Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Comet of the Century?

Will ISON be the "comet of the century?"

My own doctoral work on small bodies of the solar system made me realize long ago that we've been "cheated" in a sense. On average, most human generations have had a chance to enjoy -- or more often be scared half to death by -- a truly impressive comet. Of course there's no such thing as being "overdue."  After many fizzles and false alarms -- from Kohoutek to Hale-Bopp -- it's wise to take new forecasts with a gain of salt. Still...

Comet-gettyv1… make a note that December 2013 is likely to be the best month to see Comet ISON. Assuming it has survived its exceptionally close pass near the sun intact, the comet will be visible both in the evening sky after sunset and in the morning sky before sunrise. There is real potential, if it is sturdy enough.

Whether or not Ison lives up to its promise, there is another potential cometary extravaganza coming up. Rather than merely putting on a sky show for Earthbound observers, this one is expected to brush right alongside Mars!"NASA researchers had given Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) a 1-in-8,000 chance of striking the Red Planet in October 2014, but revised calculations now put the possibility of an impact at just 1 in 120,000."

Picture that. A comet blazing past the red planet closer than our moon orbits Earth. Possibly much closer. Oh, sure, there probably won't be a direct impact. (Though isn't there a part of you that wishes for a huge bang? And possibly the melting of vast swathes of permafrost? A preliminary test of terraforming methods?) Okay, that likely won't happen…

heartofthecomet… but what these blithe, statistical reassurances leave out is the fact that comets are filthy things! They spew out volcanos of dust and gases (that's what makes the gaudy tails.) And therein lies a problem.  Because we have important space assets orbiting Mars!  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey spacecraft are crucial to our current science programs, surveying both surface and atmospheric features, while helping NASA to keep tabs on the Curiosity and Opportunity mobile labs, down below.

So far, I have not heard a single worried peep out of JPL, but I expect they are working hard to figure out if those satellites will survive… and if they do, how to turn their eyes toward a super show.

== Death-free meat? ==

Even without sky-harbingers, we persevere! Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has funded a 250,000-euro ($330,000) project to jump start an ancient dream of science fiction - illustrated in the fiction of Frederik Pohl, in particular - and one that might help save the planet... vat-grown meat. Acting in part because of his concern for animal welfare, Brin expressed high hopes for the technology. "We're trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger. From there I'm optimistic we can really scale by leaps and bounds," he said on a video.

Two volunteers who participated in the first public frying of hamburger grown in a lab said Monday that it had the texture of meat but was short of flavor because of the lack of fat. But this could be controlled by letting some of the stem cells develop into fat cells. Crucially, the testers said the burger has the "look, feel and taste like the real thing."

This technology, along with others like algafarming that sops in excess industrail CO2 and farm fertilizer runoff and crop plants that fix their own nitrogen, could make a huge difference to humanity's nutritional, ecological and karmic burdens, especially if the number of kilos of grain needed for a kilo of quality meat can be kept small, then our ecological (and karmic) burdens may ease a bit, just in time. (Raising animals for the table takes up about 70 percent of all agricultural land, and much  is turning into desert.) We need this.  Attaguy, Sergey.

== More space wonders! ==

CosmographyLocalUniverseCosmography of the Local Universe, a film by Hélène Courtois is the best video display of our cosmos and our exact position in it to date. Fascinating and beautiful.  A universe before our eyes, that our ancestors never imagined.

While we're on the subject, here is an interesting case: the now-standard proposal that we are surrounded by "dark matter" is based largely on measurements of the dispersion of velocities of stars, clusters and small galaxies in orbit around larger galaxies. The added gravitational pull of dark matter would explain the higher velocities seen… but some iconoclast physicists in Israel have offered an alternative suggesting a slight non-linearity in Newtonian gravitation at very low force levels.  Why am I touting this? Because it is a perfect case of a "crackpot" - non-paradigm - theory that is given respectful treatment by mainstream physics. A counter example to the other crackpots we all know, who proclaim that their favorite alternative hypothesis is being crushed by lemming-like uniformity in all the ivory towers. Sorry fellows. Scientists are open to unusual ideas.  They just expect you to follow some of the regular rhythms and procedures that have worked so spectacularly well at sifting wheat from mountains of chaff. Approaching them with wrathful paranoia does not help.

Veddy eenterestink! By encouraging Google Glass users to behave and work like virtual ants, a new game called Swarm! is showing the tremendous potential for augmented reality to bring crowdsourcing to the next level — if not to humanity itself.  Hearkens to my smart mobs in Existence!
Paperscape interactive map of scientific research papers
A map of the scientific universe865,000 research papers from the arXiv database color-coded by topic, centered around a core of high-energy physics.

== Quick Science Blips! ==

Elon's new hyper loop train. Details at last! 

Eeep. Exposure to light at night, especially the blue wavelengths of computer screens, tablets and smart phones appears to be correlated with depression.

Exhaled breath is a unique fingerprint.  Unique to each person. And you expect to evade this?

Graphene reveals new, revolutionary properties on a monthly basis.  Some of them appear to be stunning.

 == More interesting science miscellany ==

AliensPromo2ALIEN ENCOUNTERS on SCI (the Science Channel) was a fun, somewhat light "first contact scenario" show, augmented by Tru-Science interviews -- including some choice Brin-blather!   And now, by popular demand, they have been given the okay for another season... wherein I suspect I'll blather more...

Know any cynical college students? The Harmonic Hoodlums ("Yuck Tore Railroad") have a classic Youtube single "Making Decisions" that's funky, brazen, bohemian and deep.

A Fox News columnist (of all people!) lists six reasons why the Keystone XL Pipeline would be a disaster for the United States and not in the nation's interest. Given that the alternative would be to use the oil in North America (reducing prices) instead of exporting it, exactly why are lower middle class tea-partiers screeching to help moguls do this?

Shades of uplift: Changing the world one dog at a time?  In Existence my suggestion was to enlist the Helmsley Foundation, to which Leona left gobs of cash "for dogs."  How about applying some of that to making dogs smarter?

A muscle pill? A pharmaceutical that could make us all look like Mr. Universe? Yipe! You try it first, okay? (In fact, I've been quoted many times saying that we'll know the future has finally arrived when everyone wears spandex!)

As for them comets… well… keep watching the skies!  And let's keep heading out there...


occam's comic said...

There is an interesting essay on "the next 10 billion years" over at the Archdruid report.

He does not believe in the "Myth of Progress", so the essay may rub you the wrong way, but this is Contrary Brin.

David Brin said...

Occam's Comic thanks for the link. I found it entertaining, in the way you guessed.

A very entertaining… if fundamentally tendentious and rather silly… just-so story. Oh, I urge the blogger, or his readers, to have fun writing adventures in the dark and gloomy world he provided -- many will be fun!

Moreover it is wholly in keeping with the mood of today's American public: sourpuss, grouchy, complaining-gloomy ingrates who think they invented dystopias and apocalypses. (Amateurs!) In other words… same-old, same-old. Put it down to boomers who are all-cranky about impending senior-senility. The nation and world will be better off when the Boomers go away.

Seriously, is "arch-druid" for real? Has he even looked at the curves for solar power? Which have been arcing toward competitive with fossil fuels at a spectacular rate? Even if the curve slows, our ability to make vast acreage of solar collectors will only expand through every up-or-down phase of civilization. If they are durable, one generation adds to the acreage and how long before Druid's scenario looks laughable?

Algae farming will suck in industrial CO2 and put out food and fuel. Vatgrown meat will eliminate the 70% of agricultural land used for grazing. Does he seriously plan to coax you all into ignoring this, and a myriad other trends? Great! He is part of the reason these things have been slowed down, during the Cynical Decade.

Moreover, if even once humans set up space industry (as Planetary Resources now intends to attempt) every arch-druid "calculation" goes into the trash. The amount of available power in just near Earth orbit makes Saudi Arabia seem like a finger nail clipping.

I am not claiming all is roses. So long as grouches of both left and right have hijacked the national and international discussion of the future, hobbling pragmatists and problem-solvers while mocking every hint of a can-do spirit, we certainly do face critical times.

Tellingly, in their grouchy nostalgia, the trogs of the left are in many ways almost identical to those on the right. A similar meanness of spirit and cynicism that boils down to one thing --

"Don't try to get me to lift a finger to actually help solve problems. My laziness is sheltered and armored by cynicism. My torpor is protected by shrugs of disdain toward those who try. I am the playground bully who mocked and sneered at your enthusiasms in elementary school. And when you vigorous folks save the world, I will have a win-win. I will wallow in tech pleasures while continuing to call you do-ers fools."

Tony Fisk said...

I think Sergey Brin's food techs ought to enlist the aid of characters like Heston Blumenthal. One of his culinary party pieces is how to cook the perfect hamburger. Some of his preparation techniques (eg using salt rather than breadcrumbs to bind the meat) are seriously geeky kitchen science fun (even when there's no liquid nitrogen involved!) They work, too!

The effects of blue light on circadian rhythms have been investigated for a while. eg Spacelab astronauts.

I know of one guy who's using this research to put together a program for tackling the effects of jetlag. Unfortunately, he's targetting the Lear jetsetters rather than cattle class. Mindful of your remarks on that topic, we've had a few (amiable!) discussions about the viability of his business plan. I even suggested he concentrate on Lear crewmembers rather than passengers for these, erm..., pilot studies. (I think they'd be far better controls) I don't think I've been getting through the 'supply side mindset', though (To be fair on him, part of it is the people he's actually dealing with).

Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin, after having recently (a little over a month ago) buried my dog (who reached 15 years of age and died of old age rather than disease or the like), I say no. I do not want to see dogs uplifted. Not until researchers find a way to double their lifespan (at least).

Seriously, the first scientist who finds a way to extend the healthy lifespan of the family dog and family cat will have the gratitude of many. Yes, having a dog with a intelligence level higher than a toddler may be nice... but imagine how that dog or cat may feel realizing that they have only a decade or so to live? And that their human comrades will outlive them fivefold?

I've had two pets live for a long time. One, a cat who lived to be 20. The second, my dog of 15 years. Each time they died of old age... it was quite painful (even as I know they lived long happy lives and were loved and cared for). I suspect I'm not alone in wanting to see that lifespan increased.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Two truly excellent responses.

Paul451 said...

Re: MOND lives!
W00t. I always preferred MOND (or some variant like Double-Special Relativity) over dark matter. Something about it just struck me as a more elegant solution, but I'd pretty much given it up for dead.

Re: MOND as crackpottery.
The difference with MOND is that the main proponents are not only willing, but eager to produce clear predictive differences between MOND and hot or cold dark matter theories.

Re: Map of ArXiv.
It'd be cool if they could produce a map that plotted topic as the spatial dimension. So you could see "dark areas" between two topics where there's not much research yet. And in animation form, see the ebb and flow of interest across the idea-space. I can't really see how they'd do that, but it seems like it would be useful.

Hmmm, maybe something like HST algos that tracks research topics and looks for the Next Big Thing before a human researcher can spot it? Or looks for gaps "between" recent papers that could be exploited?

Re: Comet "ISON".
Apparently it's already dropped off in brightness at a same point that most fizzers do. (Perhaps because they form a "crust" of non-volatiles that insulates the rest.) Which suggests it's not our comet-of-the-century.

Re: Teaching old dogs.
Breeding for longevity may be harder than breeding for any other trait, including intelligence. The more successful you are, the harder it will be to continue, since each generation will take that much longer to "test".

David Brin said...

Paul451... all cometary "crust" theories emerge from my doctoral dissertation. All of em.

David Dorais said...

re: Comet ISON--as an amateur astronomer, Project Astro volunteer and EPO outreacher with the general public I hope it doesn't fizzle. But the last "good" comet was West in 1976 and I was busy studying in college and missed that one and I will be dead for the return of Halley in 2061. So if it gets checked off the bucket list now is the time, noting however the dashed hopes for PANSTAARS earlier this year... my real hope is for clear skies in the Pacific NW in 2017 for the LAST total solar eclipse (in N America before we all die) and lucky for me the path of totality will pass by 20 miles near Salem, OR where the time of totality will be longest and then arcs toward Georgia and out to sea...

StephenMeansMe said...

That archdruid guy seems to be an actual Arch Druid. Must be nice to dispense eternal truths.

That whole "prognostication" (maybe "prophecy" is better) was silly but a bit tiresome. Karmic cycles of back-to-nature stability yielding briefly to unnatural technology. Everything new was new before. All very Wheel of Time.

Then I read stuff like David's link on graphene and I laugh it off. Unless of course those cynics screw it up and we don't get to an Uplift/Culture-style future, in which case I will be very cross.

Prakash said...

I see a WIN-WIN solution emerging from Robert's comment. Let the Hemsley foundation support SENS with the explicit goals of extending the healthy, youthful lifespans of dogs. The term used in transhumanist circles is healthspan, but I don't think it is very popular outside.

The research will go into extending the healthspans of mice and then dogs. After that strong demonstration, further grants for extending the lives of chimps and then humans should be easier to get.

Extending the healthspans of dogs is well within the ambit of dog welfare.

Another important research that can be hitched on the dog welfare front is better scanning techniques, like nanomachines streaming through the blood.

occam's comic said...

Jeepers David,
I did not think that little essay would make you so upset. I think Stephen Peterson is correct he is coming from a “Wheel of Time” perspective rather than “Mankind: Species of Destiny, the story of Hairless Apes’ Journey to the Stars and Beyond” point of view.

Unfortunately, I do think that a fossil fuel civilization, with its infrastructure built to use cheep fossil fuels, with its economic system, financial system, military system and political system all aligned with the interests of fossil fuel producers would have great difficulties dealing with a threat like Global Climate Change. Especially sense climate change has such a long lag time between burning the fuel and the full effects of the carbon dioxide on the climate. Which leads me to the conclusion, that the collapse of fossil fuel civilization is the most likely outcome (but not the only possible outcome).

So the question I need to answer is
Do I have the serenity to accept things that I can not change, and prepare for the worst and try and preserve the best of what our civilization has developed? (the archdruid response)
Do I have the courage to try and transform our civilization into an ecologically sustainable one, even though this effort is less likely to succeed? (the Brin approach)

I am lacking the wisdom to know to tell which path to take.

Paul451 said...

Re: Archdruid Report.
I though it was cute. But the pedant in me insists that it's unlikely that the Corvids would find traces of Apollo on the moon in 100 million years. Micro- (and occasionally macro-) meteorite erosion will grind the LM descent-stages and equipment into a shapeless dirty mostly-aluminium lumps buried in powdered metal and rock. (The ascent stages are already shredded across their crash sites.)

[I did note that in the attraction to cyclic civilisations, and dismissal of the idea of progress, the writer still had his own idea of progress in the cephalisation index. It's a stick meme this "progress".]

David Brin said...

Bah occam you are silly. I have the "courage" to take on every idea you can imagine... and a whole lot you can't. I am contrarian toward stupid oversimplifications and I taunt the insipid optimism of the singularitarians...

... as much as I taunt the dullard-addiction of fools like the arch-druid, who blithely ignore blatant facts. Like even if our society collapses, there are kinds of knowledge that ratchet forward unstoppably.

Sustainable energy might not be enough for 10 billion people but over time it could be built up to make a billion very comfortable, even if the coasts drown. And a billion is enough to move forward.

But the biggest thing is the druid's cribbing (without citing once) Olaf Stapledon. Jeepers.

occam's comic said...

