The Science Behind the Story: Cavernauts

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The Science Behind the Story: Cavernauts
David Bartell

“Cavernauts” (Analog, March 2009) has a combination of high, and decidedly low tech, used in combination.  No matter how advanced technology becomes, there will always be a place in the explorer’s kit for a good old-fashioned Craftsman screwdriver.  Actually, a subtext of the story is about the bumps on the road to newer technologies.  While society is embracing the virtual and metaphysical worlds, and caring less about the physical, the cavernauts tend to be more old-fashioned.  They do rely on technology for everything that they do, but they also need simpler mechanisms upon which to fall back, should that technology fail in an unforgiving environment.


The cavernauts who will one day mine moons and asteroids will be of that ilk, because if they can not embrace the visceral thrills and endure the stifling journeys, they will stay home in virtual comfort – which is a different story.


The outpost on Callisto is closing down, for reasons only hinted at in the story.  The implication is that with improved nanotechnology, there will be little reason to venture so far for raw materials.  Why go to Jupiter for diamonds if you can manufacture them from the bottom up, in the comfort of your own biosphere?   “Cavernauts” takes place at the cusp of a divergence in technology, at the turning from the large to the small, from the distant to the near, and from the external to the internal. 


In the story, manned exploration of the planets is in competition with nanotechnology.  Sadly, if the nanotechnologies arrive ahead of practical manned exploration, we may in reality find ourselves with several fewer reasons to venture to the planets.



Cave Exploration


In microgravity, one might expect the cavernauts Rick and Bart to use jet packs to fly around the caves.  Trouble is, if your pack fails, you may be too far from base to get back on a tank of air.  The protocols used by the team in this story arose from my experiences scuba diving in caves, and compared to the exhaustive procedures followed by today’s astronauts, they are dangerously lax.  It’s fun in science fiction to race around in space without seat belts, but I wanted to emphasize the precarious nature of a hostile environment for this story.


Because few scuba divers have full face masks equipped with radio, they have developed a lot of hand signals to communicate:  “Follow me,” “Something’s wrong,” “Let’s surface,” “I’m out of air!”  Cave divers have augmented these with additional signals for their own special needs.  For example, if a cave diver becomes ensnared by a line, the hand signal is to twirl crossed fingers in a figure eight:  “I’m tangled in something.”   There are also signals with underwater lights, used when following someone in tight quarters, where divers can not see each other’s hands.  In a bulky pressure suit, it is not possible to make highly articulated hand signals, so the cavernauts tend to use their entire hands or arms in their signals.  On Callisto, Rick makes a figure eight with a crooked hand to signal that he’s tangled.  Both elements, the crooked hand, and the figure eight, are unique to the “tangled” meaning, to provide redundancy and avoid confusion. 


These signals are just one example of the low-tech redundancies used in the story that support the subtext of technology cusps.  There are non-technical examples as well, including Rick’s feelings on weddings, burials, exploration, and WyrdNet.





Today, we are able to manufacture diamonds of good quality.  The diamond industry is lobbying to force companies to etch microscopic “warning labels” in artificial diamonds, to differentiate them from natural jewels.  This may be largely to protect their business, but there is also a sentimental reason for differentiation.  Isn’t it romantic to know that your ring was forged in a natural anvil, deep within the Earth, billions of years ago?  Isn’t that better, in some way, than having a diamond that is younger than yourself, manufactured in a laboratory in Florida?  How much better, then, to have a rock hailing from the core of an inaccessible gas giant? 


Will people of the future even care about diamonds? Perhaps not, if they become commonly manufactured baubles.  But then, there are still the industrial uses, including some we probably haven’t thought of yet.


In “Cavernauts”, I use the term “slenters” for artificial diamonds.  This comes from the Afrikaans word “schlenter” (also spelled “slenter”) which means “fake”, or “a trick”.  The term is especially applied to diamonds, since the region in which this term was used, late in the 19th century, was a major site of diamond mining.  Evidently, some people tried to pass off glass shards broken from Coke bottles as diamonds.  Yet more evidence that the gods must be crazy.


And yes, as mentioned in the story, actual termites did lead to the discovery of some of the most important African diamond deposits.  Score another point for low-tech tools.  Chimpanzees use a very low-tech tool, a twig, to extract termites from the ground.  Really, how much more clever are we, to in turn use those termites to extract precious minerals from the same soil?



Lucy in the Eye

In the story, a brief glow emanates from a bottomless pit.  Diamonds can and do fluoresce, briefly, and generally after exposure to artificial light, especially ultraviolet.  While you can’t see UV, diamond sellers will tell you that because the UV gives the gems a bluish color, this will cancel any yellow, and make the diamond whiter. 


