Monday, July 06, 2009

More Science

More from More Science High!  Continuing the cornucopia of interesting things....

I'm on the BBC World Service yet again, this time commenting on "geo-engineering"... or proposals to cool the Earth artificially and compensate for global warming.  I'll announce the posted podcast site.  Till then, read this background article:

A GIANT inflatable tower could carry people to the edge of space without the need for a rocket, and could be completed much sooner than a cable-based space elevator, its proponents claim.  he team envisages assembling the structure from a series of modules constructed from Kevlar-polyethylene composite tubes made rigid by inflating them with a lightweight gas such as helium.My colleague Jeff Hecht has a cool article on this in the New Scientist.  Of course, I described this system in SUNDIVER, back in 1979 -- the "Vanilla Needle" - named after my friend, Ron Finnila, who first mentioned the idea to me.  I even have extensive notes for a way-cool graphic novel that would have featured Jacob Demwa saving the huge, inflated needle.

Ah, but priority is difficult to establish.... Still, will someone add this to the Brin Prediction wiki, please?  Anyone know how to contact the authors? ;-) 

Breakthroughs in understanding how memories form in the brain.
“unpleasant memories are stored by the persistent action of the enzyme PKMzeta, a form of protein kinase C,” and that “these memories can be rapidly erased by injecting a PKMzeta inhibitor into the brain.” Researchers confirmed that by using ZIP, “unpleasant long-term memories in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for storing spatial information, are rapidly erased.”  This raises many questions. If human memory can be erased like a computer's hard drive, what happens to the “overwritten” memories? Is there a biochemical equivalent to disk restoration software?

A girl who looks and acts one or two years old is actually 16 years old.  In an almost perfect real life version of Harlarn Ellison's famous short story "Jefty is Five," she seems not to suffer from dwarfism.  Albeit with some uneven dysfunctions, she has simply stayed two.  Science (performed gently of course) is going to learn a LOT from this special person.

More intelligent people don't have more connections, but they have more efficiently placed connections (??) Other studies have shown that physical connections between brain regions via white matter that doesn't contain neurons are also related to intelligence. 

It seems the particles that Enrico Fermi dubbed neutrinos, meaning "little neutral ones", might stretch across billions of light years. The big bang produced huge numbers of "relic" neutrinos, which are quantum-mechanical superpositions of three different mass-energy states. In the early universe, all of these states would have moved at close to the speed of light. But according to calculations by George Fuller and Chad Kishimoto of the University of California, San Diego, as the universe expanded, the most massive of these states slowed down in the relic neutrinos, stretching them across the universe. This raises the possibility that only one of the neutrino's states could fall into a black hole. It's unclear what would happen to the others if this occurred, says Fuller. Wow. 

A cell phone that never needs recharging might sound too good to be true, but Nokia says it's developing technology that could draw enough power from ambient radio waves to keep a cell-phone handset topped up.  Ambient electromagnetic radiation--emitted from Wi-Fi transmitters, cell-phone antennas, TV masts, and other sources--could be converted into enough electrical current to keep a battery topped up. Hey, my sons just built crystal (diode) radios.  They were excited to hear a station, clear as a bell, without battery or wall power!  That is, till they found it was K-Praise Fundamentalist station... and no adjustment of the variable capacitor or coil would change it!  How can that be?  It appears that the diode, itself, is tuned to one station!  Help!

The three researchers published a manifesto in Nature in 2001, declaring that the way to make a synthetic cell was to get a protocell and a genetic molecule to grow and divide in parallel, with the molecules being encapsulated in the cell. Simple fatty acids, of the sort likely to have been around on the primitive Earth, will spontaneously form double-layered spheres, much like the double-layered membrane of today’s living cells. These protocells will incorporate new fatty acids fed into the water, and eventually divide.

Living cells are generally impermeable and have elaborate mechanisms for admitting only the nutrients they need. But Dr. Szostak and his colleagues have shown that small molecules can easily enter the protocells. If they combine into larger molecules, however, they cannot get out, just the arrangement a primitive cell would need.  

Nucleotides consist of a sugar molecule, like ribose or deoxyribose, joined to a base at one end and a phosphate group at the other. Prebiotic chemists discovered with delight that bases like adenine will easily form from simple chemicals like hydrogen cyanide. But years of disappointment followed when the adenine proved incapable of linking naturally to the ribose.

Last month, John Sutherland, a chemist at the University of Manchester in England, reported in Nature his discovery of a quite unexpected route for synthesizing nucleotides from prebiotic chemicals. Instead of making the base and sugar separately from chemicals likely to have existed on the primitive Earth, Dr. Sutherland showed how under the right conditions the base and sugar could be built up as a single unit, and so did not need to be linked.

Another big breakthrough: Researchers l at Imperial College London have discovered that a mixture of left-handed and right-handed molecules can be converted to just one form by cycles of freezing and melting.

See a review of a book about the subtle ways even the simplest life forms "compute:"Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell, by Dennis Bray.

Political side note.  See Russ Daggatt's excellent compilation of views about events in Iran.

Heck while I'm at it: these are the best of the old Outer Limits:  Now available on Hulu!

"The Architects of Fear" is the episode that inspired the graphic novel WATCHMEN.  I hope soon they'll post season two... with the incredible Harlan Ellison story "The Demon With The Glass Hand."


Stefan Jones said...

Another good "Outer Limits" episode:


The staff of a research facility use an experimental surveillance machine to spy on each other.

SOLDIER -- another Ellison story -- was good too.

Today's SF television is much slicker and better written in a prose-y sense, but The Outer Limits had a kind of fearless rawness. I guess if you don't have to worry about how the characters will carry on the next week you can get away with a lot more.

Stefan Jones said...

"More Science" . . . isn't that the high school that Georgie Tirebiter went to?

Anonymous said...

The link to the little girl leads me to a story on the origins of life.

sociotard said...

*does a complex kata of google-fu*

The little girl is Brooke Greenberg. I don't know which article Dr. Brin wanted to point to, so I'll just do this one:

David Brin said...

Porgie Tirebiter...
He's a spy and a girl delighter!

Just watched the Outer Limist where amusement park rocket ship becomes the real thing. Its plea for general openness at the end was very moving.

Tony Fisk said...

What was that Outer Limits tale about the DJ who was messing about with the transmitter and contacted an alien?

I find it an interesting coincidence that a lot of the scientific ideas being mentioned of late have relevant articles in this month's Scientific American. (like empathy arising from improved 3D visualisation)

An inflatable column twenty miles high...

Is *that* what the Vanilla needle was? I never was clear on that, although it's been a while since I read Sundiver, and was concentrating on the story a bit more (I'd clean forgotten about Danikenites, as well).

I had a bit of a brainstorm a while back on combining space elevators and balloons, that seems to follow the same idea. I didn't suggest using helium, however (too expensive). While I take a little pride in re-discovering the idea for myself, it turns out that Francesco Lana came up with it three centuries ago. The materials of the day weren't quite up to it, however!

Stefan Jones said...


"The Galaxy Being," which was the series pilot. The science-talk was kind of clunky, but that episode in particular invoked a sense of cosmic vastness and cold majesty.

Another good one: "Keepers of the Purple Twilight." A scout from a race with a hive-like society infiltrates Earth pre-invasion.

'factiv': The easy new alternative to actual facts!

Anonymous said...

As much I would like to give you a win on the tower David, I am afraid that "Sundiver" doesn't give any real detail of the construction or design of the Needle that I can remember. You may have had this design in mind when drafting but I don't think that it stands out in the finished material. And does it count as a prediction when it wasn't your idea?

I do of course stand ready(quite happily) to be proven wrong:-)

David Brin said...

Sundiver contains some pretty vivid descriptions. And though my friend suggested it, um, I spread it around!


Wedding Floral Arrangements said...
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Tony Fisk said...

Prior to their scheduled termination, the above bits of spam were actually quite cute.

After David's neat distinction between 'empathy' and 'sympathy', New Scientist gets in on the synchronicity act by talking about how we might feel about robots with empathy

zonto: a cute animatronic alien pet robot that snuggles into you as you drift to sleep, whispering 'Shhh! I know... there, there...'

Unknown said...

Brendan Quine (prof at York U in Toronto who is proposing the inflatable tower idea) can be reached at

David Brin said...


BTW... I have sold 4 of my five memberships at the World sci fi convention in Montreal. I have one left for a lucky person to purchase at 20% off the price at the door.


Fake_William_Shatner said...

Jester >> Thanks for clearing up the Honduras issue. I have to keep things simple in my mind (though the relationships can be complex). Nixon being replaced by a bogus constitutional grab by even worse miscreants -- that's something that can form a mental image.

Travc>> "I've been playing the contrarian on a couple of more lefty blogs. They are normally better described as progressive, but on this the fell into knee-jerk left tribalism. Even if it was a power grab, it wasn't a typical one."
>> You know what's typical? That Liberals are saying something Knee-jerk. It's always the response. If there is ever a Latin-american coup that wasn't corporate or military, and the left wasn't described as knee-jerk and the people demanding their rights weren't described as a mob -- WOW! That would be something new on the planet. Darn those liberals.

