Putting the life back in science fiction

American Brontosaur

I haven’t posted recently, because I’ve been busy with a book and life throwing things at me. Anyway, as part of research for the book (which explores the idea of what the deep future looks like if severe climate change comes to past and humans don’t go extinct), I wanted to find out how much energy the average American currently uses. So I did the usual Google Search, and tripped over Cecil Adams’ 2011 Straight Dope column about whether Americans use more energy than a blue whale (which was asserted in a 2009 New York Times article). He (actually his brainy assistant Una) cranked the calculation and came up with the basic answer of “no.” Just for thoroughness’ sake, I decided to replicate part of it.

It turns out that, in 2012 (according to <a href=”https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/energy.html”>LLNL</a&gt;), the US used 9.71 quadrillion BTUs of energy (quads), of which 4.17 quads were actually used for something and 5.56 quads were lost in the system. As of December 31, 2012, there were 312.8 million people in the US. Grinding the numbers out, converting BTUs per year into watts and assuming that the population was constant throughout 2012, I got that the US generated about 10,378 watts per person, of which about 4,457 watts was used, 5,943 watts were wasted.

So Cecil (actually Una) was basically right in saying that Americans used about 11 kilowatts of energy per capita per year. According to what they found in their research, a hundred ton blue whale used about 65 kilowatts. So if this mythical average American isn’t consuming the energetic equivalent of a 100 ton blue whale, then, we’re sort of vaguely equivalent to a 15 to 20 ton blue whale (they exist too–they’re called calves).

While I was wallowing around, try to find the appropriate whale equivalent for this average American, it dawned on me that there’s a whole other class of critters that large: sauropod dinosaurs. Of course, they’re extinct, so their current metabolic rate is zero. However, it’s not entirely silly to postulate that they had whale-like metabolisms back when they were alive. We don’t know how much the large sauropods weighed either, but Brontosaurus (yes, I know it’s Apatosaurus, I’ll get back to that), is thought to have weighed in between 15 and 20 tons, if you believe Wikipedia.

In other words, the average American uses as much energy as an average brontosaurus.

Now, of course we can argue that Apatosaurus is not the right sauropod, that due to some metabolic model or reconstructed weight or other, another sauropod is a better metaphor than ol’ bronty. It’s an understandable but unwinnable argument, because the energy use of the average American is kind of a goofy concept too. A big chunk of that energy is used (and lost) transporting stuff around supposedly to benefit us, but we never see it. It is also averaged across everything from the energy use of a bum on skid row to that of a jet-setting star, and it’s a very uneven distribution. What does average mean? Who’s average? Whatever it means, the average human working an eight hour office day works pretty well on somewhere around 75 watts (resting metabolism), so we average Americans are using something like the energy of 150 humans just sitting around doing paperwork.

So, let’s just say that we are, on average, the brontosaurs of the energy world, use an outdated dinosaur name as a metaphor for how much energy we consume. We’re not the biggest energy uses by country, but we’re pretty close.

Now you might think that this energy use means we’re going to go extinct like the brontosaurs, because such energy consumption isn’t sustainable. I think the truth is a little different. As humans, we can live on 75 watts, even 250 watts if we’re working hard and not sitting around. It’s our culture that constrains us to act like brontosaurs, and I’m pretty sure our culture is going to have to change radically if it doesn’t want to disappear. Ultimately, it’s a question of identity: when it’s no longer possible for us to be American brontosaurs, will it still be possible for us to be Americans, or are we going to have to find, join, or develop other cultures that are more energy efficient? Who can we be in the future? That’s one of the questions I’m working on.

Gen. Alexander and the Legacy System from Hell

Here I am venturing into something I know nothing about: the Internet. Recently, I read a 1999 quote from Steward Brand, in The Clock of the Long Now (BigRiver Link), that the internet could “easily become the Legacy System from Hell that holds civilization hostage. The system doesn’t really work, it can’t be fixed, no one understands it, no one is in charge of it, it can’t be lived without, and it gets worse every year.”

Horrible thought, isn’t it? What I don’t know about are the legions of selfless hackers, programmers, techies, and nerds who are valiantly struggling to keep all the internets working. What I do know some tiny bit about are the concerted efforts of the NSA, under General Keith Alexander (who’s due to retire this spring), to install effectively undocumented features throughout the Internets and everything connected to them, so that they can spy at will. Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I’m pretty sure that every large government has been doing the same thing. If someone wants to hack us, they can.

So what?

Well, what I’m thinking about is the question of trust, rather than danger. The idea that cyberspace is dangerous goes well back before the birth of the World Wide Web. Remember Neuromancer? Still, for the first decade of online life, especially with the birth of social media, there was this trust that it was all for the greater good. Yes, of course we knew about spam and viruses, we knew the megacorps wanted our data as a product, and anyone who did some poking or prodding knew that spy agencies were going online too, that cyberwarfare was a thing. Still, there was a greater good, and it was more or less American, and it pointed at greater freedom and opportunity for everyone who linked in.

Is that still true? We’ve seen Stuxnet, which may well have had something to do with General Alexander’s NSA , and we’ve seen some small fraction of Edward Snowden’s revelations, about how the NSA has made every internet-connected device capable of spying on us. Does anyone still trust the US to be the good guys who run the Internet for the world? Even as an American, I’m not sure I do.

This lost trust may be the start of the Internets evolving into the Legacy System from Hell. Instead of international cooperation to maintain and upgrade the internet with something resembling uniform standards, we may well see a proliferation of diverse standards, all in the name of cyber security. It’s a trick that life learned aeons ago, that diversity collectively keeps everything from dying from the same cause. Armies of computer geeks (engineers by the acre in 1950s parlance) will be employed creating work-arounds across all the systems, to keep systems talking with each other. Countries that fall on hard times will patch their servers, unable or unwilling to afford expensive upgrades that have all sorts of unpleasant political issues attached. Cables and satellites will fail and not be replaced, not because we can’t afford to, but because we don’t trust the people on the other end of the link to deal fairly with us and not hack the systems they connect to.

I hope this doesn’t happen, of course, but I wonder. Once trust is lost, it’s difficult to regain. On a global level, can we regain enough trust to have someone run the internet as an international commons? A good place? Or is it too late for that? I’m quite sure that US, Chinese, and Russian cyberwarfare experts all will say that their expertise is defensive, designed to minimize damage, and they may even believe it. Still, in the face of so many soldiers and spies amassing online, why trust our lives to this battlefield? Anything we put online might be wiped out or compromised, victim to a battle we neither wanted nor approved of.

Even though I don’t have a reason to like him, it would be sad if General Alexander’s legacy was starting the conversion of the internet into a legacy system. It will also be instructive too, a lesson in how the buildup of military power can backfire (something I think even Lao Tzu commented on). Fortunately or unfortunately, any history written on a legacy system will most likely vanish when the last expert walks away and the owners pull the plug. That’s the problem with legacy systems, you see. Their data can vanish very, very quickly.

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.

Interstellar Civilization and Cthulhu

Time for something different. Admittedly, it’s inspired in part by Matt Wedel’s recent musings on how to make a proper Cthulhu idol. Since it’s July, I figured I’d trot out something I’ve been musing about. It has to do with vernal pools. And Cthulhu. And interstellar civilization.

Vernal pools, in case you don’t know, are rain-fed pools that crop up in the spring. I’m used to the California ones, which feature a wide variety of (typically rare to endangered) species that act as typical aquatic or wetland species, but only for the few weeks to months that the pools last. They have a couple of neat properties that are relevant here. One is that vernal pool species have a number of ways of dealing with the inevitable death of the pool, from flying to another pool to going into hibernation to producing propagules (seeds, eggs, etc) that can survive up to a century before they grow once a new pool forms. The other thing to know is that organisms in the pool typically start at the small end (fairy shrimp, algae), followed by bigger ones (tadpoles, small aquatic plants), followed by “large” predators (dragonfly larvae, beetle larvae), followed finally by the really big things (ducks, garter snakes) as the pool dries. It all happens quite fast, a miniature serengeti, as someone called it.

If you don’t know what Cthulhu is, well, what can I say? Go read The Call of Cthulhu, and come back later. But this is more about Lovecraft’s whole mythos of critters that lived in deep time and still live here and there, ready to jump out and go boo. Erm… Right.

Lovecraft didn’t know much about math or biology, for which I don’t blame him. It wasn’t his thing. Still, rather a lot of science has floated under the bridge since he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, so I’d suggest it’s high time to retcon the Cthulhu mythos into modern science. That, and it’s July. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest an interstellar civilization composed of Mythos monsters, and based in part on the model of a vernal pool.

Let’s start with our galaxy. By most measures, there seem to be millions of potentially habitable planets out there, but equally, in our world, we don’t see any evidence of interstellar cultures. This is slightly bizarre, as sun-like stars have been around from something like 500 million years longer than our sun has existed. One would guess that, if interstellar civilization could exist, it would exist, and that furthermore, it would have colonized Earth long ago. That is exactly what Lovecraft posited, with his fossil cities in At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time, and elsewhere. Personally, I think his reasons for why we’re not over-run by alien beasties are a bit weak, so this is where the retcon starts.

The big problem with interstellar civilization is that traveling between stars is horribly energy and resource expensive. Lovecraft got it right, when he talked about species migrating between the stars, rather than commuting (although his Outer Gods seem to not have that trouble). It follows then that when a interstellar civilization colonizes a planet, resource extraction begins in earnest. We’re not talking about sustainability here, not by a long shot.

Since we know what a non-sustainable civilization looks like (we’re living in one), we also know that, absent major changes, such civilizations die out in a geologic instant. This may sound non-functional, but there’s a way out of it. If the interstellar civilization on a particular world can colonize one or more new planets before the civilization dies, it can keep going. Planets recover from civilization over a 10-65 million year period (thanks to geologic processes that allow the biosphere to recover, new oil reserves that gather surplus sunlight, and erosion that uncovers ore deposits), so it’s theoretically possible for a really clever interstellar civilization to persist indefinitely by constantly moving, leaving most of the hundreds of millions of habitable worlds in the galaxy fallow for most of the time. When the civilization ends on a planet, its constituents either leave, die off, hibernate, or leave some sort of remnant or propagule to grow when civilization comes again, tens of millions of years later. Granted, it’s tricky for anything to survive intact for tens of millions of years, but with god-like technology comes god-like hibernation abilities.

So what happens when civilization rains down on a planet? I suspect it’s a lot like what happens when a vernal pool fills. The little guys (elder things and their shoggoth bionanotech) show up first and most frequently. If the planet’s biosphere isn’t that suitable, that may be all that shows up, and they leave after they’ve sucked up the available resources to move on to the next suitable planet. If conditions are more favorable, the elder things are followed by all manner of beings: mi-go, the Great Race, and so forth, each preying on (excuse me, establishing trade relations with) the things that came before.

Then Cthulhu and his kind show up. They’re the megacorps, excuse me, the big predators. However, Cthulhu has an odd biology. According to the Call of Cthulhu“[w]hen the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.” In biological terminology, Cthulhu and his ilk use two strategies: interstellar travel (“plunging through the sky”), presumably if the stars are close enough for them to make the transit, and they also can go dormant (“could not live”), presumably through some amazingly advanced form of anhydrobiosis, to wait between boughts of civilization. Once Cthulhu’s kind is through ravaging a planet, the show’s over, and those survivors who didn’t flee settle in to wait for the planet to heal itself. This is much like what happens when a vernal pool dries to mud. The flowers bloom in the mud, and everything sets up to wait through another dry summer

Note that colonization isn’t an organized process, but then again, vernal pool community formation isn’t organized either. Every pool is different every year, and it depends on things like how fast the pools are evaporating and what animals are close enough to colonize the pools. Most of them can pass a year (or hundred) without needing water. Similarly, interstellar civilization is conditioned by how far a particular species can travel between stars and by what they need to survive on a planet, whether they can pioneer an uncivilized ecosystem (as the elder things can), or whether they need a civilization present to feed their great bulk (as with Cthulhu).

When Lovecraft talked about ancient cities, his biggest problem was lack of a viable dating technology. He wrongly assumed that species had been on Earth for hundreds of millions of year due to fragments throughout the geologic record, when in fact the planet was settled repeatedly, at different times, tens or hundreds of millions of years apart. It’s an easy mistake to make.

