Guest Article: Bioengineering the Alien by David Hambling

Before we continue with the discussion on “In the Walls of Eryx” I am posting the first of a series of guest articles here on Lovecraftian Science. This first article is by David Hambling and is about the Flying Polyps. David provides a fascinating alternative hypothesis to mine on these entities. Also, David’s latest book is “The Dulwich Horror & Others” available in hard copy and Kindle. The next article will be a discussion on the fauna on Lovecraft’s Venus. Thank you – Fred.

flying_polyp_by_eclectixx-d4pb270

Flying Polyp by Eclectixx (www.deviantart.com)

Bioengineering the Alien

Many of H.P. Lovecraft’s creatures could be understood in human terms – Deep Ones, Elder Things and Yithians are people too – but one alien race shows no spark of empathy. The “elder race of half-polypous, utterly alien entities” introduced in The Shadow Out of Time are terrifying and incomprehensible. Lovecraft was deliberately vague about these creatures, generally known as Flying Polyps (hereafter FPs), but provides many intriguing details. Enough, in fact, to recreate them.

Lovecraft was a great enthusiast for the latest science, but in his day scientific knowledge was not adequate to the task of providing a solid basis for his imagined aliens.  However, the last century has filled the science-fiction toybox with shiny new concepts, and in my story “The Monsters in the Park” (included in the collection The Dulwich Horror and Others) I set out to reconstruct the FP.  You can’t fit much scientific detail into a story – not without inconveniencing readers — so this essay is a brief guide on the science of FPs.

(All quotes in italics are from The Shadow Out of Time – full text here http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/sot.aspx)

Electrical Aliens

The basic physiology of FPs  is provided by a series of hints. They came here from space hundreds of millions of years ago:

  • Once there was a curious, intrusive flash of half-sight—a faint, diffuse suspicion of bluish radiance far overhead
  • They were only partly material—as we understand matter
  • Certain forms of electrical energy could wholly destroy them.

What we have is a being which is largely electrical in nature. The FP is largely composed of plasma, ionized gas; the solid part is in a sense its skeleton. The plasma cloud around it acts as a sensory web, nervous system and a means of manipulating its environment.  Known as the fourth state of matter, plasma is rare on Earth, seen mainly in lightning and neon bulbs, so the description of it being only partly material as we understand matter is accurate. However, it should be noted that while rare on Earth plasma is fairly abundant throughout the universe, primarily found in stars.

Cold plasma which exists at room temperature is rare in nature, but can be produced with silent discharge by semiconductors. The technology of cold plasma is still in its infancy, but it is already being used in some electronic devices, and in modifying aerodynamics: I recently wrote about a team using plasma panels to reduce the drag on trucks (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22730314-600-plasma-makes-lorries-hit-purple-patch-of-fuel-efficiency/)

The FP’s basic structure is a form of carbon known as graphene, which is immensely strong and has useful semiconductor properties. The FP stores energy as charge in graphene ultra-capacitors, rather than in chemical form like terrestrial creatures.   The bluish-white radiance is a characteristic sign of ionization in the air.

In space, the FPs is not troubled by vacuum, and would propel itself by a kind of plasma drive (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_propulsion_engine) much as a squid propels itself under water.

On Earth, the FP is mainly a creature of the upper atmosphere. With a little titanium oxide, graphene can act as a solar cell, turning sunlight into electricity (http://www.gizmag.com/graphene-solar-cell-record-efficiency/30466/). Thus, FPs spend most of their time in the ionosphere, “feeding” on solar radiation in a radically different form of photosynthesis.

In their conflict with the Yithians, the FPs were driven into underground caverns. This would not have necessarily bothered them. If they are able to absorb infra-red radiation, the continuous heat from geothermal sources would be as nourishing as sunshine.  They would only emerge when some particular need drove them: a spawning urge say, or a periodic exodus like flying ants leaving a nest to found new ones.

Flight of the Polyp

An important feature of FPs is of course that they fly, and can generally manipulate the air for their own purposes:

               –              They had the power of aërial motion despite the absence of wings or any other visible means of levitation.

               –              Other fragmentary whispers referred to their control and military use of great winds. Singular whistling noises … seemed also to be associated with them.

This is where plasma really comes into its own. Plasma can affect airflow over a surface, increasing or reducing drag as needed. However, since plasma is electrically charged it can be manipulated with an electromagnetic field, an area of study known as magnetohydrodynamics.

Prof Jamey Jacob of Oklahoma State University has worked with tiny plasma actuators in the control of airflow. His initial aim is to build a small drone which can steer with no flaps, rudders or other control surfaces – everything would be done by solid state electronics with no moving parts ( http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a5820/scientists-control-plasma-for-practical-applications/ ).  Looking further ahead, the ultimate end is a more powerful actuator to propel the drone, so there is no need for a propeller or a conventional engine: the motive force would come from tiny actuators embedded in the drone’s skin. It would be able to levitate with no visible means of support, with just the suggestion of a plasma glow; exactly what the FP can do.

The “military use of great winds” can also be achieved with magnetohydordynamics. Normal wind is pretty limited as a weapon, but a vortex ring is something else. Also known as a toroidal vortex or ring vortex, it’s what you get when you take the two ends of a tornado or a whirlpool and bend them around until they meet. You could think of it as a self-contained tornado, a twister twisted into a ring.  Alternatively, you could just think of it as a smoke ring without the smoke.

Vortex rings have an unusual degree of stability – a smoke ring endures while a puff of smoke disperses — and can even survive an impact with a solid object, bouncing off it like a rubber ball.  The airflow around a ring makes it effectively frictionless. A vortex ring glides along with very little resistance even at high speed and so can be projected with considerable speed and force.

Since World War II, defence scientists have been looking at vortex rings as potential weapons. During WWII Zippermeyer, an Austrian scientist invented a device known as the ‘wind cannon’ to shoot down Allied bombers. Exhaust gases from an explosion in a combustion changer were shaped into vortex ring by a special nozzle. The combustion chamber was ten meters long, but it worked: Zippermeyer could break inch-thick wooden planks at a range of two hundred meters.  Which is impressive until you remember that a cannon the same size can do much more damage at longer ranges.

More recently there have been various efforts to develop ‘nonlethal’ weapons using vortex rings to knock down rioters. The apparatus is still too cumbersome to be practical (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vortex_ring_gun) but vortex rings still appear on science programs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyAyd4WnvhU)

The FP generates vortex rings via magnetohydrodynamic forces, and can direct them at will, destroying structures or knocking opponents or vehicles aside like toys.

FP_shadowking-shadowkings.blogspot.com

Flying Polyp (www.shadowking-shadowkings.blogspot.com)

See Right Through You

               – their senses did not include that of sight; their mental world being a strange, non-visual pattern of impressions

               – their senses could penetrate all material barriers

Lovecraft knew all about X-rays and seeing through walls, but this is something different. We now have such technology with ultra-wide-band (UWB) radar. Some radio wavelengths are blocked by brick walls, others can pass right through.  UWB throws out a whole jumble of radio waves at all different wavelengths, so some waves will always be able to travel through an obstacle of any given thickness; the challenge is making sense of the assorted reflections you get back.

The secret, as I discovered is having the right algorithms and plenty of processing power. (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128225.200-chaos-radar-uses-messy-signals-to-see-through-walls.html#.Us8HTRVFC1I )

The FP possesses its own built-in version of UWB radar and can see through walls and hunt down its prey.  Neatly enough, UWB waves can be produced by electric sparking, and the FPs plasma mantle can be tuned to act as a broadband antenna – a technique being developed to produce high-speed wifi  (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20827904-600-wireless-at-the-speed-of-plasma/ ).

Ultimate Stealth

            -“There were veiled suggestions of a monstrous plasticity, and of temporary lapses of visibility”

Graphene is extremely flexible; since the FP is composed of many thin sheets, it is decidedly plastic. It might be more like a floating jellyfish than any of the more rigid forms of sea life.

Lapses of visibility are something else that modern science can help explain. Metamaterials are synthetically created substances that can make an object invisible. As suggested above, plasmas can be modified so they absorb and emit electromagnetic radiation, including visible wavelengths. Researchers have recently shown that a structured plasma can act as an optical metamaterial, including behaving like a photonic crystal. ( http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0963-0252/21/1/013001/meta;jsessionid=2F68C963E0AFA6B8BFA07E23339CBEFB.c1)

Plasma has the advantage over solid metamaterials of being infinitely adaptable. To cloak an object of a given shape requires a particular metamaterial structure; it is less of an invisibility cloak and more of a rigid shell. A plasma metamaterial could be adjusted from millisecond to millisecond to match the conformation of what it was cloaking – an extremely demanding task, both in terms of plasma manipulation and computation, but given a few million years the FPs have cracked it.

The main function of this invisibility may not be concealment. In their environment, FPs may find themselves overheating, overcharging, or exposed to harmful forms of radiation; being able to shift their mantle so rays pass right through them would be a useful adaptation.

Whether this is from evolution or from design, or a combination of the two is impossible to say. The other key fact about the FPs is that “Their minds were of such texture that no exchange with them could be affected by the Great Race.” This might indicate that the FPs are, like the coral polyps of our own planet, collective entities each made up of smaller units which may have a decentralised intelligence. Or it might be that the FPs are in fact ultra-advanced robots, self-replicating Von Neumann probes sent across the universe by unknown forebears for unknown reasons.

