Can versus Should

The topic of directed panspermia found its way into a recent issue of The Economist:  Colonizing the Galaxy is Hard. Why Not Send Bacteria Instead?

The concept, apparently being discussed by “a number of scientists”, involves jump starting evolution on exoplanets by seeding them with terrestrial bacteria.  With human interstellar travel likely centuries away, the proposal is to send tiny probes–containing microscopic passengers–in the near term.  These could be propelled using solar sails and Earth based lasers, along the lines of what is proposed for use in NASA’s Starlight (also known as “DEEP-IN”) program.

The article presents valid objections to this idea, including the worry of contaminating worlds were life might have arisen independently.

However I see a more practical reason for opposing such efforts.    Directed panspermia of this nature is being discussed because it is all we have the potential to do near term.  But technological advances over the next two centuries are likely to expand our capabilities greatly, including the ability to send larger, more capable exploratory craft and perhaps even human crews.  Sending smaller craft now, at best, provides a head start of a couple of centuries on an evolutionary process that is likely to take hundreds of millions or even billions of years to produce anything significant, assuming conditions are ideal.  That hardly seems worth the effort or risk.

When it comes to seeding life in distant solar systems, the sensible thing to do is to wait until we can do it responsibly.  Just because we can do it in the next few years, doesn’t mean we should.

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.

Mars Needs Mixers: Nano-spike catalysts convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol

The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. With the help of the nanotechnology-based catalyst which contains multiple reaction sites, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent. Typically, this type of electrochemical reaction results in a mix of several different products in small amounts.

Hmm…Mars has 25×1016 kg of atmosphere, of which 23.99×1016 kg is CO2. Passing all of it once through this conversion process produces 1.512×1016 kg or 1.3 Lake Superiors worth of ethanol.

Given the technique’s reliance on low-cost materials and an ability to operate at room temperature in water, the researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications. For instance, the process could be used to store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind and solar.

Our Martian rovers will be fueled with ethanol. As will our Martians.

Science Must Fall?

“Science as a whole is a product of Western modernity, and the whole thing should be scratched off…If we want a practical solution for how we can decolonize science, we have to restart science from our own African perspective of how we experience science…”

Mmkay. Good luck with that.

“It’s not true!”

“You see? That very response is why I’m not in the science faculty.”

You don’t say.

The rest of her word salad – I thought to fisk it, but the addled thinking and pomo whargarbl speak for themselves:

“Western modernity is the direct antagonistic factor to decolonization because Western knowledge is totalizing. It is saying that it is Newton and only Newton who knew or saw an apple falling, and out of nowhere decided that gravity existed, and created an equation, and that is it. Whether people knew Newton or not or whether that happens in western Africa or northern Africa, they say the only way to explain gravity is through Newton who sat under a tree and saw an apple fall. So, Western modernity is the problem which decolonization directly deals with, to say that we are going to decolonize by having knowledge that is produced by us, that speaks to us, and that is able to accommodate knowledge from our perspective. So to say that you disagree with her approach it means that you have vested in the Western and Eurocentric way of understanding which means you yourself still need to go back, internally, decolonize your mind and come back and say ‘how can I relook at what I’ve been studying all these years’ because Western knowledge is very [pervasive?] to say the least. I from a decolonized perspective believe we can do more as new knowledge producers as people who are given the ability to reason or whatever it is people say we do when we think or rationalize. So, decolonizing the science would mean doing away with it entirely and starting all over again to deal with how we respond to environments and how we understand it, thank you.”

The best part is at the end when she nods sagely to the crowd, proud of her oration, then pulls out a smartphone and starts fiddling with it. Umm, sweetie? Yeah, giving up science means giving up all the goodies it has produced, too.

SpaceX to Mars

Some detail on what Elon Musk is proposing. I like the idea of landing directly on the launch mount and attaching a new payload while the stage is refueling. It’s sporty. If they’re serious about this architecture, it suggests that some of SpaceX’s near-future developments will involve a different sort of launch mount/hold-down scheme that facilitates this idea of landing a returning stage directly on the mount, rapid checkout/turnaround of returning stages (without moving them from their landing spot), and a means of rapidly integrating payloads to boosters at the pad (something that DARPA FALCON and ALASA have worked on, albeit at a significantly smaller scale).

But it strikes me that they’d be better off in the near term to simply have a second booster ready to move to the pad with the refueling vehicle. Sure, it’s got a gee-wiz factor to land directly on the launch mount, refuel and restack, and launch again, but I don’t see how developing all of that special-purpose technology could compare economically with simply building a second reusable booster.

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Our Briny Nuclear Future

With a bonus life-imitates-art use of adsorbents: Uranium From Seawater Could Keep Our Lights On for 13,000 Years

We have 4.5 billion tons of uranium in seawater. Half of that amount is enough to power nuclear plants worldwide for 6,500 years.

However, unfortunately, the costs of extracting uranium from seawater is three times the current cost of uranium mined from land. That said, researchers believe this source may one day be critical to sustaining our energy needs, and to that end, efforts to extract uranium from the seas began in the 1960’s. And our efforts have continued from there…

To begin, extracting seawater uranium is harder than mining from land reserves as it involves a process called “adsorption,” in which atoms, ions, or molecules adhere to a surface. Scientists have been designing different materials to serve as that surface that, when submerged in seawater, will “adsorb” uranium and hold it for extraction.

Keeping these materials cost-efficient is important in relation to keeping the costs of seawater uranium low. Now, the DOE team has developed new adsorbents that brought the costs of seawater uranium extraction down by three to four times and in just five years.

Note that this is in addition to the vast stockpiles of depleted uranium we have from Cold War nuclear weapons production, which (along with spent fuel from conventional reactors) can be used in CANDU-type plants.

So why are we wrecking the environment mining and refining rare-earth metals, making toxic and short-lifetime photovoltaics, and covering pristine landscapes with windmills and PV panels?

Life Imitates Art: The Visor Display

It seems the capabilities of Leon’s helmet display aren’t all that far off:

Tyco’s Scott Safety is bringing a big upgrade to the field of firefighting with their newly released product, the Scott Sight. This hands-free device is the first in the industry that incorporates an in-mask thermal intelligence system, according to an April 18th press release from the fire protection and security company.

The Scott Sight works in a similar way to Google Glass. A screen within the mask itself displays readings and various interfaces via a thermal camera at nine frames per second for up to four hours.

Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.