Tag Archives: science

On My Latest Short Story

I was working on this for several days before The Voice came through. In a taxi on the way to Rome airport. By the time I finished it we were in the clouds.

The Voice told me who it was about. I knew then that she was female, where she came from, and how she was about to die. “I was born on Mars in the year 2713,” she told me.

The themes, I suppose, are the usual ones for me. Alternate history, religion… Oh, and a dollop of Byzantine history.

It is only after you write something like this that you understand what it is about. The impossibility of living a moral life after the worst holocaust in history. Sorry, a bit dark, then. I will append some notes at the end on the technicalities of writing short fiction.



By Martin Waller


I was born on Mars in the year 2713.
Your year. We do not date our years from the birth of an obscure
prophet from a largely forgotten religion. We date our years from a
more significant event. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I can walk among you unseen and unknown. My clothes, the baggy dress you sport,
the trousers, the odd accoutrements, the belts, straps – they feel strange to
someone who cannot step outside her home without a face mask and a
full coldsuit.
In the year 2713 Mars is approximately half terraformed. We will be
able to walk unprotected  on the surface in about forty years. Our
years – shall we say one hundred of yours?
I will not see that, nor my children, or theirs. We live short lives,
because of… Once again I am getting ahead of myself.
I am astonished by two things, as I walk among you. The heat, plainly.
I was born 11 years ago, our years, in a tent city outside Vallis
Marineris. Step outside the tent and the temperature falls to about
the freezing point of water. How do you bear it? To exist in a
place that is at around the heat of your own blood?
We see things differently, then.
Let us now talk of the things that are not often spoken of. My great
grand-parents were from Greece, the place that was. On Mars, where you
come from is important, because there is no going back. My grandmother
would tell me of her homeland and her history, when I was a baby. She
died when I was in my first year, our years again. A good age, on
In the year 1071 the Byzantine emperor Romulus Diogenes decided to
attack the Seljuk Turks. The resulting disaster was so awful that the
Greeks always referred to the battle of Manzikert as The Terrible
Day. Likewise the event that places us where we are today. The Terrible Years.
And that second thing. The crowds. How do you bear it? Someone at your
side every second of the day, their breath in your face? All the time?
I step outside the tent and I am alone.
We grow food outside the tent. Gengineered chard, kale, pulses,
some corn. Martian food is largely vegetarian, heavy on spices. We eat
little meat.
You will see this. Unless I do the task which I am sent to do, in
which case you will not. Ever. I must hope so.
Death, my death, which I expect and will welcome, is not like true
death. No pain, no suffering. A sudden cessation of being. Where does
a flame go, when the flame goes out?
So I walk among you, looking for the place where I have to be. The
intersection of two people whose meeting must be prevented.
If I do this, billions of lives will be saved. Just cut that thread,
move that block, rearrange that chess piece and all changes. On this
timeline, at least.
This is what we do. We enter the portal and we go up to a place in
history where the least nudge, the smallest movement of history, that
chess piece on a different square, changes things utterly.
Byzantium does not fall. The Jesus shepherd does not die on the cross.
The thing we dare not talk about does not happen.
I cannot tell you where I am. But that businessman, in the grey
suit, must not meet that one, with the yellow and blue tie. With the
blond hair. (Our hair is never blond. Too small a gene pool.)
Their meeting will create a great business empire, which will lead to
the developing of… That clever device, the thing and that other thing that follows, und so
(Your languages are so strange. Why so many of them? On Mars we say, On
pesson di do sei, et voche copre. One person speaks this, and all understand.) So Grey Suit brushes by. It is the work of a moment to slip the spores into his pocket.
His meeting will take place, but later, at the hotel, he will become
feverish. The next meeting will not happen The empire will not be
born. On this timeline, no Terrible Years.
In your time, you would ignore the suffering of billions of your
fellow human beings but devote your efforts to alleviating the pain of
some randomly selected animals.
We do not have billions, just a few million scratching a living on a
cold, hard place.
We travel down the timelines changing this little event, this tiny
accident. And ensuring that on that timeline, the Terrible Years do
not take place.
Like the millions of those suffering creatures you cannot or will not
help, we can do nothing for those billions of other people across the
multiverse. We do what we can.
When I return to cold Mars, I will return to a future where I do not
exist. I will cease to be, like a soap bubble that bursts in the rain.
My alternates will continue, to walk the timelines and stop that
meeting, that event, that accident, that leads to the place where we
do not go, even in thought.That is what we do. And you do what, with your billions of

Notes: Writing short fiction,and in particular short science fiction, is an exercise in withholding information. You start with an intro. “Katie drives like a maniac.” “I always get the shakes before a drop.” Why? Who is Katie? What is a drop?

Then you slip in some details. Why are you walking among us? What do you want? A bit of colour – the food on Mars, say. Gradually you bring in the facts, the motivation. Then you know what you are writing about.

No dialogue here, because the central character is not engaging with those around her. What does she think of them, as she carries out her mission of mercy? There is a clue.

(There is a cheeky joke reference within this story. “We See Things Differently.” An utterly extraordinary story by Bruce Sterling, given when it was written. Nothing to do with the above.)



On Shane Warne, And Evolution

I am enjoying the ridicule Shane Warne has attracted with his comments on evolution. The former Australian cricket international claims to think we were helped to develop into intelligent creatures by aliens, and not as a result of evolution.

His argument is that we evolved and the monkeys we evolved from didn’t. If it had been evolution, both would have developed intelligence. No idea how seriously he takes all this.

Set aside the fact that we did not evolve from monkeys, but both of us evolved from a common ancestor. The idiotic idea that because not all animals evolved, none can have done so is easy enough to refute.

People do have difficulty with evolution, don’t they? Do we still retain the Victorian belief that it is somehow demeaning to have evolved from more primitive beings?

Or do people just not understand science? How many times have you heard someone, often quite intelligent, say, well Einstein’s/Darwin’s/whoever’s theory is just a theory, isn’t it? It’s not like it’s been proved yet.

This is the result of linguistic confusion. Scientists use the word theory for any construction of ideas that explains all the facts. No one sensible doubts Darwin or Einstein.

In common parlance, though, “theory” is often used disparagingly, as in “crackpot theory”.

Anyway, Warne is to evolutionary theory what Richard Dawkins is to spin bowling. Though Dawkins is, I read, quite knowledgeable on cricket.

PS: Warne’s comments are the daftest I have heard since someone opined on Twitter the other day, in all apparent seriousness, that the recent floods in the UK were not down to excess rainfall but all those immigrants, whose additional weight was causing the UK to sink.

On Antibiotics

Thank God for antibiotics.

I am four days into a course of them for a chest infection that, in earlier centuries, would have hung around for a lot longer and could possibly have killed me.

I know all about the threat of growing bacterial resistance to antibiotics because of their overuse. If they are diagnosed too often, they come into more contact with pathogens, providing more opportunity for the latter to develop immunity.

This is simply a matter of evolution, and the fewer such opportunities are given, the fewer the chances for resistant bacteria to evolve.

I did the proper thing, and waited four weeks before I approached my doctor. He said it was usual to wait two or three weeks to see if the infection was viral, and would clear up by itself, or had developed into a bacterial one which needed penicillin.

The problem of immunity is getting worse. According to the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, about 25,000 people in Europe die every year from resistant disease strains, which seems an extraordinarily high figure.

The incidence of resistance varies widely between different countries, which indicates that some are more sensible in doling out antibiotics than others. In Germany, resistance to a treatment for food poisoning is growing because something similar is widely used there in poultry farming.

The notion that we should be in future succumbing to super-bugs because greedy farmers are raising their production by feeding their stock antibiotics as a precaution is a truly shocking one.

Three suggestions. You and I should not go to the doctor demanding a pill for every cough and sniffle. Doctors should not hand out antibiotics to get annoying patients out of their surgeries. Many already do not.

Farmers should not feed them to livestock – and we should not buy their produce if they do. East less meat, and buy free range or organic every time.

End of lecture.

On The Fermi Paradox

Call me weird, and many have, but I have long been fascinated by the Fermi Paradox. Now a couple of Australian scientists claim to have found a partial resolution.

Enrico Fermi was an Italian-American physicist who worked on the making of the atomic bomb. He once said, in the context of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), that the question was not, is there anyone out there, but where is everybody?

This is a subject that has puzzled scientists ever since it became possible to detect any signs of civilisation around nearby stars from their radio emissions. (Sorry, this one is a bit science-heavy, but as I say, it fascinates me.)

We know that the chemical building blocks for life are everywhere. We know that the home galaxy contains 400 billion stars, many of them not unlike the Sun. Surely somewhere life must evolved, and if so, should have eventually developed into a technological civilisation

We know today that the paradox is even more baffling because we know, as Fermi did not, that extra-solar planets exist, having found many hundreds of them. Some, in his time, had theorised that the solar system was a one-off. We now know that planets may be the rule around stars, rather than the exception. There is still no one out there.

There have been any number of solutions put forward to the Fermi Paradox. There is the Shotgun Hypothesis – something or someone is deliberately wiping out technological civilisations as they emerge, for whatever reason.

The most accepted solution is the Great Filter Hypothesis. Something prevents the development of life from getting beyond a certain stage. Some think the Great Filter may still be ahead of us, and that technological civilisations may inevitably be doomed to fail in their early stages, by war, resources depletion, whatever.

Now two astrobiologists – such a discipline exists, this is a subject taken seriously by scientists – from the Australian National University have evolved their own version of the Great Filter. We know that when life emerged on Earth, conditions were entirely hostile. It took the interaction of that primitive life with the Earth as it was then to create more favourable conditions, releasing greenhouse gases and modifying the atmosphere to make it suitable for more advanced life. This is the so-called Gaian Hypothesis.

The two scientists from Australia suggest that that modification of the atmosphere may not be automatic. It may not happen, even after primitive life emerges. This may be the Great Filter which prevents life from developing elsewhere, or more likely, making it less common. They point to Venus and Mars, where conditions were once more favourable but where the process never took place. Mars is frigid, Venus an overheated hell.

I would say this goes so far, but not far enough. My own thesis, which I have thought about for years, is that life may or may not be common. If I were looking in the solar system, I would look not on Mars but under the frozen surface of Europa, one of the Gallilean moons of Jupiter, where there is a liquid ocean of water.

Life probably exists, then, but I suspect intelligence may be very rare, the sort of intelligence that develops the use of tools and ultimately a technological civilisation. It may be a rare fluke of evolution, like a peacock’s tail, that only emerges under particular evolutionary pressures that seldom occur.

The dinosaurs were around 200 million years, some walked upright with hands containing fingers and what looked like opposable thumbs, but none evolved an intelligence sufficient to develop technology of the sort we use. (No, they didn’t, trust me. We’d know from the fossil record.)

Most people have a dim idea that evolution is an arrow that only points one way. That microbes emerge from the slime, evolve into small snail-like creatures, into dinosaurs, and then apes appear, evolving into Man. That this is an inevitable process.

This is a misreading of evolutionary theory. Evolution occurs with jumps forward, leaps backwards through mass extinction events, and then forward again into ever greater complexity. But nothing is inevitable. And intelligence may be rarer than we think.

 Cherish it, then. Make the most of being human.

On Computer Games

There is a wonderful row that has opened up between Baroness Susan Greenfield, the respected academic and neuroscientist, and other members of the British medical establishment over our old friend, the damaging effects of computer games and social media.

I have a dog in this fight, because the Boy is a near-obsessive computer game player who has been selected by one of the big game producers to test a new, extremely high profile game. Both he and his sister are, like almost all of their age group, heavy users of social media.

Greenfield has suggested, inter alia, that the adolescent brain can be harmed by the above. Social media can affect social interaction, empathy and personal identity. It can also be a trigger for autism or autistic-like traits.

Computer games, used to excess, can lead to a shorter attention span and aggression.

Scientists at University College, London and the University of Oxford have attacked her claims as “not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence” in BMJ, which I take to be what they now call the British Medical Journal. They have called on her to publish them in the appropriate academic media so they can be assessed by a proper peer review process.

Her claims are misleading and not supported by the bulk of the research. They are “potentially stigmatising to people with autism”.

It is hardly appropriate for someone like me to intervene in such a scholarly dispute, except that one of the points the scientists make immediately occurs to me. Autism tends to emerge or be diagnosed at the pre-school stage, before sufferers are exposed to social media.

Plus, we have here what looks like the usual confusion between correlation and causation. Because adolescent A plays violent video games and then commits a violent act, it does not mean one “causes” the other. Unless you can prove that a sufficiently high proportion of offenders play such games as to be statistically relevant, and that non-players have a significantly lower inclination to commit such acts. Which, as far as I know, has never been done.

Both my children seem well balanced, high achievers. Both are doing well academically. Both appear to enjoy social networks that I could not have dreamt of at their age, mainly, I suspect, because of the ease of making contact with the like-minded through social media. Though again, correlation does not mean causation.

On Schrodinger’s Cat

In 1935 the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger came up with one of the best known thought experiments of all time. You will probably be aware of it, but imagine a cat in a sealed box, containing a source of poison that has a 50 per cent chance of being released.

When you open the box, you will know if the cat is alive or dead. But beforehand? The theory is that it is in an indeterminate state, simultaneously dead and alive, and that this state is mirrored at the sub-atomic, quantum level. Objects can be both a wave and a particle, until observed, when their true state is known.

No weirder than other ideas in quantum physics. But this does not apply at the macro level, in the everyday world, because the indeterminacy disappears through interreactions with other particles, a process known as decoherence. (Apologies to genuine physicists, I am doing my best.)

Now studies by a number of academics just published have suggested that this is down to one effect of general relativity, time dilation caused by gravity waves. The closer an object is to another with a significant mass, the slower time runs. In an imperceptible way, almost undetectable. But an object in orbit around the Earth will see time running faster than one at sea level.

This has an effect at the atomic level, and destroys that indeterminate effect manifested at the quantum level.

Clear enough? Here comes the problem. I have read two popular reports on this, and on the implications for Schrodinger’s cat. One is titled “General relativity explains why Schrodinger’s cat is alive.” The other: “Research suggests gravity destroys Schrodinger’s cat.”

How two writers can come to the opposite conclusion from the same research is beyond me.  This is where we came in, though. The cat is still both alive and dead.

On Evolution

Great new website: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/. The name says it all, and there are some splendid pictures of animals. What more do you want?

The writer has an understandable loathing for pseudo-science  – his takedown of Rupert Sheldrake, the inventor of the theory of morphic resonance, is particularly worth reading. He pushes the line that religion is incompatible with proper science perhaps a little too hard for my liking. Still, highly recommended.

While on the subject, can I recommend Stephen Baxter’s Evolution to anyone with an interest. He is a science fiction writer, extremely prolific, but the book is a one-off among his work. It is a fictionalised account of the history of one strand of mammalian DNA, from tiny, shrew-like creatures creeping around at the feet of the dinosaurs, through to the development of modern humans…

Then through a massive extinction event, and a meditation on how the remnants of the human race might subsequently evolve. Much of the narrative is highly speculative, with Baxter trying to envisage what various missing links in the chain might have been like.

Not one for scientific purists, then, though the author is a biologist by training. And the eventual destiny of the human race is pretty bleak.