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Archive for the ‘Science & Engineering’ Category

A Warmer World

Posted by hyperpat on August 31, 2009

The UN is holding another conference this week about strategies to ameliorate the possible consequences of global warming, from floods and droughts to more severe tropical storms. Pointedly, they are not addressing anything having to do with CO2 emission caps or reductions in fossil fuel consumptions. And for a very good reason: agreements about such matters are almost assuredly not going to happen in the near future, or perhaps ever. What’s not being discussed is just how difficult such caps will be to implement, or what their true economic cost would be.

A quick look at the current state of energy production in the world would show that the overwhelming percentage of such production is fueled by fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. Water, wind, and solar represent only a tiny fraction of the total. Nuclear has a fair percentage, but it faces a very large uphill battle against greatly expanding its use.

A fair question is, can the so-called ‘green’ methods of water, wind, and solar actually be expanded to sizes great enough to significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels in a reasonable time frame and with a reasonable economic cost? And even if they can be, what effect(s) will they have in their own right on the world’s ecology?

Let’s look at wind power, to start. The UK actually has a plan to deploy about 3000 wind turbines in the ocean over the next ten years (I picked on this set as they do have a fairly comprehensive plan, unlike many other developed countries). But the numbers are daunting: to achieve their stated goal would require the erection of a turbine almost every single day in that next ten years. The result of actually doing this would increase their total wind power generation from less than 1% of the total electricity generation to about 5%. Not a bad start, you might say, but look at the cost: about $1M per turbine, or a total of $3B for just the UK effort. And this does not count the equipment needed for distribution and load balancing. But you argue that surely wind power is the most ecologically friendly way to produce power? Perhaps, but it does have at least four impacts: large wind turbines are not the most sightly things to have cluttering up the horizon, they do produce a fair amount of noise, there are impacts on bird populations, and a final impact that I don’t think anyone has modeled, that of ‘stealing’ energy from the world total of wind production. What effect that might have, if these turbines were installed in significant numbers around the world, on things like cloud formation, storm generation, or rainfall patterns is a complete unknown.

Dramatic increases in solar and water power have similar costs and problems associated with them. Nuclear can be increased from its current level, and can make a significant dent in the need for fossil fuel generation, but it is also a very high cost solution, with its own ecological problems of waste generation and possibilities of both significant accidents and of being terrorist targets.

Now, just for argument’s sake, let’s assume that the current targets that have been agreed to by most countries actually happens. What’s the end result? Do we suddenly have a world where the total CO2 level is stable or even declining? Not by a long shot. Even with the 20% reductions being aimed for, this only gets us back to about 1988 levels of CO2 production. Which means that while the rate of increase of this stuff in the atmosphere might decline, the absolute level will continue to climb. To actually stabilize this level calls for far more draconian measures of 50% reductions along with strategies to increase sequestration of CO2. And the only foreseeable way to achieve anything close to this is for the developed world to drastically reduce their total energy consumption, while at the same time forcing the undeveloped world to stay where they are (the quickest route to developing is to employ the cheapest method of increased energy production, and that implies the dirtiest method, burning coal). How would we go about reducing our energy consumption, especially considering that any reasonable projection shows we will continue to increase that consumption? Conservation only goes so far, there is only so much that is wasted, and is a self-limiting strategy. We could go back to horse and buggy days, if we were willing to somehow get rid of 4/5 of our population – people forget that the current world population is only made possible at all by high-tech and energy-intensive farming methods. I don’t think this is a solution that many will sign up for. The basic answer is that it’s not going to happen.

So what do we do? We learn to live with a world that is going to get a little warmer. Whether CO2 is actually the driver for the observed increase in temperatures since about 1850 is still highly debatable. Another theory states that almost all of the observed increase is due to variations in the sun’s output, and such variations happen over a 1500 year cycle. In support of this theory are the known historical data of the Dark Ages warm period of about 900-1300AD (which, by the way, was apparently about 2 degrees warmer than today’s world, and saw the Viking colonization of Greenland, which really was green, then), the ‘Little Ice Age’ from 1300-1800, and our current warming trend; much longer data points obtained from ice cores, sedimentation data, tree ring growth; astronomical and satellite observations, and a host of other points. But regardless of which theory you subscribe to, both point to this world heating up about another 2 degrees C in next century. Given that it doesn’t look at all feasible to make significant changes to the CO2 generation or overall level, and we obviously can’t do anything about the sun’s output level, it looks to me, at least, that much more effort should be going into developing methods to live in a warmer world. And this probably means more energy generation will be needed, not less.

Generating more power via alternative sources from fossil fuels does make sense, but not because of all the scare tactics that are being tossed around by the advocates of the CO2 warming theory. It makes sense for the simple reason that those fossil fuels are a very finite resource. When they’re gone, and if we don’t have good alternatives in place, then we really will be up the creek minus paddles. But crash programs to switch over, even if you could get everyone to agree to them, driven by unrealistic fears, will do nothing but at the least cause a global depression that will make the current economic crisis look trifling, or cause resource wars that make the current set of brush conflicts seem puny.

Posted in Economics, Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Science Fiction, The Undead Genre

Posted by hyperpat on August 26, 2009

Probably somewhere around 1930, someone was stating that science fiction was dying, that all the story lines had already been mined for whatever treasure they might contain, and science was overtaking all the good ideas. They’re still saying exactly the same things today. Is there any more cause to believe these doomsayers now than way back when? Let’s examine the issues:

1. Print magazine sales numbers are down. And not just down, but way down. And the number of magazines devoted to SF has tailed downward since the mid-fifties. Surely this is an indication of a moribund and comatose field? I would argue, however, that to some degree this decline is a product of SF being too successful (see also my prior post on the death of the sf short story). Back in the fifties SF was almost totally a ghetto, written and consumed by a very insular group that had almost no contact with the larger literary world. Then came the New Wave, a few SF authors hitting the best-seller lists, a smattering of critical analysis of the field that didn’t totally dismiss it as fantasy for little boys, a few mainstream authors who gingerly put their toes into speculative waters, and the ghetto walls started to crumble. At the same time, real, visible scientific and technological advances and a couple of spectacular movies were making the general public aware that that crazy Buck Rogers stuff wasn’t totally crazy. From the sixties through the late eighties, this broadening trend continued. A few colleges started to offer SF as a course in literature. Science fiction has become at least somewhat ‘respectable’, or at the very least not easily dismissed as just ‘adolescent male fantasy’ . Nowadays a writer has far more potential markets for his science fiction writing than just those magazines that specialize in the form.

2. Science marches on, and stories that dealt with simple rockets to the moon have obviously been overtaken by such advances. This is a congenital hazard to writing stories in this field – regardless of what scientific concept is the driving force for a story, at some point in the future it’s entirely possible that new scientific theories and actual technological gadgets based on those theories may make the story obsolete, old hat, or worse, shown to be impossible. But people forget (especially those who claim that SF is running out of ideas) that SF is not just about possible new nifty gadgets, but rather about how humans live and react and form societies based on such gadgets (or the gadgets’ long term effects, such as all the A-bombs in the world being set off), and that viewpoint, which is outside of what can be achieved via mundane fiction, will never lose its impact or relevance. Which is why it’s still possible to read and enjoy something like Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A corollary to the continuing advancement of science is that new concepts and theories appear, such as string theory or quantum entanglement, which can become fodder for new SF stories based on same. As long as science doesn’t run out of new things to discover, or the engineers can no longer design new gadgets that impact how people live, science fiction writers will have new things to incorporate into their stories.

3. There are only a limited number of human-centric plots (I think it was Heinlein who boiled it down to just three actually different plots), regardless of what genre it is being written in. SF, however, has a greater range than common mundane fiction, allowing for plots that deal with man (or alien) vs universe as their conflict point, rather than just man-vs-man. But within that limited number, there is room for an infinite amount of shading and subtlety. This applies just as much to sf as to mundane fiction; clearly, there will always be room for a ‘new’ story.

4. Some writers and publishers are scrupulously trying to avoid the label ‘science fiction’. Partially this is due to the still not-totally-respectable odor associated with that label in literary circles, and partially due to the general reading public’s impression (still, even after thirty years of acknowledgment that there is some mature value to things written within the genre) that it’s ‘kids stuff’. There’s also a fear by many potential readers of just not being able to understand the concepts and science in today’s works, a fear which is at least partially justifiable, as there are certainly some (but also certainly not all) sf works today that call for far more understanding and knowledge of modern science than the average man in the street has. However, whether works by such writers are labeled sf or not by either themselves or their publishers, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t actually sf. Cormac Macarthy’s The Road is definitely sf, regardless of how academics or the general public view it. Perhaps, however, it does mean that sf, as a distinct, easily separable and identifiable genre of writing, is disappearing, becoming more and more incorporated into the general field of just ‘fiction’, another tool for certain types of story ideas to be used whenever appropriate.

Science fiction is not dying. It has matured some; it has become more ‘literary’, its minimum standards have improved drastically, its markets have broadened and become less easily identifiable. None of these are bad things.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 5 Comments »

Space, The Same Old Frontier

Posted by hyperpat on October 30, 2008

Over at SF Signal, there is an extended discussion about whether SF has at least partly caused the current general disinterest in space exploration, occasioned by a comment by Buzz Aldrin to that effect.

My answer to that is yes, it’s at least partly true that some of the presentations of SF, especially those by the visual media, have caused a fair number of people to dismiss space exploration as either silly childish dreams not worth spending money on, or have focused the attention on wildly unrealistic expectations of being able to merrily zip around universe in minutes, against which the real space program’s accomplishments look extremely drab and uninteresting.

But it’s far from wholly true. Again and again, when you talk to the people who are actually involved in doing the real work of space exploration, the scientists and engineers for whom this field is their daily bread and butter, you hear the statement that SF was one of the major things that inspired them to get into the field in the first place. What many forget, when they see the overall lack of interest in space exploration, is that those who actually work in this field of endeavor constitute a tiny fraction of the entire populace. For the great majority, all they see and care about is their shiny new tech toys, their ever more capable Dick Tracy phones, their awesome high-definition flat panel TVs, their amazingly capable video game machines, and these people have no idea how these devices came to be, have no idea of how much effort and money it took to create them, have no concept of the deep infrastructure needed to build them, do not understand the economics driving their development, have no clue about the scientific principles and discoveries that make them possible, nor do they care.

Space exploration is merely the most visible result of what science can accomplish. The real ‘final’ frontier is not space exploration itself, nor has it ever been. The frontier is human knowledge, and additions to that mass of facts has always been the prerogative of a small group of people who just have to know what is over the next hill, who have to understand how a bee flies, who are completely unhappy about things that they can’t explain, who continuously dream about doing something no one else has ever done before. It is exactly this type of person that has continuously driven civilization beyond existing boundaries, has made the average human existence much more than pure subsistence. Every once in a while, the dreams of such people have invaded the space of the average person, and for brief moments have ignited a collective drive to accomplish a particular goal. One such moment was the initial drive to reach the moon. But such moments never last for long, and the average person goes back to his everyday concerns, of putting bread on his family’s table, and money spent on ‘dream’ goals again is looked upon with deep suspicion as not doing anything for them.

Science fiction is all about what is possible. It’s roots are deeply grounded in the concept that there is always something new to discover, and as such it mainly appeals to exactly the type of person who is not satisfied with the status quo, who needs something beyond the everyday to satisfy their internal reason to exist. For this type of person, science fiction stories with imaginative ideas can inspire, and in some cases even lead directly to new discoveries and accomplishments, as the inspired person drives to make that idea a reality. But for the average person, SF is merely another form of entertainment, and when the real world doesn’t provide the same level of drama as what he sees on the movie screen, concludes that it is just fanciful fiction, and doesn’t deserve dollars out of his pocket.

It’s not that SF has killed interest in space exploration, it’s the everyday, humdrum demands of living that have killed it in the absence of any great drama or immediately visible economic benefit. Space exploration is merely one more thing that’s barely visible on the average person’s radar, as it apparently has no immediate, direct affect on his life. And this will probably always be true: the very few will drive what’s new, the great majority will merely stumble on.

Posted in Economics, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Making Connections

Posted by hyperpat on August 1, 2008

Over at Tor.com, the new website tor has established for interactive discussion of all things speculative, Jo Walton posted a commentary on just what the difference is between sf and fantasy, and just how some books really can’t be pigeonholed into one category or another. Which leads to a problem for brick-and-mortar stores that try to shelve these two categories separately, as wherever they put such books, it will be missed by those expecting it to be in the other category.

The problem is really much more general than just the divide between sf and fantasy, and gets into an entire field of library science dealing with indexing and cross-referencing massive amounts of data, at least some of which is subject to highly subjective evaluation by those irrational and sometimes contradictory beings called humans. Coming up with at least partial solutions to this problem is important. Many, many times in the world of science today, a fact discovered in one field, say entomology, has great relevance to another field, say a search for cancer-curing drugs in the field of medicine. But this fact won’t be noticed by the medical researchers unless they have some tool that properly indexes the discovered fact as being relevant to their field.

The Google model for searches is great for topics of wide interest. What it won’t do is find data that is obscure and of importance to only a few specialists. It’s also completely mechanistic – it can’t get that “aha!” moment that humans do when seeing one data item that suddenly provides an answer to a problem in something apparently totally unrelated. Artificial intelligence probably won’t really be useful (or really ‘intelligent’) until it can make such connections. We’ve still got a long way to go before we get to “Computer! Tell me why these Acturians are blowing up all our grain silos on Deneb IV.” (certain Star Trek episodes to the contrary).

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The Human Brain, Still Champion

Posted by hyperpat on May 30, 2008

In most people’s minds, computers can ‘think’ far faster than the human mind. But is that really true? consider just what happens in the human mind during a conversation:

1. The ears must detect the variations in air pressure, convert it to a electronic signal and send it over the nervous system to the auditory processing center of the brain.

2. The auditory processing center must decode that message and determine if the sound was a word, after filtering out random background noises cause by the wind, a bird call, nearby machinery, or what have you. This is no small trick, and computers today still have problems in this area.

3. Now the speech/language center of the brain gets involved. It must determine what that word was, link it to any prior words, and do a lookup of the meaning of the word, before delivering the result to the prefrontal lobe as something that needs to be looked at by the ‘consciousness’.

4. Now the ‘you’, the ‘thinking’ part, has to take this piece of information, link it with the database storage of your entire life experience, cross-correlate and index it with all that information to help determine what that word means to you and what associations you have with that meaning, and add the visuals: who are you talking to, what is their facial expression, their body language, the tonal quality of the word – all things which may modify the exact meaning of what has been said. And note that the visual processing involves at least as many steps as does the auditory, and is being performed simultaneously to give your consciousness that complete, real-time picture of what is happening.

5. All the words must be processed to determine the actual complete sense of what has been said to you, so now the short-term memory storage must also be accessed, bringing with it the entire gamut of information that was associated with each of the prior words that had been processed.

6. A response must be composed. Once more, both short and long term memory must be accessed, appropriate words chosen to convey the desired meaning, and signals sent to motor controls for throat , lungs, voice-box, lips, and mouth to actually deliver the response.

Given that average speech rates are 200-300 words per minute, this means average word generation is taking about 200 milliseconds. Which means, when you look at the individual actions taken by the brain and associated nervous system, that they are processing things in micro-, or perhaps even nano-, second time frames. This compares quite favorably with most computer speeds.

But you say that computers can calculate arithmetical sums far faster and far more accurately than people! While this is normally true (but just look at what some so-called ‘lightning calculator’ humans can do as a comparison stick), it ignores the fact that computers are extremely single minded – even those programmed to do multi-threaded multi-tasking. The human brain continuously processes, weighs, and forms decision trees about a tremendous amount of information from the ‘outside’ world, integrating it to a gestalt map that informs and influences everything we do or say. And it is in exactly this area that computers compare poorly to humans, and why it’s still true that we haven’t yet built anything that even approaches what most would call a true ‘artificial’ intelligence.

Now part of this gap is a deficiency in how we program computers, an item that is continuously being worked on, with improvements constantly being made, but these improvements, so far at least, have been coming at a pretty linear rate – no great ahas! that have taking computer processing up in giant leaps. Part of the reason for this is that we still don’t understand just exactly how the human brain does what it does, so making a computer mimic it is a little bit of a guessing game. Until we gain a better understanding of just how the brain functions, I don’t think anything like Asimov’s autonomous robots are going to arrive.

So we have a few years, at least, until Colossus takes over the world, and we all end up as slaves to it.

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Was Chicken Little Right?

Posted by hyperpat on May 19, 2008

The doom-and-gloom crowd has been predicting that we’ll run out of oil real soon now for a long time. I can remember articles in the sixties that predicted this would happen by 1990, more articles in seventies that pushed this out another ten years, and current articles that peg the date at 2040. Obviously, at least so far, this hasn’t happened. And I doubt that the 2040 date will be any more accurate that the prior predictions. But what has happened is that the price of oil has now reached the point that alternative energy generation methods are beginning to become cost competitive. Never mind that the current price is probably artificially inflated by speculators and cartels that are only looking to get theirs while the getting is good, in real terms it has become more expensive to find, drill, extract, and refine oil. There truly is less readily available (read: cheap) oil to be found out there, so the current price is unlikely to decline very much.

As our current high-tech society is very much dependent on this energy source, is it perhaps time to really start worrying? The answer to that depends on what the alternatives are, and how diligently we investigate these alternatives. So far, the considered alternatives are wind, solar, hydro-electric, fuel cell, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, biomass, and tidal. Let’s look at each of these and see just how far they’ll go towards providing the world with both cheap and reliable power.

Wind power: Lot’s of energy available here. Winds are basically generated by two major factors, the solar influx and the Earth’s spin, neither of which are going away anytime soon. Capturing this energy in significant amounts is another story. There are few places in the world that have steady winds high enough to justify the cost of the high tech windmills that can efficiently turn that wind power into electricity. Currently, wind power provides less than 1% of electricity production in the U.S. If all possible sites for wind power were developed, it could provide perhaps 20% of the electricity demand, but there are two problems with this. First is that these wind farms would then occupy something like 300,000 square miles of land area. As the U.S. has only 3.7 million square miles of land, this represents something like 8% of all the land, most of which is used for other purposes right now. Second is the problem that the energy produced is a) highly variable b) not easily stored, meaning it has to used when it is produced.

Hydro-Electric, currently providing about 11% of the electricity demand, has similar problems, along with the fact that most of the available hydro-power sites are already in use, and to add more would cause significant changes to the ecologies of the areas around them.

Fuel cells are not net energy producers. It takes more energy to produce the hydrogen used than the fuel cell will deliver. They are a partial answer to the problem of storing energy, and at least can be considered partially mobile if placed in cars. If we can generate enough energy via other means, then these items would be a possible replacement for all the oil we gobble up as gasoline. However, the distribution channels for hydrogen are not in place, and building up the infrastructure necessary represents a large investment in both time and money.

Bio-mass generation has similar problems as those of fuel cells, as it takes more energy to grow and process the plant material needed than will be generated by the final product. It has an advantage in that it won’t require a whole new infrastructure to distribute the end product, but once again the total land area required to grow the necessary material is a significant fraction of our total land area, and would force out farmland currently used to grow edible crops – something we are already seeing in the price of basic foodstuffs in the grocery store. However, this type of technology also provides us with a way to make the oils we need for things other than power generation: lubricants, ingredients in plastics, and other such uses. If crude oil really does run out or becomes prohibitively expensive to get, this avenue is available, and additional research and technological improvements need to be actively pursued.

Tidal power is a non-starter with today’s technology. While there’s a lot of energy in the tides, in most places of the world this energy is very diffuse. Only in few bays is there enough of a water height differential to make energy generation efficient or possible.

Nuclear fission power is an option. It is possible for us to generated a much larger fraction of our energy needs this way than we currently do, but once again there are significant costs and risks associated with going down this route, not the least of which is the spent material disposal problem, along with the terrorist/crazy factor. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, just isn’t possible today. We really haven’t solved the technological issues with this one yet, and probably won’t for some time, even though they’ve been predicting it’s advent as 15 years from the present for the last forty years. If it ever does become a reality that can actually produce more power than what it takes to generate the reaction, it might become the ultimate savior of our high-tech civilization, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Which leaves solar power as a possible solution. Solar comes in couple of different flavors: direct electricity generation, and as a heat source to drive conventional generators. The heating method is fairly simple, and can be of great use in relatively undeveloped nations, but it is not terribly efficient. Direct conversion shows more promise, though current solar cell efficiency is really not high enough to make it cost competitive with other generation methods. But calculations of the potential energy available show that, yes, it can provide enough power, assuming we wish to the cover the state of Arizona with solar panels, along with every housetop in America. There is still the problem of variable generation (no power produced at night!), the same problem that plagues some of the other potential generation methods. Some better means of storing energy must be found – battery technology is right now not anywhere near to being able to handle this.

Or there is one other alternative: put your solar generation plant in space, where the sun shines all the time, where there is plenty of room not needed for other purposes, and microwave the resultant power down to the ground. This is the option I’d like to put my money on and into, but so far at least it doesn’t seem as if there is any real work being done to make this happen, even though it’s within our technological capability. It would just take an astronomical (pun intended) amount to build it. Our average citizen complains about the amount of money being used for space exploration, as they see no direct benefit from it (we’re just throwing dollars into space!). Science fiction stories have been touting the benefits available from space for a long time, but those who read the stuff represent a very tiny fraction of the entire populace, and it’s still “Buck Rogers stuff” for most. Perhaps if they could be shown how it would directly affect their pocketbook via their power bill they might be more willing to spend more to make true space industry an economically feasible  reality.

The world’s energy demand is not going down. If we don’t wish to see our way of life collapse into wars over a declining resource, or subside into just making-do, with a lower standard of living for all, real work must be done to find appropriate energy sources, all the while keeping in mind just what is ultimately possible with any particular technology and what its total costs are.

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Predicting the Future

Posted by hyperpat on April 17, 2008

Besides all of its other great qualities as a novel, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, written almost 50 years ago, had one great technological prediction, that of powered armor suits for the poor foot soldier. These suits, in addition to greatly multiplying the effective physical strength of the soldier and provide at least some protection against stray bullets, also had weapon racks for carrying and launching some really heavy-duty firepower, head’s-up displays of the tactical situation, and multiple comm-link channels to allow the soldier to stay in constant communication with his buddies and the higher ups. Now, at least part of that prediction is coming true. Under contract for the U. S. Army, the first prototype exoskeletons, unimaginatively named the XOS, that can help increase the soldier’s effective physical strength have been developed.

There’s obviously still a long way to go before reaching anything close to Heinlein’s vision, but it’s at least a start.

So how did Heinlein come up with such a prediction in the first place? Basically I think he looked at what a foot soldier really needed to aid the soldier in his mission, and designed his suit around those requirements, not paying any attention to the then current state of technology or how it would be possible to physically implement such a gadget, other than some hand-waving about negative feedback systems. He did much the same thing in The Door Into Summer, where he predicted the invention of robots specifically designed to do household chores, which has also become partially real, with the introduction of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Which is probably not a bad way to come up with a new gadget in the real world. Figure out what you need, then worry about the implementation details. But it works really well in the world of science fiction, as all those pesky implementation details can be ignored.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 1 Comment »

Will the Real Science Data Please Stand Up?

Posted by hyperpat on July 11, 2007

We are bombarded on a daily basis with the latest scientific research results. Anything from what stem cell usage might mean towards treatments for various ailments, space probe data pointing towards life elsewhere, new ‘global warming’ data in either support or disagreement with this hypothesis, new fossil data and how it supports one or another competing models of evolution, which foods have the greatest potential for prolonging (or shortening) life-spans (and this list changes constantly, with the former favorites turning to bottom-feeders and vice versa), DNA clues to how life works, the latest advances in computer speed, new ‘Grand Unified Field’ theories fueled by new astrophysical observations, the dangers of genetic manipulation and whichever virus of the day is seen as being a new great threat, the latest wonder drug – the list goes on and on. The total mass of this data is not surprising; after all, science still seems to be riding an exponential curve in terms of discoveries.

The trouble is, 99% of this information comes to us as filtered by the media. And most media outlets have a) a poor understanding of the science and b) a need to present this information in the most sensational way possible. After all, they are in the business of selling information. Which means that the average person often gets a very distorted view of what is really going on. Couple this with that same person’s own poor understanding of science and how it works, and you have a basic recipe for conclusions and plans that are not based in reality.

The current global warming flap is a good example of this. Most scientists would be the first ones to say that the current theories are trying to model what is a very complex system, with far more variables than most theories try to tackle, and that it is difficult to apply normal scientific methods, as there are very few laboratory experiments that can be done to verify or disprove most aspects of this – instead they must rely on the ‘open air’ data that the entire world can provide, and this data has highly varying degrees of verifiable accuracy. This leads to warring factions within the scientific community, as various people focus on one or another aspect of the available data and how well it fits their chosen hypothesis. Consensus on the extent and cause of the perceived problem has been slow, and there is still a contingent that violently disagrees with the current consensus view.

But it is rare that the media coverage explores these disagreements within the scientific community with any depth. Far too much of the coverage highlights the ‘scare’ factor – “New York city will be under 20 feet of water by the end of the century!”, and rarely gives more than a short summary of the underlying data and assumptions behind that prediction. The scientific community itself must take part of the blame for this. Far too often, scientists will make statements to the press or hand out short excerpts from their papers, leaving out the hard data on which their statements are based. It doesn’t have to be this way in today’s internet age. On line articles should include links not only to the summary statement, but to the complete paper that the scientist has probably submitted to the appropriate organization for peer review. But when such links are given, all too often when you try to open those links, you find have to pay some sort of fee or be a member of some professional society to access the complete paper – at which point most people give up, and rely on the summary only.

This is not to say that most people can actually understand the original complete paper. Few have the training to understand the data, reasoning, and methods that such papers typically present. But for those that do, having such access would at least provide a much larger set of eyes looking critically at the data, able to see possible variances from the given hypothesis, or outlying data points that the theory doesn’t explain properly or completely, and be able to come up with a better assessment of just what level of confidence can be placed in the theory’s predictions – the critical item in determining what to do about it.

Science via media/sound bite doesn’t cut it. Political and economic decisions based on such partial and filtered information is just asking for a disaster.

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Space, The Final Frontier

Posted by hyperpat on June 26, 2007

Recently Charles Stross posted an article about how we’ll never get around to colonizing the other planets in the solar system, let alone interstellar colonization, citing the extraordinary cost, technological difficulty, and very poor return on investment as reasons. He also pooh-poohs the idea that we’ll do it anyway just because it’s there. Now while his numbers are very probably correct given today’s level of technology, I think he is seriously underestimating the drive towards going where we’ve never been before, to make a new home far away from the old homestead.

Mars is the obvious logical choice out of all the sundry rocks in the solar system, as it is close enough to a human friendly environment that is fairly easy to see what steps would be necessary to make it into something where we can actually live. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red, Blue, & Green Mars set lays out these steps in admirable fashion, although it’s quite probable that the time frame he envisions is way too short to actually achieve that goal (although at least one scientist thinks we could be well down that path by the end of this century). Could we do it with today’s technology? Probably not. But the pace of progress shows no signs of slowing down, and if we can get to the point where a space elevator is a real possibility, it will remove one of the greatest impediments to this task, that of having to lift large quantities of various necessary tools and biomasses out of Earth’s deep gravity well with something as inefficient and dangerous as rocket power. Lacking such an item right now, exploration by both robot probe and manned missions is not only doable, but necessary, and we can leave the colonization for a little later.

Of course, the limiting factor here is not really technology, but money (of course, the better the technology, the less it will cost). Who is going to fund all of this? NASA’s mandate and budget will only stretch so far. And while there are always a few with visionary dreams, the average taxpayer doesn’t see much point to spending all this money to investigate a world that seems to be populated with nothing but some very uninteresting rocks. But it is precisely those who have that visionary dream, coupled with a few individuals who have some really deep money pockets who either share that dream or can be convinced of its value, that will really drive this. This is happening now, as private ventures towards developing an economical space plane have already shown.

There has always been a small segment of the human population that is just not satisfied with the status quo, who want to see what’s over that next hill, who will endure great deprivation in search of such dreams. Without such people, humanity would become stagnant and ingrown, always worrying about the local problem of the day, and missing one of the grander aspects of what it is to be human. Stross is wrong. We will colonize our solar system, as there will always be a few of us who don’t count the cost.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 4 Comments »

Creationism and the Scalzi Challenge

Posted by hyperpat on June 11, 2007

Haven’t posted for a while due to another bout of 12 hour/7days a week workitus. I’m getting too old for this kind of schedule…

But reading over on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, I discover that the Creation Museum has just opened. John, in his typical Scalzi snarky way, has managed to stir up his readership to get him to go visit said museum, if they will just contribute enough to make it worth his while (see here). Contributions towards this educational trip will go to the Americans United for Separation of Church and State organization. For another look at what this museum offers, the folks at Ars Technica have this.

Now, if those who believe in Creationism wish to educate their children in the privacy of their homes in the tenets of this ideology, that’s their business. If they wish to advertise it via this museum, which people can go and visit based strictly on their own personal wishes to do so, that’s their business. If they wish to get this stuff put into science textbooks that will be used at public schools, that’ s not their business, it’s yours and mine. Americans already have a tough time keeping up with the rest of world in terms of scientific knowledge and investigation, and confusing students with faith-based material certainly will not help in this regard. Separation of church and state (and in this case, ‘state’ very definitely includes public schools) is a very good idea, not the least of which is that when ‘faith’ takes control of a government, there can be no opposition, as obviously those of the faith will reject (in sometimes very bloody ways) any dissension as not coming from their deity, and they have the absolutely correct answers.

How science works is not perfect. It doesn’t always look objectively at new data and theories, and sometimes advocates of new ideas are ignored or pilloried. But it does eventually get around to looking at that new data, and old ideas will get tossed out to be replaced by better ideas that fit all the known facts a bit more closely. The closer the theories match how the world really works, the better for all of us, as these theories form the basis for all the fancy technological goodies that make our lives richer and more rewarding, with less of our time spent on the mundane problems of surviving. Science is basically about asking questions, and the mindset that asks and allows for questions helps to not only keep our government healthy, but allows all of us to live our lives in the way we wish.

So go visit Scalzi’s site, and contribute to his trip if you feel so inspired. If nothing else, the end result should be some entertaining reading.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, religion, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Private Memories?

Posted by hyperpat on May 22, 2007

Charles Stross, author of Acclerando and Glasshouse, has posted an interesting article on what he sees as the direction of the future. He notes the continuing acceleration of developments in memory storage and bandwidth, and takes a flyer from this to the idea of completely recording every single moment of your life. Now while such a thing may be technically achievable (and he presents a good case that it not only could be done, but done quite cheaply for every single human on the planet), the question I have is would people really want to do this?

Now everyone has some memorable moment(s) in their lives that they’d like to preserve – usually what are considered ‘life markers’, the weddings, graduations, births, etc. And there is some usage for this concept as a memory aid, especially for those suffering from (or who might be prone to) Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive problems. But record everything? Other than a few extreme exhibitionists, I don’t think so. Because once recorded, it’s subject to being viewed by others, and some of those others probably don’t have your best interests at heart: the police looking for whatever crimes you may have committed (and everyone has committed some crime in their lives, even if it’s as pedestrian as jay-walking), crooks looking for ways to relieve you of your wealth, or your spouse looking for lapses in your fidelity. As Stross notes, having this capability would mean the effective end to any privacy, given that to make it happen, recording devices would need to be everywhere.

What’s frightening about this is that the beginnings of this can be seen right here and now. Almost every store you enter has surveillance cameras, more and more stop lights are being equipped with picture-taking cameras, RFID tags are being embedding in more and more products, the mobile phone cameras that everyone seems to possess nowadays, GPS trackers in cars, every key stroke and mouse click you perform on the web can already be recorded (along with complete monitoring of your PC actions at your workplace), and it’s been possible to marry up medical, financial, purchase history, web browsing, and school records to get a pretty complete profile of someone for some time. As one of the commenters to Stross’ article indicated, the US Constitution is silent on the right to privacy – the Supreme Court has often held in its rulings that there is an implied right, but such is not spelled out in the master document. With the future barreling down upon us, and what privacy we have being nibbled away by more and more gadgets, perhaps we need to start lobbying for a constitutional amendment to make this right explicit. Unless you really want everything you do visible to the whole wide world.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Politics, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | 2 Comments »

Mobile Phone-Phobic Bees

Posted by hyperpat on April 16, 2007

A new theory has surfaced to explain the bee die-off I wrote about earlier. It would seem there is at least some evidence that bees do not like mobile phones, and won’t return to a hive that has one near it. So far, though, I would class this as a hypothesis that needs a lot more direct research before indicting this modern ‘necessity’. But it is very worrying that this problem has spread to Europe.

I’m reminded of one of the better sf disaster novels, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, where a bio-weapon got out of hand and ended up destroying most of the world’s grain crops. While the current bee crisis has certainly not reached the level of disaster of that book, it is certainly pointing out that we simply do not know enough about all the interactions of the world ecology, and the fragility of the world food supply to the effects of unforeseen consequences of technology, mutations, chemicals, or habitat and/or climate modification.

If this problem continues to spread, it would appear that it would be something that needs attention now, although so far it has not grabbed very much press coverage, as opposed to the constant shrieking about global warming, which, while also needing attention, is a much longer-term problem.

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Little Guys Make a Difference

Posted by hyperpat on April 3, 2007

People like to think that they represent the apex of living things on this planet. But in some ways we’re totally outclassed by some pretty tiny life forms, namely insects. In terms of sheer numbers, we don’t even come close. And insects have been around a lot longer than people; many species are basically unchanged from what they were like sixty million years ago – a pretty good marker for just how successful they have been and how well integrated into their ecological niche they are. Clifford Simak, way back in the forties in the novel City, asked what would happen if you could jump start one variety of insect, the ant, out of its evolutionary fixed point – with the result that our Earth was eventually taken over by an ant civilization, a somewhat frightening example of just how much potential insects have. But as annoying and pestiferous as some insects are, they are also very essential to us, as without them large portions of the ecology would collapse. And some of them are very important to us economically, most especially bees.

Now while your first thought about bees might be honey or sting, bees are the workhorses of flowering plant pollination. While some pollination occurs via wind, ants, arachnids, and larger animal transport, the great majority of this function is accomplished by bees. And without this pollination, most of our fresh fruit and many other staple crops would cease to exist.  And lately, it seems that bees are in trouble.  A mysterious disease has apparently started attacking the colonies throughout much of the United States, in some areas causing the die off of 90% of the local colonies. The cause, so far, is unknown, with suggestions ranging from an imported disease from Australia to the dreaded ‘global warming’ (though so far there hasn’t been much credence given to the latter possibility). As of yet, the ‘killer’ Africanized hybrid bee doesn’t seem to be affected, but without knowing the cause for the current die off, there’s no guarantee that they won’t succumb also.

At least part of the current problem is too great a reliance on a single species of bee by many farmers. Knowledge of other ecological disasters would indicate that, like most things, we should not be placing all our eggs in one basket.  And once again, a strong look should be made at just what chemicals, pesticides, and imported foreign species we’re adding to the environment, as clearly we don’t know enough yet to manually manage an ecology (and can’t even properly computer simulate it); we simply don’t know what unintended effects a single change to an environment will have. Obviously more research (and dollars to fund said research) is needed. But regardless of how quickly we can come up with an answer to the current problem, it’s already so far advanced that you can expect higher fruit prices this summer.
So be nice to our little invertebrate friends, or you just might find your dinner table awfully bare.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 2 Comments »

The Value of Blogging

Posted by hyperpat on April 2, 2007

The blogosphere continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Some estimates put the current number of US hosted blogs at 60 million. This is a significant portion of the population, even if you remove from consideration the number of foreign bloggers, ‘spam’ blogs, inactive, and duplicated blogs – the number would probably still be something like 30 million. Some questions come to mind about this phenomenon:

1. What do all these people have to say? What subjects are hot?

2. Why has this medium grown so fast?

3. What value does it have versus things like print media? Will it eventually push things like newspapers to oblivion?

There may not be definitive answers to the above, but some things are fairly clear. People are writing about whatever strikes their fancy, from butterflies to canned soup, but some of the most popular topics are, not surprisingly, politics, wars, economics, and religion. A good chunk of these postings may not add much to the world’s understanding of causes and fixes for problems, and some of this material is poorly researched and validated, but at the very least some of these posts rival any information obtainable from more traditional sources, and also provide a good snapshot of current mass opinion on a host of issues that politicians had better be paying attention to. But there is also one subject area that is somewhat unique to blogosphere, namely computer-related material, reviews of this or that software, hosting facilities, how to get things done in the computer world. The depth of this material ranges from stuff for neophytes to some very sophisticated analysis of stuff that only propeller-heads are likely to understand. Certainly there are magazines and such devoted to this type of thing, but all too often reviews of software in these media are commissioned for pay, and are neither totally unbiased nor have they received testing on the incredible variety of computer platforms that exist today, so these blog posts serve a very useful purpose.

Which leads to at least a partial answer to why blogging has grown so quickly: it is filling a very real need for unbiased information that is relevant to its audience. But there are several other reasons which are possibly even more important. The first of these is the sense of community that the blogosphere engenders. Americans from the fifties to the nineties seem to be growing more and more isolated from each other (quick, now, when was the last time you had a substantive conversation with your neighbor?), grew inward to concerns about only their own families, and seemed to lose connection with their wider community. This seems to have left a feeling of there being something lacking in everyone’s daily living, and blogging has provided a means for filling at least one part of that hole, a way to connect to many other people in a non-threatening manner. To some degree, the blogosphere has become the new town-hall meeting or the gathering in the old hardware store. The other part of this is the feeling of empowerment; people who have felt that their opinions and their voice were not being heard can now get these words out there for the whole world to see, and the feedback that they can get is a validation that what they are saying is being heard and matters.

Now many established professional writers and journalists have denigrated the value of blogs, stating that they simply cannot match the accuracy of the work that they do, and can in fact lead to some very dangerous and unsupportable allegations and misstatements of fact (and there have even been a few lawsuits challenging just what can and can’t be said on a blog). It’s certainly true that getting all your news from reading blogs is probably not a good idea; that what you see in one place should be checked via some other source of information. But it’s also true that the sheer number of people involved in this means that subjects will be tackled that traditional print and TV media simply don’t have time or space for, and that benefits everyone. I doubt that blogs will ever completely do away with traditional media; there will probably always be a place for people who are dedicated to the full-time work of determining and reporting the facts, but neither should bloggers be dismissed as not having the chops to present issues that need to be addressed in a timely and well-written manner.

Which brings me to my final point. At least part of the allure of blogging is the dream that many people have of being a professional writer. Blogging lets people put their attempts at writing out there for all the world to see, without having to wait years to see it in print or submit their work to sometimes crotchety editors who insist on proper grammar and well-organized material. Of course this leads to some blogs that are almost unreadable and of little or no value. But the great majority of the ones I see, anyway, show a proper respect for the written word, and frequently do present their material in both a logical and persuasive manner. Such work shows me that that there are far more people out there than those who do get published who can write well enough that they could be published. The limitation is just how many things the publishing industry can produce and sell. It’s quite noticeable that since the advent of print-on-demand and cheap vanity publishers that the number of published books has risen steeply. Much of what is published today may not be world-class literature, and it’s certainly true that many self-published books could have used the services of a good editor, but at the same time I can’t help but think that the more things get recorded via the written word, the more our culture benefits.

Posted in General, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

Home, Sweet Home for Dinosaurs

Posted by hyperpat on March 21, 2007

Scientists have now discovered den-digging, burrowing dinosaurs. This news alone is not earth-shattering, and probably is of direct interest only to a very few. However, it adds one more point in what is known about dinosaurs and the environment they lived in, and with each such point that is added, it becomes clearer that during their heyday the dinosaurs occupied just about every possible ecological animal niche. To my mind, at least, this is strong evidence in support of the theory of evolution, as it is possible to track the spread of dinosaurs throughout these ecological niches over the course of time, and also shows just how competition for resources favors those new animal variants that can best take advantage of some particular feature, eventually resulting in completely new species.

This view of the world does not eliminate the possibility of the world/universe being created by some omniscient being, but it does put a severe crimp into any literal interpretation of how the world was created as presented in any of the major religious works.  As evidence keeps piling up for the basic veracity of the theory, it seems to me that the debate on whether to teach things like ‘Intelligent Design’ right alongside evolutionary theory should be ended – while such concepts may have a place in philosophy or literature classes, they do not deserve to be handed up in the same texts that cover biology. These ideas simply do not have the same evidentiary basis as evolution, and placing them on the same footing will do nothing but confuse the students about just what science is and how it is practiced.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, religion, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

Silicon Valley

Posted by hyperpat on March 15, 2007

Why does Silicon Valley dominate the world of electronics innovation? Not that there aren’t many things that are developed elsewhere, but for the last thirty years or so this place has been the leader in developing new products, manufacturing methods, and even whole new industry segments. Other places have sent people here to see just what the ‘formula’ is, and to a certain extent have managed to copy it, but they are still trailing this place in terms of patents granted or almost any other measure of success.

Now clearly part of the reason is the local great schools: Stanford and Berkeley are both world-renowned schools that year after year graduate brilliant and usually well-grounded students into the local businesses. And this doesn’t even count the network of various local community colleges and places like San Jose State. But having these students wouldn’t do any good if the local businesses couldn’t induce them to stay in the local area, not so easy when you consider that this area is one of the highest cost of living areas in the country, and is plagued with some of the worst commute traffic.

Business inducements range from relatively high starting salaries to the incredible number of start-up businesses that offer stock options and other perks, along with the opportunity to work on something new and different to new employees. Money alone isn’t all the answer, though. Another major piece is how employees are treated: here, most companies really believe in empowering their ‘little people’, giving them the authority to make meaningful decisions about the company direction, and treating them with some respect rather than as interchangeable cogs. Flexible working hours, corporate game and exercise rooms, memberships in athletic clubs, help with day-care and other family obligations are all part of the parcel.

There is a positive feedback effect working here, too. With so many high-talent people working here, an idea percolates from one group over to another, sparking additional ideas. Networking between people in multiple companies is common, happening anywhere from the corporate cubicle to the evening watering hole.  And of course, the very fact that things are happening here attracts more people who want to be in on the action.

Now it doesn’t hurt that the Bay Area has what some people would consider the world’s best climate: never too cold, you don’t get soggy-drenched in the winter, hurricanes and tornadoes are almost unheard of, and typically there are only a few days in the summer that it really gets hot.  And if you really want to go flop in the snow, there are some really great ski runs located only a few hours by car from here. There are some pretty good cultural/artistic places/theaters/museums here, too, allowing you to be a geek and art-lover at the same time.

I first moved to the Bay Area in 1972, when I was still in the Air Force, and got stationed at Mill Valley Air Force Station, located atop Mt. Tamalpais, about ten miles north of San Francisco. This, however, was not the place to experience the Silicon Valley revolution, as, with 169 curves from the top to the bottom of the mountain, plus another sixty miles to get to the heart of Silicon Valley,  it was a major chore to make the trip. However, when I left the military in 1980, I got an immediate job with a firm in Sunnyvale working on (as one small aspect of their overall business) microcomputers for use on the Galileo space shot.  This was my first real experience with the excitement and rewards of working in the valley (besides instantly doubling what I had been making in the military).  It was also my first experience with something known as environmental testing; clearly, if you expect a circuit to work in space, it makes sense to test it here on the ground at both very hot and very cold temperatures, in a vacuum, pure oxygen or nitrogen atmospheres, drop it a few times (the g-stress test), shake it up some more, and in general abuse it in every way you can think of. This is a field I’m still involved with today.

But since that first experience with the Silicon Valley way, other than one side trip to Florida to get married, I’ve remained in the valley, one among many others who find this environment a great place to work.

Posted in General, Places, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »

Don’t You Wish Everyone Was a Genius?

Posted by hyperpat on March 13, 2007

Our solar system orbits around the Milky Way once every 250 million years or so. It also has some proper motion versus the local star systems and dust clouds. Which means that over very long time scales, the Earth may experience some very different interstellar environments, from being inside/outside of a dust cloud to moving near a gamma ray burster (which is one of the listed possible causes for one of the great extinction events).

Poul Anderson, way back when (1954), capitalized on this set of facts to dream up something he called the Brain Wave. He hypothesized that humanity had evolved during a period when the Earth was in an area that slowed down electromagnetic waves. As human mental activity is mediated by such, it’s a short leap to dream of a time when the Earth would exit this area and return to where these waves would move at normal speed, with a concomitant increase in human mental activity, i.e, suddenly everyone would get very smart. And not just people, but animals also. While being smart might seem like a good thing to be, Anderson showed that this could produce some very deep problems.

When animals get smart enough to know what a slaughterhouse is, there would be an immediate crisis in keeping in the world fed. When those people who held menial jobs due to lack of good thinking abilities can suddenly see just what a waste of time their jobs are, and there is no one else who is willing to do those jobs, however necessary, what happens to civilization’s infrastructure? Intelligence alone does no good without information to process; education is necessary, and who will provide it? A brilliant idea does no good if there is no way to implement it – think about the problem a cave-man would have had if he figured out what lightning was and wanted to build an electric light bulb. Nor does it prevent continuing to come up with the wrong answers, because the basic assumptions the person is working from are false: belief in religions, UFO’s , conspiracy theories, and ‘I’m better than anyone else, I should be treated accordingly’ would continue to thrive. The whole scenario is a recipe for disaster.

Anderson had a pretty optimistic ending to his book, believing that people would manage to find solutions to the problem of too much brain power. I’m not so sure. There are just too many examples of very intelligent people doing very dumb things; people ‘think’ as much with their emotions as they do with their brains; and to date no one has come up with an ethos for living in harmony with everyone else that everyone buys into.

Sometimes being ‘smart’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

What a Piece of Work is Man

Posted by hyperpat on March 7, 2007

Quick, now, when was the last time you thought about establishing ethical standards for the treatment of robots? Uh, never, right? But there is a group in South Korea (!) doing just this. Now perhaps the document they are attempting to create is a little ahead of its time – after all, so far there are no robots that would meet the normal definition of either intelligence or possessive of free will, at the moment they are still nothing more than machines. And it could be quite awhile before electronics and software advance to the point where something like Asimov’s Three Laws could even attempt to be implemented. So is what this group is doing a waste of time?

Not really. Somewhere along the line, humanity will be faced with other intelligences that are not ‘human’ – whether it be AI robots, aliens, genetically enhanced versions of other terrestrial  species, or even enhanced ‘super humans’. At what point do we decide to treat these types of beings of being worthy of having the same rights, privileges, and obligations of everyday people? If you have a household robot, can you order it to do whatever you want, or must you consider whether such an action would be demeaning to the robot? Would you trust it to baby-sit your child? Would you need to give it the occasional day off? Does it require a salary? When should (must) you do what the robot asks you to do?

Some of these questions have been explored in various SF stories: Heinlein’s “Jerry Was a Man” and “Gulf“, Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, Simak’s City,  Connie Willis’ “Samaritan“,  and Orson Scott Card’s Lovelock, amongst many others. The general points presented in just about all of these stories are:

‘Free Will’ – if an entity has the ability to take actions on its own, free of outside direction, a certain level of respect and dignity should entail to that entity (this includes things like cats and dogs).

“Intelligence Level” – when the intelligence level reaches the point of a) self-awareness b) ability to understand both rights and obligations, then that entity should be treated as ‘human’.

But even within these generally agreed upon points, there are graduations of treatment and privileges, and there is not a general consensus on precisely at what point on the intelligence continuum scale full ‘human’ status should be given.  Trying to work out what standards should be applied sounds like something that needs doing now, before we are faced with real beings whose status is a gray question mark – and who could end being treated just as unfairly as the ‘African Black Man’, thought to be treatable as a slave as they were ‘sub-human’.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

A True Human Invariant

Posted by hyperpat on February 16, 2007

Every human culture and society has music. It seems to be hard-wired into the human brain, our genetic structure, and the human voicebox is one of the most remarkably versatile organs in nature. But why should this be so? What survival characteristics are enhanced by music, that it should be so deeply embedded? After all, it doesn’t seem to be helpful in putting food on the table (but see below), or building a shelter, or anything else you can directly point to and say “This helps us survive as a species”. Except perhaps courtship. Music can be used to communicate to others your availability and desirability as a mate, and is clearly used in this fashion in some other species. In fact, a large proportion of the songs that are produced deal directly with our mating desires.

But most people are not great singers or instrumentalists – and listening to some of the contestants on American Idol, I would think that some of the ‘singing’ done there would actively turn off any potential mate. Very few can write a song. If only a very small part of the population can produce, in one fashion or another, something pleasing enough to actively attract others, then it’s hard to see how music can strongly effect mating choices and thereby enhance survivability.

Perhaps we need to look at some of the other effects music has.

Now one characteristic of music is rhythm, and the typical frequency of rhythms present in almost all music is close to the normal human heart rate. Some studies have shown that the heart rate adjusts itself to be close to whatever the ‘beat’ of the music is. What most people consider to be ‘relaxing’ music has comparatively slow rhythms, similar to the heart rate when ‘at rest’. The converse is also true – music with accelerated rhythms produces a quickening in the heart rate. Right alongside the heart rate effect is the apparent effect on brain rhythms, which seems to follow a similar pattern (and leading to some claims that playing Mozart will increase your child’s intelligence).

One strong item which derives from this is the ‘synchronizing’ effect between the music and the actions of the person listening to it. People are not normally very good at accurately timing their actions – typical is perhaps getting within 10 – 20 milliseconds of when they wanted to do something – but when trying to, say, match the timing of words in a song, most people can get a lot more accurate, near 1 – 2 milliseconds. This might be a good ability to have! Especially when looked at in terms of a group of people. Imagine a group of hunters who need to coordinate their attack on a large animal. A song with a strong beat will allow these hunters to precisely time their actions, and be more successful in bringing down their prey. This accuracy in timing is apparently due to the ability of the brain to pre-process all the needed setup for the action before it actually needs to occur, based on the repetitive nature of the beat. So here is one benefit that can actually help us survive.

But music has a whole host of other effects on the human body, from skin galvanic levels to production of various hormones and other chemical facilitators. What survival attributes these effects have is not very clear. But apparently, over our long evolutionary course, these responses to rhythmically produced tones had some benefit to the individual’s ability to survive and propagate the trait.

But regardless of how it came to be, one of the strongest attributes of listening to music is pure pleasure, in some ways akin to a drug ‘high’ (possibly this effect is mediated by the same chemical ‘triggers’ in the brain). Music is addictive and (normally, when not played at 120 db) harmless, and I for one am very happy that today’s technology allows me to get my ‘fix’ almost anytime and anywhere I want.

Posted in General, music, Science & Engineering | 4 Comments »

Seen a UFO Lately?

Posted by hyperpat on February 15, 2007

The aliens are coming! The aliens are coming! Where? I don’t see them. Nor does anyone else, at least not yet, even though quite a few people have been assiduously looking for some real evidence of them, using the latest and greatest technology we have.

Now the current theories on how life came to be on this planet indicate that the proper combination of elements, molecules, and energy sources should be fairly common in any normal solar system. And the number of bodies we have found orbiting other stars indicates that most stars will have something circling around them that could serve as bedrock for developing life forms. Given the number of stars in just our own galaxy (somewhere between 200 and 400 billion), even if the odds of having a solar system with an orbiting planet in the region where liquid water would be present is one in 1,000, and the odds that all the rest of the requirements for life to form are met is one in 10,000, that would still give us some 20,000 worlds with life of some sort. But perhaps the real kicker is if that life would ever develop intelligence and technology good enough to send a message (or a space ship) to us. This may just be a matter of time; eventually all worlds with life may be driven to this development level because of evolutionary survival pressures. But if these assumptions have any validity, where are the aliens? This is generally known as the Fermi paradox, as so far the only intelligent race we’ve heard from is ourselves.

The above factors, along with a few more, are encapsulated in something called the Drake equation:

N = R * Fp * Ne * Fl * Fi *Fc * L

where
R = rate of star formation in our galaxy
Fp = fraction of those stars that have planets
Ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
Fl = the fraction of Ne that actually develop life
Fi = the fraction of Fl that go on to develop intelligent life
Fc = the fraction of Fi that are willing and able to communicate
L = the expected lifetime of such a civilization

Determining proper values for these parameters is difficult and subject to a lot of assumptions and guesswork. When this equation was first developed in 1961, the values used for a first guess were: R = 10/year, Fp = .5, Ne = 2, Fl = 1, Fi = .01, Fc = .01, and L was 10,000 years, leading to an estimate for N, the number of alien civilizations we should be able to talk to, of 100. Other estimates using the results of data obtained since this equation was first developed give results for N ranging from considerably less than 1 to 5000.

But the value for L, or just ‘time’, in this case, could be the killer. Humans have been around for a distressingly short 20,000 years or so, and had the technology to think about talking to the stars for only about 100 of them; this is out of a planetary lifetime of four billion years. Clearly if these alien civilizations came to be a million or so years ago (a relative eye-blink in terms of the astrophysical time) and then died out before we came down from the trees, we’d never hear from them.

Of course, our own development may be atypical; life has had to start over almost from scratch at least a couple times on this planet. And how long we can last as a species with good enough technology to communicate to other stars is very much a pure guesswork figure – after all, we have only one example, and we haven’t ‘died’ – yet. Though the way we’re going, perhaps a figure of only 200-300 years should be used, as that may be all the time we have before we blow ourselves up or poison everything. Which may be the real answer to the Fermi paradox.

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