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Science Fiction in Extreme Environments

I’ve had pulsars on the mind the last couple of days after our discussion of PSR 1257+12 and its contribution to exoplanetology. A bit more about pulsars today and the way we look at extreme objects through science fiction. PSR 1257+12 was discovered in 1990 by Aleksander Wolszczan using data from the Arecibo dish, and it was in 1992 that Wolszczan and Dale Frail published a paper outlining their discovery of the first planets ever found outside our Solar System. The two planets were joined by a third in 1994, but evidence for a fourth was later shown to be mistaken. In any case, the three planets confounded many astronomers, who hardly expected the first extrasolar planets to be found orbiting a radiation-spewing neutron star.

Centauri Dreams regular Al Jackson was co-author of a 1992 study of PSR1257+12 that examined orbital resonance in the planets around the pulsar. In a note last night, Al mused “Just think of a K2 civilization setting up a research station on one of those to study a pulsar – maybe someone has written the SF story?” I can’t think of a story specifically targeting a pulsar planet, though if memory serves, Alastair Reynolds deals with a pulsar in one of the early Revelation Space novels. But the notion reminds me of other extreme environment classics like Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1954), which covers the fantastically spinning world Mesklin, where surface gravity gets up close to 700 g at the poles (the complete Mesklin material is available in the collection Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories, an Orb title from 2002).

High-energy environments are made to order for hard science fiction. Consider what our best authors might do with this: The pulsar IGR J11014-6103, now the subject of observations by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, is producing a jet of high-energy particles that this Chandra news release claims is the longest of any object in the Milky Way, a whopping 37 light years. The pulsar is moving away from a supernova remnant in the constellation of Carina at a speed somewhere between 1100 and 2200 kilometers per second, making it one of the fastest moving pulsars yet observed.


Image: An extraordinary jet trailing behind a runaway pulsar is seen in this composite image that contains data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (purple), radio data from the Australia Telescope Compact Array (green), and optical data from the 2MASS survey (red, green, and blue). The pulsar – a spinning neutron star – and its tail are found in the lower right of this image. The tail stretches for 37 light years, making it the longest jet ever seen from an object in the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ISDC/L.Pavan et al, Radio: CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA Optical: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF.

A 37 light-year jet is remarkable enough (nine times the distance to Proxima Centauri!), but we also find that there is a corkscrew pattern in the jet suggesting that the pulsar is wobbling as it spins. In addition, it’s producing a comet-like tail behind it due to the effects of a pulsar wind nebula (PWN) — a sheath of high-energy particles that enshrouds the pulsar. And while a pulsar’s direction of motion is usually aligned with its jet and the pulsar wind nebula around it, IGR J11014-6103’s own PWN is almost perpendicular to the direction of the jet, possibly indicating high rotation speeds in the iron core of the supernova that produced the pulsar.


It’s fascinating to explore such extreme environments, and one of the things I love about science fiction is that a combination of scientific rigor and imagination can let us see things like this up close. Clement’s Mesklin was put together using a carefully wrought model that the author went on to describe in an article called ‘Whirligig World,’ which ran in Astounding Science Fiction in June of 1953. He based it on an object then believed to exist in the 61 Cygni system, and although the latter turned out to be a chimera, his concern for getting the science right built a memorable world we can still enjoy reading about today. Now who will take up Al Jackson’s challenge to describe a research station on a pulsar planet?

Image: The April, 1953 issue of Astounding contained the first installment of Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, published in book form the following year.

The paper on the light jet is Pavan et al. “The long helical jet of the Lighthouse nebula, IGR J11014-6103,” Astronomy & Astrophysics 562 (2014): A122 (preprint). Al Jackson’s paper on PSR 1257+12 is Malhotra et al. “Resonant orbital evolution in the putative planetary system of PSR1257 + 12,” Nature 356 (16 April 1992), pp. 583-585 (abstract).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David Grinspoon February 26, 2014, 11:06

    Cool post, Paul.
    You might be interested in this talk I just gave at AAAS on the fruitful feedback between science fiction and astrobiology:

  • Wojciech J February 26, 2014, 11:36

    Somewhat relevant: Stephen Baxter explored high gravity environments in his novel Raft(universe with different physics) and neutron star in Flux.

  • Wojciech J February 26, 2014, 11:43

    Also quick search gave me Robert Forward’s “Dragon’s Egg” and “Starquake” that describe life and civilization on a neutron star…Heard about them before, but didn’t have chance to read….

