Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Looking ahead...Signs of change

The Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD held "The Physics of Free Will" a panel discussion on August 6th. Astrophysicists Brian Keating, Andrew Friedman and David Brin discussed what modern physics – including “entanglement” and the time-history of inflation and the Big Bang -- has to say about the concept of free will, including perspectives from the foundations of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and speculations about the role of of conscious observers in the cosmos.  Now the whole event is available on YouTube!

Stay tuned for a smorgasbord of cool items. But first...

Is Science Broken? No. But some science journalists are deeply dishonest

Is Science Broken?” Certainly there are those who proclaim that from the rooftops, seizing on every anecdote of misbehavior by individual researchers as evidence that science itself cannot be trusted to keep its own house. Elsewhere, we discuss the varied reasons for a “war on science.” But certainly some problems originate within. Over at Five-Thirty-eight, a recent article by Christie Aschwanden describes why some of the very same statistical methods that were developed to separate cause-effect from mere coincidence make it very hard to prove particular conclusions – especially in social science. The essay is worthwhile and offers up some cool interactive demos of statistical tradeoffs… 

… and yet, the author unwittingly exemplifies her own complaint, to a stunning degree, in her very first example, an interactive that purportedly shows how the same data can be manipulated to show either democrats or republicans are better for the economy. Either or neither.  How interesting that she would have chosen that as her first case.  And how convenient, since that lesson is the one readers will take away.

In this case, the tendentious effect is easily exposed, as the “party effects on the economy” graphic only lets you compare raw, yearly figures for GDP or employment or inflation, when these all react sluggishly to changes in policy, especially if it takes six years to drag the nation out of a pit the previous administration created. It is the direction and rate of change of those metrics that actually reflect outcomes from policy moves. For example, if one party takes inherited surpluses and leaves the nation diving into steepening deficits, and the next one starts to pull us out of the dive, it is idiotic or else deeply dishonest to make Total Current Debt the metric.

Even more telling is the second derivative of economic factors like public debt. The rate of rate of change has much more immediate effects, far more blatantly attributable to a party’s policies during its span in power… as I show here. And when you use such metrics all ambiguity vanishes. One party is responsible and effective while the other is absolutely and always devastatingly harmful.  

Let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps she is simply finger-wagging scientists, while falling for mistakes they’d catch as freshmen.  

== Looking ahead -- signs of change ==

See this: 13 ways that Science Fiction's Vision of the Future is Closer than You Think -- with innovations in space habitation, teleportation, touch screens, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, autonomous cars... and more!

The next candidate for “flying car”? The Terrafugia TF-X is – or maybe will be -- capable of vertical take-off, thus negating the need for a runway. Wings furled, it’ll squeeze into a standard single garage, thus negating the need for a hanger. Riiiiight. 

While the Tricorder X Prize tools along toward creating an inexpensive – Doctor (McCoy) in a Box… the Chinese firm Baidu hopes to provide a service letting folks anywhere interact with AI and assess 520 different diseases, representing upwards of 90 percent of the most common medical problems nationwide. 

Take a look at: Twenty-five fascinating mega projects taking place across the globe, including the Panama Canal expansion, the Three Gorges Dam, the underwater Marmaray Tunnel in Turkey, Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia, Liuchonghe Bridge in China and other bold projects!

Six people shut themselves inside a dome in Hawaii and plan to stay for a year. It's a mission funded by NASA to explore what it's like to send manned missions into deep space.

Artificial photosynthesis could power homes in a few years, mimicking plant-based photosynthesis by using solar energy to convert water into hydrogen. If cheap nickel catalysts can be used… and 22% efficiency holds up… then toss it onto the pile of potential game-changers. Ah, but that pile had better be producing, big-time, soon. 

Because. The latest report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined that globally, July was the hottest month since record keeping began in 1880. And ocean acidity -- which CAN only have one cause -- is rising.  See the shrinking of Arctic ice through years of National Geographic maps. The Himalayan glaciers that slake the thirst of a third of the world’s population are rapidly retreating. And the denialist cult keeps getting more frantic.

Just a few years ago, one of the cult incantations was that solar and sustainables were “pipe dreams.” Now? The world now gets over 1% of its electricity from solar power! Currently, global solar capacity is 178 gigawatts Crossing the Threshold The world now gets over 1% of its electricity from solar power. Currently, global solar capacity is 178 gigawatts. The U.S. now ranks second worldwide in wind power…

One of the major talking points of opponents of sustainable energy is that if you include fixed manufacturing costs, solar and wind are not competitive with fossil fuels. These opponents used this rhetoric to stymie investments in sustainables R&D during the first decade of this century.  But rates of efficiency have been skyrocketing and costs plummeting.  One of the big solar module manufacturers, Trina Solar, said costs had fallen 19 per cent in the past year alone(!), and would continue to fall by at least 5 per cent to 6 per cent a year in coming years as efficiencies were improved.  This study shows that renewables turn out already to be cheaper than fossil fuels.

== and... ==

Researchers from MIT revealed they've produced a "better, cheaper, more user-friendly" printer that can print using 10 different materials at the same time. "Multifab" self corrects by watching its own actions. They claim it can scan case around an iPhone you place in the printer

We keep reporting “possible game changing” technological breakthroughs. This one sounds a bit less plausible than some.  Yet potentially cool. Imagine that the trend toward using carbon fiber as a construction material – from planes and ships to cars and even buildings – creating a huge demand for the stuff.  Now envision that we get the carbon feedstock from Carbon Dioxide taken out of the air.  Hmm, well breaking oxygen bonds takes real energy. And a team at MIT thinks they have the problem licked, using lithium. Their novel electrochemical process sequesters carbon in the form of a versatile building material. 

Alas, even if this works, it would only put a dent in atmospheric CO2, as shown in this appraisal, which shows “that capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius requires removing 1.8 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere yearly from now until 2100—a tall order that exceeds the capabilities of current technology.” 
Boston Dynamics is at it again, creating robots that walk with creepy-amazing skill through natural obstacle courses… only this time it’s a biped!  

Batteries for a new age? MIT and Samsung researchers have developed a new approach to achieving long life and a 20 to 30 percent improvement in power density (the amount of power stored in a given space) in rechargeable batteries — using a solid electrolyte, rather than the liquid used in today’s most common rechargeables. The new materials could also greatly improve safety and last through “hundreds of thousands of cycles.”  

Researchers at CERN find that within about one part per million, antimatter and matter behave in the same way with respect to gravity. And have the same charge-to-mass ratios. Okay, check that off my list of worries.

Finally...a recent typhoon hit Taiwan with winds that lifted a 747 off the ground


Alex Tolley said...

Their novel electrochemical process sequesters carbon in the form of a versatile building material.

If the kit is small enough (and low energy enough), it might make a good way to recycle CO2 in space, leaving just a carbon residue and free O2.