The School of the Americas trains what exactly? Well, if history is a judge, about everybody who ever twisted the neck of a Union organizer in Latin America. Why does Latin America need to be training their military in another country anyway? My guess, so the dang robber barons can be sure that they are getting a good fascist to keep a close watch on the Presidente. Google sometime "politician dies in small plane crash." It's the preferred end for people who raise wages.

Tracv>> BTW: The Argentine Ant "mega colony" is almost certainly a byproduct of pheromone based in-colony identification breaking down with the insanely rapid anthropogenic geographic spread of the ants... aka, a bug, not a feature.

Is this a "Killer Bees" scenario? A result of the ants moving into a new ecosystem where a design that requires predation on them breaks down? And doesn't a Bug require a Bug anyway?

Brin >> Sympathy arises when you have empathy combined with satiability combined with satiation. (Note... not all species... or humans... are capable of being saiated.)

Is this the OFFICIAL understanding of Sympathy? If a creature is satiated, couldn't you assume then the ability to be satiated? As well -- I'm sure that a well-fed bear will still tear me apart just for annoying him. So we could pull out one satiated, if not both. If this is not the official definition, I'll take a stab; Sympathy is actions taken or an emotional response in an attempt to reduce the discomfort of another informed by empathy. So, fluffing a pillow to Dr. Kavorkian is covered. It might be a form of misplaced comfort -- like scratching. We can derive pleasure from seeing someone enjoy a good scratch.

And, on a more philosophical note, Without empathy, could we enjoy P0rn?

>> The idea of a tower inflated by helium (Sundiver) is a great idea. As long it can be strong enough to withstand all the lateral pressure of wind -- THAT's a LOT of surface area -- my guess is you'd want to randomize some of the structure and try and use thin struts. I read Sundiver, but don't remember much.

I'd had an idea when looking at Canadian lumber blimps a while back. These "blimps" -- usually 4 strutted together, actually rotate as if they were huge helicopter blades and they are shaped as airfoils and can move trees from a forest without requiring all the roads and clear cutting. I think you could save a LOT of money on a space program without too much fuss if you remove the first stage of a 3-stage rocket. Then lift the entire platform 5 or so miles high as a huge, air-foil shaped blimp with rotors spinning it. Of course, the rocket, could be hung by some cables with motors to spin it in the counter direction. No new technology, no long-term building project -- just lift the take-off pad.

I didn't develop the idea much, because I went on to design a device that produces thrust without expending material. When a cheap superconductor comes around, I'll test out the idea.

>> You mention of "three superimpositions of state for Neutrino" -- I'd like to know more about that.

sgs said...

The geo- engineering could be even simpler than the background article implies. (A "firehose" with a 65000 foot head? Please!) The part of the planet that really needs cooling down is the Arctic. It'd need an agreement among Russia, Canada, and the US. (Getting Denmark in on it would be nice, too)

Perhaps "over the pole" airliners could just dump out a couple of tons of aerosols?

Also, David: Stop singing and finish your homework!

Tony Fisk said...

Whilst David does his homework, I recommend Stephen Fry's latest offering to the Royal Geographical Society: "America's Place in the World"

If you can get through the slightly florid introduction, you will be rewarded by some hard and affectionate insights by a gleaming intellect possessed of a rapier wit.

(I think he's right about the lemons.)

futede: a futon which has had lemonade spilt on it, about a week ago.

reflog: those strange feeds which, for their own reasons, appear devoted to reproducing whatever is said in other blogs.

Anonymous said...
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David McCabe said...

Hubristic Interfaces: a thoughtful essay on why Wolfram Alpha is, at present, useless, how it could trivially be made useful, why smart programmers keep making the mistake made with W.A., and what the next big thing could be if they stop it.

Wolfram Alpha tries to be smart and read the user's mind, but fails. Since there is no way to bypass the mind-reader and get at W.A.'s algorithms and databases directly, anyone who really wants to extract information from W.A. must use trial and error to build an incomplete model of the mind-reading algorithm.

The solution is to make the interface superficially more complex: offload the smarts into the user's brain. Instead of an opaque and massively complex algorithm that attempts to read the user's mind, expose a compact, transparent, and learnable model.

This pattern has happened before. The Apple Newton tried to read cursive handwriting, but wasn't completely reliable, yielding random output. Users had to trick the algorithm into doing what they wanted. However, the algorithm is both complex and hidden, so learning to trick it is hard. In contrast, Palm's Graffiti system openly requires learning, but the algorithm is so simple that it is learnable. This turns out to be the correct way to do handwriting input. People who make query interfaces should learn the lesson of Newton and Palm.

David Brin said...
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David Brin said...

So here comes Peter Jackson's DISTRICT 9, a film that takes a darker view of the same aliens-living-on-Earth themes that were first brought forward by the wonderfully innovative feature ALIEN NATION.