  • Eric Goldstein February 26, 2014, 12:00

    Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod has characters who visit a pulsar planet (and there is a less fleshed-out description of a “heavy Mars” as well.) You can see excerpts at books.google.com

  • RobFlores February 26, 2014, 12:21

    Very alien hostile environment do stimulate the mind. In the original Alien movie, R. Scott gave me that disorienting feeling in the storm
    and with geyser expulsions, no other film to that time had shown how hostile environment could be.
    But its all a relative matter. Creatures adapted to a lot hostile places on earth. More interesting is the possibility finding life in environments NO ONE thought could be possible. Forward’s, Dragon’s Egg, comes to mind.
    Additionally, It has been mentioned that deep inside Jovian planets Hydrogen would be compressed to create a new state of matter. But all
    these more hostile places have one thing in common. To any life there the barrier to travel outside their environment is much greater than ours. That is how would a creature that lives inside a jovian at 2000 Gpa Ever travel out of it’s comfort zone and out into space. Even the more sedate possibility of life on Europa deep in it’s oceans would have a problem. How to get through the ice barrier.

  • Paul Gilster February 26, 2014, 13:21

    Thanks to all for the good pointers. I hadn’t heard of the MacLeod, but I can’t believe I forgot about the Forward titles, one of which I read years back! Meanwhile, David Grinspoon’s talk is giving me ideas for a new post, and I recommend it to all.

  • Michael February 26, 2014, 13:49

    If the world is strafed by the high energy beam of Gamma/X-rays they will surprisingly be stopped or significantly attenuated by an atmosphere of Earth density. However depending on the constitutes of that atmosphere there will most likely be a lot of chemical reactions going on, for instance NOx creation in a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere.

    To me standing on one of these worlds in the beams direction I could imagine a smoggy and electrical stormy atmosphere with an almost continuous beam of white/blue strobbing light rising and setting depending on if the planet rotated.

  • Scott S February 26, 2014, 13:51

    “Starfarers” by Poul Anderson has visits to both a pulsar planet and a black hole. And I think his 1978 novel “The Avatar” had a research station around a pulsar. Larry Niven also had an expedition to a neutron star, in the short story “Neutron Star”, but it’s a little dated, today. In Stephen Baxter’s “Manifold : Space” there was a visit to a pulsar, maybe two of them? Can’t remember at the moment. So yes, there are a few. Greg Benford at least mentioned pulsars as ‘landmarks’ in the Galactic Center series, but I can’t remember if any were visited.

  • Mike Lockmoore February 26, 2014, 13:51

    Yes, Baxter’s _Flux_ was a lot of fun to read.

  • ljk February 26, 2014, 14:48

    Forward’s novels about life on a neutron star are definitely depictions of alien places, but the alien characters themselves are sadly rather human behaving despite the location, although they look like very tiny slugs.

  • David February 26, 2014, 15:22


    Nice article as usual, but it is the
    the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA),
    not the Australia Compact Telescope Array which
    is what is written just below the image.

  • Paul Gilster February 26, 2014, 17:16

    Thanks, David — I’ve changed the text in the caption.

  • andy February 26, 2014, 18:28

    I can’t think of a story specifically targeting a pulsar planet, though if memory serves, Alastair Reynolds deals with a pulsar in one of the early Revelation Space novels.

    I think you’re referring to the novella Galactic North, in which some of the human survivors escape temporarily to pulsar planets to escape the depredations of the Greenfly.

    The novel Absolution Gap may give some hints as to how that strategy ended up working out.

  • Bill February 26, 2014, 19:25

    Larry Niven’s novel “The Integral Trees” and its sequel “The Smoke Ring” are set in a breathable torus of gas around a neutron star (not a pulsar, though).

  • JBE February 26, 2014, 21:47

    An interesting aside: I think that in reality the gravity on Hal Clement’s Mesklin would be the same at all latitudes, since the planet’s surface would take on an elliptical shape that conforms to an equipotential gravity surface.

  • Michael Spencer MLA ASLA February 27, 2014, 8:25

    How about a planet that alternates between life-forbidding cold and livable summer over the course of centuries- a planet that is inhabited by a race of- well, if you haven’t read the novel I will leave that part out, but the level of civilization is much like our own (currently, that is). The star, called On/Off, of course, causes the climate cycles. Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky”. Vinge is the same guy who imagined an intelligent canine world.

    And Paul! ask readers more frequently about SF novels! Some great ones I’ve missed. More, please.

  • stephen February 27, 2014, 16:37

    G. David Nordley, To Climb a Flat Mountain, is set on a flat planet.

    He’s written an article on how he wrote the novel.

  • A. A. Jackson February 27, 2014, 19:04

    @Michael Spencer
    Gethen in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

  • Brett Bellmore February 27, 2014, 20:22

    “I think that in reality the gravity on Hal Clement’s Mesklin would be the same at all latitudes, since the planet’s surface would take on an elliptical shape that conforms to an equipotential gravity surface.”

