Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Clues to the deep, cosmic past... and other wonders out there!

I'm heading soon to Boston for the Symposium of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, which funds the most speculative proposals that are just this side of plausible. (Open to the public if you RSVP or you can livestream.)

Meanwhile, let's peer a bit farther... in space and time.....

First a brief look at twelve futuristic space exploration concepts being pursued by NASA, many of them via the NIAC program - including laser powered spaceflight and blimps for Mars!

Titan, seen without the haze! Revealed by thirteen years of Cassini orbiter observations in three infrared bands, synthesized into a globe. One of the things I am most proud and excited about, that we've accomplished together in an amazing civilization!

Then there is the haze of the super-dust storm enveloping Mars. Ala, we may have heard the last from Opportunity. (I helped name the probe.)

 With Pluto now firmly in its rearview mirror, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is steadily chugging towards Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object located, on average, about 44 AU from the Sun. It took an actual photograph of a 19-mile-wide (30-kilometer) object located 100 million miles away from the spacecraft and 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth the most distant ever taken.” New Horizons will zoom past Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019, just half an hour after the ball drops in Times Square. And yes, your civilization is doing this.

Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene: an interesting paper appraises the feedback looks that keep the Earth from runaway into either glacial or hothouse eras.

 == Understanding the cosmos ==

Scientists analyzing the rare, luminous event called “STEVE” – a shimmering upper-atmosphere ribbon in the far-northern sky – now think it is quite different from the more regularly-seen aurora, which are caused by oxygen and nitrogen atoms fluorescing when struck by accelerated particles from the solar wind. (I guided a "Northern Lights" expedition, last March, in Arctic Finland.)

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has commenced its hunt for alien worlds around the 200,000 brightest stars. Unlike the Kepler mission, this one will scan most of the sky, possibly multiplying by an order of magnitude the 2600 confirmed and 5000 likely exoplanet discoveries made by Kepler. And hot news!  As I post this, they've announced TESS's first planetary find!

Earth appears to attract… hold… then lose a small number of “mini-moons” or Near Earth Asteroids at intervals. "Minimoons can provide interesting science and technology testbeds in near-Earth space," and to verify whether varieties of great wealth might be accessible from these tumbling space rocks. Efforts to get samples to assay those resources have been undermined by this administration, whose supporters have sunk investments in Earthly mines and who thus prefer we spend our sparse exploration funds repeating Apollo landings on a dusty/useless plain. (Oh and on spandex Space Force uniforms. And the liposuction necessary to wear them.) And no, except for some polar ice we should save for future lunar cities, there's nothing we know to be of value on that plain of razor, lung-harmful dust.

A meteor exploded with 2.1 kilotons of force about 40 kilometers above Thule U.S. Air Force base in Greenland.  The silence from the Air Force is a wee bit disturbing… though in fact, this sort of thing happens annually somewhere across the globe and is one reason I back the B612 Foundation’s work to characterize and find ways to deal with the threat.

Too cool.  Each time I look at this time-lapse of stars orbiting the black hole at the center of the galaxy, I go “gosh.”

That’s a lie. Sometimes I go Wow or Dang! Or “I’m as proud as heck that I helped pay for that.”

China has built a big brother to Arecibo, now the biggest telescope in the world, and has added an “astronomy tourism town” nearby. At a time when support for US science has plummeted, it’s important for humanity that scientific boldness be taken up somewhere. 

“It’s especially important since the National Science Foundation has recently cratered funding to both Arecibo and Green Bank observatories, the United States’ most significant single-dish radio telescopes. While they remain open, they have to seek private project money, meaning chunks of time are no longer available for astronomers’ proposals.” It’s expected the Chinese FAST radio scope will “ find thousands of new pulsars (as of July 2018, they had already found more than 40), and do detailed studies of hydrogen inside the galaxy and in the wider universe, among numerous other worthy scientific goals.

== Re-ionization and clues to the deep past ==

Piecing together clues, we are getting a timeline of the early eras of our particular – and peculiar – cosmos.  In order that they occurred, it appears that…

1) There was an initial “bang” – perhaps seeded by a quantum fluctuation, or else a ripple in a multiverse, or a black hole collapse “somewhere(when) else,” or… I have fun with all of these concepts, in various stories.

2) Then, almost instantaneously, there came “inflation.” It’s not proved – there are problems – I’ve talked to both promoters like Andrei Linde and clever concocters of alternatives, like Roger Penrose. But for now, the standard notion is that there was a period (lasting fractions of a picosecond) when the bang’s bubble expanded at much faster than light speed. (Don’t shout; Einstein allows space, itself, to do that, while matter is forbidden.) This would smear out the heat just right to explain the CMB or cosmic microwave background radiation we observe.

3) Inflation stops and the expansion then occurs more like an explosion, extremely energetic but at sub-light rates. We are blind to this era, because the hot universe was ionized -- loose protons and electrons absorbed all radiation, re-radiating it and re-absorbing, erasing all patterns, until…

4) … things cooled enough that atoms started forming from protons and electrons a few hundred thousand years (estimated 138,000) after the Big Bang. The resulting neutral gas clumped, creating stars, but also allowing a lot of photons to cut loose and never be re-absorbed until their travels ended 13.8 billion years later, after redshift stretching, by hitting our microwave detectors today. This is called the Curtain. We see nothing earlier… though we had hopes of detecting the inflationary era when my friend Brian Keating saw hopeful signs in polarization of the background radiation. (See his new best-seller “Losing the Nobel Prize.”)

5) We see only a little of the radiation released after the Curtain, because those first stars seem to have been of the large variety that… explode. A dazzling fireworks display of supernovae burst within a few million years, spewing ultraviolet that ripped electrons from protons again, “re-ionizing” most of the matter, making the universe mostly light-absorbing and dark, again.

6) That pulse of supernovae also shoved matter around into filamentary structures typified by what’s called “The Great Wall” in intergalactic space, triggering the formation of a second wave of galaxies. And so, there may have been two, separate waves of galactic formation…

…and scientists now claim to see signs of this in the tiny, satellite galaxies  - some red and old and some newer/brighter – that surround our own Milky Way.

The most widely accepted model says that galaxies are actually visible gas and dust coalescing inside larger haloes of a yet-to-be explained kind of mass called dark matter. Galaxies began forming with the first stars, but during the re-ionization period, astronomers think that temperatures rose too high, halting further galactic growth. Only at some later period, when large-enough dark matter halos coalesced, would the galaxy formation process pick up again. Maybe, thought the researchers, the satellite galaxies surrounding the Milky Way could provide a signal of this re-ionization era. Small, dimmer satellites would have formed before the period, and brighter, larger galaxies would have formed afterward, with a gap in the middle representing re-ionization.”

Wow. In other words, the dim red halo galaxies may be remnants of the universe’s earliest days… kind of like the place I call the “Shallow Cluster” in my novel Startide Rising. A concept that I explore more deeply in Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and the grand conclusion Heaven's Reach!

Speculation has its place, as there grows an ever-larger realm of overlap between science and fiction. And you... you who made it this far in shared fascination... you are citizens of this wonder.


On September 27 only, my 3rd novel (and one of the most-fun) THE PRACTICE EFFECT will briefly be on sale for Kindle for $1.99! through Bookbub and Low Price promotions. Don't miss your chance! 


Winter7 said...

Since you will soon be going to the Symposium of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program; Can I make some suggestions, since I will not be there?
A) I suggest that they launch an explorer robot, capable of making repairs to the other Mars rovers that are stuck in the sand or that require axles and new tires. (It is not necessary to change the rims and the axes, simply take axles with rim and that the new axle of the rim has a system that holds with a pressure claw, the chassis, nothing to remove screws, the new axle already has a built-in new rim The axle has a wide claw that traps the rim of the rover chassis, with a bolted locking system, the union of the new axle will be excellent.
The repair robot could carry spare parts and energy sources. It could also carry new systems, capable of being attached to the chassis laterally. (Deeper drilling systems, etc)
B) Could you send a mission to Mars to explore the volcanic caves of Mars? A Mars rover, equipped with a nuclear battery, could leave a transmitter with antenna at the entrance of the cave and enter the cave, leaving behind radio relay systems, fed by a cable that the robot would drop when advancing. (If the robot has arms to untangle the cable if it gets stuck in the rocks when rewinding, better). That way, the robot could advance to the part of the cave where those strange frozen organisms are. The robot has to have several containers and have a device capable of thawing the frozen samples, strain them and then analyze the samples with a microscope with lenses of various magnifications; including some nutrients, to see if it is possible to reanimate bacteria and thawed organisms. (I can think of a system capable of making the matter easier)
The system must be able to reassemble, to explore other caves.
C) Could they launch automatic greenhouses, capable of forming a bubble on the Martian terrain and create heat and humidity and sow some seeds to see which germinate and better support the radiation on Mars?

jim said...

From the conclusion to: Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene

“Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions—Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.”

“The Stabilized Earth trajectory requires deliberate management of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth System if the world is to avoid crossing a planetary threshold. We suggest that a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies is required. Even so, the pathway toward Stabilized Earth will involve considerable changes to the structure and functioning of the Earth System, suggesting that resilience-building strategies be given much higher priority than at present in decision making. Some signs are emerging that societies are initiating some of the necessary transformations. However, these transformations are still in initial stages, and the social/political tipping points that definitively move the current trajectory away from Hothouse Earth have not yet been crossed, while the door to the Stabilized Earth pathway may be rapidly closing.”

From this perspective, it seems like there really are limits to growth if we want to prevent a Hothouse earth and that it does not seem likely that we will get to have a cake, eat it and get rewarded with a bigger cake.

And a note on hopelessness. If you respond to the very difficult predicament we are in with feelings of hopelessness that is on you. That feeling of hopelessness is your response, it is quite possible to respond very differently and in a useful manner.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

In other words, the dim red halo galaxies may be remnants of the universe’s earliest days… kind of like the place I call the “Shallow Cluster” in my novel Startide Rising. A concept that I explore more deeply in Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and the grand conclusion Heaven's Reach!

I'm not sure my sense was accurate, but I envisioned the Shallow Cluster as an area of space without many stars or other heavy objects distorting space with gravity. That's what I thought was meant by its description as a "flat region" of space, though I was always unclear just what the Shallow Cluster was a cluster of.

At the time I first read those books--late 1990s--I was very much into Dave Sim's "Cerebus" comic, and I saw echoes of his unconventional views on civilization and relationships in your hints about the Progenitors--that while Galactic civilization promises rewards for collecting together in more and more dense gravity, the Progenitors apparently avoided all of that and disappeared into a gravity desert instead. This was very much in line with Dave's views on "merging and multiplying" (He insisted that both were bad ideas, although "Millions swear by them.").

donzelion said...

Jim: "If you respond to the very difficult predicament we are in with feelings of hopelessness that is on you."

Perhaps, not 'on you' but simply, 'that is you.' We have more control over our responses than over just about anything else.

"However, these transformations are still in initial stages,"
I'm a bit proud of California's efforts in this direction, even if they're rather 'futuristic.' We have more people working in solar energy (about 100k) than there are in coal (75k). Tariffs on China are intended to ultimately raise the costs and hurt California (in a host of secretive little ways, each of which was studied in detail before the tariffs were 'recklessly' initiated - the intended effect on Long Beach/LA ports is the more long-term target).

The response? Californians (Feinstein and Harris) are playing tough and dirty with Kavanaugh, and playing clean with the Paris Accords. But I wonder how voters will respond to this struggle....

"it seems like there really are limits to growth if we want to prevent a Hothouse earth"
That really depends. Manufacturing growth, like agricultural growth, has certain limiting factors (though not always 'hard limits'). But ideas? We currently use vast energy sources to produce and trade in them, but one wonders at the capacity to shift to fully renewable sources...

A.F. Rey said...

Oh and on spandex Space Force uniforms.

You got me curious about whether any money has been spent on uniforms yet. (That would be just like our President to design the uniforms before establishing the branch.)

I didn't find anything official, but has a good article on uniform suggestions, based on popular SciFi (starting, naturally, with Star Trek).

Some of the comments are priceless. :)

Tacitus said...

I have been watching old episodes of Star Trek Voyager lately, and am of the opinion that spandex in Space Suit uniforms is a reasonable expenditure.

Now, is there any possibility that our correspondent Winter7 is really Jeri Ryan writing under an alias?

Of the many wonders David describes would that not rank high on the list?


David Brin said...

This is why we love Tacitus/Pirate-Tim

Larry Hart said...

Tim Wolter:

Now, is there any possibility that our correspondent Winter7 is really Jeri Ryan writing under an alias?

You mean Winter7of9 ?

Winter7 said...

Tim Wolter:
¿What? ... ¿Who told you? ... ¿Is this another of Jack's gossip to make it difficult for the custody of children? ... Haaaaa. I'm sorry, Tim. Now that you have discovered it, you will have to be assimilated. Resisting is futile ... :)
Jaaaaaa;ja ja ja. LOL... No ... I'm sorry, Tim. I'm sorry to break your heart; but the truth is that I am a Mexican; I'm male; and I am very similar to Chewbacca; with hair everywhere. In fact, redheaded women make me crazy and of course, I like Jeri Ryan intensely.
If I use the number 7 in my pseudonym, it is because I consider it a special number. (That number appears a lot in the Bible.) When I was very young and still had faith in a god, I assumed that the number 7 was a kind of magic number.)
And if any of my other pseudonyms make you have doubts, you must understand that my other pseudonyms are designed to confuse and mislead hackers of the far right. (And just that)(

Winter7 said...

Doctor Brin:
Ha, I forgot other suggestions for your next meeting with NASA:
A) Throw the moons with oceans with a thick ice roof, probes capable of drilling the ice and lowering with a cable deep a camera that records all the descent to the marine abyss of the moons: Ceres; Europe and Enceladus. (only in areas where there is geyser activity)
B) I suggest sending a laser-sail probe, to reach the artificial object known by the name of 'Oumuamua. (Maybe the next time, in two hundred thousand years, the aliens should throw a giant reindeer at us so we know it's not a comet)
C) Given that humanity decided not to stop global warming (except for heroic people who spread the benefits of clean energy) I should suggest that they take one of the following two options:
1) That the UN fund my plan to stop global warming. (Yes, my plan is feasible and the best option, I swear, and if I'm wrong, a train falls on Donald Trump)
2) That they place a shield in space to block sunlight (which will undoubtedly be the option that humanity will take when everyone is roasting on the streets) (Ha, humanity is so predictable, always taking last minute solutions and plugging the wells after the children fall into them) Unfortunately, if the solutions are postponed, the consequences could be irreversible, especially in the oceans. A shield in space will not stop the acidification of the oceans and all life on the seas will die and when that happens ....
(It would be easier if NASA took the option to finance my plan) But. I guess that would leave us without another exciting Mars Rover. (My plan to eliminate CO2 would cost much less than half the cost of placing a Mars Rover on Mars.) But Mars Rovers are so fun! (A future with more CO2 is not going to be fun).

Alfred Differ said...

This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.

Sorry. This demonstrates a lack of imagination. The runaway feedback notion is certainly possible, but the hypothesis is highly vulnerable to unknown unknowns. What we don't know that we don't know could be small or large, but in systems were iteration occurs, even small things can propagate and alter feedback loops. Butterfly effects. Black swans large and small.

Even worse is the notion that human actions wouldn't be able to slow or reverse the situation. That is ALWAYS possible, but the more likely path is we will choose not to try in large enough numbers. It's not that we can't. It's that we won't. It's not wise to lump together a choice for inaction with an inability to act effectively. We could choose not to stop the warming, but we can't choose to stop the sun from having spots.

Quibbles? No. I don't think so. There are two common flaws used in arguments by people who want us to take action against climate change. One comes from a belief that they can make reasonable projects for the impacts of human economic activity. It can't be done in general, but one CAN offer an ensemble of possibilities and then discuss outcomes. The further out one looks, though, the less likely it will be that human actions will produce a future that is in the ensemble. We have a terrible track record of predicting what our world will look like because we are terrible at predicting what WE will be able to do. Back up before the Enlightenment and the predictions were much easier. "Today the vast majority of humans will scratch out a living walking a knife's edge between starvation and surviving just long enough to produce viable children." That prediction worked because little changed within a single generation. Yet… there were changes over 10 or 20 generations that were large enough to ensure the real world looked only a little like the predictions that would have been made. One doesn't have to wait a dozen generations today. One doesn't even get to wait for one generation. Lickety-split, we are changing what we CAN do.

If anyone thinks they can imagine where will be a century from now with any accuracy, I'll just smile and bet against them. Parts of their predictions will work out, but a lot won't. I remember hyperventilating the first time I saw a windowed GUI on a Mac. I knew that approach would be big, but I didn't even begin to imagine how big. Now there are little screens everywhere and even people with learning disabilities are picking up how to use them easily. They weren't just going to be big. As Biden would have put it, they were going to be @#@%ing big.

As for avoiding hopelessness, I'm inclined to applaud Jim. Avoiding that is important. The next thing to demonstrate, though, is that one can talk about the obvious problem that is climate change without invoking hopelessness in the people who listen to us.

Darrell E said...


You've mentioned a couple of times that McConnell and the rest of the Republicans refusing to vote on Merrick Garland's nomination was acceptable because you think their excuse that they were doing so in order to allow the will of the people to determine the next SJC by proxy of the presidential election has merit. You've also been critical of the various activities of the Democrats opposing Kavanaugh's nomination.

1) There is an important election coming up that could change the balance of power in the House and perhaps even in the Senate. How does McConnell's argument not work in Kavanaugh's case precisely as it does in Garland's case? Why should the will of the people be denied now, but not then?

2) If the will of the people is an important metric in your estimation, what do you make of the polls of the public's approval of Kavanaugh? If you haven't seen them let me summarize briefly. Early polls had him at +4, which was a historic low. As things heated up that dropped even lower to a knew record low of +2. The most recent poll (all polls by the same outfit, so they are directly comparable) has him at an epically low approval rating of -4. Several other polls by other outfits have comparable, showing that more people oppose his nomination than support it. Heck, one poll by Ipsos Public Affairs has him at -9. If you stand by the will of the people, which seems quite clear in this case, then Kavanaugh should clearly be denied a seat on the SC.

3) What do you think of the Republicans refusing to allow the FBI to look into the sexual assault allegation as part of the standard background check that all nominees are typically subjected to as SOP? How can this possibly be justified? Just some typical political maneuvering, and the Democrats do it too? No and No.

The Republican Party as it is now needs to die. I've been registered Republican for my entire adult life. I really don't know why. The Republican Party of the past 30 years, most especially since Bush Jr, is reprehensible. The Democratic Party, not so much. In real life degrees matter. That's all there actually is. I don't understand how someone such as yourself, obviously intelligent and decent, can continue to support and make excuses for the Republicans and continue to believe that the Democratic Party is comparably corrupt and that their more liberal ideologies are so bad that you are willing to support someone like Trump in order to avoid someone like Hillary Clinton. Shit, if you were to make her male and drop her into a presidential race in the 70s Republicans would have voted for him in a landslide.

Zepp Jamieson said...

In a similar vein, here's a little bit of awesomeness from JAXA: The Minerva II1 has just successfully deployed two rovers on the asteroid Ryugu. Here is the imagry from the twitter feed:

sociotard said...

Remember, you are part of a civilization that gave Ecstasy to a group of Octopuses to see what would happen.

David Brin said...

Yeah!! Both of you.

Tacitus said...


I do answer all polite questions, and most impolite ones. But this being a science thread and all, maybe wait a few days? I suspect the picture will be a bit more in focus by then anyway.

If a reasonable delay to collect thoughts and gain composure is not to your liking.....then your position on calling a Kavanaugh vote should be in line with that.


Berial said...

Seems Yale Law school faculty have weighed in on the Kavanaugh appointment.

Darrell E said...

Tim Wolter aka Tacitus,

No worries. I'm not in a hurry and I don't expect people on the internet to owe me any answers in any case. And you're right about the timing. My apologies to all for derailing the topic.

Larry Hart said...

Tim Wolter:

If a reasonable delay to collect thoughts and gain composure is not to your liking.....then your position on calling a Kavanaugh vote should be in line with that.

I realize you're responding to a hostile question, but that response is a non-sequitur.

There's a qualitative difference between a delay to collect facts and a delay so that the seat will still be available for the next president to fill. There's no hypocrisy in calling for the one while decrying the other.

David Brin said...

LH I leave fairness parsing to you. Blatantly a fellow was 'groomed" for this elevation from his silver-spoon birth through preppie privilege, through utterly hypocritical philosophical reversals that always, always favor oligarchy. These people will wrack our institutions, crush the enlightenment and steal until they stare in surprise at the kind of pitchforks and torches that the nerds and their law-fact-loving allies come up with. A large fraction of my efforts go to persuading some of them that their finest future will be in maximizing actual wealth by letting this amazing experiment thrive. Some listen. Some aren't ingrates. But most rationalize that what's good for new feudal lords is good for us all. Sycophants tell them how brilliant they are, while they prove why feudalism has been the stupidest form of government, ever.

Larry Hart said...

@Dr Brin,

I hope you didn't think I was arguing for Kavanaugh.

donzelion said...

Liking these images of Japanese hopping bots exploring an asteroid:

Intriguing that the Wikipedia page for the mission lists funding sources immediately after the mission overview, before discussion of the structure of the probes, function, possibilities, travel path. There's something crass in such an arrangement, akin to the tourist wandering into a museum and asking before some masterpiece, "Pretty. So how much is this worth?" There's also something desperate, comparable to public radio's constant evocation of 'our sponsors' - a plea for new ones to come forth.

David Brin said...



donzelion said...

Berial: You might be more interested in what some other Yale faculty had to say about Kavanaugh, esp. Amy Chua:

While her book 'Tiger Mom' got far more general attention, 'World on Fire' was far more influential and intriguing for me, dealing honestly with a concept of 'market-dominant minorities' that any lawyer who knows Asia would deal with on a daily basis. Perhaps the two ought to be read together as coded proposals for what to do in a world of 'thin' democracies governed by market-dominant minorities:
(1) plead with the dominant minorities to take the public into account, and
(2) make oneself look like a model if one wants to attract attention from a specific judge (Tiger Mother especially provides guidance on producing 'model' students likely to get acceptances at prestigious universities)

Troubling? Well, that depends. If Chua's purpose was to help her students compete for prestigious clerkships, then one cannot fault her for using every trick and observation available to her to win such challenges. And yet...clerkships are one of few rungs not typically handed down to the well-born, but rather, restricted to victors in one of the fiercest competitive settings of intelligentsia.