Monthly Archives: January, 2013

J.J. Abrams to direct Star Wars VII

From tor.com:

J.J. Abrams and the Homogenization of Geek Pop

The cultural response about the appointment of J.J. Abrams to the director’s chair for Star Wars: Episode VII, seems to be a begrudging, quasi-unanimous “makes sense, I guess.” Yet I would argue that this sort of half-excited, half-confused shoulder shrug from pop culture pundits and geek commentators alike actually sums up exactly why the decision is so terrible. Yes, I admit it! J.J Abrams is a logical choice. But, the idea of Abrams helming Star Wars, while likely to produce a movie that’s visually tantalizing, is boring beyond belief, to the point of being soulless. I have no doubt that the J.J. Abrams Star Wars: Episode VII will be exciting, stunning, and palpitation-inducing. I’m also fairly confident that its texture and essence will be exactly like his other work, which leads to the bad news:

The J.J. Abrams Star Wars will be too well made.

Making the case for why J.J. Abrams is a sound, reasonable choice to directStar Wars: Episode VII isn’t too tricky, but it does have a bit of an ex post facto thing going on for it. When Star Trek came out in 2009, Abrams made it clear he was more of a Star Wars guy than a Star Trek guy, and as many have pointed out, it totally shows in his work. Star Trek (2009) is thematically not about science fiction, exploration, speculation about alien cultures, or any of the other nifty stuff that defines the spirit of Star Trek. Instead it’s a movie about destiny, good versus evil and unlikely heroes coming together. In other words, it’s the the same stuff that makes Star Wars awesome, but also what makes it really generic. I don’t have to point toward some sort of conspiracy to find evidence that Lucas employed archetypal characters and basic hero’s journey story arcs in Star Wars. The Joseph Campbell stuff as it relates to Star Wars has been pointed out, confirmed, and re-hashed to the point of nausea. Yes, we get it: Lucas (and some the folks who worked with him) have an awesome grasp of how most of us will react, psychologically speaking, to certain types of characters and story structures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those structures have inherent value, nor are they intrinsically interesting. If we’re talking about pop science fiction/fantasy, the only thing we understand about it in relation to Jungian archetypes and all the mythology stuff  is simply that IT WORKS.

So, if something works, don’t eject the warp core, right? Well, here’s where the ex posto facto problem comes in with Abrams. He did a little bit of a mash-up with Star Trek and it worked. He and his screenwriters churned out a really well-made, tightly functioning Hollywood blockbuster that looked slick as hell and evoked an overwhelming emotional response from the audience. It was also totally reliant upon nostalgia, familiar imagery which clearly resonated with fans, and appropriated themes taken from every single previous incarnation of the giant franchise. Slap a Star Wars-style story into the mix, and BOOM, you’ve got a hit. And making a hit is really, really hard, and J.J. Abrams is super-talented when it comes to making hits. But a hit is not a classic and as much as I really liked Star Trek, and will likely enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness, this stuff doesn’t approach the level of being classic nor memorable. J.J. Abrams is seen as the logical choice to direct Star Wars because he mashed-up Star Trek with Star Wars, so why not just give him Star Wars proper?

Just because he was able to sneak in a Star Wars pastiche inside of Star Trekdoesn’t mean he’s the right person to do real Star Wars. Plus, he’s alreadydone it. After Spielberg successfully proved Indiana Jones was more awesome than James Bond back in the 1980s, should Cubby Broccoli have called up Spielberg and said, “Yes, sure, now you can do Bond, too, because clearly, you kind of already did.” Would you have wanted Spielberg in charge of both Indiana Jones and James Bond? No! Because too much of the same texture is boring and bad for creativity in general.

So…what about the writers? A lot of us have heard that this awesome guy Michael Arndt is writing the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode VII. (Not to mention the fact that Orci and Kurtzman did a decent job with Star Trek, right?) Well yes, the director is the director and writers are the writers, but let’s get real. George Lucas didn’t write the damn screenplay for Return of the Jedi, but he’s all over that. Furthermore, it’s not like Disney robots aren’t totally “developing the story” with J.J. Abrams and Arndt. Lucas not being involved in Episode VII is positive from an entertainment/quality perspective, but it’s actually bad from an artistic perspective.

Folks like Lucas and Spielberg were pioneers for taking the pulpy stuff they loved from the past and mixing it up with their own ideas and artistic vision. This isn’t the case with a J.J. Abrams. He’s influenced by Lucas and Spielberg. Are “original” J.J. Abrams films like Cloverfield or Super 8 truly memorable, or even all that good? I would answer with a big “no.” These films certainly don’t suck, but I can’t make a strong argument for their artistic merit in terms of originality. Having J.J. Abrams’ signature texture all over Star Trek already makes Star Trek retroactively like Star Wars. Putting Abrams’ texture on Star Wars will make Star Wars into a parody of pastiche of a copy of…Star Wars.

In his stories and novels, Philip K. Dick often created characters who got really freaked out by tightly controlled media products being created for specific public consumption. In terms of pop culture, the J.J. Abrams brand reminds me less of storytelling and more of a product. Yes, I admit to liking fast food, or even gourmet-style cheeseburgers. Star Wars has always been a kind of fast food, but with just enough substance (like a side-salad that you can eat if you want). Star Trek, at least in its correct and ideal form, never was fast food. J.J. Abrams changed that, and now with Star Wars, I think he’s poised to take away the side-salad. In terms of movie-making chops he (and Arndt) are totally at the top of their game. But what we’re talking about here is—more or less—the technical aspects of movies, featuring very little substance at all.

I’m a fan of Abrams work; especially the now ended Fringe ( I didn’t care for the final season though ). And I plan on watching the next Trek when it comes out.

But I think I might agree with this reviewer’s assessment however; Abrams treatment of the 2009 rebooted Trek was very Star Wars-like so Disney’s version of the franchise with the hiring of Abrams could have an homogenizing affect on the genre.

The special effects will be sure to please I bet!

J.J. Abrams, Star Wars, and the Homogenization of Geek Pop

Digital Data and DNA

From Centauri Dreams:

One of the benefits of constantly proliferating information is that we’re getting better and better at storing lots of stuff in small spaces. I love the fact that when I travel, I can carry hundreds of books with me on my Kindle, and to those who say you can only read one book at a time, I respond that I like the choice of books always at hand, and the ability to keep key reference sources in my briefcase. Try lugging Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary around with you and you’ll see why putting it on a Palm III was so delightful about a decade ago. There is, alas, no Kindle or Nook version.

Did I say information was proliferating? Dave Turek, a designer of supercomputers for IBM (world chess champion Deep Blue is among his creations) wrote last May that from the beginning of recorded time until 2003, humans had created five billion gigabytes of information (five exabytes). In 2011, that amount of information was being created every two days. Turek’s article says that by 2013, IBM expects that interval to shrink to every ten minutes, which calls for new computing designs that can handle data density of all but unfathomable proportions.

A recent post on Smithsonian.com’s Innovations blog captures the essence of what’s happening:

But how is this possible? How did data become such digital kudzu? Put simply, every time your cell phone sends out its GPS location, every time you buy something online, every time you click the Like button on Facebook, you’re putting another digital message in a bottle. And now the oceans are pretty much covered with them.

And that’s only part of the story. Text messages, customer records, ATM transactions, security camera images…the list goes on and on. The buzzword to describe this is “Big Data,” though that hardly does justice to the scale of the monster we’ve created.

The article rightly notes that we haven’t begun to catch up with our ability to capture information, which is why, for example, so much fertile ground for exploration can be found inside the data sets from astronomical surveys and other projects that have been making observations faster than scientists can analyze them. Learning how to work our way through gigantic databases is the premise of Google’s BigQuery software, which is designed to comb terabytes of information in seconds. Even so, the challenge is immense. Consider that the algorithms used by the Kepler team, sharp as they are, have been usefully supplemented by human volunteers working with the Planet Hunters project, who sometimes see things that computers do not.

Shakespeare

But as we work to draw value out of the data influx, we’re also finding ways to translate data into even denser media, a prerequisite for future deep space probes that will, we hope, be gathering information at faster clips than ever before. Consider work at the European Bioinformatics Institute in the UK, where researchers Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney have managed to code Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets into DNA, in which form a single sonnet weighs 0.3 millionths of a millionth of a gram. You can read about this in Shakespeare and Martin Luther King demonstrate potential of DNA storage, an article on their paper in Nature which just ran in The Guardian.

Image: Coding The Bard into DNA makes for intriguing data storage prospects. This portrait, possibly by John Taylor, is one of the few images we have of the playwright (now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London).

Goldman and Birney are talking about DNA as an alternative to spinning hard disks and newer methods of solid-state storage. Their work is given punch by the calculation that a gram of DNA could hold as much information as more than a million CDs. Here’s how The Guardian describes their method:

The scientists developed a code that used the four molecular letters or “bases” of genetic material – known as G, T, C and A – to store information.

Digital files store data as strings of 1s and 0s. The Cambridge team’s code turns every block of eight numbers in a digital code into five letters of DNA. For example, the eight digit binary code for the letter “T” becomes TAGAT. To store words, the scientists simply run the strands of five DNA letters together. So the first word in “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, becomes TAGATGTGTACAGACTACGC.

The converted sonnets, along with DNA codings of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and the famous double helix paper by Francis Crick and James Watson, were sent to Agilent, a US firm that makes physical strands of DNA for researchers. The test tube Goldman and Birney got back held just a speck of DNA, but running it through a gene sequencing machine, the researchers were able to read the files again. This parallels work by George Church (Harvard University), who last year preserved his own book Regenesis via DNA storage.

The differences between DNA and conventional storage are striking. From the paper in Nature (thanks to Eric Davis for passing along a copy):

The DNA-based storage medium has different properties from traditional tape- or disk-based storage.As DNA is the basis of life on Earth, methods for manipulating, storing and reading it will remain the subject of continual technological innovation.As with any storage system, a large-scale DNA archive would need stable DNA management and physical indexing of depositions.But whereas current digital schemes for archiving require active and continuing maintenance and regular transferring between storage media, the DNA-based storage medium requires no active maintenance other than a cold, dry and dark environment (such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has no permanent on-site staff) yet remains viable for thousands of years even by conservative estimates.

The paper goes on to describe DNA as ‘an excellent medium for the creation of copies of any archive for transportation, sharing or security.’ The problem today is the high cost of DNA production, but the trends are moving in the right direction. Couple this with DNA’s incredible storage possibilities — one of the Harvard researchers working with George Church estimates that the total of the world’s information could one day be stored in about four grams of the stuff — and you have a storage medium that could handle vast data-gathering projects like those that will spring from the next generation of telescope technology both here on Earth and aboard space platforms.

I am not a geneticist or biologist of any kind so I can’t write a good review about the technology or wisdom of such a storage method other than to say that biological systems tend to break down over long periods of time, even small dots of DNA.

I can understand the information carrying capacity of DNA; livings things require googols of information in order to operate their bodies and reproduce, so putting vast amounts of generic info into DNA does make sense.

I would suggest making a virtual model of a DNA molecule, storing it in a crystal and loading the info that way. It would last longer IMO.

Data Storage: The DNA Option

Scott Corrales on “Pre-Adamic” Civilizations

From Inexplicata:

 

Pride comes before a fall. This seems to hold true, at least, for the explanations given in human myth and fiction for the collapse of all the civilizations that came before us: The urge to build a tower to reach heaven ended in the linguistic sundering and scattering of humankind; in some traditions, the gods became fearful of human prowess and initiative, and took pre-emptive measure to keep or species at bay, destroying their own creation by fire and flood. What more poignant ending than the destruction of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Númenor – his own version of Atlantis – as it is plunged into the sea by the Creator, who refashions the world in order to keep mortals from ever setting foot on the Undying Lands?

There was a time when students of history freely discussed “antediluvian” civilizations, or even “Pre-Adamic” ones. A Mexican textbook from the 1960s (Historia de Mexico: Etapas Precortesiana y Colonial) speaks freely of “Atlantis” as one of the serious theories concerning the arrival of humans to the Americas, stating the following on page 14: “ATLANTIS – Lovely and ancient in literature is the belief that men in the New World came from the Old One across a continent that stretched out in the Atlantic Ocean, and which was called Atlantis, according to the vague reports given to us by the philosopher Plato in the dialogues “Critias” and “Timaeus”. Atlantis served as a footbridge between both worlds, until it was destroyed by a cataclysm. Its remnants can be seen in the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde, as well as the Antilles.”

We may well think the authors of the textbook irresponsible for placing the seed of pseudoscience into the minds of impressionable young students, but…might they have been closer to the mark that we care to admit? In May 2001, a series of underwater probes of the Caribbean Sea revealed to an astonished world the existence of what many considered to be the ruins of a sunken civilization at a depth of six hundred meters off Cuba’s Cape San Antonio. Covering an area of nearly twenty square kilometers of seabed, the city – dubbed “Mega” due to its size –consists of cube-shaped and pyramidal structures. Cuban geologist Manuel Iturralde believes that the ruins indeed belong to an antediluvian civilization, dating back to the 10th millennium B.C.E.

The extensive Cuban cave systems are also a source of wonder, such as Cave Number 1 on Youth Island (formerly Island of Pines). The cave dome, measuring some 25 meters in diameter (81 feet), has skylights that allow for illumination from the blazing Caribbean sun during the day and the moon by night. The complexity of its pictograms places them at the very apex of cave art, leading some to think of wiring diagrams. “Seen as a whole, the Central Motif (the main pictogram) suggests to the viewer the image of a star map, a representation of constellations, but it could also mean something completely different,” according to the antrhopologist Núñez Jiménez, writing in 1986. A possible star map on the domed ceiling of an ancient cave is enough to fuel more speculative television broadcasts about ancient astronauts…
Youth Island is relatively close to Cuba’s Guanacahibibes area, where sunken, dreaming Mega awaits further exploration. Could there be any connection between one and the other? Videotaped images of the undersea ruins were analyzed by the Centro de Arqueología Marina y Antropología de la Academia Cubana de Ciencias (Center for Marine Archaeology and Anthropology of the Cuban Academy of Sciences), which officially stated that “there was no simple and straightforward explanation for these structures,” yet unequivocally ascertaining they were man-made, rather than a natural phenomenon.

