Dec 28, 2011
My occasional game of speculation about how best to fund the future
I've played this game before--and I will again. I find it clears the mind wonderfully to wonder what you'd do for the world if you had a billion dollars to spend. Build a secret volcanic island lair? Check. Cure necrotizing phlombosis? Check. Oh, there's all kinds of stuff you could do.
--There's one rule, though: whatever you spend your billion on, it has to be something nobody else is doing--and something that's worthwhile in a completely game-changing way.
After all, in today's market a billion dollars will get you a few miles of subway, or a new sports stadium. Yay. But it can get you so much more, as Elon Musk has demonstrated with his reinvention of the space launch business (and he hasn't spent more than a fifth of a billion on that). In fact, a billion is enough to solve more than one problem, if it's properly distributed.
I play this game regularly because the world keeps changing, and what's important keeps changing. Some items remain from previous lists; some are new. Here's today's list:
- $200 million to studying and developing new systems of governance. --No, I don't mean e-voting, or even e-democracy. I'm talking about a systematic study of how humans govern themselves, and how our cognitive biases and interactions at different scales scuttle effective problem-solving among groups. Think this is fringe science? I happen to think it's the most important problem in the world, the only one that counts. Because if we reinvented governance (on the level of individual self-control and choice, on the level of small-group interactions, and all the way up to how millions of people make collective decisions) then every other problem facing us now would become tractable. So I'd be exploring cognitive science, promise theory, structured dialogic design and a lot else besides. $200 is really far too little to spend on this, but it's a start.
- $200 million to develop efficient and economical carbon air capture and sequestration. Carbon air capture is the only potentially feasible method of returning Earth's atmospheric CO2 balance to pre-industrial levels in less than a hundred years. Emissions controls won't do it, neither will renewable energy, or even the complete disappearance of human civilization. The CO2's there. It has to actually be removed from the atmosphere. Currently, far less than $1 million is spent per year on how to do this. And that's just crazy.
- $200 million to develop a microwave space launch system. --Again, this sounds wacky. But the physical resources of the solar system are effectively infinite; and the world looks like a very different place if you play the game of imagining that access to space was really cheap. All sorts of currently impossible problems fall like dominoes if it costs as little to get to space as it does to fly across the Atlantic. And, in space development, there is only one problem, and that's the cost of going the first 100 miles. Literally every other issue becomes tractable if you solve that one. So let's stop dicking around with incredibly expensive launch systems and solve it. (Why microwave launch and not laser launch? Because microwaves are more energy efficient, and can be done now; and because I think laser launch is a political non-starter, because accidental or deliberate straying of a laser launch beam could blind or fry anything in the sky, including airliners or other nations' satellites.)
- $200 million to finally realize the dream of nuclear fusion energy. We are that close. Most of the money would be divided up between the chronically-underfunded research projects that are getting close: IEC fusion, magnetized-target fusion, and several others. I'd fund General Fusion's steampunk pneumatic-fusion system, for instance. But I'd also fund one method that nobody's trying right now, but may be the best of all: levitating dipole fusion.
- $200 million to prototype the business models, supply chains and build a first-generation Vertical Farm. Because sane governance, free energy, a solution to global warming and unlimited material resources aren't enough if half the planet's starving, which will be the case in forty years if we don't act now. This one seems like a no-brainer, if it can be properly optimized.
An odd set of priorities? But, what if they all worked? Simultaneous breakthroughs in energy, resource access including food, removal of the threat of global warming, remediation of the natural environment destroyed by intensive agrivulture and, most importantly, a Renaissance in collective problem-solving would literally mean the world to us.
The point of all this should be clear. Even in a global recession, money's not the scarce commodity. Audacity is.
What can you do with a billion dollars?
You can build a new sports stadium.
Or, maybe, you can save the world.
Jan 30, 2010
You might have noticed something about my site has changed
On January 29, 2010, Amazon.com removed all my books from sale on their online store. I wasn't singled out for persecution; all of my peers who publish at Tor Books, and indeed all authors associated with MacMillan Publishing, had their Amazon.com pages killed. (You can still see the pages, but you can't buy anything.)
Up until yesterday, I linked from this website to Amazon, as a matter of convenience for fans who might want to buy my books after browsing these pages. Granted the sheer arbitrariness, pettiness, and anticompetitive nature of the sudden price war between Amazon and MacMillan, I have removed all purchasing links to Amazon from my site, and will not be re-linking even if they restore the frozen pages.
This type of action holds authors and readers hostage to a commercial war between publishing giants. It puts a lie to the idea that we can choose where to buy books in a free marketplace, because this kind of strong-arm tactic is likely just the beginning. Things are turning nasty in the book world, and it's authors and readers who stand to lose the most.
Apr 16, 2009
Lighting the fuse and running away
Solaren corporation has signed a deal with Pacific Gas & Electric to orbit a 200 megawatt solar power satellite by 2016. I mention this not because the news is amazing (it was inevitable, really) but because their plan gives me some nice numbers to plug into my Verne gun calculations.
You might remember my enthusiasm over Next Big Future's recent discussion of Project Orion and the spinoff notion of using nuclear bombs to loft very large payloads into space (wheeee!). I called this idea the Verne gun in a feeble public relations attempt. Anyway, Brian Wang's calculations over at NBF gave a figure of 280,000 tons as the lift-capacity of a single 10-megaton bomb. At the time, I suggested using ten or so of these suckers to lift an entire continental powersat infrastructure into space. But I didn't have hard numbers about how much mass equaled how much power.
Solaren have conveniently stated that their 200 megawatt, self-assembling power transmitter could go up in five launches of 25 tons each. Solar power satellites are far more efficient per-solar-cell than ground-based plants, so they have a much smaller industrial footprint and almost no environmental footprint at all. They run 24 hours a day. So that means that the engineers at Solaren can do 200 megawatts of baseline power with 125 tons orbited. To put it another way:
1 gigawatt baseline power = 625 orbited tons
Launching this much mass using conventional rockets is expensive, but obviously not entirely out of line, or they wouldn't be doing it. But, here's a question: how much baseline power (97% uptime) could be orbited using a 10 megaton Verne shot? The answer: 448 gigawatts.
The United States currently uses 4 terawatts of power per year. About half of that is coal. So four firings of the Verne gun could orbit enough power to obsolete the entire American coal-power system.
The big problem wouldn't be radiation from the launches (which would be effectively zero) but the astronomical insurance costs attendant on putting so many eggs in one launch basket. Maybe a few dozen 100 kiloton shots would be better...
Mar 04, 2009
Kickstarting the REAL space age
Recently I talked about one of my favourite blogs, Brian Wang's Next Big Future. He and his team are a veritable fountain of ideas, and this week they've outdone themselves with a series of pieces on Project Orion and its offshoots. Now, I freely admit that they've done all the heavy lifting here (so to speak) but I'm going to take one of their ideas and run with it anyway.
A couple of the salient posts on Project Orion are The Nuclear Orion Home Run Shot, and Pieces of a True Nuclear Cannon. Now, Orion was the 1950s-era American project to build a nuclear-bomb powered spacecraft. Three facts stand out about the project:
- It could have worked, and would have put unlimited amounts of mass into space for less than $1 a kilo.
- The biggest vessel contemplated by the Orion team would have weighed 8 million tonnes, and would have been bigger than the Great Pyramid.
- The sucker wouldn't have incinerated, flattened, and irradiated nearly as much real estate as you might think.
Still, for some reason the project was canceled around 1964.
In contemplating the glory that almost was, it's tempting to imagine what could have been accomplished with Orion. One thought I had was that, well, maybe you could just use it once: do the full-out 8-million tonne monster and use it to launch, in one shot, enough solar satellite infrastructure to obsolete every North American coal plant overnight. According to a rational moral calculus, if Orion works it should be used in such a way, because the number of people who would die worldwide from the beast's fallout would be trivial compared to the number saved by reductions in air pollution from coal. (Three million people die from air pollution each year; what they point out over at Next Big Future is that Orion could be calibrated to limit its fallout deaths to no more than a few dozen per launch, even for the biggest ship).
Still, there would be some place on Earth that would suffer from such a launch, and one thing we've learned is there is no truly "empty" land. Even if our moral calculus could be extended to other species that would be saved by greening our power, it would be better if there were some way to launch such huge masses without exposing the biosphere to nuclear explosions and fallout at all.
There is. I call it the Verne gun because frankly, a name like THE ATOMIC CANNON would just not go over well in certain circles. In any case, the principle is the same as Verne's original idea, but using modern technology: you set off a nuclear charge underground where the blast, heat, radiation and fallout can all be contained, and use Orion-type technology to direct its energy into orbiting a very big, very heavy spacecraft. This vessel would experience hundreds to thousands of g's of acceleration--you couldn't put humans in it. But Wang calculates that a 10 megaton bomb could put 280,000 tons into orbit with zero radiation escape into the biosphere. Since dozens of bombs were exploded in exactly this way from the 50's to the 70's, we know this can be done. And Orion's researchers proved nearly every one of their theories about Orion. What they couldn't test at the time can now be simulated accurately by today's supercomputers, without the need for a test program.
Such an orbital gun could be used multiple times. Here's what you could do if you could put 280,000 tons into orbit in one shot:
- Put 1.5 terawatts of clean solar power into orbit with less than ten launches. Obsolete coal and petroleum power production with green baseline power, using less than a 10th the number of solar cells as you'd have to install on Earth to capture the same amount of sunlight.
- Orbit an entire space elevator with one launch. Set it up, retire the gun, and get on with a clean space age.
- Do the same thing with an orbiting greenhouse infrastructure. Drop solar-powered mass drivers on the moon to feed a continual stream of building material to the building sites.
- Orbit fuel depots to drop the price of conventional rocketry to orbit through the floor. One shot and access to space for NASA becomes 10 times cheaper.
- Send up a telescope so big that it can image the continents of planets circling other stars.
- Put up one or more of those cool gigantic orbiting space station wheels that are showcased so dramatically in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Send an entire colony's worth of material to the moon or Mars. With a second shot, put up an interplanetary cycler ring, tether launch system or other permanent mechanism for shuttling people to and from the colonies.
- Toss a couple hundred thousand tons of nuclear waste into the sun, where it won't bother us anymore. (Trust me, the sun won't notice.)
- Launch an empty Orion ship, send its fuel up the safer space elevator, and send an expedition to Saturn, or a probe to the next star.
I'm not going to suggest orbiting a sunshade to head off global warming, because that's no solution for problems like ocean acidification. --In any case, you can certainly think up other cool stuff we could do; and notice that some of these options, like orbiting fuel depots or a space elevator, can easily bootstrap us out of having to use the gun more than once or twice.
Oh, and of course, there's one more thing you could do with it, but since you'd need to get signoff from all the members of the nuclear club to use it at all, this one's a bit less likely:
- Orbit a huge frikkin death star platform with ATOMIC LASERS and MISSILE RACKS and RAIL GUNS and aim them at anybody you don't like.
Aug 21, 2008
Oh dear lord, let me not be next...
If you haven't seen this, you owe it to yourself to discover Wil Wheaton's reaction to John Scalzi's prank of the century. The man is in a league of his own, seriously. I now regret that John knows who I am, because that means I'm, you know, potentially on his list.