Placeholder, SPQS Universe

The Science of Placeholder, Pt.6

Field-induced Molecular Reconstruction and Rearrangement.  A technology seemingly so fanciful that some might question its place in Hard Sci-Fi.  But as strange as it might be to say or conceptualize, it is a technology we can legitimately expect this century.  First, to dispel some obvious criticisms: no, I’m not talking about Star-Trek-like replicators.  The technology, if energetically feasible, will have certain inescapable limitations—and in regards to its applications for food preparation, those limitations will be in the area of preparing a very limited range of dishes, from mush to brick, with certain specific key ingredients.

More interesting is how the same basic set of principles behind field-induced molecular reconstruction and rearrangement for food production can be so readily transferred to any number of domestic tasks, all of which on Earth would normally require water.  But I’ll get into that later.

Granted, this field of research doesn’t actually exist—at least not to my knowledge—but the core ideas are already out there in physics and chemistry (and to a limited extent, already applied within chemistry without the controlling medium of a field).  They just need to be combined with applied intent.

Before I get too deep into the discussion of the science, it may be useful in this context to specify the rather small part of Placeholder that this technology is limited to.  Because it’s not something common in the SPQS Universe.  It’s a technology invented out of necessity on Mars, by Martian colonists, and for the most part stays exactly there.


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

Konrad Schreiber’s visit to Mars:

In Placeholder, I was purposely vague about many aspects of Martian life and technology; as an outsider, a mere visiting researcher from an Earth university, Konrad was purposely left out of all the important facets of a Martian Colonist’s life.  The little he did learn about a colonist’s life on Mars was only enough for him to get by while causing as little inconvenience to the locals as possible.  And Mars being what it is, that which would strike Konrad the deepest would have to be the global water shortage.  A local may very well have a more mature perspective on their homeworld, as a human being who no longer knows or recognizes Earth as their birthplace—but that is also a perspective that is impossible for a visiting researcher to acquire during a short six-month visit, in which they spend most of their time in the lab.

Konrad barely scratched the surface of Martian life.  So in his journal, as he recollects his brief visit to the planet, he only really has the ability to discuss a handful of obvious topics.  The water shortage.  Food preparation.  Hygiene.  Sanitation.  And the apparent obsession with recycling.  He barely mentions his research, because within a lab setting, you could be anywhere if it wasn’t for the extremely expensive lab equipment that can’t travel as freely.  All he really hints at is that the Oxford/Humboldt lab at Villa Ius has equipment actually capable of verifying predictions of String Theory (or M-Theory in his case), and an impressive quantum computer.  And you’re also given to understand that the same great minds that brought the human race field-induced molecular reconstruction and rearrangement (and then kept it for themselves) also brought the human race lab equipment that could return a fundamental particle to its unbound string or p-brane state and analyze those in sufficient detail to turn the various string theories into the realm of applied physics.  Specifically, Konrad did state as much that he was able to experimentally demonstrate that his own interpretation of quantized m-theory was superior to the dominant version of relativistic m-theory.  I didn’t bother with any further detail primarily because he would take such technological abilities for granted; now, if I were to write a story about the scientists and engineers working endless days and nights trying to build a device that could experimentally validate string theory, then obviously I wouldn’t have glossed over the detailed construction of a plausible device.  But that’s not this story.  And whether you like it or not, in retrospect, Konrad cared more about the strange domestic appliances on Mars more than the lab equipment that got him one of his PhD’s and a Nobel prize (which, by the way, aren’t quite as big a deal in the SPQS Universe—kind of like how these days, a Bachelor degree is the new high-school diploma).


The Basics of Field-induced Molecular Reconstruction and Rearrangement:

The premise of FIMRR is simple enough at the face of it.  Instead of relying solely upon chemical reactions to effect changes between molecular constructions, you introduce a mediating field which can encourage certain chemical reactions according to the pattern of the field.  Obviously, to make sense of the ideas behind this, first-year university physics and chemistry isn’t enough—the ideas I’m working with actually come from Quantum Chemistry, Quantum Field Theory, and Molecular Physics.