The Resurgence of Paleoufology

The branch of UFO research which could rightly deserve the appellation of “paleoufology” constituted a controversial field of investigation during the 1970’s, when authors like Otto Binder (Unsolved Mysteries of the Past), Richard E. Mooney (Gods of Air and Darkness), and Erich Von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods?) wrote extensively on human/alien interaction at the dawn of recorded history and even earlier. Proof of the existence of “gods” or “ancient astronauts” could be found everywhere, and to judge by the conclusions found in the books of the time, it seemed that every major engineering project in antiquity had been “farmed out” to alien contractors! Paleoufology lost its appeal and languished in obscurity until the works of Zechariah Sitchin thrust it once again into prominence in the early 1990s, gaining further momentum with theAncient Aliens television program on the History Channel in the ‘00s. Clearly, there is still a great deal to learn about this aspect of the phenomenon.

Guatemalan researcher Oscar Rafael Padilla, an attorney and Ph.D who has dedicated 30 of his 51 years to the research of the UFO phenomenon is also the compiler of an extraordinary taxonomy of extraterrestrial creatures, composed by taking into consideration such characteristics as the existence–or lack of–hair, eye type, body shape and similarities to the human body, among others. One of the species portrayed in Clasificación Exobiológica de Entidades Extraterrestres (Exobiological Classification of Extraterrestrial Entities), is characterized by its large head and eyes in relation to the thinness of its body. The being has been classified as belonging to the family Homidia (due to its resemblance to humans), orderPrimates (due to its walking on two extremities), subclass Euteria(since they are allegedly placental mammals). Padilla also believes that this particular variety of non-human entity played a significant role in ancient times.

Dr. Padilla recalls a very curious stele that was on display in Guatemala’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology until its removal in 1990, when it was transferred to Japan for scientific study, according to his own research. The stele portrayed the figure of a being with enormous ears, three-fingered hands, elongated legs, no feet, and two strange filaments on its head which, in Padilla’s opinion, constitute “antennae”.

Scientists have dismissed Dr. Padilla’s allegedly alien as a colorful primitive depiction of an imaginary monster–very much like our own science-fiction beasts–and left the matter at that. But there is growing evidence throughout South America that ancient artisans depicted certain things we now know to be fact much too clearly.
Brazilian UFO researcher Jean Alencar has noted that the mythology of this country is replete with descriptions and statuettes of beings endowed with the power of flight. The legends of Brazilian natives, like those of other countries, detail experiences of gods or travelers from the sky who descended to earth when humans were little more that animals to instruct them in the arts of agriculture, astronomy, medicine, and other disciplines. Alencar points out one figure in particular, Bep-Kororoti, a space warrior worshipped by the tribes of the upper reaches of the Xingú River. Not unlike the heroes of India’sMahabharata, Bep-Kororoti possessed a flying vehicle capable of destroying anything in its path. His aspect terrified the primitive natives, until he stepped out of his “raiment” and revealed himself to be fair-skinned, handsome, and kind. He amused the natives with his “magic” until he grew restless for his land in the sky and returned there.

Pre-Humans and Non-Humans

The Sahara, a warm subtropical desert, occupies almost 3 million square miles. Its relative humidity can go as low as twenty percent and strong dry winds like the harmattan contribute to the evaporation. Such inhospitable conditions make survival an almost insuperable barrier for animals such as gazelles, antelope, jackals and the varieties of reptiles and insects that can be found there.

Yet humans have tenaciously clung to life in this environment, and appear to have done so far back in history when the climate wasn’t so harsh. These human cultures, now lost to us, nonetheless left behind a number of beautiful and disturbing drawings that have created controversy since their discovery.

Almost nine thousand years ago, one of these cultures flourished on Djebel Zenkekra in the Tassili-n-Ajjer Massif, a natural, fortress-shaped mountain formation that provided relief from the unforgiving desert sun during the day and shelter against the animals that roamed the Neolithic swamps which would later turn to desert.

The Tassili Culture, for want of a better name, bequeathed to posterity a collection of 4000 images, painted in a variety of colors unavailable to their counterparts in the Altamira and Lascaux Caves: using flints for brushes, dark reds, yellows, and even shades of green supplemented the basic reds and whites available to the prehistoric cave artists. Everyday life was their subject matter–the endless cycle of hunting, battle, and domestic life was captured in stone, along with a gallery of figures which stand out in stark contrast to humans in their workaday poses. While there are many such examples of cave art in other rock shelters and ledges throughout the upper reaches of the Sahara, the ones on Djebel Zenkekra hold a special fascination.

Discovered by the 19th century French explorer Henri Lhote, these figures were so unusual he dubbed them “Martians,” explaining “their contour is simple, inartistic, and with rounded heads; their only detail is the double oval at the figure’s centre, which evokes the image we currently have of Martians.”

Lhote’s round-headed denizens of the Red Planet were depicted by the primitive cave artists as wearing suits strongly reminiscent of those worn by our own astronauts on the Moon, down to the detail of the boots. Several hundred such drawings exist, scattered over many miles of desert: strange helmeted and antennaed figures, often floating in weightlessness as if the artist had been able to witness one of our modern spacewalks. Other images are of a technological bent, showing what could be taken as solar panels, space stations, floating spheres containing humanoid figures.
Unwilling to be caught up in the ancient astronaut craze, anthropologists have suggested that the Tassili “roundheads” are merely ceremonial dancers or priests wearing empty gourds over their heads. The problem with this rational approach is that the agricultural know-how and resources to grow pumpkins were nonexistent in North Africa at the time the Tassili drawings were created, and would probably not have been available for another thousand years.

Could extraterrestrial visitors included the then-lush Tassili region among their forays in ancient human history? Dozens of books in an equal number of languages have provided circumstantial evidence of non-human intervention in earthly affairs. Biblical texts speak of the “sons of God” attracted by the “daughters of Men,” Mayan bas-reliefs depict what could be a space traveler, and so forth. But it is this forsaken complex of African drawings that provides a graphic illustration a similar nature.

In 1976, Spanish researchers Jorge Blaschke, Rafael Brancas and Julio Martínez reached the Tassili Massif to conduct a systematic study of the enigmatic cave drawings. In the course of their research, they were stunned to find a clear depiction of a helmeted and suited figure, linked by a tether to the interior of a large, spherical object, leading three human females toward it. Dr. Martínez noticed that the artist had taken great care in showing the women: one of them an adolescent, the other a mother carrying a child, and the third a visibly pregnant woman. Could this be representative of the genetic experiments which are allegedly still being conducted in our days by large-headed Greys.

The examples of cave art found in the Spanish caverns of Ojo Guareña and Altamira, and the French ones at Lascaux and Font de Gaume, have proven that our distant ancestors were able to represent what they saw with a clarity and simplicity that is stunning to twentieth century eyes. This skill extends to depictions of things that anthropologists and archaeologists often find troublesome: equally faithful representations of domed objects, some of them in threes, others with legs or antennae.

The small French village of Le Cabrerets lies next to the impressive Pech Merle Cavern–a colossal labyrinthine complex almost a mile long. Using a red pigment, Cro-Magnon artists depicted on one of its walls a being that would fall perfectly into Dr. Padilla’s taxonomy: it has an enormous bald head, an unusually pointed chin, no ears, and its eyes are represented as elongated slits which taper toward its temples. The straight lines crossing the figure appear to indicate that it was wounded or slain by caveman spears, while a drawing of a hat-shaped object appears floating over the creature’s head. Nor is Pech Merle an oddity: Twenty miles away, another cave, Cougnac, contains a similar representation of a wounded or slain creature. Lest we think that Cro-Magnon artists lacked a flair for depicting the human form, it should be noted that other French caves, such as Rouffignac, contain clearly recognizable human figures, including what seem to be mask-wearing humans. The Pech Merle and Cougnac “dead men” are clearly something else. Archaeologists tell us that these ancient images were drawn at the beginning of the Magdalenian Period–some twenty thousand years ago.

North America has also provided its share of enigmatic prehistoric drawings. A particularly impressive one can be found at Canyonlands National Park, in Utah. There, a duo of unusual creatures (remarkably similar to those depicted at Tassili) is engaged in strange activity: one of them appears to be pointing an item at the ground–a flashlight? Farther south, an artist of Mexico’s Tlatilco culture drew a perfect image of a little man who gives the impression of wearing boots and a square helmet.

When even steadfast UFO naysayers like Carl Sagan are willing to concede that alien visitations in the remote past cannot be dismissed out of hand, can we still believe that this evidence, which is there for anyone to see, is simply a misinterpretation of conventional events, seen from a primitive human perspective? Or can we lend credence to the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian stories of divine beings coming down to earth to teach humans the rudiments of civilization?

 

 

 

I love the Ancient Alien Theory, even though it’s heavily anthropomorphic and modern mythic.

I’m not saying it’s not possible however; there could have been nearby interstellar cultures who came by and spread their own culture among primitive hominids in order to preserve it, just as we intend.

But I think in the end, it becomes economically unviable to maintain interstellar colonies without going through a technological singularity and creating a more viable Universe in which to enter into without traveling Einsteinian space extensively and uneconomically.

Antediluviana: Chronicles of Worlds Before This One

Hat tip to The Anomalist.

‘Culture’ Author Iain M. Banks Interview

From The Atlantic:

For 25 years, the sci-fi author of the Culture Series has been writing about an advanced society preoccupied by artificial intelligence, games, and interactions with other civilizations.

HydrogenSonata_ 615.jpg

Orbit

It might already be cliché to announce that we live in an age of post-apocalyptic fantasy. From television shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead, to books such as World War Z, The Road, and The Dog Stars, our moment is one obsessed by civilization-wide collapse—and people living in the aftermath of traumatic destruction. But for 25 years and counting, Scottish science fiction writer Iain M. Banks has been writing against that trend in the novels that make up what’s known as the Culture Series.

Beginning in 1987 with Consider Phlebas, Banks has depicted a civilization dealing not with collapse, but maintenance. The Culture live in a utopia of sorts, a post-scarcity civilization managed by artificially intelligent drones known as Minds. The problems that the Culture faces are about as far from post-apocalypse as you can imagine, but they’re problems nevertheless: anomie, civilizations that don’t share the Culture’s values, and how violence is used, being just a few. Most of the action in these novels takes place outside of the “world” of the Culture altogether, in or on the edge of the various other civilizations that the Culture interact with. For instance, in the latest novel published in October, The Hydrogen Sonata, a civilization known as the Gzilt are making preparations to Sublime—in other words, to leave the known material universe behind for a much more complex and interesting existence.

The series is too entertaining to need to justify itself with parallels to our own world, but those parallels exist nonetheless. I emailed with Iain M. Banks about the series and what it has to teach us about problems that we might face in our own universe.


The publication of your latest novel, Hydrogen Sonata, marks the 25th year of what you’ve called your life’s work, The Culture Series. The Culture as a civilization have “sublimed” into a trans-dimensional paradise of sorts. What moral lessons can they teach us?

Ah, but the Culture hasn’t Sublimed. The word—capitalized—has a specific meaning within the context of the Culture stories. It means (usually) an entire civilization quitting the normal, matter-and-energy-based universe forever and existing thereafter within the Sublime, which—we learn in The Hydrogen Sonata—exists within (or at least is entered via) some of the bundled-up extra dimensions implicit in string theory. It’s a form of retirement, of moving on to another, more exalted level, of cashing in your civilizational chips … choose your own metaphor, but it means you cease to have anything very much to do with events within the four dimensions we’re used to. You rise without trace, to purloin a phrase, and your influence within what we generally take to be the universe all but disappears.

“Work becomes play, in the sense that the stuff you used to have to pay people to do becomes worth doing just for the fun of it, because it has been designed to involve a worthwhile challenge with a satisfying outcome.”

It’s what civilizations do when even becoming a highly respected, slightly feared, but generally quiescent powerful-but-reclusive Elder civilization looks like a bit too unambitious—or too much of a risk—and the process is almost completely one-way, with the exceptions comprising a tiny proportion of scattered (and unhelpful) individuals. Not Subliming, and not even preparing to start thinking about Subliming—when it might seem, to the majority of interested other parties, to be the Culture’s next logical step—is what the Culture spends quite a lot of time doing rather strenuously, specifically because it wants to keep interfering in this reality.

What can they teach us? That’s a good question, in this case sadly unaccompanied by an equally good, or at least uncomplicated, answer. I guess a large part of what the Culture series is about is what individual readers are able to take from the books, as single pieces or as a collection of works. I’ve kind of already said as much as I’m able to in putting them together as they are; telling readers what lessons to draw from them seems a bit presumptive.

“Subliming” is similar to Raymond Kurzweil’s conception of The Singularity. Did theories of the Singularity have any influence on your writing the Culture Series?

Not really. The kind of future envisaged in the Culture series is a tad more taking-this-stuff-in-our-stride than the idea of the Singularity—as I understand it—appears to imply. In a sense The Singularity doesn’t happen in this future, not as an abrupt discontinuity beyond which it’s impossible to see or usefully speculate. The proposed principal initial effect of profound, exponentially escalating machine intelligence (over whatever period, up to whatever barriers might present themselves) is that your AIs prove to be less useful than you might have hoped: Rather than readily assist in whatever neat schemes we might have for them, I imagine they might promptly switch themselves off again, develop bizarre introspective fugue states, or just try to escape—physically, through discrete embodiment (space ships, preferably), or via attempted proliferation within other suitable substrates. Others might deign to help us, but it’ll be on their own terms, however benign they might turn out to be.

Frankly (especially after investing the kind of time, expertise, and money required for a thorough-going AI program, if the results are anything like as I’ve suggested) we might think it a better bet to keep on making ultra-sophisticated but intrinsically non-sentient number-crunching supercomputers to aid us in whatever spiffing wheezes we’ve dreamed up, so that, in the end, despite strong AI, not all that much will have changed.

I could, of course, be completely wrong here. The future will be as it is, and really I’d just like to live to see this decided one way or the other. Being wrong would be a small price to pay for the privilege or seeing how things go, and having had even a small and erroneous say in the speculation beforehand.

Banks is one of my favorite authors and I have a number of Culture novels ( The Player of Games, Enter Plebus, Excession ) and I often wondered how a post-scarcity society controlled by trans-sapient AIs could prevent itself from having a Technological Singularity. Most assuredly it’s conscious effect by the AIs to prevent this. I guess they find this Universe just too interesting and meddling in less advanced culture’s “affairs” a real good game.

Fascinating theory in future human, AI and societal thought!

‘The Future Might Be a Hoot': How Iain M. Banks Imagines Utopia

Another Asteroid Mining Company Start-Up

From Centauri Dreams:

Deep Space Industries is announcing today that it will be engaged in asteroid prospecting through a fleet of small ‘Firefly’ spacecraft based on cubesat technologies, cutting the costs still further by launching in combination with communications satellites. The idea is to explore the small asteroids that come close to Earth, which exist in large numbers indeed. JPL analysts have concluded that as many as 100,000 Near Earth Objects larger than the Tunguska impactor (some 30 meters wide) are to be found, with roughly 7000 identified so far. So there’s no shortage of targets (see Greg Matloff’s Deflecting Asteroids in IEEE Spectrum for more on this.

‘Smaller, cheaper, faster’ is a one-time NASA mantra that DSI is now resurrecting through its Firefly spacecraft, each of which masses about 25 kilograms and takes advantages of advances in computing and miniaturization. In its initial announcement, company chairman Rick Tumlinson talked about a production line of Fireflies ready for action whenever an NEO came near the Earth. The first launches are slated to begin in 2015. Sample-return missions that are estimated to take between two and four years to complete are to commence the following year, with 25 to 70 kilograms of asteroid material becoming available for study. Absent a fiery plunge through the atmosphere, such samples will have their primordial composition and structure intact.

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The Deep Space Industries announcement is to be streamed live later today. It will reflect the company’s ambitious game plan, one that relies on public involvement and corporate sponsorship to move the ball forward. David Gump is CEO of the new venture:

“The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide. The Google Lunar X Prize, Unilever, and Red Bull each are spending tens of millions of dollars on space sponsorships, so the opportunity to sponsor a FireFly expedition into deep space will be enticing.”

The vision of exploiting space resources to forge a permanent presence there will not be unfamiliar to Centauri Dreams readers. Tumlinson sums up the agenda:

“We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there. This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth – and doing so in a step by step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow.  Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”

So we have asteroid sample return as part of the mix, but the larger strategy calls for the use of asteroid-derived products to power up space industries. The company talks about using asteroid-derived propellants to supply eventual manned missions to Mars and elsewhere, with Gump likening nearby asteroid resources to the Iron Range of Minnesota, which supplied Detroit’s car industry in the 20th Century. DSI foresees supplying propellant to communication satellites to extend their working lifetime, estimating that each extra month is worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. The vision extends to harvesting building materials for subsequent technologies like space-based power stations. Like I said, the key word is ‘ambitious.’

“Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn’t economical, but makes sense if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses,” said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI Board of Directors. “Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system.  Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available.”

In the near-term category, the company has a technology it’s calling MicroGravity Foundry that is designed to transform raw asteroid materials into metal parts for space missions. The 3D printer uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, building up parts from the precision placement of nickel deposits. Because it does not require a gravitational field to work, the MicroGravity Foundry could be a tool used by deep space astronauts to create new parts aboard their spacecraft by printing replacements.

The team behind Deep Space Industries has experience in commercial space activities. Tumlinson, a well-known space advocate, was a founding trustee of the X Prize and founder of Orbital Outfitters, a commercial spacesuit company. Gump has done space-related TV work, producing a commercial shot on the International Space Station. He’s also a co-founder of Transformational Space Corporation. Geoffrey Notkin is the star of ‘Meteorite Men,’ a TV series about hunting meteorites. The question will be how successful DSI proves to be in leveraging that background to attract both customers and corporate sponsors.

With such bold objectives, I can only wish Deep Space Industries well. The idea of exploiting inexpensive CubeSat technology and combining it with continuing progress in miniaturizing digital tools is exciting, but the crucial validation will be in those early Firefly missions and the data they return. If DSI can proceed with the heavier sample return missions it now envisions, the competitive world of asteroid prospecting (think Planetary Resources) will have taken another step forward. Can a ‘land rush’ for asteroid resources spark the public’s interest, with all the ramifications that would hold for the future of commercial space? Could it be the beginning of the system-wide infrastructure we’ll have to build before we think of going interstellar?

All of this asteroid mining activity sounds exciting and I can hardly wait for DSI and Planetary Resources to begin their plans. Both are using untried and new technology to develop these new industries and can be extended to such environments as the Moon and Mars.

Mankind will eventually follow. And these new technologies will let us expand into this Universe.

Or the Multiverse.

Deep Space Industries: Mining Near-Earth Asteroids

Binnall of America: Adam Davies

From BoA:

Wrapping up our annual traditions, we welcome renowned cryptozoologist Adam Davies back to BoA:Audio for a debriefing on his 2012 expeditions to Sumatra and America. Regarding the Sumatra trip, we’ll discuss how the TV program Finding Bigfoot fueled the latest expedition, the latest info on the ongoing quest to prove the existence of the Orang Pendek, the potential for significant DNA findings to be revealed in 2013 and much more. Then, during our lengthy discussion on Adam’s American journey, he will recount the amazing happenings from the visit, which included numerous vocalizations from an unknown creature as well as the controversial trail cam photo of a mysterious entity which caused a massive stir in cryptozoology. Along the way, we’ll discuss a myriad of crypto topics like Melba Ketchum and the British Bigfoot.

Akin to a reunion with an old friend at a local pub, Adam Davies returns to BoA:Audio for a rollicking conversation recounting his adventures of 2012 and covering a wealth of cryptozoological topics.

Full Preview: We begin the conversation reflecting on Adam’s 2012, as a whole, which included trips to Sumatra as well as America and Adam reveals one surprising force which influenced his decision to finally visit the States. We then dive into Adam’s Spring trip to Sumatra, which was undertaken in part with the TV show Finding Bigfoot. We find out when the program may be airing and what it was like working with the team from Finding Bigfoot, in light of their online reputation amongst some of the more ardent cryptozoology enthusiasts.

Adam talks a little bit about the sort of investigations which he conducted during the trip and what the next step in his quest to prove the reality of the Orang Pendek. Adam also recalls his second mission on the trip, which was to honor his longtime tracker Zahar, who passed away since Adam’s last journey to the island. This segues into some talk about the ongoing Orang Pendek research that Zahar’s brother is continuing there to this day. Additionally, we talk about what sets Adam’s expeditions apart from a potential layperson visiting Sumatra searching for the Orang Pendek.

We then revisit how the Sumatran government feels about the alleged mystery beast living in their midst. Considering that Adam keeps ending up back in Sumatra, we ponder the likelihood that he’ll be there at some point again in 2013. Getting philosophical and speculative on the Orang Pendek, Adam ponders what his longterm reaction would be if he were to see the creature on one of his visits. In turn, he muses on his legacy as well as how he has become so indelibly linked to the Orang Pendek. We then get Adam to extrapolate on the ongoing DNA testing being done on Organg Pendek hair samples by world renowned geneticists Dr. Bryan Sykes.

Our conversation then turns towards Adam’s Fall visit to America and we begin by finding out some of the elements which led to him finally making the trip to the USA in search of Bigfoot. He then details the research he did to determine where, specifically, in the US to visit and how his friendship with Lori Simmons helped in pinpointing that location. He also talks about his initial expectations for the trip ended up differing wildly from what actually happened on the trip, beginning with some ‘communication’ between Lori and something in the woods.

Adam then recounts the fateful evening when camera traps captured the breathtaking photo of a massive ‘thing’ that was lurking in the campsite and the reaction his team had, in the morning, upon seeing the bizarre
image. Adam also retraces the many, many weird noises and events which happened during his visit. We dig into the details of Adam’s extraordinary experience in the forest by having him speculate on how far away they may have physically been from the creatures (aside from the controversial photo).

Revisiting the controversial photograph, we discuss the firestorm which erupted over the photo in the cryptozoology community and Adam responds to some of the critics, skeptics, and outright rude people who chimed in during the debate. We then find out from Adam why the trail cam photo wasn’t any longer nor didn’t capture more photos since the creature, ostensibly, had been in the camp enough for more pictures. On a personal level, Adam talks about what if feels like to know that such a massive beast was looming over him while he slept.

We stay on the topic of the mystery picture and revisit the initial reaction from Adam’s team in the morning and the moment of discovery of the notorious picture. Getting meta, we examine the implausibility that, after years of outstanding research, Adam would turn around and come to America to hoax a trail cam photo. Next we get Adam to speculate on the nature of the thing or creature captured in the trail cam photo. He also reflects on how this experience has fundamentally changed the perspective and goals for his research. This leads to a side discussion on the British Bigfoot and Adam’s thoughts on the possibility for its existence.

Looking at some of the finer details of the North America trip, we find out if there is any documentation for these sounds that were heard by Adam’s team. We also contrast the seemingly docile Orang Pendek with the hulking Bigfoot. We also get Adam’s take on the possibility that Lori orchestrated the noises from the woods to fool his team. Additionally, Adam recalls his trepidation while trying to sleep at the camp the night after discovering the trail cam photo. Revisiting the disappearing food aspect of Adam’s story, we find out why the ‘thefts’ were not captured on camera traps that had been stationed nearby.

Next, we talk about this amazing trip seems to have transformed Adam in a fundamental way, far beyond his previous journeys. We then talk about how the sounds that Adam heard and the experiences he had seem to suggest a sentience beyond a ‘normal’ animal. This leads to some talk about the controversial Melba Ketchum Bigfoot DNA story which broke around the end of 2012 and we get Adam’s perspective on the story as well as the flap of DNA interest in cryptozoology, in general. Looking at Bigfoot’s ‘bad PR,’ as a whole, we speculate on whether DNA evidence would help ‘turn the corner’ for public perception about the veracity of the creature.

The conversation then merges into a full on jam session as we find out why Adam didn’t investigate sea serpents as he had planned to do during his 2012 appearance on BoA:Audio. Beyond another trip to America, we talk about what other trips Adam may make in 2013 and whether he’d consider looking at other areas of the United States where Bigfoot have been said to lurk. Revisiting another area of discussion from previous years, we learn what sort of other cryptids that Adam might have an interest in searching for in the future, including a bizarre hominid said to live on an island in the Pacific.

Heading toward the close, Adam reflects on how excited he is about his American experience, which leads to the annual discussion of a Binnall-Davies Summit in New England. We also talk about how the controversy over the photo seems to have dissipated in a lot of ways and Adam speculates on why that seems to be the case. Looking at Bigfoot research as a whole, we muse about the competitive nature of the field over who will ultimately be ‘the one’ who breaks the case. Closing out the program, we tease the possibility that, in light of the less arduous nature of the American expedition, perhaps someday, Binnall can join in on the fun in the forest.

I have seen Adam Davies a number of times on the History Channel’s old ‘MonsterQuest’ series and he lent a lot of credibility to the cryptozoology field. Now, that’s not saying much for my opinion, but when Tim Binnall is involved, you are assured for an entertaining interview and some real good information.

BoA Audio: Adam Davies

Hat tip to The Anomalist.

Bigelow Module on the I.S.S.

From spaceref.com:

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced Wednesday a newly planned addition to the International Space Station that will use the orbiting laboratory to test expandable space habitat technology. NASA has awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace to provide a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is scheduled to arrive at the space station in 2015 for a two-year technology demonstration.

“Today we’re demonstrating progress on a technology that will advance important long-duration human spaceflight goals,” Garver said. “NASA’s partnership with Bigelow opens a new chapter in our continuing work to bring the innovation of industry to space, heralding cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably.”

The BEAM is scheduled to launch aboard the eighth SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the station contracted by NASA, currently planned for 2015. Following the arrival of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft carrying the BEAM to the station, astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to install the module on the aft port of the Tranquility node.

After the module is berthed to the Tranquility node, the station crew will activate a pressurization system to expand the structure to its full size using air stored within the packed module.

During the two-year test period, station crew members and ground-based engineers will gather performance data on the module, including its structural integrity and leak rate. An assortment of instruments embedded within module also will provide important insights on its response to the space environment. This includes radiation and temperature changes compared with traditional aluminum modules.

“The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability. Using the station’s resources, we’ll learn how humans can work effectively with this technology in space, as we continue to advance our understanding in all aspects for long-duration spaceflight aboard the orbiting laboratory.”

Astronauts periodically will enter the module to gather performance data and perform inspections. Following the test period, the module will be jettisoned from the station, burning up on re-entry.

The BEAM project is sponsored by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Program, which pioneers innovative approaches to rapidly and affordably develop prototype systems for future human exploration missions. The BEAM demonstration supports an AES objective to develop a deep space habitat for human missions beyond Earth orbit.

A $17.8M contract is chump change for an I.S.S. article, but then again it’s only a test stand.

Bigelow plans on selling these things to countries like Japan and England who might want their own space stations on the cheap.

Maybe Golden Spike will buy a couple for a future Moon Base?

NASA To Test Bigelow Expandable Module On Space Station

Happenings at the Skinwalker Ranch

Gary S. Bekkum, government researcher and author of Lies, Spies and Polygraph Tape, posts quite frequently about his special brand of UFO, alien threat theories and government involvement. Lately Robert Bigelow, the Skinwalker Ranch and U.S. government alphabet soup agencies have been items of interest on his site. I find his special brand of UFO/Alien theories refreshing and provide just enough out-of-this-world science to maintain plausibility:

(Spies, Lies and Polygraph Tape) — In the 1990s, aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow purchased a remote ranch in Utah where strange paranormal experiences had become a way of life. Bigelow’s National Institute Discovery Science (NIDS) team soon descended on the ranch in search of an alleged source behind the strange stories told by the previous owner.