We can even understand the nature of Lovecraft’s Other Gods in this scheme. Azathoth, the blind idiot god (or demon sultan) at the center of the universe is pretty clearly the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Without it, this galaxy wouldn’t exist, so it is our creator in its own mindless way. Yog-Sothoth, the All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self, is probably our galaxy’s equivalent of the Internet, possibly powered in part by the central black hole Azathoth. After all, if civilized species don’t know what’s going on on other worlds, how can they know where to migrate next? Nyarlathotep, “that frightful soul and messenger of infinity’s Other Gods, the crawling chaos,” is Yog-Sothoth’s equivalent of Siri, or perhaps Clippy the Paperclip, which may explain humanity’s generally negative interactions with it.

This leads to some interesting ideas. Paleontology in Lovecraft’s world is likely to be rather more interesting than our world’s paleontology. Think of what the remnants of an alien interstellar city would look like in the fossil record. Moreover, there would be a rather more sinister explanation for Earth’s mass extinctions, and the evidence would be rather different.

Of course, the ultimate question for humans is, when the stars come right and galactic civilization comes to this planet yet again, do we join in the madness and plunge between the stars with them, do we resist, or do we hide out until they go away, and hope we can survive on the scraps left behind?

A Shocking Explanation for the Long Necks of Plesiosaurs and Others

I’m venturing back into the land of speculative paleontology with a modest suggestion about the reason why two groups of aquatic Mesozoic animals had ridiculously long necks. Some of these animals are very familiar: plesiosaurs. Some Plesiosaurs, members of the Plesiosauroidea, had ridiculously long necks. This trait was shared with the lesser known Triassic Tanystropheids, such as Tanystropheus longobardicus. Their necks are typically relatively stiff and weakly muscled, which gives rise to real questions about how the animal used them. Plesiosaurs, for example, could not raise their necks out of the water in the classic Loch Ness Monster or “swan” pose, nor could they sinuously retract their necks as if they were snakes’ bodies. Tanystropheus’ neck was even more limited, being compared to the stiff tails of hadrosaurs.

How did they use these necks? Proposals include Elasmosaurus “conceal[ing] itself below the school of fish. It then would have moved its head slowly and approached its prey from below” (from Wikipedia) to Tanystropheus fishing from marine shores as some sort of dipsy-diver, dropping its head down into the water from above. More bizarrely, taphonomic evidence in the form of fossilized sea floor gouges suggests that Plesiosaurids with long stiff necks were benthic feeders like rays or grey whales, grabbing their prey out of the mud (from Tet Zoo 2.0). It is hard to image an animal less adapted to such a hunting mode.

This doesn’t even get into the exquisite vulnerability of this body shape. Long, thin, stiff necks are very vulnerable to aquatic predators. Indeed, multiple artists have illustrated elasmosaur necks as the chew toys of large pliosaurs, and it is hard to imagine Tanystropheus surf fishing without getting its neck dislocated.

I’d like to suggest a different hypothesis, that these long, stiff necks were perfectly functional, and that, indeed, there are animals today that have similarly constrained morphologies. They aren’t tetrapods though, they’re fish. Electric fish, to be precise. Electrogenic organs have evolved at least four separate times in fish (Gymnotiformes, Mormyridae, Malapteruridae, Torpediniformes), and occur in both salt and freshwater. The South American knifefish (Gymnotiformes) are a particularly good example. As a group they have linear, fairly stiff, poorly muscled bodies. The apparent explanation for their shapes relates to the complexity of interpreting information from electric fields, and simpler body shapes make for more unambiguous signals. It appears that most electrogenic animals (animals that actively generate an electrical field for sensory purposes) have stiffer bodies with simpler shapes than do their less shocking relatives. This is also true for manmade electrogenic sensors, as a simple shape makes for a simple, easily interpretable field.

If the long stiff necks of Plesiosaurids and Tanystropheids are electrogenic organs, the weaknesses of the necks become strengths. Their necks’ main job is to be held stiff and straight in the water, and they appear well-built for this task. Moreover, electrogenic organs are built from stacks of electrocytes, which were the inspiration for batteries. The longer the neck, the more “batteries” it can hold, the bigger a field it can create, and the higher a voltage it can generate. The advantages don’t stop there. Electrogenic organs have three potential functions: sensing, electrofishing, and defense, and I will explore each in turn.

Active Electrolocation

Many animals can detect electrical fields, with or without special organs. Humans can detect sufficiently strong electric fields, while everything from catfish to sharks and rays to platypuses and river dolphins have structures specialized in passively detecting weak electrical fields. Electrogenic animals all actively use their electrical organs to sense their environments, feeling differences in the field due to the presence of things that either are either more or less conductive than the surrounding water. They can also detect the electrical fields innately given off by all animals through things like muscular exertion, heartbeats, or (in fish) the gill area. All of this adds up to a sophisticated electrolocation sense.

This is particularly important for animals that hunt in waters where vision is limited, either through turbidity or at night. It is also quite useful for hunting animals buried in the sediment, which is an explanation for the Jurassic sea-floor gouges caused by Plesiosaurids.

In an attempt to illustrate this, I chose the small (30 cm long) tanystropheid Tanytrachelos. This species was found in the Triassic, in the Solite Quarry in Virginia. It was apparently amphibious, for it was found in the sediments of a highly seasonal lake, and its webbed footprints are found fossilized in lake mud. Its main prey were apparently insects, and it apparently co-occurred with the fish Turseodus, of approximately the same size. Given the description of the lake sediments (alternating layers of mud and decayed vegetation), I suspect that the water wasn’t terribly clear, as it has been illustrated. The lake water may have been stained tea-brown by tannins, or it may have been muddied by rain and animal activity. Either way, I would suggest that Tanytrachelos was something like a platypus, an aquatic insectivore that found its prey using their electrical fields instead of eyesight.

Cartoon of  electrolocating a Turseodus in Solite Lake

Cartoon of Tanytrachelos electrolocating a Turseodus in Solite Lake

I should note that all the long-necked species probably used electrolocation. It doesn’t take a large electric organ, and in turbid or dark environments it can be critical. It’s also possible that a majority of Plesiosaurids and Tanystropheids were electrolocators only. In modern electric fish, a majority are electrolocators, not active shockers, and there’s no reason to think this was different in the past. Certainly there is a tradeoff between carrying an electric organ and using a neck for something else, and there’s no reason to expect them all to be electrofishers. But some could have been.


