The idea of exploiting the natural resources on asteroids has been around for more than a century. But a new company called Planetary Resources has the financial backing of some big names in high tech, and hopes to launch specially-designed prospecting spacecraft within two years.
Tagged with “science” (51)
“About 74,000 years ago,” Lynas began, “a volcanic event nearly wiped out humanity. We were down to just a thousand or so embattled breeding pairs. We’ve made a bit of a comeback since then. We’re over seven billion strong. In half a million years we’ve gone from prodding anthills with sticks to building a worldwide digital communications network. Well done! But… there’s a small problem. In doing this we’ve had to capture between a quarter and a third of the entire photosynthetic production of the planet. We’ve raised the temperature of the Earth system, reduced the alkalinity of the oceans, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, changed the reflectivity of the planet, hugely affected the distribution of freshwater, and killed off many of the species that share the planet with us. Welcome to the Anthropocene, our very uniquely human geological era.”
Some of those global alterations made by humans may be approaching tipping points—-thresholds—-that could destabilize the whole Earth system. Drawing on a landmark paper in Nature in 2009 (“A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” by Johan Rockström et al.) Lynas outlined the nine boundaries we should stay within, starting with three we’ve already crossed. 1. Loss of biodiversity reduces every form of ecological resilience. The boundary is 10 species going extinct per million per year. Currently we lose over 100 species per million per year. 2. Global warming is the most overwhelming boundary. Long-term stability requires 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; we’re currently at 391 ppm and rising fast. “The entire human economy must become carbon neutral by 2050 and carbon negative thereafter.” 3. Nitrogen pollution. With the invention a century ago of the Haber-Bosch process for creating nitrogen fertilizer, we doubled the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. We need to reduce the amount of atmospheric nitrogen we fix per year to 35 million tons; we’re currently at 121 million tons.
Other quantifiable boundaries have yet to be exceeded, but we’re close. 4. Land use. Every bit of natural landscape lost threatens ecosystem services like clean water and air and atmospheric carbon balance. “Already 85% of the Earth’s ice-free land is fragmented or substantially affected by human activity.” The danger point is 15% of land being used for row crops; we’re currently at 12%. 5. Fresh water scarcity. Increasing droughts from global warming will make the problem ever worse. In the world’s rivers, “the blue arteries of the living planet,” there are 800,000 dams with two new large ones built every day. The numeric limit is thought to be 4,000 cubic kilometers of runoff water consumed per year; the current number is 2,600. 6. Ocean acidification from excess atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasingly lethal to ocean life such as coral reefs. The measure here is “aragonite saturation level.” Before the industrial revolution it was 3.44; the limit is 2.75; we’re already down to 2.90. 7. The ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation. One man (Thomas Midgley) invented the chlorofluorocarbon coolant that rapidly reduced stratospheric ozone, and one remarkable agreement (Montreal Protocol, 1987) cut back on CFCs and began restoring the ozone layer. (In Dobson units the limit is 276; before Midgley it was 290; we’re now back up to 283.)
Two boundaries are so far unquantifiable. 8. Chemical pollution. Rachel Carson was right. Human toxics are showing up everywhere and causing harm. Coal-fired power plants are one of the worst offenders in this category. (Lynas added that nuclear waste belongs in this category but “the supposedly unsolved problem of nuclear waste hasn’t so far harmed a single living thing.” 9. Atmospheric aerosols—-airborne dust and smoke. It kills hundreds of thousands of people annually, the soot causes ice to melt faster, and everyone wants to get rid of it. But one beneficial effect it has is cooling, so Lynas proposes “we could move this pollution from the troposphere where people have to breathe it up to the stratosphere where it can still cool the Earth and no one has to breathe it. That’s called geoengineering.”
Lynas proposed that the goal for the future should be to get the whole world out of poverty by 2050 while staying within the planetary boundaries. Among the solutions he proposed are: clean cookstoves for the poor (they cause 1.6 million deaths a year); better GM crops for nitrogen efficiency and concentrated land use; integral fast reactors which run on nuclear waste (a recent calculation shows the UK could get 500 years of clean energy from its present waste, and the resulting IFR waste is a problem for 300 years, not for thousands of years); international treaties, which are crucial for dealing with global problems; carbon capture (everything from clean coal to biochar); and ongoing “dematerialization,” doing ever more with ever less, including more intense farming on less land. “Peak consumption,” Lynas noted, has already arrived in much of the developed world.
Noted author and futurist Vernor Vinge is surprisingly optimistic when it comes to the prospect of civilization collapsing.
“I think that [civilization] coming back would actually be a very big surprise,” he says in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The difference between us and us 10,000 years ago is … we know it can be done.”
Vinge has a proven track record of looking ahead. His 1981 novella True Names was one of the first science fiction stories to deal with virtual reality, and he also coined the phrase, “The Technological Singularity” to describe a future point at which technology creates intelligences beyond our comprehension. The term is now in wide use among futurists.
But could humanity really claw its way back after a complete collapse? Haven’t we plundered the planet’s resources in ways that would be impossible to repeat?
“I disagree with that,” says Vinge. “With one exception — fossil fuels. But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically.”
That’s not to say the collapse of civilization is no big deal. The human cost would be horrendous, and there would be no comeback at all if the crash leaves no survivors. A ravaged ecosphere could stymie any hope of rebuilding, as could a disaster that destroys even the ruins of cities.
“I am just as concerned about disasters as anyone,” says Vinge. “I have this region of the problem that I’m more optimistic about than some people, but overall, avoiding existential threats is at the top of my to-do list.”
