Worldbuilding: Meteorites and Ifs

Sooner or later every character eats some dust. Sometimes it’s stardust.

Apparently some scientists supported by, among other organizations, the French polar institute, have spent parts of the last twenty years, collecting dust in Antarctica. Interplanetary dust.

Their best estimates are that we get 5,200 tons of offworld dust a year, mostly from comets. Which implies that they may have even missed a few tons that came down as ice and sublimated. So whenever you go out in the rain, there’s a fair chance a tiny fraction of those chilly drops came by way of cometary express.

If, of course, the estimate is correct. If the scientists have correctly identified the heart of Antarctica as a place almost no terrestrial dust falls. If there’s no quirk of atmosphere, or how particles hit atmosphere, that might slant the numbers up or down.

Life has a lot of ifs in it.

Part of the fun of worldbuilding is you can grab specific ifs, say, “okay, I’m going to take this as a given,” and then extrapolate out from there what the consequences should be. For example, if we get water and dust from comets, and we sometimes get organic compounds that way, and we know the spores of some organisms can survive freezing and hard vacuum – then isn’t it possible that passing comets could deliver a microbial invasion?

In point of fact, people have long believed comets were bad omens, heralding death, invasions, and plague. Hmm.

Of course, following these ifs to possible conclusions can lead to you being up nights as effectively as any horror novel. After all, if the Antarctic science is right, we’re being “invaded” from space on a daily basis. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. Suppose some species out there saw Earth and decided to put a quiet payload of death into the next passing comet. Why bother going to the risk and hassle of invading if you can just make sure the dominant sapient species dies out?

Ahem. People, we need to get our space program going. Not just to the Moon, or even Mars – we need to get all the way out to the Oort Cloud and beyond. Border control; it’s not just for nations anymore.

(That or think of it as defending our home ecology. Just in case.)

Remember, when you worldbuild: the ifs are out there.

24 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Meteorites and Ifs

  1. … Is this how Project Tatterdemalion came about? Because I honestly first started thinking of resource renewal, and my old, old, old story idea of someone accidentally terraforming the moon in a magic setting, possibly a tech. (Someone/thing holds an atmosphere tightly around a single area/sea and then people settle close by and have their own dome, and eventually they expand so the domes connect, and eventually the domes cover the whole surface… and then I never cared enough to keep developing the idea when it’d be easier to do the same thing to Mars, with bonus of not having to come up with rotation if/if not scenarios.)

    And I’m also thinking of kj_feybarn’s Pebble in a Dam where Obi-Wan manages to leverage water from world’s with excess to Tatooine to end slavery on that planet. The comment section talked about how it didn’t necessarily need to be water from the planet itself, but rather could be from comets or asteroids.

    Ooo! What if, what if all the comet dust actually suppresses psych/magic abilities and humanity is actually really stupidly psychic/magical but we don’t know because we constantly have stellar dust dropped on our heads? And it starts coming up as humanity spends more time in space.

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  2. Slavery on Tattooine was never about water, and the Empire seems to have essentially ended it without any change in water availability. It was luxury slavery, mainly connected to the Hutts; the outlying farm regions didn’t have it.

    But yeah, let’s pretend that Lucas’ worldbuilding made sense, or that slavery makes sense as a theme when you have droid main characyerscharacters

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Bleh. Something killed my editing.

      Anyway, there was a nice implicit tie between slavery not being stopped on Tattooine by the Jedi, and the Jedi going along with enslaved clone troopers to fight the droid armies, as well as Anakin’s grudge; but there was never an explicit tie, and no tie at all between grudges and the continuing slavery of intelligent droids under the New Republic, as well as under the Old Republic and Empire. The only way it has been touched upon was as woke comedy relief, which is creepy.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Yeah, if you look up the word disaster you quickly find it ties immediately to both the concept of “unlucky or misfortune” and the noun for “star.”

    Latin had a phrase almost the literal equivalent of our present day “ill-starred” too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Panspermia hypothesis has had proponents of its concepts discussing it back in the mid 19th century.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia#:~:text=Panspermia%20(from%20Ancient%20Greek%20%CF%80%E1%BE%B6%CE%BD,carrying%20unintended%20contamination%20by%20microorganisms.

    HG Wells’s “War of the Worlds” had scenes with descriptions of martian plant life choking watercourses, thankfully dieing off much like the Martians did, due to biological incompatibility.

    “The Andromeda Strain” comes immediately to mind, as a story where mankind has to deal with a microscopic exo biological hazard.

    Oh wait, “Dawn of the Triffids”, can’t forget that…

    Of course, the “War against the Chtorr” series must be mentioned, as there the alien invasion is quite literally a clash of an invasive biosphere/ecology, and not of industrial technology.

    The “Green Legend Ran” anime, features giant pillar like beings crashing to Earth in various locations, and absorbing most of the water, in order to control humanity for its own purposes (only saw the anime/OVA, which doesn’t explain much…)

    Likely more anime with exobiological invaders, but specific ones don’t come to mind. Aside from a movie whose title escapes me, where the post-apocalyptic world came about because of a human bioengineered strain(s) of plants/trees took over the moon(!), and managed to make it Earth, and take over the biosphere, in the opening sequence.

    As dealing with invasive/imported species of Earth origin, and their consequences (Dutch Elm disease, Chestnut Blight, Zebra Mussels, Asian Carp) is showing us, dealing with invasive species is HARD, even impossible to do more than just slow the spread somewhat. People often scoff over how “anal retentive” customs officials get over the importation of raw/unprocessed foods when traveling, because the issue remains largely out of the public conciousness. Unless one works in an industry affected by an invasive species…

    So, yeah, micro-/macrobial Extraterrestrial invasive species are really potentially scary, and the kind of threat that could well have to be confronted with massive fire bombing, chemicals, or nukes.

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  5. Huh, might be an interesting way for your sorcerer to get their strange powers in a D&D setting. Maybe some sort of weird combo or weather/the comet passing at just the right time resulted in an unnaturally high load of cosmic dust being dumped on some otherwise unremarkable village, and one or more of the residents become a little odd as a result?

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  6. Appropo Oort cloud… I recall a sci fi story about a large scientific (dozens of people, iirc) expedition to a comet, that ends up getting stranded, I think? Not sure about the particulars, but they have too, or planned too tunnel into the comet, to set up habitation/shelter. Some unfortunate souls were just sleeping on the ground in the tunnels, and never wake up… Because there is in fact macrobial life, in the form of worm-like creatures. Microbial life/viruses also exist, as discovered when people get sick. By that time, Earth has written them off, in fact I think even plans to destroy the comet, over fear of possible bio-contaminants reaching Earth from the comet as it approaches the sun in its orbit (or make crash into the sun?). Determined to survive, the comet castaways hunker down for the trip around the sun, and the trek back out into the Oort, where they plan to colonize…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A meteor falls from the heavens!
    It is forged into a mighty sword!
    However, the sword is cursed, all who touch it are beset by a mysterious wasting illness… only the chosen one is strong enough to endure the magic!

    That sword is radioactive as hell.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. It would depend on how radioactive.
        Dying in a year would be fast enough for rumors to spread, but slow enough to forge.

        The funny part would be the Isekai.

        “Oh great summoned hero… that’s an… interesting outfit.”

        “It’s called a Haz-mat suit.”

        “It doesn’t look very comfortable. Would you like to take it off?”

        “I’ll leave it on for now. I think it’s odd that out of all the people in the world, you got one of the few currently wearing a hazmat suit.”

        “Very well. You must wield the star-sword to defeat the demon… what’s that infernal clicking noise?”

        “That’s my Geiger counter. Things are becoming clearer.”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Not the only practical feasibility issue.

        Unless you are talking slight amounts of Uranium in steel, you need at least a little bit of experience to work out how to adjust the forging techniques for different material properties. Different materials have different microstructure, which is what drives macro scale properties.

        A sword forging technique will have been specialized for the usual steel inputs properties, or whatever material is going into the process. Both forging temperatures and the very important heat treatment depend on information about what phases form at which temperatures for that particular alloy.

        Probably a lot of the radioactive metals will have poor mechanical properties for a sword. It is possible that usable alloys will not be terribly radioactive.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Hmm… while a sword really doesn’t work for this, I’m now imagining something more like a hammer, but made with gaps in it so it isn’t normally fully excited but impact forces the pieces together so you get a burst of radiation (tho still less than a critical mass, so no explosion) right when you hit something with it. If the pieces were shaped right, it could even direct most of the burst of radiation towards the target you hit. And with it being a hammer, you could put neutron absorbing materials around the head to further protect the wielder. Still a kinda silly idea, but I’m now wondering if it would be possible to do something like that so that it’s actually of any use at all, or if it’d be entirely useless.

        Or maybe it’d be some sort of giant drum, so you can stand back and use it against the whole enemy army at once, instead of against a single target? Tho at that point, there’s definitely going to be enough distance that backscatter will be a problem for the people wielding it. And now I’m lost on that rabbit trail…

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      4. As far as I know, radioactive materials don’t emit more radiation when you squeeze them.
        You might be blasting out more radioactive dust with each hit, but the material would still have the same half-life.

        That’s part of why it’s so dangerous, it really can kill you just sitting there.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Read up on criticality.

        ‘Baseline’, sitting there radiation is from natural decay processes. Statistically, a mass of isotope X, having half life y, will decay at a rate of one half per y years.

        So, if y is 50 years, 100 kg becomes 50 kg in 50 years, 25 kg in 100 years, etc by spontaneous decay. Meaning, the rate at which the atomic structure fails without an external impact.

        Atoms are pretty hard to bother from the outside, but it turns out that decay products can do the job if they manage to hit an atomic nucleous hard enough. This is unlikely if you are talking about stable isotopes, small amounts or low densities.

        If you could chain a bunch of atoms together, like dominoes, so that the decay product of one would definitely hit the next, it wouldn’t be long before you could be sure that most of chain decayed. All of the chain, if we suppose a ring. Even if the half life is long, there are many atoms in a pound, and one of the atoms will spontaneously decay pretty soon.

        We can’t chain atoms, but dense unstable isotopes can have a similar effect. One of the reasons they were looking at Uranium, is because one the Uranium isotopes emits three decay products when it is hit by one.

        Fission reactors work by using a mass of unstable isotope to sustain the chain reactions started by spontaneous decays at a low ‘safe’ rate.

        If you squeeze a solid, you make it have more density. If squeeze the right material fast enough, you can get a lot of decays before the thermal energy released has time to decrease the density. How fast? Well, it turned out they needed chemical explosives that were very carefully and expertly designed.

        Squeeze the metal very fast. The chain reaction has already started before you hit maximum density/full compression. Thermal energy, of course, changes solids to gas, and makes gases expand. But this takes time, so you potentially can get a lot of decays before your density goes back down below the level. Then you have a very hot gas, expanding in a transient way whose modeling I understand is still not mathematically trivial.

        In conclusion, the Los Alamos Primer is a thing of true beauty.

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      6. Note that the ‘it is possible’ in my first comment this thread is a statement of my own ignorance.

        Technically speaking, the information may be known by humans. It is just the sort of thing that would tend to require a lot of empirical work.

        For all that I have interests related to radioactive things, I’m finding more and more how shockingly ignorant I am about this stuff.

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  8. Back in the late ’90s, there was an Analog “Probability Zero” story (the byline for shorts intended more for humor than hard-SFness) about a world where there were no millionaires — there was a strict religious prohibition against becoming that rich. They had a low tech level, and their only currency was metal coins of a single denomination. (that last bit is SOD-breaking, but again, humor).

    The punch line? Their coinage was made of a naturally-occurring equivalent of Plutonium, and 999,999 coins piled together was the “final straw” before prompt criticality. Which a local Scrooge discovered the hard way when he finally tossed his millionth coin into his money pit….

    Whoops. That religious prohibition actually had a reason behind it….

    Liked by 2 people

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