You also have to consider the scale you’re working with and the complexity of the calculations involved in analyzing the source materials.  It would be easier, for example, to simply strip all the individual atoms of their electrons and reintroduce the electrons to the cation soup manually, than say, to maintain the molecular structure of proteins and other important nutrients, filter out harmful elements such as bacteria or toxins, and rearrange them into a food-paste.  Despite the complexity, the latter is what I am suggesting, at least for food preparation.  Other applications of the same technology may be much simpler to process, with their usefulness being just as restricted.  But even with the simplest of tasks imaginable with FIMRR, you would need a quantum computer; mainly because, in all quantum chemistry problems, you can only accurately calculate two-body problems.  With even just three, you start dealing with uncertainty, and then the equation becomes a matter of quantum probability.  A regular computer will get bogged down beyond belief with the probabilities involved with a ten-body problem (or better said, the complexity of the equations are exponentially increased by each additional body in the problem), so anything more complex than a 3-body problem needs to be addressed within a system that actually understands the nature of the problem.  Quantum computers are designed to specifically harness the properties of matter being explored with these sorts of problems, so calculating quantum probabilities is an inherent task best left for a quantum computer.

Complexity then becomes a non-issue, supposing anyone can figure out an algorithm that can analyze matter at the molecular level in several large masses.  Compared to the programming required for such a task, engineering a type of molecular scanner that can accurately identify every chemical element 100% of the time, and understand how the atoms are linked into molecular compounds, is surprisingly easy in comparison.  In the end, it only has to be slightly better than an electron microscope, with a wider spread to take in the entirety of a mass up to 30cm cubed.

The next question is obvious.  What sort of field can capture pretty much all molecules within a given mass, and be manipulated to filter out harmful organic and chemical compounds, while rearranging the good stuff into a homogenized paste?  Electromagnetic fields are the easiest to manipulate, but that would require ionization of all the constituent particles.  That would destroy protein chains and most other nutrients in any given foodstuff, so that’s a no go.  If gravitational fields could be manipulated to the same extent, via graviton emitters (similar to the artificially-generated true gravity mentioned in The Science of Placeholder, Pt.3), that could be a viable candidate; molecular compounds could be identified by their minute gravitational impact, and the graviton-field could be manipulated to draw away certain molecules through so-called gravity bubbles (highly localized pockets of gravity, warped to move a mass through space without interacting with the rest of space).  But that may end up being far too inefficient.  In the end, you have to face the fact that any ‘natural’ field has inescapable limitations and cannot be adapted to this purpose.

But turn your attention to Quantum Field Theory.  At the surface, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what I’m talking about—but the premise is an exciting one: “particles are regarded as excited states of a field (field quanta).” – Wikipedia, Quantum field theory In principle, by treating particles as fields, including complex molecules, any group of those excited states is also a field already.  So to a point, you don’t even have to think about the ‘how’.  You just need to accept that there is already a field regulating the structure of the given masses, and your task then is to impose a similar field that will cause the desired modifications.  I think the best device for accomplishing this is a hybrid of a field detector and field manipulator.  You can design the detector according to the observer effect, and thus detect the mass in such a way that the desired field generates itself (although that won’t get you your desired outcome 100% of the time), or, you can design a detector that recognizes the quantum fields as a product of its own detection, and thus imposes a new quantum state on the detected fields (yeah, a little weird to think about, but it would produce the desired effect more often than a simple observer-effect change).

So those are the basic ideas I’ve been working with.  I’m sure there are others, and when I have a need to put some further thought into the matter, I may come up with something better.


The “Murray Ovens” and other FIMRR technology in the SPQS Universe:

The main FIMRR tech I refer to in Placeholder is the Murray Oven.  In final presentation, it looks little different than a microwave oven, only it doesn’t really cook anything.  As described above, it uses Quantum field theory and Quantum chemistry to rearrange compounds from pre-cooked food into a homogenized, highly nutritional food paste stripped of all harmful and/or toxic compounds.  Containers for the ingredients and final product are made of the same neutral coated polymer compound that Martian clothing is made from; likewise, the inside of the Murray oven is so coated too.  The programs that operate FIMRR based equipment are designed to ignore this polymer compound, so they never get mixed in with the food, and the components of the equipment don’t get affected by the field manipulations either.