Alex Tolley said...

re: Megastrutures - London Crossrail
The BBC had a lovely documentary about the construction in the center of London. the tunneling machine had to thread its way through other underground tunnels as well as not damage surface buildings. The precision was amazing, and the control of the beast was very impressive.

Paul451 said...

Put the carbon sequester process together with additive manufacturing, with a touch of AI, all powered by the sun...

Architectural coral.

Catfish N. Cod said...

The feasibility of carbon extraction and its mere energetic/economic cost has been why I have never trusted projections for climate change beyond 2100-2150 or so. It will take a while to un-foul the nest, even once we have the infrastructure (read: vast cheap solar power from space) to do it. But by then we, or more accurately our grandchildren, will live in a world where climate change is obvious to five-year-olds and the world will have lived through at least one obvious climate change natural disaster. The willpower will exist and then, like present solar power adoption, it's just a matter of a descending cost curve and economies of scale.

Nasty things will happen, yes. The seas will rise a foot or three, making trouble for any low-lying lands (Miami? Amsterdam? Pretty much the entire nation of Bangladesh?) and weather pattern will shift. But I do not believe the predictions for 2500 can possibly be accurate, because like the 1900 predictions of New York's 2000 horse manure output, the predictions presume our descendants are maximally helpless and stupid. And while humans disappoint often, we are demonstrably and collectively better than that. Someday we will re-lay the carbon layers we once plucked to burn as roads, bridges, and buildings; as space elevators and structures; and possibly even as synthetic coal or carbonates.

As long as we have space capabilities to put the things up, that is. As long as the developed countries (which will include China and possibly India and several other countries by then) aren't overwhelmed by climate refugees. Fortunately, if there's one nation on Earth with the reserve capacity to integrate immigrants, settle people, produce more food, and remain stable throughout, it's the United States...

locumranch said...

Rather than 'Science' being 'broken', it is Science's underlying socio-political process which become increasingly suspect, especially when science has been shameless enlisted to promote (1) anti-scientific economic policies and (2) an increasingly irrational progressive agenda on both a global & local scale. That, and the fact that the value of 'statistics' (a pseudo-science which can be corrupted to 'prove' nearly anything) tends to be used to justify "lies, damned lies and (more) statistics" (according to Mark Twain), just as the dwindling 'Artic Ice Sheet' is used to create socio-political panic despite a statistically-measurable INCREASE in Antarctic Ice Sheet Volume, and the statistically-measurable 19% DECREASE in the solar panel cost (over 1 year) is used to justify increasing Solar Energy investment despite a dramatically concurrent 65% Crude Oil Price plunge over the last 3 years (which, btw, is both the main resource used in the creation of solar panels and the primary reason for the marginal decrease in the price of solar panels over the last year).


David Brin said...

I admit to being unusual in that I enjoy the entertainment value of opposing rants... and do sift them for gems of useful crit. Alas, locum scores SO much higher in entertainment than usefulness. For example, nothing could more decisive that the recitation of just-plain-dumb Fox-concocted talking points. Like the "growth" of ice in Antarctica.

A pure lie. The Antarctic ice sheets are collapsing all around the edges of the continent. What he conflated carelessly was the apparent increase in snow precipitation deep within the continent. And yes, that is true. Snow is falling at the south pole at ever higher rates!...

...because the inarguably and unambiguously warmer southern seas are evaporating faster! Creating denser clouds that then precipitate more, inland. In other words, more snow is exactly consistent with global warming.

I'd not bother except that these episodes are good teaching moments for the rest of you, for dealing with your own crazy uncles. Of course THEY won't change their minds, but your aunts will be quietly listening...

The hypocrisy of attacking the credibility of science WHILE sabotaging the research that would improve it WHILE citing (stupidly) scientific data in order to undermine science... this is what 40% of our frantically anti-modern age fellow citizens are reduced to.

SteveO said...

I can't say specifics, but that solid state battery had a chance of being developed at my university. I designed an experiment for the researchers back in 2010, but they ran out of money. (Stiffed me too...) Even then they knew it was going to be the next big battery tech.

A quibble - the plane didn't do more than pivot its weight off the nose. Impressive, but not quite a floating plane!

Alex Tolley said...

@locum - Wow! Let's examine that rant.

when science has been shameless enlisted to promote (1) anti-scientific economic policies

Such as? Economic policies are based on politicians use of economic models and history. What "science" is being used here? The western world has largely adopted "austerian" economic policies which are clearly not scientifically based, and run counter to many economic theories about managing recessions (apart from the Austrian school which nasically says don't mess with this natural event at all).

the fact that the value of 'statistics' (a pseudo-science which can be corrupted to 'prove' nearly anything)

Absolute nonsense. But seriously, if statistics are useless, how exactly do you decide on medical procedures and drugs to prescribe? Looking at chicken entrails?

just as the dwindling 'Ar[c]tic Ice Sheet' is used to create socio-political panic despite a statistically-measurable INCREASE in Antarctic Ice Sheet Volume

Mixing poles up? Arctic sea ice is both dwindling in extent and thickness. That should be warning enough. Antarctic ice volume has increased due to increased snowfall due to warming. But at the same time, the ice shelves are diminishing in extent as warmer oceans melt away they underpinnings to the continental surface, so the extent of Antarctica's glaciers has retreated. GW is demonstrated by a welter of other confirming data. So a dis-interpretation of one phenomenon is enough to undermine the whole phenomema? This is so like creationist arguments against evolution.

Solar panel prices are declining primarily due to scale of production and use of smaller quantities of silicon. Pretty soon they will be dirt cheap as a perovskite will be used instead of, or in addition to, silicon.
As solar is only ~ 1% of energy usage, obviously fossil fuel energy is used to manufacture them. But as solar increases, will you accept that panels are increasingly made with solar energy? I find your argument as silly as saying that car workers get to factories by horse drawn buses, therefore cars are dependent on horses, so why build cars.

I do hope most of these missives are just enjoyable trolling for you, because I would really worry about your abilities in medical practice. Out here in California's Central Valley I get just a little concerned when physicians sometimes express their anti-AGW ideas, or their strong religious beliefs, but so far non have ever suggested statistics were bunk (maybe I should bring that up as a topic of conversation more often?). What I do know is that medical practice here is very different from that in Silicon Valley, and generally of poorer quality.

Alex Tolley said...

@SteveO - as you suggest that you have done research in battery tech, what are your thoughts on flow batteries as a low cost technology for static installations?

David Brin said...

Perovskites... ah. Do any of you recall the role they played... in EARTH?

Jumper said...

Antarctic ice mass is decreasing and has been since 1990. The excess sea ice mass does not match the loss on the continent. The increase in some areas does not match the decrease in the others. The GRACE data support this. Radar mapping data support this. In addition some data suggest that sublimation (evaporation of ice directly at subzero temperatures) is more a factor than previously thought, meaning snow "pack" in some areas is now containing air porosity.
Anyone who wants to can easily verify this.

