Other Dimensions

I’m always on the lookout for a cunning device that is going to let us move at speeds greater than the speed of light.  I recently re-acquainted myself with Douglas Adams‘ fantastic idea of the infinite improbability drive in the spaceship “The Heart of Gold”.  It’s amazing what you can do with a good Brownian motion source (a really hot cup of tea).

Putting the tea aside for a minute, I stumbled upon an idea recently that might show some promise.  Before I go there though, let’s remind ourselves as to the basic problem.  This is a form of the Lorentz Transformation equation for mass:

Mass increase equation

where m is the actual mass of an object, v is that object’s speed relative to an observer, c is the speed of light and m’ is the object’s mass as measured by the observer.  For a better explanation of this and other equations, have a look in the book “Relativity for the Layman” by James Coleman.  In the diagram below I’ve plotted what happens with the m’ result as the speed increases – and very little does till we get close to the value of c – and then it all goes horribly wrong for the interstellar traveller:

Mass incease calculations

As you get close to c the Universe catches up and plays speed cop – your mass gets infinite, and in accordance with F=ma you then need an infinite amount of force to nudge yourself over the c limit.  All very frustrating.  The thing I would love to know is what property or characteristic of c makes it so controlling?  I think I begin to understand thanks to Brian Greene and his book “The Elegant Universe“.

Up to now, when people have referred to the speed of light as being a barrier, I’ve wondered why would a simple speed be so important?  But Brian in his book spells out another way to look at this – c is not just a speed, it’s a quantity that defines how we are able to move around the world we can see and its four dimensions.  It’s an upper limit on all combined movement within forward-back, left-right, up-down and time.  I guess we express it as a speed because that’s the usual way we see its effect, but actually it is a multi-dimensional quantity.  I still don’t really understand why that it is the case, but it makes a lot more sense than a simple speed limit.

But then Brian tells us about the work of a Polish mathematician, Theodor Kaluza:

Einstein had formulated general relativity in the familiar setting of a universe with three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. The mathematical formalism of his theory however, could be extended fairly directly to write down analogous equations for a universe with additional space dimensions. Under the “modest” assumption of one extra space dimension, Kaluza carried out the mathematical analysis and explicitly derived the new equations.

He found that in the revised formulation the equations pertaining to the three ordinary dimensions were essentially identical to Einstein’s. But because he included an extra space dimension, not surprisingly Kaluza found extra equations beyond those Einstein originally derived. After studying the extra equations associated with the new dimension, Kaluza realised that something amazing was going on. The extra equations were none other than those Maxwell had written down in the 1880s for describing the electromagnetic force! By adding another space dimension, Kaluza had united Einstein’s theory of gravity with Maxwell’s theory of light.

After that it wasn’t quite the success story it seemed to be but regardless of that, is this the cunning device?  For us to be able to build galaxsia class ships we need a new form of propulsion system that we can build and control, that is going to take us beyond the speed of light.  Simple mass-reaction engines are never going to be enough.  We need something that can literally “grab hold” of spacetime and manipulate it.  If this fifth dimension has electromagnetic properties that we recognise, can we not create a field generator that allows us to access and use this fifth dimension?  Who knows, it could be the sliding door that allows us to step around the c limit.

Throughout the history of science fiction, authors have created any number of field generators to achieve all sorts of goals.  On Earth now we have truly massive ones – look no further than the Large Hadron Collider.  Perhaps what we need is a bit of inspired lunacy and for somebody to plug one of these things into a good Brownian motion source – a really hot of cup of tea – and then stand back.


One of the most exciting aspects of travelling is thinking about it before you leave.  But what inspires you to make that trip?  For me it can be the advertising, but not the glossy “here is a video of the resort” type stuff.  I find most appealing those adverts that just hint at something exotic or beautiful without really showing you what it is – your mind takes over and fills in the rest.

Some of the best examples of this is found in the poster art produced for the new airlines that appeared in the 1920s and 30s, a time when aircraft were just becoming large and safe enough to make commercial flights a real possibility.  Some of these posters are gorgeous in the way they juxtapose a sleek craft against a desirable destination – a destination that can now be reached in a few hours rather than the days it would have taken by boat and train.  For some excellent examples of what I mean have a look at the book “Art of the Airways” by Geza Szurovy.

