years, since the time is measured subjectively by my employer, rather than objectively.
                There are many unanswered questions about the Cnidarians. How and why did they evolve 360° vision? Do they have any concept of forward, backward, left, or right? When choosing a direction in which to move, does the same part of their body always point in the direction of movement? Since they have radially symmetric bodies, which part do they use to identify one another? While I am simulating the body of a Cnidarian, my directional bias plays a major factor in my understanding of orientation. I am always conscious of whether I am facing forward, even when I can see behind me at all times. An organism never having been exposed to forward only vision would not have a directional bias. It is frustrating that I may never be able to fully appreciate 360° vision due to not having been born that way.  
                Since there are millions of planets and moons with life, it is easy for ordinary people to make discoveries or contributions. Some of my vacation time will be spent making contributions to science and although I have a doctorate in xenobiology, I am still just a Benthican. No one labels themselves with job titles these days because we live for millions of years. I could decide to join in the recreation of the Incan Empire or study the core of Pluto, if I wanted. But I do have an employer and my job is simply to analyze the languages of arsenic based life, which is kind of frustrating, due to the safety precautions.
                Why did I choose Cnidaria? It is largely neglected; most people flock to star systems which contain aliens that are morphologically similar to humans and have nonviolent cultures. The Cnidarians are also the only life ever discovered with 360° vision and I believe there’s a good reason for it. I can’t imagine the frustration the original designers of the probe dealt with, since they had to wait more than 90 years to see if it worked or not. Nowadays, probes are automatically sent to every star system and data are being transmitted to Earth continuously from millions of different sources.
                Although I’ve made many interplanetary jaunts in the solar system, this is my first interstellar one. It seems to me rather traitorous to know I’ll be spending so much time under the light of different stars, since I have never felt sunlight on my home planet. Normally, initial probes to foreign planets install SPS, to aide any intrepid explorers. Cnidaria, however, was neglected. During my first five days in orbit I have been custom inserting GPS satellites, arovacams (automatic roving cameras) and steadily monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum for any transmissions. Cnidaria, unfortunately, is technologically silent.
                The Cnidarians themselves seem to have a language, although it may just be my imagination. The arovacams have detected voltage spikes in the water that differ in intensity and duration when multiple Cnidarians are present. It’s possible that they have organs of electroreception, like those in sharks, and organs of electric discharge, like those in electric eels. It will be difficult, and possibly impossible, for me to know if they are merely animals or sentient organisms discussing the weather (I hope they talk about more than the weather). There are protocols that must be followed when trying to understand the biology of newly discovered aliens. Firstly, I have to determine whether they are intelligent or not, and, if so, learn their language. By learning their language, I at least have a chance of understanding their culture and gaining the ability to ask permission to install femtoprobes in some of their living. Femtoprobes make up an invasive anatomical map-making system, made up of quintillions of individual probes 8 billion times smaller than red blood cells, which allows them to negotiate the body undetected (not alerting any known immune system or causing damage to DNA). In comparison, a hydrogen atom is only about 130,000 times smaller than a red blood cell. The femtoprobes are small enough to hide inside the nucleons (protons and neutrons) of an organism’s atoms, identify them, track their movement, and reconstruct the organism, atom by atom in a computer simulation. This is possible because the nucleons of atoms are 99% empty space. Many ethicists are against this practice, because the simulation is perfect. Just like scientists of the past were trained to kill lab rats, scientists of today are trained to “kill” artificial intelligence in computer simulations. In the event that the aliens show no signs of intelligence or culture, then it is legal to install femtoprobes without permission.
                I am thrilled by the possibility that the Cnidarians might have a language. Very reasonably, I have guessed they will not have any words that correspond to “left” or “right”, because of their radial symmetry. Certain human languages, like Korean, lack convenient words, such as personal pronouns. Since Koreans don’t have corresponding words for “him” or “her”, they just say “that person”. The Cnidarians might lack certain words for anatomy, such as “posterior”, “anterior”, “ventral” and “dorsal”, and make up for it by saying “that spot” or “that part”. However, if they have a language, then it could take years, or decades, to get permission to map their bodies. My simulated body only approximates their exteriors; their interiors are unknown.


                The entire surface of Cnidaria is covered with an unruly blanket of water, made so by its parent planet and companion planets which seek to torment it with undulations in the fabric of space, more commonly known as gravitational waves. Just as Earth’s Moon makes one rotation in the same amount of time as one orbit, Cnidaria does the same lockstep dance with Dystyx. Thus, like Earth’s Moon, the same side of Cnidaria is always facing Dystyx. Since Cnidaria makes one rotation in the time needed to make one orbit around Dystyx, each “day” is very long; approximately 60 days. If Dystyx had any inhabitants, their months would therefore be 60 days long. Cnidaria does not have seasons separated by hemispheres which are caused by axial tilt, like back on Earth. Rather, the orbit of Dystyx is very eccentric and during perihelion it is more than 1 AU closer to its star than during aphelion. This is truly astonishing. Earth has a nearly circular orbit which has only a 3.3% difference in distance between perihelion (closest to star) and aphelion (farthest from star). Dystyx, however, has a 52% difference! But there is more. All of the planets in my home system, with the exception of the dwarf planets, are well behaved and lie on an imaginary plane, called the ecliptic. However, in the Upsilon Andromedae system, the planet’s orbits are greatly tilted with respect to one another. It’s unfortunate the Cnidarians live underwater; they would have certainly invented some interesting religions and mythologies if they could see how crazily the objects in their skies skitter about, assuming they are intelligent, of course.
                Dystyx was discovered approximately 500 years ago (in 1999) and was originally named Upsilon Andromedae d, to distinguish it from the other planets in the system. Dystyx has roughly 10 times the mass of Jupiter, with multiple red spots that stare angrily into the depths of space. The Upsilon Andromedae system is a flip-flop solar system, since the gas giants are more proximal to the star than the rocky planets, which is the reverse of my home solar system.
                The fact that Cnidaria has no dry land does not make me feel uncomfortable, because I was raised on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a good thing there is no dry land, what with the skyscraping waves that worry the clouds. The ocean trenches are much deeper than those on Earth and pressures would easily implode an ancient military submarine. Several of the trenches reach depths of 60 kilometers and form valleys that would make a land dweller fear to visit vicariously. Surprisingly, Cnidaria does not lack mountains. If the water were removed, some of the mountains would impress even the most jaded mountain climber, with heights approaching 50 kilometers (roughly 5 times the height of Mt. Everest).


                This is a fragment of a science fiction story in which I have not yet worked out all of the details. I have taken some liberties, such as making Cnidaria complete one orbit in 60 days and even assuming that such a moon exists. I also invented the name “Dystyx” for the gas giant. However, the Upsilon Andromedae system is real and it does have 4 gas giants and a companion star that orbits at 750 AU. I love it when science fiction authors include glossaries, so I have done the same.


AU = astronomical unit. Equal to the average distance between the Earth and the Sun; about 93,000,000 miles. Used frequently in astronomy.
Benthic = deepest part of a body of water, including the seafloor.
Cnidaria = a phylum of the animal kingdom that includes jellyfish. Also the name of a moon.
Dystyx = a gas giant with 10 times the mass of Jupiter. Cnidaria is one of its moons.
femto- = unit of measurement one million times smaller than a nanometer. Used frequently in physics.

No comments:

Post a Comment