Anonymous said...

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Alex Tolley said...

I don't know what San Diego gas & Electric are hoping to do, but in NorCal, PG&E are steeply raising the connection fees to be on the grid. They are also lobbying to reduce net metering. I doubt electricity will be cheaper in 15 years, simply because these companies need to find ways to grow revenue.

I do think that solar will get so cheap (even the inverters) that it may well make more sense to wait for newer technology that to buy or lease today. Imagine locking yourself in to a 20 year lease for a mini-computer in 1990 compared to buying a PC that rapidly got cheaper over that lease period.

The real break will come with storage. A cheap battery will change a lot of the equation. we just need a cheap way to generate energy when there is a net household demand over possible supply. I'm thinking of a gas burning generator, or even eventually a gas fuel cell. Now all this only works for suburbia. City dwellers will need a different approach to free themselves from the utility if that proves desirable.

I personally think this is a good time to rethink utility ownership, so that the demand for increasing profits and dividend cash flow can be stopped and the needs of the population better addressed. Isn't it also high time that power (and other services) on poles is eliminated and transferred underground? Only high voltage pylons should be evident. This would be a simple public works program to sop up able bodied people to work if they desired.

SteveO said...

Hey Alex,

I designed the experiment, I wasn't the researcher, so I can't offer you any help there. (My role was to find out what outputs they are trying to control, what factors they guess might have an effect or interact with each other, and design an efficient experiment to test their notions and find an optimum combination.)

And ironically enough locum, statistical design is what I used to help them out.

If you have a layman-level understanding of statistics, then yes, you can be manipulated. But once you get to be a grown up and realize that you have to make decisions in a stochastic world, the best tool is statistics. I have an example where using some basic stats I was able to prevent a Fortune 500 company from making a $70 million mistake. Another where an analysis found a way to make aerospace aluminum that saved $20 million each year.

On the other side of the spectrum, statistical tools allow physicists, chemists, biochemists, metallurgists, manufacturing engineers, chemical petroleum refining chemists, etc. etc. to do their work every day.

Really, this is something I know quite a bit about, and it would serve you well to learn more about how the tools are actually used, rather than relying on the tired old, bromide about liars... Here is a much better, and true, quote:

"The great body of physical science, a great deal of the essential fact of financial science, and endless social and political problems are only accessible and only thinkable to those who have had a sound training in mathematical analysis, and the time may not be very remote when it will be understood that for complete initiation as an efficient citizen of one of the new great complex worldwide States that are now developing, it is as necessary to be able to compute, to think in averages and maxima and minima, as it is now to be able to read and write." -H.G. Wells

SteveO said...

Oh and Alex, look at the math for hydraulic storage instead of a battery. Run your windmills and solar whenever they can, and use the non-needed energy to pump water uphill. When you need to make up for it being dark or not windy, let it run back down and drive a turbine on the way. It is not very efficient, but it doesn't have to be since by definition it is waste power. And it can store arbitrarily large amounts of energy.

Same reasoning (with lots more technical hurdles) for cracking water and storing the hydrogen. Very inefficient "battery" but using spare power that would have gone to waste anyway.

Alex Tolley said...

Even Bloomberg news agrees we are getting hot. Extra snow on Antarctica invalidates all the temperature data too? Seriously?

Alex Tolley said...

@SteveO - water storage is really a utility scale solution. What I'm looking for is a residential scale solution that allows homeowners to stay off the electrical (but not gas) grid. As long as you are tied to the grid, you are subject to the rules and rates of the local utility. What choice you make will depend on circumstances, but I would certainly like a choice to separate from my local electric monopoly and its tame PUC control.

SteveO said...

Alex, yes that is utility scale. Also, I was intrigued by ramjet neighborhood generators that use methane.

For residential, a buddy of mine used paraffin as a heat storage medium when he was building in Arizona. More commonly big underground pools of water are used here in Colorado.

But we have more sun than any other state, so that gives us a certain advantage.

If you build them that way, they are not that much more expensive than on-grid houses.

Unknown said...

The worst liabilities come from aging. And not all advances in science are good. Most of these advances are actually bad according to this article:

Paul451 said...

"just as the dwindling 'Artic Ice Sheet' is used to create socio-political panic despite a statistically-measurable INCREASE in Antarctic Ice Sheet Volume"

This is a good demonstration of the difference between science and the anti-science deniers.

Anti-science deniers like Locumranch see something like that and it's only purpose is to fit his political narrative. (Ironically, exactly what he accuses everyone else. Naturally, since it's how he thinks, it must be how everyone thinks.)

But he will never ask one extra question: Why?

There's no curiosity as to why there would be an increase in Antarctic ice. Nothing, crickets chirping, tumbleweeds rolling, not one trace of actual curiosity. He found a pre-digested factoid that fits his narrative, the end.

Scientists, otoh, see an interesting phenomena and want to know what is happening. Regardless of whether it fits some political narrative.

For example, the warming of northern waters in the Southern Hemisphere has pushed the circum-Antarctic winds further south, tightening them around the continent, increasing their speed/energy. This causes the sea ice to break up much closer to the continent, but well inside the melt-boundary. So it causes the glaciers to drain faster, increasing the extent of the sea ice while decreasing the amount of old glacial ice. (Which is then replaced by low-density new snow pack, as Alex and Jumper pointed out.) Breaking up the sea ice in the right spot allows the sea ice to expand faster. Cool, huh?

This doesn't happen in the Arctic because the flow of the Southern Ocean creates a different pattern than Arctic currents, due to the Southern Ocean being able to wrap entirely around Antarctica. Interestingly, this Antarctic research also flows back into paleo-climatological research on ocean/air currents when Antarctica was closer to other continent, and the Southern Ocean couldn't flow. Science works like that, it's this big interconnected ball of stuff.

I heard about this research a couple of years ago (results of Australian scientists in Antarctica, so it got aired on a local science show), long before the factoid reached the sort of people Locumranch reads to find his little stories. Which I find interesting, the puzzle was solved (and shown to be a side-effect of climate change - oops) long before the anti-science brigade even picked it up as a narrative-point. They found something to fit the narrative, and then they stopped. No honesty and no curiosity.

Jumper said...

Basically, if you take a liter cube of ice and smash it out flat with a hammer so it's a centimeter thick, and a tenth of it melts, the denier will still look at how much more area it now covers and declare there is "more ice" now. Sort of like a three-year-old.

Alex Tolley said...

@SteveO - thanks for the article link. It looks like updated versions of 1970's technology. I have an old book from then showing solar (thermal) projects around the US. Technologies like Trombe Walls, and their variants, styrofoam window panels to reduce winter heat losses, correctly oriented building, water as thermal flywheels (both hot and cold storage), etc. Solar PV is really the only really new technology that has become cheap enough for consumer use since them. It is such a shame that builders still just make cheap cookie cutter tract homes with no regard to energy efficiency beyond the relevant building codes. I think Germany has done some good work on designing and building "net-zero" buildings. Lessons learned based on all this prior experimentation have been ignored.

Alex Tolley said...

Anti-science deniers like Locumranch see something like that and it's only purpose is to fit his political narrative.

It fits with the legalistic style of argumentation. Prove that some fact is wrong and this brings down the prosecutions case. Science isn't done like a legal arguments.

The incurious comment also caught my eye. So many people are just incurious these days, even some of my science students. It is no surprise that doctrinaire believers just have no interest in finding things out and using critical thinking. No wonder there is such opposition from conservatives about the content and style of K-12 education. Where I live the religious conservatives think the university campus is a brainwashing pit in hell and don't want anyone, least of all their children, to go there. Everyone should just stay ignorant beyond the basics of life, your work skills, and the "good book".

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alex

Re power storage
Modern lithium batteries will work for power storage,
The remaining issue is the cost and that is dependent on local conditions

With net metering the only cost you can save would be the utilities daily charge,
How much do they charge you?
Here a low user gets charged $0.33/day - $120/year
Battery cost will need to drop by a factor of 10 or so

But we don't have net metering so I pay $0.23/kwhr - but only get $0.07/kwhr back

If I use 20Kwhr/day and have enough solar to cover that I need about 15kwhrs storage
So I save $0.16 x 15 /day = $2.4/day - $876/year
So my batteries need to cost less than $4,000 - or about $266/Kwhr
A salvaged Nissan Leaf battery pack is 24Kwhrs and in the USA costs - $3000!

If I'm going to "cut the wire" I would need 3 days worth (ish) - 60Kwhrs
Two Leaf packs would not quite do that - but the cost $6000 would be more than the savings

I'm trying to get some Leaf battery packs at the moment - its not easy here (NZ)as there are very few Leaf's around and international shipping is quite difficult

Alfred Differ said...

The antimatter measurement would be neat, but I'm still waiting to see the experiment that measures the possible difference between protons interacting through gravitation and anti-protons interacting with regular matter with enough precision to pick off the wildly different coupling strengths. They aren't there yet.

The point is simple. If theories using curvature are right, it shouldn't matter whether it is a proton or an antiproton moving along a path. There is another kind of theory, though, that posits that the gravitational 'charge' is a vector quantity that is time-like for matter, but points backward for anti-matter. The particle's 4-momentum is the analogous charge. In that kind of theory, there is no need for curvature to get the perihelion shift for Mercury right enough to fit experiment. They also get the bending of starlight right since photons have momentum. Anti-matter should be different, though, so careful measurements are a sure-fire way of falsifying on theory relative to the other.

(My professor's group worked on this stuff. It's pretty neat to see a 'classical' theory produce perihelion shifts without curvature.)

Paul451 said...

Researchers in Japan have developed a translucent combination lithium battery and solar cell. A slightly tinted panel that charges itself when exposed to the sun.

Self-charging solar battery windows.

[I've always found the idea of combined solar/battery/inverter modules fascinating. They seem like such a natural fit. Plug'n'play.]

Paul451 said...

Beyond the mountains of madness, the Old Ones slumber:

Paul451 said...

Someone's added a colour layer, extrapolated from one of the lower res images:

Alfred Differ said...

Anyone who has lived near a body of water that freezes periodically and gets broken due to other forces has seen those patterns. Something big happened to 'splash' the area while it was warm underneath. Looks to me like a former roofed world. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: Some of us are supportive of attacking economic policies for their loony assumptions, but you’ll lose people like me if you attack science statements that get used in support of economic claims. People can reasonably argue about economic claims like any other field, but since economics isn’t a science, they should refrain from scientism. Using valid science, however, is not unfair. For example, it is well known that CO2 is opaque to enough of the IR spectrum that we should be concerned with its greenhouse capabilities as the atmospheric concentration rises. That’s good science and reasonable use of it. When it is coupled to economic claims that predict how much the surface temperature is going to rise in the next century, though, there is room to attack the ECONOMIC assumptions built into the prediction. How much CO2 will be present over the next century requires economic projections which aren’t based on science. IF those projections are accepted, the science takes over and you get some worrisome science projections.

Attack the right thing. People will use what they know to support arguments whether that knowledge comes from science or not. That is what we’ve always done and will always do.

As for statistics, thou art confused. It isn’t a pseudo-science. It is a language. All of mathematics is a language. We speak ABOUT science in that language.

Paul451 said...

Another Pluto img with pseudo-colour overlay from another camera.

Adds a subtle depth.

Tony Fisk said...

A lot of activity on that small world! (check the swirls in the flat region to the right of the image.)

My hypothesis is that the energy (and ice) for all this is supplied by the occasional encounter with another KBO.

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,
Correct me if I am wrong but in your book “Earth” aren’t perovskites the substrate upon which is written the Earth Mind that emerges at the end of the book? The black hole transforms layers of perovskites deep in the crust into a super-conducting network and after downloading all internet and communications becomes a Ghia-like mind. This is just from memory so I could be completely off.

Deuxglass said...

Statistics do not lie but people do. Manipulating statistics to “prove” a personal agenda is as old as the science of statistics itself. The Roman Empire used population, geographical and wealth statistics extensively and you can be sure politicians and others manipulated them to support their arguments. There is a confusion in the mind of the layman between correlation and causation which are two completely different things. I see this time and again in reading articles written by journalists in major publications. It is not that they are evil people but more that they are sloppy and more interested in deadlines, click-statistics and their personal ideology rather than accuracy. Just about always when I read the actual source its conclusions are completely different from what the journalist wrote. In the political area I only hope that policy-makers dig down to the actual data before making important decisions. Some do and some don’t and it is very important to vote for those that do.

Jumper said...

On those damnable complex regulations the U.S. liberals are so fond of:

Alex Tolley said...

In the US, politicians don't have time to do much of any reading, their staffers and interns do that and provide summaries. I'm guessing, but I would expect those staffers and interns to be polysci majors, not Maths or Sci majors. That means that at best they had a smattering of basic stats in High School and one required course in Math for their BA. They will have next to no training in statistics or how to interpret findings. To be fair, Sci majors are in a similar position. Professional scientists do not have a good grasp of statistics. That is one reason why a study of journal medical papers showed that around 1/3rd of the papers used inappropriate statistics. When unusual statistical tests are used, it is my guess that the test was used because other tests did not show the desired significance.

There has been a suggestion that schools and HE institutions drop some math and teach statistics instead. My local university has even dropped the basic math requirement for polysci students but not replaced it with anything math related.

Alfred is right about stats being a language, but we fail to teach it properly and so we should expect people to misuse and misunderstand it.

Tim H. said...

NPR has some highlights of the ig nobels....
Science and humor CAN go together.

Steve O said...

K-12 education should be aimed at a terminal stats class in math. As it is, most aim for calculus as the terminal. For the vast majority of people, understanding and properly interpreting statistics is far more applicable than calculus.

For folks like myself who do need calculus (and I took it in high school) like engineers and scientists, we can pick it up in college, and would be better off in our jobs if we understood more stats too.(Biggest learning point of my first real job was that I needed to know a LOT more about stats day to day. I never use calculus in doing the job, though I needed it to understand why a lot of what I did worked.

I can tell you that most published papers have terrible stats, or are based on a fundamental misinterpretation of what exactly stats are for. One tiny example was a paper in HBR that purported to show how cool this guy's assessment of the workforce was in predicting financial performance. The problem was that, while significant, the correlation was completely unimportant. Eyeballing it, the regression line predicted some level of profitability, but with a lower bound below zero and an upper bound above Apple. That is not a useful model.

Even the basic concept of what a p-value is for escapes many researchers. Sigh...

locumranch said...

First, when I invoked 'anti-scientific economic policies', I was pointing out that (1) science serves economic production (aka 'policy') rather than vice versa, (2) industrialization, excess production, rampant consumerism & GDP economic measures are environmentally destructive (even though we all recognize that more advanced technologies have the potential to be less so) and (3) globalization encourages profligate energy use & environmentally destructive policies on a massive scale, so much so that any argument to contrary is both unrealistic & insincere.

Second, it was the socio-political scientific hierarchy that I condemn as increasingly suspect, especially those organizations (i.e. academia, government, the petroleum cartel, etc) which appear increasingly committed to a singular 'sciencey' narrative (and a singularly 'progressive' one also) and self-survival rather than the pursuit of truth, made so much worse by both the Peter Principle, human self-interest & the corrupting influences of power.

Third, like any tool, statistics CAN be extremely useful when used properly in pursuit of truth (I never argued otherwise), yet we must recognize that statistics are often perverted to validate 'scientists' (and/or the 'desired' narrative) rather than actual (experimental) science, much in the same way that David used his sloppy "19%" Solar Panel cost saving value to validate his (and my) own pre-existing prejudices favouring solar power while simultaneously ignoring that those supposed savings were (are) due to the recent HUGE reduction in fossil-fuel costs.

Of course, human corruptibility in no way invalidates actual Scientific 'Truth', but it does make scientific 'truthiness' more likely & actual 'truth' much harder to come by, and it neither contradicts nor proves what currently passes for CO2-mediated climate change theory DESPITE the obviousness of its CO2/IR scientific basis as only heartless empiricism & time will tell what other important variables have been willfully ignored in pursuit of narrative purity (much like the effect of plunging oil costs lessening the cost of solar panels).

In almost ANY language -- whether that language be English, French, Math or Statistics) -- Humans can be EXPECTED to lie, especially in the presence of secondary advantage.


Jonathan S. said...

I seem to recall learning in my youth that Antarctica was basically a desert - it was just that what little precipitation it got never melted. (Back then, of course - this has, obviously, since changed.)

Correct me if I'm wrong, and I'm sure someone will, but wouldn't increased precipitation in the Antarctic interior be a fair indicator of higher temperatures, in that the air is finally getting warm enough to carry humidity inland?

Alex Tolley said...

@locum (1) science serves economic production (aka 'policy') rather than vice versa,

Give an example that you find egregious. Because in your field, if policy is keeping the public healthy, then science is providing the means to research H/C issues, techniques and new medicines to that end. You would want to go back to pre-science era medicine?

(2)industrialization, excess production, rampant consumerism & GDP economic measures are environmentally destructive

It is the ignoring of externalities that cause teh destruction. As we are seeing now, e.g. fossil fuel companies refusing to pay for CO2 emissions.

(3) globalization encourages profligate energy use & environmentally destructive policies on a massive scale

Just a reiteration of your point 2.

Second, it was the socio-political scientific hierarchy that I condemn as increasingly suspect, especially those organizations (i.e. academia, government, the petroleum cartel, etc) which appear increasingly committed to a singular 'sciencey' narrative

How convenient that you want to tar everyone with the same brush. Corporations control their messaging. Science institutions cannot. Scientific findings are constantly argued over and tested pretty rigorously. You claim of "sciencey" and "truthiness" is practiced by corporations and politicians, not by science institutions. To claim otherwise is to accept the Faux News/GOP "War on Science" narrative. Note how much corporate sponsored science is called out by new studies on repeatability of drug trials.

The problem here isn't science per se, however flawed humans are, it is the corporate mentality driven by the need for growth and rewards.

Alex Tolley said...

@locum In almost ANY language -- whether that language be English, French, Math or Statistics) -- Humans can be EXPECTED to lie, especially in the presence of secondary advantage.

And where are those rewards most concentrated? In the corporate C suite. Which is why the consequences of lies usually lay there, not with the scientist in the lab or the funding institution. Drug recalls during marketing are due to Big Pharma ignoring Phase III data and hoping for the best to recoup development costs. I've seen that first hand at a lower level. It is the same mentality that caused the financial collapse of 2008, and the same lack of consequences that encourages such actions.

SteveO said...

locum, you assert that, "we must recognize that statistics are often perverted to validate 'scientists' (and/or the 'desired' narrative) rather than actual (experimental) science." You are going to have to show some proof of that - I "must" not recognize anything of the kind. There are some high profile cases of researcher bias affecting reported results, but these are examples of science working as intended. What I don't see (and would love to) is related to Alex's response. A way of subjecting political/corporate claims to peer review (I think some ideas on how to do this have been discussed here before.)

Also, it would be more clear if you differentiate, "science" the method of generating knowledge, from "science" the body of knowledge generated, from "research" by university or corporations. Calling all of these "science" and then tarring them all with the same brush makes it confusing. English, ugh...

I do have one concern in parallel with you, I think. I am in higher ed, but the states have broken with the previous social construct and are not paying for state higher ed institutions. At my university, only about 20% of what it takes to educate someone to be an engineer is paid for by tuition. The rest is paid by either government or corporate research here. Now government-sponsored research is mostly subject to public review, etc. but increasingly we are finding corporate-sponsored research is not. I do think that is a real risk, both to the practice of science as well as transparency.

David Brin said...

Deuxglass wins the prize!

locumranch said...

Like Alex, I also distrust the creep of self-serving 'corporatism' that exists within all aspects of Western Society, yet I do not mean to imply that this (human) failing makes all scientific findings 'invalid'. It does, however, require that all scientific findings remain (forever) 'questionable' -- hence the importance of 'reproducibility' in the Scientific Method -- and therein lies the rub.

The majority of scientific research results cannot be replicated or reproduced:

And why is that? A prevalent narrative; consensus bias; publication bias; positive result bias; increasing study complexity; too many uncontrolled variables; greed; hubris; secondary gain; and (most perniciously) magical thinking.

This is also the problem with Climate Change & Western Economic theories. With a near total '97% consensus', too few scientists & laymen are willing to challenge a prevalent consensus that puts the positive-result cart before the horse of the unexamined (initial) assumption.

Assuredly, tomorrow we will move on to a different topic, and everything said here will be forgotten, excepting that we will assume that the our official status quo perspective will remain the only correct one, and that our science & technology exist solely to provide the 'best' solution to the questions generated by our inherent assumptions, but (almost) never to question the validity (moral or otherwise) of our initial assumptions themselves.


duncan cairncross said...

Hi Locum

The page you reference is loaded with Malware - and you believe the numbers???

If "the majority of scientific results cannot be replicated or reproduced:" then what am I typing this on now - Scotch mist??

The only way you could ever find
"the majority of scientific results cannot be replicated or reproduced:"
would be by starting off by selecting dubious looking results in the "soft sciences"

I bet I could go through a number of papers and select out those that will fail to be reproducible

I would be wrong occasionally but I would be able to produce a subset of papers that would have much higher failure rates than the majority

Incidentally I would NOT expect to find many "climate change" papers in any dodgy pile as those tend to be
(1) based on actual measurements
(2) have been subjected to a bit more scrutiny before publishing

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - poor reproducibility has been found recently in medical research. Sufficiently so that there are suggestions that almost none of it is reliable. However much of that research is Big Pharma sponsored and also has "significant" findings based on hindsight (i.e. found by chance). A number of medical journals are now insisting that all research that is to be published must have the testable hypotheses stated upfront in a register to counter this problem. So science is modifying its processes to guard against another form of "cheating".

Where different studies of drugs and techniques are done, cumulative analysis can be done to determine the more likely truth. Again another way to overcome research bias.

Much of this crap research uses small samples and poorly chosen statistics. This is due to expense in medical research and for other reasons in squishier domains, like sociology. As you suggest, where there is a lot of data, results are much more certain.

David Brin said...

Though he's in one of his more logical and cogent (though still 90% wrong) phases, the one thing locum will never do is make actual, specific, actionable and testable suggestions. Nor will he - amid bitching about scientists - face the fact that he is judging their faults by vastly higher standards that scientists invented, And by which scientists still come out vastly more honest and trustworthy and on-target than any other profession, by a country mile. (Name the exception.) Liberals do this too, of course. Our modern tragedies and failings and prejudices and injustices are railed against (and they should be!) by an idealistic standards that no previous society ever came as close to fulfilling, as (in many ways) we improve each year. He is far from alone, in this syndrome.

David Brin said...

I need your help! Name and source-cite excellent science fiction stories portraying plausible early stages in humanity accessing and using space resources. Bagging asteroids to solar heat them and get water? Using mirrors to melt them for metals? Returning wealth to Earth? Using the materials to bootstrap our presence in space? Sure I am talking about "analog-type" can-do problem-solving tales. Ideally with links to access them and share them with... well... shall we say folks at a very high level? Folks who might help make these dreams come true.

DP said...

This same technology that extracts CO2 from the atmosphere and turns it into carbon fiber could be used to terraform Venus. from a previous thread:

A. Total Mass of Venus Atmosphere 4.80E+20 kg
Percent Atmosphere CO2 96.50%
Total Mass of CO2 4.63E+20 kg...

Suppose we convert all that carbon into physical structures (sun shades, floating habitats, etc.) made out of carbon fiber which is stronger than steel? We would create a mass of carbon fiber equivalent to a layer almost two football fields thick over the entire planet’s surface:

H. Density of Carbon Fiber 1.600 g / cm^3
1,600,000.000 g / M^3
1,600.000 kg / M^3

Ratio of C to CO2 (12 / 44) 0.273
Available Mass of C 1.26E+20 kg

Volume of resultant Carbon Fiber 7.90E+16 M^3
7.90E+07 kM^3
Thickness of Carbon Fiber 0.172 kM

duncan cairncross said...

“I need your help! Name and source-cite excellent science fiction stories portraying plausible early stages in humanity accessing and using space resources. Bagging asteroids to solar heat them and get water? Using mirrors to melt them for metals?”

Nae tother aba!
That is what I thought – there are lots

So I went through my library (
To my total horror books like that are rare – not hens teeth but not common
And most of them are quite old

Ben Bova
Lots of titles – no engineering but no major idiocies

Charles Sheffield
Not much “near term” but The Web between the worlds has some asteroid capture and use

Donald Kingsbury
The Moon Goddess and the Son, To bring in the steel
Not available on Kindle –

Larry Niven
The Descent of Anansi, The Dream Park series, Footfall
(The decent must have the absolute worse blurb I have ever read – nothing to do with the book at all)

Arthur C Clarke
Lots of different titles

Michael Flynn
Firestar – long time since I read these – not sure how useful they are

Robert L Forward
Dragon’s Egg, Rocheworld, Martian Rainbow

David Gerrold
The Dingilliad trilogy – not sure if it’s useful he is such a pessimist about our future

Jack C Haldeman
High Steel

Peter F Hamilton
Good stuff but a bit too far away

Robert Heinlein
Lots of different titles

John McLoughlin
Helix and the sword – bit far away after earth is depopulated

Frederick Pohl
Mining the Oort

Jerry Pournelle
Higher Education,
Allen M Steele
Rude Astronauts
There are these – books about space stations in SF – not on Kindle so I haven’t read them

Alex Tolley said...

Add Poul Anderson - e.g. "Tales of Flying Mountains"
Allen Steele - his earlier work like: "Sex and Violence in Zero-G" (collection)

locumranch said...

'The Martian Way', first published in Galaxy Mag 1952, by Isaac Asimov.

Alfred Differ said...

Mining the atmosphere for carbon... hmm.

Isn't that what plants did way back before the microbes figured out how to break down the lignin they produced? Isn't that where our oil and coal comes from?

Is art finally imitating life? 8)

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: Dude. Your stuff is too dense for me tonight. 8)

Science should serve other fields. It’s not something to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped. It is a tool to use to carve away falsehoods from the body of knowledge. Hopefully there is something left to appreciate.

Truthiness is a squishy thing to say. Human corruptibility is expected. That’s why you need lots of people doing science. We don’t all corrupt ourselves for the same end purpose, so conflict is ensured.

Of course humans lie. More importantly, we lie to ourselves. Delusion is probably the truth we know best without realizing we do. Fortunately, we do not all delude the same way. Conflict is ensured. Find the courage to accept honest criticism, though, and one might bypass some delusions.

David Brin said...

Duncan nice list! Thanks also Locumranch.

Deuxglass said...

