What is that?–ANSIBLE-Science fiction writers create fictional devices–like the ansible–to allow characters to communicate quickly across the vast reaches of outer space. Let’s explore ansibles and physics.

Image: Radio telescope dish beneath a starry sky. Text: What is that?–ANSIBLE-Science fiction writers create fictional devices–like the ansible–to allow characters to communicate quickly across the vast reaches of outer space. Let’s explore ansibles and physics.
Photograph by VM_Quezada (unsplash.com@vm_quezada).

Ansible — a machine used for instant communication across vast distances of space.

Sci Fi writers have created many fictional devices that allow people to talk, write, or send messages instantly or very quickly across the vast empty stretches of space.

This is a phonograph. It plays records or discs. But for some reason, I always picture one of these when I hear the word “ansible.” Photo by Sudhith Xavier (www.unsplash.com@sudhithxavier).

The legendary Ursula LeGuin created the word “ansible” in her 1966 novel Rocannon’s World. She described a device that could be used to send instant text messages to anyone else with an ansible.

LeGuin used the ansible in later books as well. By the way, “ansible” is a shortening of the word “answerable,” so-named because the device allowed a person to type a question that could get an “answerable” reply in a reasonable amount of time.

Why do Sci Fi writers need a fictional device?

Why did Le Guin need a fictional communication device? Why couldn’t her characters just send messages using an antenna that sends radio waves?

The problem is the speed of radio waves and the great distances between solar systems.

The Speed of Light

In empty space, radio waves travel at the speed of light. According to the great physicist Albert Einstein, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Even though his theory is more than 100 years old, it is still hard for most people to understand. That’s probably because in our daily lives, the only thing we see traveling at those speeds is light itself. And individual light particles–called photons–are too small and too fast for us to detect with our eyes.

Photo by Jon Geng (unsplash.com/@colourlife).

Light has no mass. It is pure energy. That’s why it can reach such a high speed. But for things with mass–things made out of atoms like you and me and everything we own–we gain mass the faster we travel. At the fastest speeds that humans and machines can travel, the change is barely noticeable. But if you send a ship rocketing through space, the closer it gets to the speed of light, the more its mass grows.

A spaceship floating in space has no weight. But it still has mass. To push it forward faster than it is already traveling requires more energy. Einstein’s law says that the faster you make the ship fly, the more mass it has. That means each time you try to add speed, you need more energy than the last push. Before the ship could ever reach the speed of light, you would run out of energy.

Radio telescope antennas capture radio waves. They can pick up a radio signal, but not send one. Photo by Matheo_JBT (unsplash.com@Matheo_JBT).

What does the speed of light have to do with communication across space?

In science fiction, we often write and read about people traveling to planets in far away solar systems. It takes years for light–even traveling as fast as light does–to reach a planet in another solar system. That means that a communication system that uses radio waves, light or lasers to send messages to a planet outside our solar system would take years. More than a lifetime, if the planet is not near one of our neighboring stars.

Why don’t Sci Fi writers use something real–some technology that we know–other than light or radio waves to send messages then? Well, because nothing travels faster than the speed of light.

Photograph by VM_Quezada (unsplash.com@vm_quezada).

Long distance communication in Sci Fi

It’s hard to write a gripping Sci Fi story if the heroes on a distant planet send an urgent message back home to Earth and then must wait 20, 50 or even a 100 years to receive the reply. Sometimes Sci Fi writers want to tell stories where humans living on different worlds or in spaceships far apart can still talk to each other or communicate in some way.

That’s why LeGuin created the fictional ansible. So her heroes could send messages back home and receive orders from their superiors.

Create your own device!

What kind of fictional device can you imagine to instantly communicate between Earth and a space ship light years away? What would you call it? How would it work?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

What is that?–PENUMBRAL LUNAR ECLIPSE-darkening of the full moon when it passes through the edge of Earth’s shadow

Image: Radio satellite under a starry sky. What it that?--Penumbral Lunar Eclipse--a darkening of the moon when it passes through the edge of Earth's shadow.

Penumbral Lunar Eclipse–when the moon passes through the Earth’s penumbra, the lighter edge of Earth’s shadow

The night of July 4th, this past Saturday, a penumbral lunar eclipse was visible from the Western Hemisphere.  Did you notice?  Probably not.

Here’s why:

According to an article by Joe Rao on space.com, the Earth casts two shadows–as do all objects lit by the sun. The area of the darker shadow is called the umbra. The lighter shadow surrounding the umbra is the penumbra.  Others describe the umbra as the darkest, central part of a shadow and the penumbra as the lighter edge of that same shadow.  The penumbra gradually fades from the complete darkness of the umbra to light at the edges.

So a penumbral lunar eclipse is an eclipse of the moon where the moon passes through the Earth’s penumbra.  That means the moon only gets shaded and you should be able to see the full moon during the entire penumbral lunar eclipse.

In fact, if only a part of the moon passes through the Earth’s penumbra, the shading can be so slight that we won’t even notice it.  That was the point of Joe Rao’s article:  that the penumbral lunar eclipse on July 4 was not a big deal–not nearly as exciting as fireworks or other astronomical sights–because we wouldn’t even notice it.

He says that a penumbral lunar eclipse is only noticeable when about 70 percent of the diameter of the moon passes into the Earth’s penumbra.  On July 4 and July 5, only about 30 percent of the moon’s diameter passed through the penumbra.

If you want to learn more about lunar eclipses, NASA recommends a great website.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Space Bugs–Giant bugs make some of the scariest aliens in science fiction. Let’s compare the Bugs in Starship Troopers and the Buggers in Ender’s Game

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein features an alien race called the “Arachnids” or “Bugs.”

Cover art for Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Cover art for Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. Image grab from Goodreads.com

Beware the Arachnid threat!

“The Bugs are not like us.  The Pseudo-Arachnids aren’t even like spiders.  They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider.”  And they are organized!  Like ants or termites, they work together, under “the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.”

Strengths of the Bugs

The Bug warriors, controlled by a brain Bug hiding below in tunnels, fight without care, fear or mercy.  They never flee or surrender—humans are not even sure if the warrior Bugs can surrender.  They do not rescue their wounded and, if they can kill a human with their weapons, they will do so even if it means killing one of their own kind.  They are the Mobile Infantry’s most dangerous enemy!

“Their warriors are smart, skilled, and aggressive—smarter than you are, by the only universal rule, if the Bug shoots first.  You can burn off one leg, two legs, three legs, and he just keeps on coming; burn off four on one side and he topples over—but keeps on shooting.  You have to spot the nerve case and get it . . . whereupon he will trot right on past you, shooting at nothing, until he crashes into a wall or something.”

The Formics of Ender’s Game

Cover art for Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Image grab from Amazon.com

In Ender’s Game[Enders Game Review] by Orson Scott Card, the ant-like Formics invade Earth to colonize it.  The Formics, called Buggers by most humans, look something like giant ants.  “Though their internal organs were now much more complex and specialized than any insects, and they had evolved an internal skeleton and shed most of the exoskeleton, their physical structure still still echoed their ancestors, who could easily have been very much like Earth’s ants.”

In Ender’s Game, humans and Buggers battle in space but rarely meet face to face.  By the end of the book, we learn that Buggers and humans largely go to war because they do not understand each other.

Buggers can communicate without speech over any distance in space.[*Ansible]  So they have no language, no speech and no writing.  And humans, who do not understand this, have no way to plea for mercy or offer peace.

Strengths of the Bugs

Like the Bugs in Starship Troopers, the Buggers are directed by a single mind.  For Bugs in Starship Troopers, that mind is a “brain” Bug.  In Ender’s Game, the queen directs the Buggers.  “To them, losing a few crew members would be like clipping your nails.  Nothing to get upset about.”

What makes Buggers scary is their technology and their vast numbers.  “[T]he buggers are out there.  Ten billion, a hundred billion, a million billion of them, for all we know.  With as many ships, for all we know. With weapons we can’t understand.  And a willingness to use those weapons to wipe us out.”

Which one do you think is the most fearsome?

What other bugs, insects, and creepy crawlies have you found in science fiction?

For some more ideas, consider how arthropods evolved on Earth and how aliens could have evolved differently.

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross