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Pass the Salt

June 6, 2012

Once again, salt is controversial. Do we eat too much or not? Could salt become so dangerous it gets banned or controlled? That was the premise that got The Highest Frontier into hot water with ultraphytes (disguised as reviewers) before the book even came out (certain ARCs got shredded).

From a medical view, given that our bloodstream contains a precise concentration of NaCl, it would indeed be surprising if too much salt–or too little–did not cause major strain. A lack of salt is a big problem for most animals; hence their predilection for salt licks. On the other hand, even a high-school level knowledge of the kidney suggests why too much salt has to be a bad thing. And for those who can’t drink water free of sweetener, there’s double the trouble.

My next Frontera book has the ultraphytes still seeking salt–but also some other substance, something more mysterious. Any ideas?  What do you think ultraphytes should be looking for?

BTW a shout out for Ray Bradbury, RIP.

  1. JonathanC permalink
    June 6, 2012 3:15 pm

    Perhaps Theobromine?

    “While theobromine and caffeine are similar in that they are related alkaloids, theobromine is weaker in both its inhibition of cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterases and its antagonism of adenosine receptors.[35] Therefore, theobromine has a lesser impact on the human central nervous system than caffeine. However, theobromine stimulates the heart to a greater degree.[36] While theobromine is not as addictive, it has been cited as possibly causing addiction to chocolate.[37] Theobromine has also been identified as one of the compounds contributing to chocolate’s reputed role as an aphrodisiac.[38]” wikipedia

    • June 6, 2012 8:31 pm

      Yes, hooray for theobromine. It would be interesting to know if aliens would be susceptible.

  2. heteromeles permalink
    June 6, 2012 6:48 pm

    I’d go look at the micronutrient end of the spectrum. Here’s how my thinking goes:

    1. Planets are useful because planetary geology (especially the differential heating caused by the formation of continents) causes certain elements to concentrate into deposits that are worth mining. While we talk about mining stuff from asteroids, unless the asteroid has undergone differential heating (and some have), for the most part you’re going to get a diffuse concentration of elements in a big old rock, and it’s going to take a fair amount of effort to distill useful amounts out of space rocks.

    2. Various enzymes and other bio-molecules require particular atoms to work. Hemoglobin requires iron, for example, while chlorophyll requires magnesium. They get more exotic from there.

    The trick is to find a micronutrient that’s critically necessary, and one that’s not terribly common in space. Then create the shortage. Lithium? Vanadium?

    The only one I wouldn’t recommend is silicon. That’s probably a micronutrient, but creating a silicon-free environment on this planet within which to test that theory is effectively impossible. Even determining that chlorine was an essential nutrient for plants required a lot of very rigorous and clever chemistry.

    • June 6, 2012 8:33 pm

      Vanadium is a good one. In Brain Plague, the micros need arsenic, but they also mention a fondness for ytterbium.

    • paws4thot permalink
      June 7, 2012 4:13 am

      (1) surely depends on whether you think (A) the asteroid belt is primarily made up from a panet that was torn apart (whether by a planetbuster bomb or gravitational stresses is irrelevant here) or (B) has failed to form a planet due to gravitational stress?

      In (A) I’d submit that “non-ubiquitous metal asteroids”, either as half a ton of $metal or as nuggets of $metal in iron or silicon matrices, must exist.

    • heteromeles permalink
      June 7, 2012 11:22 am

      Well, I’ve got to go with Option B, since I know someone working with the Dawn spacecraft. As I understand it, It’s actually a bit more complex, because the biggest asteroids (Ceres and Vesta, and possibly others) did get big enough for gravity to pull them into spheres and get internal melting going. Other asteroids did get spalled off the big girls during collisions, so there are bits of partially melted Vesta crust and Ceres crust floating around out there.

      As for the rest of it, I’m assuming it’s cooled debris from the formation of the solar system. It won’t be precisely homogenous, but unless there’s something weird, I’m not sure there will be useful concentrations. Useful amounts, perhaps, but that’s what it might need to be refined for.

      And Joan’s right, a rare earth element is a good choice, in that they all have similar chemistry and don’t tend to concentrate very often.

    • paws4thot permalink
      June 8, 2012 6:14 am

      I’d agree with the Option (B) and rare earths as the most likely/interesting option.

      That said, IME the best discussions tend to evolve when you do true brainstorming, and/or consider the less likely of 2 theories as well as the more likely one.

  3. heteromeles permalink
    June 7, 2012 11:26 am

    Actually, Joan, if you want to get really cute, what you might posit is:

    a) optogenetics are involved in the system somewhere (so that cells can both emit light and be controlled by light).
    b) the ultraphytes need some rare earth for the biological nanolasers and optical sensors they use to enable an optogenetic interface.

    If that’s not appealing, samarium nano-magnets might be useful…

  4. Jonathan Cole permalink
    June 7, 2012 3:15 pm

    Perhaps a crystal that is useful for something important, but takes millions of years of slow formation. A formation process that just can’t be made significantly faster by any scientific means. Therefore the only source would be particular geologic locations.

    • June 7, 2012 4:04 pm

      That’s an interesting idea. A crystal “doped” with particular rare-earth impurities could be especially rare–and have interesting properties.

      • JonathanC permalink
        June 11, 2012 2:25 pm

        Perhaps the compound forms with a bond from a key element while it is one isotope. Then a long half-life period converts enough of it to become another isotope, which has a slightly different bonding which then can form a second critical link. Rinse and repeat.

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