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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Low Gravity Hero: A Science Fiction Story

Low Gravity Hero: A Science Fiction Story On Noro's planet the air was thin, many trees grew to a height of 70 meters, and there were mountains twice as high as Mount Everest. Noro lived far away from Earth, on a small planet with only half the mass of Earth. The gravity on the planet was much weaker than the gravity on Earth.

Noro's tribe was not very advanced. The tribe consisted of about 40 people who lived in a small village. They had some good metal tools, but knew nothing of electricity or electronics. Noro and his family worked on a small farm, but it could not produce many crops, because the soil was not very fertile.

Noro was two meters tall, but that was much smaller than the average person in his tribe. Because of his below-average height, Noro was called Little One by his peers. He hated the nickname. Noro's peers often teased him about being so short.

Noro had a huge nose and very large lungs that allowed him to breathe the thin atmosphere of his planet. The atmosphere of Noro's planet was filled with a very small free-floating primitive plant organism. Because of the weak gravity, the tiny plant organism was able to stay suspended in the air, blown around by the strong winds.

Noro and his fellow tribesmen could not make any use of the tiny plants floating in the atmosphere, which were too small to be gathered up in a net. But there were much larger creatures that could breathe in the tiny plants floating in the air. These creatures were the animals that Noro and his tribe called the Sky Whales. The Sky Whales were like huge floating balloons that drifted across the sky, sucking in the tiny free-floating plants, like earthly whales sucking up plankton.

Members of Noro's tribe had sometimes spoke of hunting the Sky Whales with bows and arrows, but no one had taken the idea very seriously. The Sky Whales would make a great source of nutrition, but they floated too high in the sky for an arrow to hit them.

But one day Noro came up with an idea for how to hunt the Sky Whales. He would climb to the top of a huge mountain. He would bring a spear with a rope attached to its end. Noro planned to wait for a Sky Whale to pass by, and then lunge the spear at the creature. He would then pull the rope to drag in the creature.

His tribe members laughed at this scheme, saying it would never work. But Noro was determined to try it. For months Noro practiced throwing spears to improve his accuracy and strength. He practiced climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Then one day he set out, determined to travel all the way to the top of the mountain. After passing through some treacherous passages where he almost lost his footing and fell to his death, Noro made it to the peak of the mountain, where he had a breathtaking view.

sky fishing

A few hours later, a Sky Whale drifted by. Noro speared the huge creature on his first try. Pulling with all his might on the rope attached to the spear, he was able to drag the Sky Whale to the summit on which he stood. This was possible because the Sky Whale wasn't very heavy, and its huge air-filled lungs made it almost as easy to drag as a big balloon.

When Noro returned to his village dragging the Sky Whale, he became the hero of his village. Many other men went forth to duplicate Noro's feat, and demonstrate their own bravery. The village soon had a new source of food that ended hunger in Noro's tribe.

One year later Noro thought of an even more audacious way to prove his bravery. He came up with an outrageous plan. He would be the first of his tribe to fly like a bird.

Noro did not intend to build an airplane, something that was utterly beyond his imagination. He had a much simpler idea. He would attach to his arms two long wing-like attachments. Then he would jump off a cliff, and start flapping his arms furiously. Noro thought that if he made the artificial wings well enough, he would actually be able to fly. Of course, such a thing would never work on Earth, but Noro lived on a low-gravity planet, where such a feat was quite within the realm of possibility.

Noro told his mother about his strange plan.

“You want to jump off a cliff and fly like a bird?” said Noro's mother. “You must be crazy! You will fall to your death. No one has ever done such a thing.”

“Mother, the Sky Whales stay in the air without any wings,” said Noro. “If I have good strong wings, for sure I should be able to fly.”

Noro's mother pleaded with him to give up the wild scheme, but Noro could not be persuaded. For months, the adventurous youth experimented with different types of artificial wings. Finally he made a pair of artificial wings that satisfied him. The wings were made with the gut linings of various animals, which he had sewed together. The wings also had many feathers Noro had collected, which he attached to the wings using a glue-like tree sap.

Finally the moment of truth came. Noro stood on the cliff, wearing his artificial wings. Twelve spectators from his tribe were watching.

“Little One, you have already proven your bravery by spearing the first Sky Whale,” said one of Noro's friends. “You don't have to do this.”

“Now I am not Noro,” said Noro. “Now I am a bird!” Then he jumped off the cliff.

Noro started flapping his artificial wings frantically. On Earth he would have plunged to his death, but the gravity of his planet was so low that Noro was able to fly like a bird, traveling more than 200 meters before finally landing.

From that day on, flying became a very important part of the culture of Noro's tribe. Many a brave tribesman repeated Noro's feat, and before long both males and females could be seen flapping artificial wings, flying through the sky like birds.

The tribe stopped referring to Noro as Little One. For the rest of his life he was called Sky Conqueror.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Will You One Day Have 3 Brains?

Will You One Day Have 3 Brains? Yesterday there was a startling news headline: Miniature 'Human Brain' Grown in Lab.

Scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences used embryonic stem cells to grow a pea-sized miniature brain. The scientists used either embryonic stem cells or adult skin cells to produce the part of an embryo that develops into the brain and spinal cord - the neuroectoderm. They placed this mass of cells in a nutrient gel environment, and watched the cells grow into a structure similar to the brain of a nine-week old fetus.

Stories about this development mentioned that one day a technique such as this could be used to treat people with brain damage. But we may look ahead to more radical technical developments that could one day result from this type of scientific work.

One radical possibility is that we may one day be able to create small supplemental brains that people could use to add additional functionality to their existing brains. It's a simple idea: grow a small supplemental brain in the lab, and then somehow connect it to the existing brain.

Older readers may remember the days of big box personal computers with 8 plug in slots. You could make your computer smarter just by opening it up with a screwdriver, and then sliding in an electronic card into one of the slots.

One problem with human biology, however, is that the skull does not have any empty space in which you could put in a supplemental lab-grown miniature brain the size of a few walnuts. But there may be a way around that difficulty: put the supplemental miniature brains outside of the skull.

Below is a visualization of how this might look. The man of the future is wearing a Brain Band that has on its left and right two small plastic half spheres. Each half sphere has within it a miniature lab-grown brain. The brains are connected to a strong circular metal band that wraps around the man's forehead. The metal band has the sole purpose of providing structural support for the half spheres.

man with 3 brains

Each of the two miniature brains are connected to the man's main brain. To achieve such a connection it would be necessary to drill two holes in the skull, and to have wire-like nerves passing through these holes, to connect the central brain and the two supplemental brains. This would involve nothing particularly difficult from a technical standpoint. We already have nerves stretching much longer distances (such as the nerves that allow your brain to command your toes to wiggle). Presumably if scientists are able to lab-grow miniature brains, it would be relatively easy for them to grow nerves of a few centimeters that could stretch from just outside the forehead, through a hole in the skull, into the brain.

Giving a human these two supplemental brains would not involve any terribly complicated operation. After the two miniature brains were grown in the lab, they could each be fitted in a semi-spherical protective unit, and attached to a head band. Two small holes would be drilled in the skull, and some type of connecting nerve could be inserted to stretch the short distance from the miniature brains to the outer part of the interior brain, with the nerve passing through the holes.

I imagine that if a person woke up from such an operation, he would not immediately feel his brain was much different. It might take quite some while, perhaps months or years, for the person to be able to make use of the additional brain functionality. It might require a long period of brain training, and might also require quite a bit of time for additional nerve connections to form between the two supplemental brains and the person's main brain. The person who had such an operation might be given some drug or injections that would speed up the forming of such connections.

Would people act with revulsion upon seeing a man with two supplemental brains? Perhaps. But there would be advantages. When the person with two supplemental brains went in to interview for a job requiring heavy brain power (such as Wall Street derivative analyst job), the man's appearance would create a strong “super-Einstein” impression that would improve the odds of the person getting the job.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Head Swap: A Science Fiction Story

Head Swap: A Science Fiction Story In the year 2043 Luke Hunter fell wildly in love with young Sarah, age 23. He was entranced by her gleaming smile, her curly blonde locks, and her warm, gentle personality. Luke was planning to ask her to marry him. But then one day all contact between the two lovers ended. Heartbroken, Luke contacted Sarah's office, where they said she had not showed up for work in days. Luke filed a missing person's report with the police.

“Another missing young person,” said Officer Riley. “That's the third one we've had in the past month.”

Luke went to his mother's house to discuss the sad situation.

“I've got to find out what happened to her,” said Luke.

“She was probably just some flighty young woman who ran off with some richer man,” suggested Mom. “As Verdi put it, La Donna e Mobile. That means: women are fickle.”

“I can't believe that, Mom,” said Luke. “She loved me. She wouldn't just vanish. I've got to find out what happened.”

Luke began tracing what Sarah did on the day she disappeared. He was able to find a witness who saw her being shoved into an unmarked green van by three men. Luke began driving around his small city looking for green vans.

After pursuing several green vans which did not end up raising his suspicions, he began pursuing a green van which parked in the parking lot of a medical building. From his car, Luke watched as two men carried a woman out of the van on a stretcher.

“What's the problem with the young lady?” asked Luke.

“Mind your own business,” said one of the men, and took the woman into the medical office.

Luke's suspicions were raised. This van wasn't an ambulance. What was it doing carrying a body into a medical office in a stretcher?

Later that evening, Luke spoke to his mother about the suspicious incident.

“Oh, I'm sure it was completely innocent,” said Mom. “Dr. Hamilton is a fine doctor. You shouldn't suspect him.”

Luke looked at his mother with a puzzled expression.

“Mom, I didn't tell you it was Dr. Hamilton's clinic,” said Luke. “How did you know it was his office?”

“Uh...uh...just a lucky guess,” said Mom.

Luke looked closely at his mother. Then he noticed something that made him even more suspicious.

evil mom

“Mom, your hands, they look so youthful,” said Luke. “Why do your hands look like the hands of a young woman?” Luke knew his mother was 55 years old, but her hands looked like the hands of a person about 20.

“It's...it's...it's a new hand lotion I'm using,” said Mom. “Yes, that's it. The lotion is made by... uh...Revlon. Yes, they work wonders in making you look younger.”

Becoming suspicious, Luke looked carefully at his mother's neck. He rubbed off some covering makeup on his Mom's neck. He saw that underneath the makeup was a scar that extended all around the length of Mom's neck.

“What is this circular scar?” asked Luke.

“That?” said Mom. “It's..uh...I had a face lift.”

“Your face doesn't look any younger,” said Luke.

There then formed in Luke's mind a horrible suspicion. It was a crazy thought that he tried to crush, but it wouldn't go away. He thought the suspicion was far too ghastly to be true, but he could not help himself from testing it. He knew that his missing love Sarah had a distinctive birthmark on her right shoulder. Could it possibly be that he would find the same birthmark now on his mother's shoulder?

Luke pulled up the sleeve of his mother's shirt. There on her shoulder was exactly the same birthmark that Sarah had always had on her shoulder.

“This is Sarah's birthmark!” blurted out Luke.

“No, it's just a coincidence,” said Mom.

You have Sarah's body!” said Luke, enraged.

After some initial denials, Mom finally told the horrible truth.

“I paid $700,000 for a body transplant, a head swap,” admitted Mom tearfully. “They told me they could extend my life by fifty years by transplanting my head onto a youthful body. I didn't know how they would be getting the body. I didn't ask about it. I didn't know they would be getting the body by killing a young girl in our city.”

Luke slumped down to the floor weeping. He covered his face with his hands.

“My own Mom has my girlfriend's body!” he said, wincing at the horror of it.

“You must believe me,” said Mom. “I didn't know they'd be using your girlfriend's body for the transplant. I didn't know where the body was coming from.”

Luke called the the police, and the body transplant ring was broken up. The police investigation revealed that after the head of Luke's mother was transplanted on to Sarah's body, Sarah's head had been incinerated.

Dr. Hamilton and his helpers were convicted of murder. It turned out that more than twenty rich old men and women had paid to have the body transplants, in hopes of living many additional decades.

Luke's mother was convicted of a lesser charge, and served only one year in prison. She went on to live for many years, but Luke never spoke with her again.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New Scientific Paper Zaps Parallel Universes Theory

New Scientific Paper Zaps Parallel Universes Theory In my previous post You Are the Only You: No Evidence for Parallel Universes, I criticized what is called the Everett Many Worlds theory. This is the bizarre theory that the universe is constantly splitting up into every possible permutation of itself. Believers in this theory imagine that there are infinite copies of themselves and everyone else, in parallel universes in which all possibilities are actualized. The supporters of this theory say the theory is implied by quantum mechanics.

In my earlier post I pointed out the morally disastrous consequences of such a parallel universes theory, and pointed out that it is not accepted by a majority of physicists. I pointed out there are simpler ways to interpret quantum mechanics, without going to the extreme of believing in parallel universes.

Yesterday the widely read Science Daily web site had an article Physicist Disentangles "Schrodinger's Cat" Debate that reports on a paper published by physicist Art Hobson in the scientific journal Physical Review A.

Hobson makes conclusions that (if correct) demolish the theoretical foundation of the parallel universe theory. If Hobson is right, quantum mechanics does not support any theory of parallel universes.

Schrodinger's Cat is a famous thought experiment in which we imagine a cat in a closed box, connected to a strange machine that includes a radioactive isotope (something that decays a subatomic particle at random times). The machine is set up so that if a nucleus in the radioactive isotope decays within a particular interval, the cat dies, and if the decay does not occur, the cat lives.

This thought experiment has led some thinkers to conclude that a cat in such a box is both alive and dead. The thinkers imagine a “superposition of states” for the cat – a dead state superimposed over a live state. They then extend this idea to the conclusion that there is a “superposition of states” involving everyone and everything, extended to the utmost. Hence the theory of an infinite number of parallel universes (including not just you, but an infinite number of copies of you).

Hobson cuts this theory off at its root – the idea that Schrodinger's Cat is both alive and dead. He argues that the “superposition” is not a superposition of physical states but merely a superposition of correlations.

According to the Science Daily summary of Hobson's paper, “That means with Schrodinger's cat, the cat is no longer predicted to be both dead and alive. It is instead dead if the nucleus decays, and alive if the nucleus does not decay, just as one would expect.”

The latest paper by Hobson is blocked by a pay wall, but you can get for free a very similar paper here. Hobson concludes:

In particular,Schrodinger's cat is in a non-paradoxical mixture of being alive when the nucleus didn't decay, and dead when the nucleus decayed, with a randomness stemming from the quantum randomness of the decay. This state of affairs comes about with no assistance from a human mind, other worlds, hidden variables, the environment, collapse mechanisms, or other entities beyond the quantum system and its measuring apparatus, even in the case that both are microscopic. The analysis is exact and not "for all practical purposes."

The reference to “other worlds” is a reference to the Everett Many Worlds theory, which Hobson is suggesting is entirely unnecessary for explaining the paradox of Schrodinger's Cat (contrary to what its proponents claim).

Hobson says that his conclusions are backed up by experiments on quantum entanglement done during the 1990's, such as the experiments of Rarity and Tapster. See this paper by Hobson for more details on how those experiments back his position.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Parenthood Banned: A Science Fiction Story

Parenthood Banned: A Science Fiction Story Lucy looked at the government-issued poster on the wall. It was a reminder for her to take her birth control pills today. Below the reminder was an admonition: Remember, immortals can never reproduce.

birth control poster

Lucy was an immortal, as was everyone else in her country. She did not age, nor did any of the other immortals. The only way an immortal such as her could die would be if she fell victim to some freak accident. Ever since they replaced all the manually driven cars with self-driving cars controlled by computers, there were very few accidents.

When scientists first figured out how to end the aging process, they judged what type of changes society would need to make to support a culture in which no one aged. They quickly figured out that Lucy's country could not sustain a society in which reproduction went on as normal, and no one died of old age. If reproduction went on as normal and no one aged, the population would grow explosively, and far surpass the available resources to support it.

So the country held a national referendum. Each citizen was asked to vote on a new system of society that would guarantee everyone injections that would eliminate aging, with the requirement that all reproduction should be made illegal. The advocates of the referendum ran television commercials in which a narrator asked: which would you rather have, a youthful face forever, or a crying, messy baby?

The referendum passed with a vote of 60%. From that time on, reproduction was made illegal throughout the country. Each citizen was also given a monthly injection which prevented the person from aging.

The government took various measures to make sure the new law was followed. Free birth control pills were given to all, both male and female. The government was also working on mandatory sterilization programs, but had not yet implemented them.

One of the techniques used by the government was to require citizens to attend periodic meetings in which they were psychologically conditioned to develop an aversion to babies. Citizens were required to watch films that mixed various horrifying and disgusting sights, such as rotting corpses, rats, maggots, roaches, and snakes. Mixed within these films were images of babies. The idea was to condition people to think of babies as disgusting things they should avoid having at all costs.

On most people the conditioning worked well, but the conditioning had not been effective on Lucy. This was because when Lucy had been forced to watch the conditioning films, she had closed her eyes. Lucy was a squeamish type who just couldn't stand to look at any of the disgusting things shown in the films.

Lucy, in fact, wanted to have a baby very badly. She didn't care that having babies was prohibited by her society. But Lucy knew it would be very difficult to have a baby in a society in which all males were required to take male birth control pills.

So Lucy began making discreet inquiries to various males, trying to find someone who shared her desire to parent a child. That is what got her arrested.

One of the males to whom Lucy spoke reported her to the government. Lucy was placed in the custody of the Division of Social Conformity, Department of Special Conditioning. The scientists at that department interviewed Lucy in her confinement quarters.

“So, young lady, let's get this straight – you actually want to have a baby?” asked Dr. Allen.

“Yes,” said Lucy. “Babies are so cute and cuddly. It's natural for a woman to want one.”

“Well, we'd like you to watch some films, which will give you a better idea of what it's like to have a baby,” said Dr. Allen.

Lucy was forced to watch the conditioning films, which used all kinds of crude psychological techniques to make her feel a revulsion towards babies. The first films dealt with the horrors of childbirth, focusing on long, tortuous labors in which the mothers suffered. There were numerous clips showing mothers who died in childbirth.

Then there films showing mothers who lived with babies and suffered because of things the babies did. These films had scenes that a third-rate horror movie director would be ashamed to have included in his low-budget film. There were scenes showing babies with fangs who bit the necks of their mothers. There were scenes showing mothers who died from germs that came from baby diapers. There was a scene showing a baby who dropped rat poison into his mother's coffee. The films were synchronized with a device that produced a horrible smell whenever the baby appeared in the film, a smell like the stench of rotting flesh.

After being forced to watch several of these films, the conditioning program had ended. Dr. Allen came to Lucy and asked her to take a truth pill that would guarantee that she told her true feelings about babies.

Lucy appeared to swallow the pill, and made a gulping sound.

“Open your mouth,” demanded Dr. Allen. Lucy opened her mouth, and Dr. Allen saw nothing on her tongue.

“Let me check under your tongue,” asked Dr. Allen, and still found nothing.

A few hours later Lucy was asked by Dr. Allen about what her feelings were about having a baby.

“Why would anyone want to have a baby?” Lucy said. “Babies are disgusting, horrifying little monsters, like rats or snakes.”

Convinced the psychological conditioning had worked, Dr. Allen released Lucy from the custody of the state.

But Lucy had played a little trick on Dr. Allen. The day before she was arrested, Lucy had one of her wisdom teeth extracted, and there was a hole in her gum which had not yet healed. When asked to swallow the truth pill, Lucy had used her tongue to shove the pill into the hole in her gum, which was at the back of her mouth. Dr. Allen could not see the pill in that spot. After Dr. Allen had left, Lucy had spit out the pill. When she told Dr. Allen she hated babies, she was lying.

Free again, Lucy would be more careful in her next attempts to find a father for her baby to be. But regardless of the risks, she was still as determined as ever to have the baby that her society said she could never have.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Man of the Future Visualized

The Man of the Future Visualized Below is a depiction of what the man of the future might look like.

man of the future

The colored arrows point to particular features in the picture. Let us look at each of these features.

The blue arrow points to the future man's Cyborg Belt. This is a belt that has become merged with the future man's flesh, and connected with the future man's bodily systems. The Cyborg Belt is a permanent part of the man's body.

The Cyborg Belt serves two purposes. First, it serves as a monitor of all of the future man's bodily functions. The future man does not have to go to a doctor for a physical examination to find out how his body is doing. He need merely look down at the vital signs display on his belt. If there is any medical problem such as high blood pressure, cancer, or high cholesterol, the vital signs indicator on the Cyborg Belt will alert the man with a flash of warning messages.

The Cyborg Belt also stores a powerful computer that is linked to the man's brain by means of the red retractable wire and the band on the man's head.

The yellow arrow points to the Cyborg Band on the future man's head. This band is a permanent feature of the future man's head. The Cyborg Band allows the future man's brain to directly interface with the computer stored in the man's Cyborg Belt. This enhances the man's brain in many ways. For example, the man can do a Google search simply by thinking of a search phrase.

The red circle on the Cyborg Band is a video camera. Everything that the future man sees is recorded by the camera, and stored on the computer in the future man's Cyborg Belt. This is very useful in many situations. For example, if there is any legal dispute about what the future man was doing at a particular time, he need merely retrieve the appropriate video footage stored in the Cyborg Belt.

The orange arrow points to the future man's Supercard. The Supercard is like an identification card, a credit card, a bank ATM card, and a passport, all rolled into one. The Supercard is embedded into the future man's flesh, so there is no chance of him losing it. It is good that the future man cannot lose his Supercard, because if he lost it, it would be impossible for him to function in the complicated society in which he lives. Since every future citizen has his Supercard embedded into his flesh above his wrist, there is no danger of one person pretending to be another.

The squiggly brown arrow points to the future man's augmented reality glasses. These glasses superimpose helpful information when the future man is looking through them. For example, if the future man is at a store and shopping for a particular item, the augmented reality glasses will show information about whatever item he is looking at. Or if the future man looks at a colleague at work, the augmented reality glasses will show the man's name and job title.

The gray arrow points to the future man's drone controller. The future man can summon his personal flying drone, put some shopping bags in his drone, and then instruct the drone to drop the bags back at the man's home. This way the man doesn't have to carry the heavy bags all the way home.

The red arrow points to the future man's Thorax Interface. This is a system of electronics connected to the man's heart and lungs. If the future man needs to do something particularly strenuous, requiring more work from his heart and lungs, he need merely plug a new electronic module into this interface, just as you might plug a unit into the USB port of your computer. The Thorax Interface has a circular door that can be opened like the door of a safe. This makes it very easy for doctors or robots to quickly perform surgery on his internal organs.

The green arrow points to the future man's Portable 3D Printer. This is occasionally very useful for creating small items that the man may need. For example, if the future man scrapes his leg while out hiking in the woods, he can use his Portable 3D Printer to print himself a bandage he can place over the scrape. Or if the man needs some small mechanical part, he can print out the part instantly, rather than going to the trouble of shopping for the part at a store.

The purple arrow points to the future man's embedded smart phone. The future man can send text messages by speaking. The paper-thin smart phone is embedded into the man's flesh, so he need not worry about forgetting to bring his phone when he goes outside. Recharging is not a worry, as the phone has a solar panel which recharges the phone whenever the man goes into the sunlight.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Earth Yanker: A Science Fiction Story

Earth Yanker: A Science Fiction Story To the shock of the world, astronomers announced one day that a Jupiter-sized planet was heading toward the solar system. It was one of the so-called rogue planets that were wandering through interstellar space. No one knew whether the planet had formed by itself outside of any solar system, or had formed in a solar system and had somehow been ejected from that solar system. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that the planet was heading into the solar system, where it might threaten Earth.

A meeting was convened at the White House, where the President of the United States met with his advisers.

“I have good news, and bad news,” said Gill Tooley, the White House science adviser. “Which do you want to hear first?”

“Give me the good news first,” said the President.

“The good news is that this rogue planet is not going to hit our planet,” said Tooley.

“That's a relief,” said the President. “So what's the bad news?”

“The bad news is that this rogue planet will pass so close to Earth that its gravitational attraction will yank our planet out of its current orbit,” said Tooley.

The President put his hands over his face. “What will the effects of that be?” he said.

“Our planet will be dragged farther away from the sun, a little closer to Mars,” said Tooley. “Earth will get much, much colder.”

“We'll stop it,” said the President. “We'll hit that damn thing with every nuke we have.”

“It won't do us any good,” said Tooley. “Nuclear weapons are a pretty good way of stopping asteroids, but they won't do any good against a Jupiter-sized planet like this one. Every if we were to blow up every nuclear bomb on Earth in front of that planet, it won't change its path by even a thousandth of one percent.”

Panic set in when word got out that the Jupiter-sized rogue planet was drawing near. People could see the object in the sky; it looked like an unusually bright star. People began calling it the Star of Doom. As the planet passed by Earth, the gravitational pull of the planet yanked Earth into a new orbit millions of miles farther from the sun. Surface temperatures on Earth dropped by many degrees. Most of the oceans froze. Gigantic glaciers started to spread over huge portions of the Earth's surface. Almost all of humanity died, except for a small hardy group that lived near the Equator.


A thousand years later Jon Orson led an epic journey of exploration to the legendary lost city of New York.

Jon had lived all his life with his primitive tribe at the equator, where it was very, very cold, but at least warm enough for survival. For years Jon had been fascinated by stories that a great city had once existed at New York. The stories had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Jon had no idea whether the legend of New York was based on truth, or whether it was just some old myth with no basis in fact. Jon decided to found out for himself. He organized a sled expedition consisting of five men. The men would travel on sleds that would be pulled by dogs.

For many weeks Jon and his men traveled northward, upward from the equator. Finally after several months Jon and his men came to something that looked like it might be a remnant of the lost city of New York. It was a strange structure consisting of six semi-circles perched on top of each other. Inside each of the semi-circles were triangle shapes.

frozen New York

“There it is!” yelled Jon. “The legend is true! There really was a great city here.”

“This is just one little structure,” said Walter, another of the men on the expedition. “This does not prove there was some big city here.”

“Let's explore this strange structure,” said Jon.

Approaching the structure, Jon saw that the triangles were actually windows. He could look through the windows, and see inside. After much struggling and fiddling, Jon was able to break open one of the triangle windows. Jon and Walter climbed into the building, and began exploring.

They soon discovered the door to a stairway leading downward. Opening the door, they saw below them only darkness. They lit a torch to guide their way, and began traveling down the stairways.

The other three men in the expedition waited on the floor where Jon had broken open the window. The building provided some shelter from the cold winds outside.

Jon and Walter were astonished to find that beneath the first floor they had entered there was another floor, and that underneath that was another floor, and that underneath that was still another floor, and so on and so on and so on. Just when they thought they would keep traveling down to the center of the earth, they finally opened a door marked “Ground Level.” After opening that door, they discovered a magnificent lobby and and a row of shops that included a book store.

After much exploring, Jon and Walter walked up 77 flights of stairs spanning 300 meters, and finally returned to the other three men and the dog sleds at the top of the Chrysler Building.

“We have proven the legend of New York,” said Jon. “This was once a great building soaring up into the sky. It has been covered with ice.”

“But our tribe will never believe us if we tell our tale of finding this building,” said one of the men.

“This should convince them,” said Jon.

He was holding two books filled with hundreds of color photographs showing New York City as it existed before Earth was yanked out of its orbit.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Eras of Tomorrow: Ages of the Future

Eras of Tomorrow: Ages of the Future Historians like to divide human history up into different eras, such as the Bronze Age, the Ancient Era, the Medieval Era, the Renaissance Era, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Age. But what type of era delineations will be made by future historians? Below are some speculative answers that admittedly involve a great big dose of guesswork. We will start by looking at some current eras that may well end in the future, and then go on to look at eras that will begin in the future.

The Age of Crude Oil, 1901 to 2050

Large scale oil production began around 1901, and between the years 1900 and 1960 our civilization pretty much built itself all around this liquid that was cheap and plentiful throughout the 20th century. The problem is that there is only so much crude oil in the ground, and experts predict that the easy-to-get stuff (called crude oil) will be pretty much used up by the middle of this century. Production of other types of oil such as shale oil may continue for a much longer time.

The Age of Coal, 1750 to 2075

Coal has been a big player on the industrial scene much longer than oil, and reserves of coal are greater than the reserves of oil. But experts such as David Rutledge at Cal Tech predict that coal prediction will peak in this century and begin to sharply decline by late in the century. There are environmental reasons why we need to end the Age of Coal as soon as possible, as coal plants are some of the worst agents of global warming. So we can predict the end of the Age of Coal by 2075, and hope that it ends much earlier.

The Age of Nuclear Weapons, 1945 to 2045

The total number of nuclear weapons in the world reached a peak around 1980 with a peak of around 65,000 weapons. The number has now dropped to about 17,000 weapons. If we optimistically project that disarmament will proceed at the same rate it has followed since 1980, we can project that nuclear weapons will be all but eliminated by the time of the hundredth anniversary of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon in 1945.

The Age of Hydrogen, 2040 Onward

Although we may soon experience difficulties in our supply of crude oil, there is a replacement technology waiting in the wings: hydrogen, which can power cars through fuel cells. Cars powered through hydrogen fuel cells may be very convenient, allowing you to drive 5000 miles before going back to a service station. However, a great deal of infrastructure investment must be made before there is anything like a hydrogen car infrastructure remotely comparable to our current oil and gas infrastructure. So even though prototype hydrogen cars may soon be available, we shouldn't list the Age of Hydrogen as beginning before about 2040.

The Age of Superintelligence, 2090 Onward

By superintelligence I mean some type of intelligence significantly greater than the mind power of the smartest human. There are three ways to get to the end result of superintelligence: creating computers smarter than humans, enhancing human intelligence electronically, or somehow just breeding people who are smarter (possibly with the help of genetic engineering). Somehow I think this is going to be a much harder nut to crack than a lot of people think. Ray Kurzweil predicts superintelligent computers by the year 2045, but I think he has greatly underestimated the software difficulties of creating such a thing. I think a more realistic prediction for the creation of true superintelligence is late in this century.

The Age of Global Warming, 1980 Onward (or 1980 to About 2080)

We are already in an Age of Global Warming – but how long will it last? On this matter I will hedge my bets and predict two possibilities. The first is that global warming just continues indefinitely through this century. The second is that sometime later in the century man finds some way to stop or reverse global warming, through the use of geoengineering techniques.

The Age of China, 2020 Onward

The economy of China is growing so rapidly that by the year 2020 the total gross domestic product of China will probably surpass that of the United States. The USA is hampered by ever growing amounts of debt, with a debt per capita of 52,000 dollars. China by comparison has a debt per capita of only 396 dollars. I can therefore predict a future Age of China marked by an economic domination of the superpower to the East.

The Interplanetary Age, 2040 Onward

By the Interplanetary Age I mean an age in which humans are traveling frequently between different planets in the solar system, mainly Earth and Mars. It seems for the past 40 years forecasters have predicted that we are about 15 years away from sending humans to Mars. Not wishing to commit the same “we'll send people to Mars in 15 years” error of past forecasters, I predict that there won't be much traffic between Mars and Earth for another four decades, and that the Interplanetary Age won't begin until roughly the middle of the century.

Credit: NASA
The Age of Leisure, 2045 Onward

An Age of Leisure is way overdue. It was predicted way back in 1930 by the leading economist John Maynard Keynes, who wrote: "Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Eventually advances in automation and robotics seem likely to produce an Age of Leisure, in which the average person has to work much less than 40 hours a week, and may work no longer than 20 hours a week. Rather than regarding this as a curse, we should regard it as a blessing, as it will give people more time to pursue things such as art, reading, education, self-fulfillment and spiritual pursuits.

Credit: NASA

The Age of Homo Sapiens, 300,000 BC to 2300 AD

By predicting that the Age of Homo Sapiens will only last until about 2300 AD, I am not predicting the extinction of the human species by 2300. I am merely predicting that by that date some intelligence will exist on our planet that surpasses our current species, and dominates it. That intelligence may be robots smarter than we are, or it may be a new, improved version of the human species, made possible through things such as genetic engineering or a blending of men and machines.

The Interstellar Age, 2400 Onward

By the Interstellar Age I mean an age in which humans are traveling frequently between different stars. Traveling from one star to another is more than a thousand times more difficult than traveling between planets in our solar system. Some space enthusiasts like to think about launching spaceships as early as the next century, but I think they are underestimating the fantastic difficulties of launching a manned interstellar mission. A more reasonable date for the beginning of the Interstellar Age is 2400 or 2500. Of course, there is always the chance that we might be visited by creatures from another planet before that time, and if that happens an Interstellar Age might suddenly be thrust upon us.

The Age of Stars, 12 Billion BC to 100,000,000,000,000 AD

We are still in the Age of Stars, which means a phase of the universe's history in which stars are abundant. This age has lasted for about 12 billion years, and is expected to last for another 100 trillion years, about 20,000 times longer than the remaining lifespan of our sun.

Credit: NASA

The Age of Black Holes, 100,000,000,000,000 AD Onward

By about 100,000,000,000,000 AD the Age of Stars will gradually change over to an Age of Black Holes. More and more matter in the universe will be gobbled up by black holes, with most of the universe's matter existing in these mysterious sinkholes from which nothing can escape.

It will be the ultimate triumph of entropy. Looking from a perspective of the history of the universe, we can put it this way: the Second Law of Themodynamics always laughs last.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Impatient Gold Digger: A Science Fiction Story

The Impatient Gold Digger: A Science Fiction Story When beautiful young Wanda Wilkins, age 24, married the billionaire Barry Sampson, age 105, Wanda thought she had secured for herself riches beyond her wildest dreams. Barry was known to be in poor health, and few expected him to live more than another year or two. Wanda told herself: I hate this old goat, but if I just play along for a few years, I'll end up inheriting most of his money.

One day Wanda accompanied Barry to the doctor's office to hear the results of his latest medical tests. The doctor's face was grim.

“You've had a great long run, Barry,” said the doctor, “but it looks like your time is finally running out. You have advanced cancer of the liver, kidneys, and stomach.”

“My, that's so tragic,” said Wanda, play acting to the best of her abilities. “How long does my husband have to live?”

“About four months,” said the doctor.

Wanda took out her handkerchief, and did her best to fake some tears, while she started to think about the countless millions she would soon inherit.

“I'm going to fight this,” said Barry.

“That's fine, darling,” said Wanda. “Do your best.”

A few weeks later Wanda found out that when Barry said he was going to fight death, he wasn't kidding. Barry brought Wanda to meet some doctors he had hired at a local clinic that specialized in radical approaches to life extension.

“Barry, you said you wanted us to pull out all the stops to save your life,” said Dr. Carlin, “and that's what we're going to do. We're going to try something that no one has ever done before. In a few months, your brain will be removed from your body, and immediately hooked up to a special machine that will keep it alive outside of your body. Using electrodes, we will hook up your brain to a special computer interface that will be able to understand your thoughts. Everything in your body other than your brain will be thrown away, but your brain will live on, perhaps for many decades of additional life. This is the most ambitious life extension project ever attempted.”

“That sounds great,” said Barry.

“My God, that's the most bizarre scheme I've ever heard of,” said Wanda, hardly able to hide her horror at the idea. “Are you saying my husband's brain will live on, even though the rest of his body is dead?”

“Exactly,” said Dr. Carlin.

Wanda tried to persuade her husband not to try the strange plan, but Barry could not be convinced. He went for several weeks to the clinic, where they put a skull cap on his head, and trained the computer in be able to interpret his thoughts.

Finally the day of the operation came. Wanda couldn't stand to watch the procedure. She was told to come in to the clinic to see the results of the operation.

Wanda was guided to a lab where she saw a glass container filled with fluid and a brain. The brain was connected to wires, which led to a computer. The computer had a camera, a microphone, and a monitor.

Wanda was disgusted by the sight. On the computer monitor, she saw some words. The words read:


Wanda looked at the monitor and the computer, not knowing what to think.

“Barry, can you hear me?” she asked.

The computer monitor now displayed a new message:


“I know it seems hard to believe,” said Dr. Carlin. “But your husband is still alive. Even though the rest of his body is gone, we have preserved his brain. So his consciousness lives on. He can in a sense see with the camera we have provided, which is connected to the computer that is connected to his brain. And he can in a sense hear with the microphone we have provided, which is connected to the computer that is connected to his brain. And he can in a sense speak with the monitor we have provided, which is connected to the computer that is connected to his brain.”

“How long can he survive like this?” asked Wanda.

“Oh, the good news is that he can keep living like this indefinitely,” said Dr. Carlin enthusiastically. “Perhaps for another 50 years.”

“Fifty years?” said Wanda. “Fifty freaking years?”

Wanda was thoroughly revolted, and stormed out of the life extension clinic. After using every curse word in the book, she finally came up with a plan to get her husband's money.

frustrated woman

Her plan was simple: she filed a legal suit, petitioning the court to declare her husband legally dead.

The legal hearing was a contentious one. Dr. Carlin argued that Barry was very much still alive, on the grounds that he could still respond to stimuli such as the sound of a voice.

But the decisive point in the hearing came when Wanda's lawyers asked about the software that was used to communicate between Barry's brain and the computer connected to it. Dr. Carlin admitted that the software used artificial intelligence software to “flesh out” the electrical impulses coming from Barry's brain. Wanda's lawyers argued that this artificial intelligence software was basically a kind of artificial chatbot that was making up the answers itself after getting some vague electrical signals that could be interpreted in different ways.

“So when that computer says, HELLO, I'M BARRY, I SEE YOU,” asked Wanda's lawyer, “it may really be the computer software that's talking more than Barry himself, correct?”

“Well, maybe,” said Dr. Carlin, an answer that made Wanda smile.

“And when the computer monitor next to Barry's brain gives a message saying it recognizes you,” asked Wanda's lawyers, “that may be facial recognition software in your computer rather than Barry actually recognizing someone, correct?”

“Perhaps,” said Dr. Carlin.

Finally the judge issued a ruling. He ruled that Barry Sampson should be considered to have legally died at the moment that his brain was separated from his body. The judge ruled that appearances of personality from the brain-computer hookup were mainly artifacts of computer software rather than artifacts of consciousness in Barry's brain.

Armed with the judge's ruling, Wanda walked into the life extension clinic, and approached Barry's brain on the shelf. The computer monitor connected to the brain flashed a message:


“Shut up, hubby,” said Wanda. “You're legally dead.”

Wanda disconnected the wires from Barry's brain, and placed the brain in a jar of formaldehyde. To this day that jar with Barry's brain sits on the book shelf of a professor of biological ethics at Columbia University.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The 9 Greatest Mysteries of the Universe

Even though some scientists continue to work on what they call “theories of everything,” our universe is a very mysterious place, filled with perplexing riddles. Below is a discussion of some of the biggest cosmic mysteries.

The Big Bang

The Big Bang is the mysterious origin of the universe about 13 billion years ago from a state of inconceivably great density, called a singularity by physicists. Scientists have no explanation for this event, and it is virtually certain that they never will have an explanation. One reason why is that even though scientists can look back in time by looking farther out in space, no matter how big a telescope we ever build we cannot look farther back in time than a time about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. That is the time when the cosmic background radiation was generated. The cosmic background radiation forbids us from ever being able to see anything that happened during the first 100,000 years of the universe's history. The Big Bang is therefore a mystery locked behind a door that we never can open. This is one mystery that will not be solved in your lifetime.

Dark Energy and the Cosmological Constant

Possibly the second biggest mystery is the mystery of the cosmological constant and dark energy. The cosmological constant is an energy density associated with empty space. Based on the latest Planck results, scientists says that this mysterious dark energy is 68% of the total mass energy of the universe.

Quantum mechanics provides reasons why a vacuum should actually have an energy density, reasons relating to the spontaneous appearance of short-lived virtual particles. The mystery is not there is dark energy, but that the observed amount of dark energy in the universe is more than a million billion trillion quadrillion quintillion sextillion septillion times smaller than the amount of dark energy predicted by quantum field theory, which predicts a vacuum energy density about 10120 times larger than the dark energy we observe. This problem is sometimes called the vacuum catastrophe

What makes this mystery particularly compelling is that if the dark energy or cosmological constant was even a trillionth as much as that predicted by quantum field theory, life couldn't have evolved in our universe. So you could call this a “we shouldn't be here, but somehow are” mystery.

Dark Matter

Another mystery is the enigma of dark matter. 63% of the matter in the universe is believed to be some form of matter that has not yet been discovered. Scientists says this type of matter cannot be seen with our telescopes, and neither emits nor absorbs light. Nobody has ever observed the smallest speck of this type of matter for even the smallest fraction of a second.

Matter/Antimatter Asymmetry

For each type of stable particle, scientists say there is an antiparticle. Matter that is made up of antiparticles is called antimatter. When matter and antimatter is combined, all the matter and antimatter is converted to energy (one reason why antimatter is incredibly dangerous stuff). Scientists imagine that the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter, but now we live in a universe with abundant matter, and no observable antimatter. What happened to all the antimatter?

This problem, discussed here, is still unsolved. Some physicists have taken some stabs at explanations, but no explanation has been been generally accepted. This problem is another “we shouldn't be here, but somehow are” mystery. If the universe had equal amounts of matter and antimatter at the time of the Big Bang, they presumably would have combined, leaving nothing but energy in the universe.

Charge Quantization

I discussed this mystery earlier on this blog in my entry Four Insanely Eerie Things About the Electron. The mystery is why it is that protons have exactly the same electric charge as electrons. Each proton is 1836 times more massive than each electron, so it is surprising that each proton has the same charge as each electron, and even more surprising that the proton charge matches the electron charge to nineteen decimal places as mentioned here (a coincidence on which our existence depends).

One might guess that there is just some fundamental reason why subatomic electric charges come in only one amount of 1.60217657 ×10−19 coulomb. But the standard model of physics says that protons are made of three quarks, and that each quark has a smaller electric charge, a charge of exactly one third of 1.60217657 ×10−19 coulomb. So the mystery of charge quantization could be stated in a different way: why does the charge of a quark happen coincidentally to be exactly one third of the charge of an electron, with the match being equal to 19 decimal places? Electrons are not made of quarks, so this is very strange indeed.

The Mystery of Existence

The mystery of existence is simply the mystery of why anything exists at all. In other words, why is there something rather than nothing? The simplest possible state of existence is eternal absolute nonexistence: a state in which nothing exists (no God, no universe, nothing). So why did not this elegantly simple state of existence (the state of absolute nothingness) prevail, rather than our messy, complicated universe? You can't answer the question by imagining (in a quantum mechanical way) that a vacuum is unstable, because an unstable quantum mechanical vacuum is something, rather than nothing, and the question is why something exists rather than nothing.

I have no answer to this age-old question, but I have the suspicion that if you knew the answer to why there is something rather than nothing, then you would have some Rosetta Stone that would give you the answer to a host of other mysteries.

Cosmic Fine Tuning

The term fine-tuning is widely used for cases in which some number in nature has some wildly improbable but favorable value. Nowadays the phrase is actually rather neutral, meaning some natural coincidence that may or may not be due to blind chance. We have numerous and dramatic cases of fine-tuning in the universe, which have been commented on and debated during the past few decades by scientists and non-scientists. A fairly complete description may be found here.

A specific example may be found in this scientific paper, where the authors conclude, “Even with a change of 0.4% in the strength of N-N force, carbon-based life appears to be impossible, since all the stars then would produce either almost solely carbon or oxygen, but could not produce both elements.” More dramatically, here a scientist mentions fine tuning of the cosmological constant to one part in 10120, fine-tuning of the fine-structure constant to one part in 105, fine tuning of the Higgs Boson to 1 part in 1017 (known as “the hierarchy problem”), fine-tuning of cosmic inflation to one part in 1011, and fine tuning “implied by entropy” to as much as 1 part in 1010 multiplied by itself 123 times “according to Penrose” (which is a number so extreme it can't be depicted in the typographical system of this blog).

Chance or design? You be the judge. 

The Origin of Life

The origin of life is the mystery of how life got started billions of years ago on our planet. One of the reasons why the problem is so hard to solve is that all life on Earth is based on DNA, and DNA is a very complicated molecule. We can't simply think that one day there was nothing but a bunch of warm chemicals in a pond, and the next day there arose the first DNA molecules. Presumably there were some intermediate steps or phases that allowed a transition between mere chemicals and DNA molecules, but scientists do not have a clear understanding of what those steps were.

The Origin of Consciousness

The origin of consciousness is the problem of how it is that consciousness could have originated long ago from mere protoplasm. To a person who is a reductionist, and who believes that all human consciousness is merely a chemical and electrical by-product of the brain, this problem may not seem like much of a mystery. But the origin of consciousness has seemed like quite a mystery to those who have considered how different Mind is from Matter. To some, the idea of mind arising from mere matter seems as hard to explain as the inverse (the idea of matter arising from mere mind, as might happen if you thought into existence an apple).

Here is another way to consider the mystery of the origin of consciousness. Let us define a philosophical zombie (for lack of a better term) as a person who acts like a human but has no real inner consciousness or self or private thoughts or inner emotions. We can imagine a race of such beings existing on our planet rather than human beings. Biologically, such a race seems every bit as plausible to exist as the human race (or even more so, since less is required from the brain). So why doesn't such a race exist rather than our race?

Bonus Mystery: The Rectangular Galaxy

The galaxy of LEDA 074886 is not one of the top mysteries of the universe, but I will mention it merely because it makes a nice visual. The mysterious thing about it is its shape: an eerie rectangular shape. How did that happen?

 Credit: AWM Graham

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Only Day It Ever Rained: A Science Fiction Story

The Only Day It Ever Rained: A Science Fiction Story Anlo was a young man who had never seen a cloud, and had never seen it rain. Anlo had never swam, and had never taken a bath.

Anlo lived with his mother on a very arid planet far from Earth. The planet had just barely enough water to support a small population of plants and animals. On the planet there were only a few thousand of Anlo's primitive race.

Because there was very little water in the atmosphere of the planet, it was almost impossible for clouds to form, and Anlo had never seen a cloud. He had heard stories about how long ago some clouds had formed in the sky, but Anlo did not know whether such stories were fact or fantasy.

Anlo and his mother busied themselves each day with the chore of finding water. They had to walk through the desert, looking for plants that stored a little water. When they found such a plant, they would beat it with stones, to force out the precious water stored within the plant. Once in a while, they would get lucky and find a small amount of water underground, usually in some mud that could be laboriously strained to get water.

In Anlo's small tribe, the custom was that a man could only take a bath twice in his life: on his wedding night, and on the day of his funeral. Water was too precious to use for bathing any other times.

One day a visitor came to Anlo and his mother's cave home, and told Anlo a fantastic story, of an area miles away where little hills were shooting water into the sky. The story was true. The hills were geysers. Under the ground near these geysers was an underground river. Geological activity was heating the underground river, causing steam to be shot up into the air.

Anlo was excited by the visitor's story, and he decided to set out himself to find this astonishing area. Anlo's mother tried to persuade him not to go, but Anlo would not change his mind. Anlo took a supply of water, and set out to the East.

For four long weeks Anlo's mother was worried that he had died on the trip. But finally Anlo came back to the family cave.

“What did you find, son?” asked Mom. “Did you find anything like the story told by our visitor?”

“Mom, you will not believe the story I have to tell!” enthused Anlo. “You will think I am making it up, but every word is true.”

“Tell me all about it,” said Mom.

“I walked many miles to the East,” said Anlo. “After two weeks I found a land with the strangest thing I had ever seen. There were many small hills, and steam was rising out of some of these hills “

“Hills that shoot out steam?” Mom said. “Impossible!”

“Mom, I swear it is true,” said Anlo. “But then I saw something still more amazing. You will not believe me, Mom. But I actually saw...clouds.”

“Clouds?” said Mom. “Oh, come on, Anlo. Clouds are an old wife's tale, a superstitious idea like monsters or demons or fairies. I know that some people claimed to have seen clouds long ago, but that's just an old legend.”

“I swear upon our gods that I really did see clouds,” said Anlo. “I have never seen anything that filled me with such awe and wonder. They were so beautiful to look at, like giant white puffs of fabric floating in the sky.”

“For two days, I just sat around looking up at the glorious spectacle of the clouds in the sky,” said Anlo. “Then the clouds started to grow darker in color. I didn't know what was going to happen. And then the most amazing thing ever happened.”

“Still another wonder?” asked Mom.

“The greatest wonder of all,” said Anlo. “The greatest wonder imaginable. Water started to fall from the sky!”

rain joy

“Water fell from the sky?” said Mom. “Perhaps you have lost your mind to see such a thing. Maybe you sat in the sun too long.”

“No, Mom, it happened just as I said,” said Anlo. “The water actually fell from the sky. At first the water came down slowly. Then more and more water started to fall from the sky. I could open my mouth, and my thirst was satisfied. My clothes got all wet.”

“Praise the gods, it is a miracle,” exclaimed Mom. “Let us hope the gods bless us with this miracle again and again.” She could not use the word rain, because her language had no word for it.

But the rare event did not occur again during Anlo's lifetime. The freak appearance of clouds and rain on the bone dry planet had been caused by a rare geological disturbance near an underground river. The clouds and rain only appeared over a few miles, and no one but Anlo witnessed them.

Time and time again throughout the rest of his life, Anlo would tell the fantastic story of the clouds he had seen and the rain he had felt on his skin and his tongue. Most of those who he told the tale to did not believe he was telling the truth. But some did believe, and they revered Anlo as the one and only Man Who Saw Water Fall From the Sky.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

An Elysium Future?

An Elysium Future?
This week I saw the new science fiction film Elysium starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. I thought the movie was fairly plausible and realistic, with the exception of one laughable scene in which a computer expert looks at a few screens of hexadecimal code for a few seconds, and then deduces the extremely complicated task the program was designed for. (This scene is utterly unrealistic because no programmers can read hexadecimal, and even if the program had been written in a more high level language, it takes programmers hours or days to figure out what any complicated program is doing just by reading programming code.)

Credit: Sony Pictures

The movie is set in the year 2154, and depicts a vast gulf between the poor and the rich. The poor are living on an overcrowded, run-down, over-polluted Earth. The rich are living in a huge luxurious rotating space station orbiting Earth. The space station rotates to produce artificial gravity, and those on the space station have an almost suburban lifestyle, with lovely houses and lawns, in addition to medical devices which can cure any health problem. But those left on Earth live in conditions like the filthy shanty towns of third world nations.

There is actually a plausible Malthusian case to be made that the future may resemble the future shown in this movie, although the movie does nothing to explain what caused the world to reach the state the movie depicts. Let us look at some of the factors that might end up producing a world rather like the world depicted in Elysium, not in the next century but in this century. When I refer to a world like the world in Elysium, I don't specifically mean a world in which the rich are living in outer space. I mean instead a world in which the many live in squalid, run-down, overpopulated conditions, and the lucky few live in wonderful high-tech splendor, isolated from the unlucky rabble. The isolation is more likely to occur by the rich fleeing to gated communities, fenced mansions, or high-rise buildings.

Here are factors that may lead to a future like the movie Elysium.

Peak Oil and Peak Coal

Our civilization is centered around cheap oil, but in the future oil may be very expensive, and the global demand for oil may soon far exceed the amount of oil we are producing. In the United States, the production of oil peaked in the early 1970's, and oil production has also peaked in many other countries. Oil is a nonrenewable resource, and we probably only have decades left of crude, easy to get oil. Although there is significant disagreement among experts, many predict that before long the global production of oil will peak, and then begin declining at a rate such as 2 percent per year. This will be at the same time that the world's demand for oil will be growing, as more and more people in countries such as China and India start to drive.

The situation regarding coal is a little brighter, as coal production is expected to increase for a few decades. But many experts predict that coal production will peak around 2040 or 2050, and then begin to sharply decline, because of the depletion of limited fossil fuel resources. This is exactly what happened locally in Pennsylvania, which was once a center of coal mining, until it mined itself out. If coal production plunges, it will be good for the environment, but a potential disaster for civilization. Imagine a time around 2040 when more and more internet-loving people are using ever more electricity, to power their digital devices and to cool their homes (increasingly necessary because of global warming). Then imagine coal production starts plunging because of resource limits. After a few decades of dwindling electricity, the result would be grim. Solar power and wind power will help to bridge the gap, but many are worried that there will still be a huge energy crisis in this century that degrades our civilization.

Overpopulation and Overconsumption

The world population is growing at a rate of about 74 million per year, and experts predict that the population will grow to about 9 billion by the year 2050. Perhaps more worrying than the growth in population is the growth of consumption, with increasing numbers in countries such as India and China
adopting Western lifestyles that include driving, heavy use of electronic gadgets, or heavy meat eating. Increasing levels of consumption and population are straining the Earth's resources and causing environmental harm. For an example, we only need look at the air pollution levels in China.

Global Warming and Soil Depletion

Global warming was not an element in the movie Elysium, but it is easy to imagine global warming playing a part in the sad birth of a planetary landscape like the one depicted in the movie. Global warming may shorten the growing season and may lead to increased droughts in prime agricultural areas. Another severe problem is soil depletion, a process by which soil gradually loses nutrients that it took centuries to acquire. The combination of global warming and soil depletion may mean that we are not able to meet the food demands of the future, possibly resulting in widespread famine.

Water Shortages

Another problem that may lead to a future like that of the movie Elysium is future shortages of fresh water, as described here. For example, the movie is set in Los Angeles, and the California Department of Resources says that if more water supplies aren't found by 2020, the region will face a shortfall nearly as great as the amount consumed today. The Wikipedia article on water scarcity says, "The water tables are falling in scores of countries (including Northern China, the US, and India) due to widespread overpumping using powerful diesel and electric pumps... This will eventually lead to water scarcity and cutbacks in grain harvest.”

Growing Economic Inequality

Another trend that may lead to a future like that of the movie Elysium is the accelerating trend towards wealth inequality , meaning the excessive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The graphic below illustrates very vividly the ridiculous excesses of wealth inequality in the United States. As wealth inequality has grown steadily worse over the past twenty years, we have every reason to suspect things will get worse in the future.

Credit: Stephen Ewen

Dystopia or Utopia?

So are we likely to see an earthly dystopia like that depicted in the movie Elysium? I can merely give the same answer given by last year's World Economic Forum's annual report on future risks. The report said that we are now planting the “seeds of dystopia.” If we continue with business as usual, we may well see a grim future like that depicted in the movie, a future of the fortunate few and the miserable many.