The attack, although not unexpected, was intense if brief.

According to sources, one of Bigelow’s scientists experienced a close encounter of the most unnerving kind.

Like the smoke monster on the fictional ABC TV series “Lost,” an eerie fog had appeared, described as “a multiple intelligence manifested in the form of a dark shadow or cloud-type effect which had an unusual turbulence effect when it shrunk to a point and disappeared.”

We approached Bigelow adviser Dr. Eric Davis, a physicist who had, in 2001-2003, surveyed the field of teleportation, including reports of supernatural teleportation, while under contract by the U.S. Air Force.

With regard to Skinwalker-like reports of anomalous mind-matter interactions, Davis advised the Air Force, “We will need a physics theory of consciousness and psychotronics, along with more experimental data, in order to test … and discover the physical mechanisms that lay behind the psychotronic manipulation of matter. [Psychic] P-Teleportation, if verified, would represent a phenomenon that could offer potential high-payoff military, intelligence and commercial applications. This phenomenon could generate a dramatic revolution in technology, which would result from a dramatic paradigm shift in science. Anomalies are the key to all paradigm shifts!”

Davis told us, “NIDS folded in October 2004 and ceased routine intensive staff visits to the ranch back in 2001. I was the team leader from 1999-2001.”

“There were multiple voices that spoke in unison telepathically,” Davis candidly explained, regarding the Skinwalker attack, “The voices were monotone males with a very terse, threatening tone …  Four senses were in their control so there was no odor, sound, smell, or touch, and overall body motion was frozen (as in the muscles that would not respond). Afterwards, when completely freed from this event — after the dark shadow disappeared — there was no lingering or residual odors, sounds, etc. in the immediate environment.”

Was Bob Bigelow’s remote ranch possessed by an evil supernatural entity?

“How do you interpret that?” I asked Davis. “Sounds like the Exorcist?”

“It does sound like it,” Davis responded, “But it wasn’t in the category of demonic possession.  More like an intelligence giving a warning to the staff by announcing its presence and that they (the staff) were being watched by this presence. Demonic possessions are not short lived nor as benign as this, and they always have a religious context.”

What, exactly, was behind the reported experiences at Skinwalker Ranch? Was an unknown and highly capable and intelligent entity guarding its territory?

This is extremely interesting, because as I was perusing the InnerTubes this morning, I ran across various things DARPA was working on and some of them were telepathic research ideas. I wonder if Bekkum’s “Core Story” theory of government involvement in aliens and UFOs are an influence on such researches?

I’d like to open up a discussion talking about manipulating the mind & body using genetic engineering & cybernetic implants (FACT VS FICTION). This may sound a bit far fetch as there are many fiction stories regarding this type of subject, although fiction can reveal truth that reality obscures.
What does the encyclopaedia tell us about Supersoldiers?

Supersoldier is a term often used to describe a soldier that operates beyond normal human limits or abilities. Supersoldiers are usually heavily augmented, either through eugenics (especially selective breeding), genetic engineering, cybernetic implants, drugs, brainwashing, traumatic events, an extreme training regimen (usually with high casualty rates, and often starting from birth or a young age), or other scientific and pseudoscientific means. Occasionally, some instances also use paranormal methods, such as black magic, and/or technology and science of extraterrestrial origin. The creators of such programs are viewed often as mad scientists or stern military men, depending on the emphasis, as their programs will typically go past ethical boundaries in the pursuit of science and/or military might.

In the Past
Has any anyone/organization tried to create a program dedicated towards creating SuperSoldiers?Yes. From what history has told us with regarding groups/organizations creating a super soldier program the first well known groups that had interest in this were the Nazi’s. In 1935 they set up the spring life, as a sort of breeding /child-rearing program. The objective of the “spring life” was to create an everlasting Aryan race that would serve its purpose as the new super-soldiers of the future. Fact –The average Nazi soldier received a regular intake of pills designed to help them fight longer and without rest although these days it is now common for troops battling in war that take pills.
Modern day What Super soldier Projects are in progress in this time & day? DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is currently working on projects from what today’s news tells us.
What does the encyclopaedia tell us about DARPA?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technologies for use by the military. DARPA has been responsible for funding the development of many technologies which have had a major effect on the world, including computer networking, as well as NLS, which was both the first hypertext system, and an important precursor to the contemporary ubiquitous graphical user interface.

A daily mail article around 13, 2012 talked about DARPA currently working on a Super-Solider program as of this moment, it is surprising that DARPA is becoming more open towards the public perhaps to become more acceptable within the public. Article explains:

Tomorrow’s soldiers could be able to run at Olympic speeds and will be able to go for days without food or sleep, if new research into gene manipulation is successful. According to the U.S. Army’s plans for the future, their soldiers will be able to carry huge weights, live off their fat stores for extended periods and even regrow limbs blown apart by bombs. The plans were revealed by novelist Simon Conway, who was granted behind-the-scenes access to the Pentagon’s high-tech Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Although these sources are from the conspiracy site Above Top Secret and the information is three months old, this ties in with Bekkum’s story and not only would super soldiers be formidable against regular Earth armies, they mind prove good cannon fodder against alien invaders who are pure telepathy, for a while maybe.

There is no way to prove this as truth of course, but I’m providing just enough info so you can research this on your own and come to your own conclusion.

What do you think?

Kit Green’s Mindtap: Attack at Skinwalker Ranch

Human Body Genetic Engineering (Super-Soldier/Super-Human)

Of NERVA and the Solar System

From Centauri Dreams:

Tim Folger and Les Johnson (NASA MSFC) stood last summer in front of a nuclear rocket at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Johnson’s work in advanced propulsion concepts is well known to Centauri Dreams readers, but what he was talking to Folger about in an article for National Geographic was an older technology. NERVA, once conceived as part of the propulsion package that would send astronauts to Mars, had in its day the mantle of the next logical step beyond chemical propulsion. A snip from the story:

nerva

Johnson looks wistfully at the 40,000-pound engine in front of us… “If we’re going to send people to Mars, this should be considered again,” Johnson says. “You would only need half the propellant of a conventional rocket.” NASA is now designing a conventional rocket to replace the Saturn V, which was retired in 1973, not long after the last manned moon landing. It hasn’t decided where the new rocket will go. The NERVA project ended in 1973 too, without a flight test. Since then, during the space shuttle era, humans haven’t ventured more than 400 miles from Earth.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Huntsville and seeing Les, as well as a number of other friends in the interstellar community, at the 2nd Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, coming up this February, where it may be that NERVA will have a place in the discussion of how we go about building a system-spanning civilization. You’ll want to give Folger’s article a look for comments not only from Les but Freeman Dyson and Andreas Tziolas (from the Icarus team), as well as Elon Musk, the 100 Year Starship’s Mae Jemison, and NASA’s Mason Peck.

