Monday, February 18, 2013

Technology Revolutions, Trends, and Twists



Each of the last two posts has spawned a particularly interesting comment thread. I will, a bit arbitrarily, reserve the one about monarchy (and other political systems) for a future post, and take up here - not for the first time, not for the last - the question of the limits of technology.


As regular readers know, I tend to be a technological conservative. This may be, at least in part, a generational thing. Those of us (old farts) who grew up expecting that controlled fusion, scheduled Moon flights, and Real [TM] AI were all Right Around The Corner are perhaps inclined to be cynical about claims for new technologies. We have been stung before - repeatedly.

If, on the other hand, your tech experience started with PCs, then the Internet, then the mobile Web, and now apparently credible progress toward automated cars, claims about the Next Big Thing probably look rather more convincing.

Let us look at a few familiar and popular technologies, and how they have or haven't panned out:


AI, in the old Asimovian robot or HAL 9000 sense, has to date been a pretty complete bust. The Web offers the perfect environment for the classic Turing test, and so far no prominent blogger (or even obscure one) has been outed as an AI.

But the flip side, as previously noted here, is that capabilities we once regarded as the sole province of human-like intelligence - such as winning at chess, or even Jeopardy! - have turned out to be within the reach of brute-force computing power. If we get driverless cars in the near future, or even midfuture, they will utilize a combination of sensors and processing power that would have seemed fanciful or at least unaffordable in the 1960s.

The computer revolution also has a third side: the Gutenberg-on-steroids impact it has had on communications between people. Rocketpunk-era SF predicted AI that we don't have and aren't even close to. It did not predict the Internet, not even kinda sorta. (One or two stories hinted at the idea, but it never emerged as a trope.) 


Fusion power is also high on the disappointment list. There was a time when the joke was that it had been 20 years away for the last 40 years - now make that the last 60 years. My (somewhat hazy) understanding is that they are making progress, and getting fairly close to the power break-even point.Whether a technology so demanding will end up as a practical power source (or space drive) is another matter, and it is hard to be really sanguine about the prospects.


Astronautics is yet a different matter. Something to remember as we pine for those scheduled moonships is that, on a purely technical level, most of what the space evangelists promised us in 1955 has worked out just fine. Multi-stage rockets can and do reach orbit, routinely, a hundred or so times each year, even if only a handful of their missions carry humans. We have largely scouted out the Solar System, and are moving on to more detailed investigation, such as putting vehicles on Mars.

What failed to pan out in this case were optimistic assumptions about ease and - especially - cost. There is no need for this post to beat the mummified remains of that particular horse.


Now, on to biotech. I can't claim even an informed layperson's knowledge of things bio-, so I have no formal basis for believing or disbelieving much of anything. That said, my first-blush reaction is to regard pretty much everything from radical life extension to 'designer organisms' as hype.

After all, I would argue, the devil is almost always in the details. I tend to picture biotech as most likely providing such agribusiness miracles as flavorless cubical tomatoes (for more efficient packing) that remain blandly edible for decades.

I can even point to a preliminary - and perhaps premature - hint or two in that direction. Genetic technology has not, in its first decade or so, produced the patentable and profitable drugs that Big Pharma was eagerly predicting a few years ago.

The prospects may, however, be more complicated than that. Commenter Thom S, who has a professional background in the field, sketches out a few possibilities.

When I first read the comment, I confess that I was merely grumpy. On a second reading, however, it dawned on me that hardly anything described fit my stereotype of biotech pipe dreams. Nor are they mere cubical tomatoes. In fact, these informed projections compare to my vague stereotypes roughly as the Internet compares to HAL 9000.


Some technology revolutions never deliver on their early promise. Others deliver in spades. And yet others deliver not what was predicted, but instead deliver something rich and strange.


But dammit, I still want spaceships.


Discuss:





The quite cool image comes from Luke Campbell's Google+ page. Because, come on, when it comes to biotech, as with other fields, wouldn't you really want to do the Cool Stuff?

154 comments:

Nyrath said...

Yes, maybe even more than you I want my rocketships. But like you, I've been stung before - repeatedly.

jollyreaper said...

As I said before, I know spaceships and empires aren't plausible but I call dino-feathers!

I think part of the other important thing to separate is what the pragmatic engineers and scientists were talking about vs the popularizer science types who were looking to sell books and magazines and the sales weasels looking to promote an angle. In any modern company the production guys will have plenty of stories of the sales weasels selling a line of bull because that's what it takes to get the sale. Overpromise, under deliver, never give back the commission. So when we look at what we were promised, were we talking to salesmen or scientists?

I was listening to Monster Talk last week and they had on a spring-heel jack scholar. Scanning projects have made tons of old papers electronically searchable and he was able to go through far more material now than when he had to work with the original sources by hand. This helped him track how the legend was created, how it was spread and how 20th century chroniclers faked old sources sure in the belief that they would never be found out.

I think this is a great example of the computer revolution, something I doubt the first scientists would have anticipated. The same technique used to track down obscure sources can also help experts find each otber's work. How many times have we read of famous scientists needlessly duplicating each otber's work simply because one did not know of the other? And look at how collaboration is enhanced.

Anonymous said...

I get the feeling that bio-tech may give us many of those promised wonders...but at a far slower pace than we would like. I'm thinking decades or centuries for years. As far as rockets, I think that we've reached a technological shelf; it may take decades or even more to even come close to that rocketpunk future most of us wish for. I don't think I'll live long enough to see it, and I doubt that all but the very youngest of this blogs' readers will have a chance to see it, but I do believe we (as in humans in general)will see the day when rockets to Mars will be commonplace. My granddaughter will probably be a frail old lady by that time, but I'm still confident that it will happen. Just not anytime soon.

Ferrell

Brett said...

@Rick

Fusion has occasionally produced net power for brief periods, but they haven't ever gotten to the next step: sustained ignition-and-burn, where the energy from the reactions keeps it fusing as long as you've got the whole thing bottled up.

The ITER Project was originally supposed to get us there, but now it's been scaled back to the point where it won't.

Economical . . . total question mark, and probably depends on how much it costs to remove and replace the vessel the reaction is contained in every decade or so (since neutrons off the reaction will gradually irradiate it). That also means it will have relatively short-lived waste issues (about 100 years if I remember right), unless you figure out how to do the higher-temperature, more difficult Helium-3 reaction.

RE: Spaceships

One of my favorite Rocketpunk posts is the one where you reminded us of the time scale that 1950s and earlier writers predicted spaceflight would happen on - and by that standard, we're actually ahead.

A big factor in this will be world wealth a couple decades to centuries down the line. Manned spaceflight is largely too expensive for anyone other than governments and rich people now, but the costs might not be so bad for a future society that has far higher levels of wealth and income.

Robots could help as well, particularly since we're seeing both the Pentagon and others experimenting with remotely-controlled robots to do maintenance work in space. Why send humans up to assemble your manned space station, when you can remotely control the Assemble Bot 10.0?

RE: Biotech

We're in a kind of "every mystery unravels another mystery" phase of genetics and biotech research, particularly as we discover the incredible complexities of how genes interact with each other and other functions of the body.

Some stuff has suffered, and in the case of pharmaceuticals, I get the impression that we've harvested most of the low-hanging fruit. The rest of this stuff is going to take a lot of time, since it all has to go through tons of trials and research just to make sure it actually has a measurable affect. Depressingly enough, some stuff slips through even that and only gets found out to be not useful once it's been used on a massive population, such as Avastin (an anti-cancer drug).

But on the other hand, we've got some stuff we only sort of saw coming earlier, like using 3D printers to "print" biological organisms, biological material, and body parts. I'm in Thom S's boat in that regard, and there's been a couple of good talks about this line of research recently. The New York Times also had a good series on this, and there was an interesting Scientist article talking about how they're getting better at creating human-compatible pig organs for transplant.

I know it's TED and the popular press, so some hype is inevitable - the articles do quote the scientists at saying that stuff like printing hearts and livers is decades away. Still, I wonder if this will actually kill off a lot of the market for mechanical prosthetics for medical purposes. Why get a mechanical leg when they might be able to just print a new one for you and attach it?

Thom S said...

Hi Rick,

Thanks for the shout-out.
I think Ferrel and Brett have it about right: we're getting pretty good at doing some stuff but are still boggled by other things that pop culture has us doing almost as a given. Bacteria, for instance, are almost at the stage where we can truly be said to be 'engineering' them (rather than 'breeding' or 'tinkering with'). Eukaryotes, however, will take a lot longer.

For one of the most illuminating (and humorous) takes on the core problem facing biologists as would-be engineers, look for Yu Lazebnik's "Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? — or, What I Learned while Studying Apoptosis"* online.

This also segues into the issue of biosystematics, where we try to put back together the systems we've reduced to single elements via a sort of cribbed circuit design approach. The results I've seen so far are unreadable; a sort of 4-th dimensional schematic.

A more workable approach might be something like the one being used by the BioBricks foundation (biobricks.org), where pathway components are isolated and standardised before being reassembled into an amenable organism (bacteria).


* Cancer Cell, 2002, 2, 179 182
or
Biochemistry (Moscow), Vol. 69, No. 12, 2004, pp. 1403 1406.

Thom S said...

As to timelines, I think it depends on how you slice it.

My guess (given the continual drop in prices) is that fully synthetic bacterial genomes (read: completely designed bacteria) will be common in ten years.
The first fully synthetic eukaryote (probably a nematode) might be possible within twenty.
As genome size and organism size are not that well correlated (amoebas, some frogs and lilies have the some of the largest genomes) we could see a strange progression of 'designed' organisms; but the whole problem of expression and epigenetic modulation may complicate things.

Culture system based approaches (tissue culture, along with things like 3D printing) may allow us to leapfrog some of the developmental and expression issues by simply developing lines of cells that reliably turn into specific tissue types and then assembling them as needed. This is already happening, and could be producing some very interesting products (everything from hybrid bio-mechanical systems to printed wood/bone chairs) within a decade.

In short, our approach to engineering biology may be as much about taming complexity as understanding it: battening biological variation down to the point that conventional design paradigms can be applied rather than making a new one.

My gut feeling (which I've mentioned before) is that the field may take a century or more to fully mature. In the interim, however, it will be producing a host of strange and interesting things.

Jack said...

As a cancer pharmacologist, I am happy to observe that modern genetics has already resulted in FDA approval of several dozen very profitable (and, coincidentally, quite useful) drugs. As a sample of the anticancer group, check Imatinib, Gefitinib or Vemurafenib on Wikipedia. They act on specific mutations now known to be present in particular cancers. The ability to test patients tumours for those mutations is also a product of recent genetics techniques. Imatinib was approved a decade ago and the field has been going gangbusters since. Perhaps the impression is otherwise because none of the new drugs actually cure their target cancers yet. Health systems may be bankrupted before they do - a course of one of these compounds will cost you circa $50 thou. But if you're dying, what the hey?

Give biotech a chance to get off the lower slopes. Computer tech has been on a rocket trajectory for 6 decades but hardly impacted daily life for the first 4 of those.

Hugh said...

Biotech could certainly help with the spaceships.

For a pure biotech future I like the Paul de Filipio "Ribofunk" collection. A generally good natured look at the kind of future we'd get from genetic engineering as usually imaged in sci-fi. Not exactly hard science, but fun and even thought provoking in places.

Frederik Pohl's "Man Plus" showed various useful things you could do in space when you combine biotech and conventional tech. Space, as Charlie Stross has observed, is a terrible habitat for naked primates. So in Man Plus the US refashions an astronaut for a Mars mission. Besides obvious improvements such as radiation-resistant skin there's some subtle ideas, such as slowing down the time sense and metabolic rate so those long transfer orbits don't drive the astronauts insane.

(A lot of the politics and some of the computer technology has badly dated, but it's still a good read.)

Anonymous said...

Well, biotech would help, even in the short term, with medicine and life support on space craft and off-world outposts. Sounds like a good direction for R&D. It sounds like even a more interesting premis for a story.

Ferrell

Rick said...

Welcome to a couple new commenters!


It would sure be convenient to depend on pills instead of meter-thick radiation shielding. But I suspect there wouldn't be a simple easy fix to radiation sickness - ionizing radiation seems basically like getting shot up with nano-scale bullets, a nasty medical mess.

If Biotech [TM] extends to applied ecology, it would certainly help a lot with long term life support. Rocketpunk-era SF did an awful lot of handwaving with 'hydroponics.'

Thom S said...

Rick,

There are bacteria that can handle extreme ionizing radiation (with Thermococcus gammatolerans being the current record holder at 30000 Gy) but I'm doubtful that the same mechanisms would applicable enough to make a similarly-protected eukaryote.
Even so, I'm not sure if you'd ever get permission to mod human subjects with any putative astronaut genes & techniques like viral retro-transformation have proved to be dicey to say the least.

The applied ecology aspect is something I find fascinating, especially as I know of no well-controlled experiments that managed to create a stable, synthetic ecology.

This at least is an area where enthusiastic amateurs really can make a difference - microscale experiments can literally be done using a coke bottle and the timescales involved are relatively modest. From my own (very much amateur) experience, the major issue seems to be one of buffering and CO2 cycle swings due to the small size of the system and single-point light source. This is something that the biosphere 2 experiments (for all their other issues) seem to hint at.

Damien Sullivan said...

The abortive webcomic _Outrim_ posited that uplifted animals were used to deal with the rigors of space travel.

Rick said...

The applied ecology aspect is something I find fascinating, especially as I know of no well-controlled experiments that managed to create a stable, synthetic ecology.

Something of a bummer, because as you point out, useful experiments are not all that expensive - especially by space research standards. Which makes this look like something genuinely tough to do.

A fairly old (2009) post that touched on the issue: Spaceship Design 102: Life Support.

zmil said...

Longish time reader, very occasional commenter. As a grad student, my view of the field may be slightly myopic, but I fear the timelines for many hot biotechnologies may be...well, ThomS said a century to mature, and some days I feel that's optimistic.

3D printing has some wondrous capabilities, and my skepticism over the field in general is slowly fading, but I have huge doubts about some of the fantastic possibilities people talk about for biology. Printing a kidney? I...I just don't see it. The structures of a complex organ are tiny, the number of cell types frightening, and we're just not all that good at cell culture.

Genetic engineering? For bacteria, we're already at the point where we can alter the genome however we want. That said, it's still not easy, and I'm not sure I see that changing in the near future. Maaaybe synthetic genomes can help. I haven't read the papers, but my suspicion is they still use a lot of basic cloning techniques, which means it's still going to be a royal pain (Even though molecular cloning has been around for 40 years, it still sucks. I have a theory that if you visit any lab, at any time, at least one person in that lab will be complaining about cloning failures.). End rant.

