Before There Was Oxygen

Scientists examining ancient rocks from Western Australia have announced the discovery of fossils of sulfur-loving bacteria from nearly 3.5 billion years ago.  The significance is that there was not much oxygen on Earth back then, and this type of life could have flourished elsewhere in the solar system in the past, or even today.

Tubular microfossils. CREDIT: David Wacey

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares will recognize a clear parallel to an important discovery in the novel.  This is precisely what we had in mind.

Awfully convenient to have human scientists on the ground to know what rocks to examine.   I look forward to the day when we have boots on Mars and can answer some truly provocative questions.

Still, there are plenty of fantastic reasons for going that have nothing to do with science.

Inspiration From Real-Life Experience

Somehow, somewhere, I lost my Blackberry yesterday.

Yes, of course, I did all the usual things to try to find it: searched high and low, called it using the land line, rooted around under the seat in the car. But it was no use, it went missing somewhere between Conifer and Five Points (north of downtown Denver) and isn’t coming back. When I mentioned this to Carl, it prompted us to wonder what would happen if someone similarly misplaced their MA? How might we use this as a story element, if a character had a habit of doing so?

In our fictional universe, MAs are vital pieces of personal equipment. More important than a mere cellphone and more powerful than even today’s smartphones, they serve a number of communications, information access, computation, organization, navigation, and safety functions. To someone who had grown up using an MA and had woven instant access to these functions into his daily routine, losing his MA would be akin to losing a part of his brain. It would be much more disruptive than what we experience today when (as also happened to me about two weeks ago) we lose internet service for a few days – in such instances we find other things to do, or other ways to accomplish what we would have done on the internet. But forty years from now, when our lives will be still more integrated with our information systems, this may be difficult or impossible. Loss of connectivity will be much more disruptive.

And not only disruptive, but potentially dangerous. If one loses his MA entirely (not merely its connection to information infrastructure), he loses the safety features built into it. On our Mars of 2051, this means that he may have no knowledge of current air composition or radiation conditions, for example, information which could have life-or-death importance at any time. As we showed in In the Shadow of Ares, this isn’t an idle concern. Amber and Grantham face the inconveniences and dangers associated with losing connectivity and with losing their MAs at different points in the story.

This is an issue you may see arise in the sequels…

Are We Alone?

Dr. Richard B. Hoover of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center claims to have found proof of alien life.  In a study published Friday in the Journal of Cosmology, Hoover says that fossils found in a very rare CI1 carbonaceous chondrite meteorite are conclusive evidence of alien bacterial life.

This is hardly the first such claim, and echoes studies involving the Allan Hills 84001 Martian meteorite that have prompted debate that has been ongoing since 1996.  This time NASA came out quickly and indicated that there was no support from other researchers for Hoover’s claims.

Hoover’s study was previously made available for peer review, and those comments are supposed to be published soon, so I’ll withhold judgement for now.  Of course, if you’re interested in how the discovery of living alien microbial life might play out, check out In the Shadow of Ares.

UPDATE:  NASA Watch questions several aspects of Richard Hoover and his paper, including whether or not he is a doctor of anything.  Oops.

Life Imitates Art: MAs and 5G

While looking at upgrading to a 4G phone/hotspot combo this afternoon I got to wondering if there was a “5G” in the works. It turns out there isn’t, exactly, but there are a few hints on the Wikipedia page on what that wireless standard might include when it emerges around 2020:

* Pervasive networks providing ubiquitous computing: The user can simultaneously be connected to several wireless access technologies and seamlessly move between them (See Media independent handover or vertical handover, IEEE 802.21, also expected to be provided by future 4G releases). These access technologies can be 2.5G, 3G, 4G, or 5G mobile networks, Wi-Fi, WPAN, or any other future access technology. In 5G, the concept may be further developed into multiple concurrent data transfer paths.

* Cognitive radio technology, also known as smart-radio: allowing different radio technologies to share the same spectrum efficiently by adaptively finding unused spectrum and adapting the transmission scheme to the requirements of the technologies currently sharing the spectrum. This dynamic radio resource management is achieved in a distributed fashion, and relies on software defined radio. See also the IEEE 802.22 standard for Wireless Regional Area Networks.

* Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6), where a visiting care-of mobile IP address is assigned according to location and connected network.

* High altitude stratospheric platform station (HAPS) systems.

* Real wireless world with no more limitation with access and zone issues.

* Wearable devices with AI capabilities.

* One unified global standard.

    Hmm…that “wearable devices with AI capabilities” business sounds awfully familiar…

    Given that new wireless communications “generations” come out approximately every ten years, the standard that emerges around 2050 — “8G” — ought to be pretty impressive.

    Move Over, Taco Bell, Here Comes Vat-Meat

    Walter Russell Mead sings the praises of those entrepreneurs who might one day bring us an environmentally-friendly and guilt-free source of protein: synthetic meat.

