S – Scrith

Larry Niven has an interesting position in speculative fiction.  Not only is he a successful author, full of interesting ideas of his own, but he can lay claim to influencing at least two other successful authors.  One is rather obvious, and wore the inspiration on his sleeve – whilst being cleverly original in many of the details, it was clearly a parody of Ringworld.  Strata, one of Terry Pratchett’s (very) early novels is one of his few stand-alone efforts, albeit that in some ways it is a foray into what would become the Discworld.  It’s not my place or desire to critique TP, but from my perspective as a fan not only of TP himself but the genre and many of the writers that he references in his novels, Strata and the first couple of Discworld novels are slightly heavy-handed pastiches.  The Orbitals of Iain M. Bank’s Culture are probably also inspired by the Ringworld – I won’t put it any more strongly than that.  I would imagine that there a lot more writers out there, who received some level of inspiration, but, for me at least, these are the two most important.  The major difference between the two later works and the original is that the original made some consideration for the materials required.

Scrith is what you get when a mathematician sets up as a writer.  It is completely fictitious and if one of the characters wanted some to work with then it would clearly be a form of unobtanium.  Instead, there is a central conceit that needs to be made to work, and so we get scrith.  This may sound slightly bitter – it is not intended to be!  Scrith is described as being a material that:

  • blocks the passage of 40% of theNeutrinos that encounter it (even the Earth doesn’t do that).
  • absorbs nearly 100% of all other radiation and subatomic particles
  • rapidly dissipates heat.
  • supposedly has a tensile strength similar to theStrong nuclear force, (the problem being that different units are used to measure these two).
  • is transparent to magnetic fields.

What else can we surmise?  Well, in the original Ringworld, a key plot feature is that there is a mahussive (technical term) mountain called Fist-of-God.  It turns out that this is the reverse side of an impact crater – an asteroid hit the Ring and just punched straight through.  We can assume that there was a reasonable amount of energy involved in this impact (½mv2, for starters), but it didn’t cause buckling, it didn’t fracture the Ring, and it didn’t just punch straight through.  It’s never entirely easy to justify a line of argument on a back-calculation, especially in this instance where we need to consider a ‘moon-sized asteroid’ creating a mountain 1,000 miles high (with a number of questions as to how much poetic licence is involved in those descriptions).  Fist-of-God has to reach higher than the atmosphere, otherwise it would essentially be a puncture letting all the air out, something like a tack puncturing a pneumatic tyre.  On the otherhand, there are all sorts of calculations for how big you can make a mountain, before it collapses under its own weight.  On the gripping hand (to borrow a phrase from a different Niven story-line), we know that the mountain in this instance is hollow and is not your standard rock or mud pile.

Fundamentally, this really is one of the more impossible materials that I’ve looked at over this series.  The material would have to be incredibly ductile to perform in the manner described: the layer of scrith that is the foundation of the Ringworld is only 30 m thick and yet it can be deformed sufficiently to produce a mountain 1,609,000 m in height (if the description is literal not figurative).  That level of ductility would be significantly better than gold, which, as we’ve discussed previously is the most ductile metal available.


6 thoughts on “S – Scrith

  1. Ack! Hard SF! I love it, but without a physics background I have to take the author’s word for it. I failed maths in Year 10 and gave up all science except biology.

    I remember loving the characters in Ringworld when I read it umpteen years ago. That helps. Stephen Baxter is an author I love because he can do convincing hard SF and create characters you care about. But Larry Niven is one of the – er, big few…? 😉


  2. This is sci-fi writer science, not scientist science! Clearly there is an as-of-yet unknown element (perhaps not detectable or stable under Earth’s conditions) that has these properties.

    This is where you have to sidle up to plausibility rather than possibility. Extrapolate. It is, indeed, more ductile than gold; but then you have to consider the drawbacks of that (built in conflict!) In this case, strong enough to withstand the impact, but you are left with an enormous mountain. And other stuff that I don’t know because I do sci-fi writer science and not scientist science 😉

    (Plot saved!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sort of suggested that with N-NAQUADAH, but I don’t think that works so well here. An alternative is to start thinking in terms of localised variation in so called physical laws, or ‘magic’, as it is also called.

      But yes, there is a difference between s.f. and sci-fi. I should stop over-thinking it, but then I wouldn’t have a theme!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Absorbs nearly 100% of incoming radiation and also rapidly dissipates heat… I raise an eyebrow at that. I suppose it doesn’t technically violate thermodynamics, but it sounds like it’s skirting the edges of the law.

    Liked by 1 person

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