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Alien technologies as portrayed in Sci-fi

  1. Nov 6, 2016 #1
    This is something that got me thinking for a while.
    Especially after learning the basic of physics and chemistry.

    Basically, pretty much every movies, novel, etc that feature an advanced race of aliens(or any alien in general), they gives them some sort of technology or their organic composition that is made of materials unknown to us.
    Since the Periodic Table is pretty much "complete" (no missing(space) between elements) It would means that they build pretty much everything from Very heavy/dense elements right?

    Wouldn't that mean that they are basically very radioactive and unstable?

    If it's right, it would mean that any actual aliens would have pretty much the exact same materials available as us.
    I'm alright giving them the benefit of the doubt of a superior technology so they can create different isotopes which could result by a better and more efficient material.

    I always feel like the authors of such scenarios went the lazy path and decided to use the excuse that it's sci-fi so it doesn't matter.

    What do you guys think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 6, 2016 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    "materials" are made of molecules, not just elements. So the "unknown material" could just be a collection of molecules that is not currently known to the people in the movies. ie an flask of fullerene, or anything made of carbon nanotubes, would have counted as an "unknown material" if found on the Roswel craft. Mind you - it would probably get misidentified as something else ... and only show up as odd under closer examination.

    The main question I have at that point is, "how did they determine the material is unknown"?
    Is it just unknown to them at the time or did they manage to eliminate every possible combination of atoms and molecules in the time spent checking?
    To put this in perspective: get some sugar and some butter in a pan and heat them up till you get a brown sticky substance. That is caramel.
    Caramel is a very complicated substance - iirc not all the constituents have been identified, though the main ones are well known.
    ... does caramel contain materials unknown to science???

    However, it is also common for the script to say that the elements themselves are unknown, and that speaks to your question:
    ... we do not know if there is another stability valley somewhere off the end of the periodic table, or if there could be an extension of current physics that would allow very heavy elements to be stablised. It may also be that the unknown elements are made of exotic matter, or dark matter - or some currently unknown kind of stuff.

    (There is a kinda stability valley when some other force like gravity can help hold the nuclei together - see "white dwarf" and "neutron star". Maybe an undiscovered 5th force is responsible?)

    ...yes. The alien materials must be available to us or they would not appear in the movie. They would be materials that are, in principle, able to be manufactured by us... well... the usual movie ones would.

    How about magnetic monopoles or quantum black holes ... these may be things that cannot be made by humans but may be discovered as remnants of the Big bang. Perhaps the aliens evolved near a large collection of them? In that case, the material would not be so readily available to us.

    You can also consider the AK47 ammunition in Guns of the South, the Confederate gunsmiths could recognise the constituents of the modern gunpowder but had a great deal of trouble manufacturing any with the tech they had available.

    The question to ask is "how do the characters know the material is unknown?"
    The best they can get is that the material does not register as anything whatever tests they ran on it could identify.
    We see this in weird claims quite a lot: someone finds a bit of stuff under their skin and gets someone else to put it through a spectrograph ... the spectrograph does not know what the material is so they report it as "unknown".

    It's a bit like how some DNS addresses get flagged at server level as "martian".

    Yep. It's like invoking magic.

    There are some clear rubbish bits like when a spacecraft hull is made of degenerate matter (the author has heard it is the densest stuff known and, by extension, hard to penetrate with anything) not realizing that degenerate matter requires a really strong field to hold it together. The writer has been impressed by stories of how much a teaspoon of the stuff would weigh without thinking you can't get just one teaspoon of it. If the aliens have solved that problem, they probably don't need physical spacecraft.

    Some authors get around this by having the supertech be a discovered artifact [see: Niven (1985) Footfall]... a bit like apes are able to swing on nylon ropes but cannot make them.
  4. Nov 6, 2016 #3
    That's a pretty interesting reply, Thanks for that.

    Fair point, it's something that doesn't seem to be explained either.
    Every time I hear that, I feel like it's speaking of an unknown elements or an unknown substance.
    Basically they simply are not able to tell exactly what the thing is made of. Otherwise they could have said : "Oh look this is a weird carbon/Iron/Gold alloy. I've never seen one shaped quite like that"

    But my guess is that creating an "unknown" substance in a realist way would be paradoxical in some sense as it would require knowledge of that said substance
    I personally enjoy when they come up with names and complex behaviours for their Sci-fi invented elements. It just feels a lot more realistic. The Marvel and DC comics series have a lot of informations of very exotic substance and materials. It's fascinating to read what they can come up with.

