Putting the life back in science fiction

Fun read about California water politics
January 12, 2016, 8:00 pm
Filed under: economics, Real Science Content | Tags: ,

I’m getting an education in California water issues right now, courtesy of a blog, On the public record, which was “outed” in an recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

“On the public record” is written by a mid-level bureaucrat somewhere in one of California’s water agencies. Except for her gender, that she went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and has at least two degrees, she’s so far remained anonymous (no small feat). She’s been blogging for about seven years, calling it as she sees it.

This blog is a real education for me in how California water politics, regulation, and economics work, and it’s well written too. If this is something you’re interested in, check it out.

The dust of ages

I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media.  The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth DreamsThe whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.

Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute.  DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory).  Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache.  DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.

One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA.  It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school.  This is a new technology.  Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.

Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever.  DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache.  It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.

It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years.   Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.

The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it.  After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form?   Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society.   What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?

Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.

Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…


And we thought hibernation was simple…
November 24, 2015, 7:52 pm
Filed under: colonizing space, Real Science Content | Tags: , ,

Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall at the moment so you can only see the abstract, but PNAS just published a draft genome of the tardigrade Hypsibius dujardini.  Here’s the Yahoo news piece on the finding.

Basically, tardigrades are microscopic animals that are renowned for their ability to be frozen, boiled, desiccated, subjected to a vacuum on the outside of the space shuttle and so forth.  They’re the ultimate survivors among animals, and I’m pretty sure that every SF writer who thinks about putting astronauts in hibernation is thinking something along the lines of copying tardigrade’s toughness in humans through some futuristic technology.

But there’s an itty bitty catch.

If the draft genome is right (and there’s no reason to think it isn’t), tardigrades just took the record for having the most foreign DNA in their genome of any animal, about 16%, double the previous record holder.  They’ve got genes “derived from diverse bacteria as well as plants, fungi, and Archaea.”

My first thought was of Brin and Benford’s Heart of the Comet and the weirders (I still like that book), and then that ooh, massive horizontal gene transfer will take us to the stars!  Yay!  We get to go as gardens.

Then I read some more and found out that tardigrades’ toughness comes at a price: their DNA falls apart when they’re desiccated, and their cells get leaky as they rehydrate.  As a result, DNA from the surrounding environment gets taken up into their cells and, where it’s useful somehow, it gets taken into the tardigrade’s rebuilding genome.  Now bacteria do this all the time, so what’s unique here is that an animal has separately evolved the trick.  It’s one hell of a trick too, being able to repair eukaryotic DNA at that level and to usefully incorporate genes from wildly different organisms.  There’s a lot to be learned from these cute little water bears.

Still, this puts a whole different spin on putting people into hibernation to send them into deep space and to the stars.  It looks like tardigrades don’t have a magical way to avoid the damage caused by freezing.  Instead, it looks like they’re amazingly good at picking up the pieces afterwards and rebuilding themselves.  Presumably, that’s what we’ll have to learn to do (assuming it’s possible–tardigrades don’t have big brains),  if we want to turn people into corpsicles and back again without damage.  At the moment, the only methods we know of involve the use of either narrativium or handwavium, and both these elements are really unstable.


Hot Earth Dreams Sample
November 3, 2015, 2:44 am
Filed under: book, futurism, Hot Earth Dreams, Real Science Content, Speculation | Tags: ,

Well, I was hoping to get that book out by now, but thanks to life intervening and Ol’ BigMuddy doing something interesting with the formatting, not to mention another round of copy editing, I’m planning to release it November 15, although that’s a soft deadline. The release will be a paperback version and a Kindle version, both available on Ol’ BigMuddy, in as many markets as I can get it into.

To whet your appetites, here’s a pdf sample from the paperback. Enjoy!

Hot Earth Dreams Sample

(update: you can see where to buy it here)


Next up, the ammonia economy?

This is another spun-off “strange attractor” from Antipope. It had nothing to do with the thread it was on, but the topic is interesting enough–if you’re into futuristic science fiction–that I wanted to summarize it here.

The basic idea is using ammonia as an alternate, carbon-free fuel. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, and there are a bunch of industrial efforts out there that might well project us into an ammonia age rather than a hydrogen one. Unfortunately, ammonia isn’t a panacea, so switching from fossil fuels to ammonia synthesized using solar or wind energy won’t be problem free. For those looking for dramatic conflict, ammonia has it.

Anyway, the fundamentals. Ammonia is NH3. If like me you’re lazy, you can go to Wikipedia’s article on energy densities, and find out that liquid ammonia has about 11.5 MJ/L of energy, slightly better than compressed natural gas (9 MJ/L) and liquid hydrogen (8.5 MJ/L), and less than propane (25.3 MJ/L) or gasoline (34.2 MJ/L), among many others.

As for making NH3, right now we make it in huge plants using the Haber-Bosch process, which makes ammonia using natural gas. Nitrogen is ubiquitous as N2 in the atmosphere, but N2 is a very stable molecule, and it takes a lot of energy to break it and turn it into NH3. Still, people are looking for better ways to do it. NH3 Canada is developing a miniature ammonia synthesizer that’s about four cubic meters in size and can produce 500 liters of ammonia per day, with each liter of ammonia taking 2 liters of water and 7.5 KWhrs of electricity to produce it. As a comparison, the average US home uses 909 kWhr per month or about 30 kWhr per day, which is about what it would take to make a gallon of ammonia using NH3 Canada’s technology. If it works.

To save you the math, that’s about 30% conversion efficiency, which isn’t bad. Ammonia synthesis could be used to store electricity from, say, wind turbines. The nice thing about NH3 Canada is that they want to use small units and stack them in banks, while the older technology uses huge furnaces to get efficiencies of scale.

What can you do with ammonia? You can actually mix it with gasoline and use it to run your car, if you get the mix right, and other researchers are working on creating engines that can run on pure ammonia. While there’s less energy in ammonia than there is in propane, it can be handled similarly. Pure (anhydrous) ammonia is fairly dangerous stuff, but then again, so is liquid hydrogen, and so are giant batteries if they’re fully charged. Energy density makes things dangerous.

Of course, ammonia has many other uses. We all know of it as a cleaner and fuel, and it used to be used in refrigerators before people switched to the much more efficient and dangerous CFCs [but see comments]. But it’s primary use is as a fertilizer and to make explosives, including gunpowder. Industrial nitrogen fixation underlies Big Ag all over the world, and it also underlies industrial warfare. Without huge amounts of gunpowder, things like machine guns don’t work, because there isn’t enough ammunition to make them fully functional killing machines.

Similarly, without huge amounts of nitrogen, the huge amounts of corn, wheat, and soy that are required to feed all seven billion of us wouldn’t exist. Some calculate that at least a third of us wouldn’t exist without fixed nitrogen in our food. The US has taken full advantage of this, and forcing huge supplies of cheap food on the world has been a major part of our foreign policy since the Eisenhower Administration. It was one way of beating communism, and protecting our high-yielding corn from things like being pirated by the Chinese is a matter of national security today.

I’m not a huge fan of Big Ag, even though I’d probably be dead without it. Still, if we want to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, adapting and expanding our existing fixed nitrogen infrastructure is a lot easier than trying to build the infrastructure needed to handle hydrogen.

That’s the good part. There are some downsides.

One is that when you burn ammonia in an engine, it produces NOx, which is a major source of air pollution. This can be fixed if there’s a catalytic converter on the exhaust pipe. I suppose, if you’re powering agricultural equipment, it might be possible to capture the NOx, convert it to nitrate or urea, and use it as fertilizer on the fields, thereby getting a second use from the fixed nitrogen.

One big problem with an ammonia economy is the same problem with renewables, which is that you’re capturing energy from the modern sun, and that’s all you get to play with. Fossil fuels use fossil sunlight from the last few hundred million years, and that’s a lot more energy. There’s no fossil ammonia, so we’d be stuck working in a lower energy environment. Currently, industrially fixed nitrogen takes about 1% of the global energy supply, but that’s a fixed 1%, and if it’s used for other purposes, people can starve. We’d have to ramp up NH3 production to store captured renewable energy, not depend on what’s already being made.

Still, I can envision a world where giant farms host an overstory of huge wind turbines, all hooked up to ammonia synthesizers. The farmer uses the ammonia to run his equipment, then uses nitrates captured from the exhaust to fertilize his fields. Aside from the scale and all the problems with nitrogen runoff and pollution, this isn’t a bad setup.

There are some interesting follow-ons.
–One is politics. If most of the world switches to synthesizing ammonia from sunlight or wind, the countries that depend on petroleum exports are out of luck. The only parts of the Middle East that would continue to matter to the US (and possibly China and Russia) are Egypt and Israel, due to the Suez Canal. This means that the burgeoning crises in the region would have to be dealt with semi-regionally, if at all. And that’s bad for all those refugees. Russia is likely to be a hold-out in switching off fossil fuels, since they get so much power from oil and natural gas, but switching to ammonia would change international politics as much as did the switch to using oil in the early 20th Century.
–A second issue is fertilizer. It is feasible to synthesize huge amounts of ammonia, but other elements are essential for plant growth, and the world is starting to run short of minable phosphorus. We may well have phosphorus wars in the future, but the simpler solution is to recycle sewage and manure onto fields. This has all sorts of public health and disease vector implications, but it will keep people from starving And there are menu implications–you want to eat raw salad from a field that receives sewage? It’s a common practice in the developing world.
–A third issue is air pollution. I can easily see people using ammonia to power things like home generators in areas where the power grid is failing, but if these machines don’t have decent filters on their exhaust, they will put out a lot of air pollution. The resulting smog will degrade the performance of any local solar panels, but it might be simpler than investing in huge batteries and a smart grid to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine.

And who will control the ammonia? A nitrogen-based economy has less energy than does the current oil-based economy. Energy becomes power when it is scarcer, even more than it is currently. Right now, we’re seeing how Big Oil distorts politics all over the world. Small ammonia generators, like the NH3 Canada machine, change the current game that is dominated by a few huge producers, because they mean that small-scale producers can make small amounts of fuel, at least in the short term. Probably this means that the advantage shifts from those who produce ammonia to those who build ammonia synthesizers and can best ship the ammonia from producers to consumers. Over time, I suspect that a few big ammonia producers will dominate the industry in any one area. They will be, quite literally, power brokers.

Still, switching to ammonia could slow down global warming, because the great advantage of NH3 is there’s no carbon emission from using it. It beats things like bio-diesel and biomass cold. Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasing methane emissions from the Arctic, so even if we get civilization’s carbon emissions under control, we may be passing the tipping point as you read this. We’ll see.

If you want to write a SF-thriller set in the next few decades, you could do worse than to power the world with ammonia, and make the Politics of N a centerpiece of the story. After all ammonia isn’t just a fuel, it’s a cleaner, fertilizer, and a refrigerant. Who wouldn’t want to get rich off it? Something to think about.

Hobbits of the ATM?

No, I haven’t seen the latest offering Peter Jackson yet, but I will soon. Still, in honor of the latest, erm, extension of The Hobbit onto the big screen, I thought I’d pitch out an interesting possibility for the future of at least some of our descendents.

First, a definition: ATM isn’t the money machine. Rather, it’s an acronym for Anthropocene Thermal Maximum, which we’ll hit sometime after we’ve exhausted all the fossil fuels we’re willing to dig up into the atmosphere. If we blow off over something like 2500 gigatonnes of carbon, we’re going to be in the range of the PETM, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (Wikipedia link) about 55.8 million years ago, when global temperatures got as hot as they have been in the last 60 million years. Our descendents’ future will be similar, if we can’t get that whole carbon-neutral energy economy working.

One of the interesting recent findings is that mammals shrank up to 30 percent during the PETM (link to press release). The reason given by the researchers is that increased CO2 causes plants to grow more foliage and fewer fruits (in the botanical sense, so we’re talking fruits, nuts, grains, and all the other things we like to eat). This poorer nutrition led to smaller animals. I think there’s another possible explanation for the decrease in animal size.

My thought was that, if civilization crashes due to radical climate change into a PETM-type world, humans will be at the mercy of the elements, so it’s quite likely that future people will be smaller in size. Perhaps 30 percent smaller? Sitting down with the BMI graph and making a few assumptions, I found that the 30% smaller equivalent of a 71 inch tall male weighing 160 lbs is approximately 60 inches tall. Now, this is an interesting height, because it is the upper limit of pigmy heights in an interesting 2007 study by Migliano et al. in PNAS (link to article). Their hypothesis was that the evolution of pigmies around the world is best explained by significant adult mortality, which they adapted to by shifting from growth to reproduction earlier in their lives. The researchers found that the average age at mortality in pigmies is 16-24, and few live into their 40s. The major cause of death is disease, rather than starvation or accidents.