Fast forward and NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have done a similar thing, but this time those desirable destinations are other planets discovered recently by the Kepler space telescope.  This amazing machine detects planets by measuring the tiny variations in light given off by stars as planets track in front of them.  NASA and JPL commissioned a team of artists to render travel posters for a number of these new world and the results are fantastic.  Click here to see the posters in the context of the planets, and here to see what the creative team were thinking when they designed them.  The one I find quite spooky in a way is PSO J318.5-22 – the planet with no star, a rogue, or free-floating planet.

It’s important that in the future people do make the trip to see new worlds or Orlando Jax would have nobody to steal from.  The book opens with the attack on the pleasure cruiser the Eversence.  The back story behind this is that the Eversence is a space cruise ship operated by Cerulean Space Lines, a company that has been trading since the days before faster than light speed, when all that was possible were visits to the planets within the solar system.  Once the pride of the fleet was the Archangel, a ship that picked up passengers from the MBX space elevator for a direct run to the resort on Olympus Mons, Mars.  This is my contribution to future travel poster art.  For an A2 pdf version click here.

Small poster bitmap

Time II

The truth is life aboard a Pirate Spaceship must be pretty dull.  If you’re not fighting somebody, or planning a raid; if you’re not at a beach somewhere enjoying some R&R, then what is there to do when you’re stuck in a big spun diamond ship in deep space?  The closest equivalent on Earth would probably have to be the sailors in a nuclear missile submarine.  As far as I can tell they move around the world, submerged for periods of up to six months at a time.  That must be challenging – no sunlight, recycled air and no real sense of night and day.  Apparently some boats operate on six hour watch cycles.  This lead to me to think again about ship time – the time they would keep on The Claw.  Our concept of a day is only relevant on Earth – what time cycles would you keep in deep space?  Is the idea of a day and night time useful?  I tried to answer these questions by designing The Claw Chronometre – the clock that Orlando Jax uses to run his ship.

The Claw Chronometre

The Claw Chronometre

This clock operates on the idea of a “standard decimal day”.  There is a ship’s lighttime and darktime, and a ship’s watch dial.  I created it so that the watches drift out of sequence with lighttime and darktime.  There is also a time dilation indicator.  In real space this would have to take into account Einstein’s time-space laws.  In my version it simply indicates when time appears to be going fast slow – you know those afternoons which just seem to drag on?

I’ve built this in Java and you can download it from here.

A first review

I’m thrilled to have my first review on amazon.co.uk

It’s great to have some feedback, and max has been very generous:

What is it about a good pirate novel? There is an ageless draw to these stories and I found this particular transportation of the classic tales of high sea treachery and piracy to a long distant and space based future simply great fun. The novel has played with the genre well, modernising where necessary and introducing a strong female lead that reminded me of novels such as “Pirates’ by Celia Rees or “Target Lock” by James H Cobb.
There is originality to the writing although Brown never steps far from the honest foundations for this type of story, feeding from the genre rich worlds of Blackbeard and Treasure Island. Playing with elements of the humour from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the space born loneliness and uncertainty of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series, there is even the occasional fine dining experience to add to the eclectic mix.
A surprising and enjoyable short novel of high-tech piracy mixed with scurrilous characters, culminating in inevitable hidden treasure. Thoroughly recommended.

Time I

Time is a concept I struggled with when writing the book.

There are two problems with time.  The first is the way we use it in our language.  The second is the way time really works when you’re travelling at or near light speed.

I’m not sure who first came up with the idea that there are 24 hours in a day, and 60 minutes in an hour.  This Wikipedia entry suggests that it has its origins in ancient Egyptian times.  Now we are so used to that framework, that we use references to it constantly; things like “give us a second” or “I’ll be there in a minute“.  The reality is that these phrases are very Earth specific.  There is no guarantee that a “day” on another planet will be 24 hours – it could be a couple of hours or several years.  I worked on the assumption that, as we move out to and live on other planets, we would need to try and keep some kind of standard unit of time – that we would need the concept of a “standard day”.  To that end, talking about hours and minutes no longer really makes sense, so I used the term “cron”.  A standard day becomes 2 kilocrons (2,000 crons).  There are 20 hectocrons in a standard day, and these become analogous to our “hour”.  A cron is the equivalent of our minute.  If a standard day is the same length of time as our Earth day, a cron is actually 0.72 of a minute.  That all sounded very good in principle, but turned out to be quite clunky in execution.  It made me think hard about how we use references to time in our language.

