Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Near-future Space Industries

Many people have written about commercial opportunities in space. The big ones are power satellites (beaming zero-carbon-footprint energy to earth), zero-G industrial processes (things that can't be cheaply made in a gravity field, such as foamed steel), and tourism (I'm looking forward to Disneymoon, and that first Hyatt with an out-of-this-world view).

Another significant opportunity exists in communication satellites and research. It is much cheaper to maintain / repair / service satellites from an orbit near them. It's even cheaper to build them there. Send the expensive components to low Earth orbit, assemble them in space, and launch to a higher geo-synchronous orbit using in-space resources (fuel made from asteroids & comets). It is much cheaper. An asteroid-based satellite assembly factory in a thousand-mile-high orbit could easily perform those functions. Another asteroid near geo-synch orbit could perform maintenance functions.

Astronomers take note: such a space-based satellite assembly factory could also build a really huge space telescope by assembling a collage of launchable mirror segments. Imagine the resolving power and light-gathering capabilities of a fifty-meter version of the Hubble Space Telescope. Add the convenience of a nearby maintenance crew that could swap out new instruments for old, replace failing gyroscopes, perform routine repairs. If desired, the maintenance crew could be positioned permanently between the sun and the telescope to shade it from those pesky thermal cycles due to the contrast between the sun's heat and the cold of space.

In the long run, the biggest space industry is likely to be the same as on Earth: people, their entertainment, their housing, their food and water (and air), and information. As mankind expands into the cosmos, there is no need to make money by sending products home to Earth, just as the economy of the USA is not entirely dependent upon sending products back to mother Europe. An expanding population creates its own wealth as there are always opportunities for us to help one another (and make a buck in the process).

In the relatively near term, supporting Earth's needs will be paramount and will fund the expendables and technologies needed to thrive in space. Soon after, mining, housing, and food (recycling) will be the major industries. But after the space population exceeds some critical threshold (I don't know if it is ten thousand, or a million, or even tens of millions), it will become completely self-sustaining. Expanding humanity's presence in space will become the fundamental driving force of the space-based economy. And from then on, there's no looking back.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Future of Religion

Can any topic have more opinions?

Religion seems to be built into us, possibly as a result of the knowledge of our own mortality. It's hard to believe that my consciousness, my mind, is in any way a physical manifestation of my brain and that it could simply stop when I die. Surely, I will go on and survive my physical death.

However, logic tells me that my consciousness is a result of the processes in my brain, and when I die, I'll be dead.

As the average level of freedom increases around the globe, two effects related to religion are apparent:

  1. The percentage of people claiming to be religious is decreasing (likely due to an increased tolerance toward those who don't share our personal beliefs), and
  2. The number of religions seems to be increasing.

In the past, religions were founded by charismatic leaders, who convinced others to follow in their footsteps.

Today, many religions (some of which claim not to be religions) are based upon logic, either as rationalizations of combinations of other religions, or as the result of people with similar beliefs getting together and deciding that "this is the way that makes sense".

We can all hope that someday in the not-too-distant future humanity will be above the petty conceits that have led to past and present religious wars.

But then what?

Like all non-extinct organisms, successful religions have survival tenets. (See The Purpose of Life.) For a (generic) church, long-term survival means reproducing the church, growing the congregation. For some, that means having children and keeping those children in the fold. For others, it means spreading the word. Indeed, many of the most successful religions have the attitude that anyone not believing as I do is surely doomed, thus justifying wars and conquest to convert the non-believers. Sometimes the wars are overt (The Crusades, or a Jihad). Sometimes they are peaceful (Christian missionaries come to mind). However, they all strive to convert non-believers to the "one true religion" of the warrior.

My critique group (while working on my story currently titled Ghost Rights) posed a number of question related to religion. Such as, is it still needed? Ghost Rights deals with the uploading of human brains into computers, resulting in effective immortality. (See Immortal Dilemma.) If this is indeed possible, the big question becomes does effective immortality eliminate the need for religion in our lives?

I personally think not. There will always be those who believe that there must be something better out there, reachable automatically by ending what we have now. There will always be those who don't believe that a human soul can be duplicated into a machine, that God's creation cannot be copied by technology (yes, this ignores the fact that humans are copied biologically every second of every day). And there will always be those who don't believe that the copy in the machine is really me. I'm one of the latter, I'm afraid.

