One of my long time armchair interests is astronomy, a subject I’ve kept a foot in for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed the myths and legends associated with the stars, planets and constellations and the rules and logic of astrology; which (even when you don’t believe in them) are rich sources of writing inspiration, and I know both my Roman and Chinese star signs (Scorpio and Tiger). I don’t read New Scientist regularly anymore, but I keep an eye out for interesting new theories and discoveries. The most recent one that has gripped my imagination is the exo-planet Gliese 436 b.
Exo-planets (for anyone who’s not a New Scientist reader) are worlds that exist beyond our Solar System, orbiting other stars. Since the first confirmed one – 51 Pegasus b – was discovered in 1995, thousands have turned up across our galaxy by the Hubble telescope and others. From studying their sizes, orbits and how light from their stars interacts with their atmospheres, it’s possible to work out a great deal about them, no matter how many light years they are away.
Gliese 436 b, however, has made everyone who’s studied it blink and double-check their calculations. The results – at first glance – don’t seem possible. Gliese 436 b orbits a red dwarf star, thirty light years away from Earth, and orbits it closely enough that it’s average year is two days and 15.5 hours long. Despite being about as big as Neptune, Gliese is too heavy to be a gas planet like our Neptune, but too light to be made entirely of rock. The only possible answer is that it is actually made out of ice.
To make this even more interesting, it is likely to be made – at least at the surface – of “burning ice”; a concept that at first sounds as impossible as an ice planet orbiting close to a star. Sheer common sense and dozens of school science classes tell us that the planet should have evaporated into water vapor almost instantly, but Gliese 436 b hasn’t.
The scientists believe it is precisely because Gliese 436 b is so close to its star that it hasn’t literally gone up in the steam. The extreme pressures exerted by the star’s gravity on the planet will be the very thing that stops the ice from melting into water and then the water condensing into steam. The important thing to grasp here is that the ice on Gliese 436 b (or rather, the ice that is Gliese 436 b) is not the same as the ice we find in our freezers, drinks and ice creams. In what is literally a case of “ice, Jim. But not as we know it,” Gliese 436 b is made of ice not because it is cold, but because the pressures on the planet force the water into a solid form.
Another thing we all learn in school science classes is solid, liquid and gas; usually demonstrated with water, ice and steam. But water actually has more than a dozen different solid states, of which ice is actually one of the least interesting. Versions of these solid states; “Ice I” through to “Ice VII” can be created here on Earth in a suitably equipped laboratory (and Gliese 436 b is believed to be “Ice X”).
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this for the last few weeks. Or rather, I’ve been trying to imagine what solid water – that isn’t ice – would be like. The best image I’ve come up with so far is of bits of polystyrene packing pellets being squeezed between two breeze blocks into a solid shape, but that probably isn’t right and it would only be one of the twelve versions. Second best has been remembering how I used to enjoy making my own ice lollipops in summer as a kid; pouring fruit juice into different containers and leaving them in the freezer overnight. I used to like looking into the freezer at the halfway mark and (not very hygienically, as I would usually have just been playing in the garden) poking my finger in to see how it was doing and I remember feeling what it was like when it was half juice and half ice; both liquid and solid; gooey and gelatinous, but with solid crystals floating all the way through it. I have no idea at all what the other ten versions might be like.
This has been a bit of a distressing feeling for me because – as a writer – I usually pride myself on my powers of imagination. Human imagination is meant to have no boundaries and no limits, whereas science has rules and laws and principles that state clearly what’s possible and what isn’t. But now science has produced something (or a dozen different somethings) far out in space that my imagination can’t envisage.
The problem, I’ve slowly been realising, is that I’ve got nothing else to compare them to. Most things that are solid in my everyday experience (this desk, chair and computer) are solid in pretty much the same way. There are exceptions, such as a piece of coal versus a diamond, or cheese versus a steak, but nothing I can truly use to say “this is what different types of solid water might be like.”
The question that arises is this; Is my imagination really as limitless and boundless as I always thought it was, or is it tied more closely than I’d realised to stuff I’ve experienced and that I know others have experienced? So many times in all my books I have written similes on the theme of “<Something> is/was/did/moved/ happened like <Something else>.” The second something is almost always from my everyday experiences of the real world. What else can I use to tie fictional things to everyday experiences so my readers can really imagine what they are like and what I meant when I wrote them? I have, of course, read sci-fi and fantasy novels where the authors have tried to describe things that are completely out of our everyday world experiences; so much so that they are literally indescribable. The favoured writing techniques for this tend to be describing what they are not like, or giving contradictory descriptions, but I’ve personally always found these annoying more than helpful, because – when I don’t have a simile to tell me what something is like – when there is nothing to tie it to my past experiences and hence to the real world, I can’t envisage it properly. It seems implausible and it reminds me that what I’m reading is fiction (an experience I don’t like when one of my favourite things is suspending reality completely and really getting lost inside a good book).
I haven’t got an answer to this question yet, but I’ll be thinking hard about it (particularly as I’m just getting started on my second Erik Midgard case files book) from now on. The only thing I can conclude for now is – to finish where we started – that Gliese 436 b, the hot ice planet with the higher than 300°c surface temperature, is probably a place where Olaf the snowman from Disney’s Frozen would feel right at home.