Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hal Clement's "The Foundling Stars" (short story, science fiction): Unexpected side-effect of a test to determine how nebulae give birth to stars

One of the less interesting stories of Clement. Part of the reason is - I'm astronomy illiterate; a good understanding of that is needed to follow this story.

Story summary.

How does a nebula give birth to a new star?

'It has been widely supposed for several decades that random variations in the density of the interstellar medium are the key factor - that the law of chance is the father... the random "winds" of space must at times produce a gas concentration so dense that its gravity would override the disruptive tidal force of the rest of the galaxy - override it enough to produce a local potential well able to trap at least the lower energy particles of the cloud.' That's the view Dick Ledermann, younger of the two researchers, subscribes to.

It's opposed by Elvin Toner, his 20 years senior. Toner "doubted seriously that the random motions of interstellar gas could set up the appropriate conditions often enough to account for the number of observed stars, even allowing for the fairly impressive lifetime of a star. He felt sure ... that some specific, widespread, underlying process was operating to improve the chance of protostar formation." This is "Toner hypothesis".

An experiment is underway to verify the hypothesis - in the "Orion Spur", "one of the cradles of the galaxy." Toner "had computed many combinations of electric and magnetic fields which should have such an effect, and which might reasonably - or at least conceivably - exist along the arms of the Milky Way." If the experiment "showed that such fields would, or could, produce the results Toner expected, he would have little trouble financing such a search" at expected places in galaxy.

Experiment comprises of a mothership - "Holiad" aka "Big Boy" - where the two researcher are camping & controlling the experimental apparatus. Plus two smaller ships, each manned by a single individual: "Anfforddus" piloted by Hoey, & "Ymyrgar" piloted by Rocco Luisi. These two ships are "about a light-hour apart" & must be absolutely still relative each other; in actual setup, their relative speed is "somewhat less than five centimeters a year".

For some reason, the smaller ships could not be robotic; they must be manned. And the setup requires that once they are still relative each other, the two pilot must stay absolutely still for several hours - lest center of gravity of their ships change even by microns!

Experiment involves setting up some kind of a web of electromagnetic 'standing waves which was to serve as the "framework" of the battery of measuring instruments, which were themselves force fields.'

Part way through the experiment, the two smaller ships suddenly vanish! Later investigations noticed "slightly high count of aluminum atoms in that particular volume of space", but no further evidence. The two pilots were never found.

In a separate thread, we are told there were alien soldiers - obviously in no form we would recognize as anything living - camping there. The electromagnetic field setup by the experiment was felt by one of these alien soldiers as "Something bit me... I couldn't help giving a little yelp -". It's this little yelp that apparently destroyed the two ships!

And these aliens live so slow lives that by the time a couple of sentences worth of conversation among them ended, "both Elvin Toner and Dick Ledermann were dead of old age."

Fact sheet.

"The Foundling Stars", short story, review
First published: "Worlds of If", August 1966.
Rating: B