What kind of future do you want to live in? What excites or concerns you about the future? Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson poses these questions as part of The Tomorrow Project, an initiative to investigate not only the future of computing but also the broader implications on our lives and the planet. Science and technology have progressed to the point where what we build is only constrained by the limits of our own imaginations. The future is not a fixed point in front of us that we are all hurtling helplessly towards. The future is built everyday by the actions of people. The Tomorrow Project engages in ongoing discussions with superstars, science fiction authors and scientists to get their visions for the world that’s coming and the world they’d like to build.
The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called “future casting” – using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.
From creating remote-sensing CubeSats to analyzing aerogel: how the public is hacking into open source space exploration.
As technology shifts from a means of passive consumption to active creation, people are collaborating on a massive scale. The endeavor of Spacehack.org is to transform that into more of a community, so that space hackers can easily connect and interact.
Amateurs were once considered to be at the crux of scientific discovery, but over time have been put on the sidelines. Despite this, citizen science is witnessing a renaissance. Agencies such as NASA no longer have a monopoly on the global space program and more participatory projects are coming to life to harness the power of open collaboration around exploring space on a faster schedule.
Instead of complaining about where our jetpack is, we can now demand to figure out how to take an elevator to space . And, while you still can’t own a CubeSat as easily as an iPod, you can join a SEDSAT-2 team and learn how to engineer one.
There’s also GalaxyZoo , which opened up a data set containing a million galaxies imaged by a robotic telescope. Why projects such as these are important is because robots are actually kind of dumb. Humans are able to make classifications that well-programmed machines can’t. Currently, 200,000 humans are identifying over 250,000 galaxies.
If tinkering with spacecrafts is more your speed, the Google Lunar X PRIZE is a competition to send robots to the moon. However, you don’t need to be a robotics engineer to participate. Team FREDNET , the first open source competitor, is open for anyone to join.
While the concept of open source has resonated around the world and beyond, there is still much education to be done. NASA and the ESA have made large quantities of their data open, but have yet to facilitate developer communities that allow for active contribution to the code rather than just feedback on finding bugs.
Spacehack.org , a directory of ways to participate in space exploration, was created for this reason, among others. Many of these projects are buried in old government websites or do not clearly communicate how someone can get involved. It is with great hope that it will not only encourage the creation of more participatory space projects, but also urge existing ones to embrace the social web.
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku describes some of the inventions he thinks will appear in the coming century — including Internet-ready contact lenses, space elevators and driverless cars — in his book Physics of the Future.
Award-winning zoologist, science writer and author Dr Matt Ridley (UK) delivers the keynote address at the University of Melbourne’s Festival of Ideas 2011. In it he explains how genes, culture and technology evolve to drive human innovation. Ridley has published articles and reviews in The Times, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, New Scientist, Prospect, New Statesman, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly and The Economist, and written more than 10 books.
Presented by University of Melbourne, July 2011
So you want to be an astronaut? Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by space experts Chris Riley, Dr Kevin Fong and comedian Helen Keen to discuss the future of human space flight.
Charlie Stross on Singularity 1 on 1: The World is Complicated. Elegant Narratives Explaining Everything Are Wrong!
Want to find out why Charlie Stross thinks that the singularity, if it happens at all, may not leave any room for humans? Check out his interview for www.SingularityWeblog.com
Today my guest on Singularity 1 on 1 is award winning science fiction author Charles Stross. It was his seminal singularity book Accelerando that not only won the 2006 Locus Award (in addition to being a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and on the final ballot for the Hugo Award) but was also at least in part responsible for my launching of SingularitySymposium.com and SingularityWeblog.com.
During my conversation with Charlie we discuss issues such as: his early interest in and love for science fiction; his work as a “code monkey” for a start up company during the first dot com boom of the late nineties and the resulting short sci fi story Lobsters (which eventually turned into Accelerando); his upcoming book Rule 34; his take on the human condition, brain uploading, the technological singularity and our chances of surviving it.
Charles Stross, 46, is a full-time science fiction writer and resident of Edinburgh, Scotland. The winner of two Locus Reader Awards and winner of the 2005 and 2010 Hugo awards for best novella, Stross’ works have been translated into over twelve languages.
Like many writers, Stross has had a variety of careers, occupations, and job-shaped-catastrophes in the past, from pharmacist (he quit after the second police stake-out) to first code monkey on the team of a successful dot-com startup (with brilliant timing he tried to change employer just as the bubble burst).
Co-presented by The Philadelphia Science Festival Introduced by Dennis Wint, president and chief executive officer of The Franklin Institute Recognized for his groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory, Brian Greene hosted the Public Broadcasting Service’s NOVA series based on his book, The Elegant Universe. A professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University, he is also the author of The Fabric of the Cosmos and Icarus at the Edge of Time. He is well-known for making complex scientific principles accessible to general audiences. According to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, the strength of his books lies ”in Greene’s unparalleled ability to translate higher mathematics and its findings into everyday language and images, through adept use of metaphor and analogy, and crisp, witty prose." In The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, Greene shows how a range of different multiverse proposals emerges from theories developed to explain observations of both subatomic particles and the dark depths of space, featuring doppelgängers, strings, branes, quantum probabilities, holographs, and simulated worlds. Brian Greene will be interviewed by Dr. Steve Snyder, vice president of programs and exhibitions at The Franklin Institute. (recorded 4/28/2011)