The ‘ovens’ are nicknamed “Murray Ovens” not because of any particular inventor or company that produces them; it is simply the accepted pronunciation of the acronym for “molecular rearranger” (MoRA).  Murray sounds better before ‘oven’ than Mora.  You could imagine, it might have originally been “Mora oven,” but the reduplication of the vowel in the compound was reduced to an “ee” and the long o reduced to a short u.

I mentioned that Martian clothing in the SPQS Universe is made from the same specific polymer as the food containers used in the Murray ovens.  Hence how laundry is done: instead of recombining the materials on the clothing, it simply identifies everything that is not the clothing and strips it away.  The ‘showers’ are similar too; they are programmed to recognize living human tissue and the protein chains that make up hair and leave them alone.  Dead skin, dirt, sweat, and other filth that we tend to accumulate is captured in the artificial field and whisked away the same way as the laundry appliance does.  Konrad mentions that these FIMRR-based Martian ‘showers’ didn’t leave him feeling clean, but did stop him from stinking.  This was to draw attention to how different the psychology of a people living with next to no spare water would be from us right here, right now on Earth.  We associate the damp mushiness of a long hot shower and the residual soap scum on our skin with the feeling of being clean.  But technically, a FIMRR pseudo-shower would actually make us a lot cleaner.  It would strip off all our dead skin, remove any dirt or bacteria from our bodies, and leave nothing but our natural organism intact.  You could probably even find a way to manipulate such a technology for the purposes of controlled depilation (removing specific patches of hair); in other words, get the effect of a perfect shave without any razor burn, or a wax without any nasty ripping.  But back to the point.  We associate very specific sensations with cleanliness.  A Martian colonist who’s never had the luxury of wasting water on a shower or bath wouldn’t know the feeling of water-saturated skin or residual soap-scum.  Their sensation of cleanliness would be more subtle; a sudden destruction and removal of all actual filth and dead skin.

In Placeholder, Konrad also mentions the sanitation technicians that protect the secrets of their trade with all the force allowed them.  Since there is no water to waste, and no liquid-based household chemicals that are suitable to the task on their own without dilution in water, cleaning your apartment is a task that requires specialist equipment.  The economy on Mars thus evolved around the task of sanitation, and the only task expected of an average Martian resident is spraying down their toilets to keep the bacteria at bay in an entirely closed environment (also mentioned in Placeholder, there are two types of toilets on Mars, one for solids only, and one for liquids.  The liquid waste is filtered and recycled as drinking water, the solid waste is incinerated and recycled for use in construction).  Thus, whether you want them to or not, the Martian Sanitation Technicians visit your place once a week, and make you leave your apartment while they do their work.  The cost is automatically deducted from your pay when stationed on Mars, much as taxes or room and board.  You can assume that the technology they use is FIMRR based, but the tools are a little more specialized and designed to require special training to use.  So there you have it—Mars in the SPQS Universe has a culture and economy where Janitors and Cleaners are as specialized as nuclear engineers.


That’s about all there is to say for FIMRR Technology in Placeholder.  Like I said, it’s a very small part of the story; Konrad only ever gets to see it in action or use it during his brief stay on Mars which he briefly recollects through his journal entries, and they don’t have anything like it on the SFS Fulgora.  Their food is cooked normally, and like many other spaceships, all their water is recycled as much as it can be, and fresh water is chemically produced by waste gases filtered out through the life support system and ionized hydrogen from the interstellar medium (in other words, they only ration water in a very limited sense of the word).  They live much as sailers on Earth might, without the need for a desalinization plant onboard to have a ready supply of fresh drinking water.

In my next post, I’ll be back to a more relevant topic of particular interest: computing technology in the SPQS Universe.

— the Phoeron