Grand challenges, X-prizes and Mars volunteers: stimulating bold wonders

Grand challenges!  It’s an approach to stimulating research and technology that has been around for a while, stretching back to the British “longitude prize” of the 1700s.  Aviation medals and awards spurred rapid advances during the 1920s and 1930s and sparked breakthroughs in human-powered flight in the 1980s and 1990s.  One contest helped lead to creation of the “spaceship” sub-orbital craft that Richard Branson and Burt Rutan will soon use to offer spectacular jaunts for rich folks. (Something I portray evolving into an extreme sport, in Existence.)

xprizeNewer X Prizes – stimulated especially by Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation – include Qualcomm’s contest to develop a medical tricorder and Google’s prize for the first private group to land an autonomous mobile probe on the moon, as well as Nokia’s Medical Sensing prize.

One major advantage of the prize approach is that the funder does not have to pay anything till the mission is accomplished. The allure of a possible prize… plus potential renown, of course… is often enough to make private groups, companies, teams or individuals willing to take passionate risks, investing their own time and money — a style of bold endeavor that did very well by our ancestors, during the Age of Exploration and the later barnstorming era of air flight development.  Many fail, some spectacularly… a few succeed. And we all move forward.

So let’s crowd-source this. Do any of you have ideas for endeavors or goals that would be perfect for an X Prize? It should require modest to intermediate cost, with substantial potential rewards… but with risky odds of success that are not quite good enough to draw in the normal market forces of rational investment. And cool!  It should be cool enough to attract some millionaire/billionaire — and/or NASA or the White House (I know a guy) — to propose it as a Grand Challenge.  Or else, speak up with challenges that you’ve seen and found impressive.

== Mars One: why did I volunteer? ==

I  believe that a one way Mars mission is a viable-enough idea for some people to consider it, even knowing, as I do, that “one-way” has several possible connotations.

MarsOneOn the surface, the claim is that eliminating the huge cost of the return flight will allow instead the establishment of full, self-regenerating and sustainable life-support systems on the Martian surface, allowing the new “colonists” to live out a normal span in some comfort. You’ll strive hard upon arriving, unfold and deploy solar powered units that can produce food and other necessities, and voila, become the first human citizen of the Red Planet.  “One way” then means you’re happy to spend the rest of a reasonable lifespan exploring, maintaining the colony, and then greeting the next wave. There is a basic reality to this, knowing that all that time at low gravity has probably left you unfit for life on high-g Earth, in any event.

But, of course, this mission would have very low margins for error or the unexpected. Even if the sustainability modules work perfectly, the odds are still strong that “one-way” will also mean “short duration.” In which case your hard work won’t be wasted. It will have set the stage for followup missions which will use your base, build on and improve it… after they bury you. And future generations will erect a monument on that spot.

You’ll want very qualified people, who can have a decent stab at setting up the life support technologies and perhaps (despite long odds) surviving to greet the second wave. But the first wave volunteers must be realistic about those odds, and willing to go, anyway.

And many call that very idea insane. I admit that may be somewhat true… so? People who cannot imagine any reasonable person making that choice simply aren’t envisioning the wide range of human diversity. Nor do they comprehend the vast drama of the human past, during which history often pivoted around risk-takers.

Consider what I told my family. By the very earliest date that Mars One might launch, I expect to be a spry 75 year old, whose kids are already successfully launched, and who might yet spend a few years doing something truly remarkable.  I think you’ll find tens of thousands of people who – under those circumstances – will at least ponder it seriously.

inspiration_mars_headerThough I still cannot guarantee I would decide to actually go.  I’d need to see competence.  Lots of it.  And I still prefer Dennis Tito’s Mars Inspiration mission!

Oh, neither one is likely to fly. We’ll go, however, sooner or later.

And this conversation is well worth having.

== Science Potpourri == 

A TV network has posted an edited snippet I gave them. Getting a bit lyrical and big-picture, I describe how we are in a race to cross a dangerous zone…into the future.

The world’s smallest flying robot has fly-like agility – stunning size and flexibility breakthrough in use of piezo-electric materials.  So far, it draws its power and computation down hairlike cable.  But we will live in the world described in The Transparent Society  (1997) – one in which “insects” will fly into any building capable of spying.  What is to be done?If we’re going to be watched, then let’s watch the watchers.  We may not be able to stop elites from looking at us.  But at least, that way, we can have a say in what they do TO us.

NASA is raising awareness for its upcoming launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft with its Going to Mars Project. The MAVEN spacecraft is scheduled for launch this November, to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere; and mission managers have invited the public to submit literary messages.  Haiku to Mars! 

google-timelapse-100036806-galleryNASA’s Landsat imagery goes back to the 1970s. A partnership with Google has merged this  time-lapse data into Earth Engine, a cloud-based system that makes all of these images available and comparable. A spectacular tool now available to private groups and individuals, or anyone wanting a direct view of changes over time that we have wrought upon our planet.