In addition to this fluorescence, some diamonds exhibit phosphorescence, glowing after the source light has been doused.  The largest blue diamond in the world, the Hope, glows red under UV, for up to one minute.  Actually, natural diamonds that glow in this way produce two wavelengths.  Slenters that glow after lights-out only produce one wavelength.  Not only can this technique be used to identify fake diamonds, but each particular stone has a characteristic fluorescence profile, so gems of this type can be “fingerprinted.” 


While the phenomenon of glowing in the dark has to do with impurities in the stones, the precise mechanism for the phosphorescence is unclear to me.  I had a couple uncut African diamonds run through a Rigaku D/Max Rapid x-ray diffraction microscope at the Smithsonian Institute, but the scientist did not explain this to my satisfaction.  Perhaps someone else can illuminate the subject.  See:

A diamond retina similar to the one mentioned briefly in the story is a reality today.  Thin carbon films such as artificial nanocrystalline diamond (NCD) are being tested for biological implants, because they resist adhesion by proteins that can cause infection and tissue rejection.  (NCSs are also semiconductors.)  Companies like Second Sight, that are pioneering artificial eyes, use ultrananocrystalline diamond film (UNCD), developed at Argonne National Laboratory, to insulate the devices from biological fluids.  With whatever retina available, see: 




A Diamond in the Sky


Tiny diamonds have been found in meteorites on Earth for decades.  Did they condense in space by vapor deposition, one process used to make synthetic diamonds?  Did carbon atoms compress into crystals with heat and shock as the meteor fell?  Or were the diamonds formed inside the outer planets, and then ejected somehow in our direction?


The idea that Jupiter (and other gas giants) have gigantic diamonds at their cores has been around for a few decades, and has been a feature of science fiction stories, including, of course, 2061: Odyssey Three by the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke.  Like him, I’ve always found this notion both grand and lovely, and I wondered how we might possibly confirm it.  If a planetary impact on Jupiter isn’t enough to shake down the old boy for his goods, it’s possible that diamond crystals could be more easily accessible.  An early (1981) paper on the possibility of diamonds on Uranus and Neptune was in Nature.  See:



One theory is that it literally rains diamonds onto Neptune and Uranus, due to intense heat and  pressure on atmospheric hydrocarbons.  It might be easier to fish the depths of those atmospheres, the way we scoop dust from noctilucent clouds, say, than to mine the still deeper core of a gas giant, where the pressure is so great that even Jove himself must surely suffer a chronic migraine.  A more recent paper is at:



It is even possible, perhaps likely, that diamonds thousands of miles wide sparkle inside of nearby stars.  That’s the best guess for the Diamond Star, BPM 37093, an old white dwarf also known as “Lucy”, after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  The lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle” also leap to mind.  You know them to death, but indulge me, and read them again:


Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are!

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky!


Was the ancient secret of the stars disguised under our very noses, foretold in a nursery rhyme?  Was an astrophysical truth retold in ritual song every night for over two centuries before being scientifically validated?  For the complete, lesser known lyrics, see:


And how about that alluring Diamond Star itself?  At a bargain distance of only 54 light years, this little gem is the perfect gift for that special lady in your life.  What she wouldn’t do for 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 carats!



The Devil’s Diamonds


“God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil.” - Wolfgang Pauli


Thanks to Dr. Chris Ewels, at the Universite de Nantes, and Dr. Stephen Jenkins, Royal Society Research Fellow, at the University of Cambridge for tossing ideas around with me for “Cavernauts”.  In particular, they put me on to negatively curved nanostructures, and cutting edge speculation on the behavior of carbon surfaces.  Any gaffs (or “cutting edge” puns) are my own.


A negatively curved surface curves around a point or points external to the volume bounded by the surface.  Think of the way western saddles and Pringle’s potato chips curve.  While carbon molecules assemble themselves into hexagons, five and seven-sided shapes are also possible, as described in the story.  While still theoretical for carbon nanostructures, some detailed mathematical work has been done on such potential materials.  Here's a paper from the Bogoliubov Laboratory of Theoretical Physics that discusses and illustrates negatively curved carbon nanostructures, as well as Schwarzite, which is also mentioned in “Cavernauts”:


My statement in the story that these structures may be stronger than normal nanotubes is founded on this research, but I could not find any information about whether they would resist the kinds of forces to which a space elevator would be subjected.  Diamonds are very hard, but their Achilles heels have been well known to diamond cutters for centuries.  (My questions were posed to a European physicist specializing in diamonds, who - mysteriously - did not reply.  I’ll save any potential conspiracy theories for another story….)


The article linked after this paragraph discusses the cleaving and fusing of atomically smooth surfaces, and demonstrates an atom-free vacuum created by cleaving crystals.  I imagined that pieces of diamond shattered from Jupiter’s core might be fractured in space, leaving bits of diamond with un-bonded atoms at the edges.  Although unproven, this idea has a valid theoretical basis.  Over time, these diamond shards with broken bonds dangling like fishhooks might fuse with each other into larger crystals, kneaded by Jupiter’s gravity and the caress of shepherd moons into strange new shapes.


