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Building the Perfect Universe: an ArmadilloCon 2006 panel

CIMG3726 Julie Czerneda and James P. Hogan

Every ArmadilloCon has a world-building panel. It's one of those panels that can be done a million times and still remain fresh. With different panelists it can be very different each time. This time the panelists were James P. Hogan, Elizabeth Moon, Julie Czerneda, Paul Benjamin, and Mikal Trimm.

The world creation process was anything but logical. It was based on loose associations and wordplay. It was 10 pm, and anything more rigorous may not have been fun.

In the beginning, Elizabeth Moon surveys the audience with a critical eye and asks Julie Czerneda how many people in the audience she thinks they could use in their plot. (The plot of a hypothetical book set in the universe they are building.) Moon tells the audience they'll need to grow tentacles.

Julie Czerneda creates worlds for a living. It has to do with the fact that she writes novels with very different alien civilizations in them. She shows the audience a copy of her new book that's going into the charity auction, and the copy is special in that it has two endings. The alternate ending is put in a white envelope and included in the book. Only the lucky auction winner will have a chance to know the alternate ending.

The panelists divide the audience among themselves. The left row will be James Hogan's universe, the middle row will be Elizabeth Moon and Julie Czerneda's universe, and the right row will be Mikal Trimm's and Paul Benjamin's universe. Then they make a guy in the audience volunteer for an editor's job. The editor is told to sit in a separate chair to the side of the stage, and is assigned a veto power. If he sees something that doesn't make sense with the universe, he'll be able to veto it.

First, Moon asks each group to determine whether their universe is going to be expanding, contracting, or stable-state. The groups make their decisions, but, as we see further, it makes no difference, because their universes follow not the laws of physics but the laws of humor. Then Moon asks to decide what kinds of stars will they have. Mikal Trimm suggests Hollywood stars, James P. Hogan protests: where is the plural in "stars" coming from? We are in Texas! Paul Benjamin argues that plural is allowed, because "The stars at night are big and bright" in Texas. Someone suggests that each proposition gets extra points if it can be sung. (Not really. There was no point system.)

The editor reminds everybody it's time to move on.

Next point to discuss: are the planets high gravity or low gravity?

Benjamin. This planet has a higher intellectual gravity, so as a result people think much more slowly.

Trimm. Unfortunately, it means people reproduce much more slowly.

Benjamin. Time moves much more slowly in their dimension, but as a result they live much longer.

Trimm. Death is a reason for party, because they live so long.

And so it was decided that Trimm's and Benjamin's planet was a party planet. Everybody there partied all the time.

A guy from the audience. If we're a party world, do we need sleep?

Trimm. Yes, but only once a year.

Benjamin. Yes, there's a 3-week period where you all sleep. Your planet at that time is especially vulnerable, because everybody is asleep.

James Hogan introduces his planet.

James Hogan. Our planet is American football-shaped. The atmosphere is concentrated in the middle. It gets thinner towards the end. As you walk toward the poles, you are ascending through the atmosphere. The tip of the planet moves in the synchronous speed, so you can step off it and be in orbit. (See explanation at the bottom -- E.) As a result, we were building wooden spaceships before we built boats. We got the timber to the north pole, and we built an ark like Noah. We have lots of time to kill and we can admire the universe without atmosphere and all those restrictions of ground-based forms of life. And all the spiritual and intellectual development that comes with it.

Don't worry, you are not restricted with any once-a-year stuff with anything.

Mikal Trimm. Well, this is all good, but let's talk about procreation.

Elizabeth Moon. I would like to migrate to his (Hogan's) planet!

She moves to the left of James Hogan. And Julie Czerneda moves towards Paul Benjamin and MT. Suddenly out of 3 universes there are only 2 left.

Mikal Trimm insists on talking about procreation

Trimm. Well, this is all good, but let's talk about procreation. Procreation is very sacred. Because this world is so intellectually advanced, you choose a mate by intelligence. So in order to pair off, you have contests.

Benjamin. The hottest person in the bar is not the best looking, but the smartest. So if you can tell a good joke, or come up with an interesting hypothesis, then ....

Trimm. Puns.

A guy from the audience. What if the two most intelligent people, who you want to pair off, are the same sex?

Trimm. You're assuming it's a 2-sex planet.

Audience. How many sexes do you want?

Czerneda. Twelve! It's cheaper by the dozen!

Benjamin. I don't think any editor is going to see intelligence that's something that's to be looked beneficially upon.

Hogan. We don't have any such restrictions on our planet. Whoever you like it's OK. So we end up with a very diverse population. After 3 guinesses at an Irish pub, everybody is attractive. In Ireland, you never go to bed with an ugly woman. Although you may wake up with a few.

Moon. This world is football shaped, and you know what goes with football parties.

Czerneda. Beer.

Moon. Lots and lots of it.

Czerneda. We make the best beer, they import it.

Julie Czerneda and James P. Hogan

Julie Czerneda and James P. Hogan. More images from ArmadilloCon 2006 are available in my photo gallery.

Hogan further improvises about how the inhabitants of his football-shaped world built wooden arks/Irish pubs and took off in them to conquer a distant planet.

Editor. So you had trees on a football planet?

Moon. They are horizontal to make goal posts.

A guy from the audience. Does your planet rotate along the long axis, or the short?

Hogan. Along the long axis.

Editor. It would precess. It's physically unstable.

Moon. It would precess. So what?

Meanwhile Paul Benjamin and Mikal Trimm have revised the concept of their planet.

Benjamin. Our world is a Dyson sphere. We live on the inner surface of this sphere. You have a sun that's in the center. The gravity is created by the inner force of the planet spinning. You have an albedo field that you can manipulate. It's always night time because it's a party planet. Daytime is only 3 weeks, and that's when we sleep.

Czerneda. Meanwhile, we decided we don't like our planet anymore, so we [left it and] are drilling into your Dyson sphere.

A guy named David from the audience. Did the Dyson sphere independently invented its own beer?

Trimm. No, we stick to single malt whiskeys.

Moon. If they are having just a liquid diet, it's going to have a very deleterious effect on their shape...

Benjamin. They didn't know they were playing football with our planet.

Moon. That brings up the question: how big is your Dyson sphere?

Czerneda. Itsy bitsy?

Trimm. We don't know how big our people are.

Moon. They're sitting right in front of you!

Benjamin. I think a liquid diet is very good for you. Beer and mead. That's what Egyptians fed to their slaves, to keep them a little bit drunk and compliant.

Here comes the inevitable kitchen sink

Paul Benjamin. Now it's time to talk about the kitchen sink.

The guy named David from the audience. An important point is, on the football shaped world, which direction does the water go when it goes down the kitchen sink?

Moon. Widdershins!

Hogan. On our planet we have two kitchen sinks. One kitchen sink has a large hole, and you can mix drinks over it. The other kitchen sink is when people had too much to drink, and multiple people can lean over it at the same time.

Moon. Do we have big kitchen sinks, small ones...

Czerneda. Ours are tubular. We bring them to wherever we need them, and they suck stuff up. It's an easy way to get around. It's lubricated, it's tubular. Who needs an elevator to go around, when...

Benjamin. In the Dyson sphere you would have elevators in the buildings, but they would go to the center and away from the buildings, so you would get lighter as they went further... When you're on the equator and you're taking an elevator, the gravity would get lighter if you go further, or if you go closer to the pole.

A meteor struck a hole in the Dyson sphere, and made a mountain, and it has the most expensive property, because it has the best views.

Hogan. Except to climb the mountain you are going downhill.

Editor. Have we finished talking about sex?

Czerneda. On our planet we have sex all the time, that's why we look so happy.

Moon. I want to know if the editor is going to offer us a nice contract on this whole idea.

Editor. It's a good start, but it needs work. (Everybody laughs and applauds.)

Moon. Do we feel that we clearly understood how writers go about creating universes? (Everybody laughs.)

