Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Interplanetary mining

 There is plenty of room on the earth but humanity is now too demanding of resources and environment to sustain its expansion mode. 

Artificial intelligence and robotics have grown up very rapidly  and this kind of technology is enormously useful in space exploration but like most modern technology it requires minerals and metals. A recent article in The Week (22 June, 2019, p.13)

Rare Earths: China's Secret Weapon? highlights the potential geopolitical ramifications of the shortage of the 15 lanthanoid elements (La, Ce, Pr, Nd, Pm, Sm, Eu, Gd, Tb, Dy, Ho, Er, Yb and Lu) together with scandium and yttrium, known collectively as the 'rare earths'. 

They are geographically widely dispersed as well as difficult and energy intensive to extract, a process which causes waste disposal and pollution problems and a very low quality of life for those forced to work in the mines as well as those living nearby.
There is an increasing shortage of minerals and metals needed in technology, especially in China, an inevitable consequence of

  • A rapidly growing world population. Every hour there are some 9000 more people alive on the planet, all consuming resources and generating waste at a growing rate

  • A rapidly growing per capita demand for technology (GDP growth 5.9% p.a. means more money spent on goods and services which draw upon the Earth's  resources)

TThis investor report states that ‘dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium are critical and face a looming shortage. These rare earth elements and their associated compounds are used in solar panels, fluorescent bulbs, electric car batteries, wind turbines and semiconductors. Platinum (Pt) and related metals are also in short supply and more expensive than gold.  Most of the world supply of Pt is used in catalytic converters and fine jewellery.

Yttrium (Yt) , europium(Eu) and  terbium (Tb) are used as phosphors in smart phone and TV screens. Lanthanum (La) is used in the batteries of hybrid cars (10 kg per battery). Rare earth elements are widely used in green technology, headlights, catalytic converters, oil refineries, lasers, camera lenses, X-ray machines, MRI scanners, nuclear reactors.  Electric motors in hard disk drives, power tools and electric cars rely on powerful magnets using neodymium (Nd) and praseodymium (Pr) alloys.

Iridium (Ir) is distributed thinly over the planet and expensive to mine, yet is in demand for its uniquely high resistance to oxidation, and as a hardening agent in alloys when combined with Pt and osmium (Os). Pt-Ir alloys are also in sparking plugs and Pt-Os alloys are used to tip fountain pen nibs, in pivot bearings such as those found in compasses, and in surgical tools.

In the past the supply of these materials has been more than enough. This would not have been the case if the Earth did not have such a variety of minerals: 4,500 vs 60 for the average rocky planet (data I came across in 2012) brought to near the surface and within reach of civilisation by plate tectonics (again, of a kind unique to the Earth).

Providentially, all these substances are available in abundance in asteroids, which are now within reach of humankind at just the right time in history that they are needed and when we are close to developing the know-how to reach them. (The Christian in me says 'Praise the Lord' and I hope God-deniers or ignorers will forgive this lapse of secular etiquette!). In fact we already rely mostly on past impacts from space for our supply of Pt. Even gold is heavily reliant on an asteroid which fell to Earth where the mines of Johannesburg are located today. Some asteroids comprise stainless steel, so pure that it requires no refining. Again, at least one extraterrestrial source has been used on Earth: the Inuits in NorthAmerica made tools and knives out of unrefined metals from meteorites. And Sudbury, Ohio is a mining town exploiting nickel, copper and other metals derived from an ancient impact.

So now is the time to start proactively seeking out this abundant resource rather than wait for the biosphere to be strained beyond its limit. A company has already been formed with just this objective: Planetary Resources Inc., The current website states there are 16,000 asteroids rich in resources, 2 trillion tonnes of water for life support and fuel, and that space exploration costs in the long term could be reduced by 95%.

It was set up by James Cameron (adventurer and film director) and Larry Page (co-founder of Google with Sergery Brin), who were able to put serious money into it – billions of dollars. It is being done as a money making venture, its viability deriving largely from the high and increasing price of platinum.  

Requoting from its website as of 2012: Some near-Earth asteroids contain platinum group metals in much higher concentrations than the richest Earth mines. In space, a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum).’ It is not just the very expensive materials that are being targeted. Quoting again from Planetary Resources: ‘Asteroids also contain more common metallic elements such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, sometimes in incredible quantities. In addition to water, other volatiles, such as nitrogen, CO, CO2, and methane, exist in quantities sufficient to warrant extraction and utilization.’

They are intending to park asteroids in orbit around either the Moon or the Earth. If the former they would choose ones having a large amount of ice since this could be used to support a lunar colony with water or the electrolysed components of water – hydrogen for fuel, oxygen for breathing. This would be a kind of contracted service for any number of manned lunar enterprises. Minerals could be sent back to Earth relatively cheaply and there are plenty of comet-like bodies having both ice and rock.  Platinum-rich bodies could be parked in Earth orbit for a good financial return.

The stainless steel asteroids, which can provide steel of higher grade than that from steelworks, could be used both on the Earth and for the building of spacecraft and space stations in orbit or at L2 Lagrange points. Iron and aluminium could also be used for construction work in space.

Not surprisingly, NASA is interested as, I suspect, are the space agencies of Europe, Russia, Japan and China.

Our planet is becoming overstretched not because of people per se but because of the resources they consume and the waste this generates. Equally important is a lack of awareness of just how precious it is and I believe that starting up major enterprises in the hostile environment of space, together with the rarity, if not the non-existence, of extraterrestrial life, will shock us into facing the reality that we and our world are special.

See also
 Destination Phobos?

There is also a technology in the UK awaiting investment which could reduce the cost of launching a payload into orbit by an order of magnitude. See
Skylon: an opportunity for a venture capitalist?


Sunday, 16 June 2019

The inherent unpredictability of events by natural means

There is no doubt that certain computer models of social and economic systems can be more useful than harmful as planning tools. On balance the best models have considerably more than an even chance of being correct  and enable us to plan housing, medical services, sewage systems, transport, long term financial investment and much else in as rational a way as practicable.

However, it also essential to recognise their limitations. They have to be quantitative in nature and many of the models are based on Game Theory, which assumes that human beings are rational machines who act only out of self interest and enlightened self interest. There is also often an assumption that past trends are a guide to future trends.

It is not just computer models that get things wrong. History proceeds through large, sudden, unpredictable changes – referred to by N.N.Talab as ‘black swan events’ in his recent book The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable . E.g. the Cambrian explosion of life forms, 540 million years ago, as shown in the fossil record; the power of the atom; the television; space travel; the Internet; the abolition of slavery in the West; the National Health Service; and the Arab Spring.

A good example of the folly of assuming that human behaviour is predictable and can be modelled on the assumption of selfishness is the Wikipedia. It requires the contributor to use non-intuitive editing software and spend a lot of time working for nothing. It also has no specialised refereeing teams yet achieves a high degree of reliability and is kept continually up to date. On top of this it is immeasurably more comprehensive than any ordinary encyclopaedia (for which, nevertheless, there is an important role, but that's another story) depending on paid referees. Anyone predicting the growth that actually happened in only a decade would have been dismissed as a naive dreamer.

The recently departed Steve Jobs was probably alone in having the vision to see that the iPhone would catch on. No focus groups, no user surveys, no trend projections. Just intuition and the resources to follow it up.

There are innumerable examples of great leaps forward in all fields of human endeavour and in the evolution of life. In fact the whole universe is like this when you examine what evidence we have of progress to date. The Big Bang was the first great leap forward. 13.8 billion years later, the creation of a human being from 4 embryonic stem cells in the biosphere was another quantum jump.

The term 'great leap forward' came from chairman Mao's atheist communist revolution in 1958 which set off a sequence of events leading, according to the latest data of which I am aware, to the death of 60 million people.

 see and others.

As Rabi Jonathan Sacks says in his highly acclaimed book and on a BBC radio programme called Start the week, the universe is creative, and creative events are by nature unpredictable.

The only aspect of reality that we can predict with certainty is that it will continue to be unpredictable.

John Sears
John Sears
2077:Knights of Peace, available on Amazon.
review copy paperback available on request

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Sunday, 2 June 2019

Intelligence without brains

 Since the original posting in 2011 the  awareness of the ubiquity of intelligence, at least in the biological world, has grown faster than I can keep pace with. Quantum physics, in particular, appears to be at the root of this intelligence, or rather the equations within it partially describe the nature of God's creation of the stage we live on.

 It is no exaggeration to say that natural world has been imbued with computational features of a complexity and power beyond human imagination or even our power to mimic- even with the latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and deep learning. These must originate from before the Big Bang within a realm where time and space do not exist.

What is encouraging for me at least is that this phenomenon and the cosmic purposefulness of human's evolution from outside of space-time is beginning to be noted by mainstream physicists and biologists. Even the emergence of our unique planet and solar system appears increasingly to be goal-oriented, evolving in a way not dissimilar conceptually to the  path by which a human being develops from 4 embryonic stem cells.

I am republishing the 2013 version of the original post here and intend to add notes and links as  I come across and digest information in the science media. 

Over the last decade or so I have heard with increasing frequency of intelligent behaviour in nature; for example in primates, elephants, birds, dolphins and  whales

Example: a crow was confronted with a problem which many humans would not have been able to solve. A tall jar was filled to only a low level with water and a piece of food floated on the surface. It was far too low in the jar to reach. Yet the crow solved the problem by dropping stones into the water until the level of the floating morsel was within reach of its beak. In another experiment a crow could only reach a scrap of food by using a long stick. To do this it had to use a short stick to get the long stick because it was placed behind bars in a cage. See Clever New Caledonian Crows can use three tools.

 Cockatoos were not until recently thought to display intelligent behaviour but a team in Vienna observed that a captive cockatoo was able to retrieve a nut by making a rake, a process which involved shaping a twig with its beak.  See Cockatoo shows tool making skills.

Brain size and complexity does not seem to be much of an indicator of reasoning ability. Even more astonishing is the latest example of problem solving in nature: a single-celled organism (an amoeba, or slime mould, which under the microscope looks like a blob of jelly) is able to solve complex networking problems with no brain or neural network of any kind.

 It is able to construct a matrix of pathways between pieces of food which allow transportation with maximum economy. In fact it is so efficient that researchers have proposed using it as a model for rail and road networks.

Each amoeba is able to negotiate mazes, remembering dead ends, choose the healthiest food from a diversity of options, and anticipate change. To quote from the Scientific American blog source

‘In other words, the single-celled brainless amoebae did not grow living branches between pieces of food in a random manner; rather, they behaved like a team of human engineers, growing the most efficient networks possible. Just as engineers design railways to get people from one city to another as quickly as possible, given the terrain—only laying down the building materials that are needed—the slime molds hit upon the most economical routes from one morsel to another, conserving energy.’

The molecular systems within a cell nucleus and the surrounding cytoplasmic structures also behave in ways which can only be described as intelligent.

In 2013 I came across an example of plants doing mathematical calculations in order to conserve starch throughout the night. It involved feeding in data from the plant's biological clock and the number of starch molecules.

 See  The fittest survive: but how? 

Somehow intelligence moves into our universe at a quantum level from ....somewhere. At one point the whole universe appears to have been a single quantum system and the events within that system are instantaneously connected to events happening now, in the past and in the future via quantum entanglement throughout all the universe.

Time does not come into it. This phenomenon leads to some worldview-shaking-conclusions  e.g. the 400 year old assumption that mind and matter are separate no longer holds.

 Intelligence is a powerful evolutionary tool and appears to have been present from the beginning of life, some 3.5 billion years ago following the late heavy bombardment of Earth by asteroids, comets and meteors. There can be no doubt that this plays a crucial role in the ability of an organism to adapt, compete and cooperate with the living world around it and that this capacity was conferred on life from the start. The emergence of cognitive behaviour in organisms in captivity indicates intelligence levels beyond those needed for survival in their present environment. Perhaps organisms somehow tap an undetectable source of intelligence to help them adapt as the environment changes. This must also be the source which somehow allows totally new species to originate (e.g. as in the Avalon and Cambrian explosions c.550 billion years ago).

Evolution is the subject of much debate. What is beyond doubt is that it is not a random process. To quote the  mathematically brilliant astrophysicist Fred Hoyle(who had been referred to as an atheist) at the end his final book Cosmic Lifeforce (1988): 

The Creator has been given many shapes and names in the diverse cultures throughout the world...the general belief that is common to all religions is that the Universe, particularly the world of life, was created by a being of incomprehensibly magnified human-type if we are creatures destined to perceive the truth relating to our origins in an instinctive way (my italics).

As the Christ said:
 "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you ...the Spirit of Truth, for it abides with you and will be in you."
John 14:16-17

And as the mathematical logician Kurt Goedel proved by formal logic, in his Theorem of Incompleteness (c1930), truth cannot be reached by logic alone: there must be assumptions from outside the logical framework within which a conclusion is arrived at.

See also

consciousness without a brain


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