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  • October 18, 2018 09:28:01 AM

A Little About Us

My Dossier and Blog is the personal site of Dr Mark Selby. I'm a STEM Educator with 25+ years of experience, EDUTECH specialist and Freelancer. I write about Science and STEM education and highlight my own creations and examples of the use of EDUTECH in STEM education at high school, college and university levels.

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The Dossier: Highlights 2018

When I started writing the Dossier at the end of July, I was still dealing with issues around job loss and finding a new direction. I wrote about some of this in the article: Job Loss and Sense of Purpose, getting that off my chest was a positive step forward for me. I’d like to … Continue reading "The Dossier:...

When I started writing the Dossier at the end of July, I was still dealing with issues around job loss and finding a new direction. I wrote about some of this in the article: Job Loss and Sense of Purpose, getting that off my chest was a positive step forward for me. I’d like to thank Jo Stanley for her kind reply: my post was a response to a newspaper article that she had written about similar events in her own life.

I started to gain some sense of purpose which I wrote about with An Epiphany or Two, of Sorts which is primarily an appeal for online learning systems to be more personalised. The observation was that the area of online learning is dominated by institutionally-centralised learning management systems (LMSs) that suit a formal learning setting but aren’t necessarily well-suited to more personal and decentralised learning. In August requested support to get such a project off the ground This request is reproduced again below.

Support me in Developing a Device-centric Personal Learning System.

Develop and build the components of a personal learning system using Django for the back-end and Electron for multi-platform front-end support. Support is requested, in the first instance, for community-based proof of concept.


My personal highlights of 2018  were writing about the Alien Trilogy of books concerning dystopian science. I wrote this marathon 2-parter against a background of confused emotions about being a part of academic science for 25+ years, leaving that behind. Then trying to find a new pathway in STEM education and science commentary.

The twin articles: “Reading the “Alien” Trilogy (2014) and Reflecting on a Dystopian Science, Part 1 and Part 2” made it possible to deal with some of my unruly thoughts and emotions that had clouded my thinking about my life direction. Because I was able to write about them down in a compartmentalised way, in a fictional universe of the Alien movies and books, it helped me to deal with such issues and defuse some of their sway over me.

I was also seeing that science had changed dramatically over 25+ years. I was feeling a general uneasiness about the direction that science was headed and whether I could, or even wanted, to keep up the pace that a life in science would require nowadays.

No. I don’t think that any large corporation today has developed the malicious, self-serving agenda of a Weyland-Yutani Corp, or is anywhere near having the corporate power needed to implement such an agenda.

Yes. I believe that aspects of a Weyland-Yutani culture are currently infesting many aspects of not only corporate science, but university science, and in particular, much of government science. Furthermore, these changes are occurring in the predominantly English-speaking Western hemisphere. Some of the changes in the culture of science that I’ve seen frighten me. Science overall still gives me hope. It’s the emerging culture in science and its effect on the scientists involved that worries me.

Two issues about science in a modern market economy that I want to bring to public attention are discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of the Aliens articles. In Part 1, the phenomena of a capture of science by corporate, government and other interest groups are revealed. In Part 2, I was trying to confront the issue of how scientists should behave in the face of captured science.

Poll 1: Capture of Science

You can add your own thoughts to capture of regulatory science, and other branches of science through the poll below (reproduced here — the same poll as in the original article).:

Note: You can select up to two items in this poll.

The following description is reproduced from the original article to help you answer the poll. The references refer to the original article here.

So what is the solution to the worse effects of capture? The usual prescription is greater transparency and media scrutiny. That’s admirable but is there any evidence that it’s effective? You can answer in the poll question following or leave a comment below.

There are those who advocate minimal regulation, or industry self-regulation. These are views expressed, for example, by Gary Banks [5] when he was Chair of the Productivity Commission of Australia.

Poor funding, low staff morale and inadequate training help create a revolving door where staff leave the regulator in search of better pay and conditions in the industrial sector. This can be a major factor in regulatory capture.

Another perspective, offered by Chris Simms [6] is directed at overcoming the selfishness and shortsightedness that underlie regulatory capture: by employing “cathedral” thinking. This envisions the current generation investing the time and resources into building a better future.

Poll 2: Science and Secrecy

Answer the poll question below or leave a comment.

Note: Up to two responses can be selected.

Finally, writing the article Remembering Henry Moseley (1887-1915) was a good way of refreshing my knowledge about the discipline of atomic physics which, like Moseley, was the field of science that occupied much of my early career in academia. X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF) was an area of analytical chemistry in which I gave many lectures in over the years at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Not because I had a great deal of experience in the area (I don’t) but mainly because no one else wanted the job.

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a Christmas Song

Well, maybe there’s a God above But all I’ve ever learned from love Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya – Leonard Cohen from Hallelujah I was with my wife, Linda, at the Coffee Depot Kapsali, Charlotte St, Brisbane CBD [1], yesterday enjoying lunch and drinking coffee. The music playing was pleasantly Christmas themed … Continue reading "Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a...

Well, maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
– Leonard Cohen from Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen performing in 2013.
Cohen performing at King’s Garden, Odense, Denmark, 2013.

I was with my wife, Linda, at the Coffee Depot Kapsali, Charlotte St, Brisbane CBD [1], yesterday enjoying lunch and drinking coffee. The music playing was pleasantly Christmas themed until Hallelujah by the late Leonard Cohen started playing. Up until then, I’d only been peripherally aware of the background music. However, when Hallelujah started playing I was jolted back to reality, and quite frankly, deeply offended to hear the words quoted above presented as Christmas-themed music.

I must make it clear that I’m not offended by the late Leonard Cohen, his lyrics or music. I respect his memory as a master craftsman and artisan of words in song and literature. I’m not offended per se by the lyrics of Hallelujah [2]. Hallelujah manages to be both haunting and joyous at the same time. It’s a juxtaposition of both the despondent and the buoyant;  the ribald and the reverent; the profane and the sacred. It’s music that mixes dark Old Testament imagery of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, with a light-hearted chorus of “Hallelujah!” I don’t know of anything else quite like it.

What I am offended by, is that I live in a society that sees and hears only black-and-white and ignores all shades of nuance. Of all the times that Hallelujah is played or sung; how can it be that only the light-hearted chorus is heard but the dark imagery is ignored? That the sacred is heard but not the profane; that hears the reverent but not the ribald; the buoyant but not the despondent.

Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
– Simon and Garfunkel, The Boxer

I’m offended that the Hallelujah is been performed so often, including popular covers by John Cale, the late Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, also by Bob Dylan, U2, Jon Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy, Justin Timberlake and so many others. It makes regular appearances on X-factor, The Voice and similar TV talent shows, it’s played in elevators and shopping malls, even in church services, funerals and wedding ceremonies. It was featured in the popular animated movie Shrek (Dreamworks, 2001). Now Hallelujah is making appearances as a joyous Christmas song.

This is another reason why I’m offended. That the artistic memory of Cohen is being tainted by gross overuse for the profit motive. It’s undoubtedly a good little earner for Cohen’s beneficiaries and publicists but it’s doing his memory a disservice in making the sublime lyrics seem banal and contributing to their misunderstanding, by the public, as I highlighted above.

I’m offended that in our society that no one thinks that being offended anymore, for any reason, is justified. Nothing remains offensive anymore, we’re jaded, we’ve seen it, read it or listened to it before. It’s all out there on the internet somewhere. A Google touch away. Furthermore, you can cause offence just by being offended, As happened to me at the Kapuli Coffee Depot, when I tried to point out that I would like the track removed from their playlist. “No, go,” I was told, “it’s Spotify’s problem that we have no control over.”

Most of all I’m offended that the bitter irony that permeates all Cohen’s work isn’t, apparently, obvious to those who sing or listen to Hallelujah. When I first heard Cohen singing Hallelujah I could almost see the bitter irony extruding from his gravelly voice as he croons his way through the lyrics [3]. The “Hallelujah” at the end of every verse is palpably dripping with irony. The words are from someone who is profoundly disappointed in all that has happened to them and, in the end, has nothing to offer the “Lord of Song,” despite their best efforts, excepting for a “Hallelujah” – that’s all there is. Cohen has turned the meaning of the word around: “Hallelujah” has become a sigh of deep regret. Not the joyful exclamation of worship that we expect it to be.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

The verse above ends on a defiant note that might almost be part of an anthem of rage against God. But the genius of Cohen is that he defies easy classification. With each verse, he has piled meaning upon meaning onto the word “Hallelujah.” In the verse above its despair, in another verse, “Hallelujah” has a sexual meaning, the exclamation of sexual climax. In yet other verses “[i]t’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” or “[t]he holy or the broken Hallelujah“. In this way the word “Hallelujah” becomes loaded with different meanings; varying from the sacred-secular to the sacrilegious [4].

I don’t lightly recommend that anyone should take offence. But in this case I do feel that we should be offended that the hard as bullets lyrics of Cohen have been made all soft and gooey by including them in an animated movie for a heartsick green ogre in Shrek; or as background music in a shopping mall or coffee shop; or as a Christmas song. If you hear Hallelujah played in public this Christmas time in a way which seems out of place, or inappropriate, then please take offence and make a point of discussing it with someone that has responsibility for it been played.

Cohen has been called the “godfather of gloom” and all his work does fairly wallow in despondency, loneliness and brokenness. Our society has a problem with depression and suicide, which spikes around Christmas and New Year. This is a final reason why Hallelujah is inappropriate as a Christmas song.

The song Hallelujah rather dwells on the feelings of brokenness and isolation that King David felt when he came to a realisation of his sin with Bathsheba and his part in what amounted to the murder of her then-husband Uriah the Hittite. Cohen’s Hallelujah doesn’t rise above these feelings. In the fuller Bible story, David sought and found forgiveness and restoration with God. Whilst he didn’t live to see the kingdom that he fought so many wars for; his son with Bathsheba, Solomon, did when he became king after David’s death

David was also a forerunner in a lineage which led to the birth of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas. The song Hallelujah falls short of celebrating the forgiveness, restoration and hope that is so important for all of us to celebrate this Christmas time. For the Christian there is also the promise of resurrection; for Christ was born that that man might die no more.


[1] Good friendly service and good wholesome food. Highly recommended.

[2] You can find the lyrics that I’m referring to at Genius lyrics. One of the best cover versions of Hallelujah, sung by the late Jeff Buckley can be found on YouTube.

[3] The original Leonard Cohen version of Hallelujah can be found here on YouTube, complete with lyrics.

[4] I’ve heard that Cohen drafted 80 verses or more to Hallelujah in trying to get the meaning to match what he had in mind. Only a small number of drafted verses were ever published. The full list of published verses, as well as the story behind them, can be found at official Leonard Cohen Forum.

“Artemis” by Andy Weir — Blame it on the Moon

It is the very error of the moon; She comes more nearer earth than she was wont, And makes men mad. William Shakespeare – Othello This post is about the recent book Artemis (2017) by Andy Weir which is a novel set on the first permanent Moon station. called “Artemis”. I was looking forward to … Continue reading "“Artemis” by Andy Weir — Blame it on...

It is the very error of the moon; She comes more nearer earth than she was wont, And makes men mad.
William Shakespeare – Othello

Book cover - Artemis (2017)
Book cover for Artemis (2017) by Andy Weir

This post is about the recent book Artemis (2017) by Andy Weir which is a novel set on the first permanent Moon station. called “Artemis”. I was looking forward to reading Artemis because I had enjoyed reading his book The Martian. I loved his unorthodox writing style in that book, which fitted in so well with the unfolding of the timeline of the story.

I loved the movie The Martian (2015), directed by Ridley Scott, made from that book. Matt Damon was brilliantly cast as the interplanetary castaway Mark Watney. I loved that it was sci-fi for the near-future. It was tantalising because, with the book and movie, I could easily visualise the colonisation of Mars unfolding along similar lines. It was just so scientifically grounded and believable.

When I started reading Artemis the thought that it was an inspired idea that an African country such as Kenya could take advantage of the technology of moon colonisation to boost their economy to the first-world standard. It was such an optimistic and hopeful view of a world that might be. I loved the idea that the protagonist was an anti-heroine, Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara from Saudi Arabia. That also seemed, at least at first, to be inspired. But later, when she transforms from a smuggler to a crime-boss, still with her smart, way-too-cool sassiness, the characterisation of Jazz losses its credibility and her role just becomes plain silly. Indeed, the whole story, after being so promising, losses its way and degenerates to silliness. No, not just silliness, but silliness of an irresponsible kind as I’ll explain.


The colonisation of the Moon

Warning spoilers from this point. Because a large part of the cost of items on Artemis is transportation from earth, the unofficial currency is the SLG for a “soft landed gram” called a slug, denoted as ğ. One slug is one gram of cargo transported by the Kenyan Space Corporation (KSC). Who knew that, owing to the high costs of transportation, that there would be a market in recycled condoms on a moon city?

Weir has a lot of fun with how the laws of physics work on the moon. Turns out there’s a good reason for all those recycled condoms because all the new possibilities for sex in low-gravity is a major tourist attraction for Artemis. Perhaps, even rivalling the attraction of the Apollo 11 visitor centre where Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface.

Jazz lives in the poorest parts of Artemis, she’s the estranged daughter of her father, who is a welder, and is herself a porter for delivery of goods. This earns her enough slugs live in a “slab” which is a space only big enough to sleep in and she shares a toilet and shower, down the hallway with others in the same meagre accommodations. She often eats “gunk” which is food source produced in algal vats. Because of her circumstances, she earns extra slugs from smuggling items such as cigars to wealthy businessmen. This way she hopes to save her slugs and provide herself with a better future.

Cigars are strictly forbidden on the moon colony because Artemis has followed the life-support practices of the old Apollo missions by having an atmosphere of pure oxygen at ⅓ rd earth atmosphere (sea level). This avoids the need to transport nitrogen gas cylinders from earth. The pure oxygen atmosphere means that naked flames of any kind are strictly forbidden because any kind of fire would quickly spread throughout the whole city complex.

For this reason, most lunar accommodations are devoid of kitchen facilities. Cooking is performed in special facilities with their own life-support systems that are isolated from the rest of Artemis. Some rather unseedy, but wealthy businessmen, can afford to have accommodation with separate life support systems – so that they can smoke cigars whenever the need arises. Her smuggling activities bring Jazz into contact with such people.

A Promising Premise

When Artemis was first built by the KSC there was the need for aluminium for construction purposes and to provide a combustant for solid-fuel rocket engines. So the KSC signed a perpetual agreement with the Sanchez smelter corporation for aluminium production using the mineral anorthite which is plentiful on the lunar surface. In this agreement, Artemis would provide Sanchez with electricity at no cost from their two nuclear power plants which produce excess electricity to the needs of Artemis itself.

In return, this agreement stated that Sanchez would provide Artemis with oxygen at no cost in exchange for the electricity. The oxygen was a by-product aluminium smelting and was piped directly from the Sanchez facility to Artemis. Another by-product of smelting anorthite is silica, which was used by Queensland Glass Manufacturing company to produce the glass required for the construction of Artemis.

These arrangements were essential in the early days of building Artemis but as Artemis has grown they’re out-lived their economic necessity. This means that Artemis desperately needs a new export-based income stream on which to base its economy. It’s at this point the cigar-loving business associate of Jazz, with plans for the mysterious substance known as “ZAFO” [1], comes into the picture.

But there’s a really big problem to overcome first. The uneconomic Sanchez operation has become a front for the South American mafia through which to launder large amounts of ill-gotten funds, free from the attention of authorities on earth. This is where small-time smuggler Jazz Bashara finds herself right in the middle of everything; hunted by both the Artemisian security, as well as a hitman, working for the South American mobsters.

Failing Flat (on the Moon)

It’s at this point, in order to stop the flow of oxygen and invalidate the contract between Artemis and Sanchez, that the all-so-promising premise of the Artemis novel comes crashing down in a heap. You see, Jazz, and her associates, plot to cause an explosion in the Sanchez plant, In order to get the employees to clear out first, she releases chlorine gas from a cylinder that she has brought with her.

The chlorine sets off the alarms, that warn the employees to clear out, as she expects (all excepting the owner, Loretta Sanchez). But she hadn’t accounted for a cylinder of methane that happens to be standing idly by, and in the explosion that follows, they accidentally produce chloroform which, as everyone knows is a knock-out gas, anestheses the entire population of the moon colony into unconsciousness.

Everyone excepting for Jazz, Loretta and her co-conspirators who are wearing breathing tanks. Jazz takes this opportunity to escape and switch the supply of oxygen for Artemis to oxygen cylinders that have been stockpiled by her former cigar-loving business associate, now dead by mobster hitman.

It’s a race against time for Jazz and her friends to restore the oxygen supply to revive the anesthetized population before their chloroform exposure becomes lethal.

Oh dear! Oh dear! Andy why didn’t you call me?

I would have been able to set you straight. Would that it was still possible to run about and grab copies, of the printed and e-book Artemis, from Amazon and the other bookstores, take them to the dark side of the moon and hide them all in a deep deep crater.

There are at least 2 very good scientific reasons why none of what’s been proposed above in the Artemis novel could ever work:

  • from medical and toxicological perspectives, the effects of chloroform are not what is described.
  • from a chemical perspective, the required amount of chloroform could never be produced as it is described;

These problems are serious for an author that has based his reputation as a sci-fi writer on his ability to portray detailed and accurate science.

Medical and Toxicological Perspectives

Definitive lethality levels of chloroform are difficult to evaluate reliably. Although it is highly likely that exceedingly high levels of chloroform will result in narcosis and subsequent death, the threshold AEGL-3 levels [2] for humans are not available or are too unreliable to be useful. Published AEGL-3 levels for chloroform are based on studies with mice [3]. The published AEGL-3 level for chloroform is 16,000 mg/m3 [3] (which is essentially the same as the 15,000 mg/m3 mentioned in the Artemis book for both the concentration necessary for inducing spontaneous anesthesia and for lethality, after 1 hr duration).

The reason why AEGL-3 data for chloroform is unreliable is the variable response that humans demonstrate when exposed. Humans are able to withstand very high levels of chloroform for short-times for the purpose of medical anesthesia without significant ill-effect. Although chloroform has been replaced with safer inhalation anesthetics, it is still used in special circumstances.

In surgical anesthesia, levels of chloroform up to 25,000 mg/m3 are used for 2-3 minutes and then carefully lowered to 10,000 mg/m3, or less, for the remainder of the surgery. There are good reasons why inhalation anesthetics need to be administered by highly trained medical anesthesiologists. 

For the circumstances described in the novel, anestheses by chloroform is likely to see people inadvertently fall in ways that will block their airways and see them suffocate themselves. Indeed, the primary tasks of an anesthesiologist in surgery are to ensure that the patient is positioned so as to kept their airways clear and to monitor their breathing. 

There is an article from the annotations section of the medical journal The Lancet of 1865 [4] that is highly appropriate at this point. It seems that with Artemis, Andy Weir has reintroduced a genre of writing that should have been left back in 1865, or back in TV programs of the 60s and 70s. The Lancet article is titled “Chloroform Among Thieves” proceeds with acerbic satirical wit, as highlighted in the quotation below:

The thieves have, it seems, “interrogated nature” with somewhat greater success than has attended the efforts of our best chemists … The common highwayman is an object of our scientific envy … that a highwayman can, by shaking a handkerchief impregnated with chloroform under the nose of his victim, produce instantaneous insensibility.

It seems that even after 150 years, writers haven’t learnt that anesthesia with chloroform is much more difficult than it first appears; it requires much more chloroform, for longer periods, than they think. Likewise, the difference between anesthesia and death is much less than any untrained person expects — which is why it should only be carried out in carefully controlled medical facilities under expert care.

At this point, it has been assumed that Jazz has been able to accidentally produce sufficient chloroform to actually cause anesthesia (or lethality) but this might be an unjustified assumption, as will be examined in detail in the next section.

Chemical Perspective

It’s true that in the Sanchez plant there is chlorine, methane and heat-energy from Jazz’s tampering with the temperature regulation mechanism. It’s quite likely that some chlorine radicals would be generated (see below) to start the initiation phase for a chain reaction. Only relatively few chlorine radicals are needed.chloroform-i

The energy to form chlorine radicals (⋅Cl) is often provided using UV-light, but heating in the range 400-500°C would work just as well.

Highly reactive chlorine radicals, thus generated, start the propagation stage of a chain reaction which is described in detail in a separate support article to this post. Briefly, the gaseous methane and chlorine start to combine in a 4-step chain reaction that proceeds as follows:

  1. methane –> chloromethane
  2. chloromethane –> dichloromethane
  3. dichloromethane –> chloroform
  4. chloroform –> carbon tetrachloride

So far so good, in the novel Artemis Andy Weir has Loretta Sanchez say essentially the same thing (excepting for omitting the part about the formation of highly toxic and carcinogenic carbon tetrachloride).

The fundamental tenet of industrial chemistry is the law of conservation of matter: we can’t just have matter pop out of nowhere for no reason — work of fiction or not. But this is exactly what happens. It’s one of the main problems with the novel Artemis.

In the novel, with Jazz at the Sanchez smelter, we have a credible mechanism for producing chloroform but we have only one cylinder of chlorine. Furthermore, Jazz has to be able to easily transport that gas cylinder, along with other cylinders of acetylene, oxygen and neon [5] for the welding work that she performs.

The next section can be SKIPPED, it is essentially a tutorial on chemistry and can be skipped on first reading if you prefer.

To make this scenario more realistic, consider a type-Q stainless-steel cylinder of chlorine from Praxair that has a gross mass of 47.7 kg and contains 18.18 kg of compressed liquid chlorine.  We’ll also make a reasonable assumption that the methane cylinder, already at the Sanchez plant, is larger than the chlorine cylinder that Jazz brings with her. This way the chlorine is the yielding limiting reagent. We can calculate the amount of chloroform produced as below (using MathCad software from PTC).


There’s 7.7 kg of chloroform that could be maximally produced from a one reasonably sized cylinder of chlorine. Not much when you consider that it has to be spread around the whole city complex.

How much volume does the Artemis complex occupy? The maps shown in the front of the book show 5-domes, consisting of Aldrin, Bean, Collins and Sheppard (all 200 m in diameter), radiating like spokes around the central Armstrong dome (100 m in diameter). The Sanchez plant is connected to the Artemis complex via a 1-km oxygen supply pipeline, it also consists of a dome of 25 m in diameter.


Remembering that the volume of a sphere is \frac{4}{3}\pi r^3 and that a dome is half of a sphere, the total volume of the Artemis is around 1.1 million m3. We can now proceed to calculate the airborne concentration:


Skip to here.

The result of the calculation is 7.1 mg/m3, this being the case we would need 2000 cylinders of chlorine to get to a concentration near to the 15,000 mg/m3. In the novel, this is what Loretta Sanchez tells Jazz is the level would be required to induce anesthesia in the good citizens of the moon. From the calculations here, it’s simply impossible to produce enough chloroform to produce the effects described in the book Artemis. with a single cylinder of compressed chlorine — unless you break the law of conservation of matter!

What hasn’t been taken into account in the above equations is that oxygen is also present. In the Artemis novel, Jazz circumvents plant safety measures so that the temperature will reach the melting point of stainless steel at about 1450°C. Thereby destroying the Sanchez plant in an explosion when the stainless steel containment vessel fails.

phosgeneIn the presence of oxygen, at around 1460°C, the chloroform, and any other alkyl chlorides formed, would simply combust to produce carbon dioxide, water vapour and hydrochloric acid (HCl) vapour. In addition, burning chloroform in oxygen will produce significant traces of phosgene gas (see on RHS).

Phosgene is extremely toxic in confined spaces, as little as 3 – 10 mg/m3 would cause death in some of the population if they were exposed for 2 or 3 hours. A point of confusion is that it’s hard to get a mental picture because of the scales involved: chloroform requires macroscopic levels of around 15 g/m3 to cause anesthesia (and possible lethality if this level is sustained for an hour or more). On the other hand, phosgene is far more bioactive (∼1000 times) and its lethal effects can occur at trace levels of 3 – 10 mg/m3 (for exposure of a few hours).

Thus, from the considerations here, it’s more likely that the population would die, or suffer grave injury from phosgene poisoning than undergo mass anestheses.

Final Comments

For a sci-fi writer that has built a reputation on hard and accurate science Artemis is a backward step for Andy Weir that could do serious damage to his hard-science credibility. Not that Artemis is without merit. It has a lot going for it and deserves serious attention for the imagination that it shows for what it might be like to live in a city on the moon.

The problem with the book is in introducing chloroform as a mass knock-out gas for the citizens of the Artemis. This plot device mass anestheses shouldn’t ever be seen again in a sci-fi novel that has any claims to being based in actual science. It’s the kind of impractical science that Jonathon Swift (in Gulliver’s Travels) would have satirically described as “extracting moonbeams from cucumbers.”

Hopefully, this is just an unfortunate aberration from Andy Weir and that with his next book he’ll be back to the same standards he had set with The Martian. Let’s just blame it on the moon this time.

N.B. If anyone is thinking of making the Artemis novel into a feature movie, that would be irresponsible for the medical reasons given above.


[1] ZAFO stands for “zero attenuation fibre optic” is constructed from a new form of glass core that offers zero transmission loss and can only be constructed economically on the moon. In the novel Artemis, it’s seen as an important export material that will provide future economic stability for the lunar colony.

[2] Acute exposure guideline levels (AEGL) are a way of expressing human health effects from rare exposures to airborne chemicals. AEGL-3 is the airborne concentration (expressed as mg/m3) of a substance above which it is predicted that the general population, including susceptible individuals, could experience life-threatening health effects or death.

[3] Committee on Acute Exposure Guideline Levels; Committee on Toxicology; Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council, Acute Exposure Guideline Levels for Selected Airborne Chemicals: Volume 12, Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US). Published: 2012 Apr 27; available online; accessed: 18th November 2018.

[4] Medical Annotations, The Lancet, 86, 2200, p 490-3; 1865.. Available online accessed: 18th November 2018.

[5] Argon is used for welding on earth because it’s plentiful (it can be extracted from liquid air). On the moon, neon is preferable because it weighs about half that of argon for the same amount.

Remembering Henry Moseley (1887-1915)

The 11th of November 2018 at 11 am is being remembered solemnly all the over the world as the centenary of the armistice of World War I. In the memory of recent generations, this conflict was the most dreadful that could be imagined. The casus belli was the most senseless. Nevertheless, the sacrifices made by so … Continue reading "Remembering Henry...


The 11th of November 2018 at 11 am is being remembered solemnly all the over the world as the centenary of the armistice of World War I. In the memory of recent generations, this conflict was the most dreadful that could be imagined. The casus belli was the most senseless. Nevertheless, the sacrifices made by so many, in the name of the political and personal freedoms, that we currently enjoy, were the noblest.

In viewing some of the coverage on TV and in the newspaper, many commentators were remembering notable individuals who lost their lives in that awful conflict. The person that I’d most like to remember this day is the British physicist Henry G. J. Moseley who left his work at Manchester University to volunteer for the Royal Engineers of the British Army.

His decision to volunteer was made in typical humility, as he likely would have heard from a number of his colleagues that they thought he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1916. At age 27 years, such as was the stature of his contributions to our understanding of atomic physics, as we’ll get to shortly.

Moseley had the spirit and courage of a true pioneer in science, coupled with great original ability and powers of work. It is rare in the history of science that so young a man had achieved so much  – Sir Ernest Rutherford

He found himself assigned as a signals officer to the invasion force of British Empire soldiers, including many ANZAC soldiers from Australia and New Zealand Corps, in the Gallipoli Campaign, modern-day Turkey in April 1915. On August 10, 1915, the man known to his friends as “Harry” he was hit by a sniper’s bullet and died. One of 41,148 British soldiers killed in the campaign [1] that was ultimately aborted 9 Jan 1916. Unfortunately, there is no provision in the Nobel Prize for award posthumously.

Henry Moseley ca. 1910

The photograph of Henry Moseley (shown) was first published in the journal Nature by Sir Ernest Rutherford on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his passing [2]. It shows Moseley at the Balliol-Trinity Laboratory, Oxford in 1910. The apparatus he appears to be holding is a prototype cloud chamber that he was working on under the direction of C. T. R. Wilson at that time.

This point in Moseley’s short career was marked by hectic change in the understanding of the atom and matter. The concept that atoms were “indivisible” particles of matter, that had existed since ancient Greek civilisation, was unravelling.

Scientific Background

In 1897, experiments by J. J. Thompson had revealed that atoms were made up of negatively-charged particles (later understood to be electrons) that were very tiny when compared with the scale of the atom.

Between 1909 and 1914,  Ernest Rutherford directed a series of experiments by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden that fired positively charged alpha particles at gold foil to observe their scattering. Most of the alpha particles were hardly scattered at all. This indicated that the atom consisted of mostly empty space.

However, the most surprising observation was  that a small number of alpha particles were “backscattered.” That is, they were scattered back toward the source. This is like having bullets, fired from a gun, ricochet backwards, towards the gun itself.

The Rutherford atom
The Rutherford model of the atom.

The implication of these experiments was that the atom consisted of a cloud of negatively charged electrons surrounding a positively-charged, small dense nucleus (see image).

At the same time as Rutherford, Niels Bohr was also developing his model of the atom. In addition to the nucleus, the Bohr model consisted of discrete electron “shells” distinguished by “quantised” energy differences between the shells.

The nature of the nucleus would not be not fully understood for some years. The proton wasn’t characterised as the positively-charged nuclear particle until 1920. Likewise, it wasn’t until the discovery by James Chadwick in 1932, that the neutron became recognised as the other constituent of the nucleus, alongside the proton.

Moseley’s Contribution

Around 1913, as related by Ernest Rutherford in the article in Nature [2], Moseley proposed to settle the scientific question of whether the elements were ordered by atomic weight according to the periodic theory, put forward by Mendeleev, or the nuclear theory, based upon the new (to him) understanding of the atom outlined above. The nuclear theory stated that the ordering of the elements was based upon a whole number Z, equivalent to the number of positive charges within the nucleus of that element.

Moseley proposed to use the X-ray techniques and methods developed by father and son William and Lawrence Bragg, in the period 1912–1913, at the University. of Leeds. He irradiated metal samples with an X-ray tube, then measured the frequency of the X-rays that were re-emitted from the sample using a spectrometer of his own construction.

The technique chosen by Moseley uses two types of X-rays: X-rays generated by an X-ray tube, known as the “source” and secondary X-rays generated when the source X-rays strike a “target.” These secondary X-rays have different frequencies from the primary source, hence they can be distinguished using a spectrometer that splits the X-rays into different spatial planes according to their frequency.

Once thus split, the X-rays are recorded as “lines” on a photographic plate. Knowing the angular separation between these lines, with regard to the diffracting element of the spectrometer, the frequency of the radiation, that each line represents, can be determined very precisely, using the mathematical relationship established by Lawrence Bragg, known as Bragg’s Law.

Rutherford noted in the article Nature [2}, that William and Lawrence Bragg performed similar experiments, with metal targets, and had observed bright lines in their photographic plates. But the Braggs had not continued to investigate this phenomenon systematically in the way that Moseley was about to do in 1913.

Characteristic X-ray Spectra

A reproduction of photographic plates from Moseley’s experiments, showing secondary X-rays emission in two spectral lines, known as Kα and Kβ, are reproduced below, the photographic plates are organised by frequency (X-axis) and by target material (Y-axis).

Photographic plates from Moseley’s experiments organised by frequency (X-axis) and by target material (Y-axis).

The important scientific observation was that the X-ray spectra were characteristic for each element. Knowing the X-ray emission frequencies was enough to unambiguously assign the element present or, as in the case of brass, both of the elements present together, as brass is made up of Cu and Zn. (As an aside, the precise nature of the spectral splitting of the K lines into Kα and Kβ components was not understood at Moseley’s time [3].)

When you compare the photographs above with a modern-day periodic table you can see (diagram below) that the order is reversed with regard to atomic number. Noting that Moseley used a brass target for Zn and that Sc is missing – samples of pure scandium were rare in 1913.


The precise mathematical relationship can be obtained by plotting Z (on the Y-axis) against the square root of the frequency (on the X-axis) as in the graph below. Moseley's Law PlotAs shown by the graph above [4] the relationship between the X-ray spectra of the elements is in near-perfect agreement with the square-root of the frequency. This relationship has become known as Moseley’s Law.

Moseley’s Legacy

Moseley’s experiments resoundingly established that the atomic number Z was not just an accident of the order of elements in the periodic table but an essential characteristic of all matter. Furthermore, the conjecture that Z represented the number of positive charges in the nucleus also became firmly established and would lead to the characterisation of the proton a few years afterwards.

Bohr model of the atom showing the K, L and M electron shells.

Moreover, Moseley’s Law provided independent evidence for the Bohr model of the atom (see diagram) that was being developed in the same year 1913 (excepting that Bohr originally numbered the electron shells from outer to inner whereas Moseley showed that they should be numbered from inner to outer). Not surprisingly, the K-shell of electrons in the diagram is related to the K-series of X-ray spectral lines found in Moseley’s experiments as described above. [See the lecture slides that follow this post for more details.]

Moseley’s findings immediately resolved some long-standing anomalies in Mendeleev’s ordering of the periodic table. For instance, elements 27 and 28, respectively, corresponding to the metals cobalt and nickel, Mendeleev had based the order upon their physical and chemical properties, even though cobalt had a slightly larger atomic weight and technically should have followed nickel. Moseley was able to show that the periodic table follows a rigorously scientific order based upon the atomic number, Z. Because of this, more than a century later, the periodic table has become one of the most indispensable and reliable tools of science.

Moseley’s experiments also revealed that there were gaps at Z-numbers 43, 61, 72, and 75. All these elements were subsequently discovered: two rare naturally occurring elements, with Z-numbers 72 and 75, respectively,  hafnium (in 1923) and rhenium (in 1925). The two radioactive synthetic elements, with Z-numbers of 43 and 61, respectively, were both created in nuclear reactors, technetium (in 1937) and promethium (in 1945).

[It should be noted that Mendeleev also predicted the missing element technetium, some 50 years earlier.]

Modern Applications of Moseley’s Work

The method of X-ray spectrometry that Moseley developed is still being widely used in modern times. It has become known as X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (XRF.) have included my lecture slides on XRF from when I was lecturing at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), see below.


[1] From SBS News, “Key Facts of Gallipoli Casualties,” available online; published 14 April 2014; accessed 11 Nov 2018. Primary source: Australian War Memorial, Bully Beef and Balderdash by Graham Wilson.

[2] Sir Ernest Rutherford, “Moseley’s Work on X-rays,” Nature, 116, 316-7, 1925. This article is freely available online, published 29th August 1925; accessed 11th Nov 2018.

[3] A fuller understanding of the presence of Kα and Kβ lines would await the discovery of electron spin and further developments in quantum mechanics.

[4] The graph is by Dr Mark Selby using Moseley’s original data published in the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 26, 1024–1034, 1913.

Storms Around Brisbane

There have been several bad storms around Brisbane and the Gold Coast recently but where we’re located north of Brisbane,we had ducked the worst of them. However, today the centre of  rather bad one hit us pretty much head on. In the Rain Radar map below the black and dark red regions represent intense storm … Continue reading "Storms Around...

There have been several bad storms around Brisbane and the Gold Coast recently but where we’re located north of Brisbane,we had ducked the worst of them. However, today the centre of  rather bad one hit us pretty much head on. In the Rain Radar map below the black and dark red regions represent intense storm cells.

Rain radar map
Rain radar map of storm, the dark red and black areas are intense cells.

Strong gusty winds knocked down a tree across the road a little way from us. Fortunately, our place was unscathed but the whole neighbourhood was without power for several hours.

Tree across road
Tree across road from storm north of Brisbane (photo: Mark Selby)

Reading the “Alien” Trilogy (2014) and Reflecting on a Dystopian Science, Part 2

No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power. – Jacob Bronowski In Part 1 the question was asked about how the system of Science could become dystopian? We looked at one way that that could occur through capture by corporations and interest groups. In Part 2, we examine how … Continue reading "Reading the “Alien” Trilogy (2014) and Reflecting on a Dystopian Science,...

No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power. – Jacob Bronowski

Book cover showing an alien xenomorph queen
The book “Alien: River of Pain” (2014).

In Part 1 the question was asked about how the system of Science could become dystopian? We looked at one way that that could occur through capture by corporations and interest groups. In Part 2, we examine how a corrupt system can infect the scientists and science that they carry out.

Dr. Batholomew Reese was in charge of the small scientific and medical team for Hadley’s Hope, a “shake-and-bake” terraforming colony on the planetoid Acheron – formerly known as LV-426. As he was enjoying some evening alone time in his quarters, a soft but persistent chime from the door interrupted him. It was his associate, Dr Mori, who was grinning ear-to-ear, which caused Bartholomew to exclaim: “you look a giddy and lovestruck teen.” Dr Mori excitedly replied: “it may be the answer to the Nostromo mystery.” What had excited Mori so much was that an executive from Weyland-Yutani company had just sent to the Colony Administrator, and to Drs Reese and Mori, a communication that included the grid coordinates for a site that should be investigated “immediately.”

Unbeknowst to the colony, the last survivor of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley, had been recovered from many decades drifting in deep space aboard an escape shuttle. Indeed, she had been in hypersleep for 57 years before being brought back to Gateway Station, orbiting Earth. At Gateway Station, she, and had been met by the same Carter Burke that had sent the transmission to the colony that had excited Dr Mori so much.

The above is my summary of key scenes in Alien: River of Pain (2014) which gives an account of the events at the colony on Hadley’s Hope leading up to and coinciding with the James Cameron movie Aliens by 20th Century Fox (1986). In this book, the planet LV-426 (from the original Alien movie) is called Acheron, which is where the book title comes from. Acheron is a river in Hades, which according to Greek mythology, means: “river of pain (or woe).”  As in Part 1, I hope I’ll be able to scare you a little, or at least make you unnerved by the prospect of a dystopian science emerging in our present or near future.

Christopher Golden (2007).

Because I’ve been a big fan of movie Aliens over the years, reading River of Pain was an exquisite pleasure for me. It brought so many of the aspects of the movie to a new light.

Christopher Golden (pictured [2]) has written a very satisfying back-story that  makes re-watching the Aliens movie a delightful fresh pleasure by giving life to unseen aspects of the movie such as the last stand of the colonists, behind welded doors in the ops centre, and the escape of the young girl Rebecca “Newt” Jorden into the air ducts. It’s in these air ducts where she’ll later be rescued by Ripley, who’ll become her surrogate mother and protector. Warning spoilers beyond this point.


The colony on the planet Acheron has accommodation for up to 158 inhabitants and is a joint undertaking between the US government and Weyland-Yutani Corp. The colonists were made up from people of differing roles: including, administrators, led by Al Simpson and his deputy Brad Lydecker [3]. Nominally, the administrators represented the US Government but their paychecks came from Weyland Yutani Corp. The engineering team of terraformers, originally under Greg Hansard, but later Derrick Russell [4], and the science and medical team under Dr Reese.

Protecting the far-flung colony on Acheron was a small detachment of US Colonial Marines. I counted about 16-named Marines in my reading of Alien: River of Pain. It’s not clear whether the Marines were part of the count of 158 colonists or additional to them [5]. Captain of the Marines was the newly-arrived Demian Brackett. The Marine detachment was not nearly as heavily-armed as those Colonial Marines that arrived later with the military spacecraft the USS Sulaco, as depicted in the Aliens movie.

Many of the remaining colonists were surveyors, such as Newt’s parents: Russ and Anne Jorden, who were paid to explore and map the terrain and collect samples for the science team. The Jorden’s, like, many of the colonists, were also “wildcatters” which enabled them to supplement their income by prospecting for mineral deposits, meteor fragments, alien artifacts and so on; for which Weyland-Yutani Corp paid them bonuses. Many of the colonists also brought their families with them to Acheron. For the Jorden’s, they brought Tim with them, older brother to Newt, who was the first child to be born at Hadley’s Hope.

The True Scientific Mission on Acheron

Following on from the communication from Gateway Station (above in the opening paragraph), Another member of the leadership group for the science team, Dr Tessa Hidalgo, is waiting for Dr Mori’s return. She’s also heard of the communication from Gateway Station and is worried about the safety of the colonists in sending them out to an alien artifact without any knowledge of what they might find. Dr Mori says that she shouldn’t be worried about the colonists because the scientists have a far more important mission. So important that Weyland-Yutani Corp. has provided them with an evac ship so that they can return safely homeward with their samples if anything should go wrong. An evac ship that no-one else is aware of, including the Colony Administrator, Al Simpson.

It’s from this conversation that we learn that the science team on Acheron have two missions: one that everyone is aware of, to collect samples and monitor the condition of the planet as the terraforming operations progress. The other, is a secret mission, to search for remains and indications of alien life forms. Furthermore, Dr Mori warns Tessa that if she doesn’t change her attitude about their second, more important mission, by the time Dr Reese arrives, Dr Reese will exclude her from participating in it. Then he adds, all her work on Acheron, as well as her years of pretending to get along with such disagreeable colleagues, will have been in vain.

Interestingly, the conversation between Dr Mori and Dr Hidalgo reveals that the true parasites at Hadley’s Hope might actually exist among the members of the scientific team rather than the, as yet unrevealed, Xenomorphs [6] and their “Facehugger” and “Chestbuster” forms.

Dr. Hidalgo shook her head. “… The colony doesn’t exist just as a host body for us to nest upon.” Dr. Mori arched an eyebrow, gazing at her dubiously. “Are you comparing us to parasites?”

A valley on LV-426 orbiting Calpamos.
A valley on LV-426 showing the atmospheric gloom though which the ringed gas-giant Calpamos and another moon can be dimly seen,

Trouble Brewing

When Russ Jorden finds out about the message from Gateway Station he begs Al Simpson for the grid coordinates. As far as Russ is concerned, this is why he came to Acheron, with Anne and their family: the prospect of making a big find and earning a bonus big enough to set them up for the rest of their lives. He decides to take a vehicle and set off for the coordinates in the Ilium Range, several days journey from Hadley’s Hope. Moreover, he takes his family with him, on their own, on a perilously dangerous trip, without a Marine escort.

Despite two decades of terraforming, the planetoid, Acheron is still desolate (see the image above). The atmosphere is barely breathable and full of fine volcanic grit that gets into the eyes, nose and mouth. The storms cause frequent and, sometimes lengthy, blackouts of radio communication. For these reasons, a Marine escort to accompany colonists had been a long-standing, though unofficial, “standard” procedure, for such trips. But the new-man Captain Brackett is wanting to challenge accepted procedure because from his point-of-view, the Marines are not there to service every whim and desire of the Weyland-Yutani Corp. This is why the Jorden’s leave the relative safety of Hadley’s Hope alone, to venture out on their ill-advised journey.

Bringing Home Their Doom

What happens next you can infer from the Special Edition version of Aliens. The Jorden’s locate the same derelict spacecraft, with its mummified “spacejockey” pilot, that featured in the original Alien movie. Furthermore, the Jorden’s radio their discovery back to Hadley’s Hope, which prompts a dozen or so other wildcatters to set off for the same location, to stake their own claims.

While Russ and Anne are exploring the derelict spacecraft, they come upon a chamber of ovimorph egg sacs. Shortly thereafter, a facehugger spurts from its egg sac and attaches itself to Russ through his facemask. Anne helps him to his feet and supports him as they both shuffle back to the children, still waiting with the vehicle, after which they all rush back to Hadley’s Hope.

Back at the colony, Dr Reese is there when the family arrive. When Dr Reese sees the facehugger on Russ’s face he actually smiles which is immediately noticed by the children. Newt asks: “why is he smiling?” Then, she adds: “is he happy this happened?” Some of the Marines try to reassure her but this only leads Tim to exclaim: “bullshit!”

The next day, Tim finds out through a friend that his Dad has apparently recovered and is awake and speaking with the doctor. Tim, Newt and their young friend take to the air-ducts and crawl their way through to medlab.  They can see their Dad and Mom with Dr Komiskey through a vent in the medlab ceiling. They can hear their Mom pleading for Russ to be released. Dr Komisky was saying: “we’re talking about a newly discovered, extraterrestrial, possibly endoparasitoid  species,” and then “there’s no way he’d {Dr Reese would] allow it.” We also learn that Al Simpson had sent some of his people out to the site to see if they could find any useful information about the alien species.

It’s at that point that the children notice that their Dad is looking ill and grasping at his stomach. If you’ve seen an Aliens movie before, then you know what gruesome sight the children are about to witness. At that very moment, though, the medlab doors slam open and new wildcatter patients are brought in on stretchers, each with a facehugger attached. The children, though, see the bloodily macabre sight of a chestbuster emerging from their father’s chest but the rest of the room’s occupants are distracted. The “baby” Xenomorph is able to escape and find its way into the same air-ducts that the children are hiding in. Newt screams with all her lungs.

Shortly later, Anne and the two children find themselves on the floor of an exam room down the corridor from medlab. Anne is trying to reassure her children, Russ’s corpse is still in medlab, Dr Komisky is standing in the doorway, after having been evicted from her own lab. Medlab is has been taken over by the Science team leaders, Drs. Reese, Mori and Hidalgo. It’s at this point that the live facehugger specimens that you see in the movie Aliens are collected and placed in biosample tanks, suspended in a transparent fluid. For each specimen collected the patient dies. Dr Hidalgo tries to remove the facehugger from the patient with liquid nitrogen. It seems to work for a while but as soon as the facehugger warms up again it’s liquid-acid blood leaks onto the patient from where cuts in it’s tentacles were made.


Meanwhile, Brackett, some of the Marines and colonists try to track down the escaped chestbuster Xenomorph. Khati Fuqua, an assistant to Dr Reese, is sure that it’s a “fat snake with little arms” and has armed herself with only a metre-long shock-stick. Khati states that they’re understanding orders for the facility:

“… this facility is under the operational control of Weyland-Yutani, and standing orders from the company are that any newly encountered alien species falls under the capture-for-study edict.”

When Brackett finds that a laundry-worker has been lifted into the air-ducts by the alien creature, leaving only a bloodied shoe, they quickly become dispelled of the idea that the creature is still a “little parasite.” A corpse of a second laundry worker was also found lying nearby. Soon after there are other casulties among the search party and they are forced to retreat.

The colonist’s problems will shortly become much much worst when the capture-for-study policy is attempted with the other chestbusters from the dozen or more patients in medlab. A policy of confining colonists to quarters only makes them targets for Xenomorphs to come and drag them away, mostly at night, while they sleep. Attempts to kill the Xenomorphs when they appear are largely unsuccessful.

The Nest

One of the colonists points out that they all have PDT implants under their skin so that they can be located in an emergency. Following this lead, Simpson and Brackett quickly realise that they can track the missing colonists. It’s then that it becomes apparent that the Xenomorphs are taking their victims to a nest located under the fusion power plant. Brackett organises a squad of Marines and volunteers in an attempt to destroy the Xenomorph nest. Dr Hidalgo volunteers to go as a medic against the advice of her colleagues. The rest of the colonists barricade themselves in ops behind wielded doors. A handful of Marines are left guarding the corridors leading to ops.

By this time, the colonists and Marines are too few and the Xenomorphs are too numerous for any military operation against their nest to succeed. Dr Hidalgo, together with many of the Marines are killed. Coinciding with the abortive attack against the nest, the barricade in ops is overrun by Xenomorphs. Tim and Newt both escape into the air ducts but Tim returns to try, unsuccessfully, to protect his Mom. This leaves Newt alone in the air ducts.

Meanwhile, Drs. Reese and Mori are making for the evac ship that only they and Dr Hidalgo are aware of, with whatever alien samples that they can carry. They are unaware that they are being followed by Khati Fuqua who has been infested with an alien chestbuster.

Brackett becomes aware of the evac ship though Tessa Hidalgo, before she heroically perishes. He and the few remaining Marines make for ops to try and get together the survivors for an escape attempt. When they reach ops they find that the only survivor is the child Louisa, a friend of Newts. Brackett leads the handful of survivors to the evac ship where he finds a dead Dr Reese metres from the vessel. He has chosen to commit suicide rather than be attacked by the chestbuster emerging from Khati. An injured Dr Mori is just standing there in shock.

In the end, the only survivors are Captain Brackett, a Lieutenant, Dr Mori and Louisa, who escape in the evac ship. Newt survives alone at Hadley’s Hope until rescued by Ripley when the Colonial Marines from the USS Sulaco arrive, as we know from the movie Aliens.

Dystopian Science

I find the above scenario is remarkably rich in meaning for science and scientists: good and bad. We know from Part 1 that the Science depicted in the Alien universe is in a state of nearly full capture by Weyland-Yutani and other large corporations. An interesting observation from the River of Pain novel is that under this state of capture, the scientists and the activities they perform tend to become parasitic; withholding rather than sharing their knowledge constructively with the community around them.

Before his rather ignominious death, Dr Reese’s last thoughts were:

He had dedicated his life to scientific discovery—to the detriment of family, health, and any hope of real companionship. He had eschewed courtesy and personal grace for the quest for knowledge and advancement … regardless of consequence.

But not all of the scientific team are corrupt or self-serving. Tessa Hidalgo bravely joins the military efforts to rid the colony of the Xenomorph nest. She, I like to think, represents the many scientists who join the vocation because they are internally motivated to carry on with the work in the best way they can, despite the corruption around them.

On the other hand, Dr Mori seems to represent those who just follow the path of least resistence. Anything that will allow him to work and advance without asking too many questions or doing much by the way of soul-searching.

Ethical Failure Leads to Overall Failure

The first ethical failure of the scientists was their secret agenda and the associated failure to warn the colonists about the possible danger that they faced in venturing to the derelict site, despite the protest made by Dr Hidalgo to Dr Mori.

The second ethical failure was to place their capture-for-study edict ahead of the safety of the whole colony, including their own safety. Furthermore. they went so far as to value collection of live facehugger specimens over the lives of the patients that they had the responsibility to heal, if at all possible, or at least treat humanely if healing wasn’t possible.

One reading of “River of Pain” is that the Xenomorphs are the evilness of purpose made manifest by Dr Reese’s science team, under direction from Weyland-Yutani Corp, Their self-serving, entitled, secretive ambitions; their no qualms attitude to experimentation on live patients; their quest for power and knowledge at all costs. All wrought together into the physical form of the ultimate evil and destructiveness of a Xenomorph colony. In its way, this is rather reminiscent of the creature born from the subconscious mind of Morbius in the classic sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet (1956).

In summary, the secret agenda set by Weyland-Yutani Corp. promised the scientists unlimited freedom in their quest for knowledge without accepting any responsibility. After all, they had an evac ship and could leave any unfortunate consequences of their work for someone else to deal with, even if that meant the deaths of all the colonists and Marines. However, consequences are never so easy to escape, they have a way of catching up with you in the end regardless. The only scientist to escape alive was Dr Mori.


There are three major conlusions to be drawn:

  • freedoms and responsibilities in science are inseparable;
  • scientific freedom is an acquired right, (i.e., it has to be generally approved by society);
  • responsibility is primary; there are no special rights that scientists can claim.

A resource for further study can be found in the Scientific Freedom and Responsibilities Statement of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Science Ethics Poll

Answer the poll question below or leave a comment.

Note: Up to two responses can be selected.


[1] The book cover for River of Pain is sourced from Goodreads but remains the property of the author or the publisher concerned. Because it is used to illustrate an article which discusses the book, the cover image appears here as part of fair use provisions.

[2] Picture of Christopher Golden at a Ghosts of Albion promotion (2007), taken by Michael Saletnik; the original can be found at It is posted here under a Creative CommonsAttribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

[3] You can find photos of these characters, in deleted scenes from the Aliens movie, from conducting an internet search such as this one:

[4] The presence of Derrick Russell, Nolan Cale and Genevieve Dione and their escape from Hadley’s Hope aboard the space freighter Onager is a nice acknowledgement to readers of the Prometheus: Fire and Stone comic books from Dark Horse Comics (2015).

[5] This appears to be a plot conflict between the book River of Pain and the movie Aliens. Nevertheless, the transcript of an interview with Christopher Golden indicates that the Colonial Marines at Hadley’s Hope were part of the instructions given to him by 20th Century Fox.

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