    No, an equipotential surface isn’t the same as an equal gravity surface, if the planet is spinning. I trust Clement to have gotten the math right, though I have concerns about whether Mesklin would have been stable; Wouldn’t it have gone elongated, instead of staying radially symmetric?

  • Rob Henry February 27, 2014, 21:07

    Am I the only one disturbed by neutron degenerate matter beings in Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg being surface exposed. Wouldn’t matter in them explosively decompress to electron degenerate matter, and their topmost layers to ordinary matter. The first of these would flow away in all but the smallest gradients, and the second of these in virtually any gradient. I can’t see any way around it, yet he seemed to get neigh all else correct as (outside) possibilities. I found that annoying.

  • Eniac February 27, 2014, 21:52

    RobHenry: I would think that if you postulate that neutron matter takes similarly varied forms as normal matter (and you must, to postulate life at all), there would be different types with different stabilities, just like there are solids, liquids, and gas coexisting at the Earth’s surface. The more solid parts could extend above the surface as (tiny) mountains and, yes, (even tinier) mobile living beings. If they went too high, they would evaporate (de-degenerate? regenerate?) as you say, due to low pressure. But so would we if we go too high, unprotected. The difference is that they would never be able to go all the way to space, as neutron matter is very unlikely to have forms that are stable in vacuum like the tin cans we use.

  • Rob Henry February 28, 2014, 15:20

    Yes Eniac, he is postulating different complex forms of stretched nuclides and they would do just as you say, but not to that extent. Some would extend much further above the stars layer of electron-neutron degeneracy boundary layer than others, but not above the electron-normal matter boundary, let alone the surface. Forward even had the stuff cantilevered! Were we to believe these nuclides so large that their electron cloud structure was trivial by comparison!

  • Eniac March 1, 2014, 22:45

    I do not know enough about Forward’s story, but what you say makes it appear to me that we should expect an “ocean” of electron-degenerate matter between the “solid” neutron surface and a non-degenerate matter “atmosphere”. So, maybe it is more plausible that life would develop in the electron-degenerate phase? Can there possibly be islands or continents in this ocean? You seem to be saying no, and I tend to agree. Also, the physics of electron-degenerate matter may well not be complex enough to allow much of any sort of chemistry, and thus life.

  • Rob Henry March 3, 2014, 5:44

    Eniac, according to Wikipedia that sea of electron degenerate matter is 300-500 metres deep. Near the base of this sea ‘Forward life’ may form, and it would have to be of neutron degenerate matter for the complexity requirements you outlined. Also, as you pointed out, some forms would be more stable than others, and be able to project further into this sea. We may well have substantial rises there above the ‘sea’ floor. All I’m saying is they could not be so stable as to get to the top.

  • Mark Zambelli March 3, 2014, 11:36

    Aprt from the aforementioned Larry Niven stories, Ben Bova’s “The Duelling Machine” had a fight sequence on the ‘bergs’ floating on the liquid interface deep inside a gas giant. Ian M Banks has several extreme-physics stagings… the planetary-shard ‘Ablate’ orbiting within a PWN in “The Hydrogen Sonata”, a battle in the nano-scale cracks in the compressed ice4 core of a world in “Surface Detail”, the same book mentions a station near a neutron star if I recall, and the book “The Algebraist” is mostly set in the turbulent atmosphere of a Jupiter-type world

  • ljk June 24, 2014, 12:29

    Mysterious X-ray Signal Intrigues Astronomers

    June 24, 2014

    A mysterious X-ray signal has been found in a detailed study of galaxy clusters using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton.

    One intriguing possibility is that the X-rays are produced by the decay of sterile neutrinos, a type of particle that has been proposed as a candidate for dark matter.

    While holding exciting potential, these results must be confirmed with additional data to rule out other explanations and determine whether it is plausible that dark matter has been observed.

    Astronomers think dark matter constitutes 85% of the matter in the Universe, but does not emit or absorb light like “normal” matter such as protons, neutrons and electrons that make up the familiar elements observed in planets, stars, and galaxies. Because of this, scientists must use indirect methods to search for clues about dark matter.

    The latest results from Chandra and XMM-Newton consist of an unidentified X-ray emission line, that is, a spike of intensity at a very specific wavelength of X-ray light. Astronomers detected this emission line in the Perseus galaxy cluster using both Chandra and XMM-Newton. They also found the line in a combined study of 73 other galaxy clusters with XMM-Newton.

    “We know that the dark matter explanation is a long shot, but the pay-off would be huge if we’re right,” said Esra Bulbul of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. who led the study. “So we’re going to keep testing this interpretation and see where it takes us.”

    Full article here: