Apr 22, 2016
Stellar French SF magazine Bifrost is marking its 20th year in print. As part of the celebration, they're republishing highlights from their past issues, and have honoured me by choosing "The Dragon of Pripyat" as one of the reprints. You can find the retrospective issue on their website.
Jul 20, 2011
I commented on this issue back in 2003. SciAm has finally caught up
The August, 2011 issue of Scientific American has an article by George F.R. Ellis about whether we can prove that a multiverse exists. I did a double-take when I saw this, because it reminded me that back in 2003, SciAm had published an article by Max Tegmark claiming that it does exist. At the time I wrote this blog entry pointing out that Tegmark's article wasn't based on science at all, but was pure speculation. Nice to see somebody agrees with me.
Dec 01, 2008
The news lately is all about Enceladus--but Europa still holds surprises
The most recent Scientific American contains a paper on the possible ocean under Saturn's moon Enceladus. This is really cool news and well worth investigating further. Europa, however, is still where the action is. I've resurrected a year-and-a-half old blog entry from my old site that tells of some particularly spectacular possibilities:
A recent paper suggests
if that Jupiter's moon Europa does have a subsurface ocean, then that
ocean is probably highly oxygenated--i.e., breathable by terrestrial
To quote the article's tantalizing abstract:
...Europa's ocean could reach O2 concentrations comparable to those found in terrestrial surface waters, even if 109 moles yr1 of hydrothermally delivered reductants consume most of the oxidant flux. Such an ocean would be energetically hospitable for terrestrial marine macrofauna. The availability of reductants could be the limiting factor for biologically useful chemical energy on Europa.
To translate: macrofauna=fish, and reductants=food. Current theory suggests that Europa's internal heat comes from the flexing of the planet due to its gravitational interactions with Jupiter and the other moons. This flexing may create enough heat in the moon's core to drive volcanic processes, creating the equivalent to the "black smokers" that pepper the mid-Atlantic ridge on Earth. Scientists have speculated that these vents might support some sort of life, but while they constitute a potential nutrient source, an energy source has been lacking. This paper suggests that energy, in the form of oxygen, might be common.
The mechanism for creating that oxygen appears to be radiation from Jupiter's radiation belts. When substances such as sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide land on Europa, they sit there and get fried for very long periods. The broken molecules produce Europa's atmosphere, which is pure oxygen. Eventually, the surface ice subducts like a terrestrial continent, pulling the now-split oxygen and carbon et. down and into the ocean. According to the article, at currently projected infall rates, even if a huge amount of that oxygen is immediately bound up with non-biological molecules coming up from below, the total amount available should be comparable to the surface of Earth's oceans.
If this is right, and there really is an ocean, and there really are venting processes at work in the deep, then Europa is habitable now--but not necessarily for us. Consider these mitigating factors:
- It's a salty ocean--but it's Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) rather than our kind of salt. It may also be really salty (think thick soup), in which case only the most extreme halophile bacteria could survive there.
- There could well be other substances, common to the outer planets, saturating the ocean--such as ammonia. Imagine a sea of Windex.
- Pressure. I've seen no calculations of how much pressure should be crushing down on this sea. But even on a small moon, an ocean under 30 kilometers of ice should have mighty powerful forces compressing it. The ice could be as thin as 800 meters, but we just don't know.
Still--none of these factors makes large, native Europan life forms impossible. And even if the ocean is sterile, in the best case, we might be able to engineer terrestrial fish to withstand a lifelong Epsom salt bath, and populate it ourselves. If the pressure allows, we could dig domes into the ice ceiling and pump them full of nitrogen, and let the oxygen percolate up from below. I used all these ideas in my 2002 novel Permanence, to show what habitable worlds around brown dwarf stars might look like.
All of this makes a Europan mission increasingly important. After all, it may be small, but it's a whole world, and potentially a shirt-sleeve environment for humans. Stocked with fish and other organisms to provide a full food chain, Europa may, shockingly, prove to be a world we can terraform and live on indefinitely (unlike Earth, Europa might even survive the death of the sun). It's definitely worth finding out whether all of that is possible.
Apr 28, 2008
Another in my series of retro replays... an entry from my now-defunct Age of Embodiment blog
I've been thinking again about the idea that we need a web application that contrasts the daily content of our newsfeeds with aggregated statistics pertaining to the news's topics. For instance, we're inundated with news items about violence and crime, while in fact most forms of crime have been dropping (at least in Canada) for several decades. People perceive that the world is getting steadily worse, where in fact by most measures (such as democracy, literacy, childhood mortality etc.) globally things are getting better. I should have proposed such an application at the recent SciBarCamp; in any case, it reminded me of the following blog entry I wrote into Age of Embodiment a couple of years back.
There's an interesting article by Craig Lambert at Harvard Magazine, called The Marketplace of Perceptions. Lambert examines the (relatively) new science of behavioral economics, which is predicated on the now-obvious idea that when making economic decisions, human beings are not rational actors. It turns out, in fact, that our decisions--even life-changing ones--are influenced by a host of completely non-rational quirks of human nature. Taking these quirks into account is essential for accurately modeling human economic activity.
In the context of this weblog, the idea of behavioral economics is simply another instance of theory-driven practices being replaced by empirically-derived ones. The assumption that humans act rationally in economic exchanges rests on a piece of 17th-century metaphysics: namely, the idea of the "rational mind" which maximizes benefits and minimizes risks. Humans were supposed to possess such minds (which were, of course, constantly battling against the irrational subconscious and evil desires for instant gratification). And you could misinterpret behavioral economics and related disciplines as being extensions of classical economics that take into account the presence of the irrational mind and human lusts. This would be a mistake.
At stake is actually the idea of the rational actor itself. As a metaphysical entity disconnected from the actual, physical world, the rational actor perpetuates the separation of those qualities we consider human from those we consider animalistic, base, and 'merely' physical. We may want that candy, but the rational mind, safe in its aloof tower, can command us not to take it.
What behavioral economists are showing is not that our rational decision-making processes are frequently interrupted or circumvented by irrational decisions, but that the rational actor doesn't exist. What do exist are multiple competing agendas inside each human being, some of which have been labeled as rational in the past, but none of which has primacy over the others.
Which doesn't mean we're doomed--quite the contrary. Knowing how we actually work when we make economic (and political) decisions is the first step to learning to actually control ourselves. In the case of economics, it starts with recognizing that regardless of how we style ourselves as the heirs of a rationalist tradition, we make decisions using a cognitive apparatus that was designed to maximize short-term benefits for hunter-gatherers.
The Harvard artitle talks about the implications this new science has for policy makers and people designing public programs. But what about the implications for the individual? After all, we're the ones who are going to be controlled to an increasingly accurate degree by those programs. We should have some ability to monitor the process.
This is where the open-source community can help. What we need is an application that uses a combination of software tools and the aggregation of human responses to analyze our inputs--the news stories, ads, and ideas that are presented to us, the information consumers, every day. Think of it as Slashdot-for-subliminal-advertising. It might work like this: I turn my browser to the CNN home page. The page pops up in the main pane of the window, but along the side of the browser, a list of biases is recorded--the assumptions and agendas that have been read off the home page by the app. As well as a list of probable responses people will have (in terms of buying patterns or voting patterns, say) to the various major news items.
It's time our unconscious minds started reporting to us in terms that our conscious minds can use. As behavioral economics progresses, I hope people in the online community will keep up--and develop tools that let the individual participate in the process of controlling his or herself.
Jan 29, 2008
First in a series of recycled blog posts from years past
All my old posts are archived, but they're not exactly easy to hunt through. There's some stuff in there that I'm really fond of, though; so I'm going to periodically re-present these gems as part of my Retro Replays series. Starting with one of the best:
Ah, the naive influences of my youth...
When I was a kid my dad had several boxes of old Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics magazines, dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. So, almost before I could read, I was eagerly looking over the illustrations of articles like the following:
Like many of the articles, "Flying Saucers for Everybody
(Mechanix Illustrated, March, 1957) was written by a Mr. Frank Tinsley,
who as it turns out was a frequent and enthusiastic contributor of SF
to magazines such as Amazing Stories. I believe he was also an
illustrator who did some work on the Tom Swift books. One Mechanix
Illustrated article that I fondly remember was the (partly prescient,
partly off-base) article "Fortress on a Skyhook" (MI, April, 1949).
Part of the illustration is reproduced below:
The article claimed that the U.S. Defense Department was seriously considering space-based nuclear-missile platforms. Tinsley included detailed sketches of a method for what we would now call heavy-lift launching of prefab space station components. Of course, the rockets in question had that perfect, curved V2 profile to them. Just the thing to set a kid's imagination going.
The funny thing about these articles is that they came to me out of what was, for a young boy, an unimaginably distant past. They were visions of the future that hadn't happened--that had already become overgrown, and now lay steeped in dust in basement boxes. I suppose knowing this gave me a somewhat jaundiced view of technological development, which the Apollo project briefly succeeded in wiping away.
Most of Tinsley's ideas were vaguely workable; some were positively Utopian. Not all of the articles I grew up with were believable, though. Some were nightmarish, and some, like the one I'll leave you with below, were ludicrous and painful at the same time, even to us in the unenlightened sixties.
This article was entitled "Can we ATOMIZE the ARCTIC?" Tinsley didn't write this one; it was penned by a Wallace W. Ashley and Elmer V. Swan. According to them, Professor Julian Huxley had proposed the idea of using nuclear bombs to melt the polar ice caps. This would moderate our northern climate, eliminating pesky cold snaps and opening up shipping across the top of the world.
My scans below don't do justice to the two-page spread that begins the article. On the left we see a full-page illo of nukes shattering the ice caps. As your eye pans right across the page, the sky becomes filled with a radiant glow (presumably the permanent background radiation that will keep the arctic comfortably warm for its new inhabitants) while basking under it is a new urban Center of Commerce.
Left-page panel: nuking the whales, er, icebergs.
Right page partial-panel: the radioactive sky.
Of course, this was published in May, 1946 (in Mechanix Illustrated, natch). Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just happened when the article was commissioned; let's hope the authors and editors hoped to inspire a more peaceful use of nuclear power than that which they had just witnessed.
To me though, this and the other articles formed an indelible early lesson: that the future goes obsolete faster than just about anything.
P.S.: If you like this sort of thing, you should visit the A.C. Radebaugh site, The Future We Were Promised, which is absolutely wonderful.P.P.S:
As a bonus, here's another image from the "Fortress on a Skyhook" article, for your viewing pleasure: