Monthly Archives: November 2015

Nominative Determinism Runs Amok at the Guardian

Poe’s Law: you’re soaking in it.Before we set up colonies on Mars, we need to discuss renaming its moons

The words [Phobos and Deimos] essentially form the infrastructure for the barbaric violence in the Iliad. And names matter. Is it really possible that we haven’t complained about the names? That no petitions are circulating demanding a softening of the names? We are basically implying, by doing nothing, that panic and terror are perfectly acceptable as appellations for our next-door neighbors in the sky.

If nothing else, we should be thinking of the children who will someday grow up to be Mars colonists. No one currently bats an eye when an adult leads a child out into the backyard to admire a planet orbited by panic and terror. These very children may one day exit from their habitat on yet another bright and balmy Martian morning, their hearts brimming with optimism, and look up at those pale moons. We’re doing nothing less than setting up those future colonists for failure – or interplanetary warfare.

Won’t somebody think of the children?!? It’s like someone wrote a wry little parody of the Grauniad’s penchant for earnest pearl-clutching whingery…and then somehow got it published in the Grauniad itself as a straight story. The tell that it isn’t a serious piece is that it doesn’t immediately suggest a dozen alternative names taken from the mythologies of backward cultures nobody has ever heard of and whose members don’t even know Mars exists. Or from the usual litany of lefty heroes/heroines/herox. Or perhaps, in an appropriately apotheotic vein, names personifying deep leftist sentiments like “Coexistence” and “Tolerance”.

Life Imitates Art: (Micro-)Oasis Edition

You know our concept for “oases” on Mars – a mass-produced prefabricated hut for ten, with a rover docking adapter and personnel airlock for access, equipped with hygiene and life-support, stocked with food, emergency equipment, and basic repair supplies, and with enough power to run a small gas separation unit for air and fuel?

This is a larval version of that design. Appropriately, it’s even egg-shaped: ECOCAPSULE | Dwelling with the spirit of freedom

Note the similarity also with Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House and the Futuro, in the sense of being a self-contained “system” (and, of course, round). In the case of the Dymaxion House, as the link indicates it too was designed to capture rainwater for use by the occupants (I was not aware of that fact).


The New Atomic Age We Need

Peter Thiel writes in the NYT about The New Atomic Age We Need

While politicians prepare a grand bargain on emissions limits that future politicians are unlikely to obey, a new generation of American nuclear scientists has produced designs for better reactors. Crucially, these new designs may finally overcome the most fundamental obstacle to the success of nuclear power: high cost. Designs using molten salt, alternative fuels and small modular reactors have all attracted interest not just from academics but also from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists like me ready to put money behind nuclear power.

However, none of these new designs can benefit the real world without a path to regulatory approval, and today’s regulations are tailored for traditional reactors, making it almost impossible to commercialize new ones.

For all the improvements in solar power for space applications, settlement of Mars will ultimately depend on compact, self-contained, reliable nuclear power systems (something we will explore in Book 2). Developing them on Earth for terrestrial applications would be an amusing turnabout of the usual “space spinoff” justification for space exploration.

I do love the comments on the article, though. Especially the one that complained that nuclear power isn’t zero-carbon because of the energy involved in making the building materials, the operatino of equipment used to mine uranium ore, and the power used to refine and enrich the uranium for power production, which the commenter informs us all employ fossil fuels. One is meant to conclude from this comment that the use of fossil fuels is somehow inherent to all of these activities, when in fact nuclear power itself can provide all the necessary electricity – no fossil fuels necessary. One is also meant to conclude erroneously that solar (and wind as well) magically do not require the expenditure of energy, fossil or otherwise, in the mining of rare-earth metal ores, their processing, and the construction, servicing, and comparatively frequent replacement of solar panels and their supporting infrastructure. This is actually a very common misconception/lie on the part of people who push alternative energy – like people who oppose hunting because meat should come from a supermarket and not from animals, they criticize the costs of other options while overlooking or dishonestly denying the same costs in their own preferred alternative.