Personally, I believe that the human attraction toward religion is based upon our recognition of mortality, and I don't think that is going away in the next few million years.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Singularity Revisited

I've been lurking & posting on other blogs lately (such as, and the primary topic has been The Technological Singularity, whether or not it might happen, how many singularities have already happened in human history, and whether it will have a positive or negative impact on humanity.

For my basic position and additional references, see my post, The (likely coming) Technological Singularity.

Most of the discourse boils down to:

  1. Can Moore's Law continue and is a resulting technological singularity inevitable?
  2. Will this be a "rapture of the nerds" where humanity (or at least a significant fraction thereof) will participate?
  3. (Not so important) What is the impact of the singularity concept on the literature of science fiction?

The optimists, including Vernor Vinge who first used the term "singularity" in this context, and Ray Kurzweil, firmly believe in computers augmenting human intelligence, memory, and communication, leading to a time of superhuman intelligence with unforeseeable results. Thus, a "singularity".

Even some optimists have qualms: In 1993, Vinge himself said, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

Much modern science fiction either deals with the "post-human" era--after the singularity--or proposes reasons why the singularity never happened.

The pessimists, including notables such as Bill Joy, fear the singularity. Joy wrote an article for Wired Magazine called Why the future doesn't need us. It is thoughtful, and frightening.

I'm a pessimist; I fear the rise of the machines. I believe that these technological advances are coming. It will be up to us to make sure that our technologies are used to improve humanity, not destroy it.

I also see fundamental problems controlling advanced AI. We have no friggin' idea how to program morality, or ethics, or respect, or love, let alone Asimov's Laws into our computers. We have a hard enough time teaching it to people. Have you ever been robbed, or mugged, or threatened? At least you haven't been murdered, yet.

I see problems with the controlling extreme advances in computer technology. Assume, for the moment, that advanced AI is possible, given expected improvements in computers and possible improvements in software. The person/company/country with superhuman intelligence on his/their side will have an enormous advantage over his/their competitors. Human greed will overwhelm caution, at least part of the time. It will take a huge, powerful, global governmental agency to control the technologies and prevent catastrophe.

In the long run, the most powerful government agency becomes the government.

As humanity (hopefully) expands into the cosmos, I see this one, all-powerful agency being the sole unifying force of humanity. Because it only takes a single malevolent superhuman entity to wipe out us all. And in the long run, the only thing that matters is survival (see The Purpose of Life).

I look forward to humanity's advancement, but I fear our extinction. Once hard AI is possible, fighting it will be a perpetual struggle.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Immortal Dilemma

I've come up with many ideas for my "ghost story" world, in which people can choose to have their brains copied into a computer. In this world, the process of reading a brain involves taking it apart and recording all of the neuron structures, synaptic paths, whatever else impacts how the brain works, and is necessarily destructive. You can't survive the brain dump, so I simply assumed that people would wait until near death to get uploaded into a computer.

After all, the computer program may have my memories, my personality, my attitudes and behaviors, and certainly behaves as though it's me, but I'm still dead, in my opinion. Still, even as a copy, it thinks it's me, and therefore in some sense perhaps it is. Your biological body dies, and your consciousness  wakes up in a simulation.

The quandary is that the brain dump records all aspects of the brain at the time of the dump. Do it too late and it fails. Do it too soon and, well, did I mention that it's an irreversible choice? You're giving up on any additional real life that you may have experienced.

But delaying too long is a potential problem. If you don't get to the hospital in time, you're dead forever. If you have a stroke and some part of your brain dies, the upload will have the same flaws. You can't get back to a healthy brain and memory. Likewise with dementia. Once those memories are lost, they may be lost forever.

And forever is a long time if you're immortal.

So when is the right time to leave your mortal body?

  1. Never?
  2. In the hospital as they declare you dead?
  3. When you're ready to retire?
  4. When you seriously start thinking about your mortality?
  5. When your kids have left the nest and you're at the top of your career?
  6. As soon as you can afford the (presumably expensive) procedure?
  7. Or when you're at your peak of creativity, which might be at 25 or so?

Remember, your immortal self is captured at the moment of the brain dump. You can still learn, but you can't easily recapture lost capabilities or memories.

Also, should the time you choose to upload vary with your present (or post-death) career? If you can do your job in front of the computer, not having a body shouldn't slow you down. Lawyers, consultants, webmasters, writers, management, stock broker, and a thousand other jobs can be done by the dead. Possibly even better than by the living.

Time to think and vote.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Speed of Life

I've written a story about a future in which our minds (memories, personality, consciousness) are uploaded into computers when we approach death. (Not before: the readout process is destructive and you would not survive).

Personally, I think that understanding the brain is not going to happen, but that doesn't keep us from simulating it, from creating a large and powerful neural network sufficient to model every aspect of the human brain. We don't need to understand how the brain "thinks" any better than we do now; we simply need to provide the inputs, outputs, and a sufficiently large, fast, impressionable (teachable) model. This is largely how computer neural networks work today, but on a trivially small scale.

One common perception is that the resulting computer would be placed into a (potentially humanoid) robot, so that the person would continue to function much as in biological life, but now mechanical/electronic. Personally, I don't think this is likely. For the near future, robots are difficult to implement. Energy storage, strength, speed, dexterity are all issues that we have evolved to handle well and that are extremely difficult to implement using the motors and actuators that we can build.

There is another problem: why should the electronic implementation of the mind be limited to occupying a physically present (robotic) body? Virtual reality simulations of an environment would offer much greater freedom, including virtual travel, conventions, sex, whatever. Note that a physical body is necessarily limited to responding to its environment by the needs of physical response times. Virtual reality has no such restriction.

One of the interesting aspects of this approach is the speed of life: how rapidly does the person in the computer experience the reality of the world? I'm pretty certain that when Moore's Law makes the next generation of computers run twice as fast and that means the person in the computer experiences reality twice as fast, not that they become twice as smart.

I see potential problems of the difference in speed when it comes to communicating with (slow) humans, or older generations of uploaded personalities, problems which will get worse as technology improves. Do you like to spend time with really slow people? It becomes frustratingly difficult to engage in meaningful dialog, on both sides. Note that I do not anticipate "improving" consciousness; you would not be able to carry on a half-dozen simultaneous conversations any more than you can today. We would find ourselves using buffered communication channels, such as email or voice mail.

Back to the robot issue: a very fast implementation of a human mind in a human sized real-world responding robot would be awkward at best, maddeningly boring at worst. I'd rather experience the virtual world at a normal (to my greatly sped-up mind) speed--blindingly faster than you slow biological humans.

The reality of minds in many different speeds of computers might lead to a caste system. It might also lead to a world where the young and fast have huge performance advantages over the old and slow, with serious implications for jobs. I guess we'll have to pay for continuous upgrades, or fall behind. Great story ideas; I've already written one and outlined two others.

But wetware (or breeders, or humans--whatever you want to call us) will always run as slow as we do today. Our "speed of life" is built into us by our biology and environment.

Human perception speed is not the only possible speed. Other animals may perceive the world much differently than we do. Have you ever watched a hummingbird eat or fight? Their motions and reaction times are incredibly fast. They think we are slow. Likewise, a tortoise may perceive us as fast. A tree views a tortoise as imperceptibly fast.

What about alien biologies? Aliens could be around us now, but running at such a faster (or slower) speed that we don't perceive them as existing, let alone as intelligent. Larry Niven wrote The Slow Ones. Robert L. Forward wrote Dragons Egg about the inhabitants of the surface of a neutron star who experience life incredibly faster than humans.

Is it possible that our forests are intelligent creatures with trees the equivalent of neurons and fungi are neural transmitters? Such intelligences would experience thoughts many orders of magnitude slower than us; I doubt we'd ever recognize them.

I would argue that a human brain cell is alive but not intelligent. Would an intelligent species of bacteria recognize that a human was intelligent? I think not; the scale and speed of life is too different.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Fermi Paradox: Where are they?

Any discussions of the size of the universe will lead to the Fermi Paradox: given the enormous numbers of stars and the billions of years of existence of the universe, it seems obvious that life must have evolved zillions of times, and advanced space-faring civilizations can't be too uncommon. So where are they?

Consider our own Milky Way galaxy, with roughly a trillion stars. If only one out of a thousand stars has planets that develop life as we know it (as happened to the Earth quite early, some 4 billion years ago), and only one out of a thousand of those managed to develop complex life (as began on Earth about 500 million years ago), and only one out of a thousand of those developed intelligent life with a technological civilization, then there should still be a thousand such civilizations in the Milky Way. Where are they?

Also note that our sun is relatively young at 4.6 billion years. The oldest stars in the Milky Way are some 13 billion years old. Time for a little digression.

Man is an aggressive species. That may well be the case for all technological civilizations, as the humble are likely to huddle and die instead of expand and thrive. If we assume that mankind successfully moves into space (such as our own asteroid belt and cometary halo--see Our homes, the Comets), it is likely--nay, inevitable--that mankind will slowly advance into the cosmos in spite of the speed of light. It may take hundreds of years for a self-sufficient mobile comet to travel from our sun's environment to another star, but there they will find more comets. Room to grow, resources to thrive.

If we assume that only one interstellar colony is founded every hundred years by the inhabitants of Sol's Oort cloud, and then after a hiatus of a thousand years, each of the new star systems begins it own replication, slowly, one colony every hundred years, then humanity will still sweep over the entire galaxy, occupying the cometary halos of all of the stars in the Milky Way in only five or ten million years.

This is a tiny span of time in geologic terms, and a blink of the eye in the life of the universe. How could it not have happened, thousands of times already? That is the essence of the Fermi Paradox.

We see zero evidence of other life, let alone technological civilizations, present or past. The SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project has searched the skies since 1960 with zero tangible results. We have found zero evidence that alien intelligences have visited the Earth in the past, and of course no evidence that they are here now.

Are there alternative explanations? Of course. Perhaps they wish to stay hidden (a non-interference doctrine). Perhaps their technology is so advanced that we can't recognize it, or simply works in a way we aren't looking for. Perhaps the scale of their lifespeed or technology is such that we can't recognize it (nanobots, or perhaps they only appear for a millisecond every millenia). Perhaps they are from an ocean world and we should be looking miles beneath the surface where they maintain a lab. Water worlds should be much more common than Earth-like worlds--see Earthlike Planets.

And perhaps they are computers, not terribly interested in mere, slow, organic life, and their presence will be obvious once we speed up our perceptions and intelligence by a few orders of magnitude.

In some ways, the alternatives are frightening. The odds of us being the first technological civilization in the galaxy seem remote. That leaves the likelihood that life is precious and rare, or that the universe is a very dangerous place and we will soon succumb to the odds. Supernova, gamma-ray bursters, enormous black holes in every galaxy spewing deadly torrents of radiation, supervolcanoes, solar flares, not to mention planet-busting asteriods, all pose threats to civilization and life itself.

Or still worse, there is a chance that intelligence is the opposite of a survival characteristic. Perhaps we are dooming ourselves by squandering our resources, changing the ecology of the planet, or will effect the same result by blowing ourselves up. Perhaps every time intelligence appears, some idiot invents a super-bug which destroys all life, or creates advanced computers which eliminate all competing intelligent life. Or perhaps there is some simple experiment that every intelligent species eventually tries that destroys their home planet.

It may only be a matter of time.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Humanity's Prison: The Speed of Light

Did you read my blog post Humanity versus the Universe? The universe is huge. Unbelievably huge. And we can't visit, humanity is stuck near hear for the foreseeable future.

The biggest problem appears to be God, who has decreed, "Thou shalt not exceed the speed of light." Maybe she has a good reason, like keeping us from messing up the rest of her universe, but I'm still frustrated.

Ignoring problems of energy and conservation of momentum for the moment (see Inventions: Likely, Possible, and Damn!), interstellar travel simply takes too much time. Even local travel is slow. Assuming a 1-gravity acceleration, our own Oort cloud takes a year or more to reach. With today's technology, the Oort cloud is decades or centuries away. Other stars? The closest is a five-year journey even with our near-magical 1-G space drive. There are two-dozen stars within a dozen light-years, and five-dozen within about 16 light-years. Real travel times will be roughly the distance in years plus one.

One convenient factoid: one gravity of acceleration is approximately one light-year per year per year, and thanks to time dilation the perceived travel times roughly follow non-relativistic rules (as long as we don't care to return to home). A year of 1-G acceleration gets you close to the speed of light, and a second year gets you a little closer to c, but time passes that much slower (equivalently, the distance to your destination appears to shrink). So we can, in principle, travel considerable distances in the span of a human lifetime. Hundreds of light-years.

But even our Milky Way galaxy is large, roughly 100,000 light-years across, 30,000 LY to the core.

If we want to visit another galaxy, it gets worse. Andromeda (our nearest large neighbor and the furthest naked-eye object in the sky) is fully 2 million LY away.

It is difficult to imagine a civilization spanning travel times of years or decades, let alone millennia. I can imagine humanity spreading across the galaxy, perhaps eventually heading for other galaxies in our Local Group, millions of years hence. And that will lead to another post, on the Fermi Paradox. But there's another problem.

Let me correct my comment about humanity spreading to the stars: I see no way for humanity to do that, because it will be our descendants, who are not likely to think of themselves as human. The time frames and distances are so vast that interbreeding is completely impossible: we will have evolved into many species, all alien to each other, likely with less in common than homo sapiens has with Neanderthal.

So our remote, non-homo-sapiens descendants will inherit the universe. I hope. I'm still afraid that our computers will own the future, leaving us behind (see The Technological Singularity).

So here's hoping that God is just hiding the keys to the universe until we learn to behave well, to not soil our home, and to get along with others. Then once we've proven ourselves, she'll let us learn about practical wormholes, or warp drives, or hyperspace travel. While she's at it, perhaps we'll learn the secrets to gravity control, cheap, unlimited energy, and ways around those pesky problems of conservation of energy and momentum.

At least as a science fiction writer I can make all those problems vanish with a wave of my literary wand. Poof!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Humanity versus the Universe

Have I mentioned that one of my hobbies is cosmology? I enjoy pondering the ultimate big picture: how big is the universe, how did it start, how will it end, and why is it like it is?

For today's post, I thought I'd describe just how big the universe appears to be. It is likely very much larger than the Observable universe, that part close enough to us that the evidence of it is visible. Another way of saying that is, how far back in time can we see? The age of the universe is currently estimated at 13.7 billion years, so we can, in principle, see light emitted 13.7 billion years ago in all directions. However, that light came from matter moving away from us, so scientists estimate that the current size of the observable universe is about 46 billion light-years in all directions.

But that is just the physical size of the portion we can, in principle, see. And it is by far empty space. The galaxies and stars are the visible part.

A better question is how many stars are in the observable universe? After all, stars are what we see in the night sky, stars (or rather the solar systems around them) are where life must evolve, and stars are likely where humanity will always congregate.

I have two ways of describing the size of the visible universe (the number of stars) in terms that some of us might comprehend.

THE HAND METHOD: Go to the beach, and pick up a handful of sand. Choose an average size grain. Imagine that our entire solar system is represented by that single grain of sand.  How many grains of sand does it take to be equivalent to a Universe full of solar systems? A bucket full? A cubic yard? A dump truck full?

The actual answer is astounding. Take all of the sand in places like Daytona Beach and Waikiki, larger places like Florida and the deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona, and throw in the really big deserts like the Sahara. Australian, Arabian, and Gobi, all of them combined. Then add the rest of it, the off shore sand of buried beaches.  If our sun is a single grain of sand, then the universe is equivalent to all of the sand on the entire planet Earth

THE EYEBALL METHOD: My screen background is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, where nearly every visible spec is yet another galaxy. Look at the image, which reveals about 10,000 galaxies, each much like our own Milky Way.

How big of a piece of the sky is in that Hubble image? Take a dime out of your pocket or purse. Hold it at arms length. No, that's too big. You see where it says "IN GOD WE TRUST" under President Roosevelt's chin?  Take a tiny drill, and drill out the center of the "O" in "GOD". Now hold the dime at arm's length, and look through that hole.

The Hubble Space Telescope sees 10,000 galaxies through that hole. 

If your arms are much longer than average, you might have to drill out the entire "O" instead of just the center. And remember, most galaxies are a bit smaller than the Milky Way which contains about a trillion suns (a heaping cubic yard of sand in the earlier example). But a hundred billion stars in an average galaxy, times 10,000 galaxies in that tiny fraction of the sky works out to a hell of a lot of stars.

Are you feeling a bit insignificant yet?

Monday, July 7, 2008

More on Moore's Law

Thanks to an article called "Intel's Gelsinger Sees Clear Path To 10nm Chips", I revisited my post, Moore's Wall.

The article (and comments) said that Intel's current state-of-the-art 45nm process will be followed by a 32nm process starting next year, then 22nm in 2011, 16nm in 2013, and around 11nm in 2015. A couple of years after that, Intel will be sub-10nm.

(Serious technology geeks should read THE INTERNATIONAL TECHNOLOGY ROADMAP FOR SEMICONDUCTORS: 2007. The list of Grand Challenges needed to maintain the pace of Moore's Law is impressive. Of necessity, the report was obsolete by the time it was published.)

I'd like to add my own two cents worth.

There are some serious fundamental limits to the increased reduction in component size. For example, the capacitor that stores charge in a DRAM memory cell contains only about 70 electrons (this statistic may now be obsolete--it was accurate at one time). Fractional electrons are not available, and some significant number of electrons is required for reliability (you refresh a DRAM cell before it loses too many electrons (to leakage) to be certain of its state). Also, some implementations record multiple bits per capacitor (4 levels stores 2 bits, 8 levels stores 3 bits, etc.), placing stricter limits on accuracy.

Another serious limitation is that as the components shrink, a single hit by ionizing radiation (whether gamma, alpha, proton, or beta) can completely overwhelm the state. These occur naturally from trace radioactive components in the substrate, packaging, and environment. Today, we use Error Correcting Codes to allow for and correct these natural transitional errors, at the cost of requiring an ever-increasing share of our memory to be used as redundant ECC memory. You don't even notice that a hard drive contains a significant percentage of redundant information, allowing the reliable recovery of data from a medium guaranteed to have defects.

This last problem has an interesting solution. Error correcting codes provide some number of additional bits to identify the errors and produce an accurate result. Some day, I predict that the logic circuitry itself will also incorporate ECC. This means that a simple "adder", a logic array that adds two integers together, will no longer have just the logic needed to perform the addition, but a significant amount of additional logic to perform a simultaneous ECC for the entire operation. A complex ECC logic could perform more reliably than even triplicated logic, with less redundancy.

Your cell phone today uses an impressive degree of ECC (called something else) to extract a reliable signal from an extremely noisy environment which includes many other transmitters all vying for the same pieces of the electromagnetic spectrum. The ECC technology is sufficiently advanced that a signal can reliably extracted even when the noise level exceeds the signal level.

Some day, the logic circuits that operate your computers may have a similar design: while no one component is reliable from one microsecond to the next, the net effect of the system as a whole will still be an incredibly dependable result. Worded another way, the memory cell or logic gate that today is reliably on or off, may tomorrow be "well, it's sometimes right, at least 25% of the time" and a network of related and redundant ECC logic will save the day.

Puts a whole new meaning to the term "fuzzy logic".

Friday, July 4, 2008


Many people have written much on the topic of terraforming (changing a world to be more suitable for human life, more like Terra.) While early discussions focused on Venus or Mars, planets around other suns have been considered, as well as the large moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Terraforming a planet is likely to require centuries or millennia at best, making it an unlikely venture. But in principle, the cost might be low (largely seeding with a mix of bacteria, algae, and eventually the rest of a viable ecosystem). It might happen, at least if the ethics of modifying another place to our liking is ignored.

What do you get if you successfully terraform a planet? You get a whole new world to explore and exploit, a new home for millions or billions of people. The downside is that it's at the bottom of a gravity well, which presently is a very expensive place to go to. Or rather, to get back from. It's easy to go to the bottom of a gravity well, of course.

Personally, I think it is easier, cheaper, and ultimately much more profitable to "terraform" asteroids and comets by hollowing them out and spinning them for gravity. You end up with much more room for people, plus a lot more resources for development. And these worlds are easy to visit.

Note that we are already busily terraforming our own planet Earth, or un-terraforming it, depending upon who you listen to.

Most would agree that we are in the middle of a process that can potentially change the surface and ecology of the entire planet. It is an experiment, and not a scientifically sound one (there is no control). It is driven by short term economics (of which population growth is an aspect), and fueled by the massive burning of coal, oil, natural gas, and (even more unfortunately) forests. Additional questionable experiments include the destruction of fisheries (and the unintentional but ongoing and significant evolution of fish stocks to make themselves less desirable to humans as a way to survive).

