the science behind the books

What's the scientific basis?

FAQs on the facts

The concepts used in the series are based on mainstream scientific phenomena, but there are obviously some fairly major speculations in adapting them for a Sci-fi story. I did want a reader to be able to Google something they had never heard of, and find out that it was a real phenomenon, albeit adapted in the story to take in some possible variations.

I decided not to use conventional ‘warp’ speed travel (though it sounds strange to use the word conventional here!) because I don’t believe it is possible. I am convinced that the only way to beat the odds, as it were, and be able to travel faster than light is to use some sort of quantum phenomenon, which at least we know exists and may be instantaneous. There is quite a lot of research being done on quantum teleportation, and experiments so far carried out on non-locality show that it really is instantaneous, supposedly so over astronomical distances too, so I feel that going quantum is really the only show in town. In the books, travellers have managed to get up to fractional speeds of light, but nothing remotely suggesting that Einstein’s theories might be wrong. I am a great Einstein fan.

Firstly, the use of ‘hyperfluids’. In real life, here on Earth, superfluids can be made to behave like Arcan – but not at room temperature. They only work like that at very low temperatures. So there are two speculative premises in Valhai. First, that a superfluid-type entity can function at room temperatures, and second that it could be sentient. Neither of these assumptions are really that impossible, and it seems to me that they are really quite logical as an evolutionary process on a distant galaxy.


What happens at low temperatures to superfluids, is that all the atoms can be made to move ‘in step’ with each other. A superfluid can escape from a beaker by crawling up the sides of the glass. The whole fluid acts as if it were one atom, rather than a multitude of atoms. In the story, this means that Arcan can ‘visualize’ where he wants to be, and the rest of his atoms fall in step as if they were one, physically moving him from one place to the other. He uses Quantum decoherence as an instantaneous form of travel.

Quantum decoherence (at least as I use it in the books) refers to the fact that particles can be considered waves of probability. They are not particles as such until measured to be one. Well, that sounds a bit strange, I know, but it is really true. A particle doesnt occupy a specific place, it is rather a wave of possiblities. Then I visualize it as ‘coalescing’ into one particular place, when measured or perhaps spontaneously. Since hyperfluids behave as one large atom it is not a huge leap of the imagination to visualize Arcan ‘coalescing’ in one place or another, and give him the possiblity of taking other people along. Of course, one or two people have ‘quibbled’ over this use of quantum phenomena, probably quite rightly, but this is, after all, a science fiction series, which means that some license has to be taken somewhere, or it wouldn’t stretch anybody’s imagination, least of all mine! (Which is the whole point of the thing) So I am not going to apologize for “boldly going where no man has gone before”, because I rather hope that I have!

It has seemed to me for a long time that this was really the only possible way of interstellar travel. It neatly avoids the problem of travelling faster than light, and requires no impossible warp drives. It also seems a reasonable assumption that, if it is possible, then some life-form will have evolved capable of utilizing it. So there we are: Arcan!

One of the most interesting scientists I have come across is Roger Penrose. His huge textbook “The Road to Reality” is my desert island book of choice. It is so hard (for me, anyway) that I don’t think I could truly understand everything he has to say in my lifetime, so it would do me fine on that desert island. One of the books which most influenced me, however, was The Emperor’s New Mind which is another pretty dense book, with the last chapters dedicated to the beginning of his orch/OR theory. I know that the book he wrote with Hameroff Shadows of the Mind has received huge criticism, but I do believe that many species – perhaps all – will be proved eventually to use quantum decoherence in some way. It is illogical (Mr. Spock!) to think that they wouldn’t have latched on to something so absolutely brilliant. I have taken liberties with quantum decoherence (and quantum non-locality) of course – I write fiction and that is what science fiction is there for! However, you should be able to find most all of the terminology used, and I have tried to have a solid scientific basis for my speculations.

One of the most important bits of science referred to in the book is the concept of stopped light. This was based on the research that Lene Hau has done on this subject, though of course it was extended in the novel. You can find many articles about her work, perhaps starting with the Wikipedia one.

It has now become possible to interchange light and matter in Supercooled clouds. This brings us back again to Doctor Lene Hau, and her co-authors Naomi S. Ginsberg and Sean R Garners, who found that they could convert an original optical pulse into a traveling matter wave which is an exact matter copy of the original pulse, moving at only 200 meters per hour. This matter pulse could then be converted back into light when it enters the second of the supercooled clouds and is illuminated with a control laser.

Which means that the basic premise of part of the story has a very definite background in fact.

You can read up more about this in Nature .. Vol 445|8 February 2007| doi:10.1038/nature05493

or in this Harvard press release:


The idea of stopped light, which is key to part of the Ammonite Galaxy series, has fascinated me since I first saw these results. It seems to hold so many possibilities. I had to bring it into the series … and I am very glad I did!


For those of you who watch the Big Bang Theory, the Drake equation was mentioned in one of them. It is a way to calculate how many extraterrestrial civilizations there might be in the galaxy, based on several variables. Here it is …. have a go, and see what you think!! …

The numbers I think work are:


which gives an answer of 0.9, which seems about right. I mean, we are here, so it can’t be a zero probablility. On the other hand, I don’t think there are going to be too many worlds that escape all of the possible catastrophes which can occur. Still, even if there is only one intelligent, sentient world in every reasonably sized galaxy, that would still give us one hundred billion sentient worlds in the universe. Enough for you?? And that would be considered a very low estimate by most!!!

I made up these ideas, with no thought whatsoever of a scientific backing.  I simply saw this picture, and felt inspired by it.

 Then, out of the blue, I came across an article on the internet. The concept of the amplituhedron absolutely amazed me, although it is way over my head and was news long after the idea of the astrand and the sumand came up. You can read about it here for a quick overview, and here for the article itself.

When I read about it I found myself staring at the page. If you look at the sketch by Nima Arkani-Hamed in the paper, you will see why.

The paper also says:

“They have also found a “master amplituhedron” with an infinite number of facets, analogous to a circle in 2-D, which has an infinite number of sides.”

Which all goes to show that sometimes fact is at least as strange as fiction!

One of the first ‘science’ things in the book is the relative ‘ageing’ due to general relativity and special relativity corrections. Basically there are two things to be considered: gravity and speed. If you accelerate to something approaching the speed of light, then time passes more slowly for you than for an observer who does not. This means that you age less. And if you are submitted to a greater gravity then time also passes more slowly for you, from a distant observer’s viewpoint.

There is a nice summary of that here for any of you who are interested. This is also dealt with in some detail on the Wikipedia page here I don’t go into much detail in the book, because it would probably just add confusion. This type of science has always fascinated me, ever since I finally managed to grasp some of Einstein’s “thought” or “gedanken” experiments.

The concept of quantum traps, and impurities which may allow quantum escape, is also very interesting, though of course on a completely different scale to anything described in the book.


One of the first things that springs to mind in Xiantha is the phenomenon of second sound. This is not about sound at all, but refers to heat transfer in superfluids, where the heat is transferred in waves, rather as if it were sound. I thought this was a fascinating concept, and wanted to use the idea, wanted to imagine what that would feel like if second sound were happening in an “ultrafluid” which would have many of the same properties as a superfluid, but at a higher temperature. You can find out more about the real “second sound”, and how it went from a prediction to solid science, here

The concept of hypervelocity planets orbiting a black hole is not science fiction, as you can see here.

The visitor has the ability to “cloak” himself. This technology has, in fact, already been invented here. The light is deviated around and object, so that people are only able to see what is behind them, therefore missing the people themselves. I think it is an amazing step forward. So Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak really exists on earth now! How about that??? You can read a bit more about that here

The Dessites appear in Kwaide, although they are not really explained properly until Pictoria. The idea of distilling only a few cells, and then sending them, and not a complete entity on a space exploration, makes a lot of sense. The cells are left dormant, almost needing no maintenance, until they are needed when the small spaceship reaches its destination. Because the cells need so little maintenance, the ships can be much smaller and lighter. And because of that, they can travel faster, which means that time passes that much quicker for the visitor cells.

Most of the rest of Kwaide uses standard technology. The spheres which the visitor uses are simply autonomous video cameras and we have this sort of thing right now, although not quite as presented in the book. They have a way of cloaking which is now available to us, although I have taken it further.

Arcan talks about reversing the magnetic poles of the Earth. This is another thing that surprised me: it actually happens on Earth! You can find out more about that here I wanted to bring that in briefly, although in the book it is really just a passing mention.

I also introduce retrograde orbits in Pictoria, which you can read about here Basically, that just means that a planet or moon orbits anticlockwise instead of the more normal clockwise.