Most Scientific Fiction Can’t Come True (Jun, 1931)

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Most Scientific Fiction Can’t Come True

by WILLIAM J. HARRIS

You’ve probably read scores of so-called scientific fiction stories, but the chances are you don’t know why most of these tales can’t possibly come true. Mr. Harris sets forth here the scientific objections to fantastic projects such as transporting a human being by radio and rocketing to Mars.

ONE of the leading lights of the pseudo-scientific fiction writing school recently produced a story in which his characters used a marvelous German-built airship to reach an imaginary world in the imaginary hollow center of the earth. The airship was unusual because it contained a vacuum instead of gas, and was built of a mysterious metal so strong it could withstand the enormous air pressure on the outside.

Another entertaining writer of the same ilk followed with a yarn in which people were reduced to radio energy, transported through space by wireless, and instantaneously reassembled at the other end, minus metal fillings of their teeth and any other metal they might have had on their persons.

The writer who transported his characters through the air by radio ignored the power factor, for he had his villain using a portable outfit run by a small gasoline driven generator.

The reduction of a human body to electrical energy and a wireless wave presents a pretty problem. Presumably the body would turn into a wide variety of metals and gases before it could be converted into electrical energy, and at the other end would have to go through a similar process to be reassembled. The hypothesis stated by Prout in 1815 that all elements are aggregates of hydrogen is abundantly borne out by the modern atomic theory, which holds that the atom of any element is a positively charged nucleus surrounded by varying numbers of negatively charged electrons.

Experimenters in Germany and in New York in recent years have tried to convert lead into gold by knocking off the extra electrons, and there is reason to believe that that can be done, if sufficient power could be obtained. But the power consumed would be so great that the gold obtained would be the most valuable substance ever dreamed of, for its price would run into hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars an ounce.

In theory, though, each of the 92 elements in the atomic table could be reduced eventually to hydrogen, the lightest of all, by successively changing the atomic structure through removing the excess atoms, and, going a step further, it might be possible to reduce the basic hydrogen atom to electrical energy by dissolving the hold which its nucleus has on its surrounding electrons. But if such a process were possible and the power to accomplish it were available, then the carbon in one’s body, for example, would first turn into boron, and then successively to beryllium, lithium, helium and hydrogen, while the trace of iodine in the human frame, being No. 53 in the atomic table, would have to go through that many steps before it was reduced to the common denominator. And in the process it would become in turn many rare and wonderful things, including krypton, antimony, argon, arsenic, cadmium, gallium, manganese, molybdenum, rhodium, and even silver.

Fortunately the writing of tales of imaginary science doesn’t require that the adept stick even to plausible facts, but sometimes the writers in this school of entertainment go to unnecessary pains in inventing startling ideas that are but little better than ordinary truth.

The wonderful vacuum airship, for example, would be so little better than an ordinary gas-filled fabric-covered zeppelin that if the metal hull weighed but 20,000 pounds more than a fabric bag the two would have equal lift—assuming both ships to be of approximately 2,000,000 cubic foot capacity. And the metal vacuum ship, besides being light enough to lift its load, would have to be strong enough to withstand an outside air pressure, at sea level, of something in the neighborhood of 80,000 tons.

The exact air pressure load, of course, would depend on its shape. The longer and slimmer the cigar shaped body was, the more surface would be exposed to air pressure. But for a simple calculation on air pressure on a vacuum container consider a spherical body, as a globe has the least possible surface area for any given cubical content.

A sphere of 150 feet diameter would have a content of 1,766,250 cubic feet, which is near enough to the 2,000,000 foot capacity of an average size zeppelin. As air weighs about 80 pounds per thousand cubic feet at sea level density, and a vacuum weighs nothing, 1,766,250 cubic feet would have a lifting force of 70.65 tons. Therefore the metal sphere, the cabins, food, fuel and pay load could not exceed that weight, if it were to get off the ground at sea level, and would have to be many tons lighter to rise to any height.

But a 150 foot sphere has a surface area of 70,650 square feet, on which there would be, at sea level, an air pressure of around 15 pounds to the square inch, or a total pressure, which the extremely thin metal wall would have to withstand, of 152,613,000 pounds, in other words 76,306.5 tons.

And after inventing a metal light enough to fly but strong enough to withstand such a pressure, the airship would have a lifting force only 17,660 pounds, or less than nine tons, better than a hydrogen filled balloon of the same size!

That enormous air pressure which rests on every square inch of everything on earth, and which we so easily forget because it is equalized inside our bodies, and therefore we do not feel it, is one of the scientific facts which pseudo-scientific writers so conveniently forget or ignore.

Inter-planetary vehicles dart back and forth between the earth and Venus, Mars and the Moon in the pages of all the magazines printing this sort of fiction. They make tremendous speed and cut voyages of millions of miles to a few hours or days because, as their writers point out, outer space is presumably a vacuum in which there is no wind resistance to their passage.

But if the outer space is a vacuum, then the air pressure within the vehicle must be maintained at ground density to enable the occupants to live, and so the problem of the vacuum airship is simply reversed. Instead of having 15 pounds to the square inch on the outside trying to crush the hull inward, we have 15 pounds to the square inch on the inside trying to blow it outward. Of the two problems the vacuum airship really presents the lesser obstacle, for a spherical metal hull will stand more compression from external pressure than it will expansion from internal strains. That’s why compression members in steel buildings and bridges present less of a problem than suspension bridge cables, which are under an expanding strain.

Of course, given sufficient power to shoot a man-carrying rocket into space, it is possible to provide sufficient power to move a vehicle with walls thick enough to withstand the strain. In all of the fiction, as well as the actual attempts to build space-traveling rockets, the presence of that power is assumed.

Another favorite field of the scientific fictioneer is inter-planetary communication by wireless with the imaginary residents of Venus, Mars, or the Moon, for even the total absence of air and water on the moon have not prevented fiction writers from peopling it with human as well as animal life.

Communication with the planets in fact has not stopped with fiction, for a man in London a year or so ago spent several weeks trying to establish contact by radio with Mars. At the same time he was breaking into the newspapers with his experiment, the British government was quietly carrying out experiments to prove that the so-called “Heaviside layer” of ionized air high over the earth—a layer named for the famous mathematician who first predicted its presence—actually deflects radio signals back to earth, and therefore explains the action of short wave signals in spanning enormous distances.

The result of that experimentation was announced just a few days ago, with conclusive proof that the ionized layer does exist at a height of about 80 kilometers, and does reflect radio signals back to earth.

While the British experiments were made solely to develop the understanding and improve the processes of world-wide communication, the result throws considerable doubt on the possibility of ever establishing communication if some intelligent form of life does exist on one of the other planets. With at least a large part of each radio signal being reflected back by a seemingly impassable or almost impassable layer of ionized air, the prospect of forcing a signal through into outer space seems negligible.

The time element and its effect on radio signals and their strength also is ignored by the writers who play with the idea of wireless to the planets. The longest distance a radio signal ever has traveled between transmitter and receiver was spanned in a minor fraction of a second, for the farthest such a signal can be sent and actually received would be around the earth, a distance of not more than 25,000 miles, which is a mere hop, skip and a jump for a radio wave traveling 186,000 miles a second, or at the speed of light. Compare that to the many seconds, or minutes, that even radio would require to span the enormous jump to one of the planets, and consider the energy required to make such a trip!

The possibility of producing sufficient power on earth to equal that given out by a star as big as the sun is so remote as to be beyond consideration, yet there is evidence that it might take power on such a scale to penetrate space with any form of signal.

