Archive for December, 2016

Terraforming the Moon by Comet

December 31, 2016

In my last blog post, I discussed the passed in David A. Hardy’s book, Atlas of the Solar System, in which he described the possible methods which might be used in the future to transform Mercury, Venus, the Moon and Mars into worlds, where humans and other creatures could live in the open, instead of the enclosed environments they need now to protect them from the harsh conditions of space. In the case of Venus, comets would be used to increase the planet’s rotation from its current 224 Earth days to a terrestrial day, and give the planet water. Looking through YouTube, I found this video by Fraser Cain, in which he talks about using the same method to terraform the Moon, as suggested by the space scientist and SF writer, Gregory Benford. This is part of a series of videos on space and space colonisation. At the beginning of the video, he mentions a previous one about the terraforming of Venus.

The explanatory section on the YouTube page provides this transcript of his talk.

In our episode about terraforming Venus, we talked about cooling the planet with a giant sunshade, and then hand-wavingly bind up all that carbon dioxide.

We did the same with Mars, filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses to warm it up, and releasing the planet’s vast stores of C02 to thicken the atmosphere. Then just crash in a few comets worth of water and upgrade them to to a 3 star resort.

We’re pitching this as a new series on the Discovery Network, called “Flip My Planet – Canada”.

Now let’s turn our imagination towards another rockball that is really more of a fixer-upper: The Moon. I know, you never even thought of the Moon as a place that we could possibly terra-renovate. Go ahead and imagine with me all the possibilities of a verdant green and blue little world hanging in the night sky. Doesn’t that sound great?

So, what does it take? Do we tear it down and just use the orbital lot space? Should we raise it up and lay a new foundation? Or could we get away with a few coats of paint and adding an atrium on the backside?

Fortunately for me, scientist and sci-fi author Gregory “Planetary Makeover” Benford has already done the math.

Let’s take a look at what we’d need to get the Moon habitable. For starters, the fact that the Moon is so close to Earth is a huge advantage. This is like living on the same block as a Home Depot, and we won’t have to travel far to get supplies and equipment to and from our project.

We’re going to need an atmosphere thick enough to breathe and trap in the Sun’s heat. This takes wild comet capture and harvest, tear them apart and smash them into the Moon.

Benford notes that you probably want be careful not to let an entire comet collide with the Moon because it might spray your primary investment home with debris and do a little damage to the resale value, or potentially annoy your tenants.

This could get bad enough that we’d have to terraform Earth to get it livable again, and you’d need to bring in Mike Holmes to publicly shame us and put our primary residence back in order.

After you’d splattered a few comets on the Moon, it would have an atmosphere almost immediately. The transfer of momentum from the comet chunks would get the Moon rotating more rapidly.

If you invest a little more in your planning stage, you could get the Moon spinning once every 24 hours, and even tilt its axis to get seasons. Benford estimates that we’d need 100 Halley’s mass comets to get the job done. This might sound like a pretty tall order, but it’s tiny compared to number of comets we’d need for your Mars or Venus real estate scheme.

The maintenance and upkeep isn’t going to be without its challenges. Low gravity on the Moon means that it can’t hold onto its atmosphere for longer than a few thousand years.

Once you got the process going, you’d need to be constantly replenishing our your orbital cottage with fresh atmosphere. Fortunately, we’ve got a whole Solar System’s worth of ice to exploit.

The benefits of a terraformed summer home on the Moon are numerous. For example, if the Moon had an atmosphere as thick as the Earth’s, you could strap on a pair of wings and fly around in the 1/6th gravity.

The enormous gravity of the Earth would pull the Moon’s oceans around the planet with 20 meter tides. You could surf the tide for kilometers as it washes across the surface in a miniature version of the shallow water scene in Interstellar.

This might be the greatest sponsorship opportunity for GoPro of all time. Look out Kiteboarding, you’re about to get more extreme.

Everyone always wants to talk about terraforming Venus or Mars. Let them be, that’s too much work. The next time someone brings it up at D&D night, you can blow their minds with your well crafted argument on why we want to start with the Moon.

I can remember David A. Hardy illustrating a few articles on future human habitats on the Moon, showing people enjoying themselves flying around and swimming at just such a lunar resort. One of these was for an article in the sadly short-lived space and astronomy magazine, New Voyager. The resort was in an enclosed dome, rather than on the terraformed surface. The Scots space scientist, Duncan Lunan, in his book, Man and the Planets, also suggested that to prevent the Moon’s atmosphere from being lost to space, the whole planet should be contained with a kind of giant inflatable bubble. This is waaaay beyond modern technological capability, but not, perhaps, that of the future. So perhaps at some point in the far future, the Moon may also join Earth as a living, habitable world.

