(urth) "been teaching literature for over 35 years"

David Stockhoff dstockhoff at verizon.net
Sun Sep 8 09:20:06 PDT 2013

On 9/8/2013 9:19 AM, Gerry Quinn wrote:
> From: David Stockhoff
>> Well, he might justifiably ask, if Wolfe intended plate tectonics
>> to exist on Urth, how it makes the book better for Severian to
>> tell us that it stopped.  To improve the dying-earth atmosphere?
>> I'm intrigued by Jeff's idea:
>> The slowing of geology processes and the refrigeration of the earth
>>  in somewhat of a historical time scale was once the current scientific
>> thought in the 19th century (Bellamy mentions it in LOOKING BACKWARD),
>>  so the idea has a reason to be present and for the estimated time
>> necessary to be reckoned past, however mistakenly by the characters.
> Wasn't that prior to the discovery of radioactivity, though?  [The 
> limited lifespan that the Sun would have if its energy output were 
> based on chemical or gravitational processes was also considered a 
> problem for evolutionary theory, which required a longer timescale.  
> But the Sun actually operates on nuclear fusion, and nuclear fission 
> continues to heat the Earth internally.]

Absolutely. Here's a clear summary of the four forces that create heat: 
isotopic decay (85%?), latent heat (5%?), residual heat (5%?), and 
gravitational differentiation (5%?): http://phys.org/news62952904.html. 
And yet the Earth IS gradually cooling.

> However I agree that Wolfe doesn't necessarily care where a scientific 
> concept comes from.  And he leaves matters intentionally vague; his 
> motto is that the reader should not be able to disprove the scientific 
> possibililty of something (e.g. the gigantic godlings) as they do not 
> have quite enough information to locate them in specific 
> well-understood physical models.  I do not think he always succeeds 
> perfectly in this endeavour, but he does pretty well, and the reader 
> should not fret to much about seeming scientific contradictions (or 
> worse, build complex metaphysical hypotheses based on them).

Agreed. The hypothesis I had in mind was one supported by Wolfe's own 
remarks, to the effect that the ancients were just as smart as we are, 
just as foolish, and yet rarely completely wrong in their understanding 
of the universe. Their understanding was merely imperfect, as is ours. 
Thus gods and godlings may be as real as our scientific theories, 
cast-aside or not.

> One thing that strikes me is that the New Sun explicitly seems to 
> restore the tectonic activity of Urth.  This is predicted in the play 
> of Dr. Talos ("continents will founder", etc.), and rendered 
> explicitly in _Urth of the New Sun_.

My thought exactly, although "founder" could simply mean "drown." If you 
do read it that way, I assume this would be caused by gravitational 
shocks from the New Sun's approach, leading not only to temporarily 
increased plate movement but perhaps also to increased heat+shear forces 
in the mantle, as I assume would arise in any massive transfer of energy 
to a planet.

As a side note, my conception of the New Sun's coming involves rapid 
(but sub-lightspeed, so that it can be seen approaching) movement of a 
stellar mass across the galaxy with no deceleration and no inertia. 
Thus, rather than taking days, the catastrophic event takes only hours 
as the New Sun enters the solar system and "seats" itself at the center. 
It's quick. It's basically magic. Maybe I'm wrong.

> It's hard to see scientifically how a white hole cancelling a black 
> hole would do that - but seemingly it does.  If so, one might argue 
> for the the theory that the black hole in the Sun somehow stopped 
> plate tectonics. Perhaps what is in the Sun is not quite a black hole 
> as we think of it. [For that matter, I think an actual black hole in 
> the Sun would cause it to heat up - but even if I am correct, story 
> clearly must trump science in this regard.]

My first question would be why the black hole did not cause the same 
effects (i.e., a flood) on approaching Urth, since none are mentioned.

One answer would be that it was small, having not yet eaten of the Sun; 
another would be that it did not approach but was inserted in place. 
Another would be that it wasn't a black hole as we now understand 
it---maybe more like the metaphorical opposite of a White Fountain, a 
kind of hyperdimensional drain pipe. Either way, suppression of 
heat-induced mantle activity doesn't seem a likely result, unless it 
magically drains heat from the entire solar system. Certainly reduced 
heat and light alone couldn't cool the upper mantle of a presumably 
volcanically active planet except by magic.

However, Wegener himself incorrectly thought that tidal drag was the 
primary cause of plate movement (he didn't realize the ocean crust moved 
too), and it's been proposed for certain Jovian moons as well. So 
depending on how we understand both the black hole and Earth tectonics, 
perhaps a case could be made for suppression by gravity. Maybe the black 
hole caused planetary orbits to slow (unless it sped them up), reducing 
tidal drag heat just enough to noticeably reduce volcanism and plate 
motion without changing interior conditions much. By the same token, a 
rapid shift in the other direction could wake them up again.

More information about the Urth mailing list