Placeholder, SPQS Universe

The Science of Placeholder, Pt.1

If you’ve been working through Placeholder, you may have noticed that the first half of the book is a little science-heavy.  I determined right from the first moment I decided to write science fiction, that I wanted to write Hard Sci-Fi; no compromises, no fluff, and no technobabble.  Being only a hobby physicist at best, I naturally doubted in my ability to accomplish this feat, but with the kind guidance of the web and some choice textbooks on all the subjects that would have to be presented with an explanation to be believable, I went to work.  It’s up to my readers now to tell me how well I fared.

Most important to the story, I had to find a practical way for Konrad Schreiber’s ship, the SFS Fulgora, to travel the stars.  It had to be new, experimental, and come with a list of potential risks that could not be determined until it was tested out by a human crew.  But any believable piece of technology also has to come with certain limitations.  I’ve never liked ‘cure-all’ devices, and prefer to leave them out of my stories.  It’s one thing to have a MacGyver-like character, who has the rare ability to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat with the most random and commonplace of objects, but that’s a very different circumstance, and a unique character type that doesn’t lend itself to regular reuse.  So I decided to make a piece of technology that works, but is also flawed because the science behind it is poorly understood.  I think I came up with something pretty special.


(Spoiler Alert!  The rest of this post discusses technical details of Placeholder’s plot and primary characters.)

Realistic Social and Scientific Advancement:

Placeholder is set just over 120 years in the future; not long in the grand scheme of things, but long enough for some drastic political changes without necessitating a drastic change in science, technology, and culture.  I made the assumption that science would continue to progress in most directions, but certain political changes are known from past experience to cause large-scale regression in specific areas, mostly in education, technology, and other standards of living.

To the point: the science of Placeholder is a century of refinement to the science of today; I established certain breakthroughs that would further the story, but I made a point of being stingy about it.  Let’s face it, major scientific breakthroughs that really change the world don’t come around all that often.  We haven’t even lived up to the technological expectations of the 1950s for our generation!  So I only allowed for about as much change: not nearly as much as we might hope for, but better enough that it’s worth imagining.

I made the further assumption that the physics community might actually come to some sort of agreement on an acceptable compromise T.O.E.  I figured it unlikely that you could ever hope for an ideal candidate in such a situation; it would have to be somewhere in the middle between String Theory and Quantum Loop Theory, a theory that no one would be truly content with, but which was ultimately functional.  And that’s the point of science; it doesn’t have to be true, it just has to work.  Case in point: General Relativity.  It works.  It accurately predicts everything it was designed to, and we wouldn’t have a working theory of gravitation in astronomical scales without it.  But General Relativity works under the assumption that Spacetime is warped by gravity; from what I’ve read of Hawking and Einstein, I’m inclined to acknowledge only that the relativistic model of spacetime is warped by gravitational fields for the purpose of analysis, not that spacetime is actually warped by gravity.  Thus, hypothetical devices like the Alcubierre drive are impossible; spacetime is not warped by gravitational fields, thus you cannot artificially warp spacetime by manipulation of gravitational fields to achieve effective FTL travel.  Of course, I’m not willing to bet that no artificially created field is capable of warping spacetime; I’m just saying, it isn’t in my opinion something that gravity does.

Another place that General Relativity fails is in the Quantum world.  This argument is the best known and most talked about.  But what’s not talked about enough is that General Relativity also falls apart on the Cosmic scale (ie., intergalactic distances and higher); and strictly speaking, it does a rather poor job of explaining the Big Bang on its own, even if it was the scientific revolution that allowed for the theory to be first proposed.  All sorts of unscientific fluff has had to be invented to make General Relativity keep working.  Dark matter, dark energy, MACHOs and WIMPs, you name it.  But all the same, it is not without its merit.  Einstein gave us far more than he intended when he summarized the fundamental equations of General Relativity as E = mc^2.  That equation isn’t just the basis for Relativity, it’s the basis of all modern science.