David A. Hardy on Terraforming the Solar System

December 31, 2016

As well as colonising the other planets in the solar system with self-contained, sealed environments to protect their future human inhabitants, it may also one day be possible to terraform them. This means transforming them from their currently hostile conditions to an Earthlike environment. At the moment, the planet considered most suitable for terraforming is Mars, because of all the planets it seems to present the least obstacles to this form of planetary engineering. I can remember reading a piece in the Sunday Express way back in the 1980s, which discussed James Lovelock’s suggestions for creating an earthlike atmosphere on the Red Planet. Lovelock is the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that Earth’s biosphere acts like a gigantic, self-regulating organism. This became a favourite of several of the New Age neo-pagan religions in the 1990s, where it was incorporated into worship of the Earth Mother. Lovelock believed that while nuclear weapons were a serious danger to all life on Earth, they could be used creatively on Mars to produce an environment that would support life. Mars has large amounts of carbon dioxide locked up at its polar regions in the form of dry ice. he believed that this could be melted using nuclear missiles. Specially targeted nuclear explosions would cover the polar regions with an insulating layer of soil. This would keep the heat in, which is currently radiated back into space, reflected by the white ice. The rise in temperature would cause the dry ice to sublimate into carbon dioxide gas. This would then start a greenhouse effect, which would see more carbon dioxide and other gases released into the Martian atmosphere. This would eventually create an environment, where the atmosphere was thick enough for humans to be able to move around without space suits. They would, however, still need oxygen masks and tanks to be able to breathe. Lovelock was extremely optimistic about how many weapons would be needed. He believed that you’d only need four, if I remember correctly.

Lovelock’s ideas are wrong, but other scientists and Science Fiction writers have also suggested ways of transforming the Red Planet into a place where life can thrive. Back in the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy of books set on a Mars that was being colonised and terraformed by humanity, beginning with Red Mars. The veteran SF writer, Arthur C. Clarke, also produced a book in which he used to a computer programme to show what Mars may look like as it’s being terraformed. Over hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years, rivers, seas and oceans develop and green spreads over its land surface as vegetation begins growing on its previously barren surface.

David A. Hardy, the space artist, who has illustrated a number of books on space, including several with the late Patrick Moore, also described the various ways in which the Moon, as well as Mercury, Venus and Mars, could be terraformed in his 1981 book, Atlas of the Solar System (Kingswood, Surrey: World’s Work). He writes

Taking the concept of manned bases on other planets still further, there is the staggering possibility of ‘planetary engineering’ or terraforming – a term coined in 1942 by science fiction writer Jack Williamson. The idea is simply to make other worlds habitable by humans. An early suggestion, in 1961, by Carl Sagan was to ‘seed’ the atmosphere of Venus with blue-green algae, converting the carbon dioxide into oxygen and at the same time reducing the pressure and temperature (by eliminating the greenhouse effect). The upper clouds would condense and rain would fall, forming oceans.

A more recent alternative, now that we know how hostile Venus really is, is to ferry in ice asteroids 15 km or so in diameter, put them into orbit around Venus and aim them, using rocket jets, at a specific spot on the surface. Each crashes at nearly 100 km/s, at such an angle that Venus’ rotation is increased until a 24-hour day is approached, while at the same time water is provided as the ice melts. Then the atmosphere is seeded with blue-green algae.

The same could even be done with the Moon: once given a breathable atmosphere by baking oxygen out of the rocks with giant parabolic mirrors, it would remain for thousands of years, even if not replenished. The time factor for the operation is remarkably short. Mercury would need to be shielded from the Sun by a ‘parasol’ of rocky particles put up by mass-driver, or by a man-made ring. Mars would need to be warmed up, perhaps by reflecting sunlight on to the poles with huge, thin metal-foil mirrors, increasing the energy-flow at the poles by 20 per cent. or we could spread dark material from its carbonaceous moons on them with a mass-driver. Rich not only in carbon but in oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, this is excellent raw material for fertiliser. One the atmosphere was thickened, the greenhouse effect and carefully chosen plant life should do the rest. (pp. 86-7).

The process of transforming these planets into habitable worlds would take quite a long time – decades, if not centuries, and at present it is the stuff of science fiction. But I hope that there will be a time when we can move out from Earth to create new homes for life and civilisation on these worlds.

2017: The Year We Land on the Moon, according to Russian Rocket Pioneer

December 31, 2016

I was watching a talk on CD-Rom last night by Dr. Gerald K. O’Neill, one of the leading advocates of space colonisation. Way back in the 1970s, O’Neill suggested that humanity should colonise space by constructing special space habitats at the Lagrange points between the Moon and Earth. The L5 points are excellent sites for space colonies, as they’re the points at which the gravity from the Moon and Earth interact to form stable points. The space habitats he designed were solar powered cities, with areas of parkland, housing and manufacturing areas. The CD-Rom with these talks came with a book I bought nearly a decade ago by him, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (Burlington Ontario: Apogee Books 2000). However, for one reason or another I hadn’t got round to watching it. I think part of the problem may have been that the computer I may have been using at the time had an incompatible version of Windows.

Along with his other arguments about the ecological and economic benefits space colonisation would bring, and the technological and scientific methods, which would be used in the construction of these colonies, Dr. O’Neill also mentioned that, according to the Russian rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, it would be this New Year, 2017, when humanity would first break out from Earth and land on the Moon. O’Neill makes the point that instead, we got to the Moon 50 years early. He then goes on to predict that, despite cuts to NASA’s budget and the low priority given to funding science, and particularly to supporting the space programme for itself rather than those products which have spun off it, humanity will be colonising space in a centuries’ time. He even predicts that by that time, we may well be starting to send space colonies outside the solar system to colonise the neighbouring stars.

The video seems to date from around 1982, and I’m rather more pessimistic about humanity’s possible colonisation of space. There’s immense public interest in it, but it is expensive using the technology currently available. The costs aren’t prohibitively so. I went to a symposium at the British Interplanetary Society nearly a decade and a half ago, where one of the speakers pointed out that the cost of constructing an orbital hotel actually are the same as building a tower block here on Earth. And once the commercial exploitation of space begins in earnest, launch costs can be expected to fall as new ways and launch vehicles are developed to put people and objects into space more easily and cheaply. Indeed, one of the aerospace engineers talking at the Symposium also made the point that there were planes and vehicles planned in the 1940s and ’50s which would have had the ability to achieve orbit. So, far from humanity being 50 years ahead of schedule, by another set of standards we’re 60 or so years behind.

Still, I hope that with China now planning to send a probe to the far side of the Moon and its unstated intention eventually to send humans there, 2017 won’t be too far off Tsiolkovskii’s prediction. I’d like humanity to begin colonising the Moon as well as the Red Planet. At the moment, we’re just languishing, sending people to the International Space Station. It’s a great scientific achievement, but there’s so much more that needs to be done to open up the High Frontier properly.

American Psychiatrists Fear Trump Mentally Ill, Unsuited for Presidency

December 29, 2016

They aren’t the only one, and this is serious.

In this video from The Young Turks, The Ring of Fire’s Farron Cousins reports that three professors of psychiatry, one from Harvard, the other two from the University of California San Francisco, have written a letter to Barack Obama requesting that he step in and force Trump to take a psychiatric examination. They are concerned that he suffers from psychological defects that render him not just unsuitable, but actually too dangerous to be given the job of president. They believe that Trump’s grandiosity, his impetuousness, the way he takes offence and responds aggressive at even the mildest criticism point to mental illness. He may just suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, perhaps something rather more serious than that, or perhaps even be a full-blown sociopath. Cousins states that it could just be affluenza. Trump comes from an extremely wealthy background, and has been given everything he wanted, including now the presidency. But it looks more serious than this.

This makes Trump extremely dangerous. He cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes, nor control of the drone programme, which he could use to strike down his opponents. Cousins states that the US constitution provides for presidents to be removed or impeached if they are unfit for their office. And mental illness would certainly come under those conditions disqualifying a president from taking office on fitness grounds. Cousins believes it is unfortunately too early at this stage to use this to prevent Trump gaining office. But he recommends that letter should be saved and stored, and that once Trump is in the White House, it should be taken out and acted upon.

Vox Political: Public Sides with Archbishop of Canterbury against Scrooge Farage

December 29, 2016

This story adds one piece more to the pile of evidence screaming out how thoroughly, grottily mean-spirited Nigel Farage is. On Christmas Day, Rev. Justin Welby, the current archbishop of Canterbury, tweeted the following message:

“Jesus came to us homeless and in a manger. This Christmas, please pray with me for the poor, hungry and homeless, here and abroad.”

This was too much for Farage, who tweeted back

“Merry Christmas! Ignore all negative messages from the Archbishop of Canterbury and have a great day!”

As a result, a social media campaign has been launched, where users of the site have been posting messages supporting the Archbishop under the hashtag #ImWithJustinWelby”.

Mike speculates that this may be part of a sea change against the various rightwing windbags like Farage and, indeed, the entire Tory cabinet, who have been promoted by their parties far beyond their meagre abilities, and have been responsible for making 2016 the dire mess it has been.

You actually begin to wonder what kind of society the Tories and ultra-Tories like UKIP have created, when a politico like Farage finds the Archbishop’s message offensive or controversial. Christian religious leaders and laypeople have been exhorting their co-religionists to remember the poor at this time of year since, well, actually since Charles Dickens first invented the modern Christmas way back in the 19th century with A Christmas Carol. The story was a piece of deliberate social engineering by the great novelist. Dickens was appalled by the poverty he saw in the Britain of his time – hence the term ‘Dickensian’, because of the care he took to describe it. Dickens felt that part of the solution to this problem would be to re-awaken the Christian conscience through stressing the spirit of generous charity at this festival. It was his rebuttal to the sentiments he puts in Scrooge’s mouth, about the poor finding relief from starvation through prison or the workhouse.

But this very traditional Christmas message – which has been repeated just about every year since Dickens effectively revived and reinvented its celebration in Britain – is now seen by the Fuhrage as some kind of dangerous moralistic ploy to spoil everyone’s fun. It isn’t. It’s inclusive. It’s about sharing the fun around, to combat poverty and social alienation.

And Britain might now be a largely secular society, but many atheists and secular people would agree with central point of the Archbishop’s message: that as the nation settles down to enjoy itself, it should also remember those less fortunate than themselves.

Farage’s reaction to the Archbishop’s message also shows how used the Tories are to automatically attacking any comment about social conditions from the Church. Ever since the Anglican church issued the first of a series of reports in the 1970s condemning the Tory party for increasing poverty in Britain, the Tories have been sneering and attacking them in their turn. There’s even a wretched blog, Cranmer, which states that it has been set up to support all rightwing Christians, particularly Anglicans, now that the Anglican clergy are turning to politics. The Tories’ reaction to such comments has now become instinctive. As soon as a senior clergyman dares to point out that poverty still haunts Britain, even in such a mild, inoffensive and entirely non-controversial form as the Archbishop’s Christmas tweet, someone like Farage has to stand up and denounce it.

And so, in the spirit of selfish greed and indulgence, we have Farage demanding that everyone should ignore the poor and homeless, and concentrate on stuffing themselves.

His statement also shows up another glaring moral fault in UKIP in the party’s attitude to immigration and non-Whites. Despite what the Fuhrage has said, his party is full of racist bigots, Islamophobes and White supremacists, who see Blacks and Asians as a dangerous threat to the British way of life and morality. But over Christmas, a number of Asian take-aways and restaurants have shown far more of the Christmas spirit than Farage. Mike put up a story about a fish and chip shop in Brum, run by two Asian brothers, which was going to supply free meals to the homeless and elderly on Christmas Day. I also heard that some of the Asian restaurants were also going to do likewise in Cheltenham. This spirit wasn’t confined to the Asian community – other hostelries, like a pub in Glastonbury, were also doing the same. I’m not here claiming that Blacks or Asians are any more virtuous than Whites. But the simple fact that so many Asian restaurants were doing so amply demonstrates that the obvious isn’t automatically true either. It shows how bigoted UKIP are, and their lack of compassion for society as a whole.

A few years ago one of the TV companies ran a show which adopted an interesting take on the issue of immigration. The show worked on the principle of ‘one in, one out’. Every week, the presenters gave the case for letting a particular person into the country, and canvased their viewers on who they’d like to see deported. One of those the great British public wanted to see thrown out of the country by a very long margin, according to Private Eye, was the editor of rabidly xenophobic Daily Mail, Paul Dacre. I think we should adopt the same attitude here. The Archbishop should be fully supported, and everyone who gave their time, money or other help to the poor and homeless at Christmas needs to stay, regardless of their ethnic or religious origins. Nigel Farage, however, must go.

Farage is Scrooge. Deport him now!

China Aims at Probes to the Moon and Mars

December 29, 2016

Another space story.

The I newspaper yesterday reported that China is aiming to send probes to the far side of the Moon and Mars, and with an unstated further aim of landing a man on the Moon. The article by Louise Watt, entitled Beijing Joins Space Race with Plans to Explore Moon and Mars ran

China has laid out plans to become the first country to soft land a probe on the far side of the Moon, by around 2018, and launch its first Mars probe by 2020.

“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build china into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly,” read a White Paper released yesterday listing the country’s space strategy for the next five years.

It says China aims to use space for peaceful purposes and to guarantee national security, and to carry out cutting-edge scientific research.

The document points to the growing ambitions of China’s already rapidly advancing space programme. China places great emphasis on the development of its space industry, seen as a symbol of national prestige that will raise the country’s standing in the world. Although the White Paper does not mention it, China’s eventual goal is to land an astronaut on the Moon.

While Russia and the United States have more experience in manned space travel, China’s military-backed programme has made steady progress in a comparatively short time.

The White Paper reiterated China’s plans to launch its first Mars probe by 2020, saying that it would explore and bring back samples from the Red Planet, explore the Jupiter system and “conduct research into major scientific questions such as the origin and evolution of the solar system, and search for extra-terrestrial life.”

There is also an inset panel providing a little snippet of further information.

Since China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, it has staged a spacewalk and landed a rover on the Moon in 2013 – the first time humans soft landed anything on the Moon since the 1970s. (p,. 22).