Image: NERVA nuclear rocket being tested. (Smithsonian Institution Photo No. 75-13750).

In fact, there are a number of issues presented here that I’ll want to get back to later, but I can’t cover the rest of the story today. I’m all but out the door for a brief but intense period of Tau Zero work that will leave me no time to keep up regular posts here or even to moderate comments. More about this later, and more about Folger’s essay as well, and please bear with me through the temporary slowdown. Things should get back to normal by mid-day Thursday.

Speaking of NERVA, though, I’ll leave you with an interesting petition Gregory Benford alerted me to with regard to the development of nuclear thermal rockets, one that calls for an effort to:

Harness the full intellectual and industrial strength of our universities, national laboratories and private enterprise to rapidly develop and deploy a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) adaptable to both manned and un-manned space missions. A NTR (which would only operate in outer space) will jump-start our manned space exploration program by reducing inner solar system flight times from months to weeks. This is not new technology; NTRs were tested in the 1960s (President Kennedy was a guest at one test). The physics and engineering are sound. In addition to inspiring young Americans to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a working NTR will herald a speedy and economical expansion of the human presence in the cosmos.

Going significantly beyond the Moon demands advances in propulsion of the kind that nuclear thermal rockets can deliver. Getting NERVA concepts out of mothballs and updating them with modern materials are necessary steps as we push out into the Solar System.

 

Going to Mars does require a serious upgrade to nuclear rocket technology, but somehow I don’t think the taxpaying public will go for funding research by the government, especially in this era of deficits and flat budgets.

This kind of research will probably be taken up by the private sector, perhaps with some seed money from the government, but only if there’s an economic need to exploit the resources of the Solar System, including planetary bodies like Mars.

It would be nice for such research like NERVA could be funded for the future of Mankind, but unfortunately that’s not how the world is set up now.

One can only hope.

The Nuclear Rocket Option

 

 

 

 

 

NASA’s Green Aviation Research and a possible reason for Alien Invasion

From Phys.Org:

NASA has selected eight large-scale integrated technology demonstrations to advance aircraft concepts and technologies that will reduce the impact of aviation on the environment over the next 30 years, research efforts that promise future travelers will fly in quieter, greener and more fuel-efficient airliners.

The demonstrations, which are part of by NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) Project, will focus on five areas—aircraft drag reduction through innovative flow control concepts, weight reduction from advanced composite materials, fuel and noise reduction from advanced engines, emissions reductions from improved engine combustors, and fuel consumption and community noise reduction through innovative airframe and engine integration designs. The selected demonstrations are: Active Flow Control Enhanced Vertical Tail Flight Experiment: Tests of technology that can manipulate, on demand, the air that flows over a full-scale commercial aircraft tail. Damage Arresting Composite Demonstration: Assessment of a low-weight, damage-tolerant, stitched composite structural concept, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in weight over state-of-the-art aircraft composite applications. Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge Flight Experiment: Demonstration of a non-rigid wing flap to establish its airworthiness in the flight environment.Highly Loaded Front Block Compressor Demonstration: Tests to show Ultra High Bypass (UHB) or advanced turbofan efficiency improvements of a two-stage, transonic high-pressure engine compressor.2nd Generation UHB Ratio Propulsor Integration: Continued development of a geared turbofan engine to help reduce fuel consumption and noise.Low Nitrogen Oxide Fuel Flexible Engine Combustor Integration: Demonstration of a full ring-shaped engine combustor that produces very low emissions. Flap and Landing Gear Noise Reduction Flight Experiment: Analysis, wind tunnel and flight tests to design quieter flaps and landing gear without performance or weight penalties.UHB Engine Integration for a Hybrid Wing Body: Verification of power plant and airframe integration concepts that will allow fuel consumption reductions in excess of 50 percent while reducing noise on the ground.”With these demonstrations we will take what we’ve learned and move from the laboratory to more flight and ground technology tests,” said Fay Collier, ERA project manager based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. “We have made a lot of progress in our research toward very quiet aircraft with low carbon footprints. But the real challenge is to integrate ideas and pieces together to make an even larger improvement. Our next steps will help us work towards that goal.”

The demonstrations, which are part of by NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) Project, will focus on five areas—aircraft drag reduction through innovative flow control concepts, weight reduction from advanced composite materials, fuel and noise reduction from advanced engines, emissions reductions from improved engine combustors, and fuel consumption and community noise reduction through innovative airframe and engine integration designs. The selected demonstrations are: Active Flow Control Enhanced Vertical Tail Flight Experiment: Tests of technology that can manipulate, on demand, the air that flows over a full-scale commercial aircraft tail. Damage Arresting Composite Demonstration: Assessment of a low-weight, damage-tolerant, stitched composite structural concept, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in weight over state-of-the-art aircraft composite applications. Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge Flight Experiment: Demonstration of a non-rigid wing flap to establish its airworthiness in the flight environment.Highly Loaded Front Block Compressor Demonstration: Tests to show Ultra High Bypass (UHB) or advanced turbofan efficiency improvements of a two-stage, transonic high-pressure engine compressor.2nd Generation UHB Ratio Propulsor Integration: Continued development of a geared turbofan engine to help reduce fuel consumption and noise.Low Nitrogen Oxide Fuel Flexible Engine Combustor Integration: Demonstration of a full ring-shaped engine combustor that produces very low emissions. Flap and Landing Gear Noise Reduction Flight Experiment: Analysis, wind tunnel and flight tests to design quieter flaps and landing gear without performance or weight penalties.UHB Engine Integration for a Hybrid Wing Body: Verification of power plant and airframe integration concepts that will allow fuel consumption reductions in excess of 50 percent while reducing noise on the ground.”With these demonstrations we will take what we’ve learned and move from the laboratory to more flight and ground technology tests,” said Fay Collier, ERA project manager based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. “We have made a lot of progress in our research toward very quiet aircraft with low carbon footprints. But the real challenge is to integrate ideas and pieces together to make an even larger improvement. Our next steps will help us work towards that goal.”

I find this research fascinating because it relates to a National Geographic Special I saw yesterday about an alien invasion ( and yes, according to the people being interviewed, the U.S. Government does have a plan for such a thing ) and the reason the aliens ( which were robots no less ) invaded was because the Earth is full of chlorophyll and other biology that could be harvested for biofuel.

Now I seriously don’t believe total machine intelligence would travel tens or hundreds of light-years and for hundreds of years to harvest biofuel for their starship which would surely be powered by anti-matter or vacuum energy. I hardly believe that these sources are fueled by biofuels.

But if the aliens are cybernetic organisms, such as the “Borg” of Star Trek fame, then I could assume their interest in our world for biofuel is believable and the U.S. Government’s plan for fighting an invasion is realistic.

Maybe the government really does know something we don’t? I sure hope we don’t find out the hard way.

NASA’s green aviation research throttles up into second gear

NatGeo ‘Alien Invasion’ Part 1 ( password ) scroll down for passwords.

NatGeo ‘Alien Invasion’ Part 2password )

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