Public comments on articles like this are great illustrations of how poor our critical thinking skills have become. Faced with an unfamiliar bit of science or technology, too many people respond with emotional incontinence and superstition, substituting regurgitated talking points, poorly-comprehended “factoids”, and conspiracist epistemology for a reasoned consideration of the facts – while simultaneously rationalizing their blind, ignorant terror as “scientific”. Don’t be like these people. You should always think for yourself – but remember that the key part of that is actually thinking.

RIP Phobos

PhobosThat may be a bit premature, but apparently Phobos will be pulled apart by Mars’ gravity in about 30 to 50 million years.  New findings were announced by NASA Goddard scientists November 10.

Phobos’ grooves, long thought to be related to the enormous impact that created Stickney Crater, may actually be due to deformation from tidal forces.  These “stretch marks” may indicate that Phobos is not solid, but rather is an aggregate of rubble surrounded by a thick layer of powdery regolith.  This would make it easier for tidal forces to fracture the Moon.

These findings, if accurate, could present interesting challenges and opportunities for astronauts visiting the moon for exploration, mining, or setting up a base.  Phobos will figure prominently in Ghosts of Tharsis, our upcoming sequel to In the Shadow of Ares.




This is Good News

This looks like a positive development: Syfy is Releasing a Film, De-Rebranding, and Becoming Super Interesting

Some 18 months later, what the mandate looks like is increasingly clear. The Expanse is the network’s showcase science fiction series, taking a series of popular recent SF novels and turning them into the sort of show that hasn’t really been seen on television before. It’s also aiming for a fantasy hit with The Magicians, a series based on Lev Grossman’s fantastic trilogy, a joyously dark post-modern remix of fantasy tropes (after Thrones, Harry Potter, and LOTR, it may have been one of the hottest fantasy licenses around).

Syfy’s miniseries plans are also indicative: Last year’s Ascension and this year’sChildhood’s End are both classic science fiction, the latter an adaptation one of the best-known SF novels of all time. Just yesterday, Syfy announced two seasons of a new anthology horror series: Channel Zero. With this, Syfy has rebuilt the third pillar of speculative fiction: horror, to go alongside science fiction and fantasy. (Superhero stories have arguably become a fourth pillar of SF, recently, and Syfy no doubt would be interested in getting in on that action if possible.)

In other words, Syfy is betting on quality.

Lost its soul, indeed. I never did understand why the network abandoned the niche that they had a lock on in favor of general-market prolefeed garbage like the wrestling and “reality” shows already saturating other channels. It made about as much sense to me as what Yahoo! did to Flickr a couple years ago. And by canceling shows like Universe and Caprica just as they were getting interesting and strangling Blood and Chrome in the crib*, in favor of schlock like Camelwhaledingopotamusquito II: Chimera Boogaloo , it wasn’t merely that they abandoned the genre, it’s that they appeared to be actively working to wreck it just when other channels were discovering it and making serious efforts at serious productions.

So it’s good to see this change, but it’s just a pity that it comes too late to save several promising properties. Not only the Stargate and BSG franchises, either – had they recommitted to serious SF when it counted, they might have been able to save Fox’s Sarah Connor Chronicles the way they did SG-1, and along with it possibly spared us from the most recent franchise movie as we’ve thus far been spared another Stargate movie from Devlin and Emmerich.

* — Yes, you saw what I did there.

The Solar Wind Did It

At today’s briefing, NASA scientists announced that data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has confirmed that the solar wind plays a leading role in stripping away the Martian atmosphere, which was once thick enough to support abundant liquid water on the surface.

That’s not a new theory, and it’s hardly surprising that a planet with a third the gravity of Earth and a negligible magnetic field would be susceptible to the effect of solar wind, at least compared to Earth.  However understanding the mechanisms at work helps us to understand Mars’ past as well as its future.  I’m particularly interested in the impact these findings have on the potential for eventually terraforming Mars.