We probably won't see the super-rich fleeing to luxurious space stations, as in the movie. But we can expect to see more and more gated communities in which the rich flee to try to live in their own little worlds of comfort, from which the suffering masses are excluded.

One of the ways we can help prevent such a future is by introducing hefty luxury taxes on very expensive items, which will discourage excessive extravagant consumption, and help encourage a more equitable distribution of wealth. Every time a millionaire buys a mansion or a yacht or a jet or a diamond necklace, he or she should be paying a large luxury tax.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

War of the Future: A Science Fiction Story

War of the Future The greatest triumph in the history of the United Nations was the Convention Against Military Bloodshed of the year 2041. The international agreement banned the use of any military technology designed to shed human blood, from the year 2045 onward. The treaty was signed by the United States of America, China, the Russian Federation, the European Union, and every other member of the United Nations.

Following the treaty, the nations of the world reorganized their weapon systems. It was now an international crime to shed any human blood in warfare. But warfare was not prohibited, as long as it involved only robots.

The nations of the world converted their armies and navies to purely robotic armed forces. This conversion put countless billions in the pockets of weapons builders, who were some of the main lobbyists for the new treaty. The nations of the world scrapped their nuclear weapons systems.

Many argued that the Convention Against Military Bloodshed would mean that no major war would ever be fought again. But they were wrong. In the year 2051 the Euro-American War erupted between the forces of the European Union and the forces of the United States of America.

The main cause of the war was the decision of the United States of America to default on its 30 trillion dollar debt. This decision enraged the European Union and its citizens, which owned 7 trillion dollars in US debt that suddenly became worthless.

The President of the European Union demanded the United States reverse its decision to default on its debt. The President of the United States refused. A few hours later the European Union officially declared war on the United States.

The first action of the war took place in outer space. Satellites of the European Union attacked satellites of the United States, and vice versa. Before long, some of the important spy satellites of the United States were destroyed.

For the next two months there was no significant action in the war, except for computer warfare fought between the United States and the European Union. Both sides launched hackers and viruses against each other, disabling many important websites and computer systems. Millions in the US and Europe had their computers wiped out because of computer viruses.

Then the United States launched an invasion fleet across the Atlantic Ocean. The plan was to land a large force of robots on the coast of France. The issue was decided in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Both the United States and the European Union had built purely robotic aircraft carriers, missile frigates, and landing ships. The ships could therefore fight it out in the ocean without any risk of violating the Convention Against Human Bloodshed. The action raged for two day days. Many hundreds of drone bombers were launched from automated aircraft carriers, attacking ships from the other side.

By the time the smoke cleared, the United States invasion fleet had been sunk by the fleet of the European Union. All combat took place between entirely robotized vessels.

Several months later the European Union launched its own invasion fleet across the Atlantic Ocean. The two opposing fleets met a few hundred miles off of Newfoundland. Badly damaged and weakened in numbers by the previous naval engagement, the US robotic fleet was decisively crushed by the European Union robotic fleet. Many ships were sunk, but no human drowned.

The landing crafts of the invasion fleet of the European Union landed on the coasts of North Carolina and South Carolina. Some 25,000 robots were deposited on the shores of the United States. All humans were evacuated from the landing sites. It was time for the United States forces to make a last ditch attempt to stop the invasion.

The action on the shores of North Carolina and South Carolina consisted purely of robots fighting robots. When the fighting ended, some 15,000 state-of-the-art robots of the United States had been destroyed. The beaches were littered with countless wrecked and scorched robots that children would be playing on for decades to come.

At the White House the US President and his advisers discussed what to do next.

“Perhaps we can use human soldiers to join in the fight,” said the Secretary of Defense. “We have more than 100 million people who can fight.”

“You mean turn this into a war in which people are actually dying?” said the President. “Unthinkable. We would be violating the Convention Against Military Bloodshed, and would be international outlaws.”

The United States caved in. It revoked its decision to default on its debt. The bond holders in the European Union were overjoyed. The war was ended. As part of the peace treaty, the horde of robots landed by the European Union were left in North Carolina and South Carolina, as an insurance policy against future default actions by the United States.

At the signing of the peace treaty, the President of the US spoke briefly with the President of the European Union.

“It was a lovely little war,” said the President of the European Union. “Best of all, not a single person died.”

The US President didn't think the war was so lovely, as he was told it would cost 500 billion dollars to replace all the military equipment the country had lost.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Future Risks: My Take on the WEF Report

The World Economic Forum has been releasing annual reports on global risks. Their latest report, which makes some fascinating reading, can be found here. As the report is quite long, let me reproduce some key graphs from the report, which should make its findings easy to digest.

The report analyzes five types of future risks: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and technological. Here is their graph showing economic risks (click to expand):

The graph shows more likely events on the right, and events with bigger impact on the top. The graph only projects out to 10 years.

This graph seems pretty reasonable. Economic inequality (meaning the concentration of too much money in the hands of too few people) is correctly listed as one of the biggest risks. Fiscal imbalances (meaning that governments such as the USA have borrowed way too much money and are running deficits too high) is also correctly listed as one of the biggest risks. If we were to make a graph like this showing economic risks for the next fifty years, it would have to show a risk not listed on the above graph: the risk of widespread unemployment caused by automation and use of robots.

Here is the report's graph showing environmental risks (click to expand):

Upon seeing this you may complain that some serious environmental risks are not mentioned here, but it seems that to avoid having the graph too crowded, the authors split up the environmental risks and put some of them on their list of societal risks. Here is that graph (click to expand):

These two graphs cover most of the bases in terms of environmental risk, and correctly list water supply crises and food supply crises as two of the biggest risks. I don't know why the graph rates “rising religious fanaticism” as being more of a threat than “vulnerability to pandemics,” which doesn't seem to make any sense. The chance that you will be killed by some new pandemic (which might in a worst case kill hundreds of millions) is vastly greater than your chance of being killed by an angry religious fanatic; and I'm not sure there's any evidence the number of religious fanatics is increasing.

Here is the report's graph on geopolitical risks (click to expand):

There is one inexplicable omission from this graph and the other graphs: there is no mention of the risk of nuclear war. The graph merely mentions the risk of “diffusion of weapons of mass destruction,” which presumably means more countries acquiring nuclear weapons. The fact is that the world still has many thousands of nuclear weapons, and even if there is no further proliferation of nuclear weapons, we face a very serious risk that these weapons will one day be used. Every single year that thousands of nuclear weapons exist, there is a substantial chance that they will be used, due to accident, miscalculation, or an isolated case of insanity or rage by a local commander such as a missile sub captain.

Here is the report's graph on technological risks (click to expand):

This is the one graph in the series that I find to be something of a misfire. I don't know what they mean by “unforseen consequences of climate change mitigation”--is it a references to hazards of geoengineering? The inclusion here of “failure of intellectual property regime” as a major risk seems inappropriate, as does proliferation of orbital debris (a risk to astronauts, but not the average man).

A suitable graph showing technological risks over the next fifty years would list as major threats the following items (among others):

  1. The risk of runaway nanotechnology reproducing out of control
  2. The risk of the genetic engineering of lethal diseases
  3. The danger of automation causing a large increase in unemployment
  4. The risk that an electromagnetic pulse weapon will destroy our electronic infrastructure

Here is the report's graph listing the Top 5 Risks by Likelihood and Impact (click to expand):

My only objection to this summary graph is, again, that it inexplicably ignores the risk with greatest impact: the risk of nuclear war. A conservative estimate of the risk of a nuclear war is 1 percent per year. The United States has approximately 2150 active nuclear weapons (7700 in all), and Russia has 1800 (8500 in all). Every year those weapons continue to exist, there is a chance of nuclear war, through things such as a software error, a mechanical error (as in Fail Safe), a deliberate launch of weapons by a sub or missile base commander afflicted by insanity or rage (as in Dr. Strangelove),  or one side misidentifying something as a nuclear attack (such as happened in 1995, described here). Nuclear war should have been listed as the threat with greatest impact.