    True, I've often seen people saying that these aliens are so well advanced that they can control the elements to the quantum level and stop decay when necessary,
    But when I look at it, I feel like it's just a complete waste of energy. Like, you gonna need to keep these elements from decaying because they are very unstable, so you most likely need some sort of machine working 24/7 So it would be much more efficient just to change the behavior of elements like Iron or Carbon to create different alloys/molecule/structures.
  5. Nov 6, 2016 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    When the writer is specific about how something works then they are trying to exploit some well known pop sci description of the thing.
    I like Niven for this stuff - ie. his general products hulls are a single tuned molecule with a small fusion generator running 24-7 to strengthen the bonds.
    He's exploiting earlier speculation about the possible strengths of single-molecule materials... as well as how small impurities can affect the optical properties.
    The hull becomes very difficult to analyse - so n-space humans never figured out exactly what the hulls were made of.
    Another author good at this would be Greg Egan - though I don't know that he has "unknown materials" exactly.

    Certainly the "unknown element" thing is very suspicious - that's just saying it works by magic unobtainuim rather than regular unobtainium.

    Though one of the things to realise is that it would be odd, especially in a movie setting, for a character to explain to another character in-depth why the material is "unknown". Presumably the person they are talking to understands the kinds of tests that got done and in what sense the material can be considered unknown.

    The place I cringe at this is in shows like x-files where someone is supposed to be a skeptic.
    The skeptic should ask these questions - not just go "OK" and move on with the plot.
  6. Nov 6, 2016 #5
    I would be interested to check out some Sci-fi materials as you described.
    Do you have any recommendation?

    Or when a Skeptic is just someone who completely deny everything rather than just try to understand and ask question.
  7. Nov 6, 2016 #6

    Simon Bridge

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    Here's a staple: monowire...

    Niven's n-space stuff is nice for tech stuff ... the trick is usually to allow a single one-time only violation of known physics then follow that through to logical conclusions. Here we have a single molecule shaped as a thread - it is very strong and thin. Niven uses it as part of the structure of the Ringworld ... which is a good book if you havn't read it. There are also discussions of Ringworld tech and it's physics all over the place and Niven modified sequels to account for the mistakes he made in the original. Thus it's a good intro to the approach.
    Also of Niven's - try the Beowulf Shaeffer stories, and the Gil Hamilton ones too.

    Or just make something up and play:
    Lets say you want the violation to be that there is a stability valley for big atoms ... say, invoke a "quantum resonance" for atomic number 325, then see if you can work out properties ... where would it fit on the periodic table if it were stable? It would be very dense, take a lot of energy to make so it's expensive. Does it have exploitable properties? That would be an amazing penetrator for a bullet for eg... but why would anyone go through the trouble of using such an exotic bullet?
    You have the makings of a SF crime story there.
  8. Nov 6, 2016 #7
    Yep. X-files never proved anything except that True Believers get mad when people ask for evidence.
  9. Nov 6, 2016 #8
    Hahaha, yeah that reminds me so much of some pseudoscience stuff, like "Flat Earth"

    Fair enough, That's something I like to explore. There is a fair amount of interesting materials we can find in different Sci-fi or even fantasy universe.
  10. Nov 7, 2016 #9
    When encountering alien civilizations in sci-fi it's important to remember the concept of deep time. Even if a species developed much slower than us, the potential time scales in the universe are insane. What's technology look like after a billion years?

    Usually how advanced another species is requires some sense of context other than humans. Okay, this species has this advanced matierial... where's that put them compared to X?

    Janeway - their armor is made out of Neutronium, the Federation has never come close to creating that.

    Okay, way ahead of humans, still pretty meaningless.

    Seven - neither have the borg.

    Oh, wow even beyond the borg, must be really really hard to make.
  11. Nov 7, 2016 #10

    Simon Bridge

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    ... but how high tech are the Borg [X in your example]? without using humans as a reference...?

    Like bits of rock?

    You mean, considering the way tech has advanced, what would a billion years of that advance look like?
    Did you ever see a TV documentary by James Burk called "Connections"? He traced modern (for the late 70's) tech back to it's routs to show how tech changes over time. So you get things like spark plugs starting out as a glass pistol built to detect bad smells. The lesson is that there is no telling ... but, even though technological change is not linear cause and effect, there are some guidlelines...

    Just because you cannot tell what is to come does not mean that just anything can happen.

    The Laws of Nature are still there. Future science would still have to be built on present science, and will have to follow the rules for scientific advancement. Completely alien cultures will have different formulations, but their science will still have to describe the same stuff ours does so it will do pretty much the same things.

    There is a tendency to look too closely at Clark's 3rd law, you know, the one about high tech and magic, and just have the mysterious alien artifact work by magic and that's that - but that is not how it works, which is why it is science fiction and not fantasy. Remember also that any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology.
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2016
  12. Nov 8, 2016 #11
    I like that. I wondered about clouds of nanobots as kind of mana-network. I dont expect them to enable to throw fireballs, but they could still do pretty much tricks.
  13. Nov 8, 2016 #12

    Simon Bridge

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    There is a tendency to go big with special powers ... I had a superpowered rpg where some character had the ability to teleport up to 3m line of sight ... the player complained that was too short range but hey, that's 3m without having to pass through the intervening space. So you can get inside any enclosed space that you can see into.... there's no end of cool applications that give a definite edge over normals.

    Aside: the nanobot clouds was how I explained the Force in my version of a SW RPG.

    The trouble with the "it just works because dunno magic/supertech/technobabble" thing is it invites deus ex machina elements.
  14. Nov 10, 2016 #13
    The Moties' technology was estimated to be equal to or in advance of the First Empire. The museum the midshipmen found hinted at higher levels.
  15. Nov 10, 2016 #14

    Simon Bridge

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    The Moties had tech they did not understand, including themselves. This was because tech civilization had arisen and fallen many times on their World.
    "levels" of technology tends to make sense because of the way advances get made in rapid spurts after a new discovery is made... tho we should be careful about ascribing a level as higher or lower than another - that is contingent on the measurement process. The Moties were more advanced in some ways, but less so in others: how long did it take humans to figure out an answer to the Motie problem?
  16. Nov 10, 2016 #15
    Where did it say the Moties didn't understand their tech?

    You might also recall that the major civilizations in the system were spacefaring.
  17. Nov 10, 2016 #16

    Simon Bridge

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    The conclusion is from the way the Moties themselves responded to different aspects of their technology - remember that their won biology is a technological invention too. Things do not have to be spelled out in so many words to work - and, it would be bad writing if they were.

    Moties are spacefaring, and have FTL theory, but do not have the Langston Field which would give them access to the Anderson point... nor do they have the theory that would allow them to get one. Only once they have an example to pull apart and study can they reproduce it ... and that is more a rote knowledge than an understanding in principle. That is one of the defining characteristics of Motie culture: they don't invent things, but can can improve on what is already there.

    Bear in mind that I said that Moties had tech they did not understand ... not that they did not understand any of their tech.

    An example of tech they possess but manifestly do not understand:
    The Moties of the stories are the result of genetic manipulation in the past (from generic hexapods perhaps - fuzing two of the arms to make the gripping hand as an example - but possibly the whole skeletal structure is manipulated - and the division of the ancestor into specialities). Do they act like they have that level of understanding of biology anywhere? Their biology/morphology as the "crosshatch species" is pretty much their defining characteristic.
    I cite the speed at which humans came to an effective understanding - well enough to find a solution that had evaded the Moties for their entire existence - as evidence that they did not have the understanding of genetic tech needed to produce themselves, yet, they, themselves, their own bodies, are technological artifacts.

    Ultimately we'd have to ask Niven though ... this is fiction after all so there is a limit to the extent I would defend any position concerning any fictional people.
    The gripping hand here is that a fictional people need not know much about the tech they use - even defining tech.
  18. Nov 11, 2016 #17
    I didn't see it that way at all. The museum was for the developing civilization to chose the kind of things they could handle and thus give a boost to the budding society so that the time before the next collapse would be longer. They would have had to be able to re-create the things they chose to employ, which means they'd have to know enough about it to reproduce it.
  19. Nov 11, 2016 #18

    Simon Bridge

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    Be that as it may - it's besides the point.
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