First, before getting down to science, congratulations to my bro Kim Stanley Robinson, for winning this year’s Nebula Award for best novel. 2312 is an epic that spans the solar system and a myriad fascinating ideas. And felicitations also to the other Nebulists – the delightful/brilliant Nancy Kress and the talented Andy Duncan and Aliette de Bodard. Learn more at the SFWA site.
See today’s San Diego Union Tribune article/interview about me and the Clarke Center Starship Conference (with a familiar face smiling on page one of the paper on our doorstep).
Mostly, I was asked about SETI… the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. By coincidence, at the Starship Century Symposium at UCSD, we had the honor of hosting Dr. Freeman Dyson and Dr, Jill Tarter (head of the SETI Institute) at our home.
== Do scientists “vote” on what is true? ==
Is it true that “97 percent” of scientists working in the fields of climate, meteorology and planetary atmospheres stand by the current consensus, that human generated, carbon-rich gases produced by human industry are responsible for substantial, rapid climate change?
That claimed figure — long denied by one major wing of Culture War — now appears to have been verified systematically. Almost all of the extremely smart folks who study climate on eight planets and who were responsible for transforming the Weather Report’s range from two hours to ten days agree that something reckless and perilous is going on, and some carefully discussed and economically bearable alteration of habits may be in order.
Does 97% agreement means that something is necessarily true? My late colleague, author Michael Crichton, led the charge for those on the right whose catechism now declares that “science cannot vote on what is true: there is no such thing as scientific consensus.” Indeed, like many polemical lies, that line has a basic level that is true. Nature, indeed, cannot be coerced by mass opinion, even among brilliant scientists. There have been times when 97% of them were dead wrong.
Take these examples from a well-written little piece on the Fox News site that relates “five blunders in science.” Indeed, at the surface, these interesting anecdotes — (e.g. Lord Kelvin’s calculation of the age of the Earth and Einstein’s cosmological constant) — simply go to show that science is not a realm of all-knowing priests, but of brilliant and not-so brilliant workers whose interplay of argument and experiment and criticism is just as important as coming up with terrific models. (When you and I read this article, we’ll say, there’s evidence that science works well. Ah, but then note where this piece was published. And imagine the sub-text lesson that is drawn by the average Fox customer.)
In fact, those occasions when 97% of scientists get it wrong are rare. And science has been much better at correcting them than polemical political mobs have been. In any event, those rare cases are irrelevant to the matter at hand…
…which is whether to let public policy be affected by — and prudently attend to — important failure mode warnings by most of those who actually understand an important field of human knowledge. And to give them some benefit of the doubt, rather than reflexively obeying the same advertising firms that claimed cars don’t cause smog and tobacco is good for you.
When 97% of those who know a lot more than you do about something warn you that there may be danger ahead, only idiots blithely ignore such expert diagnoses and go charging ahead with business as usual.
== Science Potpourri! ==
A team of researchers from the United Kingdom and Canada have discovered pockets of water that they say have been isolated for at least up to two billion years. What makes the find especially intriguing is that the ancient water carries all the essential ingredients for life.
Reversing heart disease in older mice? Sure. Claiming this portends a reversal of aging in humans? Malarkey. Mice are not analogues for human aging. Period. For reasons I go into elsewhere. Good news for mice though!
NASA’s Lunar Monitoring Program uses a special 14 inch telescope to stare at the moon whenever it is in view from Marshall Space Flight Center. This is the sort of thing we need to do more of — and it bore result startling results when a boulder-sized meteor slammed into the moon in March, igniting an explosion so bright that anyone looking up at the right moment might have spotted it. Only now we have a device looking for us.
Read a fascinating and cogent explanation of why NASA and Google are investing in D-Wave’s quantum annealing approach to quantum computing, which appears to work better for optimization problems than any of the gate based quantum computer experiments. This is a frontier with many puzzles and many potentials. (A few of them illustrated in Existence.
Amateur beekeepers are taking up controlled breeding to seek hardier varieties that can withstand New England winters, resist mites, overcome parasites and pesticides and help stave off the honeybee collapse that threatens agriculture across North America. Augmenting work done at universities, these clubs are terrific exemplars of useful avocation science and the Age of Amateurs. Heck, I just rescued a hive on my hill, moving it from a lethal place to safety. Third time I’ve done it. I think I’ll buy some bee boxes next.
Would you gardeners use human poop that’s been treated and transformed into organic fertilizer? About 50 percent of the bio-solids produced in the U.S. are returned to farmland through a process that is heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency… To sell Class A biosolids to farmers and gardeners, facilities have to ensure that there are no dangerous heavy metals or bacteria in the end product. Still…
Researchers have used transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) which mildly “shocks” the brain with high frequency electrical noise. Supplied to an area known to be important for math ability, this can apparently improve a person’s ability to perform calculations. No one exactly knows how this relatively new method works, but it does seem to allow the brain to work more efficiently by making neurons fire more synchronously. Augmentation, here we come. Expect huge use in China.
Alien? Subhuman primate? Deformed child? Mummified fetus? The Internet is buzzing over the nature of “Ata,” a bizarre 6-inch-long skeleton featured in a new documentary on UFOs. A Stanford scientist now asserts the DNA is purely human and not “alien”. Okay, look, I deal in the strange professionally. And the lack of any external and separate-referenced studies of this thing screams alarm bells. Despite sober-sounding rhetoric in the articles, I give it 90% to be a hoax.
== And still more science! ==
According to preliminary orbital prediction models, comet C/2013 A1 will buzz Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. JPL calculations suggest the comet is most likely to make a close pass of 0.0007 AU of Mars (that’s approximately 63,000 miles from the Martian surface). But uncertainties are still high and the comet might either strike the planet or break up. But that’s unlikely and not what concerns me. What I fret about is the storm of pebbles, dust and gas accompanying the dirty iceball (according to my doctoral dissertation). There is real danger than a near passage might sand-blast our Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissaance Orbiter spacecraft, now delivering valuable science from above the Martian surface and providing services to the Curiosity and Opportunity landers. I find this prospect exciting and worrisome.
But stay tuned… 2014 will be significant in other ways.
A disappointingly superficial article about geo-engineering by Clive Hamilton appeared in the New York Times, glossing over many aspects and issues, and leaving out any mention of the one geo-engineering remedy to climate change that would actually replicate what the Earth is already doing — ocean fertilization to remove CO2 from the atmosphere while stimulating new fisheries. Alas for journalism.
Where is it all leading? Max More and Natasha Vita-More are the editors of The Transhumanist Reader: Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future, the first book to present a comprehensive survey of the origins and current state of transhumanist thinking about the future of humanity. The volume offers of core writings by seminal thinkers, exploring the scope of the effects of human innovation of science and technology and how, in turn, science and technology often changes human nature. It goes into arguments for and against human enhancement and life prolongation along with issues of social concern and biopolitics.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is the world’s most famous astrophysicist, and he is a Trekkie. “I never got into Star Wars,” Tyson tells us. “Maybe because they made no attempt to portray real physics. At all.” Despite his getting way too inflated lately I always liked the guy a lot. Here’s one more reason. I guess.
== Science I’ll preen about ==
San Diego-based Torrey Pines Logic is developing the Beam 100 Optical Detection System for the military; it sends out pulses of low power lasers that can detect various lenses out to roughly one kilometer. Returning pulses are analyzed for signatures indicative of optical glass, discarding noise from other glass, like bottles, windows. (Note one for the predictions registry?)
Meat from tissue culture could be a powerful game changer, one that has appeared in science fiction since the 1940s and certainly in many of my own past novels. Now researchers hope to make one hamburger from calf muscle cells grown in dishes… a small and expensive beginning, but so was the first micro-processor.
Reminiscent of my “privacy moths” on Planet Jijo, in my novel BRIGHTNESS REEF: “Croatian Bees Are Being Trained to Hunt Down Deadly Land Mines.”
A 3D printer is slated to arrive at the International Space Station next year, where it will crank out the first parts ever manufactured off planet Earth. More than 30 percent of the spare parts currently aboard the International Space Station can be manufactured by Made in Space’s machine. I presented a paper to NASA in 1982 predicting this exact event, someday. It was dismissed as sci fi, alas.