Sunday, 30 August 2020

Tabulae Mortuae IV (Archives XIV, Ballonts VII)

I thought I might present another post combining old paintings, well, sketches, with ballonts as their main theme. The reason to do so was because of the comments on earlier posts on ballonts. If you read the last one, you will have noted that the troublesome part of ballont physics, the part that conspires against having small balloons, is the membrane enveloping the lifting gas. For small balloons the membrane is simply too heavy for the lifting power of the little bit of gas it envelops. The best solution to deal with that was to think of vary large ballonts, but they would probably be completely at the mercy of the winds as a result. Sadly, small ones could not make it even of the ground. Still, here are some old sketches.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

The ballonts as I first envisaged them and have presented them here were 'complete' animals, meaning they carried every organ they needed to live, including digestive organs, membranes, nervous systems, etc. But I had also played with another way of using ballonts, and that was a more limited version: they might only serve to disperse seeds or larvae. In this view, the gas and membrane would be produced by a much large parent organism, itself definitely heavier than air. The sketch above shows one expression of that idea: we are looking at something like a water lily, with most of the organism hidden from view below the water's surface. But there are 'ballontogenetic' organs in there; you can see one larva that has just been released, while another is in the process of getting its balloon filled. The idea was that the parent inflates the sac, and that, once released, the larva passively plugs the vents through which the parent injected gas.
Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
 The image above shown a very similar idea. Here, most of the parent is hidden under the sand of this marsh, or beach, or wherever this takes place. Although it has a Dali-like character, I thought this design visually less pleasing than the previous one.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Now this apparently similar scheme rested on another mechanism to form the membrane. Here, a kind of microbial mat under and on a water surface has the ability to produce a lighter-than-air gas, perhaps methane. The gas would push the surface layer of the mat upwards, forming a bulge. As the volume of gas increased, the bubble lifts the membrane up some more. It might dry out to become lighter, while also shrinking at the bottom, forming a kind of tether. I admit that it was not quite clear to me what kind of membrane there would be to keep the bubble intact. If you look closely, you will see that there is a definite round structure within the outer slime mat. What that was, and how it would work, wasn't exactly thought through: while sketching, shapes just coalesce, and the process is only partly a conscious one. With hindsight, I can now add one word that might perhaps solve this problem: foam. But more about that in a later post.

I really liked the concept of some witches' microbial brew forming slimy mats that would in the end produce a nice ballont, carrying the whole microbe culture to wherever the winds would take it.
Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This one is very similar, just a bit more worked out, and more pleasing as far as its potential for a painting was concerned. ( I do not know why I wrote 'Colonia volitans' underneath; that should be 'Colonia volans', the 'flying settlement'.)

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Actually, I could not resist spending an additional 15 minutes on it, quickly adding some colour to see whether life could be injected into this old sketch. It's not too bad, I think; something like this may work artistically. 

Something new for this blog
While 'artistically pleasing' is certainly important when designing speculative lifeforms, it is not the only thing requiring artistry. There has to biological and physical feasibility too, and those are not  easy either. Please keep in mind that the sketches above unfortunately rested on a complete lack of physical feasibility, and that is why they were banned. The previous posts and comments made it clear that small ballonts really need a 'magical massless membrane'. But 'massless' is already 'magical', at odds with 'physics'.

Still, one commenter, Abby, short for Abbydon, came up with an ingenious idea. He wrote that graphene membranes might allow for very small and nearly massless membranes. Whether creating graphene biologically is plausible or feasible remains to be seen. But I liked the idea that this might make ballonts at least physically feasible, so I invited Abbydon to do something I have never done before, and that is to write a post for this blog. Mind you, this doesn't mean that previous commenters were less smart; it's just that I never thought to ask anyone to contribute directly to the blog. Abbydon accepted, so you may expect the upcoming post 'Ballonts VIII' to carry his signature.


bookdream said...

Similar artwork by David A Hardy. Shown in 'Challenge of the stars' and 'Futures - 50 years in space' both by DAH and Patrick Moore.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

That's an interesting similarity! I have not dated the sketch, and can only say that I must have done it before 1996. I have no recollection of having seen the Hardy painting before, but that doesn't mean much seeing that Hardy painted it in 1972. I might have seen it if it appeared in 'Science Fiction Monthly' or OMNI in the 70s or 80's.

Unknown said...

Kudos, Abby!

frozen sklaa said...

What if ballonts were like queen ants that only fly once to disperse and then break off their wings after? The ballont is a legged animal with an attached balloon, and after its maiden voyage after maturity the balloon pops and is shed, and the creature goes about a ground-dwelling life?

Unknown said...

hmm...maybe go further with that: the ballont is the entire organism, but after the nuptial flight, only the reproductive and feeding organs survive (think of the Sacculina barnacles that infect crabs - what infects the crab are only a few cells out of the entire barnacle)


Abbydon said...


Thanks. It was really just a case of stitching my (long) comments together to tell a coherent story. Hopefully it will be well received and maybe I will then need my own blog if people want to read my rambling thoughts.

Incidentally, when I first found out about the "crab hacking" sacculina barnacles it sent a shiver down my spine as they are a bit horrifying. You should really warn people before you suggest anyone think about them...

frozen sklaa,

That sort of concept is exactly why there is such an interest in working out how to make smaller ballonts viable. Small ballonts really seem more interesting and flexible than larger ballonts. Hopefully my guest article will provide useful inspiration to people in this area though.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Frozen sklaa and Anthony: very interesting ideas. I have just completed a painting for The Book showing a parent organism that produces a lighter-than-air foam to help- disperse its larvae. I will show a sketch in Abbydon's upcominmg post, and will also make some sketches of ant or mantis-sized animals carries aloft by a 'soap' bubble.

If the graphene solution seems defensible, I will very probably produce more than one paintings to such microballonts.

Unknown said...

to Abbydon:
sorry about that - I try to assume everyone knows as much as I do about things that have been public knowledge for a few (or more) years...that and, to be honest, to me, the scariest things about them weren't the castratings, but how 99% of the barnacle died.