Hi David,

I am not sure why you are having such an emotional response.

You are doing a lot of name calling, and making assumptions about people that I don’t think are true.
For example, I never accused you of lacking the “courage” to take on any Idea.
I was paraphrasing the Prayer for Serenity
(Give me the serenity to accept the things I can not change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.)

I was hoping that you would have a more thoughtful response on the question “What is the Shape of Time?” Is it “the Wheel of Time” with civilizations going through life cycles (which seems like a good fit to history) or is it “the Path of Progress” has the Enlightenment, Science, Capitalism and Reciprocal Accountability found the special sauce that will allow us to transcend our earthy limits? Or something else?

But hey, this discussion seems to really bother you so I will drop it.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Fox news and Keystone:
6. Mining Tar Sands Would Worsen Global Warming

I'm almost stunned to read that Fox endorses AGW. If only their main pundits would endorse this view.

Re: meat in vats.
People have been trying variants on this for a long time. The best so far is not vat grown meat, but textured vegetable protein (usually Soy). They are good, but still not even close to the real thing.

Apart from presentation, the main issue is economic. The costs of factory grown/processed meat will have to be reduced considerably. I have to also wonder at the potential contamination risks from producers that try to cut corners, as some inevitably will.

If we just reduced meat consumption voluntarily we could reduce the ecological damage. (Note that the best way to do this by showing abattoir practices is effectively becoming illegal). On another front, chefs are experimenting with insects, particularly larvae, which should reduce the energy and water demands of protein supply. My guess is that it will take at least two generations for westerners to accept this as a mainstream food stuff.

David Brin said...

occam it is plain silly to call "silly" horrific "name-calling." I am sorry that I misinterpreted your "serenity/courage" challenge as being aimed at me.

But in fact, you had earlier accused me of taking one, simplistic position, when I am (as you should know by now) contrarian toward ALL simplistic approaches.

occam's comic said...

I was not referring to you calling me silly, my skin is way thicker than that.

The name calling that I was referring to "the dullard-addiction of fools like the arch-druid", and " sourpuss, grouchy, complaining-gloomy ingrates" "the trogs" "lazy" "playground bullies"

And I did not accuse you of taking a simplistic position, but having an emotional response and being upset. I honestly expected you to respond to the story something like this: "That story is kind of a silver lining to the tragedy that will befall us if we fail to effectively meet the challenges we face and transform our civilization.”

By the way, in case you are interested, this is the Archdruid’s response to your comment:

“David, a fine spluttering diatribe! Mind you, if you'd taken the time to check out the blog more generally, you'd have found out that I started work on solar and wind energy about the time you were doing page proofs for Sundiver -- I enjoyed that one greatly, by the way -- and that one of the central themes of this blog is the need to get up off our rumps, individually and collectively, and take constructive action to deal with the converging crises that are being brought on by the blind faith in vaporware you've promoted here. Still, I'm sure you're a very busy man.

I appreciate your contribution, though, because the difference between your reaction to the scenario I sketched out and the reaction of many of my other readers points up the issue I want to discuss in the next few posts. You dismissed the scenario as pure gloomy negativity; quite a few other readers found it intriguing and even consoling. That gap shows the emergence of a sensibility that is likely to have a significant impact on events in the decades and centuries to come.”

Tom Elliot said...

I'm always amazed that when talking about dramatic comets almost no one mentions Hyakutake from 1996. We were living in the Colorado mountains at the time and watched its passage and marveled at its easily viewable double tail for weeks until the full moon dulled the view. It covered a vast area of the sky and was much more dramatic than Hale-Bopp ever was.

I read the link to the potential applications for graphene which is dropping in price like a stone lately. It has the potential (to which I as always take a 'seeing is believing' approach) to revolutionize PV panels and batteries. Good stuff, that. Thanks for the link.

Acacia H. said...

By the way, that article on graphene claimed it could "easily" be used to build a space elevator. I was under the assumption that no current material would have sufficient strength to build a space elevator with... with carbon nanotubes being a "maybe" in this regard.

Has this changed? Is graphene even stronger than the carbon nanotubes? Or are they just saying "build carbon nanotubes out of graphene" while ignoring the fact that to build a large enough nanoribbon of carbon nanotubes would be problematic?

Rob H.

Stefan Jones said...

This is worth a laugh:

" It’s funny how science fiction universes so often treat humans as a boring, default everyman species or even the weakest and dumbest.

I want to see a sci fi universe where we’re actually considered one of the more hideous and terrifying species.

How do we know our saliva and skin oils wouldn’t be ultra-corrosive to most other sapient races? What if we actually have the strongest vocal chords and can paralyze or kill the inhabitants of other worlds just by screaming at them? What if most sentient life in the universe turns out to be vegetable-like and lives in fear of us rare “animal” races who can move so quickly and chew shit up with our teeth?"

Actually, this reasoning would be familiar to John Campbell, who supposedly insisted that Amazing / Analog stories always feature humans as the toughest and smartest species out there.

David Brin said...

Occam I am uninterested in the arch-druid's stunning re-interpretation of his lengthy ode to despair. He now denies portraying humanity as pathetically stupid and incapable of self-correction, when that is the whole and entire ethos that he presented. Worse, he knowingly shoves his thumb and whole arm down upon the scale, ignoring every factor that would make his scenario blatantly silly.

Just one technology… efficient and durable solar panels … would transform the entire future history he presents. With ONE more doubling of efficiency, durability and ease of construction, the relationship of humans to energy will be permanently changed. Even after a calamity, the panels could be made by successful generations in mere craft workshops. If durable, they would accumulate, spread across rooftops, cover aqueducts, underly roads, and where does his whole scenario go, in that case? With each generation adding more power than it adds population?

It may not be enough to preserve our current wastrel 8 billions, but it would make a billion able to live in great comfort and give them time/energy to do all the re-evaluation they need. And let them try, at their own pace, the other ventures (e.g. space industry) that could become a giant leap.

A-D's followers deliberately mis-read my response saying I said vat-meat and algae would save 70% of the land. What I did say is that they are examples of technologies thnat any "predictor" needs to take into account, potentially bringing us toward sustainability even if much cropland is lost.

But it is the grotesquely blatant lesson that he teaches that offends me. Renunciationism. Despair. Sure many of his readers found it "consoling." Because apocalypse is "in" right now as part of the general rejection of can-do utopianism. The "consolation" that Stapledon offered (that the arch-druid churlishly never cites) was a tonic in the old era of technocratic dreams. Today it is just tiresome.

(Dig it… I was chief pundit on Life After People. I know the "consolation" A-D speaks of… "life will go on without our stupid-ass selves." I portray the choice between these worldviews in EARTH.

And I know that the "consoling" message of "give up" is just as dangerous to my grandchildren as the message of greed and short-sightedness spread by the right.

I can find plenty of fault in both extremes, and often tease the singularitarians. But if I must choose between can-do ambition and stylish-cynical-adoration of despair, give me the gals and guys who dare to try.

I reiterate every single word. This is curl-lipped playground bully cynicism. Its stylishness does not make up for the fact that it is propaganda. And it preaches based upon outright and knowing lies.

David Brin said...

Stefan, I saw recently (and I think I blogged it) an amusing essay talking about why aliens might fear us.

"Humans eat capsaicin! They add it to their food, for 'spice!'"

"If you burn off an arm their warriors often keep coming!"

"Almost anything organic, they can eat it or process it for food."

"They can see in the RED! And their vision extends all the way to the recently-discovered BLUE!!!!"

That one is mine ;-)

Stefan Jones said...

The late Fredrik Pohl maintained an interesting mix of cynicism and hope.

He and Cyril Kornbluth wrote some incredibly cynical satires on the human condition, The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law.

The last time I met him face-to-face I asked him if he thought his amazing short story "Day Million" prefigured the Singularity. He hadn't heard of the term in Vingean sense; when I described it he scoffed. (Paraphrasing: "Hell, we're going to burn through our resources and ruin this planet before that happens.")

But the same guy imagined Americans remaking New York City, and the country, in The Years of the City, and doing a amazing job of it.

And, dang: At the end of one of the "Heechee" books, a group of characters get their first look at the swarm of energy creatures who scared the Heechee into their black-hole redoubts. One character says something to the effect that they've seen the enemy. Robinette Broadhead (or, well, his uploaded mind) disagrees. "Not enemies, resources."

Such hope, and chutzpah! Pohl imagines that by the time that these energy beings reach the Milky Way, the human-descended civilization will have evolved to the point where the Heechee's bane will be a welcome source of fresh insights and new technologies.

And . . . "Day Million" again! In 2739 A.D. humanity doesn't rule over an empire that's a lazy retread of Rome, or deal with other civilizations in a replay of Renaissance commercial and military conflict. What they're doing is . . . almost inexplicable! The lives of "Day Million's" posthumans are rich and strange in ways we'd have as much trouble conceiving as a Australopithecus would comprehending our quotidian realities.

Hope and awful-warning stories both have uses.

David Brin said...

PS Stefan I assume you ALL have read ALL of the collections of Robert SHeckley... or you have denied yourselves one of life's greatest joys.

In STORE OF THE WORLDS See the short story "All the things you are." In which a human diplomat meets an initially friendly alien race (tribal) but everything about him causes harm. Skin oils burn them. His voice causes a bridge to collapse... until....

David Brin said...

Coincidence, I was re-reading DAY MILLION today...

Sean said...

Dr. Brin, you nailed it with the Archdruid. I read him occasionally because he’s a good writer with some interesting perspectives, but as you say, he’s a propagandist. He selectively ignores facts that don’t fit his narrative, and is incredibly stubborn in his asperger’s way when someone challenges him. It’s one thing when an informed technologist makes “doomer” arguments, but when a “druid” who has spent most of his adult life promoting alternatives to industrial civilization does it, his agenda is obvious.

Like you, Greer is a very erudite, strong-willed word wizard, but where you celebrate the Enlightenment, he despises it. In a lot of ways he’s the Anti-Brin -- you guys could have a pretty interesting debate if the opportunity ever arose, but I doubt it will, because the Archdruid has little time for criticism.

LarryHart said...


Like you, Greer is a very erudite, strong-willed word wizard, but where you celebrate the Enlightenment, he despises it. In a lot of ways he’s the Anti-Brin -- you guys could have a pretty interesting debate if the opportunity ever arose, but I doubt it will, because the Archdruid has little time for criticism.

You've hit upon a fundamental problem when two sides don't simply differ in viewpoints, but in fundamental values.

A Romanticist and a pro-Enlightenment person can theoretically have a Socratic debate and argue points with each other, but if one party is opposed to the very notion OF Socratic dialogue, then what can they do?

That's the problem with the current incarnation of the Republican Party, btw. How are Democrats supposed to negotiate and compromise with a party who see both of those things as "weakness" if not "evil"?

David Brin said...

Three differences between me and Arch-Druid as a "wizard.

1) I am perfectly willing to admit the Enlightenment might fail. Indeed, it has 6000 years of testimony against it, showing that the diamond-shaped society is unstable and needs correction to continue outperforming the stable pyramidal societies that A-D so admires. Hence my battle for the top corrective force - transparency.

In contrast, he refuses to posit the possibility that the Enlightenment might succeed, despite wallowing in its pleasures and its tools. Thus I am willing to do failure thought experiments (once famously) while he cannot even ponder what the effects on his scenario would be, if solar panels become a robust cottage craft, accumulating by a terra watt per generation.

2) While I cannot prove Schadenfreud, one is reasonable in pondering its likely presence in propeling A-D's scenarios. Seven billion die. Whoopee... I mean so-sad! But inevitable!

Oh, not all doomcasters wallow in this sickness e.g. I sense none from Jared Diamond. But in this case...

3) Contempt for individual and group brilliance. By assuming no one will figure a way out of his teleologically fore-doomed scenario, he implicitly claims that HE is the pinnacle of human development, viewing humanity's rise and its fall from the peak and the wonder that is the mighty arch-druid.

Feh. I am an egotist. But I stay away from that shit.

Occam's comic said...

Hi David
Although a better, cheaper, more durable type of solar power could be a critical part in a sustainable society, I don't think it is enough by itself. Without corresponding changes in our economic system, policalt system, financial system, military system and in what we value and how we derive meaning in our lives ( our religious system) salvation does not come from a new gizmo.

I think Larry Heart's comment on values is spot on.
A debate ( discussion?) between people with different value systems could be an enilightening exercise.

Would you ( David Brin) be at all interested in writing your own " next ten billion years" essay?

I would love to read it!

( and thanks for putting up with me )

David Brin said...

Another TED talk by a handsome fellow who has an enthralling riff on BIG prime numbers. And if you watch this without feeling amazed and proud of your era of privilege, then where's your soul? Watch to 15 minutes and see a Rubik's Cube twiddling robot... and more joys! So, so tasty to hear it all in a Sydney accent!

Take THAT cynics.

Jumper said...

I see fracking as a game changer. Israel will soon have a supply of natural gas, and many other places that didn't. This will destabilize the rest of the carbon market, making its elimination easier eventually. I hope!

It's inevitable the Archdruid seems a bit silly. Too many dragons and not enough space ships. But he seems like a nice fellow. If he has groupies, though, well, save me from them.

Paul451 said...

"that Stapledon offered (that the arch-druid churlishly never cites)"

Not in his work, but as soon as someone mentions it in the comments: "yes, I had Stapleton in mind while writing this! Still, I was mostly thinking of Star Maker, and this is in some ways composed in opposition to the theogenesis theme of that book."

ocpearson said...

Dr. Brin,

Something that has been bothering me about the idea of vat-grown meat, especially since I saw it featured prominently in both Existence and The Rapture of the Nerds: Why is the focus on common mammal protein, like beef, chicken, pork? If the problem with taste is a lack of fat (not surprising) why not focus on vat-growing shellfish such as crab and lobster? From my uniformed perspective it seems it might be simpler, with fewer arbitrary moral hangups (some were outraged that the recent vat-grown hamburger was made using fetal bovine serum, or some such).

thrig said...

"Like even if our society collapses, there are kinds of knowledge that ratchet forward unstoppably"…could you elaborate on this prognostication? Knowledge previously lost includes the construction of analog computers, the somewhat more practical art of concrete, and the vastly more important technique of how to cast free-standing bronze sculptures (handy to convert egos to cash for sculpting services rendered—but bear in mind that Ozymandias might prefer stone).

Seems to me the type and extent of the collapse would call what might be lost—Quipus, for example, got the short end of the Enlightenment stick—plus a few dice rolls for the specifics.

Hypnos said...

I find there is quite a lot of simplification of Archdruidical thought here. That is unsurprising as his essays are meant to provoke just this sort of reaction from people who hold what he calls the civil religion of Progress, much like evangelical Christians react to a slighting of Jesus.

Nonetheless, as a committed atheist and empiricist myself, I find the Archdruid one of the most acute and educated social commentators that I have ever read. His knowledge of history and philosophy is unparalleled, and his insights on the psychology of religion are invaluable – not to mention his treatment of, I kid you not, magic, which as a rationalist I found perfectly acceptable and incredibly illuminating.

He is also quite a firm opposer of simple binary thinking – there’s a good essay on his blog about that, if you care to look for it – so ascribing him simply to the category of doomers is quite mistaken when he spends an equal amount of time lambasting those who have rejected the Myth of Progress to embrace its mirror opposite, the Myth of Apocalypse.

I cannot aim to do his thought justice – having read his blog for over two years and with the advantage of a classical education I would still find it hard to properly summarize his ideas in a few lines, as they are so rich in innovative perspectives.

However I think it worth to explain one of the basic tenets that drives his outlook on the future. Quite simply he does not consider the current civilization to be qualitatively different from those that preceded it (that would be the real point of contention with Brin’s thinking). As such, it will likely follow the same path that all other civilizations before it followed: that of rise, apogee, and decline. A slow, punctuated decline quite unlike that preached by most believers in the Myth of Apocalypse, but a decline nonetheless. Accusing him of Hegelian teleologism is then quite a drastic misinterpretation of its entire system of thinking.

He does not though invoke simply sitting back and watching the decline happen. In fact, that is what he accuses most believers in progress of doing: recognising the challenges, and shirking away from them by saying “they’ll think of something”, “they” here being scientists in lab coats. If that isn’t a religious view interpreting scientists as priests building higher and bigger Pyramids to Quetzalcoatl as the jungle around them runs out of water, I don’t know what it is.

Instead, he asks each individual to take action, first personally, and then at a community level. To make changes to their own lives, not only in the direction of sustainability and lowering resource consumption, but also towards learning crafts and skills that would allow the conservation of some of the contemporary world’s scientific discoveries.

As much as the medieval monks alleviated the Dark Ages by preserving some of the Classical World’s knowledge in their monasteries for the benefit of future generations, so we should work to preserve as much of the current scientific knowledge as possible to make sure that the next civilization emerging from the ruins of ours will start from a much stronger base than would be otherwise.

Much as you might disagree with his vision for the future, I would still advise any self-respecting contrarian to read the Archdruid closely. He has much more to say and teach than you might imagine.

As a closing point, if you are interested in his reasoning for dismissing solar power as solution to maintain our current technological society (not any technological society), then you can read this essay and the two that follow:

Nebris said...

My thoughts upon Greer:

"But while [James] Kunstler may be a 'romantic' Doomer, Greer has turned out to be an Evil one.

For quite a while I though of Greer as being the more reasonable of the two. Kunstler's words are scathing and razor edged. His contempt springs off of the page like a rabid dog. Greer, on the other hand, though obviously sharing Kunstler's feelings and opinions, speaks in far more measured tones, almost Olympian in their detachment.

But then he crossed a line. I do not think anyone else noticed, but it struck me in the face like a blow.

In his June 9th, 2010 post, Waiting for the Millennium/Part One: Peak Oil Goes Mainstream, he speaks with great insight and eloquence about 'cultural myths' – read 'envelopes of emotional safety' – and how a number of them are specific to Modern Technological Civilization. But I had noticed a trend to disparage what he called 'revitalization movements' and to do so with a hint of desperation.

'Revitalization movement' is the label he applies to any and all types of solutions that could possible prevent the socio-economic collapse that both he and Kunstler firmly insist is coming, no matter what. But then he crossed that line.

Now, for those who are not metaphysically inclined, what he did may seem silly, but that is not the point. Greer is an Archdruid after all and a serious believer in the metaphysical, so what he advocated was, in his model of the world, quite real.

I quote him here:

“For the moment, though, I want to pass on the counterspell against incantatory thinking that I mentioned at the conclusion of last week’s post. Like the magic spells in fairy tales, it comes with a taboo that limits what you can do with it. The taboo is this: you can use it to guard yourself from incantations, if you think about it and understand it, and you can pass it on to someone else who’s ready to receive and understand it. If you give it to someone who’s not willing to accept it, though, it will cause exactly the flight into incantation and fantasy it’s meant to prevent. Here it is:

There is no brighter future ahead.

Keep it secret; keep it safe.”

That is a fucking Evil Meme at the very least and pure Black Majick at the very worst. In his need to bring about his Desired Outcome, he has Invoked Darkness and Disaster and all the Death and Pain that would surely follow...

...The semi-medieval societies these [men] and their kind seek to establish is as much an evolutionary dead end as any Father/God theocracy. And would be just as brutal and mean-spirited."

The OP:

Jay said...

Brin said "It may not be enough to preserve our current wastrel 8 billions, but it would make a billion able to live in great comfort and give them time/energy to do all the re-evaluation they need.

If the "archdruid" is claiming that humanity will see a catastrophe followed by inevitable resurgence, and you're predicting that 87% of the world's population will die off but people will eventually move forward again, then I don't really see much disagreement between you.

And seriously, don't you think that the deaths of almost everyone might put a dent in the collective optimism for a while?

I know about solar energy, and I hope it continues to improve. I also know exponential growth tends to level off as technologies mature, and that the infrastructure costs of a switch to solar energy are not small. It seems reasonable to make some preparation for the possibility that solar energy will remain a very marginal part of our total energy budget.

Unknown said...

What David does not realize is that until a solar plant that produces solar power IS solar powered, it simply will not be done. Or a wind generator plant that is solely powered by wind power is built, again not possible. If the planet had 500 million or so people, ya sure alternative energy is doable. But when 7 billion narcissists want want to flip a light switch and leave everything plugged aint gonna happen folks

rewinn said...

While some sniff "it ain't gonna happen", some of us are making it happen.

