Liftwood trees grow only in the Highlands of Mars. The liftwood groves are defended by the High Martians and liftwood, along with piracy, is the main source of income for the savage highlanders. Canal Martians, and now Earthmen, sometimes make raids on the liftwood groves, but this is very dangerous business. Liftwood is difficult to grow and is comparitively rare. There has never been enough liftwood to meet the demand for it. This makes it expensive and the single most valuable item of trade on Mars. Attempts to transplant liftwood trees have not been successful. The trees will grow outside of the Martian Highlands, but they do not have the anti-gravity capability that makes liftwood useful.
Little is know about the biology of liftwood or how it works. Liftwood is not the only Martian lifeform that exibits the ability to defy gravity. The High Martians can fly using a comparable capability, but that, too, is a mystery. It is known that liftwood is effected by planetary magnetic fields (see Venus) and that it loses it's lift over time.
In the section of the Space:1889 rule book that discusses Luna, it states that a liftwood ship cannot land on the Moon because the Moon has no atmosphere and liftwood works because it is lighter than air, like hydrogen or helium. This statement is inconsistent with the way liftwood is described working in the rest of the game's resources, including the same rule book from which it comes. Cloudships and flyers are consistently described and illustrated as being fitted with slats of liftwood arrayed on the bottom of the ship. These slats are controlled by a complicated arrangement of levers and linkages that allow them to be adjusted to different angles relative to the force of gravity, and this controls the amount of lift provided and permits the ship to change altitude by changing the effective lift of the liftwood. It seems clear that liftwood acts more as a screen that cuts off or even repulses the effect of gravity, and that action is proportional to the area of the liftwood presented to the source of the gravity. Thus, a slat of liftwood provides less lift when it is edge-on to the direction of gravity's pull than when the slat presents its full width. If liftwood were simply lighter than air (something difficult to imagine in a chunk of wood, but not impossible in a fantasy) then it's lift would be proportional to its volume and the shape would not matter. A block or bundle of liftwood sticks in the center of the ship would provide just as much lift as the same volume of slats fastened to the bottom. Altitude control would be much more difficult since it would require throwing out ballast to go up or liftwood to go down. The latter would not be an attractive solution, given the expense of liftwood. No, it seems clear that however liftwood does work, it has nothing to do with being lighter than air.
I recently came across a discussion of a theory of gravity that might be useful in explaining how liftwood works. The following is a report (by Jeffery D. Kooistra. Originally Published July-August, 1999 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #26) on a lecture given at the Conference on Future Energy:
The concluding speaker of the day was astronomer Dr. Tom Van Flandern of the Meta Research Institute, who spoke on "A Complete Gravity Model and Free Energy." Van Flandern's background is in astrodynamics and celestial mechanics; he was formerly with the U.S. Naval Observatory. His interpretation of astronomical data (from binary pulsars, planetary dynamics, etc.) is that the speed of gravitational interaction is much, much faster than light, at least several billion times as fast. This may be a surprise to those who think the speed of gravity is the same as the speed of light, but, in fact, there has been no direct measurement of gravitational speed. Looking out into the heavens at how large bodies interact with one another, it is obvious that gravity is much faster than light. For instance, the position in the sky where we see the sun is about eight minutes behind its real instantaneous position, yet the Earth in its orbit responds to the Sun's real-time position.Now, let me make it very clear that this is not accepted by mainstream science. Van Flandern's theories are definately fringe or, some might say, even crackpot. Certainly, they have been refuted by respected scientists working in the field, such as Steve Carlip, Matthew Weiner and Geoffrey Landis (Does Gravity Travel at the Speed of Light?). Kooistra, who as seen in the above reference originally advocated Van Flandern's position, has since switched sides to the General Relativity camp ("The Great Gravity Debate Part II", Analog Nov 2001).
Van Flandern suggests an alternate model to gravitational interaction. He proposes a very old idea that perhaps gravity is a "pressure" phenomenon, and not an attractive one. That is, space may be permeated by little entities called c-gravitons, which travel billions of times lightspeed. The continuous interaction of these with masses leads to all the effects we ascribe to gravity. Toss into the picture a light-carrying medium (the "aether") and you have a model that accounts for all the observations now attributed to General Relativity, but does this much more simply. There are a number of experiments that can be done to distinguish between Van Flandern's gravitational theory and the usual ones. One of these is that c-gravitons should be attenuated and eventually blocked by enough matter. Van Flandern showed some tantalizing data collected from satellites that seem to show this very effect in action!
For the free energy enthusiast, the implications of gravity being particulate and perhaps blockable are obvious. Block or deflect the c-gravitons raining down from the sky and up you go into space. Turn off the blocking shield and recover the energy you've gained, for free, as you fall back to Earth. Van Flandern's views may bother those among us who want to unify all the forces of nature with complex theories untethered to experiment, gravity included, but that's a matter of taste, not physics.
However, since many consider the universe of Space: 1889 to be non-Einsteinian anyway, acceptance of the 'pressure' theory of gravity has advantages. For one, it is easy to imagine liftwood possessing some special characteristic that blocks, absorbs or neutralizes 'c-gravitons' in such a way as to produce lift. The reason I prefer this to the standard model of gravity is the problem of experiencing weight on a liftwood vessel. If liftwood cancels the effects of gravity, and gravity is an attractive force from the planet below the vessel, then eveything above the liftwood should be weightless, including the crew. That is not the way the effects are described in the game materials, and for good reason. It would make working the vessels very difficult, if not impossible, and would change the 'naval' flavor of liftwood vessels. But, if gravity is a result of particles coming toward the planet, then everything above the liftwood would still be exposed to those particles and the full force of gravity would be in effect on the liftwood vessel, even though overall, the ship's weight is reduced enough to float above the planet.
Another reason I like this theory is that it requires the existence of the ęther as a light-carrying medium. I find it appealing to have a 'unified' theory of gravity and ęther in operation, something we haven't (yet) managed to do in the real universe with General Relativity and quantum mechanics. There may be good reasons why the 'pressure' theory of gravity should not be used in Space: 1889 but, so far, I haven't seen them. Of course, the real discussion of the merits of the 'Great Gravity Debate' is way over my head. I've tried to extract a layman's interpretation from the materials, but can't guarantee that I haven't missed something obvious. The one thing I am reasonably sure of is that, though General Relativity may work just fine for explaining the effects of gravity, no one has yet explained what gravity is. That leaves us room to imagine things like liftwood.
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Space:1889 is Frank Chadwick's registered trademark for his game of Victorian Era space-faring. He has granted permission for the use of the background of Space:1889 for the stories presented here. All text, illustrations, photographs and design are © 2000-2007 Dan Thompson, except where otherwise noted.