    Now I don’t know whether this particular technology will ever pan out, so that PETA activists will be stopping in at the local McDonalds for a tasty shamburger. Dr. Mironov might be wasting his time, or he might really be onto something.

    But the point is that there are hundreds of thousands of Dr. Mironovs working on all kinds of unconventional inventions and ideas in labs and garages all over the world.  Most of them may never produce very much but, especially with the tremendous advance of knowledge in biology of recent decades, some of them are going to get some very remarkable, life changing results.

    Whether we will get delicious juicy shamburgers and sinfully salty, crisp facon (fake bacon) anytime soon is beyond me.  But that the future will be full of surprises that change the basic rules of the energy game is almost certain.  This is why I don’t think the prophets of doom have it right.  Human ingenuity has been getting us out of tight corners and making life unexpectedly better for thousands of years; I don’t think we’re done yet.

    Those who have read In the Shadow of Ares already know of one possible market for this technology. Indeed, a grow-it-at-home version appears in the opening chapters of the book. If the technology works, and can be packaged into a reliable system with reasonable space and resource requirements, it would be a wonderful source of protein and familiar foodstuffs in an early Martian settlement, where raising livestock would be impractical for many years until sufficient habitable volume and related infrastructure had been established.

    Indeed, if it works well (by which I mean it produces something more palatable and less monotonous than just a synthetic form of Spam), the technology would eliminate the need to ever raise livestock on Mars…if anyone would ever seriously consider doing such a thing.

    Not Forgotten

    What would happen if a spacecraft and its crew were lost tens of millions of miles from Earth, where there were no ground-based cameras and radar watching, no clues from telemetry data, and no way to retrieve and study the wreckage?

    This week marks the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident, and the 8th anniversary of the Columbia accident.

    Abandon in Place

    Each of these accidents were heavily publicized and widely mourned, with the latter two happening (essentially) live on television. Even though much time has passed, the accidents are well known to the general public, and even many people who are not space buffs could probably at least come close to identifying the official cause of each accident.

    In each case, though, the wreckage was retrieved and studied, lessons were (mostly) learned and put into practice, and the affected programs continued on. But what would happen if a spacecraft and its crew were lost tens of millions of miles from Earth, where there were no ground-based cameras and radar watching, no clues from telemetry data, and no way to retrieve and study the wreckage?

    This is exactly the problem which confronts the fictional Ares Project two decades before the events of In the Shadow of Ares. So how did they handle it?

    The program was halted for four years so that the habs and Earth-return vehicles under construction on Earth could be thoroughly inspected and their designs reassessed for hidden flaws. Finding none, and still having no solid evidence of what happened to the Odysseus and its crew, the project proceeded cautiously with the remaining two missions. And as it turned out, the program was right to accept the still-unknown risks inherent in exploration rather than give up and stay home.

    One big difference between then and then: with no images of the accident, and no wreckage found by the subsequent missions, the public soon forgot about Ares III. Except for a few who kept the memory alive until an answer could be found…

    (For those who have read the book and may be wondering, we devised Odysseus‘ demise exactly fifty weeks before Columbia met her own.)

    Life Imitates Art: Smart Goggles

    Something akin to what we use in In the Shadow of Ares as part of the telepresence control system made its appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show this past week:

    The Android-powered micro-LED screen in these goggles turns average skiers into cyborgs, displaying everything from GPS-enabled trail maps to your current speed and altitude. If that’s not cool enough, it can sync with Bluetooth compatible devices, creating an in-goggle viewfinder for a camera, or display songs or incoming calls.

    No word yet on whether they’ll be useful in controlling swarms of semi-autonomous mining robots.

    Life Imitates Art: Portable DNA Sequencers

    FuturePundit points to a NYT article describing something very similar to a piece of technology readers might recognize from the Oasis scene of In the Shadow of AresTaking DNA Sequencing to the Masses:

    Dr. Rothberg is the founder of Ion Torrent, which last month began selling a sequencer it calls the Personal Genome Machine. While most sequencers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are at least the size of small refrigerators, this machine sells for just under $50,000 and is the size of a largish desktop printer.

    While not intended for the general public, the machine could expand the use of DNA sequencing from specialized centers to smaller university and industrial labs, and into hospitals and doctors’ offices, helping make DNA sequencing a standard part of medical practice…

    Rather than culturing a bug to identify what is infecting a patient, for instance, a hospital might determine its DNA sequence. Massachusetts General Hospital is already sequencing 130 genes from patient tumor samples, looking for mutations that might predict which drugs will work best. It has won an Ion Torrent machine in a contest and hopes to put it to that use…

    While most experts agree that sequencing will become commonplace in medicine, some say they think Dr. Rothberg is overselling his machine. Like the early Apple II of Mr. Jobs, it is too puny for many tasks, including sequencing the entire genome of a person…

    Dr. Rothberg acknowledged that the existing model was good for sequencing a virus or bacterium or a handful of genes, and indicated that future models would be more powerful.

    Indeed. Just imagine what forty more years of technological evolution might do to this device, in terms of cost, power, speed, and size.