Anyway, even if bacterial engineering becomes as easy as professors already think it is, predicting the effect of a given genetic change may never be easy. Listen to enough chemists, and you'll get the impression organic chemistry is still half black magic. Biochemistry makes organic chemistry look like Newtonian mechanics. Predict protein structures from sequence? Unsolved. Predict protein-protein interactions? I don’t even think people are trying to solve that one yet. I mean, we can make educated guesses, but those guesses are mostly wrong. Okay, so that’s bacteria. Eukaryotes? Or even, dare I say, metazoans? Same difficulties of prediction, squared, and the technology is nowhere near as mature to begin with.

I’m still somewhat optimistic about the potential of microbial engineering, though. 10, 20 years, maybe we’ll see biofuels from bacteria, or at least a rebirth of fermentation as a major route of chemical synthesis.

There are a couple of fields that I think may surprise us. Sequencing technology is the one biotech area that’s moving as fast as computer technology. I think it will be commonplace for people to have their genome sequenced within ten years. I have no idea how that will change society, however. Genomics has underperformed as far as figuring out diseases, so far, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of people knowing a lot more about their disease risks. Apart from that, I dunno. I feel that it could be somewhat like computers 30 years ago; yeah, they’re getting better really fast, but who knows what that means? Internet? What’s that?

The other field that has surprised me is…well, cyborgs. Cochlear implants and whatnot. I had no idea that stuff was going to turn out to be feasible so soon, and I’m beginning to think that even more may be possible in the near future. I would not rule out the possibility of rudimentary augmented intelligence within 20 years. Just in time for my brain to start to fade, mu ha ha...

Thom S said...

Rick,

My impression of synthetic ecology is that its more because because nobody has tackled it in any systematic way yet. There is, as far as I'm aware, no mathematical framework for basic things such as nutrient cycling, energy flow and so on.

There is certainly no comprehensive theoretical approach that would allow us to design and test ecosystems, although a lot of work has been done figuring out various interactions between organisms within the context of existing ecosystems.

This becomes an issue when dealing with the introduction of invasive organisms because we often have no hard metrics on whether a given organism, introduced into a given ecosystem, will cause problems or not.

Thom S said...

zmil,

Good to hear from another grad student! Your theory about cloning is correct: we're doing some work with gateway and its been dragging on for six months more than we budgeted for. So there is a lot of carping on this end about what could be the cause of all the mess.

The funny thing about biotech (to me at least) is how unexpected a lot of the advances are. Take your timeline for augmented intelligence: to me the most important technology would be something that solves the sclerosis problem when linking neurons together artificially. If you could do that, then you'd be able to hook neurons into almost any system and use neural plasticity to overcome the input/output language issue. Having done so, you get what amounts to functional telepathy (with all of the social upheaval that implies) for free.

In making a cyborg arm that links directly to nerves (rather than via workarounds) you would get a whole raft of game-changing stuff into the bargain.

This meshes with my meaning of a 'mature' technology: we'd see a lot of potentially important stuff well before we have a solid handle on the subject - the internal combustion engine springs to mind, although its not a perfect analogy.

My feeling on microbial engineering is that it could be a spring-board for more complex challenges (like eukaryotes). A milestone here would be a true, whole-genome synthetic (with the systematic understanding that that implies) rather than simple lifting pathways from other organisms and slotting them in.

Let me just say that, in this regard, I am not that impressed by the hype that surrounded Craig Venter's whole-genome synthesis work. I mean, its a great technical achievement but more on par with whipping the engine out of a car and replacing it with an exact copy (that you've painstakingly made in your workshop) than the epoch-making discovery it was made out to be.
Still, its great to see the tech moving so fast and it makes me hopeful that it will provide further tools to dig up the theoretical underpinnings of complex, living systems.

Damien Sullivan said...

Hey, it's another nail in the coffin of vitalism.

Cyborgs: augmented intelligence, feh. Think replacement for failing bodies! If you can't solve the aging problem, duck it. What are the limits on portable life-support? How long could we keep a brain or head going? Can we get to the point where only massive brain stroke kills you? If not, why not?

I note full-body cyborgs would also be useful in space, being immune to a lot of gravity issues, and being able to go into spacesuit/craft mode. "Geriatric cyborgs in spaaaaace".

Thom S said...

Damien Sullivan,

Part of the problem with life extension is that we're already at the point where things like cancer or dementia become a certainty. Interestingly, there seems to be good evidence linking this fact to some fairly basic repair mechanisms like ROS scavenging, DNA repair and apoptosis pathways - all of which have a lot to do with our mitochondria.

If you're keen on reading about it, there's a book by Nick Lane called "power, sex, suicide" that looks at the link between mitochondria and ageing in a pretty straightforward and readable manner.

Thom S said...

As for cyborgs as a good way to make astronauts, I've heard some good arguments for exactly that approach. I have no idea if the optimal design will be closer to the terminator of the ship who sang, but its an interesting topic and could probably do with a realistic take.

Anonymous said...

When the subject of cyborgs comes up, I always think of that anime 'Ghost in the Shell'. Soldiers, people with birth defects, and those that feel the need to augment their natural bodies. Sticking a human brain in an artifical, radiation-resistant body for long distant voyages? It sounds good, but will they be able to reproduce, once they get to their destination? If not, so much for colonies.

Ferrell

zmil said...

@Thom S
"...more on par with whipping the engine out of a car and replacing it with an exact copy..."

That is a great analogy and I'll probably be stealing it. Interesting thoughts on artificial neural connections. Is this anywhere close to what you're thinking of? http://www.chalmers.se/en/news/Pages/World-premiere-of-muscle-and-nerve-controlled-arm-prosthesis.aspx

That's the kind of stuff that keeps blowing my mind. But my mind is easily blown when it comes to brain and nerve stuff.

Thom S said...

zmil,

Yeah, I felt like I'd zinged myself a little when I read about that (time from posting about future development to future development happening: approximately an hour)

Feel free to steal any good analogies I come up with, by the way :)

Brett said...

@Thom S
Take your timeline for augmented intelligence: to me the most important technology would be something that solves the sclerosis problem when linking neurons together artificially.

Is that the rejection issue I've heard about with some implants, where the body builds up scar tissue around the object? Solving that would be a huge life-saver, both literally and in terms of augmentation.

Thom S said...

Brett,

That's pretty much the size of it: the host's body recognises the implant interface fibers as foreign bodies and begins to build up scar tissue around it.

I'm not sure if (or how) this team has solved it.

Thucydides said...

While it is very interesting to contemplate the immediate effects of new technologies, to me the more interesting thought experiment is to look at second and third order effects.

The common trope I have used before on this blog is the automobile. While automobiles have been predicted quite a long time ago (Leonardo Da Vinci had simple clockwork vehicles and a steam powered "car" was on the road in the 1700's), NO ONE predicted commuting, strip malls, drive in movie theaters, "parking" or any of the other things that modern auto culture has created. Similarly, Leonardo may have devised a prototype "tank", but never considered the implications of mechanized warfare, nor would he understand what modern air travellers have to go through to take a plane.

WRT biotechnology, I am actually interested in the implications of how bacteria form extensive ecosystems in our guts and on our skin. To me this implies that rather than attempting to make a single organizm to do "X", it might be more profitable (in several senses) to create terrariums of bacteria or organisms which create whatever end product we desire. This has industreal saftey implications (unless the colony environment can be recreated in the wild, escaping organisms will probably either die or become harmless entities in the natural ecosystem), as well as untold opportunities to tweak the system, probably with surprising and unexpected results.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides said:"WRT biotechnology, I am actually interested in the implications of how bacteria form extensive ecosystems in our guts and on our skin. To me this implies that rather than attempting to make a single organizm to do "X", it might be more profitable (in several senses) to create terrariums of bacteria or organisms which create whatever end product we desire. This has industreal saftey implications (unless the colony environment can be recreated in the wild, escaping organisms will probably either die or become harmless entities in the natural ecosystem), as well as untold opportunities to tweak the system, probably with surprising and unexpected results."

That sounds like an extention of the 'bio-reactor' that in its simplest form is the septic tank. Other, newer and experimental, uses for that technology are seperating toxic metals from drinking water and producing cellulose for making cardboard and paper. I believe that the Air Force is experimenting with producing bio-diesel from alge-based bio-reactors. Using future versions to produce plastic, drugs, or composites isn't too far fetched, it would seem. Kind of amusing to think that an 'evolved' septic tank producing the house you live in and the fuel that powers it.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Every technology follows a logistic (S-shaped) development curve. That means that right when you're in the middle of thinking that it's really taking off, it's actually slowing down.

Byron said...

First off, a point of fact. We've had net energy producing fusion for sixty years now. The problem is that it produces a lot of energy for a very short time, and tends to have a negative impact on surrounding property values.

I'm not a biology person, and there are days I wish that we could explore space without having to deal with squishy things. They tend to be heavy and require lots of pampering to be able to do anything useful. If I wasn't one, I wouldn't support using them for spaceflight.
That said, it's an interesting field, and it will be particularly interesting in how it ends up interacting with conventional 'metaltech'. Both have their places, but it always amuses me when someone suggests that biotech will replace metaltech for things like spaceflight.

Tony said...

Byron:

"First off, a point of fact. We've had net energy producing fusion for sixty years now. The problem is that it produces a lot of energy for a very short time, and tends to have a negative impact on surrounding property values."

Actually we don't. We only get energy-producing fusion when we temporarily create enough temperature and pressure through the use of a fission explosion. Call me crazy, but I don't think that's what you're going for in a power plant.

Strangely enough, considering that fissionables can only be produced by supernovas, it kind of supports the conjecture that the energy densities for fusion can only come from the gravity wells of stars.

Byron said...

Tony:

Actually we don't. We only get energy-producing fusion when we temporarily create enough temperature and pressure through the use of a fission explosion.

What do you think I was talking about?

Call me crazy, but I don't think that's what you're going for in a power plant.
Hence my comment about local property values.

Tony said...

Byron:

"What do you think I was talking about?"

I was addressing exactly what you were talking about. I was pointing out that you were misrepresenting it as fusion, when in fact it was, for quite a while, fission with fusion enhancement. Many of the original "fusion" devices had more fission yield than fusion yield. Even after the fusion yield became the majority component of the energy release, It still had to be accomplished by the expenditure of fissionables. That's manifestly not the clean energy with a limitless fuel supply that people think of when you say "fusion".

Rick said...

Oh, come on - Byron was obviously making a black-humor reference to H-bombs, which from Ivy Mike (1952) generated much more fusion energy than the fission trigger released.

Yes, operational H-bombs tended to get roughly half their yield from fission, because depleted uranium is cheap and makes a good tamper for the fusion stage.

Pedantry for the sake of contrarianism has a short tedium half-life.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Oh, come on - Byron was obviously making a black-humor reference to H-bombs, which from Ivy Mike (1952) generated much more fusion energy than the fission trigger released."

But not because we had -- or have -- mastered fusion. The reason that a fusion bomb releases more energy than man puts into it is because the energy to create a long enough lasting fusion environment comes from fissionables, which come in turn from fusion in very large stars that suffer very violent deaths. I don't think that's needless pedantry or contrarianism. It's an important factor in understanding why we might never be able to produce energy-positive fusion through our own devices. Maybe it really does require the gravity of a star to get there.

zmil said...

@Thucydides

"To me this implies that rather than attempting to make a single organizm to do "X", it might be more profitable (in several senses) to create terrariums of bacteria or organisms which create whatever end product we desire."

Yeah, that's something that I've been mulling over for while now, as a possible solution to one of my dreams- using directed evolution to build biosynthetic pathways for useful chemicals. It's almost trivially easy to teach bacteria to eat a specific chemical, but the reverse is tricky. I keep thinking some sort of multi-species symbiotic system might allow one to select for useful biosynthetic pathways. Someday...

We had an interesting talk at my school last year from a guy looking at the effects of species interaction on production of secondary metabolites, basically placing different bacteria species next to each other and seeing if they start producing chemicals that they don't produce in isolation.

zmil said...

"Maybe it really does require the gravity of a star to get there."

It also takes the gravity of a star to make carbon and oxygen. Doesn't mean we can't have internal combustion without first creating a miniature sun under the hood.

Personally, though, I'm looking forward to getting away from old fashioned energy sources like fusion. I don't think we can really call ourselves civilized until we we have harnessed the power of Hawking radiation.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"I note full-body cyborgs would also be useful in space, being immune to a lot of gravity issues, and being able to go into spacesuit/craft mode. 'Geriatric cyborgs in spaaaaace'."

Hmmm... I'm thinking that not too many people would underwrite that. Manned spaceflight is about sending people there, not brains in a robotic body. Yeah, I get that the people who we do send are -- and will likely be for a long time -- highly selected and extensively trained. But they're still people in hte coloquial sense of the word.

Tony said...

zmil:

"It also takes the gravity of a star to make carbon and oxygen. Doesn't mean we can't have internal combustion without first creating a miniature sun under the hood."

Internal combustion engines running on fossil fuels, which descend from photosynthesis powered plants and plant powered animals. IOW, it's ultimately solar fusion power stored in compounds created from chemicals synthesized by some other star's fusion process.

What puzzles me is how long this has been understood, yet how much people still want to reject it. Which brings us to:

"Personally, though, I'm looking forward to getting away from old fashioned energy sources like fusion. I don't think we can really call ourselves civilized until we we have harnessed the power of Hawking radiation."

I think you mean zero-point energy. Hawking radiation is just one particular manifestation of it, requiring a black hole. But the problem with this kind of energy is that it's probably impossible to capture in an efficient manner with physical engineering means.

zmil said...

"Internal combustion engines running on fossil fuels, which descend from photosynthesis powered plants and plant powered animals. IOW, it's ultimately solar fusion power stored in compounds created from chemicals synthesized by some other star's fusion process."

Well, yes, but my point was that I don't think there's any special significance to the fact that the only proven fusion energy device requires fissionable material. Was the fissionable material derived from fusion? Yes, same as almost everything else. Any way of getting fusion started would require solar power, either directly or indirectly, because that's all we have. If we could get fusion by whacking deuterium with a hammer, it would still be true that it required elements derived from supernovae.


"I think you mean zero-point energy..."

Nah, zero-point energy as an actual source of power is most likely impossible as far as I know. Hawking radiation is mediated by zero-point fluctuations, but the energy is ultimately derived from the mass of the black hole, and thus is in effect a way to convert any type of matter to energy. Of course getting a black hole small enough to produce an appreciable amount of energy is a bit of task, and feeding it mass might not be trivial, but harvesting the energy should be relatively straightforward.

See here: http://arxiv.org/pdf/0908.1803.pdf

Byron said...

Tony:
But not because we had -- or have -- mastered fusion. The reason that a fusion bomb releases more energy than man puts into it is because the energy to create a long enough lasting fusion environment comes from fissionables, which come in turn from fusion in very large stars that suffer very violent deaths. I don't think that's needless pedantry or contrarianism. It's an important factor in understanding why we might never be able to produce energy-positive fusion through our own devices. Maybe it really does require the gravity of a star to get there.
No, it's needless pedantism. I'm not sure why you're jumping on me over this. I didn't suggest that it was a practical power source, just that we technically have been getting more power out of fusion than we put in for quite some time.

I was addressing exactly what you were talking about. I was pointing out that you were misrepresenting it as fusion, when in fact it was, for quite a while, fission with fusion enhancement. Many of the original "fusion" devices had more fission yield than fusion yield. Even after the fusion yield became the majority component of the energy release, It still had to be accomplished by the expenditure of fissionables. That's manifestly not the clean energy with a limitless fuel supply that people think of when you say "fusion".
So? I understand how nuclear weapons work fairly well, and the exact fractions produced by fusion are irrelevant. It was a technical point made for humorous purposes, not an attempt to paint a rosy picture of the "fusion future." It's not my problem that people might be deceived by the word fusion, and I doubt most of the commenters here would be.

Tony said...

zmil:

"Well, yes, but my point was that I don't think there's any special significance to the fact that the only proven fusion energy device requires fissionable material. Was the fissionable material derived from fusion? Yes, same as almost everything else. Any way of getting fusion started would require solar power, either directly or indirectly, because that's all we have. If we could get fusion by whacking deuterium with a hammer, it would still be true that it required elements derived from supernovae."

When people think "fusion", they think of getting more energy out of it than is put in. They've also been led to believe that someday we'll take hydrogen out of sea water to do that, without the use of fissionalbles to create a nuclear explosion. That is indeed what the fusion promise is -- that there will be no fissionables involved in nuclear power, that the fuel will be virtually free, and that the power extracted will be more than put in, at prices and quantities salable to power grids.

And my whole point about that is that there is no evidence that we can actually do that. It may just be that you need the gravity of a star to establish confinement for long periods of sustained fusion.

"Nah, zero-point energy as an actual source of power is most likely impossible as far as I know. Hawking radiation is mediated by zero-point fluctuations, but the energy is ultimately derived from the mass of the black hole, and thus is in effect a way to convert any type of matter to energy. Of course getting a black hole small enough to produce an appreciable amount of energy is a bit of task, and feeding it mass might not be trivial, but harvesting the energy should be relatively straightforward.

See here: http://arxiv.org/pdf/0908.1803.pdf"


The problem is getting the black hole. If you make it, then -- just like hydrogen for rockets -- you can't get as much energy out of it as you put in. It's a nifty kind of battery for certain applications (I'm already familiar with the proposed interstellar propulsion application), but it's not what a commerical power company would consider an energy source.

Tony said...

Byron,

Please see my response to zmil. There are plenty of highly educated people who still don't understand thermodynamics or where fuion -- in bombs or anywhere else -- comes from. Which is not particularly their fault. It just is.

In short, I got your joke. I just don't think as many understand the underlying physics as you hope. I wanted to be clear about what was really going on, before someboy said, "Well, if we could do it with a bomb, we should be able to do it in a reactor, just like fission nuclear power."

In fact, I think many SF writers in the 50s and 60s and on into the 70s -- perhaps reasonably well educated ones, even, like Heinlein and Anderson -- sincerely believed that. Heck, I believed it until I thought about the implications of what I learned in an astronomy class not too many years ago, strongly fortified by considerable independent reading in astrophysics and cosmology. I don't think too many people, even people who have strong science backgrounds, quite understand just how sustained fusion in stars works, and why we might not be able to recreate that with our attempts at magnetic and inertial confinement. For example. how many people do you know that could tell you what an "iron crisis" (in astrophysics) is, and why it matters? (Leaving out of course anybody you know that knows astrophysics to any great degree, but, I would be willing to bet, not leaving out very many of your budding engineer friends.)

zmil said...

"When people think "fusion", they think of getting more energy out of it than is put in."

Which we can do. Quite easily. Energy output of the Tsar Bomba was 97% fusion. You may be right that gravity is the only way to have sustained fusion, but I don't think fusion bombs are evidence for that.

" If you make it, then -- just like hydrogen for rockets -- you can't get as much energy out of it as you put in."

What? Why? Like I said, feeding it mass might not be trivial, but there's no theoretical reason it shouldn't be possible, that I'm aware of. If it is possible, then you have energy as long as you have matter to feed it.

Tony said...

zmil:

"Which we can do. Quite easily. Energy output of the Tsar Bomba was 97% fusion. You may be right that gravity is the only way to have sustained fusion, but I don't think fusion bombs are evidence for that."

The problem is not making things blow up. The problem is making things that release energy in a controlled fashion. At this point one could make the argument that even a star is just a large, extremely long-lived nuclear event, not unlike a h-bomb, with the signal exception that it uses gravity for confinement, rather than mass and heat.

"What? Why? Like I said, feeding it mass might not be trivial, but there's no theoretical reason it shouldn't be possible, that I'm aware of. If it is possible, then you have energy as long as you have matter to feed it."

Actually, that's not the case. You can possibly get propulsion out of it for as long as you have matter to feed it. Containing its output is beyond the scope of anything that's been suggested. Even chanelling it's output for propulsion relies on imaginary technology at this point. And I don't mean imaginary in the sense that stuff that was fanciful a hundred years ago is today routine. I mean imaginary as in: "If we could do this patently impossible thing, we could use it for this other thing." I mean thought experiment technology.

And once you turn it off, it's done. At the sizes we're contemplating, such an object would evaporate in hours or minutes...perhaps even seconds. Even maintenance level feeding might provide too much energy which can only be channeled as thrust.

Brett said...

@Tony
Hmmm... I'm thinking that not too many people would underwrite that. Manned spaceflight is about sending people there, not brains in a robotic body.

It may not stay that way. Although when or if that happens, the boundary between "manned" and "unmanned" flight will be heavily blurred anyways.

And my whole point about that is that there is no evidence that we can actually do that. It may just be that you need the gravity of a star to establish confinement for long periods of sustained fusion.

I'm not ready to rule it out yet. Tokamaks and Livermore-style lasers aren't the only possible way to get there. There are other ideas.

Locki said...

I'm hopping in late to add my 2c worth ...

I once read a terribly trashy novel that had a singularly interesting point to make. Sometimes the different science disciplines are so isolated from each other the big picture is missed. To further our study of one field requires other fields to sufficiently advance with them. I think science fiction often overlooks the interplay and interdependence of the different disciplines.

Here's a few fields that could see some big advances that become the virtual rosetta stone to unlocking some of our cherished sci-fi rocketpunk tropes.

1. Psychology.
- It is still in many ways a soft science but I think a fuller understanding of this horribly non-trendy discipline may help unlock the secrets behind sapience and AI
- We really don't know much about it. Some of our twin studies and genetic studies raise, IMHO, some hard questions with bout the true nature of free will.
- Obama's new brain mapping project could be fascinating. We already know damaging parts of the brain completely change our personality.

2. Pure math and physics
- surely there is more to learn here

3. Biotech.
- most of everyone with a science or clinical background is aware of the potential of the field so I won't say too much since its all been covered and I'm 10 years out of date anyway.
- my personal belief is in a medical setting it will be most powerful when used pre-gestationally to weed out undesirable traints (basically already happening with PGD and IVF) and later selecting and introducing desirable traits. AFAIK its always been a bitch introducing genetic changes into a differentiated cell.

- However, I think we will see organ transplantation revolutionised in our lifetime.


4. Space travel
- I would have thought radiation sickness is far too hard to overcome from a medical/biological point of view. Protecting the DNA from ionising radiation is going to be really, really hard without making some fundamental changes to either the chemical makeup of DNA or (more probably) the error correction mechanisms involved in replicating DNA
- however, tackling the problems of microgravity medically should be possible.
- it could also be economically very rewarding. If you can decrease bone loss and muscle mass loss you are addressing some of the major physical problems with ageing. eg if you are taking medical X to maintain your bone density for the 2 years it took you to reach mars then Medication X will probably prevent osteoporosis in the vulnerable and bed ridden.

jollyreaper said...

Something I played with in a story idea was biosynthetics. Basically they were the key to the new material sciences, hacked plants that grew the new generation of plastics and metals and other esoteric substances.

In the west environmental concerns meant they needed to be grown in hazmat greenhouses. That's expensive. Drug kingpins diversified and started growing this stuff in the open in the third world. Lots of unintended consequences from that. Lots of external cash flowing into the region to support gang wars with very heavy equipment.

zmil said...

"The problem is not making things blow up. The problem is making things that release energy in a controlled fashion. At this point one could make the argument that even a star is just a large, extremely long-lived nuclear event, not unlike a h-bomb, with the signal exception that it uses gravity for confinement, rather than mass and heat."

Agreed on all points. Controlled fusion is hard, maybe impossible.

"Actually, that's not the case. You can possibly get propulsion out of it for as long as you have matter to feed it. Containing its output is beyond the scope of anything that's been suggested. Even chanelling it's output for propulsion relies on imaginary technology at this point."

Containment? Who said anything about containment? Clearly you need something of the sort to drive a spaceship, but using a black hole as a powerplant is much more straightforward. You just set it in a convenient orbit, and soak up the tasty gamma rays.

"And once you turn it off, it's done. At the sizes we're contemplating, such an object would evaporate in hours or minutes...perhaps even seconds."

Do you have a source for that? The paper I cited above gives a lifetime of a year for a 400,000 ton black hole. They also estimate the power output of a 600,000 ton black hole (which would last somewhat longer) as 160 petawatts, or 10,000 times our current total energy usage, or ~1/2 total insolation of the earth.

"Even maintenance level feeding might provide too much energy which can only be channeled as thrust."

That is backwards. Feeding mass to a black hole reduces its power output. Which makes "turning it off" somewhat straightforward, just toss in enough mass to greatly reduce the power output.

If it turns out you can't feed it mass, then things get a little hairy, because when a black hole "evaporates" anything nearby also evaporates, with extreme prejudice...

Tony said...

zmil:

"Containment? Who said anything about containment? Clearly you need something of the sort to drive a spaceship, but using a black hole as a powerplant is much more straightforward. You just set it in a convenient orbit, and soak up the tasty gamma rays."

Without containment, how do you catch the rays? With containment, how do you catch the rays without destroying the containment?

"Do you have a source for that? The paper I cited above gives a lifetime of a year for a 400,000 ton black hole. They also estimate the power output of a 600,000 ton black hole (which would last somewhat longer) as 160 petawatts, or 10,000 times our current total energy usage, or ~1/2 total insolation of the earth."

I wasn't thinking quite that big. But suppose you did. The bigger the object, the more mass you have to feed into it to make it go anywhere. Or you could in fact just let it waste away and use the resultant energy for propulsion. But then when you got it where you wanted to go, you'd either have to stay, or feed your object maintenance mass. On top of that, you'd have to feed it up again to the desired mass to come back.

And you have to get maintenance and recharge mass from somewhere. That costs energy that has to come from somewhere. TANSTAAFL.

"That is backwards. Feeding mass to a black hole reduces its power output. Which makes 'turning it off' somewhat straightforward, just toss in enough mass to greatly reduce the power output."

See above. Where does this mass come from? Where does the energy to move it from its source to the spaceship (or power plant or whatever) come from? Even black holes are subject to thermodynamics, at least on this side of the event horizon.

mufasa said...

this is my first comment here, but I have been reading this site for the last few months. Few places on the internet have this level of intelligent discussion.
I have grown up in the computer and internet revolution of the 90's and 2000's. I always have kept a ear to the ground when it comes to cutting edge technologies.
My belief is that all the revolutionary technologies we see today haven't been revolutionary, but only just break the surface to where we can see them at a certain point.
Take the 3d printing hype we have been seeing. The technology has been around since the 1980's, but it's only very recently that it's come to the attention of the general public.
This can be shown with computers where all the math, concepts and ideas of how one would operate had been created, but needed a device that could cheaply create the millions of logic gates required to work.
I look at space travel and nuclear power as artificially accelerated technologies that hadn't matured before they were being used.
spacex has shown that with the advent of better computers and computer aided manufacturing. The secret sauce might have been the creation of different management techniques space travel might not be as faraway as it was even five years ago.
I hate to say it that nuclear power has been stunted by it's premature birth in a ball of fire. Political, and regulatory walls have brought the technology so that cheaper and safer of utilizing the nuclear haven't been tried since the 1960's.
There will be a nuclear Renaissance when other power sources run out. That renaissance might be The ancient LIFTR or the relatively unknown alternate fusion technologies.
(call me a fool focus fusion device has been on my short list of one in ten thousand chance of succeeding )

Grognak said...

I wonder if our dreamed spaceships and modern electronics (ultra efficient computers, sensors and communication networks, etc, etc) aren't up to a certain extent mutually exclusive... Von Braun, Willy Ley and other visionaries always envisioned big space stations manned by tens or even hundreds, with all the rockets, space planes, etc, such structures would need, to fulfill the tasks automatic satellites perform today, and big human crewed spaceships to explore the solar system that probes are exploring.

Once military needs were covered (delivering atomic warheads didn't need ever bigger rockets, rather the opposite, because warheads got smaller) and satellites and probes proved to be a viable and much, much cheaper alternative to human crewed crafts, it was to be expected that big rockets development would stagnate...

Thucydides said...

People still dream, however. Dennis Tito has announced plans to do a manned free trajectory flyby of Mars with a 2018 launch date. See http://nextbigfuture.com/2013/02/next-week-dennis-tito-will-announce.html for some details.

While it is not quite as earthshaking as some of the wants and dreams that high tech has promised, it occurs to me that it is an example of how old dreams can become possible when certain conditions change. Advanced manufacturing is the least of it; Tony is always quick to remind us the Falcon uses up to date technology to replicate what the R-7 booster did in the late 1950's (with very similar technology).

Perhaps far more important is the advances in managerial techniques to bring costs down, and in governance which allow individuals like Dennis Tito to accumulate the sort of wealth needed to realistically plan such projects, or the communications technology that allows ideas like this to be communicated and spread so quickly.

mufasa said...

I think von braun was biased in his thinking. He knew rockets, but his experience with computers was flight computers and ruidementry simulation. That's not saying anyone I'm not.
Thucydides I think about the managerial techniques and it may be that management style had to change with the advent of the small tech company that needed flexible small teams rather than large regiments of hierarchy to operate that has created the google style of management. That spacex has used to outmanuver it well established rivals.

Cordwainer said...

I agree biotech will deliver on at least some of those promises it just may take longer than promised. Fusion is a pipe dream but hybrid fission-fusion and dusty plasma fission fragment reactors seem possible. Quantum computing and quantum entanglement won't give us teleportation but might give us AI and FTL communication within the next century or two. Sentient AI probably won't happen unless we actually purposefully design it (unlikely). HIIPER powered by a Dusty plasma fission reactor or thermocouple (beta- emitter anyone) might give us those rocket ships to Mars but their won't be much push-pull reasons to go there.

Damien Sullivan said...

" When the subject of cyborgs comes up, I always think of that anime 'Ghost in the Shell'. Soldiers, people with birth defects, and those that feel the need to augment their natural bodies. Sticking a human brain in an artifical, radiation-resistant body for long distant voyages? It sounds good, but will they be able to reproduce, once they get to their destination? If not, so much for colonies."

Not a problem for Solar system colonies; Earth can keep making geriatric cyborgs who emigrate.

Damien Sullivan said...

"It also takes the gravity of a star to make carbon and oxygen. Doesn't mean we can't have internal combustion without first creating a miniature sun under the hood. "

That's not a very good comparison.

But if we can build devices that get most of their energy from fusion reactions, then in a practical sense that's fusion, even if it's not self-sustained. I.e. we could get most of energy from D-T reactions. We'd run out when we ran out of fissonables rather than out of D-T, but oh well. That limit seems far off anyway.

As for using the energy, there's exploding underground and using the hot rock to make steam.

Damien Sullivan said...

"Manned spaceflight is about sending people there, not brains in a robotic body."

You think cyborgs won't be seen as people?

"Quantum computing and quantum entanglement won't give us teleportation but might give us AI and FTL communication within the next century or two"

Quantum computing just speeds up some problems, it has no specific potential for AI. Quantum entanglement doesn't give you FTL; the entangled pair can be 'affected' non-causally but you need classical communication as well to transmit information. So it's a secure comm channel, or a way of generating one-time pads with only optical contact.

Got I hate these captchas. One of my utilities is requiring captcha to pay my bills, which is stupid, but the captcha itself is great: perfectly legible characters rotating in an animated gif.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"You think cyborgs won't be seen as people?"

I wouldn't. The kind being described would be a slave brain in a mechanical body totally under the control of the owner. And yes, there will be an owner, because this complex, expensive technology we're talking about, that nobody would develop without a purpose in mind. Your not going to let your cyborg astronaut go off and do whatever he wants -- no ROI there.

neowolf2 said...

Derek Lowe had an interesting post on an example of industrial enzyme design (to catalyze one step in the manufacture of a drug):

http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2010/10/06/chemical_biology_engineering_enzymes.php

zmil said...

@Tony

“Without containment, how do you catch the rays? With containment, how do you catch the rays without destroying the containment?”

I think perhaps I should just lay out the kind of system I’m imagining.

Step 1: Build your black hole. As I said, this might be hard or impossible. Crane et al suggest an array of spherically converging gamma ray lasers. I don’t have the knowledge to judge the feasibility of this. Because moving it would probably be a royal pain, as you point out, you’ll want to build it where you want it. Maybe a Langrangian point or something.

Step 2. Feed the black hole sufficient mass to balance out the energy output. This is probably the hardest part, and I can definitely imagine this not being possible, especially with smaller black holes. Crane et al propose particle beams, but I’m afraid the cross section of the black hole might be too small to get appreciable accretion. They also suggest building an accretion disk, but I’m afraid the radiation pressure might just blast away the matter. A larger, cooler black hole maybe could solve both of these problems, though.

Step 3. Bring in an array of radiation collectors, place them in parking orbits around your new blazing hot black hole. This is not difficult to imagine. A simple minded example would just be a bunch of boilers to run steam turbines. Gamma rays hit boilers, heat liquid, etc. Surely there are better ways, but this is not a hard thing.

Hell, once the Sun burns out, we could have a few big black holes in orbit around Earth just to keep us warm.

“I wasn't thinking quite that big. But suppose you did. The bigger the object, the more mass you have to feed into it to make it go anywhere. Or you could in fact just let it waste away and use the resultant energy for propulsion. But then when you got it where you wanted to go, you'd either have to stay, or feed your object maintenance mass. On top of that, you'd have to feed it up again to the desired mass to come back.”

As I say above, I’m not interested in moving. Or at least, it would be awesome if it could also be used for propulsion, but that’s clearly a much harder problem, and I avoid hard problems.

“See above. Where does this mass come from? Where does the energy to move it from its source to the spaceship (or power plant or whatever) come from? Even black holes are subject to thermodynamics, at least on this side of the event horizon.”

The mass comes from whatever asteroids or whatnot we have laying around. Once we’ve used up the asteroids, we’ll start vacuuming up Jupiter or something. We’ve got the mass. And moving it is just not a problem at the scales I’m talking about. E=mc^2. The amount of energy you spend moving the mass is trivial compared to the energy gained from complete annihilation of that mass.

zmil said...

"As for using the energy, there's exploding underground and using the hot rock to make steam."

That...is an intriguing idea. Ridiculous, but...intriguing. Which is my favorite combination.

Cordwainer said...

Well Quantum computing wouldn't be the only method you would use for AI and other methods would be better I just suggested it could be used to speed up some processes and give us one method for a fuzzy processor not confined to simple binary processes. While the confinement time and ability to effect Quantum Entangled pairs in a stable and energy efficient way are problems that will require time to engineer just being able to send a single qubit of data would allow the movement of fairly large packets of information from one place to another without radio or material interference. Combine this with even conventional FOT's and computing devices would allow you transmit quite a bit of information. They still use IBN 5100s with 64K processors for transmitting missile launch codes among other things. I'm not saying it will replace high speed internet or communications satellites, but who can say how far such technology will advance. I think it could be very plausible to have a small network of cross-linked cross-channeling satellites with high altitude communication blimps tied to an open source common protocol wireless network with hybrid spintronic and quantum computing backbones that would exchange data-compressed macros from one communication hub to another. MILSTAR and MIDAS systems were built using low bandwidth and measly processing legacy systems that are still in use today. Computer geeks have gotten really good at compressing data and satellite jockey's and engineers have gotten good at eaking out bandwidth and utilizing very small parcels of bandwidth to send a lot of data.

Cordwainer said...

I agree with tony that producing controlled fusion would require near impossible control of either gravity or Mega Tesla electromagnetic fields. These fields do exist on and above the surface of the Sun and do produce fusion reactions. Producing the necessary magnetic confinement and controlling the input of fusionable materials would require enormous long reaction chambers and a great deal of energy to start the reaction and maintain the reaction, most likely more than you would get out of the fusion reactions. He is incorrect in assuming that you could not create a fusion drive by continuosly feeding it mass. Gas Dynamic Mirror fusion demonstrates that it is possible just not particulary energy or mass efficient. For whatever fuel efficiency you might gain the reaction mass and and thrust to weight ratio will be so poor that your better off with a high efficiency plasma rocket like HIIPER, VASIMR or LiLFA.

neowolf2 said...

Eric Drexler has a fine explanation of why fusion isn't likely to pan out.

http://metamodern.com/2010/01/20/why-fusion-won%E2%80%99t-provide-power/

"The program is sold as a way to build power plants, and we know more than enough about the physics to know that the best case result would be useless."

Anonymous said...

As far as fusion goes, I don't know why everyone is so hung up on 'continuous fusion'; we can use pulsed fusion at a fairly high rate and buffer it to smooth out the energy spikes; rectify it to convert it from pulsed DC to AC and there's no need for self-sustainment. Just my thoughts on the matter.

Ferrell

Cordwainer said...

Pulsed Fusion run into their own problems. How do you smooth out the pulses and produce a thermodynamically stable system are the main problems with magnetized target fusion. Polywell's offer a possible way to get around brehmstralung losses in efficiency but create new efficiency problems in how to deal with the ionized radiation and intense heat produced without compromising electromagnetic confinement. Dense plasma focus fusion requires mega-tesla strength magnetic fields to scale up the level of power generated and the smooth the reactions enough to create stable net power. Combining these techniques might be better than using them alone. Use a leaky polywell to inject you fusion plasma into a magnetized fusion target then run the by-products through a toroidal DPF coil might allow a cooler fusion plasma to produce sufficient fusion-fission reactions without powerful energy inefficient elecromagnetic confinement systems. I'm not a physicist so I can't say if it work or not it's just a thought.

Damien Sullivan said...

"The kind being described would be a slave brain in a mechanical body totally under the control of the owner"

...wow. Just... wow.

On fusion: http://www.dvice.com/2013-2-22/lockheeds-skunk-works-promises-fusion-power-four-years
I'm skeptical, of course, but there's a school of thought that Lockheed Skunkworks wouldn't say this without strong reason.

"just being able to send a single qubit of data would allow the movement of fairly large packets of information from one place to another without radio or material interference"

Eh? I don't know of anyway of using qubits to communicate without classical side channels, let alone sending "large packets" with just one.

Cordwainer said...

ANTSC/28 and WGS type satellites that use completely variable bandwidths and spread-spectrum multiple frequency hopping are totally randomized systems that don't use what would be called conventional or "classical side-channel tagging" to convey information. I couldn't explain how its done though I didn't get that far into it. Plus I'm not all that sure you couldn't develop a pseudo set of side channels for recognizing incoming data. The problem wouldn't be sending the message as much as developing a method to decipher it once it was sent if I'm getting the gist of your argument though. Due the fact that a quantum bit would have multiple ways in which could be read rather than as a binary set it would make things a lot more difficult than converting between say synchronous and asynchronous forms of data. Theoretically though it should allow one to send multiple logarithmic sequences per quantum bit or byte that could be read as multiple messages in a similar way you send a set of multiple data streams over the same aggregate through SSMA. Just because someone hasn't developed a form of modulation for Quantum entangled pairs doesn't mean it can't be done.

I wonder if those slave-brained cyborgs would use human brains or animal brains though. It sounds like your contemplating a combination of slavery and grave-robbing Dr. Frankenstein! At the minimum your going to make PETA very mad. I think something like a remote controlled surrogate body to replace your astronauts would be less morally offensive. As for colonists I think it might be technologically feasible to develop artificial wombs or us an animal womb and have surgeons using surrogate bodies remove the child by c-section. Your birth mother and wetnurse is a cow and your parents are remote controlled androids but at least you have parents and you can eat your cow siblings when you grow up.

Cordwainer said...

On the subject of Quantum entanglement call it intuition I'm just not buying the whole idea that
1. The no-broadcast theorem is iron shut
2. Entangled qubits can't be measured in some virtual way that doesn't violate classical teleportion.

Maximally entangled groups of qubits can be used to transmit information and just because you can't measure something in an exact manner doesn't mean you can't measure well enough to transmit readable information. Just because it doesn't allow one to transmit classical information immediately or with a high precision of certainty doesn't mean you couldn't engineer a method for using it in communication or even FTL comm. Besides the fact that scientific experiments have already been used to determine if quantum entanglement can occur over ground to satellite distances seems to suggest someone thinks it's possible. The people that are suggesting it isn't are probably the MIB trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Even if you can't use maximally entangled "qu-bytes" to perform supercondensed coding or other operations you still get to send classical bits nearly instantaneously without interference. Also who's to say if Classical Information Theory isn't flawed or has loopholes. God these Capthcha's are the worst.

Geoffrey S H said...

Stupid idea bordering on the flippant- fusion bombs create mini unstable suns- so detonate them high above some solar panels. Yes the energy to make them is far more than the energy gathered from exploding them, but at least we get some constructive fun out of using them.

Byron said...

Geoffrey:
Stupid idea bordering on the flippant- fusion bombs create mini unstable suns- so detonate them high above some solar panels. Yes the energy to make them is far more than the energy gathered from exploding them, but at least we get some constructive fun out of using them.
It's not the right kind of energy, but I'd support this to get above-ground nuclear testing restarted anyway.

Anonymous said...

Cordwainer said:"Pulsed Fusion run into their own problems. How do you smooth out the pulses and produce a thermodynamically stable system are the main problems with magnetized target fusion..."

Ok, sorry, I wasn't clear; I meant that the electricla output of the pulsed fusion would be buffered and rectified; sorry for the confussion. The fusion proccess would probably use some sort of MHD-like device to recover the energy; more likely it would be several different energy collecting devices, each focusing on a specific fusion product (i.e. X-rays, protons, ions, etc.), Seems to be a resonable alternative to building an artifical star...
Instatanious communications using Quntum Entangelment might be possible, if we can figure out how to encorporate these entangled particle pairs into a pair of objects whose electricl perameters could be altered and read without destroying the Quantum Entangelment effect. I don't know if if that's impossible or merely damned difficult. Probably expensive, too.

Ferrell

Tony said...

zmil:

"I think perhaps I should just lay out the kind of system I’m imagining.

...

The mass comes from whatever asteroids or whatnot we have laying around. Once we’ve used up the asteroids, we’ll start vacuuming up Jupiter or something. We’ve got the mass. And moving it is just not a problem at the scales I’m talking about. E=mc^2. The amount of energy you spend moving the mass is trivial compared to the energy gained from complete annihilation of that mass."


Where are we getting complete anihilation from? Some of the mass is converted into x and gamma rays by tidal forces as it goes in. But then it's inside. If you're talking about a stable situation with a safe power output over a long time, you're not going to get high conversion rates for mass to Hawking radiation.

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"Ok, sorry, I wasn't clear; I meant that the electricla output of the pulsed fusion would be buffered and rectified; sorry for the confussion. The fusion proccess would probably use some sort of MHD-like device to recover the energy; more likely it would be several different energy collecting devices, each focusing on a specific fusion product (i.e. X-rays, protons, ions, etc.), Seems to be a resonable alternative to building an artifical star..."

The difficulty here is that (presumably) inertial confinement fusion doesn't even have a theoretical pathway for positive power output. It just takes too much energy to get fusion that way in the first place.

Cordwainer said...

I have to agree with Tony on matters of concerning inertial confinement of fusion is unlikely. Theoretically it only occurs in nature in tandem with either electromagnetic confinement(the photosphere of a star) , intense gravity(the deep surface of a star or an event horizon) or as a byproduct of anti-matter annihilation and cosmic rays as in the case of a supernova or quasar. Needless to say one might be able to mimick such tandem approaches to increase efficiency of fusion devices but they will still have a very large initial energy investment and a modest energy investment to maintain.
I'm of the opinion that even if you could build a working hot-fusion or cool-fusion "generator" it wouldn't be commercially viable compared with other forms of power generation. I'm not convinced that cold fusion exists or could exist although it might be possible to create a battery of sorts that stores large amounts of energy and releases a little bit at a time through as yet undiscovered or emerging understandings of physics, nuclear thermocouples are an example.

Locki said...

Byron said...

It's not the right kind of energy, but I'd support this to get above-ground nuclear testing restarted anyway.

Just out of interest Byron. Why would you support the resumption of above ground nuclear testing? Is there any peaceful purpose to this?

Or is it just your desire to design the ultimate space battleship getting the best of you?

Cordwainer said...

You don't need above ground tests to launch your space battle ship. There is something called a Verne shot, not to confused with Verne channel which is another term for a volcanic plume that goes all the way to a planets core like the one that created Hawaii. I mean the idea of using a nuclear explosion buried underground to launch a (presumably unmanned) payload into space, a form of space cannon.

Thucydides said...

Interesting

The general trend in technology these days has been towards miniaturization, automation and networking. While it is true that we have enjoyed playing with the idea of kilometer long "Laserstars" in the various space warfare threads, I think reality will be a constellation of very small spacecraft rather than a huge "Orion" nuclear pulse battleship.

Perhaps the only "large" thing will be a hanger or bus to keep the elements of the constellation protected in orbit or during transit, and maybe a manned command and control element to cut down lightspeed lag and make the all important fire/no fire decisions.

Even here on Earth this is becoming the case; visualize an F-15 "Strike Eagle" dropping and guiding individual 500 pound "small diameter bombs" on single,widely dispersed targets designated by ground troops in Afghanistan as an analogy.

Edward said...

What about nanotechnology? Is it going somewhere? Maybe combined with biotechnology? I'm not a huge science person, I just guess it will be useful in the future, including space travel (if we can miniaturize a lot of things, it would be useful). What would be the impact if we master the science to go mini in engines, life-support tools, weapons, computers etc?

Byron said...

Locki:
Just out of interest Byron. Why would you support the resumption of above ground nuclear testing? Is there any peaceful purpose to this?

Or is it just your desire to design the ultimate space battleship getting the best of you?

Actually, there is a peaceful purpose. My plan is simple. Every year, host a global security conference in Los Vegas. Every world leader is invited, and we promise not to arrest any of them if they come. We pay for hotels (though the have to pay for any gambling and so on). On the first day, we truck everyone out to the Nevada Test Site, and set one off, just to remind them what the end state of conflict is.
Also, I want to see one myself.

What about nanotechnology? Is it going somewhere? Maybe combined with biotechnology? I'm not a huge science person, I just guess it will be useful in the future, including space travel (if we can miniaturize a lot of things, it would be useful). What would be the impact if we master the science to go mini in engines, life-support tools, weapons, computers etc?
The problem is that most of that stuff can't be downsized. Engines need to be big to push big things (such as people) around, and I don't see nanotech making them much more efficient, while biotech would be useless. Life-support is similar, although we could see some shrinkage with biotech. Weapons, same story as engines. Computers have already gone mini. Think about what we have now compared to what they thought we'd have in the 50s.

Edward said...

Byron said: "The problem is that most of that stuff can't be downsized. Engines need to be big to push big things (such as people) around, and I don't see nanotech making them much more efficient, while biotech would be useless. Life-support is similar, although we could see some shrinkage with biotech. Weapons, same story as engines."
Yes, maybe I just exaggerated with these examples.

"Computers have already gone mini. Think about what we have now compared to what they thought we'd have in the 50s."
I was born before Internet, but after PCs. I have seen the shrinkage of computers, cellphones, and the shrinkage of the overall process to access the internet (like the ease and fastness to access it in my phone). To expand my point, beyond nanotechnology, have we reached a dead-end of miniaturization? It will be impossible to play Call of Duty in a pocket calculator?

This open some questions. We are decreasing the size of everything since a long time: distances by making faster vehicles and faster communication; storage of information; accessibility of goods; etc. So, can we reduce this things more? Is the future going to be BIG or SMALL?

Consider this exemple. Human waste in a colony in Mars is treated right after we flush it; the waste is sent to a tank under the bathroom where a chemical vaporizes it (just an example, nothing serious). This is a shrinkage of the waste disposal process. But now, consider this other example: all waste in futuristic Earth is connected to a single collecting system, where it is treated in a massive factory.

See? The future can be either giant or small. It can be applied to everything. Politics, economy, warfare, society. We can build a giant space colony, but will it treat waste in a small or in a big way? There will be self-susteined small space colonies or a giant galactic empire? Of course, more questions than answers, but they are cool questions.

Tony said...

Edward:

"See? The future can be either giant or small. It can be applied to everything. Politics, economy, warfare, society. We can build a giant space colony, but will it treat waste in a small or in a big way? There will be self-susteined small space colonies or a giant galactic empire? Of course, more questions than answers, but they are cool questions."

None of the things mentioned above are choices. All of them will depend on what we have the energy to do, and what the physics of the universe actually allows us to do.

Byron said...

Edward:
I was born before Internet, but after PCs. I have seen the shrinkage of computers, cellphones, and the shrinkage of the overall process to access the internet (like the ease and fastness to access it in my phone). To expand my point, beyond nanotechnology, have we reached a dead-end of miniaturization? It will be impossible to play Call of Duty in a pocket calculator?
I don't know, but it's probable. I was looking at it from the perspective of a spacecraft designer, who doesn't really care if the computers weigh 50 kg or 5 kg. It's obviously something he needs to know, but it's not a design driver.

With regards to your larger question, I honestly don't know. There are often significant economies of scale in things like rocket engines, but redundancy favors multiple engines. I don't know about life support systems, not being an environmental engineer. The problem there becomes plumbing the waste into the central plant.

Cordwainer said...

On miniaturization and nanotech in rocket engines.

Miniaturization does offer some advantages once you get beyond the atmosphere. Monoatomic MITEE nuclear rockets and liquid-fueled micro-rockets allow for better specific impulse and greater fuel efficiency. You don't large rockets to move large things in low gravity environments just a small constant thrust will suffice.

Nanotechnology can be also be applied to the way in which fuel in a rocket is stored and eventually combusted. You might be able to create "nanofoam" propellants that store as stable monopropellants but when exposed to an electromagnetic or electrical field would react like a bipropellant. Or you could use an "unzipping molecule" to break up a stable chemical polymer into highly reactive elements that can't normally be stored in a fuel tank like flourine. You might be able to use nanotechnology to increase the expansion, reactivity and reaction mass of a fuel like spiking hydrogen with beryllium or lithium. A hybrid liquid-solid fuel rockets could use electro-chemical and thermo-electric properties of certain metallic salts coupled with an induction nozzle or magnetic choke to produce hotter faster moving plasmas.

Tony said...

Re: nanotechnology in space propulsion

It's not precisely true that thrust doesn't matter. If you take to long to get where you're going, that's a problem. If you take too long crossing through certain radiation regimes (like the Van Allen Belts or Jupiter's radiation belt) that's a problem. If you want to change orbits quickly, as in orbital combat, You need high thrust. And even if low thrust is acceptable, you need high Isp engines, which nanotechnology doesn't contribute anything too, since they are based on some pretty fundamental principles of electromagnetism, and operate at the atomic level already. (Even chemical rockets operate at the molecular level, making nanotechnology problematic.)

Cordwainer said...

I agree nanotechnology would be difficult to work at the molecular level in rockets particularly in the high stress, high temperature regime of a rocket nozzle or reaction chamber, but it might not be impossible. Also yes you do need high thrust to move quickly through certain regimes but this does not mean that some of the innovations I mentioned might not produce sufficiently high thrust on their own or coupled with other technologies. LiLFA and hybrid rockets coupled with microwave combustion systems have been built to relatively small sizes and produce considerable thrust albeit less than conventional chemical rockets. Various methods of controlled combustion and rocket nozzle designs can also provide an increase to Isp and reaction mass for those times you need a "hard push" albeit this comes with the trade off of a momentary decrease in fuel efficiency. As it stands High efficiency modestly high thrust plasma rockets like VASIMR, DSG4, HIIPER and LiLFA will eventually replace chemical rocketry for use in high radiation regimes and for long distance journeys anyways and they don't produce nearly the same levels of thrust as the designs I have outlined. What they do do is produce sufficient thrust and fuel economy to get the job done. Where as the designs I've mentioned would probably be used for probes, station- keeping and cislunar space travel not long journeys. NTR's and Fission-fragment rockets would be nice but I don't believe they will ever be politically or commercially feasible at least not on the scale you would need for space opera. Unless of course some aggressive alien species were to attack us.

Anonymous said...

Tony, stop responding to things I never said.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"Tony, stop responding to things I never said."

You said "pulsed fusion". AFAIK, that means some kind of laser or particle beam inertial confinement. And we know from experiments that that's even farther away than magnetic confinefusion -- which looks to be very far away indeed. And both are so far on the outside of the track because it has not been shown that they can be sustained at a positive power output for energy production.

It's not what you say or don't say, Ferrel. It's simply that what you're talking about has more fundamental problems than simple rectification into a steady current. If those can't be solved, the theoretical ease with which an intermittent output could be rectified -- and it is easy, going back to flywheels on steam engines -- has no practical application.

Brett said...

@Damien Sullivan
On fusion: http://www.dvice.com/2013-2-22/lockheeds-skunk-works-promises-fusion-power-four-years
I'm skeptical, of course, but there's a school of thought that Lockheed Skunkworks wouldn't say this without strong reason.


I saw their "Solve for X" video, which was pretty cool. I have no idea whether it will work out, but it's nice to see people trying alternatives to the Tokamak approach, and also trying to make fusion reactors smaller than "multi-story building" sized.

Thom S said...

Since it covers the topic of the post quite well (although I see that we've gone into fusion, where I am hopeful but totally out of my depth):

http://www.nature.com/news/intercontinental-mind-meld-unites-two-rats-1.12522#/b1

I know its a very clunky way of interfacing (Tony might have some ideas on what they were thinking in regards to encoding) but the results seem to show something like a minimum criteria for sending abstract information mind-to-mind.

On the other hand, we have this:
http://io9.com/5988021/is-this-the-city-of-the-future

I know io9 isn't that good when it comes to hype, but the fact that nobody seems to have consulted a biologist (cribbing from deviantart was apparently okay though) when coming up with prognostications for our biotech future just makes me realise why the sort of knee-jerk skepticism described by Rick exists in the first place.

Thom S said...

Damien Sullivan,

Knowing Lockheed's history up till now I'm skeptical that anything they produce could be done in time, on budget or to spec.

So a 50MW plant by 2060 - with heavy government subsidies to remain price-competitive on whatever gold-plated fuel pellets they develop - sounds about right ;)

Brett said...

@Thom S
I know its a very clunky way of interfacing (Tony might have some ideas on what they were thinking in regards to encoding) but the results seem to show something like a minimum criteria for sending abstract information mind-to-mind.

It's fascinating stuff, although I've seen it come under some fire elsewhere.

Technology like that is the kind that could lead us into a very weird place. You could get some very good remote operation, and strangeness like "shared" and "completely constructed" memories for you to experience. Imagine sending a person to Mars, then being able to actually share their memories of being there.

I know io9 isn't that good when it comes to hype, but the fact that nobody seems to have consulted a biologist (cribbing from deviantart was apparently okay though) when coming up with prognostications for our biotech future just makes me realise why the sort of knee-jerk skepticism described by Rick exists in the first place.

What mystifies me are the bubbles. If your super-enviro-friendly city is that dense and segregated from the surrounding wilds, why do you even need the bubble? Won't people want the fresh air? If the city is that environmentally friendly, wouldn't the wilds be safe from airborne pollution?

The rest is just the usually arcologies that seem to have been absorbed wholesale into the SF psyche. How come we never see someone do a Cyber-Punk or futuristic story set in a sprawling, suburban-ish futuristic city? Those actually seem to be the trend, unless the price of fuel (oil or otherwise) gets too expensive.

Anonymous said...

Tony, you're all bullshit; stop talking to me; even on the rare occation when I find something you've said to be worth concedering, you say it in the most arragent and annoying way possible. For God's sakes man, go take some writing classes! Maybe you'll learn how to talk to people without pissing them off!

Anyway, rant over; material sciences also seems to be making some surprising advances, especially with 'metamaterials' that have such dramatic effects on electromagnetic radiation. Smaller, more effective antenna, and simpler, more sensitive detectors (amoung other things), seem to be in the very near future. I think that if even a few of these pan out, they could be as big as the internet.

Ferrell

Cordwainer said...

I believe Jack Jackson(Which I believe was a pseudonym for Jack Vance) published futuristic urban-suburban sprawl stories. Also I believe such futures have been featured prominently by many African American SF writers.

Not an expert but from what I've read it doesn't seem insurmountable to have mind-machine or mind-to-mind interfaces someday. Certainly more possible than fusion generators or quantum communication/computing. Improving the complexity of the information being passed would be an area of slow development though and take time.

Thucydides said...

The size of things generally has more to do with economics than anything else. for some applications (devices for individual use), smaller is usually better, while economies of scale can be obtained under different circumstances (fortifying individual houses is far more expensive and less effective than building a city wall, to use a very old example).

The interesting point is in the mid range, where individual units can compete with centralized systems.

The middle range is changing as well; for example today an individual can create a radio or tv station on the internet with studio quality equipment that was unobtainable even a decade ago. I expect that as prices drop and individual wealth and expertise increase, (like we see today), there will be more and more movement towards individual technology, and the overthrow of many types of centralized technologies and the associated gatekeepers.

Brett said...

Ferrell, you've got to stop taking Tony's comments so hard. Just accept that he's the Blog Curmudgeon, and move on. No offense, Tony, but it's true.

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"Tony, you're all bullshit; stop talking to me; even on the rare occation when I find something you've said to be worth concedering, you say it in the most arragent and annoying way possible. For God's sakes man, go take some writing classes! Maybe you'll learn how to talk to people without pissing them off!"

What arrogance makes you think I'm talking to you, personally? I'm offering an opinion about your comments to the readership in general, not to you. This insistence on taking things personally is a you problem.

As for my writing, it communicates perfectly well in an environment where people understand that concepts and proposals are under serious discussion. In this particular case, it's about putting first things first, nothing more. You can't talk about rectifying power output if you don't have a process that actually outputs power. Once again, stop taking it personally that I'm raining all over your parade, because it ain't personal -- it's precisely how ideas are addressed in business every day. (If you think I'm bad, you should work a month or two for my current boss -- he's all business and no personal consideration whatsoever...but we get things done.)

zmil said...

@Tony
"Where are we getting complete anihilation from? Some of the mass is converted into x and gamma rays by tidal forces as it goes in. But then it's inside. If you're talking about a stable situation with a safe power output over a long time, you're not going to get high conversion rates for mass to Hawking radiation."

The radiation from tidal forces is not Hawking radiation. Hawking radiation is the result of complete annihilation, that's how it works. The only way for mass-energy to escape a black hole is by Hawking radiation. Thus, if you feed mass-energy into a black hole, you will eventually get an equivalent amount of mass-energy back out, in the form of Hawking radiation. It's a simple matter of conservation of energy.

To put it another way: if you don't feed a black hole mass-energy, it will evaporate, right? Where did the mass go? It came out as Hawking radiation, ergo, complete annihilation of the mass, or at least, nearly complete annihilation (I'm not sure if Hawking radiation is expected to be entirely composed of massless particles, so some of the mass-energy could come out in the mass of any non-photonic Hawking radiation.).

Thucydides said...

I recall that conversion efficiency for matter being converted into energy through falling into a black hole is @ 20%.

Since astronomical Black Holes would evaporate through Hawking radiation over eons, this is probably not a useful avenue of approach. For tiny black holes that can release power at useful rates, you would be operating on a knife edge between feeding the beast and capturing Hawking radiation to maintain the system in equilibrium.

zmil said...

@Thucydides said...

"I recall that conversion efficiency for matter being converted into energy through falling into a black hole is @ 20%."

Do you mean energy radiated while falling in, or energy radiated after crossing the event horizon?

The total amount of mass-energy that goes beyond the event horizon must equal the total amount of mass-energy radiated back out, so the efficiency, in that sense, should be 100%. Everything I've ever read suggests that the vast majority of radiation should be in the form of photons, in which case the vast majority of the mass of the infalling matter should be converted to other forms of energy.

"Since astronomical Black Holes would evaporate through Hawking radiation over eons, this is probably not a useful avenue of approach. For tiny black holes that can release power at useful rates, you would be operating on a knife edge between feeding the beast and capturing Hawking radiation to maintain the system in equilibrium."

See my previous posts. 600,000 ton black hole has a lifetime of >1 year, outputs 160 petawatts of Hawking radiation. Of course, the more powerful the black hole, the shorter the lifetime and the more exciting keeping it stable would be.

Tony said...

zmil:

"The radiation from tidal forces is not Hawking radiation. Hawking radiation is the result of complete annihilation, that's how it works."

I'm well aware of that. But energy is release from matter being stressed by tidal forces does in fact exit as well.

"The only way for mass-energy to escape a black hole is by Hawking radiation."

From inside the event horizon? Yes. But that's not the only energy a black hole produces when being fed matter.

"Thus, if you feed mass-energy into a black hole, you will eventually get an equivalent amount of mass-energy back out, in the form of Hawking radiation. It's a simple matter of conservation of energy."

Depending on the size of the black hole, it may never release as much Hawking radiation as mass that goes in in the lifetime of the universe. Doing a little research, it appears that the Hawking radiation output of a black hole is directly related to its size. The bigger it gets, the less energy comes out in proportion to its mass, until you reach a point the the cosmic background radiation alone puts more energy into a black hole during any defined timespan that it radiates back out.

"To put it another way: if you don't feed a black hole mass-energy, it will evaporate, right? Where did the mass go? It came out as Hawking radiation, ergo, complete annihilation of the mass, or at least, nearly complete annihilation (I'm not sure if Hawking radiation is expected to be entirely composed of massless particles, so some of the mass-energy could come out in the mass of any non-photonic Hawking radiation.)."

What you seem to be misunderstanding is that it will not take just the energy equivalent of the mass to artificially create a black hole. It would probably take many times more, in order to compress the mass into a small enough volume. One basically has to simulate an almost infinite gravity gradient without gravity, just inertial confinement pressure.

That's why thee things are generally considered for space propulsion. The black hole factory can use the energy of a star over some length of time to prime the engine -- many times the energy that will eventully be realized from the propulsion unit. As I pointed out some time ago, it's really no different than extracting hydrogen from methane or seawater and using it as liquid rocket fuel. It takes more energy than the engine releases, but the point is to store the energy in a more compact and useful form, not realize a positive or even break-even return.

Tony said...

You know, there's something we don't discuss, but it's very real and very on-topic. Evolution is a widely accepted and invoked principle of science, from biology to astronomy. But when it comes to science and technology themselves, evolution is almost a dirty word. Everything has to be a "revolution". Yet anybody who knows his history of science and technology can take any claimed revolution and show how it was in fact the result of an evolutionary process of one sort or the other.

Why do we suppose it is that acceptance of evolution -- particularly biological evolution -- has become a litmus test of one's scientific understanding, yet talking about evolution in the sciences themselves is at best bad manners?

Thom S said...

About black holes:
I think Tony's point is that getting one in the first place is such an undertaking (in terms of energy, equipment etc.) that it makes all the stuff that comes after seem trivial.

I guess that here the thing to look out for would be someone actually producing one (even a tiddler that evaporates on the table), with feeding of said being almost a separate event.

That said - by the sounds of things a weaponized black hole sounds like it would make nukes look tame. So, given the nature of discussion here I say we hash it out in detail ;)

Thom S said...

Tony,

Because evolution in biology and evolution in technology are two separate things.

One is a process whereby variance in individuals, linked to genetic variance, provides an adaptive advantage that favours that variation being passed on (by natural and/or sexual selection). Eventually, the accumulated results of these changes in a population (usually one isolated from a larger, more stable one) results in the creation of an independent non-interbreeding group: a new species.

The other is a short-hand way of describing gradual improvement/change in a technology/society/whatever.

Tony said...

Thom S:

"Because evolution in biology and evolution in technology are two separate things.

One is a process whereby variance in individuals...

The other is a short-hand way of describing gradual improvement/change in a technology/society/whatever."


First of all, your description of biological evolution is incorrect. You're describing speciation, which is a consequence, not necessarily the only outcome. Aside from that, both are practically equivalent processes -- gradual refinement over time.

And that's the point I'm getting at -- the process is gradual, but the narrative, when self-reflective, becomes epiphanous.

Thom S said...

Tony,

Forgive me for not giving you the full course in a single paragraph, I obviously had to simplify down to basics a bit. Do not be confused: evolution is the mechanism (heritable variation + selection). The outcomes: speciation, stasis, drift and so on are merely the product of this mechanism working.

This is why I say that evolution in technology is nothing like evolution in biology: only biology (as yet) has the mechanism. Therefore, lumping the two together is merely confusing homonyms.

On your broader point, that too much of our pop-historical analysis is bound up in looking for a singular break-point (when nearly all of these, on closer inspection, turn out to be mere high points along a continuum) we are in agreement.

jollyreaper said...

I think part of the problem is that words are appropriated and given new definitions and that we tend to apply definitions from one speciality to another without understanding the differences. Consider how the word organic is used.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/organic

noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon.

pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals: organic farming; organic fruits.

characterized by the systematic arrangement of parts; organized; systematic: elements fitting together into a unified, organic whole.

of or pertaining to the basic constitution or structure of a thing; constitutional; structural: The flaws in your writing are too organic to be easily remedied.

Law. of or pertaining to the constitutional or essential law or laws of organizing the government of a state.


In biological evolution we still have examples of gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. Vaguely and deceptively similar to evolution vs. revolution but not the same.

Rick said...

A new post is up on the main page: High Kings and Galactic Emperors: Monarchy in Science Fiction and Fantasy.


On a much more distressing note, a longtime commenter emailed me to register deep frustration about the tone on this board.

The commenter did not mention anyone by name, but I will: Goddammit, Tony, *back off*. At least a bit (I don't hope for more).

I don't know that you were most at fault in the latest ... exchange. But you have generated more than your share of aggravation over the last year or two. Which has made these comment threads considerably less fun.

I value your substantive contributions and insights, but 'curmugeon' is a euphemistic description for your tone.

Bear in mind (everyone!) that this blog is no longer purely a playground for me: I have a book coming out. This blog is my main public presence on the Internet, and I am ultimately responsible for the tone here.

Which means that if push comes to shove, *I* will do the shoving.

Thom S said...

Rick,

I'm sorry to hear that there's been unhappiness. If its any consolation, the fact that people are sending emails to voice their frustrations (rather than flaming in-forum) is indicative of the high quality of the discussion here.

Locki said...

The breadth of knowledge on the comment blog is quite astounding.

I've got an immensely thick skin but even I'll admit I'm getting a little bit afraid to run some of my more crackpot theories past the comment section. Which is ironic considering the name of the blog is rocketpunk!

This is a real shame because the quality of discussion here is much deeper than my other usual haunt (the local pub).

Rick said...

But your local pub probably serves much better beer.

(Though American brewing has undergone quite a renaissance - it isn't just mass market horse piss anymore.)

Locki said...

The discussion has a way of being so much more profound with a few pints onboard.

The solutions to the problems seem so much more elegant.

..... even if our sudden jump in IQ is facilitated by that terrible undrinkable stuff you Americans call beer.

Cordwainer said...

On the subject of I'm actually drinking a Deschuttes brewery Obsidian Stout that is remniscent of some strong Scottish Ales I had on the Continent. Also Blue Moon makes a fairly good imitation of a German CrystalWeizen with their Belgian Pale Ale even if they're owned by Anheuser-Busch. Personally I'm moving my discussion over to the new blog since Tony is starting to get on my nerves to. I respect his opinions on Physics and Socio-Politics but I think he is out of his depth when it comes to biology and semantics.

Damien Sullivan said...

"I know io9 isn't that good when it comes to hype, but the fact that nobody seems to have consulted a biologist (cribbing from deviantart was apparently okay though) when coming up with prognostications for our biotech future just makes me realise why the sort of knee-jerk skepticism described by Rick exists in the first place. "

They seem to have not listened to Jane Jacobs, either. It's mid-century Garden City Modernist Futurism all over again, with a solar/bio spin.

"a sprawling, suburban-ish futuristic city? Those actually seem to be the trend, unless the price of fuel (oil or otherwise) gets too expensive."

A current North American trend is people moving back into the cities. It's not just a cost of fuel thing; the younger generation has a greater preferences for pedestrian cities.

Cordwainer said...

Sadly though I think the younger generation in North America is poor at designing walkable cities. They tend to lean too far one way or another between a post-modern or artisan feel, and the design of commons areas often has more to do with environmental concerns than business or walkability. One should design public transport around a city's terrain and get off the idea that light rail is the "big answer". Making common areas and green space more European/Asian/Artisan in style would be a blessing instead of a curse to local business. Using existing transport infrastructure instead of building new infrastructure that doesn't fit well with either the architecture or the terrain would also be of benefit. Take designs that have actually worked rather then mish/mash stuff together and keep it simple. That's not to say novel approaches shouldn't be used to solve the more pressing problem of the U.S. being a very car dependent nation. I thing parking garages with bio-roofs, sky-ways and underground causeways along with conventional mass-transit and car share programs would all be good ways to reduce overly-crowded streets in large urban areas.

Also what a lot of sci-fi authors fail too grasp is that humans tend to like to live in the same areas with cities that last for centuries if not thousands of years, any build off of "sub-urban sprawl" communities will either be the product of "urban sprawl" and "gentrification", or the product of consolidation and incorporation of unincorporated rural areas and small towns.

Damien Sullivan said...

o_O The younger generation is mostly not in a position to "design cities". They're moving into walkable/bikeable/transit neighborhoods they can find and afford and holding jobs (if they're lucky) not sitting on planning boards.

Most of the US's cities will probably need rebuilding over decades to be liveable by that standard -- or abandoned as people move into fewer denser cities. We've spent decades killing the city with zoning laws, especially minimum parking requirements. And the cities that are nice often have their own restrictions on new building, driving the housing prices up.

Cordwainer said...

I'm in agreement with zoning laws being an impediment to the future of cities, but don't think it will kill the city just change it's face. Government might be better off with changing the direction of investment away from the idea of home ownership for everyone and look at investing in reducing the costs of rentals and land-management and improving the value of properties with more accessible programs for land and property improvements. You could fund such programs with a moderate land value tax one that would not be too extreme so you don't harm the ranchers and farmers with large tracts of undeveloped land. Throw in some "green tech" exemptions for agrarian land owners who are willing to adopt environmentally friendly practices or green power plants.

Cordwainer said...

Been playing around with an idea on how one might have a matriarchy in a somewhat plausibel sci-fi setting but haven't fleshed it out yet. Relying on a virus or crash landing seems a little far fetched and has been over-used as a method for creating such settings as has the cryogenic wake me up when the apocalypse is over Oops!! the men didn't thaw out right.

Most matriarchies historically have been the result of either problems with succession or due to constant warfare forcing the choice on a society for the same reason some societies choose polyandry, as a means to carry on warfare while maintaining stability on the homefront. I suppose the same thing could happen in post-modern societies if you had sufficient reasons for modern societies to go berserk and start an era of constant war. The War World series franchise has a short story featuring such an idea.

The other possibility as that some technocracy in the future either ruled by machines or really advanced transhumans decides the best way to get an Interstellar settlement going is to only send women on their relativistic or sleeper ships. No knee jerk chauvinists to shoot the idea down or send a ship full of men later on. At the very least the land tenancy and genealogies will be passed down matrilinealy, I'm sure the Mom's generation will make sure that they colony will have fair wage and inheritance laws so women would at least enjoy a slightly better chance of becoming wealthy scions within the community during the first generation or two. Of course once the male population gets large enough to compete for wealth, land, power and resources on a large scale with warfare and tribal or gang violence then it s anybodies guess if they become more Toureg/Bedouin-like with a matriarchal heritage and patriarchal government or more Tlingit/Iroquois-like with more involvement of women in political affairs.

Thom S said...

Cordwainer,

This actually jibes with one of the other techs that I reckon has a) a chance of being developed in our lifetimes and b) would change society on a deep level: the artificial womb.

Given that we already know how to make a viable embryo (in rats) using two eggs, its not too far-fetched to suppose that men as a specialized gender (rather than just the default pronoun for the genderless) might be a bit irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. This does not mean, of course, that any societies will get rid of their males entirely. But if the option is there I'm sure some small group will take it. Island of the future-amazons, anyone?

Thom S said...

Something that I've been wondering about recently: the changes that a technology introduces into society often take generations to fully manifest (because if people are innately conservative than societies as a whole are doubly so). Witness the long string of historical effects that can be tied back in some form or another to the printing press.

If so, then what do people think the eventual outcomes of today's technologies will be? What I mean is that, even if we hit dimmuendo and nothing much changes for the next thousand years, how will the effects of instantaneous communication, reproductive choice and end-stage mass manufacturing play out?

I (as an admitted liberal and optimist) foresee more and more societies slowly breaking down the existing gender, relationship and sexual binaries until the average citizen can comfortably exist on the natural spectrum of phenotype and behaviour.

On the other hand, the ability to personally filter and control the flow of information into your life might push people into a sort of synthetic tribalism: everyone chooses their own little group and society as a whole balkanises.

Any thoughts?

jollyreaper said...

@Thom Those are good questions. Relevant article.

http://www.cracked.com/article_19860_5-scientific-ways-internet-dividing-us.html

#5. New Algorithms That Make Sure You Only Talk to People You Agree With
#4. New Methods to Make Misinformation Spread Faster
#3. User-Submitted News Sites That Create Thought Bubbles
#2. Discussion Formats That Encourage Us to Be Negative
#1. The Divisive Gap Between Internet Users and Everyone Else

http://www.cracked.com/article_15231_7-reasons-21st-century-making-you-miserable.html

Too much good stuff to bulletpoint.

Cordwainer said...

Response to Thom S

While I do think fully functional artificial wombs eventually will be developed I don't think any smart society will eliminate males. Rats are not humans and both sexual reproduction and sexual selection offer a safer method for the proper mixing of genes then asexual reproduction even if we take into account the technology for cheap portable genetic testing. Also if you have an artificial womb then it becomes more logical to just send an Ark Ship with artificial wombs and robot or cyborg parents. Of course there is the point to be made that you might want to produce more females for the first couple of generations of a founder population to give it greater stability in terms of fertility and a lessened risk of social violence caused by competition between males or males and females in a more equally mixed gender socieity. It may be sexist but I do tend to believe a society of mostly females while not devoid of violence would probably be less violent then a male-dominated one.

Thom S said...

To be fair I don't think males are in any danger of going extinct (although as I said I'm sure at least one or two groups may try to live the homogendered way).

There was an interesting theory kicking around years ago that men were effectively bred specifically to be aggressive (as a society could afford to lose some young males and still remain viable, thus conferring an advantage to groups that selected for aggressive males) but, like a lot of evo-devo just-so stories I've yet to see any compelling proof for it.

The idea that women are innately less violent is unfortunately very hard to prove due to social factors (girls may simply be raised to be less violent) but my bias is that the violence would, if nothing else, take different forms in a matriarchal society.

Cordwainer said...

While there is no good proof regarding violent males being evolutionary bred for the betterment of a species their are at least some data-points to support that genetic and behavioral propensity for impulsiveness and anger control issues tend to be more common in males and primate studies that show that violent behavior for a subset of our hominin ancestors may have been selected over other behaviors through the lottery of sexual selection just as nurturing behaviors, foreplay and sexual/emotional intimacy behaviors were chosen as more favorable by a subset of the hominin population. Some females like "bad boys" just like some like "Romantic Lothario" or "Stable Provider" provider types and some women are like men in that they like to play the field. As I said I don't think homo-gendered societies would be without violence in fact both all-male or all-female societies would probably be less violent then mixed gender societies since there would be less gender related tensions. The competition for mates would be the same in homo-gendered societies but male societies it would probably become ritualized to some degree to reduce violence and internal disputes. While female only societies there would probably be less likely to commit impulsive acts of violence and have more resource sharing as opposed to resource competition. On the other hand female only societies might be more clique based and suffer from greater competition and jealosy between groups its hard to say. Either way that would likely limit there use of violence to small scale conflicts.

I know there is a lot of criticism going around about schools of though like the Santa Barbara School of Paleopsychology and other behavioral evolutionary "pop science" but I find those criticisms are often circular or not well supported with evidence. While the aforementioned behavioral schools do often cite a mix of both convincing evidence and poorly documented evidence. In general such schools often rely to much on the science of classical behavioral psychology rather then relying on new sciences and studies of human and animal behavior like studies that support the cooperative model of evolution and sexual selection versus more traditional models of evolution. In other words the "pop science" may not be wrong they just need to refine their theory. Similarly the critics need to refine their criticism and not throw around labels like "pop science" since most things in science are theories that start out as hypothesis and are very seldom proven to be immutable fact. The Standard Model of Physics is only now on the cusp of being proven be immutable and still has many holes and unexplained phenomenon, heck the discovery of "Higgs Particles" has opened up new questions more than it has answered. I am sure behavioral evolutionists will be proven wrong in some ways and vindicated in others given time. I mean Plains Ape Theory sounds like Lamarckism to me but the scientific elite still touts it as the most likely theory for human evolution and considers Aquatic Ape Theory as full of holes and a fringe element or as "pop science". I would posit that genetic evidence, environmental evidence, modern human behavior and common sense actually pokes holes in the Plains Ape Theory.

Brett said...

@Damien Sullivan
Most of the US's cities will probably need rebuilding over decades to be liveable by that standard -- or abandoned as people move into fewer denser cities. We've spent decades killing the city with zoning laws, especially minimum parking requirements. And the cities that are nice often have their own restrictions on new building, driving the housing prices up.

That's why I figure we'll just see it in new developments, first, with older cities only starting to follow suit when they hit the problem of the first wave of families aging up. It's easier to build new developments in this country than to replace the older ones, especially in our most productive cities.

It sucks, too. These cities could be generating a ton of secondary jobs for people, but instead they're not, and those people are moving to areas with lower incomes because of lower housing costs.

@ Thom S
The idea that women are innately less violent is unfortunately very hard to prove due to social factors (girls may simply be raised to be less violent) but my bias is that the violence would, if nothing else, take different forms in a matriarchal society.

I think I read somewhere once that the difference in violence (and domestic violence) by men and women disappears once you account for relative body size. Meaning that similarly sized men and women are similarly prone to violence

Thom S said...

Cordwainer,

The problem is that to not reject a hypothesis you need proof. Most often, the evo-devo stuff that gets criticised (and not all of it does, there is some good work in the field) does so because there is no way to gather proof for a hypothesis, or the author has not provided a way to refute it (falsifiability being another mark of a valid hypothesis)

To be frank; short of people conducting highly unethical experiments on populations raised from childhood in controlled conditions there is just no good way to sort out the nature/nurture aspect for a lot of gender-related stuff. Which is why it gets referred to as 'just-so stories'.

Its also really hard, as an experimenter, to sort out your own biases when it comes to human nature. All to often, the plausible 'evolutionary' explanation that gets put forward is more a reflection on the scientist than the subject. Take sexual selection, which underwent a revolution of sorts by the simple expedient of having more female researchers enter the field. A lot of old assumptions (mostly regarding things like male-male competition versus female mate choice and fitness signals) were proven wrong - when before they had stood as a default simply because there was no other perspective being put forward.

Damien Sullivan said...

http://www.buzzfeed.com/kevintang/8-studies-that-debunk-male-stereotypes has an item saying that under the right conditions, like anonymity, women will be as violent as males. Granted, it's a game.

"That's why I figure we'll just see it in new developments, first, with older cities only starting to follow suit"

Well, the genuinely older cities are often a lot more walkable already, with a bigger problem of not having enough housing due to height limits. And right now people with choice are moving back to those walkable cities, while outer suburbs decay.

"It's easier to build new developments in this country than to replace the older ones, especially in our most productive cities."

But where's the new development going to go, how are people going to get to and from it if we're minimizing car use, and why would people live there? It's a lot easier to create exurban house farms than to create a vibrant city from scratch. In this case, I think it's easier to tear down low-density crap and build higher density... if the urban planners will let you.

Thom S said...

As another wrinkle in the 'homogender societies' thing, the genetics are such that a male-only society would still produce girls as 1/3 of zygotes produced every generation, while female-only societies would only produce female zygotes. Man-world, it seems, would require a dose of selective abortion (or the equivalent) on top of everything else...

Cordwainer said...

Poppycock you can't gather proof! (because we can't know what people were doing at that period of time, or we can't say for certain what our hominin ancestors did because the only hominins we have to study are humans and pan troglodytes) Balderdash!!Loads of theories have been proven on little imperical data or are mostly theoretical but they don't get shoved aside as "pop science" or "junk science". Heck "dark matter" and "dark energy" sounds like people grasping at straws to me but I won't throw out the good bath water with the bad.
that comes with those ideas(also most of the math and imperical data is sound if scant). If you can't prove something in science one way or another you go gather more data instead of making circular arguments like you can't prove that because you can't study it. It's like the social taboo that scientist can't study God even though theology is part of the social sciences.

As for scientists being influenced by their own biases I agree with you their, which is why I mentioned that most Classical Theories of evolution and behavior are still influencing science in a bad way because people often aren't willing to challenge them. As for theories of sexual selection and gender differences, there is enough data out there to show that sexual selection and gender determinism exist as very real forces and mechanisms. What is not well understood is how much those mechanisms are influenced by genetics, environment or force of will. Although force of will as I believe relates to humans as merely a more advanced set of highly nuanced instincts, they are still in their own right programmed behaviors its just that we get to chose the program or combine programs to get better results. As for free will, yeah we got it but it was created by evolution as well and we are probably aren't the only animal that has it. Our ability to use free will is just more complex and advanced because we have a lot more optional behaviors we can use.

By the way I would like to see that study on violence and body size it sounds interesting, they could be on to something there. I've always thought women could have as great a propensity for violence if left on their own without social guidance or supervision but I have my doubts. While it is true lesbians are as often as likely to engage in domestic abuse as gay male or heterosexual couples from the studies I've seen, this only highlights domestic abuse. While women prisoners can be as violent as male prisoners you talking about a preselected population known for impulsive or violent behavior. Also most data shows the behavioral effects of drug use are much worse on women then men. I think the best experimental data comes from our high schools and universities where young women have yet to be fully integrated into society yet but have probably had time to adapt to the "raging hormones" of puberty and are probably about as developed socially in terms of impulse control as they are going to get. Yeah lots of people do dumb stuff on summer break at Cancun, but usually those are the same people that will go to Vegas for a wild weekend or will go crazy on someone in the pews of their local church if you give them half a chance. Peoples personalities and behavioral preferences are mostly fleshed out by 16, its merely the perspective of experience that influences some people with low impulse control to restrain themselves as they get older.(given that they are in good health of course) The only thing that makes me think women are possibly less violent then men is they biologically have less reason to be impulsive. By every other parameter, sexual and social competitiveness as well as most security and self-esteem needs except those that a male-dominated society has adulterated or sublimated in some way they are primed for violence. Yet in areas of social competiveness and cooperation we see a marked difference in how women problem solve compared to men? Why?

Thom S said...

Cordwainer,

A valid scientific hypothesis needs a couple of things before it can be accepted: a mechanism of action which can be extrapolated to other conditions, the ability to be falsified by evidence and positive evidence that it is a usable construct for further studies.

As an example, if I'm walking home one day and feel a stabbing pain in my foot, a valid hypothesis would be that I've stepped in something sharp (mechanism - sharp things hurt foot, falsifiable, can be tested by evidence - check foot). Hypothesizing something that cannot be directly tested (ghosts which cause foot pain) is not valid.

Hypothesizing an innate propensity for one gender versus another requires that you control for the effects of socialization, upbringing and so on (nurture) - either by conducting a controlled experiment (impossible for ethical reasons), observing the effects of a natural experiment (hard because so few societies are truly isolated enough, there is bias from the observer's end etc.) or extrapolate from other systems (look at behaviour in children, great apes etc.)

Obviously extrapolation is the weakest form of evidence - but it is often the only form that can be used for hypotheses such as this. This is why biologists are leery of a lot of work here, not because it is verboten but because it is almost impossible to prove/falsify in the real world.

Proving a hypothesis is thus not a case of gathering evidence to a certain standard and calling it a day. Rather, the evidence required depends on the hypothesis and the phenomenon being studied. Note that part of the 'problem' with modern physics is that there are often no good ways to test hypotheses generated by models, which leads to the plethora of 'sounds cool but is it real?' theoretical research that physicists themselves are unhappy over.

Does this help to explicate why I'm cautious of simply agreeing to seemingly common-sense sounding chestnuts about men/women? I would be happy to see something real and meaningful come out of research into the biological origins of human behaviour, but right now a lot of it doesn't pass the test. If you could come up with a way to test these ideas, I'm sure that you'd make a lot of scientists (in and out of evo-devo itself) very happy.

Thucydides said...

As a suburbanite myself, I can say that a "good", high trust neighbourhood replicates a small town, in that everyone knows everyone, and people are willing to help each other (during one big snowstorm, we all assembled on the street with shovels and snowblowers and cleared all the driveways and an emergency lane down the road long before the city crews showed up, as an example).

OTOH, when I lived in the "High Density" neighbourhoods that social planners seem to love, there was far less trust, openness or even knowledge of the neighbours; we were essentially living in a low trust area with a large (and constantly changing) crowd of strangers.

Social engineers in Canada hate suburbs, neighbours help each other and don't rely on many government services outside of Police, EMS and utilities. High density, low trust neighbourhoods have fewer social mechanisms to turn to, so people are more dependent on higher levels of government services and control.

Brett said...

RE: Thucydides

It actually costs a lot more to provide those services to the suburbs, so it balances out.

Cordwainer said...

Thom S.

Good thread I agree extrapolation is the weakest form of evidence and while this is a fair gripe in regards to the study of behavior and evolution, I think that valid data can be obtained through rigorous study and the inclusion of many disciplines such as anthropolgy, archaeology, psychology, sociology, neurology, genetics and proteomics to come up with hypothesis that may seem wild today but can pass the litmus test of a "working theory". After all many such "working theories" are largely or entirely based on extrapolation. My main point is that social scientists and their critics tend to be more prone to personal influences and less reasoned and disciplined in their discussions. If they would all stand back and be more open-minded, thick-skinned and inter-disciplinary in their approach they might be able to achieve some "good science" for a change instead of bickering over "pop science" and old flawed theories. Like baseball there is no crying in science, and its not who wins or loses its how you play the game.

Which reminds me of Taisho Baseball Girls, a pretty cool anime set in interregnum period Japan that is surprisingly original and not derivative of Princess Nine or League of Their Own. It got me to thinking and studying women's sports. With all the cooperative mixed gender sports and new women's sports being included in the Winter Olympics, I think it might be a good idea to do a movie about the 1920's "Bloomer Girls". Men in drag and sassy female athletes on the same playing field might be an interesting way to make a plea to the Baseball Commission to lift the ban on women playing in the minor leagues. Plus you could ret-con a lot of famous female and male athletes of that time period who played in the the Bloomer Leagues but may have never played together.

Locki said...

Its taken awhile to plow through this thread. Sorry about the tardiness.

Tony said...

Every technology follows a logistic (S-shaped) development curve. That means that right when you're in the middle of thinking that it's really taking off, it's actually slowing down.

============

I actually find myself (reluctantly) in agreement with you most of the time.

However, I can't help but think its statements like the above that prove great breakthroughs in any field - whether it be music, culture, chess, art or science - always has and always will belong to the young.

Sadly my chance for greatness passed away a long time ago.


Thucydides said...

As a suburbanite myself, I can say that a "good", high trust neighbourhood replicates a small town, in that everyone knows everyone, and people are willing to help each other (during one big snowstorm, we all assembled on the street with shovels and snowblowers and cleared all the driveways and an emergency lane down the road long before the city crews showed up, as an example).

========

This phenomena of apathy increasing with population density is fairly well known. We cover it in both law and psychology from different points of view.

It most famously came to public attention in the Kitty Genovese murder case in which none of the 38 witnesses called the police because well - they all thought someone else would.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese

Damien Sullivan said...

"Social engineers in Canada hate suburbs, neighbours help each other and don't rely on many government services outside of Police, EMS and utilities. High density, low trust neighbourhoods have fewer social mechanisms to turn to, so people are more dependent on higher levels of government services and control."

Ah, the common paranoia, where people are accused of actively destroying society to build up government, rather than building up government to deal with a changing society.

***

Taisho Baseball Girls was pretty fun, yes.

Damien Sullivan said...

Also, many of the previous comments completely confuse density with population *size*. Pre-car small towns can be very dense and certainly walkable. LA is a medium density big city, Phoenix a low density ones; they're not higher trust places than Manhattan.

Population turnover matters too; a small town or suburb with rapid replacement of the population isn't going to have the same bonds (or frictions) as one consisting mostly of families that grew up together.

But big dense cities are a lot more energy efficient, more creative, and their higher levels of crime seem to have been largely an artifact of lead poisoning from lead gas.

Thucydides said...

The key is population turnover and shared interests, a rapidly churning population is one where bonds are weak and transitory regardless of population density.

The higher density cities can hardly be called "energy efficient" when citizens in Toronto or Vancouver take 45 minutes plus each way to commute, in this respect the US is far ahead with "exurbs"; which combine suburban densities with the amenities that are normally in the core districts of cities for short commutes.

As for "paranoia", the arbitrary intrusions of politicians at the civic and Provincial levels to force developers to make high density developments at the expense of suburbs (or to thwart the sort of development that makes suburbs a pleasant place to live) are a fact of life. In Ontario, the laws of unintended consequences is weighing in; various malformed policies like MicroFIT, promotion of "locavours" and so on are driving homeowners to install solar panels and grow "victory gardens". This is amusing because these people are now less connected to the "grid" and less dependent on government in many respects, but these developments favour suburbanites, since city dwellers have far less access to unencumbered rooftops and land that can be turned into gardens.

To tie this into the theme of the thread, politics and economics are helping spread technologies that are disruptive of centralization, and the effects are to increase the numbers of people who are less dependent on the various "gatekeeping" functions of traditional business, economics and politics.

Damien Sullivan said...

Manhattan residents use 1/3 the energy of the average American.

Toronto and Vancouver aren't all that dense. As for 45 minutes:
http://sfb.nathanpachal.com/2011/08/commute-to-work-time-in-metro-vancouver.html
You see times like that... coming from the low density areas, and using transit, which is far more energy efficient than driving. The drivers take under 30 minutes.

And I think you badly misunderstand what exurbs are.

"As for "paranoia", the arbitrary intrusions of politicians at the civic and Provincial levels to force developers to make high density developments at the expense of suburbs"

I don't know Canadian urban politics. In the US it's entirely the other way: a thicket of laws make new high-density cities illegal. Zoning laws and parking requirements require low density, forbid pedestrian-friendly mixed usage, and subsidize car-centered lifestyles, as does the interstate highway system.

And I know at least parts of Canada have off-street parking requirements similar to those of the US, e.g. Ottawa requiring 10 spaces per 1000 sqft of a church, or Calgary for a billiard parlor, or Burnaby for an art gallery. For comparison, a parking lot uses 330 square feet per parking space, so providing 10 spaces per 1000 sqft of use means over 3/4 of the land is parking lot, unless multi-level garages are (expensively) built.

And I have followed Rob Ford and transit related Toronto politics, somewhat; suburbanites beleagured under urban planner attack is the exact opposite impression I've gotten. Toronto is no transit heaven, even if it compares favorably to much of the US.

Rick said...

Only just caught up with the more recent part of this thread!

I have little to contribute regarding Canadian urban politics, but due to my book I have sort of stumbled into gender politics.

My impression is that the challenge in the gender dispute is that the issues strike very close to home, so it is kinda hard to be cooly objective.

On the one hand, I am skeptical of arguments that Upper Paleolithic conditions favored sex roles effectively identical to the pop culture version of the 1950s.

On the other hand, we are not disembodied intelligences, but escapees (at least would-be) from the primate house.

Thom S said...

Escapees?

We never left...

Rick said...

Hence my proviso, 'at least would-be' ...

Thom S said...

A good proviso to keep in mind :)

In a sense, though, we are (as a species) the quintessential primate: omnivorous, intelligent, social, calculating and -in a pinch- ruthless.

One thing that is very un-primate about us, however: we're a cosmopolitan species rather than jungle specialists.

Damien Sullivan said...

"One thing that is very un-primate about us, however: we're a cosmopolitan species rather than jungle specialists."

Baboons aren't jungle specialists either. Ditto rhesus macaques -- apparently with the widest range of non-human primates -- and Japanese macaques aka snow monkeys. Vervets are another savannah monkey.

"Mandrills mostly live in tropical rainforests and forest-savanna mosaics."

So we might be unusual but far from unique in being non-jungle, plus all our extinct relatives, though we're unique among almost all species period in our global range.

Thom S said...

My fault: I should have said 'apes' instead of 'primates'.

Monkeys, our cousin clade, are most definitely cosmopolitan and were indeed on track to push the last of the apes out of history altogether before we showed up.

In other news: its looking more and more like sequential cloning, if not exactly a solved problem, is at least getting there. This is making plans to reintroduce extinct species (limited, for the moment, by available DNA and suitable surrogate mothers) look more and more plausible.

And we may need to, because its also looking global warming is going to exceed all the maximum projections - to the extent that a large chunk of the Arctic may become ice-free in the next hundred years or so. The future of history for the next millennium may now be dominated by an expansion (of people and ecosystems) into the polar regions.

Cordwainer said...

Both baboons and rhesus macaques live in both jungles and savannahs and baboons often compete with chimpanzees while bonobos are very cosmopolitan even more so then chimpanzees. I have a feeling early environmental factors had little bearing on human cosmopolitanism. It was probably more. The ability to acquire easy access to high calorie resources depending on whatever environment is the more likely the reason for are cosmopolitan behavior. In this regard a jungle to semi-aquatic to wet savannah to coastal and then global progression of evolution(aquatic ape theory) or a jungle to wet savannah to dry savannah to coastal to global progression would explain most of our biological differences from other hominins(plains ape theory). It just seems that the aquatic theory explains it better particularly when explaining differences between us and neanderthals and denisovans. I like to believe we have always been a "couch potato" species that used are intelligence to get our food with the minimum of effort and not the "Great Hunter of the Plains", leave that for the young and the bold the Neanderthals and Homo Erectus. Our habilis or ergaster ancestors along with archaic sapiens probably stayed where the hunting and gathering was easy and used technology to make it even easier they probably did travel away from such littoral zones to gather food and resources which would have necessitating better cooling via perspiration. Most likely though they were cursorial hunter and scavengers who stayed near a home base and not roving bands of gypsies like plains baboons. As for the "a species doesn't go back to the water or evolve adaptations twice" I would make the point that there are plenty of organisms in the past who have and that those ancestors who went back to a semi-aquatic or coastal gathering existence were already mostly modern in their physiology and were merely going where the eating was good. Plains Ape Theory has yet to provide the resource allocation theory necessary to explain all of the physiological differences we see all though it does expalin most of them in opinion. That they tend to see themselves as the pinnacle theory and don't even consider aquatic theory on equal footing while not having presented a sufficient theory to even start poking holes at aquatic theory seems to put them in a dubious standing in my opinion.

Thucydides said...

Thorm

The "average" temperature has remained constant for almost 15 years now, so the climate change alarmism seems to have been way off track.

Even if not, archeologists have been unearthing Viking farms on Greenland, and have charted the progression from croft farming with dairy cattle, to farming sheep and goats, to finally packing up and leaving Greenland. The interesting thing is the progression charts the gradual cooling of Greenland from 1100 to @ 1400, and even today Greenland is far too cold for croft farming. The climate was much warmer in the past with little or no archeological record of extreme weather, floods or anything else that are projected by climate alarmists.

People and animals will adapt like they did at the beginning and end of the Medieval Warm Period.

Thom S said...

Thucydides,

I'm not a climate scientist/ecologist, but as a scientist I have to take on faith that my colleagues know what they are talking about when they come to a conclusion. 98-odd percent of them are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a valid hypothesis. The IPCC fourth assessment was unambiguous on the matter. All the ecologists I know personally are long since over talking about 'if' and have moved on to dealing with the consequences 'when'.
So I think wondering about the effects of an Artic thaw is more than mere speculation at this point. That ecologies will change is pretty much a given.

As to Greenland - Jared Diamond covered the topic and basically came to the conclusion that ecological damage caused by Scandinavian farming practices (along with a strange reluctance to eat fish, which were abundant in the area) did as much as anything to make the colony fail. The cold is, at best, a secondary factor to the long-lasting effects of unintentional damage in an ecologically sensitive area.

As this is pretty much the sum of my knowledge on the topic, feel free to pick up the relevant book (Collapse, published by Penguin Books, ISBN-13 978-0-140-27951-1) for the full version of the argument.

Thom S said...

Cordwainer,

I actually didn't get to the end of your post - I start losing my ability to make out words when paragraphs get too large - but suffice it to say that baboons and rhesus macaques are both monkeys; so I take it that you agree with me there.

I have no opinion on the 'Aquatic' versus 'Plains' origin theory of hominids.

Cordwainer said...

Technically Baboons and Mandrills belong to same genus, while Rhesus monkey is another term for macaque who are all members of the Old World Monkeys or Catarrhines.

I'm know climatologist but I do find the latest alarmism a bit surprising since climate scientists are pretty much saying its too late to really stop temperatures from climbing to a level that many have already said was a point of no return. If they are right and the Earth goes through a mass extinction event due to the supposed rapidity of temperature changes being greater than what the Earth has ever experienced in the past and there is nothing we can do about it. If we reduce greenhouse gases we can stop the amount by which global temperatures will climb but not enough that it will matter. So if the recent findings are correct then short of environmental engineering we are screwed.

On the other hand they could be wrong or the effects of the projected climb in temperatures will not be as bad. I tend to agree with the actual projected climb in temperatures although I disagree as to whether some of the recent temperature climb is entirely due to anthropogenic sources.(I think about 2 to 3 degrees can be accounted for by solar insolation) Where I disagree is with the alarmists who think that this will necessarily cause a global catastrophe or massive extinction event. One the idea that rapid temperature swings like this have not happened is most likely has happened, findings are not exactly clear on the earliest "Big Five" the Ordovician,Devonian and Permian events are still not fully explained and difficult to determine what role temperature changes played, needless to say life on earth survived those events. Also one could make the claim that the effects of the Anthropocene itself has already produced an evolutionary event similar to a minor extinction event. It is unlikely in my opinion that anthropegenic warming will cause anywhere near the damage that alarmists claim. While an anoxic ocean event might occur we have had several of those and sea life rebounded from those rather rapidly. Lower life forms have a tendency to evolve and fit new niches in new or challenging environments within only a few generations in some cases so most marine life would be safe. Although baleen cetaceans might have a problem, I have a feeling non-krill eating cetaceans and pinnipeds will only have there numbers greatly reduced. Corals have showed surprising tenacity during periods of even higher sea-level temperature rises, the mechanisms for this are not yet really understood but findings on some recent "invasive" coral species could illuminate them. Land life probably won't be altered that much since those ecosystems have become largely homogenized due to human changes to the environment going even farther back then the industrial age. Some animals will go extinct but the vast majority will either migrate or adapt. Humans with their vast cultural and infrastructural demands though will be less likely to abandon there farms, homelands or nations then other animal and plant species but our ability to use technology and cooperate with one another will no doubt limit the suffering that might occur.
The biggest issue will be maintaining the agricultural centers of the world and the "pauper states" of Europe and Asia that maybe financially well off but agriculturally and territorially impaired.

Cordwainer said...

While I agree with most of Jared Diamond's work I do believe that recent studies found that warm waters in the Atlantic would have pushed fishing populations in the Atlantic to far East and in the Atlantic and far too North in the Straits between Canada and Greenland. While some fishing would have been possible during the early years of the settlement as agricultural practices destroyed the necessary materials for netting and basketry and shoals in the strait moved further NorthWest this might have been made things more difficult. Also they were terribly far away from Europe and the political situation in Denmark was largely on of ambivalence even Iceland was largely left to itself for nearly 200 years.

Damien Sullivan said...

Re Greenland: the "Medieval Warm Period" was likely a regional thing, not a global thing.

Thom S said...

Cordwainer,

I think you'll find that baboons technically belong to the same order, not genus. Big difference.

As for 'alarmists', the idea of global warming being a catastrophe is dependent on where you're sitting. For organisms in sensitive ecosystems it will be merely a continuation of a disaster that is already unfolding. Other systems will probably expand or contract without changing much in character.

Overall, my gut feeling is that we'll see a lot of disruption in ecosystems before they settle down into a new state. This is actually in some way normal, although the pace is much faster than usual. What will make it problematic for us as a species is that these systems work on timescales that we can't process very well.

It may well be that, in the blink of a geological eye, the reordering of the world's biosphere is over and a new normal established. Unfortunately for the people on the ground the 10 000 year period in which it happens will be a long, trying time.

As an optimist, I prefer to see the upside of the whole thing. Perhaps we'll finally let go of this whole 'nature there, people here' mentality and learn to integrate ecosystem management (or even design) into existing municipal thinking. Perhaps we'll get over trying to lock a fraction of a living system into some sort of artificial stasis via parks and preserves and instead get on with the job of understanding how to make these things tick in a fashion we are comfortable with.

Maybe we will finally own up to the fact that we're living in the anthropocene and begin to work out how to manage the world instead of simply live off it.

Cordwainer said...

Give the man a cigar the Mandrill, Drill and Papio "Baboon" are part of the order Cercopithecinae, my confusion. Who said the Medieval Warming Period or the Little Ice Age were a global phenomena I didn't inply antything of the sort, my post kind of got jumble I was trying to imply that some of the lack of fishing was the warm water fishes may have hugged the Canadian Coast and more Eastern and Southern regions during the later period of Viking settlement while colder adapted fishes may have stayed along south bearing currents lying in the Straits further from Greenland making provisioning of fish expeditions difficult. There is some evidence though that both events did effect ecosystems in China and the Indian subcontinent though. I do agree with you that sustainability is probably more important then maintaining islands of diversity, in fact it would make a lot of sense to create easier migration and connection routes between these islands in many cases. Connecting North Americas national parks while at the same time making farmers and ranchers part of conservation efforts would help preserve both genetic diversity and the future harvesting of these natural resources for our use and prosperity.

Jim Baerg said...

Thom S: "because its also looking global warming is going to exceed all the maximum projections - to the extent that a large chunk of the Arctic may become ice-free in the next hundred years or so. The future of history for the next millennium may now be dominated by an expansion (of people and ecosystems) into the polar regions."

Between this method for extracting CO2 from seawater (& so indirectly from the air)
http://bravenewclimate.com/2013/01/16/zero-emission-synfuel-from-seawater/
& this method for cooling the planet while we are working on getting the CO2 down
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/10/08/low-intensity-geoengineering-microbubbles-and-microspheres/
I see some real hope for us to not need to move to higher altitudes & latitudes

Anonymous said...

This is mufasa. Can't remeber my account password.
Nanotechnology is very much goibg somewhere, and it creeping into everyday life. Not as molecular machines, but more in the material sciences with coatings and Semiconductors. Great example is the new 3d transistor and memreaiators.