Czerneda. But even the most implausible start, if you work at it, [you can develop it into something good].

Trimm. If you think of some of the big, big classic works of SF, and you haven't read them, but you only read blurbs about, you would think, what is this stupid idea?

Moon. If you look at Shakespeare works form the point of plausibility, you would think "I don't think so".

And now you can build your own universes, and you can make them football-shaped, and they will all make as much sense as you would choose to give it.

Benjamin. You can create a universe that's really great, where there are rules, and then you can go back and change those rules if you feel you are not true to your original concept.

Czerneda. But feel no fear, we won't do that to you.


Well, I found out what James P. Hogan meant about stepping off the planet into geosynchronous orbit. The geosynchronous orbit would have to be located at, or a very short distance above, the planet's surface. That way the inhabitants of that planet could "step off" the planet (I prefer to say "jump up") and find themselves in orbit.

Steve finally explained it to me with diagrams, which I include below. It turned out this notion isn't as magic as I thought it was. It's no less fascinating, it's just that it follows from very simple laws of physics I should have learned in high school.

And the planet does not even have to be shaped like an American football, like James P. Hogan suggested. It can be a sphere. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

If you are in a geosynchronous orbit, you stay above the same point of the planet at all times, because you are rotating along with the planet. This can only happen if the forces acting on you in opposite directions cancel each other out. The forces acting on you in the orbit are the centrifugal force, caused by the planet's rotation, which pushes you away from the planet, and gravity, which pulls you towards the planet. A geosynchronous orbit is an orbit where these two opposite forces are equal. It can only occur above the equator, and only at a certain distance from the center of the planet. We need to find that distance.

Gravity (FG in the equation below) is equal to GN M m / a 2 , where GN is Newton's gravitational constant, M is the mass of the planet, m is the mass of the person trying to launch himself into orbit, a is the distance from the center of the planet to the geosynchronous orbit.

The centrifugal force Fcent is equal to m v 2 / a, where m is the mass of the person trying to launch himself into orbit, v is the tangential velocity of the planet's rotation around its axis, and a is the distance from the center of the planet to the geosynchronous orbit.

If we require them to be equal to each other, we can solve this equation for a.

Geosynchronous orbit formulas

Here T is the time in which the planet makes one revolution around its axis.

This will tells us, for a planet of a given mass (M) and a given period (T), how far from the center of the planet this orbit will be?

There is nothing in this formula that forbids this point to be on the surface of the planet, or a very short distance ("a jump") away. In other words, for certain planets, the a will be the radius of the planet. Of course, such a planet is a fluke of nature, very unlikely to exist. The Earth's geosynchronous orbit is at 42,164 kilometers, whereas the Earth's radius is 6378 kilometers. So, (given that the volume of a sphere scales like the cube of its radius), the Earth would have to be ~ 289 times as big to have this property. And it would have to have the same mass as it does now! So it would need to be made of a very different stuff than our Earth is made of.

On the other hand, a planet shaped like an American football... Actually, I hate this term. I'm not interested in any sports, including football, and I would like to use a more elegant, scientific term. I think an ellipsoid will be a good enough approximation. So, an ellipsoid-shaped planet has two radii, a longer one and a shorter one, so this gives us more leeway regarding the planet's size. Imagine that the ellipsoid is rotating around its vertical axis, kind of like if you put an egg on its side and spin it to test if it's hard-boiled. :-) In that case the geosynchronous orbit will occur along the "longer" equator. If the a in this formula is the longer radius -- the distance from the ellipsoid's center to one of the poles -- then you would be able to launch yourself into a geosynchronous orbit by jumping up a little bit at the pole.

An object in a geosynchronous orbit around an ellipsoid

It is easier to find an ellipsoidal planet with just the right mass and the right longer radius than it is to find a sphere, because the formula says nothing about the shorter radius. If the shorter radius is very short, then the planet does not have to be very big. So maybe that's why James P. Hogan suggested that his planet is ellipsoidal.