Monday, July 6, 2009

Garden Worlds, Park Worlds

In the old days, interstellar colonization was pretty simple and straightforward (once you had a starship handy). Heinlein, naturally, provided the real estate pitch:

"Imagine a place like Earth, but sweeter than Terra ever was … forests aching to be cut, game that practically jumps into the stew pot. If you don't like settlements, you move on until you've got no neighbors, poke a seed in the ground, then jump back before it sprouts. No obnoxious insects. Practically no terrestrial diseases and no native diseases that like the flavor of our breed." (Starman Jones, Ballantine pback, p. 68.)
Nova Terra, to be sure, was the pick of the lot. In the same book Heinlein alludes to harsh colony worlds – and later on, an Eden planet turns out to have non-prelapsarian locals already in possession, who intend to stay that way. But given a sky full of stars and a ship to get you there, why settle for the also-rans? Heinlein also supplied a host of secondary tropes, such as the utility of horses that can fuel themselves from a handy pasture and (given a stallion and a mare) manufacture their own replacements.

Unfortunately, as commenter Ian M. noted a couple of months back (in comments spinning off a post about the Moon), it is desperately unlikely to work out that way. Suppose a planet with complex life, and enough of it to have built up an oxygen-rich atmosphere. It may look like Paradise, or at any rate Earth. Convergent evolution might well produce para-forests and para-grasslands, just as dolphins have a similar configuration to fish. But dophins aren't fish, and alien life almost certainly will not be like us. Hydrocarbon life anywhere will be built out of the same basic building blocks, but with differing architectural details – and our digestive keys will not fit its nutritional locks.

The good news is that the local tigers and local germs won't find us tasty and nutritious. But by the same token we can't eat the local venison or berries, and chances are only slightly better that our cattle can graze on the grass. Plants have a far less demanding diet, and might well grow nicely in any soil that has nitrogen fixed in it. In fact they might grow too well, at least the ones that don't rely on bees or other terrestrial creatures as their dating service.

Terrestrial plants, devoid of natural enemies, might crowd the native stuff out of any remotely suitable environment – wrecking entire ecosystems. But this too could go both ways. To local para-algae we could be walking Petri dishes: warm, moist, and fertile. Our bodies' defenses, if any, are likely to take the form of allergic reactions, not terribly helpful to us.

In short, any garden worlds out there are probably not for us. Those valleys with forested slopes above babbling streams filled with flashing para-trout are the ultimate nature preserves, to be appreciated but not subdivided for housing tracts. Yes, theoretically we might simply wipe out the native life, then recolonize with a terrestrial ecosystem including ourselves. I don't think you have to be a Jain to find something repulsive about this.

Which leaves the option of terraforming. For every nature-park world we will probably find dozens that didn't quite make it. We do not yet know whether life arises wherever there is liquid water to be had – we may begin to find out on Mars and Europa. But if a planet has oceans but no life it is a candidate for terraforming, and only the ecopoetic or gardening stage is required – no need to sling comets from the outer system to provide water, or hoover up 90 bars of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Worlds with limited 'primitive' life may even allow a sort of biological nonaggression pact, the native forms going quietly on in their own local ecosystems. There are still ethical questions (we're precluding or at least greatly altering their evolutionary prospects), but not like the ethics of sterilizing a rich, living world.

Yet even interstellar colonization is not as simple as it used to be.


Related post: In the early days of this blog I commented on the largest-yet (still!) discovery report of extrasolar planets.

79 comments:

Kedamono said...

Interesting, some friends of mine and myself, were talking about this topic at dinner last week. One of my friends is a biochemist and he raised all the points you did.

However, I've always wondered about the issue of whether or not you need a big moon for viable ecosystem. So I wrote a short story about it.

The Game of Life

I also did a background on two worlds for the game FTL:2448:

Fomalhaut V: New America

Fomalhaut IV: Dorsey*

Both are extremes. Dorsey has a more varied ecosphere with no moon, and New America is your typical terraformer's dream. Still, after 340 years of terraforming, you still need a respirator/concentrator mask in a few valleys or plains.

Dorsey is a bucking bronco of a world, it's axial tilt bobbing back and forth from 0 degrees to near 90 degrees. "Currently" it's at 40 degrees. On this world, life has been shoved into corners and forced to evolve to face those challenges.

Look to our world, life didn't really change all that much until the different Iceball Earth events. The last one was before the precambrian explosion of multicellular life. Every extinction is followed by an explosion of life filling niches, evolving.

*Dorsey was the name of the explorer's ex-wife. :-)

Rick said...

I've read discussions of the suggestion that large moons are required for complex life to arise, due as you say to chaotic changes in rotational axis. If this is the case, 'garden worlds' (or park worlds) will be much rarer.

(Unless big moons or terrestrial double planets turn out to be rather common.)

This shouldn't be a huge issue for terraforming, though, depending on the quasi-philosophical question of whether colonizable planets need to stay habitable over geological time frames. I'd be antsy about colonizing a planet that might become non-habitable in 10,000 years, but 10 million?

Kedamono said...

Well Rick, the problem with the rare moon theory is that we have one planet and two ice dwarves, (Earth/Luna, Pluto/Charon, and maybe Orcus and it's unnamed moon.)

Someone postulated that the trojan points for a large protoworld may be a good place for other protoplanets to form in. And if they "fell" out of that trojan point, they would strike the parent proto with the desired angle that formed our moon. Oversized moons may not be that rare.

Rick said...

This crossed my mind - hence my parenthetical escape hatch. :-) Double asteroids are fairly common, likewise apparently double dwarf planets / dwarf planets with big moons in the Kuiper belt. I don't know what modeling studies of terrestrial planet formation have shown in that regard, or even if it has been tested.

I'm reminded of planetary rings. Clarke once went out on a limb to guess that 'as many as half' of gas giants might have rings; as it turns out all the solar ones do.

Anonymous said...

In Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books, the world Barrayar seems to have been a particularly bad choice in real estate. Humans are allergic to practically every plant on the planet, and terraform by slash-and-burn agriculture and bulk dumping of fertilizer. It's one of the few SF settings I've seen that touch on the biochemical issues of colonization.

If your planning horizon is short enough (Say, because you're transplanting undesirables to a new world) the prospect of a planetary triple toe loop probably doesn't bother you. On the other hand, any culture that practices terraforming obviously does think in the long term and I think the idea of transporting prisoners to other worlds is unlikely even with FTL. Why dump the prisoners on Ceti Alpha V when it's cheaper to dump them on Antarctica?

The process that formed the Earth-Moon pair seems like a fairly low probability event. Not the collision itself, but the fact that the remnants of the collision formed a stable pair. But we know so little about planetary formation that we can't even make informed guesses about how other events might play out. And as Kedamono points out, there are lots of objects floating around that can capture each other (Do you have a link for that trojan formation idea? It sounds interesting). It's definitely an area where I'm willing to give SF authors some slack, letting them plant their worlds where the story calls for them.

Using Earth as a baseline, the prime real estate would probably be any world that has not yet hit it's equivalent of the Devonian era. So long as complex life is confined largely to the seas, terraforming the land is remarkably straightforward. It's a lot of hard work, but it's not hard work that fights back and evolves to destroy your work. And the presence of marine ecosystems means you don't have to terraform the oceans (Or only have to introduce species like salmon, eels, or tortoises, that return nutrients to the land from the ocean). I did some calculations for terraforming ocean volumes comparable to the Earth's, and was quickly reminded that humans are just a thin biofilm confined to a narrow portion of the habitable world.

Completely lifeless worlds are your next best bet. But you should probably check out the local neighborhood and find out why the place is lifeless...

In his novel Nemesis Isaac Asimov included a fictional life-signs scanner that worked by detecting complex repetitive electromagnetic events. Something like that wouldn't spot anything without a rudimentary nervous system, but it was an interesting idea. Throw in spectrographic analysis, telescopic studies, and automated surveys, and any colonists should have a good idea of what they're getting into even if they are the first humans to set foot on the planet.

Ian_M

Kedamono said...

Ian, would you believe it? Wikipedia!

Giant Impact Hypothesis

They even have an animation showing how it happens!

Anonymous said...

That is an interesting revelation that science fiction, both literary and visual incarnations, seem to have overlooked. The fact that a planet is similar enough to the Earth to the point that it has flora similar to our own Terran flora does not mean that they're compatible with us in the edible department and even introducing terran flora could mean a repeat of what was done on earth centuries ago upon isolated islands and other such landmasses.

The plus side to this is that microorganisms would not be able to infect us and make us ill, I remember seeing a documentary that mentioned that fact and for the first few generations there wouldn't be that much worry about them. Well unless we evolve to adapt to this para-Earth over our own, which might take thousands if not millions of years of evolution or up to a century or so with genetic engineering, before we become just another suitable home for the microorganisms to colonize.

Ian's idea of colonizing Silurian and Pre-Devonian Earths does have some merits since the local fauna, if not just the flora, haven't started colonizing dry land and leaving the real estate to we humans to make as Earth-like as possible without affecting the native flora and fauna so dramatically. Even a Cambrian Earth would be ideal for any xenobiologist to take samples and study evolution upon alien worlds.

However, I can't help but wonder if the biospheres of both land and sea are really that isolated from each other. I'm not a hundred percent sure of how strongly one affects the other but eventually land-based terraforming would eventually affect the seas, even if the only true interaction is from run off.

Best bet to ensure that such unknown reactions are kept to a minimum, and probably to make xeno-environmentalists happy, is to search for worlds that though appear dead have expired environments that simply needs a kick start in the form of Terraformation. Of course, one should also make surveys and expeditions to the planet to check and see if there aren't any flora and fauna who are in hibernation to survive this part of the planetary cycle and would just defrost once the planet warms up to life sustaining levels. Chances of meeting worlds like that are probably not likely, but not exactly far from impossible.

Of course, if one really was desperate for a habitable Near-Earth and can't really wait for Terraformation to naturally take its course (heh, that's actually kinda funny if one thinks about it), then there's always the option of constructing orbital settlements and fill the interior with terrestrial life. It'll be even more habitable once someone invents a synthetic magnetosphere generator to create an anti-radiation bubble on that scale. An orbital settlement can even wait comfortably for centuries, even millenia before the planet below is compatible enough to warrant surface colonization.

- Sabersonic

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I hadn't realized that Theia (I forgot the name of the Big Giant Rock What Hit Us) is hypothesized to have been a trojan object. If that's the case then protoplanetary collisions are probably fairly common. But how common is it for the protoplanetary remnants to form a stable pair?

Unfortunately, I don't think Mythbusters has the budget to test the Giant Impact Hypothesis. It would be a great episode though.

@ Sabersonic: Oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems aren't distinct at all. But the sheer volume of the oceans on any Earth-like planet dwarves any human efforts at terraforming. The best we could hope to do would be to set up terrestrial systems that don't crash the coastal ecologies but still draw nutrients from the ocean sediment. If you can't draw nutrients out of the settlement, some river-based ecosystems will lose nutrients very rapidly. Salmon or eels are a good example of how nutrients are drawn back up from the ocean.

Colonists might find it useful to 'uplift' local aquatic species, turning some into amphibious or diadromous species (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fish_migration). It might be easier than trying to create ecological niches for Earth-derived migratory fishes.

Ian_M

Rick said...

Maaan, more cool stuff in this last batch of comments than I can respond to. So I won't even try to go message by message or point by point.

I'll go a bit meta instead. The whole idea of interstellar colonization is not rocketpunk as such, but really took off in the rocketpunk era, around midcentury. Basically no one at the time knew diddly about biochemistry or the initial formation of life. The first experiment where Harold Urey produced organic molecules by spark discharges in a methane atmosphere was in 1953 (says a quick google).

So our SF conventions of colonization essentially ignored biochem, and had no concept that 'alien' didn't just mean tentacles, but probably different organic molecules as well. And considering that most interstellar settings are quasi-fantasy anyway (FTL!), there are grounds for giving writers a good deal of slack.

For that matter, for all we know the molecular substructure may be forced in some way, so that hydrocarbon life anywhere resembles terrestrial life at the subcellular level. We won't know till we brew up life in a vat, or find it elsewhere. (And if life on Mars or even Titan turns out structurally similar to life on Earth, how will we know it wasn't carried there by some mechanisms?)

I'm talking through my hat, considering that my knowledge of biology in general could fit in a thimble and leave room for about a gram of water. :-) But my gut feeling is that life elsewhere will turn out to have rather parallel but differing structures, from molecular level on up.

Kedamono said...

Another thing to keep in mind are worlds where our biochemistry is a subset of the local biome. We may not be able to eat the locals, but the locals may be able to eat us.

As for Panspermia, it's possible that life chemistry has preferred forms. As soon as double stranded DNA forms, as well as other features, you get life that's mostly compatible with ours due to evolutionary pressure.

It may be that for carbon-based life, there is only three or four really efficient biochemical systems, and that specific forms are highly probable, like proteins and DNA, and other forms may have a wider base.

We may be able to eat the critters, but not the plants.

Luke said...

If you are intent on having people settling lush and lively planets, and so long as it is clear you are writing fiction and are merely looking for a plausible excuse, there are a couple routes you could follow.

First is panspermia. The life on other planets is compatible with Earth life because we all share a common ancestor. This can be as simple as microbes hitching a long cold ride on impact ejecta to something as outlandish as ancient astronauts.

The second is that the current set of biochemistry used on earth may be the only easily accessible local fitness maximum when starting from initial pre-biotic conditions. Even the chirality problem may be addressed by assuming the weak force imparts a slight bias for certain enantiomers over their mirror image, leading to a selective advantage of left-handed amino acids and right handed sugars.

With one of these selections, you might end up with critters that use laser fibers for nerves and rubidium complexes for oxygen transport, but at least they'd be tasty.

Daniel said...

" To local para-algae we could be walking Petri dishes: warm, moist, and fertile. Our bodies' defenses, if any, are likely to take the form of allergic reactions, not terribly helpful to us."