I say good luck to them. The Apollo moon lands are now nearly 50 years in the past, and I really believe that it’s high time we sent people back out into space to explore the planets. And some western space scientists and writers have been predicting for well over a decade now that China might just be the nation to do it. The quantum physicist and SF writer, Stephen Baxter, wrote a piece in Focus magazine speculating that the Chinese may be the first nation to send a person to Mars in the next decade or so, and wrote a fictional scenario in which the first person to step out onto the Martian surface is a female taikonaut from the Middle Kingdom. The SF author, Paul McAuley, wrote a novel, Red Dust, set on a future, Chinese dominated Mars with an ecosystem created through genetic engineering, to tailor creatures specially adapted for conditions on the Red Planet. nd a decade or so before then, 2000 AD in its future war strip, The V.C.s, also portrayed a Mars settled by the Chinese.

I wish the Chinese every success in their peaceful exploration of the Solar System, and hope that this will encourage the other developed nations to expand their space programmes. The Chinese space programme will be a challenge to the American space programme, but the potential benefits of space travel, exploration and colonisation are far too important to be monopolised by any one nation.

The French Astronomer Who Gave His Name to the Captain of the Enterprise?

December 28, 2016

More space/ SF stuff.

Looking through the 1982 Yearbook of Astronomy, edited by Patrick Moore, I found on the chapter for July a very brief biography of the 17th century French astronomer, Jean Picard. The piece ran

1982 is the anniversary of the death of Jean Picard, a celebrated French astronomer. He was born at La Fleche, in Anjou, on 21 July 1620; he studied for the priesthood, and was ordained, but his main interest was in astronomy. In 1645 he was appointed Professor at the College de France, and took a leading part in the establishment of the Paris Observatory. His most famous piece of research was undertaken in 1669-70, when he made a new and more accurate determination of the radius of the Earth. it has been said that it was this which allowed Isaac Newton to complete his work on the theory of gravitation, though in fact Newton’s earlier hesitation was due to the fact that one link in his chain of argument was incomplete. Jean Picard died as the result of an accident on 12 July 1682. (pp. 103-4).

Reading that, I wonder if he was the inspiration for Patrick Stewart’s character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I’ve also got a feeling that another Francophone space scientist may also have inspired the name and character. Professor Calculus in the Tintin books by Herge is based on a real French scientist, who ascended to the edge of space in a high altitude balloon in the last century. I can’t remember the scientist’s name, but I’ve got a feeling it was also Picard.

Of course, it could all be coincidence. But considering the high standard of TV drama set by the series, it really wouldn’t surprise me if the creators and producers had done their historical research, and decided to create the Picard character partly as a tribute to these scientists.

Robots at the Philippe Plein Fashion Show in Milan

December 27, 2016

And Courtney Love, always assuming that she isn’t an android, of course.

I’ve got zero interest in fashion, but this is interesting as it’s stuff of Science Fiction today. I found this video of a fashion show in Milan for the designer Philippe Plein. This was based very much around robots. As you can see, Courtney Love and the models don’t come down a catwalk, but instead move along a conveyor. The music is provided by the German robot heavy metal band, Compressorhead, as well as a recording of Kraftwerk’s The Model, appropriately enough. Kraftwerk saw themselves as engineers of sound, and have performed with robots on stage themselves, or rather, with robotic versions of themselves, as well as cultivating a very robotic image themselves personally. A few years ago one of them published his autobiography, entitled I Was a Cyborg. As well as the robots of Compressorhead, there are big industrial robots moving about the stage filming the proceedings.

The Italian Futurists of the early 20th century would have really dug all of this. They were a militant artistic movement which celebrated war, masculinity, the new machine age and the speed of modern mass communication, like cinema newsreels, newspapers and radio. Their founder, the poet Marinetti, celebrated the motor car as ‘more beautiful than the Battle of the Samothrace’ in his Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, and declared that his movement ‘looked for the union of man and machine’. They dreamed of creating a world of biomechanical toys, designed ‘noise machines’ to be used in their musical concerts, and wrote pieces like The Agony of the Machine. One of their plays was about the love of locomotive for its driver. Plein’s fashion show clearly isn’t about aggressive masculinity, but feminine style. Nevertheless, the performance by the machines does take part in the spirit of Futurism as the art of the modern, industrial, machine age.

This fascinates me, as I think that there is room for the use of robots in serious art. Indeed, a feel that artists, musicians and choreographers have made all too little use of these devices in their performances. I know that at a time there was a vogue for people performing dances using forklift trucks to music. Many of these used to appear on children’s programmes, like the awesome Vision On. But this also shows that the artistic potential offered by machines really isn’t taken that seriously. These were amusing diversions for children, rather than serious art. But the potential to use them for high art is there, as the performance art and explorer of cyborgisation, Stelarc, has shown. His performances are, however, a bit too avant-garde for most people. I think, however, that it’s possible to use robots and cybernetics in traditional artistic forms, like music, drama and dance. A little while ago I blogged about a performance of Karel Capek’s robot play, R.U.R. in Prague, by an artistic group dedicated to exploring the implications of robots, using Lego robots. There are already machines like the British Robothespian, which act as guides in science museums. It should be possible to use robots like these in more serious artistic works. The only real problem with this, however, is the cost. These robots at the moment cost tens of thousands of pounds, which makes the use of more than two of them prohibitively expensive.

While I appreciate Plein’s artistic use of robots in his show, I also found them very slightly frightening. This points to a future, perhaps only a decade or so away, in which humans share the world with increasingly sophisticated machines with a great degree of autonomy. It is no longer a wholly human world, and people have to make their way amongst these sophisticated, and physically powerful devices. I don’t believe we’ll ever see a robot revolution, like R.U.R. or The Terminator, despite the pessimistic forecasts of Kevin Warwick in his March of the Machines. But this does seem to prefigure a future in which humanity has to share the planet with its mechanical creations, who have surpassed it in physical power.

Pro-NHS Political Comment in Paul McAuley’s ‘Something Coming Through’

December 27, 2016


One of the books I’ve been reading this Christmas is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through (London: Gollancz 2015). McAuley’s a former scientist as well as an SF writer. Apart from novels, he also reviewed books and contributed short stories to the veteran British SF magazine, Interzone. He was one of the writers who created the gene punk genre, sometimes also called ‘ribofunk’. This was the genetic engineering counterpart to Cyberpunk, where, instead of using computers, individuals, criminals and corporations used genetic engineering to redesign new forms of life, or spread invasive memes throughout the population to control the way people thought. Back in the 1990s he was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 3 series, Grave New Worlds, in which computer scientists, writers and artists talked about the transhuman condition. This was back when everyone was talking about cyborgisation, and the potential of contemporary technology to produce new varieties of humanity. Apart from McAuley, the guests also included J.G. Ballard and the performance artist Stelarc, who has personally explored the implications of cybernetics for the human body in a series of performances. In one of these he had a mechanical third arm, operated through electrical signals picked up through the stomach muscles. He also gave a modern music performance, in which he was wired up to the internet via galvanic stimulators. A search engine then went about finding images of body parts on the Net. When it found one, that part of the body was electronically stimulated so that it moved. There were also booths in three cities around the world, where participants could also press buttons to move Stelarc via electric impulses. Apart from Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Warwick university, is the person who’s come the closest to being Star Trek’s Borg.

McAuley’s Something Coming Through and its sequel, Into Everywhere, follow the fictional universe he created in a series of magazine short stories about the alien Jackaroo and their impact on humanity. Following a short period of warfare, including the destruction of part of London with a nuclear bomb by terrorists, the Jackaroo turned up and declared that they wish to help. These aliens bring with them 15 artificial wormholes, which act as gateways to 15 worlds, which the Jackaroo give to humanity. Humanity isn’t the only race that the aliens have helped, and the worlds they give to humanity are covered with the ruins and artefacts of previous alien civilisations, now vanished. The Jackaroo themselves are never seen. They interact with humanity through avatars, artificial beings that look like human men. These have golden skin and features modelled on a number of contemporary celebrities. They’re also bald, wear shades, and dress in black track suits. Their motives for helping humanity are unclear. They claim they just want to help, and that it is up to humanity themselves how they use the worlds they have given them. But they are widely suspected of having their own agenda, and despite the protestations of non-interference they are suspected of subtly manipulating humanity.

Accompanying the Jackaroo are the !cho, another alien race, who are equally mysterious. They move about the world in opaque tanks supported on three skeletal legs. Nobody has ever managed to open one up, or scan the tanks using X-rays or ultrasound. It is, however, widely believed that the !cho are sentient colonies of shrimp. Their motives, and their relationship with the Jackaroo, are also unknown.

Something Coming Through follows the adventures of Chloe Millar, a researcher for a company, Disruption Theory, in London, and Vic Gayle, a cop on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo gift worlds. The objects and ruins left from the Jackaroo’s previous client civilisations can be highly dangerous. Some of them are still active, despite the many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of years of abandonment and decay. These can infect humans with memes, algorithms that alter psychology and behaviour. The strongest, most intact of these become eidolons, artificial entities that can take possession of their human hosts. Disruption Theory is a company specialising in researching the effects of these memes as they break out to infect people in Britain. This often takes the form of small sects, whose leaders speak in tongues, uttering nonsense as they try to put in human terms the alien concepts running their consciousness. Millar, the heroine, is investigating a couple of orphaned Pakistani children, who have apparently been infected by an eidolon from one of the gift worlds. Out on Mangala, Vic Gayle is also investigating the murder of a man, who has recently arrived aboard one of the Jackaroo’s shuttles.

Unlike much SF, the book doesn’t indicate how far in the future the story’s set. This is, however, very much a world not too far from the early 21st century of the present. The political structures are much the same, with the exception that the gift worlds are under the control of the UN. People still work in recognisable jobs, and shop and purchase the same brands of clothing. Complicating relations with the Jackaroo is a British politician, Robin Mountjoy and the Human Decency League. The League objects to contact with the Jackaroo as a danger to the dignity of the human race. Their leader, Robin Mountjoy, is described as being ‘in his mid-fifties, a burly man with thinning blond hair and a florid complexion, dressed in an off-the-peg suit. Although he was a multimillionaire, having made his fortune constructing and servicing displaced-persons camps, his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster village’. (p. 51). The League isn’t strong enough to form a government of its own, and so has gone into a coalition with the Conservatives. While Mountjoy is clearly fictional, he does seem to be inspired by Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Britain attempting to gain independence from smooth talking mysterious aliens rather than the EU.

One of the other characters is Adam Nevers, a cop with the Technology Control Unit. This is the branch of the British police tasked with protecting the country from dangerous alien technology. Nevers is described as coming from the entitled upper ranks of society, who go straight from university into high ranking jobs. Which looks to me very much like a comment on the privileged upbringing and expectations of absolute deference and entitlement from certain members of the British upper classes.

Apart from the social and psychological disruption caused by alien contact, this is also a world wear the NHS has finally been privatised. McAuley shows the practical impact this has people’s lives. Without the safety net of state healthcare, people are dependent on their employers to help pay their medical bills, or borrowing money from friends. In his acknowledgements, as well as the many other people who helped him with the book, McAuley also thanks ‘the NHS for life support’. (p. 375). Which suggests that he’s also suffered a period of illness, and is very much aware how much he and everyone else in the country needs the NHS.

I liked the book for its convincing portrayal of the world after sort-of personal contact with an alien civilisation, and the frontier societies that have emerged as Mangala and the other gift worlds have been settled and colonised. I was also fascinated by McAuley’s description of the alien life-forms, and the archaeological exploration of the remains of the planets’ previous civilisations for the technological advances these artifacts offer. I was also drawn to it as it offered a different take on the old SF trope of alien contact. The appearance of the Jackaroo is described as an ‘invasion’, but it’s not really that. The aliens have a ‘hands off’ approach. They haven’t conquered the Earth militarily, and political power is still exercised through traditional human institutions and parties, like the UN and the Tories. Nor are they more or less at our technological level, like many of the alien races in Star Trek, for example. We don’t form an interplanetary federation with them, as they are clearly extremely far in advance of humanity, which is very much the junior partner in this relationship.

It’s not really a political book, and really doesn’t make any overt party political statements. With the exception that rightwing xenophobes would probably form a party like UKIP to join the Conservatives against pernicious alien influence, just like the Kippers under Farage came very much from the right wing, Eurosceptic section of the Tories. But its comments on the class nature of British society does bring a wry smile, and its advocacy of the NHS is very welcome. It doesn’t preach, but simply shows the fear the characters have of sickness or injury in its absence.

And with all too real terrestrial morons like Daniel Hannan, Jeremy Hunt, Dave Cameron, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and the rest of the right-wing politicos, who have done and still are doing their best to undermine the health service, such comments are badly needed throughout the British media.

Space Scientist John S. Lewis on Prosperity and the Colonisation of the Asteroid Belt

December 27, 2016

I found this really interesting, optimistic passage below in John S. Lewis’ Mining the Sky (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley 1997).

John S. Lewis is the Professor of Planetary Sciences and Codirector of the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Arizona-Tucson. Subtitled, Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets and Planets, the book discusses the ways the immense mineral wealth of the solar system and the access it gives to the energy available from the Sun through solar power can be exploited through the colonisation of the solar system with present-day space technology, or developments from it that can reasonably be expected. The chapter ‘The Asteroid Belt: Treasure Beyond Measure’ describes the vast resources of the tiny, rocky worldlets of that part of the solar system, situated between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Not only does he describe the various metals and other minerals available there, but he also discusses the vast increase in personal wealth that would be given to nearly everyone on Earth if the money gained from the mining of these minerals were shared out equally.

I do not want to leave the impression that enough mineral wealth exists in the asteroid belt to provide $7 billion for each person on Earth. That would not be fair. In fact, this estimate completely ignores the value of all th other ingredients of asteroids besides iron. We know, for example, that for every ton of iron in the asteroids, there’s 140 pounds of nickel. That comes to about $6 billion worth of nickel. Meteorite metals contain about 0.5 percent cobalt, which sells for about $15 a pound. That gives another $26 billion each. The platinum-group metals, which sell for about $460 per troy ounce ($15 per gram, or $6,800 per ound) make up about fifteen parts per million of meteorite metal. That comes to another $1.6 X 10 X 20, which is $32 billion per person. So far that is about $72 billion each, and we are not close to done. Add in gold, silver, copper, manganese, titanium, the rare earths, uranium, and so on, and the total rises to over $100 billion for each person on Earth.