Saturn’s moon Pan, which squats in a gap in Saturn's A ring, and nearby Atlas, are called “flying saucers” because of their unusual oblate shape.  They are probably dirty snowballs onto which ring ice “frosted” as the moons turned, building up their waistlines the way a cotton candy machine spins sugar onto a paper handle.  Perhaps my diamond shards with “barbed” edges might similarly accrete into fractal snowflakes, pirouetting as if to a seasonal Tchaikovsky waltz. 


For story purposes, I had these diamonds snow onto Callisto – perhaps they’d be more like supersonic shuriken - because that moon is only partially differentiated.  The lack of geologic mixing on this oldest of planetary bodies might make it easier to find primordial baubles lying around near the surface.  Also, Callisto may actually have liquid saltwater lakes underground, another feature needed for the story, although I used caution, and froze mine.


The speculative carbon surface properties outlined above might also allow the crafting of the diamond sculpture in the story.  Diamond is a carbon allotrope, that is, it is made of the element carbon, but crystallized in a different structure from other carbon forms.  There is a theory that layers of graphite (another carbon allotrope) slide over each other, not so much because of weak inter-sheet molecular forces, but because of gas molecules that intercalate the sheets.  Without air between the sheets, so to speak, the sheets would stick.  Think of Rubik’s Snake, a geometric toy made of loosely joined prism shapes that pop into different configurations.  Rub un-bonded diamond chunks together, and get them to cleave.  It’s the opposite of diamond cutting.


All these concepts lend plausibility to the Cubist’s dream: the art of sculpting in diamond.  Cavernaut Colleen’s hobby dog illustrates a larger concept.  If you can transform Rubik’s Snake into a dog, a space elevator ought to be a natural extension.  Simply start with a nanotube fiber core, interlock sections with negatively curved carbon links, add some redundancy, inhale a heady dose of “handwavium”, and voila!  You have a space elevator safe enough for the pages of any respectable science fiction magazine.



A WyrdNet Wiki
(“preproduced” here by virtue of holographic tachyons)


“If the ether didn’t exist in 1887, it does now.”  - Sir Samson Officewala, co-inventor of WyrdNet, referring to the famous Michelson-Morley experiment that disproved the existence of an ether as a medium for electromagnetic waves.


Not only does technology seem like magic to a less advanced people, it can seem pretty darn magical to its contemporary consumers too. The “magic gap” between what is common and what is comprehended is growing.  When WyrdNet was introduced into the world, it just seemed weird to most people, so the name WyrdNet was apt.  In fact, it was embraced, as people began to see the magic gap as something charming, rather than worrisome.


Not only is “wyrd” the origin of the word “weird”, but the Norse concept of Wyrd highlights the interconnected nature of all actions and how they influence each other.  Frigg was the Norse goddess of spinning, among other things.  Spinning is also a theme of the sacred narratives of the triune goddesses called the Norn, or the Fates.  The Norn are the spinners of the Wyrd, which may be translated into English as a “web of synchronicity and reciprocity.”


All these themes are directly applicable to WyrdNet.  The holographic standing waves that permeate a light cone growing outward from the earliest frigging at Pondicherry are in a real sense woven.  In weaving there are two dimensions, the woof, and the warp.  WyrdNet adds a third dimension, “wisdom”.  Wisdom is not a third spatial dimension, but is really a tensor of additional data dimensions, such as frequency, bit rate, bit depth, and many more.  Like an ever-changing tapestry, WyrdNet is not static, since anything eventually affects everything else.  As the enrichment of life thrives through change, so the value of information is dependent on its volatility.


The primary reason WyrdNet was originally thought weird was that it had almost no hardware at all.  Aside from the ubiquitous - often subcutaneous – commo terminals, (commonly called rainbows,) there are power sources and friggers (after the aforementioned Norse goddess.)  Friggers are simply jungle drums that boost signals, combined with plexors that weave new wisdom onto the ether grid.  Not all information is available everywhere; friggers multiplex encrypted signals with unencrypted ones, making the WyrdNet a chaos of qubit soup. 


If encrypted wisdom isn’t the perfect example of a magic gap, what is? 


And, as Sir Officewala famously said, “If the ether didn’t exist in 1887, it does now.”  Michelson-Morley rematch, anyone?


Final Remarks


While the details of WyrdNet are more speculative than other science in “Cavernauts”, to say the least, I thought the fictional article above might be of passing interest.  I hope to implement the WyrdNet in future stories, if I can get the ether powered up and running in time.


Lastly, a link to my web site, which includes a story-behind-the-story with yet more woof, warp, and wisdom about “Cavernauts”, if you haven’t had enough already.  Click into the Fiction category at: