The Trouble With Science Popularizers

More people are starting to notice the problems with Bill Nye:

The trouble with science popularizers in general is that by nature, the job entails talking about a wider range of technical topics than any individual can fully comprehend at the level necessary to discuss them competently. While an expert in one field can speak intelligently about closely-related fields, the further away from one’s own expertise one travels, the more difficult that task becomes. And it’s even worse if a man in that role is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so assured of his superior intellect that he is incapable of recognizing that he is in fact a fool.

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson inspired a character in another “Dispatches from Mars” story Carl and I are trying to finish up – a character who as a science popularizer and a man is the opposite of these two.

The big difference between the fictional Silas Hudson and these two is that he learned very early on, when he fell into a career as a public personality on the back of a book and related video series, that it’s easy for any expert to fall prey to the temptation to speak authoritatively about fields of which he has lesser, little, or even no knowledge. After publicly embarrassing himself, he redeemed his image by hiring a research staff to vet his scripts and books with true subject matter experts, and by conscientiously acknowledging the limits of what he personally understood. In other words, he started off as a young man with an enormous ego, humiliated himself as a result of that ego, and learned a bit of humility and ethics from the experience – humility that improved his ‘product’ greatly.

I’m actually disappointed that we have to kill him off. But when you’re writing a murder mystery, someone has to be the victim.

Springfield Needs a Hyperloop

Just in time for Christmas, it’s the hot new hip and happening toy that all the technocrat kids want this year: Hyperloop!

By way of pitching the Arrivo system, Colorado DOT officials speculated that a network of tubes filled with high-speed trays to carry cars could cut a one-hour and ten minute drive from downtown to the airport down to a 9 minute Arrivo ride. A one-hour slog down the state’s busy Boulder to Denver highway corridor would take 8 minutes.

Ironically, given that in the past year RTD has opened the airport light rail line from Union Station to DIA and CDOT has finished widening and adding express lanes to the highway running from Denver to Boulder. Those multi-million-dollar Big Digs and monorail projects that were absolutely necessary five or ten years ago and would fix all our traffic problems hereabouts? Yeah, forget those. All the cool technocrats are getting Hyperloops!

“We’re the tech partner in what would be a big partnership involving lawmakers, real estate people and others, but our job is to show that we can help provide a positive ROI (return on investment),” BamBrogam told USA TODAY. “Traffic is something people are very eager to solve.”

Except when it comes to I-70. Why bore a new half-mile tunnel or two to alleviate multi-hour backups that plague a major freeway for four months of the year when you can bore dozens of miles of tunnels under Denver for a solution that doesn’t solve the problem there? But…but…all the cool technocrats are getting Hyperloops!

BamBrogan said the idea is to use existing highway right of ways to install above ground tubes to help commuters cheat traffic by granting them express trips in their own cars to popular destinations.

Uh huh. Hyperloops at 200MPH between 16th Street Mall and Highlands and Cherry Creek and DTC? Not only is there not enough space for the access stations at those “popular destinations”, there isn’t enough parking there for the cars that get Hyperlooped in, nor is there office space enough to accommodate the vast army of chiropractors that will be required to readjust cervical vertebrae dislodged by the acceleration and deceleration involved. (Note that Denver’s light-rail obsessed urban planners have been on a crusade against adequate public parking for years now.)

But Mommmm! All the cool technocrats are getting Hyperloops!

Why not just build a train? “I have a young son, and my car is filled with everything I need for him so not taking my car often isn’t a great option,” he said.

Yet we’re told by the light rail cultists that this is selfish and people just need to get over their obsession with and addiction to convenience! If you just socially reengineered yourself, Mr. BamBrogan, you’d discovered enlightened social interest and set aside your petty self-absorption with your own needs and that of your child. Not every child has the privilege of a comfy child seat and Disney DVDs on the in-car entertainment player and plush toys and sippy cups at the ready while running errands with daddy – why should yours, comrade?

Seriously, though, while something like Hyperloop might be technically feasible over long distances, using it as a subway or suburban commuter train is overkill and just plain stupid. It’s the kind of stupid that it doesn’t surprise me to see John Hickenlooper embrace, but an aerospace engineer should know better. An engineer should be aware of the practical limitations and consequences of using a given technology in a suggested application – he might as well be suggesting rockets or jumbo jets for the purposes he’s listing off for Hyperloop.

But, it’s the newest, hottest toy for technocrats. And that’s all that really matters. (That, and the potential for graft.)

Electronic Noses for Sniffing Disease

This is something I suggested to Lockheed Martin five years ago as an application of the cabin air monitoring technology we were developing for Orion: New Technologies Smell Sickness

We’ve long known that sickness has a smell. Service dogs can smell and be trained to alert humans to seizures and even cancer.

Now scientists are using technology to ‘smell’ diseases that the human nose can’t.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology team behind the Na-Nose, which is designed to detect up to 17 diseases, claims that its new technology can a wide range of diseases on a person’s breath.

Each person’s breath is made up of a number of chemical compounds, unique to us. They may be dependent upon gender, age, race and a host of other biological factors.

The Na-Nose’s developers claim that it can smell diseases including some forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s. So far, it has proven to be 86 percent accurate at detecting diseases.

We’ve actually had this idea on the back-burner for a while for use in an Ares Project story, but the need hasn’t yet come up. While the obvious applications are in health monitoring, the same technology could potentially be fitted to a robot and used for prospecting, by sniffing out trace volatiles and airborne “contaminants” indicating the presence of certain useful minerals.

Everything Serves the Narrative First

I got a laugh out of the clumsy narrative servicing in this article: Americans Will Head to Space Again Without a Russian Taxi:

Since the Space Shuttle’s retirement six years ago, NASA has been buying spots aboard Russian Soyuz craft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. It’s a politically awkward arrangement to say the least, given more than a decade of strained relations, Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the dented American pride of having to ask in the first place.

That line appears to be the whole point of the article. After that, the rest is just a slapdash mishmash of news bites, reading as if the author copy-pasted a bunch of semi-related tweets into a single document. It lacks the coherent structure or flow from paragraph to paragraph that this article and a few others I read show he’s actually capable of creating.

Apparently, writing a good article in this instance was less important than the opportunity to repeat this partisan assertion-as-fact.

 

Ringworld on Amazon

This is interesting news – Amazon is adapting Ringworld:

“Ringworld,” a co-production with MGM, is based on Larry Niven’s sci-fi book series from the 70’s. It tells the story of Louis Gridley Wu, a bored man celebrating his 200th birthday in a technologically-advanced, future Earth. Upon being offered one of the open positions on a voyage, Louis joins a young woman and two aliens to explore Ringworld, the remote artificial ring beyond “Known Space.”

It’s nice to see SF adaptations being made from books I’ve actually read for a change. It’s anyone’s guess whether it will actually turn out well (I think it will be challenging, both to make the story work on the screen and to represent the setting both accurately and compellingly), or whether Amazon will look at the projected budget necessary to pull it off and back off instead. But given how good a job they’ve done with The Man in the High Castle, I’m willing to get my hopes up for this one.

What’s interesting, though, is that Ringworld is not a very long story. I could see it filling out ten episodes…but then what? Do they do all this work developing the backstory of Known Space and a couple of its recurring characters just for a single season, or do they continue on with the other Ringworld books, and perhaps branch out into the other stories and novels set in the Known Space universe?

That has some interesting potential, and is akin to my thoughts after re-reading The Mote in God’s Eye this summer. It struck me then that the Co-Dominium universe (and particularly the period in which the Mote novels and King David’s Spaceship are set) is ripe for adaptation as a series in the High Castle format. Only, instead of telling the Mote stories right away, build up through a combination of existing and new material over the first 10-12 episode season. These episodes could include KDS, along with the revolt and suppression of New Chicago, leading up to a cliffhanger involving the appearance of the Crazy Eddie Probe and setting the stage for a second season based entirely on TMIGE. The early episodes gradually introduce the technology, future history, and sociopolitical setting along the way, so that narrative dumps don’t bog down the main story later on.

We’ll have to wait a year and see how it turns out, if it makes it to the screen in the end.

Asgardia, or How to Filter Out Undesirable Settlers

If I were setting up a space settlement, this is exactly how I would go about weeding out those unsuited to the undertaking: What Tops the Agenda for a New Space Colony? A Debate Over Taxes

It’s more than just taxes, and so much less. The project is tailor-made to draw in weirdos and whackjobs and busybodies and control freaks, who would at best (as is apparently happening) cause the whole undertaking to collapse in strife, and who were it to actually get off the ground would turn the place into a hell on orbit.

April Fool’s Day Redux

Back online after a couple months of proposal work, two rocket engine designs, and a promotion. Whew. And despite all that, I’ve been writing quite a bit, having now completed the roughing-in of the “true crime” Dispatch and nearly completed the same for the “Marineris expedition” Dispatch. Next weekend, Carl and I will finish the third act of Ghosts of Tharsis…or else.

And then, a break from outlining to do some actual Dispatch writing. Which will be fun.

In the meantime, enjoy last year’s April Fool’s Day story, Anatomy of a Disaster, fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake’s first (and perhaps not entirely canonical) Dispatch From Mars:

At 09:04 the position sensor data from Margaret Steadman’s Mobile Agent shows that she was rushing around her apartment, from one room to the next, presumably searching frantically for her missing pets. She appears to have deduced the answer, as at 09:05 she climbed onto a chair below one of the open vents through which the animals had escaped.

At the same moment, Rudolph Alexander had found the source of the mystery noise. What sounded like mewing and an occasional screech was just that, and it was coming from the air vent above the process display wallscreen in the Box.

“There was fur poking out. Whatever was in there was pushing, pulsing against the diffuser, making it bend and bulge. My first thought was the vent was blocked by something, a large cluster of lint or whatever, and that that noise was the air whistling through it. Then I saw the claws. And the eyes.”

There was no time to call for help. The diffuser broke free, and strange animals poured out into the Box like a waterfall—a screeching, angry, hissing waterfall of fur. “Fifty, a hundred, more and more of those things were between me and the door to the main corridor. I-I panicked, sure, I admit it. Wouldn’t you have? All I knew was I had to get away. And there was only one way I could go.”

With unknown and terrifying creatures flooding into the Box, Alexander took the only other way out: the hatch into the production area.

“All our training said that hatch was supposed to stay closed when a batch was running, but nothing trained me for anything like this. I tried to shut the hatch behind me, really I did! I must have crushed a half-dozen of those monsters doing it. But I couldn’t get it to latch—pressure hatches won’t close if there’s anything blocking the jamb. At least I remembered to hit the emergency shut-down button. What more was I supposed to do?”

While Alexander’s account of these events was initially seen as an attempt to evade blame by faking a psychological breakdown, evidence recovered from the scene later exonerated him.

“Nobody believed me at first. But then they found the video from the Box. And those bodies in her freezer. And, boy, then people understood!” he declares with wide-eyed triumph, leaping to his feet and stabbing a finger into the air. “Then, then everyone knew old Rudolph Alexander hadn’t lost his marbles after all!”

 

Nat Geo Goes to Mars

Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033.  You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.

Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.