Read a very thoughtful essay by the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, about our human destiny in space, colonizing the solar system and exploring the stars.

asterankAsterank has collected, computed, or inferred important data such as asteroid mass and composition from multiple scientific sources. With this information, they can estimate the costs and rewards of mining asteroids. Vivid and colorful (try the 3D version), it offers details on orbits and basic physical parameters are mostly sourced from JPL data.

Check out StarHopper, an intuitive app, similar to PlanetHopper that allows you to visually explore our universe. Soar through the star-filled void towards stars, asteroids, planets and all that our galaxy has to offer.

What does SETI stand for? What is its mission? A video I made for AskimoTV.

A quantum internet capable of sending perfectly secure messages has been running at Los Alamos National Labs for the last two and a half years.  The attraction? Any attempt to eavesdrop on a quantum message cannot fail to leave telltale signs of snooping.  Quantum-secure encryption has been around a while but only point-to-point.  A distributed system is more difficult.

In a major medical breakthrough, researchers have developed particles that can be injected into a bloodstream to keep it oxygenated even when the lungs are not functioning at all and there is no access to a heart-lung machine. The micro-particles used are composed of oxygen gas pocketed in a layer of lipids, around two to four micrometers in length and carry about three to four times the oxygen content of our own red blood cells. Beyond medical uses, imagine spies or seal who can “stay underwater for over 20 minutes? If a boat was to begin to sink, you could shoot yourself as the boat is going down to ensure you aren’t drowned in the under current of the sinking vessel.”

What do the “H” and “N” labels mean, in the designation of a flu virus? They stand for various versions of the coating molecules that the virus uses to latch onto and invade cells.  There are 144 possible combinations of coats, and this article explains that well.  What it doesn’t make clear is that there are other surface molecules that our bodies must also recognize, in order for immunity (or vaccination) to work.  Moreover, that says nothing about the core genetics of the virus, allowing it to hijack a cell once it is inside. This constitutes a whole other range of genealogies and one version of H1N1 may have a very different background than another.  Here’s to the professionals, at the front lines of this fight.

==Science and the Enlightenment==

IgnoranceThis nostrum is circulating, of unknown provenance but based upon an earlier snark by H. L. Mencken

      Philosophy is like looking for a black cat in a dark room.

     Metaphysics is like looking in a dark room  for a black cat that isn’t there.

     Theology is looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there — and proclaiming, “I found it!”

     Science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room…with a flashlight. 

Is that why so many hate science? Is the amorphous movement called “the Enlightenment” in its final days?  Assailed by forces of far left and right, by impulsiveness and and romanticism and egotism and also by portions of religion, by all of those who demand that their subjective obsessions take primacy over objective reality? Here is an interesting article, The Trouble with the Enlightenment about the philosophical history – and future prospects – of “enlightenment” terminology and the ambitiously modernist project that it represents.

Alas, the author neglects one of the crucial aspects: that the continental branch of enlightenment philosophers got drawn into styles of Reason that began replicating the mistakes of Plato. Only the pragmatic/empirical/ progressive offshoot – across the water – developed new tools to overcome our human propensity for delusion and self-persuasion.  Tools that are – in themselves – the targets of attack by those who want the Enlightenment to end.  Worth a look.

== And then More science ==

Energy efficiency is often a hard sell in the US. Energy efficient devices can require a bit more money up front, which is then paid back gradually often over the course of several years. But a new study in the latest edition of PNAS suggests that the problem isn’t only a matter of economics—instead, like so much else, energy efficiency has become politicized. Because they so strongly object to the thought of climate change, many conservatives won’t spend more for energy-efficient light bulbs if their packaging contains a message about cutting carbon emissions.  “Conservatism” has so drifted from its roots in “waste-not” attitudes of the Puritans or the money-saving notions of Barry Goldwater, that (the study shows) the very words “efficiency” and energy independence and even saving money on energy rouse active hostility in those on today’s American right. Alas.

And while I’m offending 1/4 of my readers… why are so many climate change deniers also into conspiracy theories  and laissez faire (not AdamSmithian) economics?

== Final Notes ==

Security expert Bruce Schneier appears to be coming around to recognizing what matters most. Transparency and Accountability Don’t Hurt Security—They’re Crucial to It.

I am glad to see Bruce zeroing in on the key terms “transparency” and “accountability.”  These are the core goals that coalesce in “sousveillance” or looking back at authority from below.  We just won a major victory, when both the courts and Obama Administration ruled that citizens have a powerful right to record our encounters with police in public places.

I’m glad Bruce has come to see that assertive application of reciprocal accountability needs to be our main focus.

A bipartisan bill would create a new scientific figurehead: the Science Laureate of the United States. It sounds nice, innocuous, harmless. But let’s not fool ourselves into imagining this portends a shift away from the War on Science… and against all of the “smartypants” castes, from teachers and scientists to medical doctors, economists, journalists, professors, civil servants, law professionals. Don’t count Rupert Murdoch out, yet. He seems awfully determined. (And there is a smaller but just as vehemently anti-science crowd among nostalgia junkies of the far left, as well.)

Face it, folks. This is not about that stupid, lobotomizing “left versus right” metaphor. It is folks who are rational and contingently reasonable versus outright crazy. It is future versus past.

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