I find this to be a highly questionable assertion. Without even going into far afield things like amino acid chirality, most earth-born bacteria and virii do a poor job jumping across species. It can't recall the last time I caught a cold from a tree. :)

But beyond that I think you vastly underestimate the sheer hostility of the environment that is the human body. While you may be right about our response being an allergic reaction, our bodies aren't the only factor. Those foreign bacteria will be trying to compete with the fauna you already carry around with you. Fauna that has been selected for ruthless survival in that environment over uncountable generations.

Think like this - a gang wants to move into the city to do their business. You are talking about how they would do against the cops, but completely ignoring the fact that Don Corleone is going to have some very pointed ideas about them moving in on his territory.

Rick said...

More good stuff!

Kedamono & Luke - Yes, it's quite possible that the biochem structures we find on Earth are either the favored path or one of a handful of such paths, in which cases more or less compatible life systems should be common. One-way compatibility could easily happen if, say, something in their chemistry is poisonous to us, or vice versa.


Daniel - What I had in mind (and this is sheerest speculation!) is local 'plants' that don't eat us, exactly, but thrive on/in us as soil.

My predicate here, which could be painfully naive, is that animals, broadly speaking, are living forms that depend on complex nutrient molecules they get from eating other living forms, whereas plants live on much simpler molecules they 'eat' by drawing them from soil. The simpler the nutrient stuff, the lower the compatibility threshold.

I love your analogy! But. What if Don Corleone's bullets go right through the new gang, without hurting them? You can empty a Tommy gun into a tree and it probably won't even notice. :-)

On the whole question of biochem, we probably won't know till we go!


Ian - Catching up, 'prison planets' is a whole 'nother interesting area of discussion. (This has been discussed a few times on SFConsim-l, and I believe also at Winch's Atomic Rockets site.)

My quick take is that a Supermax in space is unlikely because of the hassles of transporting guards back and forth, etc. But using a colony as a 'minimum security' dumping ground for undesirables - minor criminals, dissidents, general riffraff - might be more plausible. In that case you don't need guards or other complex security measures. Some of the unwilling colonists will make their way back, but most probably will not.

Carla said...

If I remember rightly, Urey and Miller's experiment produced roughly equal numbers of right- and left-handed molecules. As one would expect in such a simple environment. So a key question is why life on earth uses D-sugars and L-amino acids. Pure chance? In which case another ecosystem on another planet is as likely to have flipped the coin the other way, and the systems will be mostly incompatible. L-sugars are not much use to enzymes and receptors that are shaped to take D-sugars. It's like trying to put a right hand into a left glove, only worse.

If the choice was due to some fundamental aspect of the chemistry, then if the other ecosystem has been subjected to the same influence (whatever it is) and gone the same way, there is a fair chance that organisms in each system will be able to eat each other. The finer aspects of digestion may not work terribly well, but the HCl in the stomach is low-tech and should be able to break unfamiliar peptide chains into amino acids, at least partially. Provided the amino acids are the right way round (L not D), they can be absorbed and used.

Plants need a source of energy (light), CO2, water, fixed nitrogen (nitrates) and a few minerals. Provided the other planet can provide that simple chemistry kit, earth-derived plants will be able to grow. Reproduction should be OK if it's vegetative (suckers, runners etc) or wind-pollinated, but animal/insect-pollination is likely to be problematic.

All those weird things that live by deep-ocean vents and feed off the chemical-rich hot water ought to be all right as well, provided the new planet has a source of the same chemicals.

Anonymous said...

I lost the page to a computer crash, but I remember an article discussing 'handiness' in organic molecules observed in comet dust. Polarised light preferentially destroys amino acids of a certain chirality. If the panspermia hypothesis has any weight to it, then this selective destruction would have been the filter that produced selective handiness on Earth.

There's a brief discussion of the idea at Wikipedia's article on chirality, along with a link to a New Scientist article. I don't think it's the article I remember, but it covers the subject pretty well.

Ian_M

Jim Baerg said...

Re: Biochemical compatibility

Earth life uses about 20 amino acids out of zillions of possibilities. It's hard to see any reason for life of independent origin to use exactly the same set of amino acids.

If I was to eat some protein that included non-earthlife amino acids would they poison me or just be excreted unused?

I think sums up the problems
http://freefall.purrsia.com/ff800/fv00710.htm

BTW the whole series is well worth reading.

Anonymous said...

One thing I did in my favorite setting is have the Terrans discover this wonderful garden planet/moon around a gas giant in the Cancri system. Shortly after starting their greater FTL exploration of the local star cluster, they found this place and set up a colony. After several years of marveling at their luck, the colonists are visited by the aliens that had been terraforming that moon for a century. This leads to a war between them.

Rick said...

Carla - You're painting a more optimistic picture than I expected. Assuming the same chirality, is the fact that we humans are omnivores a factor here? We seem able to scarf down pretty much anything (terrestrial, at any rate) subject mostly to cultural taste preferences.


Ian - I wonder if the polarized light thing could be a factor even without panspermia? Do any common conditions cause polarization of sunlight on Earth? (Or could have done so when life was initially evolving?)


Jim - Earth life uses about 20 amino acids out of zillions of possibilities. It's hard to see any reason for life of independent origin to use exactly the same set of amino acids.

That's more or less what I was thinking, but Carla's comment suggests that we can munch other stuff just fine. (On the third hand, it is one thing for something you eat not to kill you, presumably another thing for it to be nutritious.)


Anon - After several years of marveling at their luck, the colonists are visited by the aliens that had been terraforming that moon for a century. This leads to a war between them.

An awkward situation! It's too bad they couldn't settle the problem with mutual understanding through dialogue. On the other hand, then you'd have no story. :-)

Anonymous said...

"My quick take is that a Supermax in space is unlikely because of the hassles of transporting guards back and forth, etc. But using a colony as a 'minimum security' dumping ground for undesirables - minor criminals, dissidents, general riffraff - might be more plausible. In that case you don't need guards or other complex security measures. Some of the unwilling colonists will make their way back, but most probably will not."

Rick, re: America and Australia...

Something that hasn't been brought up is that a planet may well have all the same chemicals and even elements as Earth, but in different ratios; if a planet's soil has more arsinic and less potassium, for example, then Earth-type plants may not thrive well. Earth type animals may not thrive in the native enviornment due to (from their perspective) an inbalance of nutriants...

Colonizing another world (whether Mars or Terra Nova), greatly depends on both technical ability and public policy. If you can move a thousand people a year to another world, you might only send your best and brightest...however, if you can send a thousand a day then you might send any who can afford it.

It occures to me that if you have no land-based life on your colony world, it may be low on atmospheric oxygen...

It may be that there are as many, or more, habital moons as there are planets, sidesteping the whole giant moon debate...

The whole, "rugged, lone pioneer" type of colonization may be just a romantic fantasy...you need lots of people just to insure genetic diversity; a wide range of specialities and disciplins to build even a small, self sufficent village, much less a world-spanning colony; I don't care what the economics are, its gonna take a lot of capital to fund an interplanetary expedition to found a permenant settlement. And the people who put up the bill will want a return on their investment...one way or another.