I would like to respond to locumranch.

locumranch said...
“The majority of scientific research results cannot be replicated or reproduced:”

You are missing the point of scientific research. You do not have to replicate the majority of scientific papers to further scientific progress. What you need to do is replicate the ones showing promise or presenting a new idea or avenue. In this sense even a paper with flaws has value. This is true especially in the hard sciences and I exclude those papers that are outright fabrications which, fortunately, are rare.

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,
When you say “excellent science fiction stories portraying plausible early stages in humanity accessing and using space resources” I assume you mean stories that give good technical ideas and not necessarily a well-written piece of literature. If that is true then we must look to the more obscure early SF stories that didn’t survive the test of time. I will have to give that a good think before I come up with something.

Returning wealth to Earth:

The Mass Driver in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” By Robert Heinlein. I can’t think of a cheaper and better way to get the material back to Earth. If the wealth is energy then we have to look into Gerald O’Neil’s vision of microwave beaming.

Bagging asteroids to solar heat them and get water:

Larry Niven’s belter stories describe ice mining from asteroids as well as turning them into living habitats (Troy) first by filling the interior with ice, then melting using mirrors. The ice becomes steam and inflates the asteroid forming a hollow interior which is then spun simulating gravity. This idea is seductive but I found several drawbacks notably that there is no way to guarantee a uniform shell integrity. Cracks and bubbles would form making the shell structurally weak for example or that even with a large mirror the time necessary to turn the asteroid into lava would be very long.


That means getting lots of revenue very quickly to pay off the venture. If you are smelting ore in an asteroid to make building material then the by-product of that would be a lot of gold and platinum meaning it has a low marginal cost. Use a mass-driver to send it to Earth using parachutes in the atmospheric stage. 30 tons of gold or platinum equals around 1 billion Dollars. Even refined ore would be good enough to guarantee a good payoff. Unfortunately SF writers ignore the economic side.

Alex Tolley said...

@Deuxglas - space operations would have to be very much cheaper for your bootstrapping suggestion to work. At this point the high cost to even getting to an asteroid, the unknowns regarding mining and refining techniques, plus the market impact on pricing makes this a high risk proposition today.

The best use of asteroid resources is to use them in off-Earth applications. Water is the best example, as it is easier to extract with a little heat and collect (bag it, or pump it out from reservoirs), and use it for fuel, propellant and life support. Cost to ship water to space is high, requiring recycling to minimize that cost. A lower cost fresh water supply in volume would be one of the best drivers for reducing deep space mission costs, as well as supplying life support for extra-terrestrial facilities.

Deuxglass said...

Alex Tolley,

Of course the up-front costs are enormous which means that you need a lot of seed money to begin with (excuse my hanging adjectives). Perhaps that is why we should have faith in billionaires who believe and are willing to risk their capital for a dream and hopes for eventual profit that would dwarf anything we know today. The age of the great explorations was financed in the beginning by government but entrepreneurs rapidly entered the game and reaped enormous profits from the trade setting up trade networks, plantations and in themselves controlling vast tracks of territory. To me it seems that we are at the same point as in the 15th Century when it comes to space exploration. At that time to set up an expedition to the other side of the world was horrendously expensive but those ships who returned laden with spices returned a 1000% on investment to their backers. When you come down to it, it is the profits to the investors that will drive space explorations, not glory or the advancement of the human race. If they can find things there to sell at a fantastic profit to Earthlings then it will happen and quicker than you think. You talk about using water as fuel but that is just a small detail in the story. It is just engineering and will be resolved quickly. It is money and the desire for profit that will drive us forward as it has throughout history in every successful culture.

Deuxglass said...


I meant the 16th Century and not the 15 Century.

Deuxglass said...


I meant the 16th Century and not the 15 Century.

Alex Tolley said...

@Deuxglas. I agree with the thrust of your argument. However, people have looked at the issue of asteroid mining for precious metals and returning them to Earth for sale and it doesn't work at this point. It may do in future, but not today or the near future. What really would need to happen is to find some new mineral that has extremely useful properties that cannot be found on Earth or is so rare that it costs much more to extract on Earth than from an asteroid. Alternatively make mining on Earth very expensive/difficult so that space mining can compete.

Water has the advantage of being needed in bulk for space activities and this Mass is expensive to ship up from Earth. Asteroidal water may work out cheaper to acquire, especially for deep space missions than shipping up from Earth. As always, economics will near on this issue and a new cheap access to space technology could change the business case.

Alex Tolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,

I would like to come back to Star Trek. It is a favorite or yours and of mine. I recently ran into an article that discussed its “art” aspect and the moral content. I must say that it lit up a light bulb in my head and enlighten me to the reasons of the continuing popularity of the show. I would love to say that these ideas are of my own origin but I cannot.

The dialogue between Spock and Kirk is what makes Star Trek great. It gives two diametrically opposed views of reality. Spock is intellectual and as many intellectuals can make an argument justifying almost any form behavior while Kirk has a visceral feeling about what is right and what is wrong. He does not ponder and analyze what he sees but just knows what is good and what is bad and acts accordingly. Spock on the other hand tries to see the other side of things. Giving these two moral interpretations is what gives the series its strength and its appeal. Neither view is either totally right or totally wrong. It is due to Gene Roddenberry’s genius who was able to maintain this tension between two opposing views thereby engaging the audience in moral questions that are eternal to the human condition. This moral duality is severely lacking in science-fictions movies and series today. They present either one or the other view and do not mix them together as did Star Trek. One exception is Continuum but they are some others. Is it better to work for Big brother or to work for a warlord? The correct choice is neither but then which path must the person take? Most movies and series prefer to stay in the “grey area” without giving resolution to the dilemma but Star Trek never did that. It took a stand. In the Star trek series not making a choice for whatever reason was never an option and that is what made it great.

Deuxglass said...

Alex Tolley,

Expecting to find an unknown element may be just a bit too far as a driver for space exploration unless we find magnetic monopoles as in Larry Niven’s books. It is better to count on what we already know exists because we can calculate its worth in the market today and make estimates the costs of extraction which is the basis of all business decisions and therefore determines whether investment is worth it or not. Governments can spend the money just to see what is there but businesses cannot. Unless NASAs budget is increased tenfold space exploration will remain scanty. NASAs budget is now around $18 billion a year. That is chicken feed for major corporations. If they have a reason to invest in space (profits) then they could easily invest much much more. If the prospects are good enough you could raise many billions in an IPO for example. We must not underestimate the power of finance to raise enormous amounts of money. If there is a scent of profit the money will be there. That is why Edmund Musk and others are involved. They know that if the prospects become realizable then they will have investors standing in line to throw money at their projects.

Alex Tolley said...

That big mining companies are not looking to mine asteroids should be telling you something. [The unique mineral was to make a point, not to suggest that it could happen or be looked for. If there is anything like that, it will be a serendipitous find].

The largest mineral extraction Exxon, spends ~ $35 bn on exploration and capital mining equipment annually for all its global operations. That doesn't make Nasa's $18 bn budget look like chicken feed to me. I would guess that Exxon couldn't afford to spend more than 25% of its budget on space mining development, even if the exploration work and R&D for micro-g mining techniques was already accomplished by a government agency. A consortium might be able to raise teh funds necessary, but teh high risk makes this unlikely IMO.

Jumper said...

I'm curious if there has ever been study of mounting a rocket (probably solid fuel) on steep railgun, accelerating it to higher g than people can take, and adjusting final orbit or trajectory with the rocket. For cargo, obviously.

Deuxglass said...

Alex Tolley,

The big mining companies are the last ones who would invest in a venture such as this. Their capital is already tied up in existing mines and have no incentive to go into space. To give an example in 2014 venture capitalists invested 48 billion Dollars (figures from Price-Waterhouse) in various projects. This just in one year and is steadily increasing year after year and these figures are only for the US. There are vast amounts of money in the world looking for good projects. If something is proven promising the money will come. You can’t depend on companies who already have an established position to make the investment. It just isn’t in their interest. Venetian capital never invested in exploration to the Spice Islands because that would have undermined their existing business. It was the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Spanish who had the incentive to break Venice’s and their Arabic partners’ monopoly on the spice trade and the same is true today.

Alex Tolley said...

VCs also thought that they knew better than energy companies and invested massively in cleantech. And the result...a major bust and loss of capital.

Mining companies have been quite willing to take risks (deep water drilling, arctic drilling) with mixed results. At this point nobody is even certain that asteroid resources can even be owned by a corporation, yet more uncertainty. Tech billionaires eying resources are taking a huge risk. Note that Elon Musk, perhaps the most successful NewSpace entrepreneur to data, is going for existing markets where the payoff is more certain. I'm sure he would happily sell a rocket shovel to the prospective miners.

So far Planetary Resources has designed a small scale Arkyd telescope to do early asteroid observations. Everything else is just vaporware. You can read what PR has to say about asteroids here. They seem pretty hot for water.

Paul451 said...

Next post has gone in a different direction, so I'll answer here:

"I'm curious if there has ever been study of mounting a rocket (probably solid fuel) on steep railgun, accelerating it to higher g than people can take, and adjusting final orbit or trajectory with the rocket. For cargo, obviously."

Many times. Several issues come up.

- There's a speed limit on rail guns before the spalling of the rails gets so bad that you're swimming in your own plasma. Non-contact mag launchers have similar issues with magnetic field strength increasing exponentially with velocity, until you are blowing the mechanism apart. (The solution is to widen the gap between the accelerator rings, as you move further along the tube, so the pulse-per-second requirements are the same. But that drastically increases the required length of the launch tube for higher velocities.)

- If you exit the launch tube within the atmosphere, you are hitting a shock boundary that will shred your space-craft. It's not just a matter of sticking an ablative heat-shield up the front, it's not the heat alone it's the physical shock. That limits you to solid mass launches, bulk metal, maybe tanks of water (heavily reinforced tanks). Even running the launch tube up the side of a mountain isn't enough, even Everest isn't high enough. If you want to exit above the atmosphere, you need to build a 50-100km high tower. (That would be pretty cool, IMO. A series of 100km towers supporting a horizontal launch track.)

- Big infrastructure costs up front. Which requires a high flight-rate to justify. Not a big counter-argument, IMO. SLS/Orion is receiving about $3 billion per year, so $24 billion between now and the first proposed crew launch in 2023, excluding the $10+ billion or so sunk-costs. That's $50 billion between now and 2032, the proposed date of the full mature system, plus sunk costs. $50b should be plenty to build a giant mag-gun launcher.

- You are limited to a single launch trajectory. Your system is thus limited to a single purpose (supplying cargo to ISS or equivalent, for example.) That's a big killer for flight-rate. But again... SLS/Orion... $50b... dozen missions per decade...

My favourite crazy launch scheme is the nuclear Verne gun.

You drill a tunnel several kilometres down into a salt dome. Excavate a space, fill it with water. You fill the bottom portion of the tunnel with a compressible medium (say oil), with your payload on top. At the centre of the water-cavity, you detonate a kiloton nuclear warhead. Water flashes to steam, pushes the oil like a piston, ramming the payload up the tunnel at escape velocity. Properly designed, very little radiation escapes the tunnel.

Variation: Open ocean. You build a tube several kilometres long, filled with compressed air. You detonate a nuke at the bottom of the tunnel. Water is fairly incompressible, so the tube becomes the weak-point for the steam to escape. Same result as the salt-dome, except even less radiation escapes to the atmosphere, and the ocean currents dilute the rest.

The cool thing is, you can lift thousands of tonnes to escape velocity with a single blast. Enough to kickstart a moon colony, say.

David Brin said...



Deuxglass said...

Alex Tolley,

Of course VCs lost lots of money in investments but some have made a lot of money too. It is a high-risk high-reward business. It is not something in which you would invest your grandmother’s savings. VCs when they invest look at two things, technical risk and market risk. For technical risk they need a working prototype before giving any money and then they look to see if there is a market for it or if a new market can be created. If both are good then they pour money into it. With asteroid mining I see the same process involved. Planetary Resources and others are in the stage of producing the prototype technology and hopefully finding ways to lower the cost and increasing the reliability. Notably at this stage the money comes from wealthy individuals who have a dream and not from VCs. These companies (Stratolaunch Systems, Planetary Resources, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Bigelow Aerospace) are financed by about 10 billionaires (Paul Allen, Larry Page, Eric E. Schmidt, Ram Shriram, Charles Simony, Ross Perot, Jr., Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Robert Bigelow). If (and it is a big if) the technology part progresses well enough then the VCs will look at the market for the product. Fortunately the market for the target metals is very robust and deep. At this point if the numbers work out you get VC investment and can be massive if the potential looks good. Sure maybe they will lose their shirts but that is just part of the game.

I am not really worried by the legal risks. Once proven feasible there would be a huge incentive for countries to get together to lay down the ground rules. After all, mining is perhaps the most environmentally destructive industries around.

Mining and energy companies do take big risks in deep water and arctic drilling as you pointed out but these are just extensions of their own basic businesses. They stick to doing what they know how to do and don’t go off in tangents when it comes to big investments and for reason. Big shareholders do not look favorably on that type of behavior. However they would come in later when the concept becomes reality.

Elon Musk is looking much further than just providing a few trips a year to the International Space Station or just launching satellites. He wants to be the best and cheapest way to get into space and sees the day when space activity will explode making his company very profitable. He believes very deeply in the potential of space not only to make money but also what it would bring to the Human Race and has the guts to put down a lot of his own money to bring this about. It wouldn’t surprise me that he is also thinking of selling “rocket shovels” to miners. He looks that far ahead.