This scheme gives us the basic structure of the FP which may be of use in deducing its broad capabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities. But there is still so much which we do not know…and perhaps for our own good, should never know.

flying_polyp_by_jackrezz-d6tydba

Flying Polyp by Jackrezz (www.deviantart.com)

David Hambling’s Shadows from Norwood project (https://www.facebook.com/ShadowsFromNorwood ) so far comprises to two Mythos novellas, “The Elder Ice”( http://www.amazon.com/Elder-Ice-Harry-Stubbs-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00M7CHN18/)  and “Broken Meats”( http://www.amazon.com/Broken-Meats-Harry-Stubbs-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00ZI5OQWU), and the new collection from PS Publishing “The Dulwich Horror and others.” (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0153VNF02 )

 

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5 thoughts on “Guest Article: Bioengineering the Alien by David Hambling

  1. I have to say, this is quite a brilliant interpretation of one of My favorite Lovecraftian Beasties. There’s one slight flaw, though, that a Friend of Mine pointed out after reading the article. So far as He’s aware TiO2 isn’t very good at absorbing IR radiation, and more to the point it’s a considerably lower-energy source of light than UV, which throws a bit of a spanner into that idea for why the Polyps got stronger after the move underground.

    It’s actually a very easy fix, however. If one strips away the subsistence on radiation–while keeping the alien physiognomy–one can suppose that They behave like a relative to modern Fusors. They’d be perfectly capable of subsisting on limited Nuclear Fusion so long as They had a ready source of water, which could be just as easily had below ground as above. And more to the point, Peaslee actually references “floating horrors” along the shore of some subterrene sea when He has His minor psychotic break near the end of the story. It’d also explain the glowing, to boot.

    1. Fair point on the TiO2. However that is only given as example to show it’s feasible: we have no indication of what chemistry the FPs are using for their solar cells, if they are using chemistry at all — it might be some subtle variation of plasma absorbing EM radiation that drives them. Or, like other creatures which can switch diet depending on environment, a space-faring race may be able to adapt to different wavelengths by changing its chemistry as needed.

      The fusion idea is an interesting one — of course it would have to be Cold Fusion which would make things even more interesting.

  2. Ahh, My Friend corroborated His opinion on the photosynthesis bit some more, and I thought You may be interested. Since I don’t wanna risk bungling what He said, I’ll just paste the paragraph on here:

    “Concerning the idea of the polyps subsisting on IR photosynthesis, I have to say I’m still not convinced. As I observed, IR is much lower-energy than UV, which is a more crippling problem than you might think. Energy is conserved, remember, so any energy that an organism takes in must eventually be deposited back into the environment as waste heat (or high-entropy chemical byproducts, like gas. We humans do both, emitting carbon dioxide and water vapor, and releasing copious amounts of waste heat). The problem is, if you’re taking in infrared but also emitting it (as a blackbody), then…well, you’ve got no room to extract useful work from the radiation. An organism that photosynthesizes must use a source of energy that is lower in entropy than its immediate surroundings, and that’s just not going to work for the kinds of temperatures the polyps would be encountering underground—particularly since they’re going to need to be maintaining a cold plasma, which is a very energetically-demanding task (I’ve done some reading up on cold plasmas myself, for a different project, and they’re fundamentally unstable; basically, they involve a small portion of a gas being ionized, and rely on maintaining that small proportion by continually ionizing more gas as the original ions recombine. A cold plasma requires a constant input of energy in order to keep it existing, unless you’re working in extremely low-pressure environments. In space, the polyps wouldn’t have any problems there, but on the surface, they’re going to be in a constant struggle to maintain their plasma envelope). These are going to be energy-hungry beasts, and I just don’t think that something like photosynthesis is up to the task of supplying that energy. I could be wrong, of course.”

    1. Difficult but not impossible; Aurora Flight Sciences have fitted a drone with an IR ‘solar’ cell to scavenge power at night from heat rereadiated by the earth. At a few hundred degrees, the IR deep underground should provide enough nutrition to sustain life at some level — if much, much less active than daylight.

  3. Oh, and cold fusion wouldn’t be required, especially since that’s not what occurs in Fusors. (Elsewise cold fusion would, of course, have already been discovered.) For accuracy’s sake I’ll paste My Friend’s explanation of how it may work in the Polyps:

    “…a fusor technically counts as “hot” fusion, given that it involves accelerating nuclei to absurd velocities/temperatures in order to smash them together, although as such devices can be built on a tabletop scale, fusors don’t bear much resemblance to most other methods of achieving nuclear fusion. They haven’t really been explored as a possible way of gaining energy because they lose so much energy via both conduction and radiation, but it’s possible that the polyps have found a way around that. One possibility that occurs to me is a nanoscale, non-conductive piezoelectric mesh of some sort—a polymer, maybe—that contracts violently upon the application of a charge gradient. If it were used as the cathode within a fusor, then as positively charged deuterium nuclei approached a charge gradient would develop around the area it was “aiming” for, and as it drew nearer the mesh would be pulled apart, “dodging” the approaching nucleus and allowing it to pass through to the center of the device to fuse.”

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