Here, I would like to compare the fish biologists’ standard sampling tool, electrofishing, with the biological versions. While it is not clear that electric eels hunt with their electric organs, marine torpedo rays certainly do. However, the best insight comes from human electrofishing. For those who are not familiar with it, electrofishing involves using a generator, a transformer, and at least two electrodes. When the system is properly tuned, fish are stunned and can be captured for population samples. Most electrofishing rigs work in freshwater, but several research groups practice marine electrofishing. Still, there are a number of complexities.

Human electrofishing works on a simple principle. Many fish, when caught in a pulsed DC field between a cathode and an anode, involuntarily swim towards the anode, a phenomenon called positive electrotaxis that is caused by involuntary muscle contractions in the fish. Fish biologists use this trick to draw fish into the anode area without killing them, so that they can count and measure them. Translating this to electrofishing animals, I propose that the animals used pulsed DC current, with the anode located immediately behind the head. If one looks at the field lines, this would cause fish to swim uncontrollably straight into the predator’s mouth. Additionally, electrofishing rigs are deliberately designed with the anodes as large as possible to avoid damaging the fish (reference). One could easily argue that the long, slender necks with small heads of animals like Elasmosaurus or Tanystropheus are the exact opposite, with small anodes evolved to stun, injure, or even kill the the prey before it reaches the predator’s mouth. I used Tanystropheus in the cartoon below to illustrate the principle, with the anode behind the animal’s head.

Tanystropheus electrofishing, with the anode behind the head.

Tanystropheus electrofishing, with the anode behind the head.

While this is simple in theory, it becomes complex in practice. For one, seawater conductivity varies depending on temperature and salinity. For another, fish catchability varies depending on the ratio of conductivity between the fish and the water, with a maximum efficiency where the fish has the same conductivity as the water. There are other factors, such as the frequency of the pulsed DC current used, which varies by fish targeted (usually determined empirically by biologists), and factors such as the thickness of the fish scales (thick-scaled fish are harder to catch this way) and the size of the fish (larger fish are more vulnerable than smaller fish) (reference). As an aside, it is not clear whether electrofishing works on squid or insects, apparently due more to lack of experimentation than anything else.

Thus, there is no one optimal design for electrofishing animals. Plesiosaurids could not broadly harvest every fish in the water, but would be constrained by how they could adjust to factors like salinity and the fish present, and I suspect that the substantial diversity they show represents adaptations to different electrofishing strategies. Most likely, the biggest plesiosaurids would have to migrate frequently to avoid fishing out local habitats and to take advantage of spawning clusters or feeding congregations, much as large sharks do today. Since a proportionally bigger electrofishing rig is required for oceanic uses, it suggests that freshwater electrofishers should have proportionally shorter necks. This appears to parallel the fossil record, where known estuarine or freshwater species have shorter necks than do marine animals.

As an aside, I get the impression that Mesozoic fish had thick scales compared to those of today. While this may be erroneous, it is possible the Plesiosaurid electrofishing caused adaptive pressure on Mesozoic fish to favor thicker scales than we find today.

Why are there so few electrofishing modern animals? I would suggest that the answer is aerobic capacity. Electric eels reportedly get 80% of their oxygen from the surface. They are air-breathers, more than some amphibians, but torpedo rays (the other electrofishers) are not. While I’m not aware of any physiological studies, large electrical organs have to be metabolically expensive, and being air-breathing does make it easier to power them However, electric eels are stuck morphologically, because they have to cram their all their organs into a shape optimized for electrogenesis, and they have heavily vascularized oral cavities rather than true lungs. Air-breathing reptiles are not so constrained. Better still, their electrical array is physically separated in their necks, away from their heart, lungs, and swimming fins, allowing each system to work separately with fewer morphological constraints. As a result, they could grow much larger than electric eels or any modern electric animal. As for how Plesiosaurids avoided electrocuting themselves with their own voltage, all I can say is that electric eels somehow get away with it, so presumably it’s quite possible. Some electrolocating fish have encephalization quotients close to those of humans, so it’s unlikely that electrogenesis would be a problem for Plesiosaurid nervous systems.

Electrical Defense
This is a normal outgrowth of electrofishing, although current characteristics probably differ. Indeed, more modern electrogenic animals use these organs for defense than for food gathering. This is the classic electric eel defense, and I suspect that any electrofishing animal could effectively defend its neck from larger predators. A pliosaur attempting to bite down on an electrogenic elasmosaur would be in for a nasty shock. I’ve attempted to illustrate that below, with my cartoon of what might happen when a Pliosaur attacks an Elasmosaurus.

An electrified Elasmosaurus teaching an Pliosaur that it is not a prey item (with apologies to Luis Rey and Robert Bakker)

An electrified Elasmosaurus teaching a Pliosaur that it is not a prey item (with apologies to Luis Rey and Robert Bakker)

In Conclusion
Of course this is all speculative, soft-organ paleontology. I haven’t been able to locate a picture of an electric eel skeleton, so I have no idea how electric organs affect bone shape, or whether it’s possible to determine the presence of an electric organ from any skeleton. Some Plesiosaurid neck vertebrae are described as “odd and asymmetric”, but I have no idea whether this could be due to the presence of an electric organ or anything else.

Still, the strength of this hypothesis is that it presents a good explanation of why both Plesiosaurids and Tanystropheids have long, weak, inflexible necks, and it also accounts for how such an animal could be an efficient aquatic or benthic hunter. As such, it is certainly no worse than the idea that they are stealthy hunters, with their bodies hidden by their long necks so that they appear smaller. In fact, it makes them seem rather formidable. Electric sea dragons, anyone?

Offline References
Bakker, Robert. 1986. The Dinosaur Heresies. Zebra Press.
Fraser, Nicholas. 2006. Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic. Indiana University Press.

Big pharma and printable drugs
August 3, 2012, 4:31 am
Filed under: Speculation, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

This post was inspired by a couple of Charlie Stross’ recent postings, about expectations for 2030, and the future of computing. Also, my Mom’s friend subscribes Chemical and Engineering News, passes them to my Mom, who passes them to me about six months later. I’ve gotten a bit of education about Big Pharma through that, and through friends in the industry. I’m not a pharmacist, but I do like wild speculation, and that’s what I’m writing here.

As of last year (I’m only now seeing 2012 C&EM issues), Big Pharma was having troubles. It costs somewhat north of a billion dollars to bring a new drug to market in the US, mostly due to the costs of testing to meet regulatory requirements. As I understand it, most of that cost (I heard 75%) is salaries. Partly as a result, there’s a phenomenon known as the “Valley of Death” in the process of creating new drugs. That valley lies between discovery of an interesting new potential drug, and when that chemical enters human testing. Big Pharma has been increasingly scrapping their discovery divisions, and focusing on human testing (which is done in places like India, less in the US, to keep costs down. This is a global industry), and far less than 1% of interesting chemicals make it across the Valley of Death to be tested on people. Drug discovery is currently being paid for by government-funded research, and non-profit groups like the Gates Foundation. Weird but true–capitalism seems to require charity to make new drugs.

Now, let’s look at a disruptive technology, the chemputer that prints out chemicals, including potentially drugs. If this gizmo works out (and there’s no reason to think it can’t), then it bids to do to Big Pharma what the internet did to the music, film, and publishing industries. There’s no point in blowing a billion dollars on drug development, if any hacker can print out the drug on demand, using reverse-engineered recipes from another country.

What will Big Pharma do? In the short run, obviously they’re going to send out the lawyers to defend their patents, and I suspect those legal battles will be finally settling down around 2030. I shouldn’t be too flip about this, because there’s a terrible human cost to dismantling the industry: most of that billion plus dollars goes to highly trained drug industry professionals and the people who watch over them, and that’s a lot of people to put out of work. Of course they’re going to fight, just like the American insurance industry fights against government health care. Still, I think the industry is ultimately going to lose, and it will have to adapt or die.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. The brighter companies will get into the printer business.

Here’s the way it might work. Absent some interesting catastrophe like Peak Oil or a random apocalypse, middle and upper-class people in 2030 will probably have their genomes read as a normal part of their health regimen. They’ll probably even have their epigenomes read, and they might even get a periodic microbiome workup done. They will also likely have all sorts of cute portable monitors for all sorts of conditions, just the way diabetics have their meters now, and they will have all sorts of information on how drugs interact with their particular -omes.

Big Pharma 2.0 could get into this market. They can, for example, offer new parents a free genome and epigenome workup on their new kids, so long as they get to keep a copy of the data for research purposes. Companies may similarly offer free monitoring of a person’s health, so long as they get to keep copies of all the data they get while performing those diagnoses. They can sell the family a printer, and offer to print out the drugs they need (so long as the company can legally produce them), or tell the family when to go to a doctor for more sophisticated care.

What Big Pharma 2.0 is trying to do here is to get people caught up in their technical ecosystem, much as Apple does with their computers. Big Pharma 1.0 already specializes in running human trials, and this is, effectively, a way to recruit human guinea pigs. It doesn’t even particularly matter if the clients of such companies do things like abuse drugs or experiment on themselves. It’s more data for the companies at the other end of the monitor, after all.

As for discovery of new drugs, I suspect the discovery process will come to resemble Amazon’s commercialization of the slush pile even more than it already does. Right now, most drug discovery is done using government funded research, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. Certainly, some private individuals will get into the drug discovery game, and their products might even get popular enough that Big Pharma 2.0 picks up their chemicals, and starts offering the experimental drugs through their chemputers.

Wherever they get their experimental drugs, Big Pharma 2.0 can certainly let their clients volunteer to test out new drugs, especially if the clients get paid for it. Since the companies have a lifetime’s medical history for their clients, it’s more defensible medically and statistically to use these well-known volunteers than to recruit random people out of a Mumbai slum for testing. Big Pharma will simply be trading randomly recruited test subjects and an unknown market, for a captive audience of volunteers and patients. They will trade in data and care, not drugs.

I’m not sure what role doctors will play in 2030, assuming people start depending on home diagnostic units and chemical printers to dose themselves. Doctors will certainly continue to treat injuries, deliver babies, treat novel infections, and handle more complex problems. Still, being able to print drugs is going to wildly affect the whole huge medical system, in both good and bad ways. I can imagine people getting harmed by cheaply printed drugs and other such problems, but I can also see people getting better and cheaper care.

What do you think?

Grim Meat-Hook Future Part 2: Sorry, no starships.

I’ve got to admit, starships are intriguing, as is the idea that someone can build a largish skyscraper with a fusion generator in the basement, and that building will contain a village-supporting ecosystem (powered entirely by the fusion generator) and also be missile-proof. On the bad side, this vision seems a bit, I don’t know, silly perhaps? The skyscraper, I mean. That’s effectively what a starship is, though, and existence of one implies the other.

On the other hand, we can assume the obvious answer for the Fermi Paradox, that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens is that starships are logistically impossible, even if they are possible under the laws of physics. This comes about simply because starships require so many breakthroughs in so many fields. A failure to achieve any of these breakthroughs–power plant, shielding, compact, human-supporting biospheres (or stasis, or computer upload systems that last for centuries), and keeping the crew together for the duration of the voyage–dooms the starship. All of them could be impossible.

At this point, some SF aficionados throw up their hands and scream “therefore we’re all doomed! The Earth won’t last forever, and humans have to.” This is foolish. Yes, of course we’re all doomed to die, one way or another (sorry if this is unwelcome news), but Earth has another billion or more years to run before it becomes uninhabitable, and it’s quite likely that humans on Earth have another few million years before we go extinct, no matter how stupid we are.

The basic point here is that humans will almost certainly survive a transition from our current, fossil-fuel based, economy to one that is not based on fossil fuels, and the only reason I say “almost certainly” is because I’m currently reading Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and cringing how many attempted suicides the US unknowingly avoided. Anyway, the point is that people will survive, whether we decide to end our dependence on fossil fuels by crashing civilization, or whether we get to innovating and finding ways to do more with less, just as we have for untold centuries.

What will that future look like? In some ways, it will look like the starship future, at least for the next few centuries. As we get nine billion people on the planet, we’re going to have to find ways to feed more people with less land and water. Given how much we currently waste, this may be possible, if not pleasant.

Other predictions:
–Oceanic fishing will largely disappear for centuries. There are so many anoxic zones already that it’s likely that most people will give up fishing, and ships will have to carry all their food with them. I’ve had fun imagining a future Pacific where big, ark-like windjammers travel among the islands, all the food grown or shipped with them and fresh water recycled aboard as much as possible. The islands that survive sea level rise may start to resemble the self-sufficient dome cities of the previous post, since they’ll be less able (or entirely unable) to draw on the sea for their livelihoods. This is a grim thought for those of us who admire the old Polynesian cultures, but fodder for any SF writer who wants to re-imagine the old idea of asteroid belt colonies out in the Pacific, with kite-sailers replacing singleships. Anyone want to mine lava for precious elements?
–Farming will change. We’ll probably start recycling sewage onto farmland (if only to recapture the phosphorus, since we’re running short of mineable sources for that essential element), and we’ll certainly eat less meat. We’re already getting a powerful taste of climate change, with those record-breaking heatwaves and storms, and it’s going to get worse. We’ll have to get used to the idea of crops failing, and we’ll have to get very good at storing food during the good years. Currently, big agribusiness has a lock on both the food economy and politics, but that may fail suddenly, if the few big companies that dominate the Ag industry fail to deal adequately with crop failures, changing climate zones, and other problems. Rural America has been “dumbed down” for most of a century, with the bright kids lured into the cities. We’re facing a time when we need really, really smart farmers. I suspect we’ll get them, and this will affect both agribusiness and politics. Personally, I hope that permaculture takes off in a big way, but that’s because I’m an ecologist and I think it’s cool.
–Politics: It’s amazing how much politics in the US is affected by air conditioners. If the amazingly complicated US power grid starts to fail, people are going to start migrating north, out of current red states and into the blue. Some people say this is what’s driving the current Republican party, and they may be right. America is getting less white, and throughout much of the world, we’re seeing smaller families. There will be a gerontocracy for the rest of our lives, I’m afraid, but after that, who knows? We’re so used to thinking of political economy as growth that it will take innovation to face a future where populations decline.

I could go on, because this is the kind of future that makes more sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a pessimist? Or is it that the idea of human history having millions of years of one damn thing after another is actually more appealing than centuries of adolescent style, unlimited growth? For SF writers, there is good news here:
–there are plenty of Apocalypses to go around. If we really do live for millions of years, we’ll see the end of the fossil fuel age (in the geologic near term), the end of global warming (as I posted on a while back), at least one more ice age, multiple Carrington Events, asteroid strikes, devastating earthquakes and volcanoes, east Kilauea sliding into the sea and inundating the west coast, dogs and cats living together, and so forth. I was toying with the idea of starting an SF scenario called “after the 34th apocalypse” set waaaay far in the future, but I would have had to figure out what all 34 apocalypses would be. The point would be that the end of civilization as we know it might become old hat after a while, with coping strategies and everything.
–Many futures are possible. Given a combination of limited resources and humanity’s incredible capacity for ignorance, boredom, and self-delusion, I predict that people are going to try most options repeatedly. Everything from slaughterhouse dictatorships to drop-out wannabe utopias will appear again and again. Modern giant agribusiness isn’t the first time western civilization tried huge agriculture (see latifundias), and it’s certainly not going to be the last time, although I’m sure we’ll see periods of small farms in the near future. Dictatorships will come and go, and there will always be a new religion popping up somewhere, even if most of them don’t survive much past their creators’ lifespans.
–Science will always be around. It’s common knowledge that most of the world’s current great religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism in its current incarnation, and Islam) were created during the so-called “Axial Age” of empires in Rome, India, and China. They and their descendents are still around, in massively altered form. We’re centuries in to another age of global empires, and I’ve been wondering what new form of religion will come about. The answer was so obvious that I almost missed it: science. History is accretionary, not cyclical. Although Christianity is monotheistic, it early on absorbed a whole body of saints and pagan holidays from the old religions it replaced. Islam and Buddhism did the same thing, and I think the trend is universal among missionary religions. Because of this, I’m pretty sure science won’t go away either, no matter how hard people try to suppress its inconvenient truths. It’s so embedded in all of our lives that, like the notion that God should be capitalized, it’s not going to go away. Science *will* change radically in coming centuries as it subsumes arising cultures, but people will keep doing it. When we go through future ages of upheaval and global empires in coming millennia, our descendents will likely come up with still other “religions” that fundamentally change the way we think. I wonder what they will be?
–Domestication will rule much of the world. As with ants and termites, the human species’ fundamental adaptation has been domestication, which I like to describe as a massive campaign of symbiotic adaptations. While we can live without agriculture, I don’t think we’re going to do so. It’s simply too useful. Rather, I think that evolution is going to continue to take advantage of our domesticated ecosystems, just as it is doing right now. We will see more pests, pathogens, and parasites (including social parasites), and they will only get more sophisticated through coming centuries. I’m quite sure our counter-measures will get more sophisticated too, in a coevolutionary arms race, and I suspect that agriculture in, say, 40,000 years, will look radically different than it looks today. Farm ecosystems will be much more complex, and much of that complexity will be outside human control. Fortunately, I don’t think wilderness will ever entirely vanish, either.
–Similarly, I don’t think machines are going away, and I think that the complexity of mechanized ecosystems will only increase over time. I also think it’s likely that domesticated and mechanical ecosystems will merge more thoroughly than they have already.

In other words, there will be grim meat-hook futures, but I suspect that for every grim meat-hook generation, the next generation will make the best of things, get on with life, and be relatively happy. Things could be worse.

Grim Meat-Hook Future, Part 1: So we can build a starship….

Okay, not quite in the original sense; However, I thought I’d play with a simple idea.  In the future, we can build a starship, specifically a slower-than-light starship that obeys the laws of physics as we currently know them.

What will Earth look like in this case?

Let’s unpack this scenario a bit.  For a starship to work, we will need to have developed a bunch of technologies and practices that we currently don’t have.

These include:
–small biospheres that can support people for long periods of time without breaking down. Remember what happened with Biosphere 2? That’s what I mean by break down.
–light-weight shielding that can deal with debris hitting it at absurdly high velocities.
–Either cheap, compact, very, very safe fusion that can burn continuously for decades (for a torch ship), antimatter that can be cheaply made and safely stored for centuries, rather enormous lasers that can fire for decades, and can be aimed with nanometer precision (for a laser sail), or some form of highly accurate, high-powered linear accelerator and “smart particles” that can be cheaply made, fly at relativistic velocities, and steer themselves with nanometer precision (for a beamrider).
–The social engineering to keep small groups working together for multiple generations, or the ability to store humans in some form of stasis for centuries. Remember what happened with Biosphere 2? We’ll have to do much better than that.

The thing about this is that the world will have these technologies, as do the starships. While the technology will be unevenly distributed, bits and pieces of it will be in use all over the planet. For example, if we have fusion, we likely won’t be using fossil fuels for much of anything, because most large metropolitan areas will have fusion plants. They likely will use these energy to power desalination/water purification plants, so that we can all live by the coast and not worry about continents drying up. As I noted in a previous post, we’re stuck with climate for millennia, regardless. I’m not sure where the waste heat goes or how one maintains one of these magic power plants, but based on current experimental plants, it looks like it requires precision engineering at a scale we can’t yet match. This, in turn, implies a stable infrastructure of some scary-good engineers.

In fact, all of these require a lot of really, really good engineers, which means there will be the infrastructure to educate those engineers, whether they are humans, computers, or both. What does that mean for, oh, consumer electronics, aside from having stuff that’s much more complex than what we have today? Who knows?

But let’s look at the other new technology. Small biospheres implies that arcologies are possible. People can build floating “sea castles,” live in domes in the Arctic, on the sea bottom, or in Saudi Arabia’s empty quarter, or anywhere, and live off whatever they can grow in the domes. If they have enough money, that is. Cities will likely use this technology to produce more food within bounds, while wealthy separatist groups flourish wherever they can set up their biosphere.

Things get really interesting when you look at the shielding issue. I don’t know if the shields on a starship could withstand a nuclear explosion, but I do think they’d be impervious to almost all conventional arms. In other words, for the first time since the Middle Ages, defense becomes an option, and castles make sense. They make even more sense if you can live inside one indefinitely, treating it in effect like a starship without an engine. Of course, this radically changes the face of war. I don’t know whether the great powers will go in for castle-busting munitions (terawatt lasers, perhaps?), or more covert action, but basically, every evil genius with plans for world domination now gets his impregnable secret fortress, fully staffed with loyal minions.

Scary thought, isn’t it? We can also ponder the lives of the people who choose to live inside such fortresses. Presumably, it will be possible for them to live in there indefinitely, or to hold themselves in stasis “until the stars are right,” but I doubt it will be what we lazy, middle-class Americans consider to be a Good Time.

Does this sound like an appealing world? I’m not so sure. It’s likely more Neuromancer than Star Trek. That’s the thing I wanted to bring out: a star-faring culture would look very different than what we normally see in science fiction. It will have a technical infrastructure far beyond what we have today, but there’s no particular reason to think that it’s going to be a utopia where domestic robots attend to our every whim. It could just as easily be a weed-infested world dominated by the domed and armored cities of the wealthy and powerful. The only good news will be that people are willing to live that way.

So here’s the question: what did I miss? Any other easy extrapolations?

Why evolution will not make us smarter
June 14, 2012, 4:40 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m having fun reading the New Yorker article referred to in BoingBoing, about how smart people are more vulnerable to common thinking errors than dumb people are–or at least, there is a positive correlation between SAT scores and bias errors.

I suspect that Terry Pratchett got there first, since I remember a quote about his character Leonard of Quirm, who (in Lord Vetinarii’s estimation), had, in scaling the heights of intelligence, found heretofore undiscovered new plateaus of stupidity. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s a similar sentiment. Most geeks and nerds don’t end up doing better in life than their dumber peers, despite their measurably greater intelligence.

In a similar vein, I’ve been reading a history of Korea, the most Confucian kingdom in Asia. Even though they had a bureaucracy of demonstrably smart, exam-passing men, even though they invented movable metal type at least two centuries before Gutenberg, 1870s Korea was an agrarian backwater, where a few families owned most of the land and an unfortunate proportion of the population were slaves. For some reason, some of the most brilliant Confucian scholars in the world, steeped in a theory of government that’s certainly no more stupid than most, were quite vulnerable to regulatory capture by the land-owners, and the result was over a century of bad governance. Government by the smart didn’t work for them, and it doesn’t seem to work very well in its modern incarnation of technocracy.

I’m not going to say government by the stupid works any better. Effective government is hard, and all models tried so far have critical shortcomings. Instead, I’d like to stretch out to a rather cynical view of evolution.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this research is correct. Above a certain basic level of intelligence, getting better scores on IQ, SAT, or similar test does not make you a better decision maker. Rather, it makes you more vulnerable to your own unconscious biases.

What does this mean in evolutionary terms? Apparently, there’s little selection pressure for greater intelligence, for the simple reason that it doesn’t lead (on average) to greater resources or to greater reproductive success. It *might* also mean that the New Agers and Aquarians were right. If we get lucky, we may see evolution favoring increasing consciousness, average people becoming more aware of their own biases. Enlightened, not smarter. Of course, Tibet provides a cautionary model of what government by the enlightened looks like…

Do I believe this proposition, that evolution won’t make us smarter? I’m not totally sold, but I fear it’s true.

Now, before you say “Obviously, we’ll be computer augmented cyborgs soon, and that will solve the problem,” let me point out that increased processing power (as measured by an SAT) may make you more vulnerable to your own unconscious biases, not less. Cyborging won’t help. Unless you can invent a computer that gives you a better unconscious and fewer biases, increasing your processing power isn’t going to save you from doing stupid things. It will just help you get there faster and with greater confidence in your own wrong answers.

What do you think?

Our Carbonated Future–the next 400,000 to one milion years
May 31, 2012, 9:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve been having a lot of fun reading Curt Stager’s book Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, (Amazon Link), and I highly recommend it, especially for anyone interested in science fiction. I linked Dr. Stager’s webpage to his name up there, but for anyone who doesn’t want to follow the link, he’s a PhD paleoecologist, as well as a science writer. In other words, he knows what he’s talking about.

The reason for highlighting his book here is what he lays out for the future of atmospheric carbon on this planet. I think the people who glance at this blog get the idea that I’m not a typical science fiction geek. I’m getting increasingly less fond of the miracle fix, which in this case would be something like fusion (“safe,” “cheap” energy), plus a miraculous gadget to turn CO2 back into a coal that doesn’t involve burying a swamp under rock for a few dozen million years. Also, I’m a SFF maverick who doesn’t really believe that humans will a) go extinct in the near future, or b) transcend through some singularity to the point we are no longer human. That was me ten years ago. Now? Not so much.

The question is, what does the next 100,000 years hold in store for us? Oddly enough, it does depend on how much carbon we burn in the next century or so, whether we go for the conservative 1000 gigaton release of CO2, or the “use up all the coal and to hell with it” 5000 gigaton release of CO2. These are the “moderate” and “extreme” scenarios used by the International Panel on Climate Change, incidentally. To put it into perspective, we’ve released something like 300 gigtons of CO2 since the start of the Industrial Revolution, so the IPCC’s idea of moderation is pretty grimly realistic, compared with the 350 ppm goals of climate activists (the idea is that 1000 gigatons is what we get when we try for 350 ppm and miss).

The good news: If one follows the Milankovitch cycles, the next probable ice age would have been around 50,000 years from now, assuming atmospheric [CO2] was no higher than 250 ppm. Under both the moderate and extreme gas release scenarios, atmospheric CO2 will be above 250 ppm, so we can breathe easy, there won’t be an ice age in 50,000 years. Compared with global warming, an ice age is a serious problem.

The bad news: the carbon will take a very long time to leave our atmosphere. Most of it will go into acidifying our rocks and oceans, but fortunately we’ve got a lot of calcium bicarbonate lying around in the ocean (and in limestone on land) to help sequester about 750 gigatons of carbon. This will take a while, and since much of the soluble calcium occurs in things like coral reefs and mollusk shells, we’re going to mess up the oceans. A lot.

Under the moderate scenario, mean temperatures peak a few degrees higher than they are now, and average sea levels 6 to 7 meters higher than they are now, and these maxima will occur perhaps a century after we reach peak carbon concentrations. The reason for the lag is that the oceans will take a long time to respond, because they are so very large.

As we’re finding out, though, the averages don’t tell the story. Some climate scientists prefer “global weirding” to “global warming,” and class the unusual weather we’re having under climate change. And we’ve only experienced about a degree of average temperature increase so far. I’m not sure what saying that global weather will get four times weirder means in real terms, but it probably won’t be pleasant for most people.

The interesting part is how the carbon leaves the atmosphere. Under the moderate scenario, the limestone scrubbers will take about 7000 years to get their 750 gigatons of carbon out. At that point, silicate minerals (granite, basalt, etc) take over. Over the next 50,000 years, they will get [CO2] down to where it is today, and it will probably take them another 100,000 years to get it down to baseline. There’s another Milankovitch-induced ice age lurking out around 130,000 years in the future, and it’s possible that one will happen, if we stick to our moderate carbon release scenario (or rather, if do everything we can to get off fossil fuels now, and fail).

Then there’s the extreme scenario, 5000 gigatons of carbon, all of our oil and coal up in smoke. Temperatures would peak somewhere between 2500 and 3500 AD, at 5 to 9 degrees C above today’s mean temperatures (read weather 5 to 10 times more weird than we have today). Sea level rises up around 80 meters over the next few millennia, with most of that (not all of it) in the first thousand years (that’s right, continual sea level rise for centuries). Ultimately, it takes over 100,000 years for the rocks to sequester carbon to today’s level (and for the sea to drop back 80 meters), and 400,000-500,000 years for a full recovery.

In the moderate scenario, most of the changes take place in the first 1000 years, followed by a long, slow rebound, while in the extreme scenario, the heat and water keep rising for thousands of years, followed by an enormous, even slower rebound.

In both cases, though, the Earth will eventually equilibrate, the carbon will get scrubbed out of the air, and humans will face another ice age. If people are smart today and don’t use up all the coal, our distant descendents may decide to burp another gigaton of CO2 into the air 130,000 years from now, to prevent the next ice age. If we’ve burned through it all, too bad, they’re screwed, and all the polar high civilizations they’ve developed will be ground into forgotten dust by the resurgent glaciers. Since the Earth will have gone through an Eocene-style global hothouse, there won’t, of course, be any polar species left to take advantage of the advancing ice, so the next ice age might be a rather barren place, unlike the last one. But heck, when have any extremists worried about the distant future?

The other fun part of this scenario is how we’re going to live during the coming hot times, which is the ultimate reason I’m blogging here. One technology I’d like to focus on is biodiesel, Craig Venter style. In a recent Wired interview, Dr. Venter talked about the great idea of using algae to make diesel or gasoline. The algae would make diesel precursors, rather than the starches or oils they store now. Nothing too farfetched here, there are companies working on the same idea now, using unicellular marine algae. In the future, it’s quite likely we’ll see huge algae farms springing up in deserts and along desert seascoasts all over the world, where they make diesel using algae and saltwater. It uses non-potable water and barren land. What’s not to like?

The fun part that Dr. Venter didn’t talk about is the carbon cycle. The algae scheme only works if there’s a lot of CO2 in the air. The CO2 will get fixed into fuel by the algae, then burned off to power motors. This isn’t as stupid as it sounds, because diesel and gasoline really are great energy sources. The only limitation will be the amount of sun each algae farm gets. In general, the future gas industry will be solar powered, and there will be rich investors who want to keep a lot of carbon in the air. They may not want to deal with continually increasing sea levels and progressively radically unpredictable weather, but we’ll have to wait and see whether such predictions make them wiser, or not. Regardless, this will be a limited solar age, using gas as a storage medium, not the cheap, plentiful fossil gas we have even now.

Ultimately though, unless people do something drastic about limiting weathering, all that atmospheric carbon will disappear, and the hydrocarbon age will end. This end might happen even faster, if farmers try to sequester carbon into their trees or into their soil (soil carbon helps soils hold nutrients). Personally, I foresee a continual conflict between the fuel industry, on the one hand, who wants to keep CO2 in the air for recycling as long as possible, and nature and farmers on the other hand, who want to sequester carbon in the soil and the rock. A war between air and darkness, as it were? In the end, the world will sequester all the surplus atmospheric CO2 into forms we can’t burn, and if we haven’t weaned ourselves off gas by then, we will be ultimately screwed. Of course, if we have gone post hydrocarbon, humans will be dealing with another ice age.

This gives SFF writers a lot of future to play in, does it not? Anyone want to try playing with it?