Saturday, September 21, 2019

Updates from space - and beyond

As I head off to Nashville and Huntsville for NASA (NIAC) symposia, let's all remember how cool it is that our species and civilization is exploring, even as we thrash out other matters of deep concern. And so...
Here's a nice video on the bio experiments being carried by Dragon to the ISS. I am involved (at a minor but honorable level) in the last one, having contributed a concept or two.
Saddened by the loss of communication with India's Vikram moon lander - but their lunar orbiter has spotted the lander on the lunar surface. It may be in one piece after a 'hard landing.'
NASA is inviting students to help name the next rover to Mars: Mars 2020.
== and beyond ==

Teegarden’s star is a relatively quiet, ultra-cool star, only 12 light-years away and 10% the mass of the sun; it’s the 24th closest star to the Sun. Scientists have discovered a pair of temperate, Earth-sized exoplanet candidates in orbit and one of its planets may be similar  to Earth. Discovered via the Doppler method which lets us find planets that aren’t fortuitously in ecliptic planes perfectly aligned toward us. Remember that these red dwarf stars have problems of their own.

Really cool animation of a black hole only 9x the mass of our sun, gradually devouring a red giant companion while whirling fast enough to drag spacetime and with magnetic fields that shoot pulsing jets. What a time to live.

And buckeyballs (C60 Buckminsterfullerene) detected in deep space.

Stellar streams are lines of stars moving together across galaxies, often remnants of a "globular cluster" that plunged into the Milky Way - stretched out in a long line across our sky. One of them appears to show a gap where something immense may have passed through the stream disrupting it. Failing to find any candidate, an astronomer suggests maybe it was a dense clump of dark matter.

TMO interviews my associate Andrew Friedman about how science fiction inspired him as a youth to become a cosmologist. They then get into some cool topics of cosmology: using Type Ia supernovae to measure the rate of expansion of the universe, why infrared observations of those stars are helpful, whether quantum entanglement suggests a substrate on which spacetime resides, the multiverse, and the implications of the Planck length and Higgs field for our very existence.

Visit the ESA Hubble site to access high resolution versions of the image and get lost in the sheer number of galaxies on display in the Hubble Legacy Field, a swathe of sky as bit as the moon that has been probed at depth with 7500 exposures, letting you see 265,000 galaxies reaching back across 13.3 billion years. Speaking of Hubble images… NGC2903 is a very photogenic spiral galaxy.

A supernova about 123 light-years away from Earth about 2.6 million years ago, about the dawn of the Pleistocene epoch, may have so ionized our atmosphere that lightning burned forests in eastern Africa into grasslands, spurring human ancestors to rise onto two legs. Well. An idea. Though in fact the first evidence for bipedalism in ancient humans dates to approximately 7 million years ago, and the transition to full bipedalism was well underway by around 4.4 million years ago. Still, mapping our past supernova encounters is a valuable quest.

new evaluation of data from the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission indicates that many of the known planets may contain as much as 50% water. This is much more than the Earth's 0.02% (by weight) water content.”…. “Scientists have found that many of the 4000 confirmed or candidate exoplanets discovered so far fall into two size categories: those with the planetary radius averaging around 1.5 that of the Earth, and those averaging around 2.5 times the radius of the Earth.”

Now a new model indicates that those exoplanets which have a radius of around x1.5 Earth radius tend to be rocky planets (of typically x5 the mass of the Earth), “while those with a radius of x2.5 Earth radius (with a mass around x10 that of the Earth) are probably water worlds…” …but with very hot, steamy atmospheres. It’s unclear whether organic chemistry would work well in such steamy hothouses. (Oh, without continents, it might be hard to strike a Gaia-style temperature balance. And with only small continents you'll not get fire-using sapients. My water-world hypothesis for the Fermi Paradox.)

== Weirdness abounds ==

We’re beginning to get used to bizarre notions from quantum mechanics, even if we don’t understand them. So, how do entangled particles transcend the space-time gulf separating them? Perhaps the answer is they don’t have to — because entanglement doesn’t happen in space-time. Entanglement creates space-time.

For the latest updates on the supreme oddities of space-time entanglement, see Sean Carroll's new book: Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has spotted an unusual symbol on the surface of Mars — the iconic "Star Trek" Starfleet logo.

MRO also spotted a recent/fresh impact crater that exposed a bluish – possibly icy – surface under all the red dust

The latest data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft suggests that methane lakes on Titan may result from explosions of warming nitrogen on the moon's crust.

== But I can get weirder ==

I’ve touted the visionary speculative-science videos of Isaac Arthur several times. He’ll take you on tours of super-tech concepts from beanstalk elevators and orbital rings to living at the edges of a black hole… or (here’s a link) using black holes as weapons. Mind-blowing sci fi stuff. And in the most recent posting, he gets around – at the end – to citing my novel EARTH, as both his recommended reading of the month and for – well – doing a lot of SFnal speculating about various kinds of Weaponized black holes.

Alas, while folks have often commented on the way I initially use black holes as metaphors for an Earth in peril, I’ve seen hardly anyone remark on what I deem one of the most creative elements in the book (setting aside showing web pages before the web and proliferation of cheap digicams and privacy issues and global warming and all those other things). 

That’s the concept of the gravity laser or gazer. It’s based on the simple fact that if you have two mirrors on both sides of an energized medium that can radiate, well, the particular ray traced exactly between the mirrors can self-reinforce and become an amplified beam; the essence of a laser.

 I extrapolated that a micro black hole might resonantly act as a kind of mirror for gravity radiation. And hence two of them, arrayed on either side of the Earth’s hot and vibrating core… 

...well, I’d say ‘you get the picture,’ and you will, when you read the novel. Alas, except for rubbing their chins and saying “interesting,” I’ve seen no commitment from the best physicists, yea or nay! Even though it is at least conceivably a gravity amplification/manipulation method within reach of a mere Kardashev Type I civilization.

And weirdly beautiful… Hubble’s latest ultraviolet images of the exploded binary star Eta Carinae is stunning, amazing and enlightening.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Oath-breaking and an amazing line from the Declaration of Independence

== An amazing item in the Declaration of Independence ==

We keep hearing whines from neo-confederates that it was oppression to keep the Union together by force and that secession was about states' rightsI demolish the latter point devastatingly here. (Bands of irregular Southern cavalry went on merciless, unprovoked raids, shredding northern states from 1852-1860, radicalizing them -- much as the treason spread by Fox News is radicalizing us in the saner majority, today.)  

But let's focus on that oppression part. The Jefferson-authored U.S. Declaration of Independence (USDI ) makes clear that states and people can ethically separate themselves from a no-longer tolerable union with more-dominant others, even if that means breaking solemn oaths. But the Declaration also emphatically demands that such oath-breaking bear a steep burden of justification, by strong grievances and repeated, blanket refusal by the dominators to discuss redress. 

You don't break solemn oaths unless the entity you swore loyalty to refuses to negotiate in good faith. Or no honorable person does.

I recently examined a 1778 copy of the USDI on the wall of my kind bibliophile hosts in DC, the Adamses. There I discovered something interesting, which I'll relate below. But the essential lesson is that the Confederate secessionists of 1860-61 styled their declarations as following Jefferson's mold, when they were diametrically opposite! 

Actually read the secession documents of South Carolina etc., filled with whines and yowls about how northern states refused to crush free speech or suppress abolitionist newspapers and were conspiring to limit the spread of sacred slavery across the Americas. And yes, "slavery" is touted glowingly and explicitly 37 times in the SC document. So yes, it was all about slavery.

But key is this: Jefferson's document describes relentless efforts by British Americans, sending delegations to negotiate with King and Parliament. Ben Franklin tried for close to a decade, to no avail. 

In contrast, the 1860s secessionists broke their solemn oaths (and yes, they had sworn loyalty to 'The United States' vastly more often, across previous years, than ever to their home states) without sending a single delegation to talk to the incoming President-elect Abraham Lincoln. 

Not a single delegation. Not one.

In other words, there is no evasion of the pure fact that their grievances were either imaginary or downright evil... and they broke their solemn oaths without a scintilla of honorable intent or behavior. 

That makes them traitors, pure and simple. And what their heirs are achieving now, with treasonous betrayal of the U.S. to foreign despots, gambling moguls, petro-sheiks and mafiosi, is something a long time coming.  21st Century Americans need to remember this fact.

== An amazing snippet in the Declaration of Independence ==

Now for that amazing thing I saw, among the listed indictments against King and Parliament, in the USDI. Take a look at this:

"He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.'

Yipe! Read that again!

Yes, there are also clauses that indigenous peoples might object to. I've spoken elsewhere about how our hard and painful journey - expanding horizons of inclusion - was only just beginning, back then. Nevertheless, this one above is rich in irony, and I wonder if anyone has mentioned it.

As for states' rights... what malarkey! The South owned and operated the federal government from 1830-1860 and used it as a bludgeon against northern peoples, radicalizing them till they voted for Lincoln, something that would have been impossible just a few years earlier. And it led to the hottest (so far) phase of our ongoing, 250 year Civil War.

== A Big-Bold Book of Best-of-Brin Blogs? ==

By popular demand, I am creating a quick e-book that merges together many of my political postings under the following title:

By David Brin 

An Impudent Guide for Sane Americans to Charge Past
 Trench Warfare in Our Life or Death Struggle for Civilization

Next time, I may post the table of contents. Avidly vigorous pre-readers are already at work.

== And finally... ==

Draw your own conclusions about what this map tells us about regional capabilities at self-control. Then try looking up state by state comparisons of teen sex rates, teen births, abortions, STDs, divorce*, gambling, drug addiction, domestic violence and every other solid metric of the "morality" that Red America has screamed they have so much more of, for my entire lifetime. Oh and over-reliance on federal assistance and largesse from the blue states they so ungratefully despise.

It would be SO wrong of me to even raise any of that... if we had not already been warred upon endlessly and with increasing venom, including volcanic rage against every fact-centered profession... including scientists, journalists, teachers, doctors, law professionals, professors... and above all the civil servants and Intel/FBI/military officers in the so-called "deep state," who have striven mightily to limit the damage, ever since Vladimir Putin and his assets took Washington D.C.


* The divorce rate among GOP politicians is easily twice that of democrats. (Bets?) At the top, the ratio is infinite. Twelve marriages among just Reagan, Hastert, Gingrich, McConnell, Trump, all of them topmost leaders of the GOP…
And now? Rudy Guiliani's estranged wife must have been the last to figure this out:“I feel betrayed by a man that I supported in every way for more than 20 years,” Mrs. Giuliani said in an interview. “I’m sad to know that the hero of 9/11 has become a liar.”

Friday, September 06, 2019

Science fiction: Predictions, passages & policy

Is it important to have a literature that contemplates change? Changing values. Changing social classes. Changing technology or gender roles or relationships? In a talk presented at the Hannah Arendt Center of Bard College, I argued the merits, e.g. whether or not science fiction best represents the  human condition, a condition that is always in flux as we remake ourselves… and then our children do the same thing… by doing everything differently.

I am often asked about real world applications of science fiction. Here’s a list of items, having to do with science, society and speculative culture. I’ve mentioned many of them before. A few are of such value that you might be a real asset!  Yes, you.

1) UCSD's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, where the sciences and arts come together to explore humanity's most unique gift.

2) The Clarke Center has a project. The TASAT site - for “There’s A Story About That” - offers a way to connect serious contemporary dilemmas with science fictional tales that just might be pertinent, from across the last 75 years. There are plausible ways that this project might someday save us all! See my explanation of the endeavor

3) The new Journal of Science & Popular Culture, issue #1, features an essay of mine. It fills a niche that could interest a few of you.

4) A project in which I played no part.  Scifi Policy, based in the Washington, DC, area, is a small, volunteer team, that “thinks big things can come from the intersection of policy and visions of what tomorrow may bring, aiming to create a field of ‘Science Fiction Policy Studies.’” See their explanation: Tools for Inserting Science Fiction into Policy.

5) This data dump wouldn’t be complete without mentioning ventures in using science fiction gedankenexperiment/scenarios for ‘commercial purposes’:

- The Scout Project is run by my friends the Andersons who put out the Strategic News Service newsletter and the FiRe Conferences.  

- Kaspersky Labs in Moscow is trying to do something similar-- vivid if also a bit weird -- on their site Earth 2050.  See my predictions there describing An Underwater City and The Future of Morocco, among others.

6) My own consultations include being on the advisory council of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program (NIAC).   

Regarding AI: This Reuters interview conveys – in a very brief space -- important concepts ignored by most AI researchers. 

7) Largely defunct, SIGMA was an effort to create an organized consulting group of science fiction authors for US defense purposes: 

== SF’nal News ==

This video on “What will the monkeys do?" is a must see, channeling from several sources of wisdom, including Rudyard Kipling’s great poem “If.” It’s a great caution, and an inspiring call.

New by Patrick Coleman – program director at UCSD's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination – just released novel, The Churchgoer, “a haunting debut literary noir about a former pastor’s search to find a missing woman in the toxic, contradictory underbelly of southern California."

Deserving mention under both “science” and “scifi”: New research in biomechanics suggests that young people are developing hornlike spikes at the back of their skulls — bone spurs that are caused (we’re told) by the forward tilt of the head, which shifts weight from the spine to the muscles at the back of the head, causing bone growth in the connecting tendons and ligaments. The weight transfer that causes the buildup can be compared to the way the skin thickens into a callus as a response to pressure or abrasion. But… but do we see this in the skulls of medieval scribes, bent over their copying desks? Many kinds of factory-assembly workers? Alternate theories - an antenna for control by AI or aliens? A port for plug-in augmentations? Or is it a sign of humans being replaced, as in my story “Detritus Affected”?

Moses was said to have had “horns” – though better translated as “lamps” – on his brows. From over-use of the prefrontal lobes? It’s got me palpating both places

Followup, see Jiayang Fan’s fascinating article on Remembrance of Earth’s Past, Liu Cixin’s epic trilogy and on the future and the rise of science fiction in China – and across the world.  

And these Science fiction adaptations are in development: We're going to see "Sirens of Titan", "Foundation", "Consider Phlebas", and "Ringworld" TV series shortly. It will be interesting to see what effect real SF will have on pop culture. It's like swapping out the bubble gum for caviar. Sirens of Titan? Wow.  Alas, that the Foundation guys never consulted me. I'm the expert! ;-(  At least according to the wonderful and recently-dearly departed Janet Asimov. Well, well. YOU can see how the saga eventually comes full circle, in Foundation’sTriumph. And by the way, I am only 5% grouchy about this. Classics of hard SF rock!

The folks working hard to make a retro fun TV series Space Command have just posted an updated first hour of the pilot.... and urge you to consider their Kickstarter campaign.

Speaking of things I predicted in (EARTH 1989) -- but in the hands of people, and less-so agents of the state: Here’s a commercial for China Mobile's new 5G glasses for police on his personal Sina Weibo account on Tuesday. In the video, a plain-clothed police officer quickly identifies and locks in on a wanted suspect in a crowded square through the 5G glasses' facial recognition function.  The policeman also uses the glasses' data services to see through the suspect's disguise, track him and map out capture routes by connecting the glasses to the city surveillance camera system. He even activates a 5G-enabling roadblock on the suspect's escape route.

Whole bunches of five star ratings for HEART OF THE COMET! One of the best (and most science-based) deep space adventure novels. More relevant than ever, as harvesting comets/asteroids enters the news. Time to plan this expedition?

J.Neil Schulman died August 10. We tussled often, but with respect, over matters like his fierce focus on a Rothbardist (quasi-Randian) interpretation of libertarianism. Still, he was a vividly passionate writer of interestingly off-axis fiction that always had a humorous and self-critical edge to it. I didn't know of his illness. We weren't close. But even though we clashed often, I feel my world is diminished. I'll miss the tussles, in fact. And if there's something left of him out there that's continuing onward, well. I can promise you it's right now very, very surprised! But I wish it well.

While remembering Neil Schulman... here's an article about the dangerous apocalyptic obsessions of many of our nerdy libertarian friends. Some of them rich enough to actually imagine they can escape sharing our fate by building colonies at sea or in high redoubts of Patagonia. I know several. They do not like hearing "Yes, but did you ever think of..." Come With Us If You Want to Live Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley By Sam Frank.

And Neil's fellow libertarian SF writer Brad Linaweaver. Omigosh. An Atheist-Randian rapture?

Also down memory lane:

Available for free download: Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere, a collection of near-future stories collected ASU: Center for Science and Imagination, edited by Ed Finn – with tales by Karl Schroeder, Brenda Cooper, plus one I collaborated on with Tobias Buckell. “Each story presents a snapshot of a possible future where the stratosphere is a key space for solving problems, exploring opportunities or playing out conflicts unfolding on the Earth’s surface.” It was sponsored by one of the new strato-balloon companies - World View - founded by Pluto pioneer Alan Stern. 

Let's finish with one minute of inspiring joy. Remember the cool Jetsons – reimagining by Arconic, two years ago?

Friday, August 30, 2019

Advances in Bio & Tech

What's new in the realms of science and tech?

Peter Denning interviews me about the “resilience” of our critical infrastructure, from the power grid and cell-phones to transportation, food supplies and solar roofs, in the new issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM). I offer a dozen measures - some of them incredibly easy/cheap - that could improve robustness against shocks, by orders of magnitude, preventing us from ever facing a “Postman” situation. 

For those of you who aren’t ACM member-nerds, I’ll post a version some time. And yes, I’m qualified as a physicist, electrical engineer and longtime consultant on these matters with corporations and agencies. But frankly, it’s the science fiction. Of course it is.

Fascinating. Researchers turned in 17000 “lost wallets” in 40 countries, some containing small or large amounts of cash (up to $100) and some none. They found that national/cultural differences counted less than expected, and the subjects proved more honest or assiduous about contacting the purported owner when there was cash than when there wasn’t. Well, one common factor: the receiving party was usually a person “on duty” at a hotel or bank desk or a store clerk or some such.

Ah reality. In The Transparent Society I warned you. Researchers at UC San Diego and Google trained a neural net to take any photo and “adjust the lighting at will — including the direction, temperature, and quality of the light.”

== New Materials/New uses ==

As I portrayed in Existence, we are closer to achieving adaptable contact lenses that can adjust focus and zoom in when you blink.

A new class of materials -  lanthanum superhydrides displays superconductivity at temperatures of about minus-23 degrees Celsius (minus-9 degrees Fahrenheit) -- a jump of about 50 degrees compared to the previous confirmed record. Crum, you could live at that temperature with a good jacket! Alas, this superconductivity happened under extremely high pressure, so forget the sweater. 

Another crazy material breakthrough is reminiscent of science fiction ’s legendary “slow glass” (Bob Shaw), that would transmit an image across minutes, years or decades of delay. This isn’t quite as “cool.” In fact, it's main use is it’ll warm buildings at night. “When exposed to sunlight, this incorporated molecule absorbs the majority of solar energy emitted by the rays that bathe it, soon releasing the energy as heat once no longer in direct daylight.” (Abundance newsletter.)

And related -- Scientists have constructed a water purification system that utilizes heat waste from solar panels to distill clean water. (Abundance Insider) If the oligarchs will let us, we can save the world for them.

And can a  a $10 magnet be used to double the output of hydrogen from a water-splitting electrolyzer? Could be especially useful in space.

Had this in Existence. This bone conduction device lets you make calls by sticking your finger in your ear.

Canon ran an indiegogo campaign for IVY REC - a clippable, go anywhere, waterproof, ultra-compact point-and-shoot camera that's about the size of a USB flash drive and features a built-in carabiner.  Talk about “Brin’s Camera-Corollary to Moore’s Law.” And it will go on, by orders of magnitude. Seriously. When one of you actually gets one, report back here?

The atomic M.R.I.can distinguish neighboring atoms from one another, and types of atoms based on their magnetic interactions. The new technology could help scientists study how proteins fold and one day be used to design atomic-scale methods of storing information, for quantum computers.

Using terahertz light, researchers have shown that such high-frequency light can control properties like macroscopic supercurrent flowing – superconductivity - and access high-frequency quantum oscillations once thought forbidden by symmetry.

== Bio and Tech advances ==

For a decade I’ve been saying that the microbiome will be an area of medical miracles much more quickly accessible than the genome or proteome. Because the number of types of gut and skin bacteria that need to be evaluated for effects is linear, numbering in the mere tens of thousands. Now see how one variant found in distance runners may come to market soon. FitBiomics aims to mine the biology of the most fit and healthy people in the world and then aim to translate into probiotics," staring with testing Veillonella in human subjects with the ultimate goal of creating an endurance-boosting symbiont.

What we currently call “probiotics” will be deemed random voodoo, as soon as 5 years from now, when personalized gut supplements will pour from labs.

Chimeras, oy!  Wholly Mackeral. Dig this new book: Chimera Research -Methods and Protocols.  

“This volume addresses challenging new questions surrounding stem cell-based chimera research. This book is organized into three parts: Part One provides readers with a summary of different human donor cell types. The chapters in this section discuss ways to evaluate new types of pluripotent stem cells; the derivation of naïve and primed pluripotent stem cells from mouse preimplantation embryos; and the ethical and regulatory complexities of informed consent for the procurement of somatic cells. Part Two discusses methods for generating chimeras. The chapters here look at chick models and human-chick organizer grafts; generating human-pig interspecies chimeras; and techniques for transplanting mouse neural stem cells into a mouse disease model for stroke. Part Three concludes the book with a look at ongoing ethical controversies and new scientific directions. Chapters in this part cover the ethics of crossing the xenobarrier; animal welfare; experimentation with spermatogonial stem cells; and cautious approaches to human-monkey chimera studies to further understand complex human brain disorders. Written in the highly successful Methods in Molecular Biology series format, chapters include introductions to their respective topics, lists of the necessary materials and reagents, step-by-step, readily reproducible laboratory protocols, and tips on troubleshooting and avoiding known pitfalls."

Taking this even farther into Outer Limits territory: “the idea of biologically humanizing large portions of a monkey’s brain is seriously unnerving.” In April, Chinese researchers announced they had inserted  a human brain gene into monkey embryos, a gene critical for human brain development. “It’s one thing to “humanize” an animal for, say, a pancreas, it’s another thing when you are talking about the brain…"

Only remember all this is aimed at a better understanding of Alzheimers, by far the worst modern disease in the developed world without any at all effective treatment.

An “epi-pen-like” injection uses nanoparticles to reprogram aggressive immune cells — thereby preventing the immune system from overreacting — to reduce inflammation and promote a therapeutic response. The aim: preventing paralysis in the aftermath of trauma to the central nervous system.

Triangle-weaver spiders use their own web the way humans might use a slingshot or a crossbow.

Speaking of spidey strength. The HyQReal robot is about 4-feet long and moves around on four legs. The HyQ’s developers, IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, recently demonstrated the squat quadruped’s strength by having it tow a 7,275 lb passenger plane across a length of asphalt at an airport in Italy.