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SciTech For Writers Newsletter #2

1.        Dinosaurs after the Impact:  An article in a recent Discover magazine says that there is reasonably credible evidence that a species of Hadrosaurs (Duckbill dinosaurs) survived for about a million years after the end of Cretaceous Asteroid impact in New Mexico.  If that’s correct it’s very interesting.

I’ve long had my doubts about the scenario of a flourishing ecology of dinosaurs getting wiped out by an asteroid.  I don’t doubt that the asteroid hit and had a devastating impact on the ecology.  I’ve just never considered it proven that the dinos were flourishing up to the end of the Cretaceous and extinct afterwards.

One of the problems is that by definition a fossil bed with a set of reasonably complete dinosaur fossils is considered Cretaceous, while one with a lot of mammals and no dinosaurs is considered to be from after the Cretaceous.  As of a few years ago, the only place where there was a good fossil record right up to the KT boundary was western North America. You could count the places where there were good fossil beds right after the KT boundary on one hand.  Both of those things might have changed since the last time I checked, but if so I haven’t heard about it.

Given that situation, I could see a scenario where dinosaurs gradually got displaced by a combination of mammals and birds over most of the world over a period of five or ten million years prior to the end of the Cretaceous, with dinosaurs in western North America as the last of the breed, sort of like Tapirs and a lot of other relict creatures that are now holding out in southeast Asia.  The KT impact hits that refuge hard, but a few species survive it, only to continue their decline and die out somewhat later.

I don’t know if that’s what actually happened, but it fits the available evidence as well as the scenario of dinosaurs flourishing up to the KT boundary.  Another thought: the western US is probably the best studied area in the world for late Cretaceous dinosaurs and early Paleocene mammals.  If this kind of discovery can be made there, then it is quite possible that dinosaurs survived even longer elsewhere.

 Antarctica and Australia are good candidates for dinosaur survival because they were hit relatively lightly by the nastiness of the KT impact and because they have no fossil record for land animals for at least 10 million years after the KT impact, and possibly as long as 20 to 25 million.  In the absence of a fossil record, any statement about when the dinosaurs died off there is simply a guess.


2.       A dot.solarcell boom?  I’ve mentioned the rapid expansion of the solar cell industry several times lately.  Things are moving very fast in that industry as venture capitalists throw money at it, and companies with promising technology take their companies public, raising hundreds of millions of dollars at a pop.

When I first started looking at the solar cell industry seriously again a year or two ago, the biggest solar cell manufacturer was Sharp, with annual capacity of 300 megawatts.  Sharp was being challenged by US startup Nanosolar, which raised $100 million to build a plant with 430 Megawatts of production capacity.  Now Sharp is at something like 700 megawatts of annual capacity, and they are building a new complex capable of producing a gigawatt of solar power annually.  A lot of other people in the industry are talking about gigawatt solar cell plants as kind of the optimum in economy of scale.  Companies are expanding to at least 300 megawatts capacity.  Anything much less than that will leave them minor players by about 2010. 

On the technology front solar cells are advancing at both the high end and the low end.  A consortium recently got to just short of 43% efficiency (a new record) by concentrating the suns rays by 20X, then splitting the rays so that they went to a part of the solar cell most efficient at turning that part of the bandwidth into electricity.  The cells appear to have room to grow in terms of efficiency, and they appear to be mass producible.  On the low end, plastic solar cells have reached around 5.5% efficiency, which is getting close to the point where they can be printed on just about anything electronic to recharge the batteries.

Just as I was getting ready to print this, a press release came out from one of the major universities claiming that they had figured out a way to put a nanotech coating on silicon solar cells so that the cells would produce up to 10% more power in the visible range and 67% more in the ultraviolet range.  I’m not sure what that means in terms of overall efficiency, but apparently it would sharply boost the cell’s production on cloudy days because a lot of ultraviolet goes through the clouds.  There are still a lot of questions to be answered about this, including how expensive it would be to do on an industrial scale, but it sounds promising.

3.    Taz going extinct from contagious cancer? The real life Tasmanian Devil is in danger of extinction from a cancer that spreads from animal to animal during their frequent fights over food.  Normally cancers can’t spread from one animal to another because the next animal’s immune system recognizes it as foreign tissue and attacks it.  Unfortunately, Taz Devil immune systems can’t seem to do that with this cancer.  The Tasmanian Devil population apparently went through a severe bottleneck near the end of the last ice age—probably down to 500 or so animals.  The population expanded to over 20,000, but the animals are so closely related that their immune systems can’t tell the difference between tissue from one animal and another.

That’s apparently a problem with other animals too.  Cheetahs had a similar bottleneck and expansion, and similar reaction from their immune systems.  Fortunately Cheetahs haven’t run into a cancer like this as far as we know.  This could have wide implications in terms of endangered species.  Keeping a few hundred animals alive may not be enough to keep a species viable in the long run.  If genetic diversity gets low enough a species will be vulnerable to this kind of thing, as well as to other diseases. If one animal is vulnerable to a disease, they all will be.

4.   Out of Africa or Not? There is a huge and fundamental  debate going on in the community of people studying human origins between two groups.  One group (the Out-Of-Africa school) claims that all modern humans come from a branch of humanity that developed in Africa and spread from there throughout the rest of the world, replacing previous forms of humanity like the Neanderthals with effectively no gene flow between the newcomers and previous residents.  Opposed to that group are people who argue that here was some degree of gene flow between the various groups of humanity, and in the case of archaic Asian humans that modern humans developed in place in East Asia (the Regional-Continuity school).

These guys have been hammering each other for well over a decade, with studies of bones and genetic studies.  Mitochondrial DNA and some other types of DNA seem to say that modern humans are all descended from a group of humans that developed in Africa and spread to the rest of the world approximately 60,000-70,000 years ago, eventually replacing all other types of humans with effectively no gene flow between the groups.  That’s quite a claim.  It kind of points to our species doing a very thorough job of genocide early on.  A lot of people in the human origins field don’t buy that at all.

 The two groups are still hammering away, and recently a spate of article has appeared on both sides.  Among the claims:  (1) A high percentage of human remains from the period when modern humans were replacing Neanderthals in Europe show a mixture of characteristics from the two groups. (2) Looking at one type of genes seems to indicate a very complicate picture of human origins, with humans and chimps branching off from one another and remaining separate for 600,000 to 700,000 years, then going through a period of interbreeding before separating for good.  There appears to have been mixing between modern humans and a very different type of African human somewhere in the mix, and the most logical origin of one specific gene that is now in 70% of humans would be that it spread from Neanderthals to humans and then was strongly selected for.  It may have something to do with brain function, which would be a kick in the teeth.

Of course the Out-of-Africa crowd accept none of this, and have responded with their own studies.  As an interested layman I have no clue who is right.

5.      Who is descended from whom?  The old idea that humans descended from apes has always had a problem.  A lot of people visualize the process as humans branching away from something much like existing apes, with humans changing, while apes remained static—sort of living fossils of the way both species looked and acted 6 to 7 million years ago.  To state that idea is to realize that it can’t be true.  Apes have probably changed considerably over those years.  How?  We don’t know because there are essentially no recognized chimp or gorilla fossils other than a few recently discovered chimp fossils from the last couple hundred thousand years, and few recently discovered possible gorilla teeth.  We don’t know what chimps or gorillas looked like or acted like early on.

One recent study indicates that ancestral apes were actually better adapted to walking upright than the current ones are, and that ironically they were adapted to upright posture because they spent more time in trees than current African apes do.  That means that knuckle-walking developed after the split as apes spent less time in the trees. That has interesting implications.  If you find bones of some ape-like creature that is somewhat more adapted for walking upright than current apes, are you looking at something that was on its way to becoming more human or on its way to becoming more like modern-day chimps?

Alternate Mass Psychology in WWII

Mass psychology is one of the trickier things about alternate history.  There is no way of really knowing how a particular event will change the psychology of a nation.  Mass psychology can tip one way or the other with no warning and with devastating results, as the stock market crash of 1929 showed.  With that trickiness in mind, I’m going to look at some brief scenarios where a different mass psychology—a different reaction to events is the point of divergence:

1.       German Morale Collapses in summer of 1944.  There was essentially no chance of a German victory after Stalingrad, or Kursk at the very latest.  The top of the Nazi hierarchy was fanatical enough to know that and keep on fighting anyway.  They depended on thousands of middle-level leaders, and the German soldiers to keep things going though.  What if German home-front propaganda had been less effective and  German morale had simply collapsed at some point, maybe around August/September 1944 after the defeats of that summer.  German morale did actually collapse, but not until late spring of 1945, when units facing the Western Allies for the most part stopped fighting very hard, though ones facing the Soviets kept fighting desperately.  Let’s say that the German catastrophes of late summer 1944 cause German soldiers on the Western Front to give up and decide not to be among the last casualties of the war.  People on the home front decide that the war is lost and they start positioning themselves for the postwar.  The rot spreads to the security forces and the allied advance in the west becomes a walkover.  What are the implications of that at the end of the war and postwar?

2.       Soviet morale collapses in October 1941.  As the Germans ripped through Soviet army after Soviet army, Soviet morale appears to have come very close to collapsing in October 1941.  What if some factor—a slightly later onset of the fall rainy season, a false intelligence report that the Japanese were headed into Siberia, or Stalin simply losing his nerve and leaving Moscow—had tipped Soviet morale over the edge?  The panic compounds itself, and even the Soviet state’s watchdogs get into a save themselves psychology.  The fleeing Soviet government undoubtedly thoroughly destroys Moscow’s infrastructure on the way out.  The Germans walk in against only pockets of resistance.  What happens then?  Can the Soviets pull themselves back together?   Can they fight the war effectively without Moscow’s communications and rail nodes?

3.     Nationalist Chinese morale collapses in 1938 or 1939.  The Nationalist Chinese had been pushed out of their capital.  Almost all of the good German-trained divisions had been destroyed.  They were pushed into remote territory that they had never really controlled.  What if the various warlords and faction of the Nationalists had splintered and made their own separate peace with the Japanese?  Many of them actually did, but what if a critical mass had been reached and the regime collapsed.  The Japanese would have still had to deal with recalcitrant warlords, Communists,  and local guerrillas, but much of the burden of the China incident would have been lifted.  What would have happened then?

If you enjoyed this, chances are you'll love Bear Country, an alternate history romance

Alternate Technology Timelines

The exact timing of various inventions was not entirely set in stone.  Most technologies could probably have happened a few years before or after they did.  As a brainstorming exercise, let’s try looking at the impact if some technologies had happened say up to ten years before or ten years after they did historically.


1.              Radar:  Delay the development by two or three years, maybe just in Britain, or more likely world-wide.

a.              How would the Battle of Britain go with no British radar?

b.         How would the Battle of France have gone if the French have a functional radar system (They actually had a few British sets, plus a somewhat less functional home-grown system near Paris, but no ability to filter and analyze the data effectively).

c.     How would Pearl Harbor have gone if the US had fully functional radar there and a system for using it, rather than experimental sets and an ad hoc reporting system?

d.       How would the early naval battles in the Mediterranean have gone if the Italians had deployed the radar systems that they developed but didn’t deploy?

2.              Tanks.  Accelerate the development by maybe a year or a little more during the first part of World War I.

a.             The Allies have operational tanks in 1915, and do the first mass tank attack in 1916.  How does that change the course of the war?  Do tanks advance enough by the end of the war to establish themselves as the kind of decisive weapon they became in World War II?  Do the Germans respond to the Allied tanks early enough to build a significant tank fleet before the end of World War I?

b.        Accelerate Italian tank development by about a year throughout the war.  That has a surprisingly large impact on the fighting in North Africa.  Italian tanks really tended to come out around a year and a half later than they needed to.  For example, the M13/40 would have been respectable, though not great if it had gone into production in early 1939 and several hundred to a thousand had been available by mid-1940.  Instead, they only became available in limited quantities toward the end of 1940, and by the time the Italian army got them in significant quantities they had only a short time before they became obsolete.

c.         Do the same thing with British or French or US tank development.  Sherman tanks in late 1941?  Comets in mid-1943?

d.              Slow down Soviet or German developments.  The Panther delayed 6 months to a year?  The T34 delayed by a year?

e.               Accelerate Japanese tank development so that they have decent tanks to counter the Soviets at Nomanham.      

3.          Nuclear power: Speed it up by ten years, so that countries are making tentative steps toward it by the late 20’s, and every power worthy of the name is racing to get the bomb by the mid-1930s.  Boy, that’s a nightmare scenario.  I’m guessing that the Germans or the Soviets would win that race, given their willingness to cut corners and pour resources into that kind of a race.  That in turn is the stuff of nightmares.  Of course slowing down US development by even a year has nasty consequences in terms of a US invasion of the Japanese home islands.

4.        Jet aircraft: Speed development up by 2 to 4 years—maybe worldwide or possibly in just one country.  Britain had jets by late 1944.  Could they have had them by 1940?  That would have been interesting.  British jets versus Me109s in the Battle of Britain.  Of course it could go the other way.  German jets versus Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.  Now that would be an interesting scenario, and probably not impossible given the right application of money in the right places.

5.      Synthetic rubber:  Delay the basic technology by a couple of years, so that the US can’t simply build a synthetic rubber industry when the supply of natural rubber is cut off by the Japanese conquest of Malaysia.  That puts production of pretty much everything necessary for modern warfare in jeopardy for all of the Allies, especially the Soviet Union.  Tanks? Trucks?  Planes?  Ships? Got to have rubber or a substitute if you want the vehicle to run for any length of time.  If the delay in developing the technology extends to Germany, they would get hit even harder than most of the Allies.

6.      Rocketry: Accelerate V2 development by a year, so it is operational in the fall of 1943 and available in large quantities in 1944.  Von Braun and company move on to the next level and have more advanced designs ready by the end of the war.  The Germans would almost certainly still lose, but the impact on the postwar rocket race could be interesting.  We could also go the other way on this: V2 production is delayed and there aren’t large quantities left over at the end of the war for the victorious Allies to play with.

7.     DDT:  The US doesn’t discover this pesticide in the late 1930s.  That actually would have had a large impact on World War II.  First, historically the Germans noticed that publicly available research on those compounds had suddenly dried up, which convinced them that the US had discovered nerve gases.  That was part of the reason the Germans didn’t use them in World War II.  Also, DDT kept Typhus down among the Allies during the War, and allowed them to have bases in mosquito-ridden areas where they normally would not have been able to put them.


If you enjoyed this, chances are you'll love Bear Country, an alternate history romance