Okay, the last 4 months were the busiest in my professional life, completing twelve book projects all with January deadlines. Scan to bottom to see them laid out. From sober nonfiction to sci fi comedy to several SF adventures for young people and fresh tactics for politics!
Only now... science and technology news!
First, many of you have heard or seen me talk about a looming Age of Amateurs. You can help scientists understand our planet: Citizen science allows laymen to contribute to groundbreaking investigations, even without traveling.
See a very wise-guy ruminate about the “Precautionary Principle” and its major flaw -- a tendency to take “better-safe-than-sorry” way too far. (We saw this with covid, in the slowness of vaccine roll-out, when expanding the size of the phase three trials 10-fold would certainly have been justified.) Kevin Kelly (author of The Inevitable: 12 Technologic Forces that Will Shape Our Future) recommends instead a “Proactionary Principle,” that we should err instead on the side of progress and willingness to assess consequences more fluidly, while letting innovators generally at least try. A notion that I generally support, but that I maintain will only work under conditions of general transparency, allowing light and reciprocal criticism to expose potential errors (and errors in the criticism!) in real time.
Indeed, that is why I support the Precautionary Principle in some cases... like shouting yoohoo “METI messages” into the cosmos. We have very little knowledge (or ‘light”) about the galactic situation re the Fermi Paradox. We are learning facts with incredible speed, but there simply isn’t any way to scale the potentially lethal consequences under any kind of illuminating criticism. There are cases when it’s ‘better safe than sorry.’
== Technology Milestones & Updates ==
This reported improvement to 30%+ efficiency of membrane desalinization purification of water could be another of those scientific wonders that might help prevent calamities in a drying world.
MIT economists have argued that the United States taxes machinery and equipment too little compared to labor, thereby encouraging excessive automation that eliminates jobs without making the economy more productive. ITIF President Rob Atkinson has argued in response that automation doesn’t lead to joblessness and that increasing taxes on automation equipment, including artificial intelligence, would hurt U.S. competitiveness and reduce real wage growth. Attend a discussion.
Ryan Abbott’s new book The Reasonable Robot: Artificial Intelligence and the Law argues that, as a general principle, the law should not discriminate between AI and human behavior, and discusses how this principle should shape tax, tort, intellectual property, and criminal law. I have some disagreements… but interesting arguments.
The huge Italian neutrino observatory has become sensitive enough to confirm that the sun’s core uses the “C-N-O” cycle to do about 1% of its fusion, with the rest accomplished by the simpler “proton-proton” reaction.
An optical circuit has performed a quantum computation called “Gaussian boson sampling” (GBS) 100 trillion times faster than a supercomputer could, according to researchers in China. Boson sampling is a way of computing the output of a linear optical circuit that has multiple inputs and multiple outputs. As bosons, photons obey Bose-Einstein statistics meaning they clump together without separate identity and follow group dynamics, as in a laser. Predicting the path of such aggregates could be very useful. But I have to wonder about potential biological implications, if – as predicted by Roger Penrose & allies – there are quantum elements inside living cells, like neurons.
A Beijing institute has come up with a new family of ceramics that wrap themselves in a buffer layer of insulating air, which protects against the sudden temperature changes, making them suitable to replace most metal in engines.
United Airlines is investing in VTOL startup Archer and has placed a $1 billion order for 200 electric VTOL aircraft. Expect those downtown helipad ports soon, that we were promised in ‘the future’! (How ironic that LA just recently ended its longstanding zoning requirement that tall buildings have helipads! Kind of like Sears ending its mail order business in 1992, of all years!)
== What's happening in biology! ==
DARPA’s RadioBio program, announced today, seeks to establish whether purposeful electromagnetic wave signaling between biological cells exists—and if so, to determine what information is being transferred. “There are many complex interactions within and between cells, so determining if electromagnetic waves, which could be low or high frequencies, somehow play a role in transmitting and receiving meaningful signals through what might be an ion-rich, aqueous solution is a significant challenge.” Evoking further wonder is whether this might correlate with the purported “quantum-molecular-computational” effects that (as I alluded separately above) some, like recent Nobelist Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have claimed might be going on along tiny structures inside cells, especially neurons, which would vastly expand the amount of ‘computing’ actually going on within us.
Potentially great news... maybe. Mouse analogues have proved unreliable for any disease or effect of aging, for reasons I lay down elsewhere. Still this would be cool, and reminiscent of Vernor Vinge’s RAINBOWS END: “A team of neuroscientists has identified a potential means to address the loss of cognitive function due to Alzheimer’s disease by targeting protein synthesis in mice.”...and “... jump-starting protein synthesis in the brain can revive lost cognitive functions.” (Please contact me, if you are involved in this work.)
Scientists studying the bio-mineral body armor of leaf-cutter ants have found the coating is made up of a thin layer of rhombohedral magnesium calcite crystals around 3-5 microns in size.
African crested rats will take nibbles from the branch of a poison arrow tree. It’s not for nutrition. Instead, they will chew chunks of the plants and spit them back out into their fur, anointing themselves with a form of chemical armor that most likely protects them from predators like hyenas and wild dogs. The ritual transforms the rats into the world’s only known toxic rodents, and ranks them among the few mammals that borrow poisons from plants.
Proteins are the building blocks of life, responsible for most of what happens inside cells. How a protein works and what it does is determined by its 3D shape — ‘structure is function’ is an axiom of molecular biology. Proteins tend to adopt their shape without help, guided only by the laws of physics. Now a Deep Mind program has made a huge advance in predicting protein folded shapes from just their genetic sequence. AlphaFold’s structures predictions were indistinguishable from those determined using ‘gold standard’ experimental methods such as X-ray crystallography.
Researchers have used slime molds – amoeba communities that clump in filaments and clusters – to mimic resource patterns like metropolitan subway systems, and now possibly vast filamentary structures linking both galaxies and dark matter clumps in the cosmos.
== TWELVE books? Are you kidding, Brin? ==
Okay then, see this jpeg for all the projects that came due (successfully) last month. In fact, by liberal interpretation, the count is SIXTEEN!
...including my sci fi comedy, my 4th nonfiction book Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction & Hollywood, two series for young adults... and revised/updated re-issues of The Postman, The Practice Effect and five Uplift novels, all with new introductions and covers. Link to most of them here!
Hot off the presses is VIVID TOMORROWS: Science Fiction and Hollywood.