While I don’t know of any evidence of increased animal disease during the PETM, there is good evidence for increased plant disease and predation by insects (link), so it’s not much of a stretch to hypothesize that the animal dwarfing could have been caused by increased disease, decreased lifespans, and a resulting shift towards smaller body size and early reproduction.

So, here’s the idea: if we blow too much carbon into the air, and our ATM rivals or exceeds the PETM, at least some of our descendents will be the size of pigmies, due to the harsher environment (more disease, less medical care) favoring people who mature earlier and have kids as teenagers. They probably won’t be hobbits unless a hairy-footed morph takes off somewhere (perhaps in the jungles of Northern California?), but they will be technically pigmies.

It’s not the most pleasant thought, but if short lives and statures is troubling, the good news is that post-PETM fossils show that animal species regained their former size once the carbon was out of the air. And, according to Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People, life as a pigmy isn’t necessarily nasty or brutish, even if it’s short.

The Syrian Water War (?)

Not that I’m an expert on foreign policy or Syria (there’s someone with the same last name who is. We’re not related). The one thing I do understand, a little bit, is water politics, and that’s may well be one of the important drivers of the Syrian civil war. As Mark Twain said, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” And good Muslims won’t drink whiskey. Since I’m interested in the deep future with climate change, this might be a portrait of things to come for other parts of the world, including where I live in the southwestern US.

Here’s the issue: between 2006 and 2011, the eastern 60 percent of Syria experienced “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago,” forcing 200,000 Syrians off the land (out of 22 million total in Syria) and causing them to abandon 160 towns entirely (source). In one region in 2007-2008, 75% of farmers suffered total crop failure, while herders in the northeast lost up to 85% of their flocks, which affected 1.3 million people (source). Assad’s policies exacerbated the problem. His administration subsidized for water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton, and promoted bad irrigation techniques (source. I’m still looking for a description of what those bad irrigation techniques were.).

These refugees moved to cities like Damascus, which were already dealing with over a million refugees from Iraq and Palestine. They dug 25,000 illegal wells around Damascus, lowering the water table and increasing groundwater salinity (source). The revolt in 2011 broke out in southern Daraa and northeast Kamishli, two of the driest parts of the country, and reportedly, Al Qaeda affiliates are most active in the driest regions of the country (source).

One thing that worsened the problem was Turkey. The Tigris, Euphrates, and Orantes Rivers flow out of Kurdistan in Turkey into Syria. Turkey, in a bid to modernize the Kurdish region, built 22 dams on these rivers up to 2010 in the Southeastern Anatolia Project. They’ve taken half the water out of the Euphrates, and used it to grow large amounts of cotton within Anatolia, doubling or trebling local income in that traditionally rebellious area.

So is drought destiny? Experts caution that it’s not that simple (source). In 2012, the American Midwest suffered a record drought, While that may have led to Tea Party outbursts in the 2012 elections, it didn’t lead to armed insurrection. (As an aside, you can figure out how well the drought map correlates with the 2012 Presidential election map. Washington might one day take note of this…). Still, when you couple drought, poverty, bad governance, and a witch’s brew of historical grievances and systemic injustice, drought can cause a civil war.

There are a couple of big problems here. The first is that the US didn’t see the revolt coming. Right up until the first protests started, they thought that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring (source). This isn’t all that surprising. Due to the War on Terror, the CIA and other agencies work closely with government intelligence agencies to hunt terrorists (source), and have little or no intelligence capability to learn what’s happening on the “Arab Street.” This led to the US missing the Arab Spring movement pretty much in its entirety. The US military has been talking about climate change for years, and they’re starting to get serious about preparing to deal with it (source), but they don’t seem to have a functional reporting system yet, let alone a good way to respond. To put it bluntly, no one in Washington or other capitals seems to watching things like water supplies, crop reports, rural migration to cities, or even the price of bread. Or if they are, they’re not being listened to. Spikes in bread prices throughout North Africa helped prepare the ground for the Arab Spring uprisings, and the region is still a major wheat importer (source).

The second problem is that, so far, our leaders haven’t officially acknowledged that water’s a problem. Basically, during the drought, Syrian per capita water dropped by almost half. While a lot of this could be returned by better management, growing different crops, convincing people not to eat bread in the place where wheat was first farmed, and so forth, there are probably too many people relative to the water supply, at least during droughts. Part of this is demographics. The population of the Middle East has quadrupled over the last 60 years, and the water supply, if anything, has shrunk (source). The brutal answer is to get rid of those people, which may be one reason why Assad was so willing to use chemical weapons. There are 1.851 million registered Syrian refugees at the moment, and that’s about one percent of the population outside the country. Assad (and whoever follows him) may not be interested in having them return, either. Syria likely would be more stable with fewer thirsty mouths.

What’s the solution? One important part is to get water on the negotiating table. Turkey officially helps Syria with water flows, but it’s not clear how diverting half a river is a friendly gesture, and the two countries are not on good diplomatic terms. If the Turks are using the Euphrates to water cotton, most of that water is lost to the air, rather than flowing back into the river where Syria can get it. Turkey could help stabilize Syria by letting more water out of its dams, but by doing so, it would risk insurrection in Kurdistan, so I don’t think they will voluntarily give up that water. Since Turkey’s water sources are secure for the moment, I suspect that quite a few Syrians are going to be resettling there, just as Iraqis and Palestinians are (or were) living in Damascus. More countries should volunteer to permanently take in Syrian refugees, especially in the north (as Sweden has). Why not? It increases populations in areas that are experiencing population decreases due to low birth rates, and it’s cheaper than trying to fight in the Middle East. Moving people to where there’s water is much less cruel than interring them in refugee camps in border deserts with inadequate resources and no hope.

One of the problems with climate change is that the northern edges of deserts are forecast to get drier, and the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin are one of those edges. If we want to avoid continual unrest in that region, it’s high time we all (in the international sense) start financing regional desalination plants in the Middle East and other dry areas. This has worked to secure water for Israel. Granted, it’s an energy intensive solution, but a large-scale desalination plant is cheaper than a single day of all-out ground war, US style (source).

The other lesson here is that politics and politicians matter. Drought isn’t necessarily destiny, but bad water management choices can turn a chronic problem of scarce resources into a bloody war. If you want to know why I’m not a libertarian, this is why. It’s nice to have liberty, but it’s necessary to have water. Good politicians work to get you enough of both, and we need more of them at the moment.

Movie Science and the Kaiju Industry

This was inspired in part by others’ blogs about Pacific Rim, so credit to SVPOW and TetZoo for what follows. Ahem.

The first thought was inspired by Darren Naish’s comments about the portrayal of scientists in Pacific Rim. This is scarcely news. In fact, it’s even inspired a few entries at TV Tropes. Still, it’s frustrating, especially when the sheer stupidity of some applied phlebotinium degrades the rest of the movie (red matter, anyone?).

There are potential solutions. Movies tend to be quite sexist, and this has inspired the Bechdel Test which is a litmus test for how women are portrayed in a piece. In order to pass, the piece must:
a. Include at least two women,
b. who have at least one conversation,
c. about something other than a man or men.
When you start thinking about the number of films that fail, you realize how biased most films are. This goes double for summer blockbusters, unfortunately.

Can we do something similar for science? I’m not as pithy as Bechdel, but my first thought was that if a film could be improved by hiring an out-of-work scientist to vet the script and including her suggestions, then it fails the test. This would catch everything from midichlorians and red matter to the continuity gaffs in all the Star Treks, the teleportation between forests in Jurassic Park and so forth.

Now, movie types typically argue that scientists are such a tiny percentage of the audience that there’s no point in catering to them, but that misses the point of the test. This test is more in line with Van Halen’s requirement in their contracts that there be no brown M&Ms backstage. The point of this bizarre-seeming contract clause was that Van Halen at the time was touring with a huge, heavy and technically sophisticated stage rig. Their contracts ran to dozens of pages, and included things like making sure the stage they were to perform on wouldn’t collapse under the weight of all their props. The no-brown-M&Ms clause was actually there for safety. if they spotted brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would immediately know that the venue managers hadn’t bothered to read the contract. At that point, they’d have to immediately check every other show detail, to make sure that nothing collapsed and no one died during their show.

When a movie is stupid about the science, it’s often stupid about a lot of other things too, things that everyone notices, like a crappy plot or cardboard stock characters. Get too stupid and the movie flops. Compared to that, getting a scientist to vet the script is pretty cheap.

Now, let’s turn to Pacific Rim. At this point, I haven’t seen it (and since Darren and Mike Matt have seen it multiple times, I’m not sure they need my ticket money). Be that as it may, I’d like to suggest what would really happen to any kaiju, including godzilla, that was stupid enough to make repeat visits to our little world.

Here’s the fundamental stupidity about these giant kaiju films. It’s all about killing cities. Yes, this would certainly happen the first few times, at least until someone ran an analysis on a kaiju corpse. See, kaiju are biophysically impossible as we understand reality, so if they did exist, they’d be absolutely full of bizarre chemistry. In Pacific Rim, this is all treated as hazardous waste and black market rhino horn stand-ins. But in real life, each corpse would be a gold-mine for the transnational, immensely sophisticated, chemical industry. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rendering Godzilla down for radionucleotides to supply the chronic shortages of medical isotopes, or rendering the blood of PR Kaijus down for all that ammonia, which is a major feedstock for both fertilizers and explosives. Those giant things are too valuable to nuke.

So if our world was invaded by kaiju, here’s what I suspect would happen. First, people would hack kaiju communications to figure out how to lure them or repel them (much as the Allies hacked U-Boat communications in WWII and routed the entire force. Controlling attack subs from a central hub is self-defeating). Then they’d build giant killing pens, probably on the coast of China (note that I’m suggesting this not due to any bias against China, but because they have become chemical suppliers to the world, and they’ve got the huge infrastructure needed to deal with the influx of kaiju products). Once these facilities were built, fleets would lure and drive kaiju into these kill-zones, dispatch them humanely, perhaps with a bunker busting guided bomb to the back of the skull dropped from 10,000 feet, and render their carcasses for everything we could get out of them. Rather than shutting the rift down, we’d probably drop a note in, asking the kaiju masters to send more kaiju (NSFW link). For all I know, bringing in kaiju this way would render our industrial civilization a bit more sustainable, since we would have outsourced production of some highly dangerous chemicals to another planet.

Yes, I understand that Pacific Rim runs on awesome, and that what I just suggested would be titanically not awesome, more in line with The Cove than with what actually made it to the screen. In fact, given Hollywood’s limited set of plots, the only movie they would make out of this scenario is some blue-eyed mother kaiju being mercilessly herded to her doom on the industrialized China coast, with impractical environmentalists’ efforts to save the noble beast from certain destruction. But there’s something a little sad in this whole exercise. It’s not just the bad science, it’s the lack of vision. Hollywood can only think to make kaiju in one mode: destroying coastal cities. There’s little creativity, it’s all replaying a trope that first showed up in 1954. The Japanese were more inventive with their kaiju, but Hollywood’s creativity has been leached out by the monstrous budgets they play with, since investors far prefer predictable ROI to untested creative productions. Personally, I think that adding a little real science, along with that massive dose of creativity that real science inevitably brings, would spice up the whole enterprise. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in the industry (outside the SyFy Channel) would agree with me. And so it goes.

Three Illusions: Space, Form, and Now
July 1, 2013, 5:17 am
Filed under: Real Science Content, Speculation

About a month ago, De. Deepak Chopra appeared on the NPR show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (which you can listen to at this link). At the end, he repeated the old idea that form is an illusion, because inside atoms is mostly empty space. While I have no quarrel with Dr. Chopra, I started thinking about this, and realized both that he is (most likely) dead wrong, but that form is nonetheless an illusion. Since I haven’t posted for a while, I figured I’d throw this up in the best (and increasingly endangered) tradition of late-night dorm bull sessions.

The issue with the Dr. Chopra’s idea can be boiled down to two words: dark matter. According to the physicists, a majority of the stuff in the universe is dark matter, which can be seen only by its gravitational signature. Assuming they’re right, all that “empty space” inside our atoms actually has a fair amount of stuff in it: dark matter, if not dark energy. Neutrinos sleet through a bunch of the rest of it, as do all the photons that convey the radio waves I was listening to. One could, in fact, argue that space is an illusion, that even the sparsest interstellar vacuum is far from empty.

But the mystics are still right: form is illusion. It’s just a different kind of illusion. For those who watch Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel. Human brains are not just prone to illusions, they are hard-wired to see them. Neuroscientists have been having a lot of fun studying the neuroscience of magic. The basic finding is that our brains use a number of systems and shortcuts to make sense of the world. Some of these are innate, while some are learned, often culturally specific. To over-simplify, the world is so complex that we cannot understand it without simplifying it, pinning meaning onto sights, sounds, scents, and so forth so that we can respond to raw sensory inputs and survive. Without meaning, we would be lost. For example, our eyes are somewhat less acute than average smart-phone cameras, but we see more because our eyes move constantly, and our brains stitch the images together to provide the illusion that we’re seeing more than we actually do.

Thing is, this is part of being human, and the downside is that we’re innately susceptible to illusions because of the way our brains process incoming data. It’s a tradeoff, honed by evolution: we see the stuff we need to see (in the evolutionary sense of needing to survive to leave behind offspring), but that means we can be fooled by everything from camouflaged snakes to clever illusionists. In this sense, forms are illusory. We don’t see only what’s there. Instead, our brains are grown to see what we find meaningful. This is the difference between a camera and an eye: a camera sees what is actually there. However, it takes an enormous amount of effort to program a computer to see with a camera, because the programmer has to figure out how to embody human norms, assumptions, and illusions as computer code to interpret the camera image in a way that makes sense to humans. We do it automatically.

Personally, I think that the idea that form is illusion should be thrown out. Anyone who aspires to enlightenment needs to realize that illusions are a fundamental property of the structure of their brains. Seeing illusions is part of being a human being. We can, however, learn to see things somewhat differently, to not be caught by some illusions. For some people overcoming some illusions may be important, whether it be spotting the rattlesnake in the dead leaves or not being bamboozled by a con artist. Unfortunately, we are limited beings, and we will never see the world as it truly is.

For a trifecta, let’s look at another common mystical statement, that now is the only moment that is real. This may be scientifically true: we don’t really know what time is, and the only moment we truly experience is now. Nonetheless, now is just as illusory as anything else. It takes something like 40 milliseconds for a sensation to travel from your toes to your brain, so your sense of what’s going on in your feet “right now” is actually 40 milliseconds behind. I have no idea how the brain integrates feelings so that you have the immensely useful illusion that your face and feet are feeling the same thing at the same time, or that sounds and sights are integrated with these feelings, but it’s all an illusion: your brain is busy compiling all this incoming data into one whole that is partially illusory. Your sense of yourself, what “you” are at any instant, contains a lot of illusion. It’s not at all a stretch to say (as the mystics do) that you are an illusion.

All this isn’t to bash Buddhism or any other mystical religion. While these religious ideas about space, form, and nowness may be partially illusory, Buddhism in particular is aimed at enlightenment, not as a way of winning some sort of psychosocial game, but as a way of overcoming suffering. Some scientific research suggest that, in fact, Buddhist practitioners can overcome suffering and become among the happiest people studied to date. From a scientific perspective, their practices may be based on illusions and a misunderstanding of science’s reality (and I can’t say this for a fact, since I’m not a Buddhist or a scholar of Buddhism), but if they can overcome normal human suffering, I’d say that Buddhists and other meditators are definitely worth our respect regardless.

Apocalypse 3: More with Milankovitch

I’ve been having some fun reading up on Milankovitch cycles since the previous post in this series, and I’ve learned that I didn’t know what I was talking about in the previous post. However, there’s still an apocalypse involved.

Here are the basics about global warming. The global average temperature goes up when there’s more CO2 in the air, down when CO2 goes out. The temperature change is proportional (roughly) to the doubling of CO2. If we double the old concentration of about 280 ppm, temperature goes up 1.5-5 degrees Celsius. If we quadruple it, the temperature goes up about 3-10 degrees, and so forth. Currently, we’re following what the IPCC calls the BAU (Business As Usual) model, or the 5000 Gigatonne carbon release. This will crank CO2 levels up to about 1200 ppm or more, so we’re easily into the quadruple jeopardy mode.

Anyway, the Milankovitch cycles are composed of three components: Earth’s orbital eccentricity, it’s axial tilt, and the precession of the orbit, all of which change at different rates. Of these three, only eccentricity (how elliptical the orbit is) actually changes the annual amount of sunlight earth as a whole receives, and that by only a percent or two. Obliquity and precession don’t affect the average amount of annual sunlight across the globe, and in this I was wrong.

Here’s the picture from the last post, about insolation at 65 degrees north at midsummer) for reference:

What’s happening here is real, but it’s only true for the northern Arctic area. Variations at the equator are similar in direction but smaller in magnitude, while those at the Antarctic Circle are (very crudely) reversed.

Now, remember how I said that Earth wouldn’t be warming up at the peaks and valleys in this graph? That is true. However, there will be LOCAL increases and decreases in temperature. Variations in axial tilt and precession of the equinoxes cause substantial changes in the seasons. When there is a lot of sun in the north, the summers are warmer (and probably wetter), while the winters are cooler (and probably drier). At the local lows, the summers are cooler and drier, while the winters are warmer and wetter. This is all on a comparative level, of course: it’s the difference between, say, California and South Carolina. The California coast gets most of its rain and snow in the winter and has cool, foggy summers, while the Carolinas get most of their rain in the summer, and have relatively fewer rain or snow storms. The southern hemisphere, of course, follows the opposite pattern.

When we’re dealing with Ice Ages, cool summers and warm winters can be a problem. Warm winters mean more snow falls, while cool summers means the snow lasts longer. If the summers are cool enough, the snow never melts entirely, and glaciers start to form. If the summers are warm enough, the snow melts, and the glaciers go away. This is how (very crudely) Milankovitch cycles help control the onset and end of ice ages, at least during times when the climate is cold enough (due to low levels of CO2) that ice ages are possible. The northern hemisphere at 65 degrees north is a bit of a driver, because there’s more land at that latitude than there is in the southern hemisphere, and large ice fields help force global ice ages (more or less).

Now, getting back to the idea of 37 apocalypses. We’re dumping a lot of CO2 into the air, and it’s going to take a long time to come out. Therefore, the Earth will be warmer for a long time, until that carbon comes out of the air. However, the seasons can vary. Due to the Milankovitch cycles, the weather can vary between summer rain and winter rain. If the temperatures are tropical, this doesn’t particularly matter. Most tropical areas have a dry season and a wet season, but since the annual temperature doesn’t vary a huge amount, when the rain occurs doesn’t particularly matter. Milankovitch cycles don’t particularly matter.

However, closer to the poles, these matter, even if the world is very warm. Above the Arctic circle, there’s an entire season of darkness as the sun slips below the horizon (due to axial tilt). If most of the precipitation comes during the darkness, it will land as snow. If it comes during the daylit summer, it will come as rain. Different plants prefer these conditions, so people living there will have to grow different crops. To use the example of California and the Carolinas, California does great with winter vegetables and summer fruits, while the summer rain areas can grow things like corn and other late summer vegetables. Winter rainfall climates also tend to favor massive irrigation projects, because farmers have to capture the moisture that comes during the winter, and dole it out when the crops are growing.

The Milankovitch cycles do matter in that they dictate what the vegetation will be, due to when precipitation occurs and what form it comes in. Think the differences between Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin, for example . Plant communities will shift to follow the Milankovitch cycles, as will farming practices and things like irrigation. Classically, these are the kinds of shifts that cause civilizations to rise and fall, and I have no doubt this will continue into the future. As noted in the previous post, there will be times of future stability, and times of future change, and the times of change will likely bring down civilizations that adapted to the old conditions.

Considering how much I’m learning, I seriously doubt that this will be the last word on the subject, so if I don’t quite understand things now, feel free to straighten me out. My goal here is to think about what the deep future might look like, and I still think it looks like it’s going to keep changing for the foreseeable future, in ways that aren’t that favorable for stable, global civilizations.