Yet with all their weird and wonderful imaginings, the scientific fiction writers have left a whole field of things untouched. Astronomy offers possibilities beyond anything they have yet utilized. The mean density of the bright star Capella is about the same as pure air, so one could live at the center of it, if it wasn’t for the temperature of a few million degrees and an atmosphere composed of flying electrons. Or the faint companion star of Sirius, the dog star, has a density so great that it weighs around one ton to the cubic inch, and a pebble dropped on an imaginary inhabitant would be fatal, and a grain of sand would be a lethal weapon! If that isn’t enough van Maanen discovered a star whose spectrum indicates a relatively high surface temperature, a mass about one-seventh that of our sun, while the diameter is about that of our earth. That figures out to a corresponding density 400,000 times that of water, or a weight of seven tons to the cubic inch.

24 comments
  1. KD5ZS says: February 8, 20102:04 pm

    How attitudes would change in a couple of decades!

    Sometimes reality is even weirder than science fiction!

  2. Richard says: February 8, 20102:49 pm

    Notice that the article says it would take over a minute for a radio signal to reach the Moon. I think somebody mixed up units, swapping minutes for seconds, as the Moon is on the order of a light-second away.

    The objection about the ionosphere reflecting radio waves overlooks the fact that not all frequencies are reflected. By the time Sputnik was launched, we knew how to use frequencies that would pass through the ionosphere.

    This article has the earliest description I’ve seen of a “transporter beam”, similar to what was used on Star Trek. It’s a good science fiction device, though it will no doubt remain fictional for a long time, my best guess is eternity. On Star Trek, it was a budget-saving device, avoiding filming landing/takeoff sequences.

  3. GaryM says: February 8, 20104:13 pm

    Richard: No, it says that it would take minutes to reach “one of the planets.” That’s correct.

  4. Richard says: February 8, 20104:19 pm

    GaryM, look at the picture on the top of page 97. It has lightning bolts with the time required for radio waves to reach other bodies. The one labelled “Moon” says 1 min 28 sec.

  5. Brett says: February 8, 20104:52 pm

    Top stuff. But the article’s title is actually ‘Most Scientific Fiction Can’t Come True’.

  6. jayessell says: February 8, 20107:40 pm

    Great find Charley!
    To people of the 20th century, teleportation seemed impossible due the energy required.
    To we in the 21st, it’s the quantity of data that would have to be transmitted with negligible errors that seems impossible.
    The brain would have to be scanned and recreated on the quantum level!
    The nearly obsolete fax machine seems to transmit documents in less than a minute, but actually the paper and ink is already at the destination and the ink mimics the pattern of the original.
    If it were ever possible, teleportation receivers would use their supply of matter.

    ***ERROR*** REPLACE MAGNESIUM CARTRIDGE***

  7. Mike says: February 8, 20107:48 pm

    GaryM and Richard.
    The transmission towers in the picture are located in NY. Obviously they are using a New York minute.

  8. Charlie says: February 8, 20108:07 pm

    Brett: Fixed, thanks.

    Jayessell: The energy argument is actually a pretty good one. Charlie Stross did a really interesting analysis of it last year on his blog in this post: The Myth of The Starship

  9. Wayne says: February 8, 20108:36 pm

    There’s a mistake in the caption text on page 96 where they state the astronauts would be weightless at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and moon. This would be the point where the next force on the ship would be zero, but the astronauts would be in freefall from the moment their engines stopped thrusting.

    I’ve seen this mistake in some early science fiction, but I can’t remember where. Anyone know?

  10. jayessell says: February 8, 201010:26 pm

    Wayne:
    “First Men in the Moon”?
    “Abbot and Costello Go to Mars”?
    “Have Rocket, Will Travel”?
    “The Mouse on the Moon”?

    “Destination Moon” got it right.

    Brett:
    Not sending the original matter cuts down energy requirements doesn’t it?
    I didn’t say it would run on flashlight batteries.
    A SF story I read long ago had the scanning process using so much energy it vaporized the subject.
    Something like flash photography!

    Actual teleportation might manipulate space so that the object doesn’t have to be disassembled/reassembled.
    Like when you move a jpeg from one folder to another in your hard drive.
    The description of its location is changed, it’s not erased and rewritten.

  11. rick says: February 8, 201011:18 pm

    “There’s a mistake in the caption text on page 96 where they state the astronauts would be weightless at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and moon.”
    Wayne
    The first time I know of that the mistake appeared in literature was Jules Verne’s 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon”. I read it as a kid and thought it made a lot of sense at the time.