I will argue that this terraforming practice, while in most ways unfortunate and misguided, is still a valuable learning experience. Because someday, we will need to terraform our home planet in earnest. A new ice age is nothing to laugh about, it is serious business. Some day, we will have to warm up the planet to survive.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Global Warming

I just read a very interesting article by Orson Scott Card (Obama's Real Religion) which includes a series of quotes from an article by Freeman Dyson, a man I much admire and respect. That article, a book review on the The Question of Global Warming included warnings about the Religion of Environmentalism.

Read the first article, unless you are an impassioned Obama supporter, in which case read the second which is not so concise but doesn't mention Obama. You'll be more likely to believe it.

Let me assume for the moment that Global Warming is real, and that humanity is the immediate cause. What should we do, if anything, and why?

Some people fear that the ice caps will melt, raising sea level some 200 feet. That would be disastrous for those living in low areas, including the State of Florida where I reside. However, the warming would also allow farming of areas currently under glaciers such as Antarctica and Greenland, plus the vast (currently frozen) tundra of Canada and Siberia. You lose one, and gain the other. In the big picture, it's not much different.

Some people fear that the warming will reduce rainfall, causing the loss of productive farmland in America's heartland. Possibly true, but warming will (on average) increase rainfall by raising vaporization rates. I am confident that weather patterns will change, and that some areas will gain while others lose. Note that the great deserts of northern Africa were once thriving forests. Humanity probably had nothing to do with that, it's merely a symptom of ongoing climate variability.

Some people fear that global warming will cause the inevitable loss of existing ecosystems and biological diversity. Also true, but change is not only inevitable, it is often necessary. Note that a beach is a symptom of ongoing change, the constant shifting of sand. If you eliminate beach erosion world-wide, you eliminate beaches. The whole concept of evolution is based upon the fact of change, since without change ecosystems rapidly become static and no improvements occur. We owe our very existence to change. Sorry, dinosaurs, but I'm glad you went extinct and made room for me.

Some people thing the world will get too hot and people and ecosystems will suffer and die out. Huh? Read the scientific literature, people! Start with Ice Ages. The world is in the midst of a major ice age that has lasted 30 million years. We happen to be in an interglacial period, one of those relatively brief interludes between frozen eras. Our current climate is not nearly as warm as during most interglacials, and we weren't around for any of the other ones. Look at the big picture: over the past two hundred million years, the world has averaged much warmer than at present. There were no ice caps during the reign of the dinosaurs. They thrived, at least until that asteroid strike. I do agree that change will be expensive and inconvenient. But the world won't be unfit for humanity if it warms up by 5 or 10 degrees.

Speaking of ice caps: I will argue that Global Warming is very much preferable to the opposite, the return of the Ice Age. It is very difficult to do farming under a mile or two of glacial ice. Yes, the sea level will drop, exposing millions of square miles of potential farmland (with a serious salt problem, but that is solvable). But if the world cools off too much, a "Snowball Earth" might result, and that, my friend, would be truly disastrous.

Don't get me wrong: I am not a proponent of rampant coal and oil consumption. I firmly believe in low-impact energy sources, and while nuclear power is high on my list of good things, I'm also in favor of solar, wind, and geothermal energy. I don't think we should squander the world's petroleum resources by burning it. Oil is a valuable commodity for plastics, fertilizers, and chemicals in general.

I believe in electric cars. Not just hybrids, but all-electric. If I win the lottery, first thing I'll do is buy a Tesla Roadster. A great, green, vehicle. I believe in recycling; we should not simply consume and discard, it's fundamentally wasteful. And while I don't believe that people should lower their impact on the world (and I firmly place the needs of humanity well above the needs of the spotted salamander, or polar bears, or tsetse fly -> let DDT spray), I do believe that we should all strive to make the world a better place for our descendants. Don't take from the future.

But that gets me back to my primary Global Warming Point: the greatest danger to the future of humanity on Earth is not a 5 or 10 degree rise in temperature, rather it is a 5 or 10 degree drop in temperature. I fear the return of the ice age, which is likely inevitable unless humanity takes steps to keep our planet warm.