Monday, May 28, 2012

The Next Generation: New Writers of Scientific Imagination

For decades the Clarion Workshop has done service to both literature and civilization by nourishing and tempering some of the brightest new writers of science fiction and fantasy. Eminent authors such as Ted Chiang, Karen Fowler and Neil Gaiman have given generously of their time and expertise. Acceptance is highly competitive and each summer, men and women graduate who later become successful and published authors, helping to both steer and propel the most dauntless of all genres - the one that explores change in our world.  This tradition only was enhanced when the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) became Clarion’s new home, a few years ago. And it will exponentiate with the arrival - on the very same campus - of the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.

Both of these bold endeavors require money, of course.  So you are all welcome to bend the ears of any philanthropists you know!  Beyond that, have a look at the “Write-a-Thon” -- a worthy way for you to participate with very small donations (like a walk-a-thon), only with a sense of connection to the works that gifted writers will produce during the event. (Donors who sponsor a story will get first look. Some might even get characters named after them!)  Give this narrative some room in your mind.

While on the theme of the next generation: amid this graduation season, take a fresh look at this classic video I made when my oldest was graduating from high school:
Things Every College Student Should Know and Do ... some quick "uncle" advice for how to grasp the university experience and squeeze out the real value that's there!

==  Sci-Tech and Miscellany ==

Read a fascinating article about some desperate alternative plans that NASA considered, during the dark early days of the 1960s “space race.”

A fun and informative rumination on my concept of Uplift, and how it might apply to Orangutans.

This article about degrees with zero unemployment surprised me.  Sure, actuarial science.  Maybe geophysics... but astrophysics?  My field... 100% employment?  Then why am I a bum!

Do Rorqual whales have an extra sensory organ to sense krill clumps and control their jaws’ ornate “gulp”?

A growing body of evidence suggests that the molecular machinery of life emits and absorb photons. Now one biologist has evidence that this light is a new form of cellular communication.  ...Biophotons are usually produced at the rate of dozens per second per square centimetre of cell culture. Not many. And it's why the notion that biophoton activity is actually a form of cellular communication is somewhat controversial. Sergey Mayburov at the Lebedev Institute of Physics in Moscow claims to detect patterns. Biophoton streams consist of short quasi-periodic bursts, which he says are remarkably similar to those used to send binary data over a noisy channel.  Fascinating stuff in so many ways. Do cells “communicate” this way? Does this supplement inter-cellular sooms like synapses and chemicals?  And does this have effects INSIDE cells? Fascinating.

This magnificent false-color movie of the sun's surface was captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory over 24 hours. It makes me proud to have once been a solar astronomer. I think I even glimpsed the "Sun Ghosts" from the novel Sundiver!  Notice how at one point you can see the blue (cooler) patched form a sideways "Vee" pattern with its apex at the equator.  Because the sun's differential rotation spins faster at the equator than the higher latitudes.  This is what winds up the magnetic fields which must reconnect and "pop" every eleven years or so...

New research provides the strongest evidence to date that psychopathy is linked to specific structural abnormalities in the brain.

The U.S. manufacturing sector, which is burdened by negative stereotypes, is showing signs of revival, according to speakers at The Future of Manufacturing in the U.S. conference recently held at MIT. The United States added about 50,000 manufacturing jobs this January alone, the largest monthly gain since 1998, and companies such as Ford Motor Co. have moved overseas plants back to the United States.

By combining the light of three powerful infrared telescopes, an international research team has observed the active accretion phase of a super-massive black hole in the center of a galaxy tens of millions of light years away, yielding an unprecedented amount of data for such observations. The resolution at which they were able to observe this highly luminescent active galactic nucleus (AGN) - using a three-telescope interferometer has given them direct confirmation of how mass accretes onto black holes in centers of galaxies.

There are roughly 4,700 potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) with diameters larger than 330 feet (about 100 meters). So far, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of these objects have been found, according to observations from NASA’s  (WISE), which have led to . The discovery that many PHAs tend to be bright says something about their composition; they are more likely to be either stony, like granite, or metallic.

With patience for some erudition, you will learn a lot from David Ronfeldt’s explication about different forms of human group organization, from tribes to hierarchies to markets to networks.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, Wired has published a way-cool-fun-sarcastic appraisal of the physics of "laser" Blasters in Star Wars.

From The Register: The worst movies ever?

And finally, this has gone viral: The TED Talk You Weren't Supposed To See. Nick Hanauer, a rich entrepreneur explaining why some of the wealthy understand where it all came from... and some do not.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

From Towel Day to SpaceX and Transparency Grenades

For Douglas’s sake, don’t forget your towel today! 5/25/12 is not just the annual Towel Day to honor the genius of Douglas Adams, but Super Towel Day (5 + 25 + 12 = 42!!!!) A day that won’t recur for another … century, when the cosmic solution to life, the universe, and everything just may be revealed.

Why a towel?  It is, after all …. “the massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindbogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. Most importantly, a towel has immense psychological value…” So long Douglas, and thanks for all the fish…

Huzzah for Elon and his team at SpaceX for a successful liftoff with their Falcon 9 rocket, followed by the Dragon capsule docking with the International Space Station  -- the first hook-up with a commercial spacecraft. It's a new era with state and enterprise, both being intelligent and forward-looking for a change.

Last month, I was privileged to visit the magnificent SpaceX facility near Los Angeles, where Elon showed me the Dragon capsule.  Next step: reliably delivering vital cargo to the ISS. SpaceX has long-range plans to use Dragon as the basis for a crewed capsule to take astronauts to the space station, and eventually to Mars. Onward and upward...

And now we know something about BlueOrigin, a private entrepreneurial project by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, which appears to be a capsule whose lifting body shape will allow a great deal of cross-range maneuvering while hurtling at hypersonic speeds.  Also, ATK Inc of Utah has a candidate system for lifting capsules to Low Earth Orbit, and there are others, as well!  Privatizing this stuff was way overdue.  You'd think the folks who wanted this for decades - who yell endlessly for more private-commercial approaches - would give Obama some cred for finally doing it. 

==Trending toward the Future==

As this is being posted, I am at the Annual Future in Review... or FiRe ... conference in Laguna Beach, California, a gathering of tech entrepreneurs and venture folk and such, where I am the regular/resident futurist scifi-guy. I'll be helping run the "CTO Challenge." This year's topic - developing a plan to help all consumers use tech to better know what they are eating -- part of the 'quantified self movement.'  Also I will interview famed and sagacious author Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novel, 2312, has just been released.

How to identify the trends and ideas that will endure, leading to radical change, re-defining the world of tomorrow? Wired offers valid pointers: look for cross-pollinating ideas that span disciplines; surf the exponentials; look for virtuous cycles; and plan on increasing levels of openness and transparency.  Okay, I'll steer you to these tricks, since WIRED blabbed about them.  But still, they barely scratched my own, personal top ten Secrets of Master Prognosticators!

Here's one forward-looking concept... developing space-age travel here on Earth. ET3 -- Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies -- plans to go with an idea many of us discussed in the 1980s... riding maglev capsules in airless, friction free tubes at high speed (and low energy cost) at very high speed... say New York to Beijing in 2 hours.  Worth a web visit just to see the cool illustrations. And someday....

A $1 billion ultra high-tech city is about to be built – for a population of zero! CITE, the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation will be a testing ground for intelligent traffic systems, self driving vehicles, green energy, resource recycling, smart grid networks, etc – a laboratory for emerging technologies from both public and private sectors. (No one to complain when electricity or water is shut off.)  The project will mimic a mid-sized city of 35,000, and will cover about 15 square miles. Location in southeast New Mexico. They’ll need security to keep the people out…

Honda has revealed plans for a rolling stool it now calls the Uni-Cub which users steer by the seat of their pants. Roll-over Segway!

Was Steve Jobs planning to build an “iCar”?  Huh!  In TINKERERS I showed a billboard: NEW FOR 2024, THE HONDA/APPLE iCAR!

And now for something completely different... algae farming! It’s a big deal (and I portray it in my new novel.) At long last, the glimmers and tentative hopes are apparently scaling up, led by members of the Mars family (yes, the candy makers) who have developed processes to take sewage from farms and cities, combine it from CO2 from factories, mix it under copious free sunlight, and put out oxygen and “green gold.” I’ll be meeting Heliae's CEO at this week’s “Future in Review" conference, in Laguna, California. 