It appears that sharing the belt’s wealth among five billion people leads to a shameless level of affluence. Each citizen, assuming he or she could be persuaded to work a forty-hour week, could spend every working hour for 70 years counting $100 bills at the rate of one per second (that’s $360,000 per hour) and fail to finish counting this share of the take. If we were instead to be satisfied with an average per capita wealth comparable to that in the upper economic classes of the industrialised nations today, roughly $100,000 per person, then the resources of the belt would suffice to sustain a million times as many people on Earth. These 10 to the power of 16 people could all live as well as ninety-fifth percentile American of the late twentieth century. With recycling and an adequate source of power, this immense population is sustainable into the indefinite future. The best use of the wealth of the asteroid belt is not to generate insane levels of personal wealth for the charter members; the best use is to expand our supply of the most precious resource of all-human beings. People embody intelligence, by for the most precious resource in the universe and one in terribly short supply. (p. 196).

Now clearly, this is the ideal situation, presented without the risks and costs of actually reaching the asteroid belt and extracting the wealth bound up in its rocks. I also believe that in practice, much of that wealth would also be consumed by the mining companies or terrestrial government agencies responsible for the belt’s commercial exploitation. But it is refreshing to see humans viewed not as a cost in the process of production, which needs to be eliminated as much as possible, but as a valuable and indispensable resource, which needs to be used in the process of exploration and commercial exploitation as much as possible, and handsomely rewarded for its contribution.

On the next page, Lewis also describes the advantages of solar power for the future miners and colonists over fossil fuels and nuclear fission.

But wait a minute! Why not use solar power? The Sun pumps out power at the prodigious rate of 4 X 10 to the power of 33 ergs per second, equivalent to 4 X 10 to the power of 26 watts. Our supercivilisation needs 10 to the power of 19 watts to keep going. The Sun is pumping out forty million times as much power as we need! But what do we need to do to capture and use that energy? The simplest answer (not necessarily the best-there may be even more desirable options that we have not thought of yet) is to use vast arrays of solar cells to convert sunlight into electrical power. If the cells have an efficiency of about 20 percent, similar to the best commercial cells made at present, then each square meter of cell area exposed to the Sun near Earth’s orbit would generate 270 watts of electrical power continuously. We would need thirty-seven billion square kilometers of solar cells to provide our power needs, an area comparable to the total surface area of our habitats. At about 0.1 grams per square centimeter for the solar cells, we would need about 3.7 X 10 to the power of 19 grams of silicon to make the cells and perhaps three times as much metal to provide the supports and wires for the power-collection system. The asteroids give us 4X10 to the power of 23 grams of silicon, more than ten thousand times the amount we need for this purpose. The cost of the solar power units is set by the need to construct a few square meters of solar cells per person. The cost would be about two hundred dollars per person at present prices, or a few dollars per person at future mass-production prices. That is not your monthly electric bill: it is a one-time-only expenditure to provide all the electric power you will need for the rest of your life.

All this reckons with 1997 technology. New types of high-efficiency solar cells made of gallium arsenide or other exotic materials, combined with ultra-lightweight parabolic reflectors to collect and concentrate sunlight onto small areas of these cells, promise to perform much better than these highly conservative estimates. (pp. 197-8).

This is the solar power available for the asteroid colonies near Earth. In a later chapter, 14, Lewis discusses ‘Environmental Solutions for Earth’.

Lewis certainly isn’t against private industry in space. Indeed, in an imaginary scenario in one of the first chapters he has a future businessman enthusing about the profits to be gained from mining the Moon or other parts of the Solar system. But he’s clearly like many space visionaries in that he believes that humanity’s expansion into the cosmos will bring immense benefits in enriching and raising the personal quality of life for each individual as well as benefiting the environment down here on Earth.

But reading that paragraph on the benefits of solar power does show why some politicians, particularly in the Tory and Republican parties in Britain and America, who are the paid servants of the nuclear and fossil fuel companies, are so dead set against solar power, as well as other renewables. Quite simply, if it’s adopted, these industries immediately become obsolete, the obscene wealth enjoyed by their CEOs, senior management, and the aristocracy of Middle Eastern oil states, like Saudi Arabia, vanishes along with their political power. And the proles have access to cheaper power. Indeed, people using solar power today are actually able to reverse the usual norm slightly and sell power back to the grid.

No wonder the Tories are trying to shut it all down in favour of nuclear and fracking.