The other problem with time, as Einstein so neatly pointed out, is that it is relative and the time you experience very much depends on what you’re doing relative to everybody else.  If you shoot off from Earth and approach light speed, your clock will run slower than a similar clock on Earth – you will age less.  This idea was explored in the recent film Interstellar.  One of the best novels that explains the practical consequences of time dilation is the Sci-Fi classic The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  The truth is that trying to weave the consequences of time dilation into the narrative of a space romp would make the story very complicated.  I went with the understanding that yes – making the jump to hyperspace would have profound consequences, but in this case we’re just going to ignore them.  If Orlando Jax had been whizzing around the galaxy, he would have aged so slowly compared to Jezebel that they would have never seen each other again.  And much like the gravity plate, somebody has to be able to create the “absolute time framework”.

If you would like to remind yourself about the metric prefixes for numerical quantities, have a look here.


In the English vernacular, a successful pirate has to be “well ‘ard“.

In the book, Bottle, Rank and Dead Meat are journeyman pirates.  Like perpetual privates in the army, they are never going to make it up the chain of command, but they are very useful to have around when dirty deeds need doin’.  An’ doin’ dirty deeds is what they do best, along with cards, and drinking and – well you get the picture.

Now to play such a character in a film you would need an actor who is well ‘ard ‘imself, and who better than Vinnie Jones.  Always a hard man on the football pitch, he has now done some great work playing tough characters on film.


 I think he would make a great Bottle.  His IMDB page is here.

Gravity I

Gravity is one of the most useful and perplexing of forces.

To an extent it defines what we are and how we live. We don’t even think about it – we just assume it’s always going to be there, controlling our lives in the particular way it does. We have Newton and Hooke to thank for writing down a first definition that helps us to understand how this force works. This is the equation:

Gravity equation

This is from Wikipedia – you can find the entry here.

As the definition states, the gravitational force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two masses. This is why, as you head off into space, the effects of gravity reduce very rapidly to the point that when you are at International Space Station heights, gravity is barely noticeable. You become “weight-less”.

As we know from our experience of space travel, long periods of weightlessness are not beneficial for the human body, and we have to rethink a lot about how we live. Gravity keeps our muscles muscular, and is very useful for confining things to the table when you are eating your dinner.  When writing about space ships, an author has three basic choices:

  1. You can create a ship that generates the same effect as gravity by spinning a large section of it. In the book I use this idea for Geo Station, at the top of the space elevator, and they used the same principle for the ship in the film Interstellar. It’s an idea that has been around for centuries.
  2. You can create a special device that generates gravity, or
  3. You can simply avoid the subject and assume that everybody knows space ships have artificial gravity. They didn’t float around the first Starship Enterprise, did they?

Now for a ship like the Claw, you can’t create it with great big spinning structures. It’s an assault ship, built for combat. It needs to be very tough and manoeuverable. The Claw is also an atmosphere capable ship which means it has to be able to move through atmospheres without destroying itself. This necessitates the need for aerodynamic lines. So with the Claw I was stuck with options 2 and 3, and in the end option 3 was the simplest – although I did touch on option 2 when Jezebel was stealing the Endurance.

However I have been doing a lot of thinking about this problem, and the bigger problem is that gravity is so hard to understand. I took it upon myself to read Brian Greene’s opus, The Elegant Universe, but things get very complicated and very confusing very quickly.  Take the idea of Gravitons, the particles that are possibly the way the gravitational force is transmitted. How can you create an attractive force by firing particles at things? Things get even weirder when the discussion moves to strings vibrating at certain frequencies, and M theory.  For a good summary of all this have a look at this excellent article from the BBC.

I think we will eventually find a way of creating artificial gravity, be it by generating gravitons or some other field.  We can very precisely create radio waves, and X rays and beams of electrons.  It will come eventually.  I’m putting my money on an industrial consortium GRAVEX, that is able to manufacture “gravity plates” which simply get built into the floors of ships like the Claw and keep everything where it should be.  And if you pay a bit more for the deluxe service, they will even attach an anti-gravity plate to the bottom of your ship to let you descend gracefully to the surface of planets, and leave again, without the need for all those dramatic thrusters.

Gravex 800 v01