    Rick

  12. Zyzzyva says: February 8, 201011:47 pm

    Yeah, this is a good one. I like the bit about how speed of light communication means turnaround time in communications; that’s certainly something you didn’t see in period SF much.

  13. Rick Auricchio says: February 9, 201012:41 am

    re: jayessell

    “The brain would have to be scanned and recreated on the quantum level!”

    For my brain, this would be a fairly easy task.

  14. Toronto says: February 9, 20101:57 am

    Dude – the Quantum level? Man, I’ve forgotten most of that show. Did Sam ever make the leap home again?

  15. Stephen says: February 9, 20107:02 am

    It seems to me that on the chart of the planets the temperature on Mars is given as +113F/45C. This is warmer than almost any spot on the Earth’s surface has ever been, and a bit of a major mistake! Perhaps they meant to put a negative sign in front of it…

  16. Firebrand38 says: February 9, 20109:09 am

    Toronto: Nope, last episode he leaped and was never heard from again.

  17. jayessell says: February 9, 20101:17 pm

    Dr. Michio Kaku had an episode about teleportation:

    Explore the world of the seemingly impossible with the all-new series SCI FI SCIENCE. Hosted by internationally-renowned physicist and co-founder of string field theory, Dr. Michio Kaku, this series poses the idea that science fiction may not be so far from science fact. Examine topics that currently seem so far out… of the realm of possibility, such as invisibility cloaks, teleportation, time travel and more.
    Series Premieres on the Science Channel – Tuesday, December 1 at 10 PM

  18. KD5ZS says: February 9, 20101:23 pm

    It may be easier to copy or emulate a human brain (with a computer) before teleportation become feasible.

  19. Absolute says: February 10, 20105:28 am

    “for a spherical metal hull will stand more compression from external pressure than it will expansion from internal strains. That’s why compression members in steel buildings and bridges present less of a problem than suspension bridge cables, which are under an expanding strain.”

    This is false, Party Ballons, Helium ballons and even soft drinks cans hold more pressure on the inside than they can take on the outside. Thin sheet materials are strong in tension and deform in compression.

  20. JMyint says: February 10, 20105:49 pm

    If’n 70 kilos of matter (say a human) were converted into pure energy it would be about 6.22 times 10 to the 18th power joules. A one megaton nuclear weapon is only 4.18 time 10 to the 15th power joules. I don’t think I would want to be within a few thousand kilometres of that.

    I beleive te movie Frau in Der Moon had the gravity/free fall thing right.

  21. John Savard says: February 10, 20105:59 pm

    “ONE of the leading lights of the pseudo-scientific fiction writing school recently produced a story in which his characters used a marvelous German-built airship to reach an imaginary world in the imaginary hollow center of the earth. The airship was unusual because it contained a vacuum instead of gas, and was built of a mysterious metal so strong it could withstand the enormous air pressure on the outside.”

    That was, of course, Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.

  22. Firebrand38 says: February 10, 20106:21 pm

    John Savard: Correct, and it may be read here in it’s entirety.

  23. Jams says: February 18, 20101:40 pm

    ——————
    2. Notice that the article says it would take over a minute for a radio signal to reach the Moon. I think somebody mixed up units, swapping minutes for seconds, as the Moon is on the order of a light-second away. – Richard
    ——————
    3. No, it says that it would take minutes to reach “one of the planets.” That’s correct. – GaryM
    ——————

    No, on the 4th page, the diagram show a radio signal taking 1 minute, 28 secs to reach the moon. As Richard pointed out, that is incorrect, probably should have been 1.28 secs. Someone didn’t catch it in editing.

  24. Arglebarglefarglegleep says: August 7, 201012:09 am

    On vacuum replacing lifting gas; it’s been postulated a envelope reinforced by say superconducting materials could be both light and strong enough when electrically charged to make vacuum lift possible. Of course, that’ll be right after pigs fly.

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