Putting the life back in science fiction

Silly summer thoughts 3: Dune Shields

First, a bit of news: I’ve got another guest post up on Antipope, if you haven’t already seen it.  Go have fun with it, if it’s your sort of thing.

Now back to summer silliness; why not pick on Dune again?  It’s a fun target at the moment, especially since it gives this distorted impression that magnates and aristocrats could be part of  a breeding project to produce a superhuman messiah, even though rationally we know that regression to the mean seems to be a more common outcome for human reproduction(except for inbreeding, which gets rather worse).  The current administration in Washington is a great example of how each generation in a wealthy family gets smarter and more talented.  Or not.

In any case, for summer silliness, I give you the shields of the Dune universe, which apparently are spherical shells of force (or weirder, if you’re David Lynch and filming the novel), that slow down objects passing through them to 6 to 9 centimeters per second (this from the glossary in the original story and here) . Continue reading

Silly summer thoughts, Part 1: new Dune movie

Just a brief one.  I recalled today that a new adaptation of Dune is currently in the works, random deities help us.  I’m not a huge fan of the series, but I did like the original Dune, for what it’s worth.  It’s gotten rather more humorous as I found that Frank Herbert’s idea of a dune was based more on his coastal Oregon dunes than on the Sahara, that his idea for the sandworms came from maggots eating a mushroom, and the Bene Gesserit and their blue eyes were, erm, inspired by his ingestion of (hopefully) non-wormy mushrooms.  Those were the days.

Thing is, I’m a grumpy ecologist.  I’m still trying to figure out how you get their metabolism to effectively run backwards so that they exhale/fart oxygen (I guess they breathe in CO2?).  And a sandworm hundreds of meters long snacking down on a human is about as close in optimal foraging strategy as humans chasing after individual ants.  Ant hives, yes, but individual ants?  Anteaters don’t bother with them, and sandworms shouldn’t bother with individual humans thumping across the dunes.

Still, I wanted to have a little fun, it being a hot afternoon in July.  So I started thinking about those still-suits, which capture and filter sweat and urine and recycle is so that the wearer can drink it again.  Talk about a sweat bath!  If you’re wearing one of these damned contraptions, you’re going to get heat stroke in short order, unless there’s some mechanism for getting the heat out of the recycling body fluids and off into the air.  I may be wrong, but I think that takes energy?  And aren’t electrical signals supposed to attract sandworms? Continue reading

One of Them Difficult Problems

I don’t know why Agent Orange’s First Official Joint Session made me think about parasites, but there you have it.  This is actually something I’ve been dealing with for awhile now, and since the problem is only going to get worse unless (and until) we innovate our way out of this particular pickle.

The problem is fairly simple: if you want a sustainable society, you need to recycle almost everything.  The problem with recycling stuff, especially organic materials, is that it makes controlling pests, pathogens, and parasites very, very hard, because they move very well in streams of unprocessed materials.  After all, a large majority of species on Earth are parasites (per Zimmer’s Parasite Rex), and we, erm, they, evolved over the last billion-odd years in a world where the elements of organic matter are recycled extremely well, give or take some oil and coal fields.  So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that our attempts at recycling and repurposing are spreading parasites and pathogens all over the place.  Continue reading

The Way of the Island Locust

Sorry for the click-bait title, this has nothing to do with martial arts.  It’s a reference to a post I wrote in December 2015 about humans being locust-like in our ability to have mass outbreaks when and where conditions are right.  My idea was that we call these outbreaks civilization.  I came at this from the biology side, but of course the anthropologists and archaeologists have been looking at the same phenomenon in their own way for quite a long time.  Over Christmas, I ran into a highly readable version of their thinking based on archaeology and anthropology from Oceania, one of my favorite regions, and…

well, there hangs a substory.  I was originally going to post this after Christmas, but I realized I didn’t quite understand what was going on.  So I read more books by the same author (Patrick Kirch), developed some germ of understanding about what he thinks is going on, and finally looked up to realize that it’s been a long time since I posted last.  Anyway, if you want to read about my holiday reading, aka how a small group of people settled the Pacific using mostly indigenous resources and founded one and possibly two archaic, pristine states, then read more after the jump.

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And We Thought Hibernation Was Simple 2: now with bleach

Most of a year ago, I posted about the first tardigrade genome sequence, which apparently had a lot of bacterial genes in it.  Now, another group has published another genome (io9 article here, report here), and this apparently changes everything, possibly in a better way.  Or possibly, we’ll see some horror move remake of The Fly, only with Ramazzottius varieornatus at the hybridizing end (paging John Scalzi.  I’ve got your vacuum-sucking warriors right here). Continue reading

Facepalm with a hit of nitrous
July 28, 2016, 7:01 pm
Filed under: climate change, futurism, Real Science Content, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’ve been advocating for a partial switch to an ammonia-based economy, on the theory that, while NOx is an air pollutant, it’s better than CO2.

Facepalm time: N2O, good ol’ nitrous oxide, which is another thing that comes out of of using ammonia for fertilizer or burning it, is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent per pound than CO2.  Right now, it’s 5.9% of US greenhouse gas emissions.  It supposedly lasts about 114 years in the atmosphere, until it gets broken down by some process or other (I’m being lazy about all the bits and bobs in the nitrogen cycle, because it’s hot here, and with a flex alert on, I’m not running the AC). Unlike CO2, it doesn’t look like it sequentially saturates large sinks and stays around for hundreds of thousands of years in the atmosphere.  Rather, it just breaks down slowly.  About 40% of the N2O emitted in the world is from human activities, and it can be cut, in some circumstances, through catalytic conversion technology.

Here’s some really basic information on it (link to EPA)

The basic sources for atmospheric N2O are:

  • conversion of nitrogen fertilizers to N2O by bacteria.  This is the big one, and more efficient fertilizer use and better land management can cut this to some degree.
  • it’s a combustion byproduct, so it comes out the tailpipes of gas-burning cars.  Catalytic convertors can help with this.
  • various industrial processes produce N2O as a byproduct.

Now, the simplistic solution is hydrogen, except that (IIRC) burning hydrogen using air also may release some N2O, because there’s a lot of nitrogen in the air.  Converting to fuel cell-type devices that do electrochemistry rather than combustion and using catalytic convertors on combustion-powered systems probably is the way to go.

It does get more complicated than that.  While catalysis is the simple-minded solution, it’s also prey to the usual simple-minded problems with polluters who don’t keep that part of their car (or other system) working, and thieves after the platinum in the convertors.  It’s the usual, intractable problem: environmental problems, greed, and stupidity don’t mix.

So, what do you think?  Pitch any desire for an ammonia economy out the window and pray for hydrogen and better batteries?  Double-down on catalysis, which catches NOx better than CO2, and start prospecting for platinum at the side of the local highways?  Stick with fossil fuels and assume we’re all doomed?  Some combination of all three?

Oh well, tonight I get to watch  the latest episode of the newest superhero series: Suit Woman vs. Generalissimo Cantaloupe.   I’m not sure binge watching is the right word for it (more the opposite), but it does seem to be the thing everyone’s talking about this season.

Why more droughts matter more than some droughts
July 20, 2016, 9:53 pm
Filed under: climate change, Real Science Content, Speculation | Tags: ,

So I’ve finished reading 1177 B.C., The Year Civilization Collapsed, as I mentioned in the last post.  It’s a good book, and it’s also a good lesson in why I might want to wait until I’m done reading a book before blogging.

It turns out there’s multiple lines of evidence that there was a drought in the eastern Mediterranean around 1177 B.C.  However, if you know anything about Mediterranean climates, you’ll know that droughts happen.  Was this one different?  That part’s unknowable, but a book I read earlier this spring does point to how the eastern Mediterranean can get into a big problem when two droughts coincide, and that’s the little lesson for today: it’s not just the local drought that’s the problem.

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