M-Theory and the MRD:

I decided to go with M-Theory as the dominant physical theory in my future history, but not without certain changes that will offend many string theorists.  First of all, I’m perfectly aware that M-Theory is incomplete and poorly understood.  But within Placeholder, I treat it as a complete Theory of Everything.  In order to accomplish this with minimal effort, I had the physicists of the SPQS force M-Theory to conform to General Relativity first, and largely ignore the disharmony between relativity and quantized theories of gravity.  This is, and everybody knows it, the easiest way to create a Theory of Everything; but obviously, the theory will have holes.  Firstly, all String Theories were designed to be fully quantized; General Relativity is a Classical system that deals with fields as abstractions of force, just like Newtonian Mechanics, instead of the quantum force-carrying intermediary virtual particles used in the Standard Model of particle physics and as the basis of all string theories.  If you try to make a quantum system fit into a classical system, you’re going to run into problems.  Secondly, no acceptable quantum theory of gravity exists, although several decent candidates have been proposed.  So far, I think String Theory’s interpretation of the graviton model is the best, but it doesn’t exactly fit the Standard Model.  But until someone actually discovers the graviton and/or the Higg’s Boson, it’s anyone’s guess as to which is more accurate.  Thirdly, M-Theory predicts 11-dimensional spactime, General Relativity only allows for 4—although, it’s interesting to note that they both approach spacetime in the same way.  11-dimensional M-Theory predicts 10 dimensions of space, and one dimension of time; three of these spatial dimensions are the familiar Euclidean dimensions of space, and the other seven are generally considered as ‘compact’ dimensions.  ie., they have collapsed in on themselves and assumed a number of strange geometries that prevent us from directly detecting them.  The same is the case for most versions of string and superstring theory, although the total number of dimensions can range anywhere from 5 to 26.  M-Theory is by far the cleanest when it comes to the handling of extra dimensions, but I still think it’s lacking something.

There are also a host of more technical problems inherent in forcing Relativity onto any interpretation of String Theory, but currently they are little more than mathematical musings.  If you’ve ever tried your hand at higher-dimensional vector fields, you’ll understand me when I say it’s an exercise in futility.

Despite the problems, I settled on a supersymmetric generalization of General Relativity fully integrated with M-Theory.  This is known as 11-dimensional maximal SUGRA, and has strong support.  And since it allows for the graviton, among other interesting possibilities, I felt it was best.

Now, Konrad Schreiber, the quantum computer programmer and physicist anti-protagonist of Placeholder, disagrees with Relativistic M-Theory, despite the obvious strides that 11-dimensional maximal SUGRA has made.  In the SPQS Universe, it has led to the discovery and taming of the graviton, a unified understanding of the physical universe, and the production of a highly useful device, the “Membrane Resonation Drive” (or MRD for short).  The MRD is able to measure a mass by the impact of its gravitational field on spacetime, define that mass as a single point-particle, and move that mass effectively anywhere in the known universe by merging two disparate points of spacetime into a single point via a singularity created as a product of the spin of the artificial point-particle.  Nevertheless, it’s not good enough for Konrad.  He’s the type of person that thinks he knows better even when he’s blatantly wrong.  Within the book, he goes to the trouble of rewriting M-Theory, to remove all artefacts of General Relativity and make it a fully quantized theory of everything.

In the book, I don’t specifically deal with who is more correct, Konrad or the rest of the Physics community.  Certainly, Konrad’s interpretation works for him, since he understands quantum mechanics better than general relativity (which is a running theme throughout the book).  As far as the physics community as a whole is concerned, there’s no reason why the MRD, a jump-drive in principle, shouldn’t double equally well as a time machine.  But Konrad’s conception is already limited because he doesn’t allow for that.  Also, his new model of the Universe prevents the MRD from jumping between galactic clusters.

The one thing that both systems do adequately well, is to jump beyond the confines of the physical universe; both the relativistic model of m-theory that he starts off using at the beginning of the mission, and his own quantized version that he develops once all his crewmates are dead, allow for the creation of an unstable 12th dimension when the MRD is forced to jump the ship to an invalid set of coordinates.  Konrad naturally blames a fault in the actual design of the MRD, but readers can take that as mere speculation.  There is, after all, a rather beautiful emerging field known as “Two-time Physics”—it has 10 spatial dimensions, and 2 temporal dimensions.  It is, without question, worth looking into.

Konrad’s approach to understanding this unstable 12th dimension, which he names “the Void,” is even more unorthodox than his usual work in physics: he considers temporal and spatial dimensions to be supersymmetric and intertwined, making 11 spatiotemporal dimensional couplets.  If you could separate them, that would make for 22 dimensions; but his model does not allow for that.  What it creates, though, is an interesting abstraction of 4-dimensional spacetime below the galactic distance scale. (For all you real physicists and mathematicians reading this post, this would be an appropriate juncture to check my work).


That’s it for now.  In my next posts on The Science of Placeholder, I will be addressing the Lévi–Yang Field, Artificial Gravity, Molecular Reconstruction, Implementation of Metamaterials in Space Engineering, Nuclear Propulsion and Power in Space, Quantum and Optical Computers, and of course, Quantum Computer Programming Languages.


— the Phoeron