Steering the Future: on Earth and in the Heavens

Skype founder Jaan Tallin, in conjunction with the Gruber and Templeton Foundations, is sponsoring an essay contest: “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?”

HOW-SHOULD-HUMANITY-STEER-THE-FUTURE“Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. Our ever-deepening understanding of physics has enabled technologies and ways of thinking about our place in the world that have dramatically transformed humanity over the past several hundred years. Many of these changes have been difficult to predict or control—but not all. In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades.”

Ponder it!  But most of all, believe that we can steer the wheel of destiny. Cynics are of no use to anyone.

== The libelous distraction that scientists are lemmings  ==

EDGE-DENIAL-CLIMATEIn The Very, Very Thin Wedge of Denial, Phil Plait discusses one stunning disparity between the blog-claims of climate change deniers and the way that actual mode-consensus is achieved by real scientists, who can read data and understand the Navier-Stokes Equations.

Fox-centered denialists claim that the 97% of atmospheric scientists who agree that humans are altering the climate (less than 1% dissent) are doing so out of lemming-like herd mentality, chasing pathetic Al Gore inspired grants — never explaining how ditto-agreeing with a standard model will get any researcher even a penny. In fact, the top atmospheric scientists already have stable incomes (thank you) from their fantastically successful day-jobs creating (for example) the miraculous ten-day weather forecasts we now rely upon (much improved from a mere two hours, 20 years ago), or successfully modeling climate on six other planets. I know these guys and gals and lemmings they are not. Rather, top scientists are the smartest and most fearlessly competitive humans our species ever produced.

Plait offers an example of how the openly questioning competitive process works: “In 1998, two teams of researchers found evidence that the expansion of the Universe was not slowing down, as expected, but actually speeding up. This idea is as crazy as holding a ball in your hand, letting go, and having it fall up, accelerating wildly into the sky. Yet those papers got published. They inspired lively discussion (to say the least) and motivated further observations. Careful, meticulous work was done to eliminate errors and confounding factors, until it became very clear that we were seeing an overturning of the previous paradigm. It took years, but now astronomers accept that the Universal expansion is accelerating and that dark energy is the culprit.

“Mind you, dark energy is far, far weirder than anything climate change deniers have come up with, yet it became mainstream science in a decade or so. Deniers have been bloviating for longer than that, yet their claims are rejected overwhelmingly by climate scientists. Why? Because they’re wrong.”

twoda-brinAlas, Plait never mentions my own strongest argument against the denialist cult.  That their smug-pat jpegs and Fox-snips are all financed by the industry that will become less outrageously profitable if humanity develops more efficient energy systems. Promoting efficiency falls into the category of TWODA – or Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.  Even if human generated climate Change were to prove 100% false, we would all be better off for taking reasonable measures toward energy efficiency… and those so vigorously preventing TWODA are enemies of our species, no matter how many twisted ways you rationalize or cut it.

== Science miscellany! ==

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) researchers are developing an electrodynamic tether designed to generate electricity that will slow down space-based debris.  Such a system features prominently in chapter one of my novel Existence, written when this notion was a glimmer in the eye of brilliant space engineer Joseph Carroll, who almost singlehandedly kept the technological doors open for this approach to solving problems in space.  It’s good to see the problem of space debris given serious attention, perhaps inspired by the movie GRAVITY.

In my fiction I have oft portrayed “gill masks” that allow a diver to extract oxygen directly from the surrounding water.  Has this miracle already arrived?  I would bet no.  But how cool if this actually works?

Ultrasound is one of several noninvasive methods that stimulate the brain. Another is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which apparently provokes more activity in the brain with magnets. A third is transcranial direct current stimulation, which uses electrodes to deliver a weak electrical current to the brain through the scalp. The new study suggests that ultrasound may be the best of the bunch.  (Though I still think reading is a more effective way to stimulate thinking. ) Oh what a brave (or interesting) new world.

cosmos-tysonThis spring will also see the premiere of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. According to Deadline, the series will debut on Fox on March 9th at 9PM, with bonus footage coming to the National Geographic Channel a day later at 10PM. Tyson’s show is a reboot of Carl Sagan’s revered Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a short series with a broad scientific focus that first aired in 1980. Tyson’s Cosmos will explore the discovery of physics, with a promise to present complicated concepts in clear ways and with a proper dose of grandeur.

==Conquering the future==

Future Perfect - CoverwebSee The Future of Transportation, by Sci Fi author William Hertling (The Last Firewall).

The Guinea worm may be the next human pathogen to be eliminated.

Fellow author Joe Haldeman (The Forever War) on  Why the future of war will be even bloodier.  Ouch. Got… to… make… Star Trek…

For a view that progress is possible, see Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson.

== Looking outward…to Space! ==

Terrific footage of the new Chinese “Jade Rabbit” lunar lander, at touchdown and then letting the rover roll off, putting new human tacks onto Luna.  Congratulations!

inspiration_mars_headerDennis Tito has a backup for his plan to  take advantage of a once-per-30- years opportunity for a Free Return flyby past Mars — like Apollo 8 & 13, there would thus be no need to schlepp a landing capsule or return fuel, brining a human crewed Mars mission forward by perhaps 30 years. (Tito wants to send a “qualified, older married couple” and my wife reminded me we both have PhDs in Planetary Science and the kids are almost out of the nest!)

Alas, with less than 5 years to prepare, there seems no way Tito and his Inspiration Mars team can pull this off. Especially now that NASA has begged off Tito’s request for $700M and use of the new NASA heavy launch system. Still, all may not be lost.  “There is a backup to the proposed 2018 flyby to Mars mission which envisions a 2021 launch that would feature flybys of both Venus and Mars. That would add 88 days to the just over 500 day mission and would involve more radiation hazards to the two person crew.”  Also, since $700M is kind of chump change for such a major undertaking, Tito has begun talking to the Russians and the Chinese.

Including Venus may add some radiation hazard. But Yipe. To be first living humans to TWO planets? And I would get so much writing done, while huddled inside the water tank, hiding from cosmic rays!

nasa-funding-cutsSo…. Has there been a recent “collapse” in funding for planetary exploration? It appears to be so, at least in the United States.  Have a look at a simple chart from The Planetary Society showing how our efforts to explore outward, which had been rebuilding in the first Obama term, suddenly fell to pieces amid the battles over shutdowns and health care.  This merits your attention. (Though always look at such charts to see if the bottom was chopped-off!)

Redefining the Habitable Zone: Here is good discussion of the Sun’s “goldilocks” or Continuously Habitable Zone, where water might remain on the surface in liquid form for evolutionary time scales.  And a related article on the search for “life” exoplanets. Yet again we see that Earth might be exceptional in one way… that we skate near the inner edge of our sun’s CUZ. Which helps explain why even a little human generated greenhouse gas can make a real difference… and may help to explain the Fermi Paradox.

The European Space Agency plans to re-awaken the Rosetta Probe!  It has been dormant out at more than 4 AU, saving energy till the day its orbit could approach a comet from behind at a great distance (the only way it can be done: you listening Hollywood?)  The hope?  To “land” on the comet before it gets too active and study its physical characteristics.  Then, harpooned to the surface, attempt to ride out the violent passage by the sun that we described in HEART OF THE COMET.  Hoping to learn how much my doctoral dissertation got right!

moon-express Is Mining on the Moon’s Horizon? Moon Express, based in Mountain View, Calif., just unveiled the design for a small robot spacecraft about the size of a coffee table that it says could move about the moon’s surface powered only by solar panels and hydrogen peroxide. The company hopes to build the robot and send it to the moon by late 2015, win the $30 million Lunar X Prize from Google for the first privately funded moon rover, and eventually get around to putting on the moon an operation capable of extracting valuable minerals.  

Um what minerals are they talking about?  I know of none to be found in that wasteland that we can at-present use. Sorry, you luna-tics out there, but in the near term, asteroids are vastly the better bet… though I do approve of some continuing lunar activity!  The best possibility?  Let billionaires finance it with tourism junkets.  Call it money-recycling that will have a positive outcome.

Telescopes that unfold light weight plastic optics, these may open up a new era of astronomy or earth science — or spying — in space.

Kinda weird.  Using gravitational “microlensing” — an almost-fey capability that would have given George Ellery Hale the creeps — a team thinks they have found a candidate for a pair of bodies comprising a free-floating exoplanet-exomoon system.  Wooof!

Most common exoplanets are weird ‘mini-Neptunes.’ “Mini-Neptunes dominate the inventory of 3000-plus planets discovered by Kepler,” says lead scientist and planet-hunter Geoff Marcy.  Worlds up to twice the size of Earth are dense and probably rocky, resembling our own planet. Those between two and four times Earth’s width are lighter, so are either wetter or gassy – more like versions of Neptune, which is itself four times Earth’s width.  Several observational bias effects make it difficult to make good statistical predictions based on the Kepler discoveries.  But every month we seem to have new “huh!” stuff to ponder!

Folks ask me for examples re my prediction of a looming “Age of Amateurs” in which ever-more expertise will be found in realms outside of the licensed professions… in avocations, retirees and so on. The trends are all around us, but nowhere more vividly than in amateur science.  See this especially vivid example of a passion for astronomy.  And yes, I portray this becoming dramatically important, in some fiction.

And finally. This optical illusion is so so SO worth your time.  I mean it.  You’ll thank me.

1 Comment

Filed under science, society

One response to “Steering the Future: on Earth and in the Heavens

  1. Aside on dark energy:
    What if some or all of what we imagine as dark energy (accelerating expansion) were actually a misinterpretation of the red shift and velocity measurements caused by not properly factoring lookback time into that interpretation? If older starlight is redder than more recently emitted light, why can’t we interpret that as evidence that expansion is slowing? The current interpretation of red shift vs velocity seems based entirely on the distance in space to the source without any regard to the distance in time between emission and observation.

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