"That is an interesting revelation that science fiction, both literary and visual incarnations, seem to have overlooked. The fact that a planet is similar enough to the Earth to the point that it has flora similar to our own Terran flora does not mean that they're compatible with us in the edible department and even introducing terran flora could mean a repeat of what was done on earth centuries ago upon isolated islands and other such landmasses."

Have you ever seen the episode of Star Trek (OS) "Eden" I think the name was? The beautiful planet looked like the garden of eden, but was all the life was poisonous and/or acidic to the point of burning skin on contact...was that what you had in mind, Sabersonic?

Ian, it may well be that ammno acids and sugers are polerized at random...and each star system has its own 'preference'. Just one more criteria for colonization. :)

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

"I think sums up the problems
http://freefall.purrsia.com/ff800/fv00710.htm"
Jim, I love that comic! Also, I need to post faster; while I was writting my last rely, several others posted they'res...
Ferrell

Citizen Joe said...

One thing I wanted to bring up is that Earth is the largest rocky body in our solar system. Beyond that, it is gas giants. It is entirely possible that Earth is a "heavy gravity" world. So habitable worlds may very well have significantly less gravity (like Mars for example). This then expands into aliens and space travel whereby they may be more likely from a lower gravity planet than earth and in fact any creatures from a higher gravity planet wouldn't have been able to develop a means to get off their world.

PS: that post about terraforming Cancri was me too... oops.

Rick said...

Ferrell - The US colonies and later Australia are what I had in mind re prison colonies. It is a cheap quasi life sentence; the transportation may be expensive, and grubstaking transportees at least in the early days, but once that is done the government pretty much washes its hands of them.

But (as you indirectly allude) the cost of colonization isn't just per capita, but the cost of sending enough colonists for a functioning society. This is probably a lot, especially if you're expecting the colony ('prison' or otherwise) to be a postindustrial society.

I'm a fan of habitable moons, but note that while the Solar System has has about seven big moons, they are much smaller than habitable size. That may be the norm, or just local circumstance - as usual we don't know.


Citizen Joe - Though Venus is only modestly smaller than Earth. For what it's worth, simulation modeling of terrestrial planets seems to often produce one or two comparable to Earth mass or more. But Ma Nature may choose to ignore our simulations. :-)

Rick said...

Kedamono - Belated comment on your first post. I like you flip of the 'conventional' large-moon effect!

A major reason I wrote my planetary climate sim was to explore the effects of large axial tilt. My general guess is much like yours: that a very powerful hurricane-like storm would develop over the summer pole.

Citizen Joe said...

Re: Habitable moons. How much heat is radiated from gas giants? Is it feasible for those to be the heat source (if not light source) for a moon, bringing an otherwise frigid world into the habitable temperature range? I think it also needs an atmosphere as an insulating blanket. However, Earth's atmosphere insulates against heat (infrared) but transmit light readily. The habitable moon would need some means of letting the heat in but holding it inside its atmosphere. Of course, that may not be necessary since moons are usually tidally locked and the gas giant would be radiating heat at a constant rate. That would mean that the side facing the gas giant would be 'warm' while the dark side would be frozen.

Rick said...

I don't think that gas giants produce anything like enough heat to warm up their moons. I'm not even sure brown dwarfs do.

But this need not be a problem, since we know that some extrasolar gas giants orbit in the habitable zone. Any terrestrial planets would have been scattered to oblivion if they ever formed, but if gas giants can form superjumbo moons, any gas giant that migrates into the habitable zone takes its moons with it.

For that matter, if migrated gas giants skid inward early in their history (and I think they do), they enter the HZ before terrestrial planets have formed, and while they'd scatter most of the planetesimals they might capture enough to accrete a jumbo moon.

Anonymous said...

~*~ Have you ever seen the episode of Star Trek (OS) "Eden" I think the name was? The beautiful planet looked like the garden of eden, but was all the life was poisonous and/or acidic to the point of burning skin on contact...was that what you had in mind, Sabersonic? ~*~

Actually no, never even heard of that episode. I'll keep that in mind though.

As for that indentured servant deal, well there might be a bit of a snag in that area. Mostly in the fact that there needs to be an established colony, let alone a need for cheap, non-automated labor upon a world that is stable and habitable enough for at least limited space suit wear. And the problem in establishing an extrasolar settlement deca-Parsecs away from Earth or more is convincing people to commit the resources and funds to get the whole colonization project started in the first place. As stated earlier, there needs to be a return in that investments, one that may take up to decades to be paid back in full, let alone the interest rate. One can argue a need for survival for the inevitable cosmic storm that could make living on earth just that harder than it already is, and last I checked people pretty much procrastinate in something like that until a tragedy reminds people just how fragile and easy life could be stuffed out.

As for that little note on Hot Jupiters orbiting alien stars having moons large enough to have earth-like gravities, well my planetary physics and formation theory may not be up to par, but I don't think there would be enough interplanetary medium for said Hot Jupiter to form asteroid moons, let alone moons half the size of our own. And I'm pretty sure that the capture theory for Large Moons of Hot Jupiters might be difficult to perform than one would theorize, what with potential Large Moons being more than likely sling shot either out of the solar system or into the sun. It'll have to be a gradual process with multiple passes near each other until the potential moon is slow enough to be captured into a stable orbit. Not impossible, but probably not as frequent an event for extra-solar colonization.

It would probably be easier to just terraform planets or even construct Torus or Cylinder shaped interstellar colonies than to hope for that lucky shot in a million.

- Sabersonic

Carla said...

Not quite as optimistic as all that. What I meant was that if the chirality is the opposite way round then very little, if anything, would be much use to the other biochemistry, whereas if the chirality is the same way round then some of it might be.

If the chirality is the same way round, Jim's comment about the 20 amino acids out of zillions is the next issue. Assuming the alternative biochemistry uses a different set, some of the 'new' ones might be interchangeable with the ones in the earth biochemistry set and those would count as nutrition. (They would presumably be chained together with the standard amino-carboxyl bonds, and low-tech earth biochemistry like HCl should be able to break those to release the individual amino acids). Some might be incompatible and would have no effect on earth biochemistry for either good or ill. Some might jam earth biochemical machinery and be poisonous. Vice versa if the local wildlife eats the colonists rather than the other way round. I don't know what proportion of the zillions would fall into each category.

Earth plants that just took the basic chemicals from the alternative planet's environment would presumably synthesise the standard earth biochemistry set of compounds. Earth animals could therefore eat them. Whether the alternative planet animals could also eat them depends on the above.

Rick said...

Sabersonic - You bring up the basic problem of interstellar colonization as classically pictured. Agrarian homesteading is just not a very appealing prospect for many people anymore.

The one proviso I'd make on hot Jupiters (and for the habitable zone we're only concerned with lukewarm Jupiters) is that they probably form beyond the snow line and migrate inward, bringing along any moon systems they formed. Whether these survive the passage is another question. You are right about the difficulties of capture; scattering is far more likely.


Carla - Ah, this is more or less what I was thinking in the first place, though I didn't mention chirality. It seems that even given same chirality, there are so many possible architectures, generally similar but differing in details, that other things equal there would be little overlap beyond the more basic nutrient building blocks.

Anonymous said...

I want to throw out a different idea: What if the basic biochemistry we have is the optimal one for our environment? After all, Earth life had access to a huge array of organic molecules, yet only used a few in the long run. What if those few kinds of molecules are what you would expect to find in life from and Earth-like world because those are the kinds of molecules that work best on an Earth-like world?

A secondary thought on terraforming, and turning unusable biology into usable biology: The first order of business will be to throw a bunch of bacteria at the problem. I'll never bet money against bacteria finding a way to make food out of something, and once your Earth bacteria gets a food source under control, you start building the rest of your ecosystem from there.

Michael

Kedamono said...

Michael, the one way to help terraform your environment is to use your sewage, straight, in your gardens and farms. When a starship shows up, you buy their sewage. Spread it around! Yes the place will smell, but you're waging biological war on the local flora and fauna.

Rick said...

Michael - It's quite possible that prebiotic evolutionary forces selected for the organic molecules that terrestrial life uses - we probably won't know till we investigate directly.

And yes, I imagine terrestrial bacteria would play a big role in the ecopoesis stage of terraforming.


Kedamono - Even though the jokes write themselves, people have been using dung for fertilizer probably from near the origins of agriculture.

Anonymous said...

I'd guess that a starship probably wants to keep its sewage, as that bundle of microbial goodness is loaded with carbon and nitrogen that its life support system will reprocess into nutrients.

If sewage is useful it is kept and reprocessed. If it is not useful, it is reaction mass or vented into space. I don't think any sewage trading will happen unless colonists have a lot to offer for a valuable commodity.

Michael

Anonymous said...

"I'd guess that a starship probably wants to keep its sewage, as that bundle of microbial goodness is loaded with carbon and nitrogen that its life support system will reprocess into nutrients.

If sewage is useful it is kept and reprocessed. If it is not useful, it is reaction mass or vented into space. I don't think any sewage trading will happen unless colonists have a lot to offer for a valuable commodity. "

Well, if it's an Earthlike world, then the colonists will have plenty of raw materials to swap for the starship's sewage...just as long as the ship's crew keeps some bacteria to reseed...it might be a good trade for both sides...
Ferrell

Rick said...

The sewage trade strikes me as one of those things that probably isn't really so likely in practice, but just plausible enough that with a little finesse it would work in a story.

Ian Moulding said...

The sewage is trade is an old and (not terribly) honourable profession on Earth. All cultures have used human sewage for industrial purposes. The cultures that used human sewage directly for food production tended not to last long (Mmm, cholera...), but it can be processed to produce fertilizer.

Some human gut bacteria are very closely related to soil bacteria, and a few of our gut symbionts also are soil bacteria. That's one of the reasons healthy soil smells good. I could imagine a colony world buying healthy processed sewage as fertilizer and as a source of bacterial diversity (There are some risks here. One particular type of soil bacteria is just one gene different from its famous cousin, Mycobacterium tuberculosis). Possibly they would trade for food, water, or basic volatile gases. The basic work of processing sewage doesn't involve much more than oxygen and ultraviolet light, and could probably be done cheaply on a ship. I would guess that it would be a minor element in trade, but you have to get rid of the stuff and you might as well make a bit of money doing so...

Ian_M

Kedamono said...

I wish I could find my copy of a study NASA did on regenerative life support systems, but there is a point where the trip time a spaceship takes makes a regenerative system cost effective, and under that time, you're better off storing food and air.

So in a future with FTL starships, it may be more practical to store the waste than to pay for a regenerative life support system.

In that case, you'll want to offload your septic tanks whenever you dock at a friendly port. Of course, you get paid for the stuff, since you have the option to simply vent the tanks if you're not. Many a space station has some crusted on gunk from a ship doing that, instead of giving up their sewage for free.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read it, but I'm willing to bet that NASA study doesn't take into account advances in the biological sciences in the past 20 years. Organisms as a whole are getting much easier to modify, and microbes are far and away the easiest bunch to give new/altered genes. If we ever have spaceships that can travel between planets, I have no doubt that they will carry some tanks of genetically modified bugs (or even man-made bugs) that dramatically scale down the required mass for regenerative life support. I think conventional reclamation systems in life support scenarios are about as quaint as navigating by handheld instruments and paper star-charts. It fits in the "rocketpunk" world, but it shouldn't happen given our current technological trend.

Anyway, why would you vent your septic tanks on the ground when you could do it in space and save the propellant needed to de-orbit that stuff?

Kedamono said...

My starships never land, so the venting takes place in space and tend to plaster the space station with the byproducts of that venting.

So if you hear someone say, "Gamma Patrovis Port? Boy, that's a sh*tty place." and you won't be sure if thats a physical description or not.

:-)

Rick said...

A couple of factors that would probably rule out the sewage trade in practice. One is the cost of shuttling it down from orbit to surface. Not so much the direct cost, since shuttles have to work hard to go up, but on planets with a dense, breathable atmosphere they have a nearly free ride going down. But you'd need a big sewage tank, and the tank has to make the round trip.

Also, unless the starships are huge, the contribution they could make to the planet's soil fertility probably isn't worth the hassle. But these are both second-level economics considerations, not hard to workaround if you want to add ... pungency ... to a story setting.


Anon - Now I'm getting comments on posts I haven't even written yet. :-) In an upcoming post I plan to discuss life support, including of course regenerativity. But in brief it seems to be all a matter of time period. It is hard for me to imagine that trips of a few days, as to the moon, would ever call for fitting regenerative planets. At the other extreme, indefinite missions, e.g. stations, will surely justify regeneration once we have the technology. But weeks to months? That is probably where the tradeoff point will lie.

Rick said...

Kedamono - Surely the starships would vent their tanks a while before docking, so that the contents would go off on their own orbit and not hit the station!

I'm reminded of the older railroading practice of just having passenger toilets dump out onto the tracks. They had signs saying 'Do not flush while standing at stations,' with no explanation why. :-)

Anonymous said...

That note on *ahem* "flushing" non-recyclable body waste product was something I had to make a note on.

As far as I know, although urine is disposed of in the early days of spacecraft and recycled as drinking water in current generation spacecraft, but NASA has always collected said fecal matter upon a return back to earth.

I don't know the exact reasons as to why such sewage is collected rather then "flushed" into space, but I reason it might be due to some kind of effect on the atmosphere by falling, burning clumps of Sapien droppings. There might be even some intestinal, and by that extension colon, bacteria that might somehow survive the reentry of said products of solid bodily wastes that NASA might be worried about.

I can imagine that just using a standard, old-age vegetable compost heap to make said fertilizer would be infinitely cheaper, and far more enjoyable, than using the end product of what a Spacer had for breakfast this morning.

- Sabersonic

Citizen Joe said...

I think that the more likely situation would be that ships would dock with a station, pump their 'waste' to the station and then take on 'processed material' to replace it. So the space station might have all of the farms and such, thus using the waste material, and then exchanging food.

One drastic possibility is converting the human body into a closed system. Excavate the internal organs and replace it with an algae colony that could process the CO2 and create sugar energy for the body to operate with. Then this algae core just needs a suitable power source like a light bulb. At that point, you don't need to breath or eat and it's likely that your heart is replaced by a continuous motor, thus no pulse. You'll probably still need water as a coolant.

Rick said...

Sabersonic - Planes jettison their toilet contents, or used to; surely hot sh!t would burn up on reentry. I'd guess that NASA doesn't pump it out because it would be in the same orbit as the spacecraft, an inconvenience for spacewalkers! For that matter, in orbital space you don't want more crap that other spacecraft might run into. :-)


Citizen Joe - A drastic possibility indeed: human plants. I suspect there are limits on how compact the conversion system can be, which is perhaps why Ent-like ambulatory plants have never evolved.

Anonymous said...

Another note that I forgot to mention about fecal matter storage: The assumption that all that Astro droppings would be pumped and stored in a central sewage tank once we have perfected interplanetary spacecraft.

True, the current generation of Space Toilets follow this philosophy along with a mixture of vacuum thinking due to the lack of true gravity drawing the stuff away from said natural opening. However there are some testing of a new kind of space toilet, saw it on a TV program so I have little information as to if NASA is continuing testing, where solid wastes are sucked into a bag and then compressed into what an engineer would call "People Patties" that is then covered closed and packed into a container for later removal onto a station or back planet side.

Come to think of it, I'm starting to see the logic in having a central sewage tank instead of buckets of what I would call "Man Pies".

As for that note on having selected major organs replaced with renewable systems is questionable at best. I have no idea how big these Algae tanks would have to be in order to support a single person throughout their lifetime, but I feel that the number of Algae alone would probably out mass and out bulk the astronaut in question.

- Sabersonic

Rick said...

You can't say we aren't dealing with the nitty gritty of space travel! My impression is that toilets and waste disposal are by a wide margin the most unpleasant day-by-day aspect of present day space travel.

I agree on algae biomass. The general rule of thumb is 10 kg of food source biomass is needed per kg of biomass feeding on it. I suspect that will apply to regen systems, thus roughly 1 ton per person, not including the tanks and such. Which would make roughly a year the duration at which regen saves mass over simply carrying supplies.

Citizen Joe said...

Now I remember where I got the idea for the organ swap out. Atomic Rockets in the life support area. 6 liters of algae water (with equipment and light source) could support a human indefinitely. I think that there is just about that much space within a human torso. I know that it is cutting things very close, but theoretically possible... well, mathematically possible.

Rick said...

Mathematically possible, but maaaan, that would be uncomfortable!

Jim Baerg said...

I think the problem with the organ swap out idea isn't the volume of the algae water, but the surface area required. Photosynthesis is at best a few percent efficient so to power a human with sunlight you need a lot of square meters. If you use a high intensity light source inside the algae tank, you need a similar area to radiate away waste heat.

The low efficiency of photosyntheis & seeing this article,
http://www.lanl.gov/news/newsbulletin/pdf/Green_Freedom_Overview.pdf
,has me wondering if green plants might have some competition for providing human food.

The authors claim to have a reasonably economic way to extract CO2 from the air & make synthesis gas (a CO H2 mix), given some reasonably cheap non-fossil energy source like nuclear, which can then be used to make fuels for vehicles like methanol.

However, what if you fed the synthesis gas & a bit of oxygen to chemosynthetic organisms? COuld genetic engineers make microbes that when fed such a mix & then dried & ground up are enough like wheat flour to make bread? Perhaps another microbe or mix of microbes to make a reasonable imitation of sausage meat?

Concentrating mirrors & heat engines, or solar cells are probably cheaper to deploy in space than a lot of glass plumbing with algae water. Maybe something like the above will be a major part of closed cycle life support systems on spacecraft.

Rick said...

Jim - I'm pretty sure you're right that the constraints aren't just biomass, but energy production and waste heat disposal.

I don't see any reason in principle why brute force chemical methods couldn't be used to brew up low-level feedstock. Doing it on a habitable planet would be abysmally stupid, but spacecraft have totally different considerations.

Whether it would make satisfactory (let alone satisfying!) food for humans is iffier. My impression is that human nutrition is more complicated than it seemed back in the rocketpunk era of algae burgers.

Dammit, these comment threads are anticipating intended blog posts! :-)

Anonymous said...

Foodwise, processed algae and mycoprotein will carry you a long way. Bring along some vitamin supplements and omega-3 pills and you should be okay for nutrients. In terms of satisfaction, it would probably be a lot like living off vegetarian microwavable dinners. Depending on space available you could probably use some of the algae and mushrooms to grow krill or crayfish for variety. No worse than rations on a submarine, but likely boring as all get out.

Regarding swapping out your wobbly bits for an algae-vat, it's probably not a good idea. There's a very sophisticated neural network tied into our guts that controls mood, energy levels, appetite, and a lot of other hormonally influenced behaviors. It's one of the reasons I don't buy into the 'put your brain in a jar and live forever' idea. Your brain isn't the only part of you that produces your personality.

Ian_M

Rick said...

Not that I really know anything about the subject, but I wonder if this diet would really be sufficient over the long term. (Years, rather than months.)

Good point about 'brain in a jar!'

Citizen Joe said...

Lets assume first that the vat job isn't introduced as a way to make you super human, but rather as a means to keep you alive after cancer or some other destruction of your internal organs. It would still be very disconcerting to be around one of these people. It would be something like a zombie.

Rick said...

A biotech level that allows 'vats' would probably allow growing a replacement for the ruined organ!

Anonymous said...

"Lets assume first that the vat job isn't introduced as a way to make you super human, but rather as a means to keep you alive after cancer or some other destruction of your internal organs. It would still be very disconcerting to be around one of these people. It would be something like a zombie.

A biotech level that allows 'vats' would probably allow growing a replacement for the ruined organ!"

Maybe you could hook-up someone to the 'bio-vat' while their new organs are grown...
Ferrell

Citizen Joe said...

That might go better with the singularity post, but if you combine the neuronic interface, with vat job technology, you could host an autonomous person inside a ship. So the space fighter wouldn't be a pilot in a ship but rather he would be part of that ship.

On a slightly less creepy version, the person could be contained within a hardsuit which provides auxilary power and extra algae storage. Neuronic interfaces or even motion tracking within the suit would be able to wire guide external robotic limbs better than trying to do fine manipulations with a hand in a bulky glove. The hardsuit may even become grafted to the bones to compensate for bone loss from prolonged zero gee environments.

Of course, none of that is likely, but if you want to have organic tanks in your setting, this is a semi plausible rationale for their origins. This can also be a means of dealing with marginally habitable worlds.

Anonymous said...

Larry Niven played with the brain-in-a-spaceship idea at least once (Becalmed in Hell), and Anne McCaffrey has a series of brain/brawn stories based on the concept.

It seems reasonable that you could do it, given basic extrapolations from modern technologies. But it also seems to me like one of those 'why bother?' technologies. Any culture that could do such a thing surely has advanced robotics and tissue-engineering technologies. They could probably vat-grow someone a new body and build robotic controls for a fighter for less than it would cost to hardwire some poor schmuck into an iron lung/cockpit.

But as Citizen Joe points out, this can be a way to get an interesting human character into a technologically plausible fighter.

Ian_M

Rick said...

From which emerges a great meta-question (i.e., sure grist for a future blog post): Just how far can you get away with bending Plausibility [TM] for the sake of story?

The short answer is when the willing suspension of disbelief is no longer willing. For the long answer ... stay tuned!

Citizen Joe said...

There's two basic directions to go. You could start with the present and then extrapolate to the future, then write a story about that extrapolation. That may be true to Plausibility but the story could suffer. You could also start from an interesting story element and then work your way back. The story stays strong, but plausibility could suffer. Often, writers overreach at the beginning, requiring violations of the laws of physics and run in to dead ends on the way back. At that point they simply declare it 'magic' and pull the curtain over it.

It is perhaps best to come from both directions that way you can minimize the gap that has to be shrouded.

Another trick, used by the 007 movies is to set the tone of the story so over the top, that the rest is plausible by comparison. The corollary to that would be to show a spectacular failure from the outset and that lets the audience know that story is rare and an anomaly, as opposed to the typical.

As a working example, the setting I keep talking about had at its core the desire to have a 5 mile long space ship and it had to have dogfighting fighters and the ability to travel to distant stars. There was also the note that most sci-fi make internally inconsistent problems and this setting was to be as plausible as possible. The five mile ship sat there on the back burner for months as we worked on the technological aspects and how things grew and advanced to the setting's technology. Various types of approaches to FTL were brought up. The aliens were discussed. The distinctions of the alien basis of technology vs. the human style were debated. While the Human FTL travel wasn't quite 'magic' it sort of dove head first into the unexplained and hypothetical models of M-Theory. But really that is just curtains over the 'magic' part of the setting. The rationale for the 5 mile ship didn't appear until the exploration of the methods of generating fusion energy. While D-T fusion required relatively low containment, D-He3 was huge (and powerful) and He3-He3 was off the charts (although clean). The coils needed to accelerate the particles for D-He3 fusion required magnetic fields that simply couldn't be done on a ship. So they opted for the linear accelerator model, making the ship extremely long to accommodate the thing. Then, while looking into lasers and frequencies, I came across the Free Electron Laser, which could conveniently be slaved onto the synchrotron radiation coming off the drive. So now we have super powered thrust with free laser power tunable into the xray range. That put the feasible range in the light minutes category. That meant somehow getting enemies to the proper location so that the laser had any chance of hitting. Which lead to the sheepdog style dog fighters. So most of the issues of plausibility were dealt with. The FTL was a little bit on the magic side, but it wasn't absolutely needed. The presence of aliens is another one of those either you accept it or you don't. Most of their technology was unexplained for good reason. The humans of the setting DON'T know how it works and it works contrary to their own theories.

Anonymous said...

I think that the trip length required for a mass savings using regenerative life support will become shorter and shorter as applied biology gets better and better. In theory, there are ways to provide energy directly to cells via electricity, therefore bypassing the substantial loss in photo synthesis. However, I think those cells are probably man-made specifically for nutrient production and won't look a lot like conventional algae tanks. I'll hold off until the promised "Life Support" post comes about.

Michael

Anonymous said...

"It seems reasonable that you could do it, given basic extrapolations from modern technologies. But it also seems to me like one of those 'why bother?' technologies. Any culture that could do such a thing surely has advanced robotics and tissue-engineering technologies. They could probably vat-grow someone a new body and build robotic controls for a fighter for less than it would cost to hardwire some poor schmuck into an iron lung/cockpit."

Hmmm...the Evil Interstellar Empire vs. the Morally Superior Federation over the use of 'brain ships' and other 'brain-in-a-jar' controled machines and mechanical complexes resulting in a war of 'brain ship' fighters vs. automated warships...cyborg soldiers vs. robo-warriors...the war lasts until the robots and jarred-brains tell their respected sides to 'stuff it' and form an alliance with each other to persue their own agenda...

Ferrell

Rick said...

Citizen Joe - Yes, there are two basic approaches, extrapolating forward and working back from a desired result. Probably, as in your example, a combination of both is useful and even necessary.

(But I'd hate to use 007 as an example for SF - Bond and outer space have never mixed very well! My own theory about Bond is that he now should be done as a period piece, set around the early 60s.)


Michael - promised "life support" post ... Yikes, now I have to keep my promise! :-)


Ferrell - A variation on the age old theme that soldiers have more in common with each other than with their own civilians.

Zachary said...

@Carla-

"Assuming the alternative biochemistry uses a different set, some of the 'new' ones might be interchangeable with the ones in the earth biochemistry set and those would count as nutrition. "

Not likely. The metabolism of amino acids is pretty dang specific. Breaking peptide bonds is one thing- simple chemistry. Actually utilizing the amino acids requires all sorts of enzymes, which tend to be extremely specific. Transfer RNA aminoacylation alone is probably an insurmountable barrier to building proteins with foreign amino acids.

Maybe deamination to use the nitrogen and carbon skeletons is possible. I'd have to check the books. But I doubt it. The probability of aliens using a foreign aa just similar enough to ours to screw up our aa metabolism is much higher.

Rick said...

This sounds like it fits my overall impression, though it is waaay above my biochem pay grade!

Anonymous said...

Without looking up details, I think what Zachary says is correct to the extent that humans are concerned. That being said, if you had a foreign stock of amino acids (for whatever reason), you could probably get bacteria to use it as a food source eventually, and get some usable product out of it that way.

If history is any indication, booze of some kind will be the first consumable product made from a foreign food source. The nutritional value, of course, depends on if the microbe in question develops proteins to incorporate the new amino acids (no good for you) or it develops proteins to break down the new amino acids into something familiar (good for you).

Rick said...

If history is any indication, booze of some kind will be the first consumable product made from a foreign food source.

Does this blog get great comments, or what?

This seems entirely likely! I have only the vaguest knowledge of booze production, only that it starts with fermentation of sugars into good old ethanol. I have no idea what sugars are, but ethanol is pretty basic stuff.

Anonymous said...

-Sugars are basically 5 or 6 ethanols linked together by the carbons in a circle (roughly).
-Starches are a whole bunch of sugars linked together in one way.
-Cellulose is a whole bunch of sugars linked together in a different way.

This is why, on Earth, one can change pretty much any plant into some kind of alcohol or another.

Michael

Rick said...

I suppose the prospects for Rigellian green fuming brandy all depend on whether the local life builds its equivalent structures out of ethanol or methanol ...

Zachary said...

That being said, if you had a foreign stock of amino acids (for whatever reason), you could probably get bacteria to use it as a food source eventually, and get some usable product out of it that way.

Excellent point. If bacteria can figure out how to eat petroleum, random amino acids should be no problem at all. And the nice thing is, just using them as a carbon source is probably a lot easier than actually incorporating them into proteins.

Developing mutant bacteria strains to utilize common organic molecules would probably be the first step in terraforming a world with alien organic life. If you want to push it, we could engineer our own gastrointestinal symbiotes to digest alien molecules, a la termites.

-Sugars are basically 5 or 6 ethanols linked together by the carbons in a circle (roughly).
-Starches are a whole bunch of sugars linked together in one way.
-Cellulose is a whole bunch of sugars linked together in a different way.

This is why, on Earth, one can change pretty much any plant into some kind of alcohol or another.

Michael


Accurate, except for the first part. You could synthesize a sugar that way I suppose, but it would be a weird, overgrown sugar with no friends. The connection between simple sugars and ethanol is pyruvate. Pyruvate just so happens to be a breakdown product of many amino acids...all you need is an enterprising settler with a DIY gene tweaking kit, and xenomorphic rotgut, here we come!

Rick said...

The colonists might not be able to eat the food, but at least they could drown their sorrows!

Anonymous said...

"Accurate, except for the first part. You could synthesize a sugar that way I suppose, but it would be a weird, overgrown sugar with no friends. The connection between simple sugars and ethanol is pyruvate. Pyruvate just so happens to be a breakdown product of many amino acids...all you need is an enterprising settler with a DIY gene tweaking kit, and xenomorphic rotgut, here we come!"

I was not very specific, as I was typing in an organic chemistry mindset, where any -OH functional group is an alcohol. You are not incorrect, and in the context I should have been clearer.

Michael

Soren said...

(But I'd hate to use 007 as an example for SF - Bond and outer space have never mixed very well! My own theory about Bond is that he now should be done as a period piece, set around the early 60s.)

Yeah, I concur. There are ways to do Bond in space, though - I liked Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry stories a lot, especially once it became clear to me that he wrote them to play with planetary and cultural models as much as to tell spy stories.

Rick said...

Maybe I should say that the Broccoli family (which owns the Bond pictures) doesn't mix with space.

Bond thrived in the 16th century in the guise of Francis Crawford of Lymond, in Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels, usually called the Lymond series. And I remember Flandry. So Bond in space could certainly be done. But the Broccolis should stay firmly in the atmosphere with him.

Jean Remy said...

Rick said...

"Maybe I should say that the Broccoli family (which owns the Bond pictures) doesn't mix with space."

Why? Having the Space Shuttle sans fuel tank light up its main engines while piggy-backing on top of its 747 carrier and fly away under its own power is perfectly legitimate!

*COUGH*

But seriously.

The human-algae-vat thing sounds fascinating... and utterly gruesome. The bio-ethics committee would love it. And I am sure all the various religious groups would be delighted and encourage their flock to do it. I'm sure a lot of people would want to try it for fun.

Ok so I lied, I can't be serious.

However my point still stand. Between the algae-vat and the brain-in-a-jar/spaceship, while they might eventually be possible, does not mean it would be likely. In my experience the people who think this stuff up are somewhat ivory-tower scientists, very much concerned about extrapolating science into devising efficient systems to perform specialized tasks, but completely fail to take into account the reaction of the public to it. Even the "simple" cloning of a sheep was met with a rather vocal reaction, and general distaste. In fact a lot of excuses were made by the uninformed, pointing to the early death of the sheep as proof that cloning would never work. That the sheep died from a normal infection (that is common among sheep raised in similarly cloistered environments) was either willfully ignored by people who understand it but have an agenda, or simply misunderstood.

Stop a random person on the street and ask them if it they would volunteer to having most of their internal organs removed and replaced with an algae-tank. I dare you.

Now it is entirely possible mentalities will change, but I rather doubt it. No matter how much technology people are surrounded with, they still regard technological progress beyond the current status quo as a bad thing. I wonder if people made picket protests around Archimedes home. "Get out of the tub senile old fool." and "No mirror death-rays in my backyard." I am facetious, but again, you get my point.

My point being: it doesn't really matter if a thing is possible, what matters is, is it palatable. The first time I read the Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton I actually had to set it down when it came to his cosmoniks/enhanced mercenaries, not because it seemed gruesome, but because it jarred my suspension of disbelief... yes, even more than the dead coming alive and acquiring superpowers. Not because I disbelieved the technological possibility of it, but because it was hard to believe people would submit to such a thing.

I did pick it up later and finished it.

A quick semi-postscript, and the only part of the post that is actually on-subject: wouldn't odd biological materials using chemicals that aren't common on Earth (L-sugars and D-acids and the like) be actually an interesting resource to trade to chemical and pharmaceutical industries? Then you wouldn't want to screw with the local life. Plunk a domed colony on the edge of a desert for minimal impact and use it as a trade resource to import industrial goods.

Jean Remy said...

I am going to blame my horrendous grammar on a long day.

Rick said...

'Is it palatable' is a question that could also be asked about millions of people living in space cans. Certainly a number of us space geeks would be eager to, but in the absence of specific economic motivation, how many?

Exotic biologicals could indeed be profitable, though I wonder if synthesis might turn out to be cheaper. I sometimes think the most valuable thing people will bring back from deep space is patent rights.

Jean Remy said...

Well my thoughts on this were twofold.

1/ There are natural compounds we still cannot synthesize today, such as spider silk. If we are talking about completely alien biologies, I'd bet several million years of evolutions has taught whatever lifeform using non-standard biochemistry some tricks we haven't even thought of yet because those biochemistries are non-standard.

2/ Even if we can synthesize them, perhaps some compounds will have luxury value. We can make artificial sapphires and diamonds, or transgenic tomatoes, or a variety of other processes that allow us to duplicate some natural ones. However, there still is a market for the completely natural ones.

I do agree however that, if there is no FTL communication, the most valuable trade commodity will be brain power. I agree with patents, and raise you art. Granted you would not settle a planet for the purposes of creating art, but any colony sufficiently large will produce artists eventually. And before you object that art is not valuable enough to make it in the interstellar trade market, consider most of it might be mere data (the cheapest and most compact product) but also consider the net worth of the entertainment industry. Add to that the fact artists are a rather volatile and emotional breed, some of which might desire the romance and relative isolation of a new colony.

Actually, contradicting myself as I think on this: could an artist commune be incentive enough for colonization? Take enough rich, eccentric artists, and the publishing industries that has a lot riding on these artists and will do anything to keep them happy...

Jean Remy said...

Oh quick thought on the living in tin cans in space: I think that is actually more palatable than self-alteration. It seems to me people hold their biological identity (for lack of a better word) sacred. Something about being God's greatest work as a justification. However, if there's money and work, people will go anywhere: off-shore platforms, crab-fishing boats, antarctic bases, etc...

Could just be the geek in me speaking though.

Rick said...

Valid points about how practical it might be to synthesize something versus simply shipping it. And also about luxury items. Here's a piece I wrote on my old static website about Interstellar Trade.

Interesting thought about 'Artists' Colonies!'

Also, I agree that living in a space can would be (much) more palatable to the overwhelming majority of people than living as a brain in a jar!

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