==Looking downward==

Some call me a "transparency radical" because I push the notion that increased levels of light are generally likely to benefit us all, rather than harm us.  At least, light nourishes our science, democracy, markets and individual ability to hold the mighty accountable.  But I am no radical.  The Transparent Society discusses legitimate boundaries and exceptions.  Want to see radicals?  Have a glimpse at the "Transparency Grenade!" Toss it into a space and it collects and re-transmits detected network traffic and audio.  Deliberately provocatively made to resemble a Soviet grenade.  As art?  cool!  As a practical suggestion? Not so much...

I recently participated with many scholars in Phase 2 of the Drones At Home project -- a 2-day conference organized by the gallery@calit2 and the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, under Professor Sheldon Brown. There were panels, screenings, and art openings, including presentations by Alex Rivera, the creator of the wonderful little sci fi film SLEEP DEALER and a brilliant one-hour, one-man performance play, Unmanned, about the rise of drones and cyborgism in modern life, by Jordan Crandall.

And while we're on the subject, see this: How killer drones are changing the way we conduct war.The Pentagon maintains a fleet of 19,000 drones, for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as targeted strikes, killing at least 3000 individuals classified as terrorists -- as well as 800 civilians, according to human rights groups.

NASA's Dawn mission scientists have released a  video depicting the satellite's fly-over of the distant asteroid, Vesta, a "proto-planet" in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

==Cool Stuff==

Always been a big fan of "powers of ten" style zoom-in and zoom-out graphics and films that bring home the incredible ranges of scale that we must deal with, in our puny, brittle minds.  Now see the latest, a super-cool slide-able illustration that really brings it home. Dizzingly fun: An interactive scale of the universe that takes youfrom a hydrogen atom to a cell to a human to a star to our galaxy, local super-clusters and beyond. Explore!

Last time, I linked to the terrific Teaser and the incredible Preview-Trailer and teaser by Patrick Farley for my new novel, Existence

Now have a look at our totally revised website.  A total makeover from the old

I've just had a slew of audio books released from Audible: The Postman, Earth, Kiln People, Startide Rising and more...

While we're showing off trailers, here's a glimpse at one concocted by Orbit, my publisher in the U.K., for their special, limited edition, "3-D cover" for the first printing of EXISTENCE.  They are going for a much starker, less traditionally sci fi marketing approach.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Are you ready for Existence?

Here's a pair of links you'll love, and that you'll want to pass along. First, a 40 second teaser for my new novel EXISTENCE!

Then go for the real treat - a full, three minute preview trailer of the book, with spectacular visuals and effects by the peerless web artist Patrick Farley. Prepare to be amazed! (It's cinematic, so give the preview time to load properly. )

The book won't be in stores for 3 weeks (June 19). You can sample free chapters on my newly redesigned website! And/or pre-order from Mysterious Galaxy or Amazon.

Another cool featurette: see my Q&A about Existence - also about human destiny and the transformative power of science fiction - at the Orbit Books site. And check out the 3-D cover (a new technology debuts with this book) that will only run with the U.K. first printing.Tell your friends and networks!

== Other Sci Fi-related News ==

On the Need to Restore Optimism to Science Fiction: This interview on io9, is more about science fiction, science and the daunting challenges and amazing opportunities in front of us.  Piddling things like... destiny. Join Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge and me, in calling for SF that beckons our can-do spirit.

Having mentioned Robinson, be sure to check out his just released novel 2312.  I am getting my copy in a couple of days. Few modern authors so brilliantly blend scientific possibility with a clear-eyed view of human nature and hope for rising wisdom.

And heck, while we're compiling this stuff -- one of my better... if very informal...recent interviews just ran on the brash and fun HorrorZine site. Free-ranging from SETI to fantasy to my advice for new writers.

== At last!  Some non-Brin Sci Fi News! ==

All right, you had to scroll down for it.  But Stephanie Fox and the editors of io9 have compiled a fascinating chart showing how science fiction stories interpreted "the future" during the last 130 years. Specifically, during any given decade, were more tales set in the "near" future  The intermediate (50 to 500 years) or far future?  I would have parsed things differently. I consider 25 years to be the far boundary of "near" since during that span, people and daily life will likely remain pretty much the same, except for whichever techno-or-social disruption the story happens to be about.

More than 200 years ahead and all bets are off. Specifically, you can choose for your quasi-medieval space empire to be set anywhere from 200 to a million years hence.

It is the 50 year projection that's both hard and especially interesting. I've done two. Some of those reading your novel when it came out will still be around, five decades hence.  Imagine a kid from 1962 brought to our era. Half the time he would say "Wow! We never thought of that!"  The rest of the time, she'd murmer in disappointment: "You mean you're all STILL doing THAT?"

 == And More... ==

Some of the best short science fiction takes place in media these days.  Example#1: Tom Scott's "Welcome to Life: the singularity, ruined by lawyers."

Example#2: Patrick Farley's amazing Electric Sheep Comix.  Farley - of course - created the terrific art and effects in my new Existence preview-trailer (see above.)  But don't hold that against him.  His vivid online tales are unbelievably creative.

Oh, here's a thought provoking riff by Tom Scott about the dangers of flash mobs in tomorrow's world.  Of course, he assumes people will act stupidity. That's what everybody reflexively does, since cynicism is always (and boringly) more cool that optimism. And indeed, stupidity happens! Alas, what no one considers is that the lobotomizing trends so well illustrated by Twitter may be reversed at some point. Mobs may start to get smart, rather than automatically becoming grunting stampedes.  I try to portray it plausibly in The Smartest Mob... but will we choose that path?

Finally, speaking of cool, this viral image of "Spock leaning on a Riviera" deserves the attention it's received.  See the the wonderfully-snarky editorial caption someone added! So cool.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Republican Salvation...Raise the Gipper!

Are you a Republican - or do you know one - who is sincerely fretful about the GOP’s ticket for the coming quadrennial?  Well, there's good reason (on many levels.) But it appears there is hope!  Or at least a fun wish fantasy, written and published with stunning speed by a master science fiction author, John Barnes. In a quick-topical (and hilarious) shortie-novel that’s set right now!  In the few weeks before this year’s Republican National Convention.

RAISE THE GIPPER! is more a sudden piece of performance art than anything else. Staged precisely for a given moment in time, it fits into the tradition of such old-time favorites as The Mouse that Roared and Rally Around the Flag, Boys.

And it gives Republicans their utter wish fantasy, especially after wading through a primary season filled with dismal choices.  Picture the scenario -- Ronald Reagan, risen from the dead, tanned-rested-and-ready (hampered only slightly by the lack of a pulse) to lead the GOP to victory!

Think it’s all one-sided? Well, Barnes has some clever fun at the expense of flakey, Gaia worshipping, PC-vegan lefty-liberals, too!  It’s a rollicking good time. Try some free sample chapters! (Or get it on Amazon.) And support performance art.

Is it understandable that some Republicans nurse dream-wish fantasies? One is tempted, indeed, to dream up alternatives to the current presumptive nominee -- whose prep-school pranks included the deliberately traumatic bullying of helpless adolescents. Yes, there is forgiveness.  But character is generally persistent, unless you see major life reversals that indicate a true change of direction. And in that case, would he not have sought out his victims, later, to make amends? Or shown compassion in his business affairs?

Oh one can sympathize. Raise the Gipper, indeed!

== From the Transparency Front == 

As you surf the Web, information is being collected about you. Web tracking is not 100% evil -- personal data can make your browsing more efficient; cookies can help your favorite websites stay in business. But, says Gary Kovacs, it's your right to know what data is being collected about you and how it affects your online life. He unveils a Firefox add-on called Collusion to do just that. It is a prime example of where we need to focus our attention in net-age battles over freedom and privacy.  Not in futile efforts to regulate the mighty and police what they can know, but rather in forever-enhancing our power to look back... and thus to hold the mighty accountable.

But shouldn't the light shine both ways? Read a scathing appraisal and denunciation of banking secrecy, of tax havens and the way at least seven trillion dollars vanish from the world’s books. For example: Nothing in offshore havens happens on a small scale. Almost any statistic flunks the red-face test. Consider the British Virgin Islands, home to about 30,000 people and 457,000 companies. In China, it’s said you haven’t made it until you have your own subsidiary in the British Virgin Islands, which holds more assets belonging to Chinese nationals than any foreign location except Hong Kong. "The secrecy laws in these tax havens are at the root of serious crimes: fraud, money laundering and international terrorism," writes Robert M. Morgenthau in The New York Times.

There’s more money on deposit in the Caymans than in all the banks in New York City combined. Do you hear echoes of The Transparent Society? Or my novel Earth, in which the whole world finally gets fed up and storms the banks to make the records public? No issue is more powerfully important than tracing who uses these infamous dodges.

(Or more germane, when we seek to judge whether a one-time spoiled brat bully has grown up.)

What, then, can be done about all this? Plenty — if we act now. Nobody leaves their money offshore forever. The United States can direct its banks and their foreign subsidiaries not to engage in financial transactions in havens that have no transparency and no disclosure of the true parties of interest in financial transactions.

A bill has been proposed in the United States to prevent the use of shell corporations to hide the true ownership of assets owned here. This legislation would provide a model of openness for other nations to follow. Unfortunately, the legislation is bottled up in our own Congress. This should not be. America needs to set an example of financial accountability and insist that the world follow.

See my article: Transparent Ownership Treaty: Individuals and Corporations Must Openly Declare Ownership.

=== Political Miscellany ===
A study of economic mobility in the US by state shows a pattern that will probably be all too familiar to readers of ContraryBrin. All the out-performers except Utah (7 of 8) are blue states. All 9 under-performers are red states. So much for the idea of the liberal elite keeping the masses down and so much for the idea that Republican small government and deregulation creates a culture of opportunity.

Possible link between maternal obesity and low childhood intelligence. Gee wiz... will we ever see a single datum that the denizens of Red America, who proclaim so loudly that they know better how to live and raise kids, are ever right at all, even once?  About anything whatsoever?

Companies are making billions from selling and reselling your personal data. Now, HP is seeking to patent a personal data stock exchange where you could get a cut from sharing your personal information on the open market. Are you willing to exchange your health records or friend lists or automotive GPS locations in exchange for money? And what if companies buy only the cheapest data. Is that data biased or less valuable? One can picture this in several positive ways. (1) people get paid for what is happening anyway, (2) it establishes a reasonable range for a reasonable property right and defies the extremists at both ends, (3) it establishes that grabbing personal information secretly isn't just a privacy violation but a tort action and act of theft, (4) it creates a market industry whose interest lies in making consent and commerce the order of the day.  #4 means that Big People Making Money will be incentivized to protect YOUR right to seal info, not have it be ripped off.  Ah, but there are drawbacks...

Our ability to monitor our planet is at risk; aging Earth-observing satellites are being replaced too slowly, and older satellites are failing. By 2020 we may only have 25% of our current observing capacity. The shortfall comes as a result of funding cuts, canceled missions, lost satellites, failed launches and a shortage of launch vehicles to deliver new satellites to orbit. We have an urgent need to gather data on our planet to better understand the changes taking place on earth. (And yes, some of the funding cuts were targeted directly at missions that would have settled climate change. Those proclaiming "the science isn't good enough yet!" are among those who have torpedoed the science.)

== Finally, some wisdom from a dour genius ==

 'Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old--generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. 

'The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem--how to prevent power from being abused--remains unsolved. 

'Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. 'If men would behave decently the world would be decent' is not such a platitude as it sounds.'

- George Orwell ("on Dickens")


England, wrote Orwell, is a family with the wrong members in control. Almost entirely we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into positions of command by right of birth. Few if any of these people are consciously treacherous, some of them are not even fools, but as a class they are quite incapable of leading us to victory.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Challenges for Future Generations: space, brain preservation and more!

Continuing in a space and science vein, let's reprise the topic from last time... only this time with another of my rambunctious-uppity videos.

Are we ready, once again, to be a bold, dynamic people, ambitious and confident, ready to take on new challenges and new horizons? See Our Reborn Future in Space, my look at the ambitious proposal by Planetary Resources to mine asteroids for "trillions" in purported mineral wealth. How are these billionaires planning to obtain metals and fuel by mining nearby asteroids? Has the future finally arrived?

Is it B.S. or not B.S.? In Part 2: Science or Fiction? I discuss the obstacles, technical and economic, facing Planetary Resources.

And while we're on the subject... see a brief  but philosophical view of how crucial the next few human generations may be. Part of a series produced by the European Commission’s Horizons 2020 project. 

== Is your brain worth the bother? ==

Brain Preservation FoundationThe Brain Preservation Foundation is an interesting enterprise co-developed by John Smart (Acceleration Studies Foundation) that's offering a prize for researchers who manage to preserve animal brains in ways that would be suitable for humans and that keep intact the web of physical connections - or the connectome - that some believe to contain all of the information in both memory and thoughts. Brain preservation aims at locking in these connections against post-mortem decay.

Yes, you've heard of Alcor which will contract to rush in the moment you are declared dead and perfuse your brain (or whole body) with chemicals so it can be cooled in liquid nitrogen. The contracts are expensive ($200,000 for whole body cryonics) and the promised event would be very gaudy. Still, it seemed the only option, for those whose aim (some might say fetish) was to have their physical organic brain itself someday brought back to life.  

I appraise the tradeoffs in an article: Do we really want immortality?

Believers in the connectome don't expect or need the organic brain to be revived, so long as all the synapses and their weightings can be preserved and later nano-traced in perfect detail. They hope memories, even personality, might be emulated - some say "revived" - in a computer setting. 

 Now... I have some deep reservations about this "connectome" business, suspecting that there may be a lot more at work, possibly deep within the associated cells or in highly non-linear and ephemeral standing waves. Moreover, the semantic distinction between emulation and revival is one that we could argue about for decades... and will.

But let's run with this. Here's the innovative idea.  If the connectome is everything, then preserve that.  No need to revive the organo-colloidal brain, so plasticize it!  Lock it in lucite.  Store it at room temperature, on your kids' mantle or book shelf. No garish emergency room procedures or draining/perfusions around grieving relatives and no ongoing refrigeration fees. Heck, why not be decorative, till the nano-dissectors and hifalutin computers are ready...

Well, as I said, I have doubts at many levels.  Still, it has advantages over the gaudy, rather chilling image of cryo skull-dipping. To become a knick-knack. A conversational tchotchke on my descendants' shelf... and at much lower price, with a lot less drama or dependence on fickle contracts?  Well, it grows more... hm... the word isn't "tempting."  But let me put it to you.

What level would the price need to reach before you shrugged and said: sure, sign me up?

==More on the flexible Human Mind==

Using brain-imaging technology for the first time with people experiencing mathematics anxiety, University of Chicago scientists have gained new insights into how some students are able to overcome their fears and succeed in math.   Teaching students to control their emotions prior to doing math may be the best way to overcome the math difficulties that often go along with math anxiety.   READ THIS.

Much discussed  at the "Transhumanism" talks at TedX DelMar where I spoke about space in our neo-human future... brain-computer interfaces, which are starting to mature.... or IMmature!  See for example Brainball!  a special table uses magnets to move a ball AWAY from you the more RELAXED you are. (You wear a brain wave monitor.) I love the image of the two competitors, each looking more unconscious or dead than the other!

And... a Real ‘Beautiful Mind’: College Dropout Became Mathematical Genius After Mugging.

== Astronomical News ==

British scientists have produced a colossal picture of our Milky Way Galaxy that reveals the detail of a billion stars, BBC News reports. "When it was first produced, I played with it for hours; it's just stunning,"

The Pioneer Anomaly has been resolved, thanks in part to efforts of the Planetary Society to help a small team find, then translate, and finally analyze more than 30 years worth of data, recorded on archaic media.  Sorry, it wasn’t “strange physics.”  But some very good science sleuthing was required.

Astronomers are reporting the first "Earth-sized" planets orbiting within the habitable zones of their stars.  They report stellar parameters for late-K and M-type planet-candidate host stars announced by the Kepler Mission. Three of the planet-candidates are terrestrial sized with orbital semimajor axes that lie within the habitable zones of their host stars.  Note with this kind of star, there is the chance of getting tidal locked, with one face always toward the sun.

It's  difficult to knock a star out of the galaxy.  To give a star the two-million-plus mile-per-hour kick it  involves tangling with the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's core. Astronomers have found 16 "hypervelocity" stars traveling fast enough to eventually escape galaxy's gravitational grasp. Now, Vanderbilt astronomers report in a recent issue of the Astronomical Journal that they have identified a group of more than 675 stars on the outskirts of the Milky Way that they argue are hyper-velocity stars that have been ejected from the galactic core.

Wind At Sea Is Strangely Van Goghish, says NASA. New instruments have taken a leap. One of the most beautiful and surprising things I have ever seen!  For the first time we can see how similar our atmosphere behaves to that of Jupiter.  Stunning, beautiful and thought-provoking!

Pop-Art? Artistic geological maps of solar system bodies.

==On the Technological Front==

One of the most instantly recognizable features of glass is the way it reflects light. But a new way of creating surface textures on glass, developed by researchers at MIT, virtually eliminates reflections, producing glass that is almost unrecognizable because of its absence of glare — and whose surface causes water droplets to bounce right off, like tiny rubber balls.

Touché proposes a novel Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing technique that can not only detect a touch event, but also recognize complex configurations of the human hands and body. Tap your arm or hand for gesture commands without a lens or electrodes, and so on.

== And some lighter stuff ==

See a hilarious xkcd about picking a college major:  Why 'Undecided' may be the best choice.

A lovely fantasy Voyager cartoon.

Another beautiful mash-up of classical music and space imagery.  Inspiring... and a bit cautionary....
Know that reader who loves to mix both romance and adventure with unusual personalities... and a little science? Have them give a look at the newest novel by Lou Aronica (author of BLUE) and Julian Iragorri:  Differential Equations. I see another book with that same title on my shelf, nearby (among my mathematics textbooks!).  Lou’s writing is much less dry... and there’s more romance!

And finally....  faux vintage travel posters for the solar system.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Is our time in outer space finally at-hand?

Last week it was asteroid mining, as Peter Diamandis and his partners showed us their bold new venture, Planetary Resources, aiming eventually to start harvesting trillions of dollars worth of materials that would then no longer have to be ripped out of Mother Earth.

This glimpse of a vigorously bold and can-do future provoked The Daily Show's Jon Stewart to comment, "Do you know how rarely the news in 2012 looks and sounds how you thought news would look and sound like in 2012?"  to fervent approval from his audience. Having worked in this area 30 years ago, I was thrilled to see this forward-looking initiative finally get rolling in my lifetime.  Oh, but also... to see it completed...

Now, for something else that's speculative/inspiring: another bit of space news announced only a few days later.

According to the The Daily Yomiuri (via Gizmodo), construction company Obayashi Corp has announced it will construct a space elevator capable of shuttling passengers 36,000 kilometers above the Earth by 2050.

Obayashi plans to manufacture cables for the elevator from carbon nanontubes, which are twenty times stronger than steel. Those will extend toward a counterweight placed 96,000 kilometers above earth's surface (approximately one-fourth of the distance to the moon.) Passengers will be able to reach the elevator's terminal station at geostationary height (GEO), 36,000 kilometers above Earth's surface, traveling in cars at 200 kilometers per hour, powered by solar energy.

Cool enough for you?  Could it happen in real life?

== An uplifting idea ==

Although there had been scribbled concepts for "towers to space" going back to Tsiolkovsky in the 1890s, it wasn't until 1959 that Russian scientist, Yuri N. Artsutanov  published the counter-weighted space elevator concept known today, with a midway station conveniently located at GEO, and everything held suspended by tension, rather than compression.  Subsequently, amid all the excitement over rockets, most in the west remained ignorant of the concept...

... till it burst upon us in the 1980s, with the simultaneous publication of great space-elevator novels by Charles Sheffield (The Web Between the Worlds) and Arthur C. Clarke (The Fountains of Paradise). Since then, it has been portrayed in many other tales, like Red Mars and Foundation's Triumph.

In fact, in Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson vividly showed that the ideal site for a space elevator system is not Earth, where you need materials right near the edge of what's possible with the carbon bond, with a safety multiplier in single digits... but Mars, where such a device is much simpler to build, due to lighter gravity.  Almost a no-brainer.

That is, till someone sabotages it! At which point (snap!) the part that's beyond geostationary orbit goes hurtling away while the lower third proceeds to impact the surface at hypersonic speeds, laying a visible equator mark, as if for a manufactured toy globe!

Ah, sci fi.  It does warn us to exercise extra care, and get it right.  And watch out for crazies.

== So.... BS?  or not-BS? ==

In fact, this is not the first time we've heard such an announcement and I give it less cred than the initiative from Planetary Resources, by some distance.  Still, the coincidence in timing... plus a number of fascinating technologies that I saw while attending (as an advisor) the recent NASA Innovative and Advanced Concepts workshop ... lead me to wonder.  Is our time of disappointment in space coming to an end?

Consider how different things used to seem.  Until the launch of Voyager 2, every advance in the speed that human beings could travel fit neatly on a logarithmic curve that increased very slowly for centuries, through foot and steed to sailing and then steamship.  Then overland train, automobile, airplane... an acceleration that breached escape velocity from the solar system! Projecting this curve beyond Voyager, it seemed the stars might be in our grasp within a lifetime.

Only then, the seeming irresistible force of a mathematically modeled curve met the immovable object of something called reality. The much-feared "S-curve" that crushes the fantasies of the naive... those whose simple-eager projections fuel doomed asset bubbles!

After Voyager, nothing man-made ever moved that fast again... that is, till the New Horizons mission to Pluto, just a few years ago.

Shall we forgive some dreamers for growing grouchy, during the long wasteland of the Space Shuttle era?

(Indeed, I once started writing a story with a stark premise to explain such an unlikely shift from hopeful progress to stagnation. In it, some nasty aliens negotiate a pact with President Elect Ronald Reagan - similar to the one he worked out with the Iranian Ayatollahs.  The aliens would stop supporting the USSR, propping up that incompetent, thuggish state, allowing it to crumble...

...and in return, America would divert all "space" efforts, veering away from accomplishment and toward wheel-spinning.  Spending lots of money but getting nothing done at all.  The timing works, by the way. Certainly George W. Bush's nonsensical notion of wasting our time by going back to the sterile moon fit that lurid but snarky scenario.)

== A Resumption? ==

So is that it?  Were those early dreams just fantasies? Were the Apollo landings flukes? Or evidence that an earlier generation was better, or more daring, than us?

Well now, here's the thing about sudden tech spurts and long, frustrating plateaus. You may be deluded by the spurts, but you can also get too accustomed to plateaus! In fact, as models of reality they are just as unrealistic.

What's more accurate is to realize that Apollo was way, way premature. Given the technology of the 1960s -- your phone has more computational power than all of NASA had, back then -- it's amazing they didn't blow themselves up every time. It was a perfect example of human determination and ingenuity overcoming all obstacles of technology or common sense.

I have long called Apollo an example of the same phenomenon as Las Vegas -- proof that there is nothing human beings cannot achieve with enough fervid concentration of money, water... and desire.
Ironically, during the long dry period, background technology and abilities have been maturing, till now....

Why did the Planetary Resources consortium of billionaires suddenly announce plans to move ahead in steady steps toward fulfilling the dream of reaping lavish rewards from asteroid mining?  Because space optics and microelectronics and communications and computers and ion drive engines have all matured to a point where dozens of their planned "Arkyd" spacecraft might be built and deployed for mere tens of millions of dollars.  Crowd-sourcing some of the computation to distributed networks of millions of home computers will both reduce costs and get countless citizens involved. (I hope each participant will get a stock share!)

== Can it really happen? ==

So are the the folks at Obayashi Corp just blowing smoke?  Well... almost certainly at some level. Still, that doesn't matter, so long as we are generally moving forward, with confidence and an eager, can-do spirit.

Could it be that Clarke and Sheffield and Artsutanov had a prescient dream that might come true o n my 100th birthday, perhaps soon enough for me to take a comfy orbital elevator car ride, gentle enough for brittle centenarian bones?  You gotta hope and believe that a confluence of technologies may arrive, as part of a "good singularity" wave.

Is humanity ready?  I mean mentally?  Well, not judging from the level of puerile responses in the comments section, under the Gizmodo report...

My optimistic solution to that obstacle?  Brain boosts. Smart pills.  For everybody. (oh, please!)  If we can get those, without major side effects, then maybe... just maybe... those stars.

It's an amazing time. A time for us to resume being amazing. In fact, if you heed the wise advice of Zaphod Beeblebrox, you'll be getting ready to be amazingly amazing.

See more of my speculations about Space: Where are we headed?