I loved the latter primarily because it broke away from the Idiot Plot -- the cheat used unconsciously by nearly all directors, of assuming that human civilization is worthlessly stupid/incompetent and that only heroes matter. Only Spielberg and Cameron and a few others appear to systematically evade this tempting but ultimately inane trap, in which most film-makers show staggering incomprehension and ingratitude to a cosiety that's been very good to them.

What is silly is that the Idiot Plot is so unnecessary! If you cannot tell a dramatic story set in a realistic world, where the heroes get into pulse-pounding jeopardy WHILE civilization tries to cope, then you are no storyteller. One movie that did this was CLOVERFIELD, which took a close/personal/tragic perspective, but with glimpses of competence taking place elsewhere.

You know that in my fiction I tend to assume -- based upon the world we all grew up in -- that civilization has a lot of decent and smart people, trying to do decent and smart things... as well as the obligate villains and morons, Moreover, the more open a situation is, the more likely it is to be handled decently and with a modicum of competence. This does NOT mean a lack of problems! Even nasty, dramatic ones.

What it does mean is that the problems will be more interesting.

Getting back to the point: ALIEN NATION was like that, positing the (unique and refreshing) premise that humanity actually does the right thing... though unevenly... and taking dramatic leaps from there.

Alas, though I remain hopeful and will withhold judgment, it looks (at this glimpse) as though Peter Jackson has chosen the most simpleminded and depressingly dull version of the Idiot Plot possible. I am sure he means it as a teaching device about the evils of intolerance and a moral cautionary tale.

But then, he and those who keep using this banal plot crutch really haven't a clue how to make it clear. You don't make society better by preaching endlessly that is -- and always will be -- inevitably and hopelessly rotten.

Tim H. said...

This is the Peter Jackson that forgot the origins and nature of Gandalf's sword and threw enough "soapy" elements into parts 2 and 3 of LOTR that it was difficult to enjoy them at first viewing.

Alex Tolley said...

re: space needle. Nice idea, but it only eliminates < 10% of teh energy to get to orbit. Useful for replacing some satellite functions, but that is all. Much cheaper is just using high altitude balloons - see "Floating to Orbit".

re: geo-engineering. CO2 is more than just a GHG. It acidifies the oceans, effectively killing a lot of marine forms, especially those that secrete CaCO3 shells. A cool[er] planet with dying oceans makes little sense to me. We really need to get off the fossil fuel addiction - NOW.

Stefan Jones said...

RE other consequences of CO2:

I don't remember if I mentioned it here or in another venue, but the terrible secret in the shlocky SF movie Soylent Green (based on an awful warning novel by SF great Harry Harrison) involves the ocean ecosystems collapsing because the krill have died off. (The synthetic food of the title is supposed to be made of krill.)

And Edward G. Robinson's character bitches about the Greenhouse Effect!

In a movie made in 1973.

The fossil fuel industry and their pundit shills won't be able to claim that "no one could have imagined this could happen."

Tony Fisk said...

Getting back to the 'more science'.

Anne Verbiscer has an idea for view the plumes of Enceladus at a low phase angle, without being blinded by the icy surface: wait for it to be eclipsed by another moon! (just how practical this is depends on how obliging Rhea and co. are)

Anonymous said...

Looks like Tim Kreider, essayist and political cartoonist at the NY Times, has discovered the concept of outrage addiction:

Attribution is one of those dying arts, I guess.

Tony Fisk said...

Attribution? Oh well, I added a reference to Brin's addiction letter in the comments section.

Something Kreider said about spending 85% of his time having raging internal arguments with himself struck a chord. I do that myself sometimes and, yes, can get quite hot under the collar (no symptoms of opiate rushes as described, though) However, if it ever does get to the point where I have to express my opinions out loud, or even if I just catch myself and say '*what* am I thinking?', the whole indignant mass deflates like a pricked balloon, and I usually have a quite polite and reasoned conversation (or a bemused and rueful shake of the head at what I am thinking!)

'fisedi' (or 'fizzed id') the feeling you gets when you realise you are being indignant

Tim H. said...

Ars Technica ran a couple of interesting pieces on space-based solar, And
Also ran across a reference to a technology that would make terrestrial solar and wind much more usable,
Unless one more Heinlein prophecy comes true and Daniel Shipstone unveils a revolutionary energy storage technology.

Stefan Jones said...

Posted for posterity:

Backup location of Patrick Farley's "The Spiders"

'agiefi': I'm out of ideas.

TCB said...

Here's a thought about that inflatable tower: why not run a mass driver up the side of the critter? You could fire out payloads at a large fraction of escape velocity at the top end, seems to me, with minimal waiting. Lots faster than a space elevator, power earth based, etc. etc.