A challenge? certainly.
But what is life for but solving challenges/

Ruben said...

Hypnos, well said.

The Archdruid Report, in its posts and comments, actively advocates for pursuing multiple, and competing, strategies. Consensus is discouraged.

That means that people are encouraged to work on large solar installations, while others are encouraged to work on other things in case large solar does not transpire.

Because, well, relying on the appearance of cheap, durable solar that can be fabricated in a garage would be stupid.

I don't agree with everything Greer says, and I have been criticized in the comments section, but that is the only blog of which I do not miss a single post. When I found it, I went back to the very beginning and read forward...

Anonymous said...

A word to the gentleman who said
"until a solar plant that produces solar power IS solar powered, it simply will not be done."
It HAS been done. For over twenty years, the Solarex Corporation had a plant in Frederick, MD, which was powered by a vast bank of solar cells and produced solar cells and solar panels. Regrettably, the plant was closed after BP bought Solarex, renamed it BP Solar, and moved the manufacturing group to China.

kleymo said...

I love David Brin's science ficition, and have read most of it. When I want to read about the future, though, I read John Micheal Greer.

It is not as simple as Brin (and Freidman of STRATFOR) are suggesting - ramp up the cells in orbit and go to town.

I suggest to get an basic idea of the complexity of things, you read this article (and the commentary!) on what is going on in Germany.

EVERYONE including Brin does agree that we will have a die off, that we are going through a bottleneck, and that this century is not going to be much fun for most of us and our offspring.

On technology - according to Tainter, we no longer have the resources to improve technology enough to matter.

Resiliance and plain old survival involve triage and simplification. What else is there with a planet containing 7+ billion and resource depletion? Again, a question of numbers such as EROI and financing.

Jay said...

the Solarex Corporation had a plant in Frederick, MD, which was powered by a vast bank of solar cells

The really energy-intensive parts of solar cell manufacture happens when silicon is converted first from sand into silicon, then into low-defect silicon crystals. They then get diced into wafers and sold to electronics manufacturers, including solar cell manufacturers. The plants that do this have huge energy costs; until you can do this with solar energy I'm not too impressed.

dkallem said...
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dkallem said...
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kleymo said...

This is very on topic by Dr. George Mobus on his blog "Question Everything"

"Peak Neoclassical Economics? It's Really Past Time for This"

"The fundamental problem is that we are working down our stock of fossil energy at an incredible rate. Fossil fuels account for over 80% of the energy driving our economy. We have probably reached or might have even passed the peak of extraction, meaning that over the next several decades we will have less and less fossil fuels to power society. But it is even worse than that. The energy cost of extracting those fuels is climbing exponentially. The extraction of tar sands, tight oil and gas, and deeper coal veins takes far more energy than was the case historically. That means there is less net energy for doing economic work in each time period going forward.

And, in spite of the neoclassical belief in substitution effects resulting from high prices, we really don't have substitute sources of high power energy needed to run our current developed world economies, let alone bring the developing economies up to some &ldauo;reasonable” standard of living. At best we might be able to position ourselves to live off of real-time solar inputs if we invest heavily in wind, solar, and hydro power generation now before the fossil fuels become useless. But we would have to substantially diminish our consumption of energy on the lifestyle side — much more so than most people will be willing to do voluntarily.

So while those few of us who are capable can continue to seek understanding of our situation, at least for scientific sake, I just don't see that understanding having any impact on how the world is run by the idiots in charge. They do not want to know."

David said...


I will first own that my response to your response to the archdruid post is mostly intuitive.

Your response to me feels very emotional and to betray an underlying desperation to refute what he says by any means necessary, like irrationally berating him as a "grouch.

I also think you are way off to say that he is not wanting to "lift a finger" to solve problems. Other posts of his are full of actions he thinks we need to take to cope with our de-industrial future, like much more localized economies and people learning how to grow food for themselves.

Submitted Respectfully,
David Beckemeier

Anonymous said...

'Occam's comic' said :
Unfortunately, I do think that a fossil fuel civilization, with its infrastructure built to use cheep fossil fuels, with its economic system, financial system, military system and political system all aligned with the interests of fossil fuel producers would have great difficulties dealing with a threat like Global Climate Change.

I don't think that global climate change is the problem. Rather the group-think inevitable in such a structured soci-econo-political system is the danger, exactly what we are living through at the moment.

Too much centralization, too little understanding of our limits to control large-scale systems. We have no theory of control systems to allow controlling complex systems, but have built such into the core of the hugely complex systems within which we live.

Disaster is guaranteed, reboots of nation-states are in the offing, don't assume the USofA will escape.

Anonymous said...

"sourpuss, grouchy, complaining-gloomy ingrates who think they invented dystopias and apocalypses"

I gather you do not know that he wrote a book called Apocalypse Not, detailing the history of apocalyptic predictions and emphasizing the one common element, that each of them has been wrong?

This is not the only portion of your description of Greer that is incorrect, merely the one with the shortest refutation, but I suspect that you and he would find a great deal of common ground where predictors of apocalypse are concerned.
I suspect you would also find his writings explaining the physics of the flow of energy to be enlightening, not in the sense that you'll learn any new physics, but that you'll find new applications of physics you already know in the context of energy issues.