Sunday, 26 June 2011

Green expansion of the human race?

It is commonly stated that if all the 7 billion people on our planet lived at the same standard of living as the average citizen in the USA or Europe, the environment would have to be plundered and polluted so much that the whole ecosystem would collapse to the point where humanity could not survive.

As a long time environmentalist I agree. This is a pity because the desire to create and expand is built into the human psyche.

But there is a way that humankind could expand in number, widen its horizons, satisfy its thirst for adventure and raise its standard of living while preserving the environment, even returning it to a pristine state free of global warming and with biodiversity increased.

How? Improved agriculture, recycling, repairing and updating products rather than scrapping them, eliminating planned obsolence, seeking a higher quality of life rather than raising consumption levels as well as improving efficiency of production, transport and energy generation, and voluntarily slowing down the rate of population growth (thanks to Ken for reminding me), would be part of the answer. Yet consumption per capita is still likely to grow enormously even with these measures fully in place, although physically there is quite enough land area to accommodate us all, with some 20,000 square metres of land per person. 

The real solution, I maintain, lies in the rest of the universe.

Once we have found a cheap way of getting into orbit and have constructed space elevators (now close to becoming practicable) we can mine lifeless asteroids, comets, moons and planets for minerals instead of digging large quarries and mines into the Earth’s crust. Solar power can be harnessed in orbit and beamed down to supply pollution free and abundant energy to supplement wave, tidal and wind power. Alternatively, our energy could be obtained by clean nuclear fusion (as opposed to fission, which is the current form of nuclear power), using helium-3 mined on the moon.

Obnoxious waste could be packaged and sent crashing into the sun. The sun is a thousand times the volume of the earth and is fiercely hot: all the waste ever produced by mankind would be vaporised in a fraction of a second.

Protein-rich food could be grown in orbital farms and so reduce the pressure to use land and sea at the expense of biodiversity.

Those of us with a desire to explore have a whole universe waiting for them – there is no need to claustrophobically confine them to the Earth. Who knows what may be discovered as men venture onto the surfaces of Mars, the moon and the satellites of the outer planets? Some may even wish to  live there in colonies  but in all likelhood explorers would wish to come back to this planet, a heavenly haven compared to anywhere else known to us.

In the very far future it may be possible to terraform entire planets, convertng them into earth-like worlds. Meanwhile, it seems to me that humankind has the ingenuity and will to open up the universe while making the Earth a Garden of Eden for as many as choose to live here.

Author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 25 June 2011

More things in heaven and earth...

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in thy philosophy

This is a quotation from  Hamlet.  Shakespeare had no idea how right he was.

All the things around us are made of atoms; yet each atom is 99.99999999999999% empty space (12 nines after the decimal point)  permeated by force fields. Even if everything we experienced was solid to the touch and there were no liquids or gases, only 0.000000000001 % of it would be genuinely solid matter. In fact if one took into account that much of our visible environment is water or air or the vacuum between planets, stars and galaxies, the per centage of solid matter would be even less.

The same applies to us.  We humans, too, are ghostly configurations of force fields in empty space punctuated by barely detectable points of matter  such as electrons and quarks. Yet our consciousness conveys to us the experience of living in a seemingly material world, filled with solid objects which jolt us if we knock into them.

Today, 95% of the material universe we observe takes the form of dark energy and dark matter and is outside the realm of current science. Even the 5% we have some theoretical hold on is incompletely understood or even wholly misunderstood – - life, evolution, subatomic particles and consciousness, for example. It is often ‘explained’ in terms of randomness. Radioactive particles are emitted from atoms at random. Evolution proceeds by selection pressure plus random mutations according to neo-Darwinism. 

But as mentioned in a previous posting, it is quite possible that meaningful realities are behind random events (e.g. random quantum events may be clues to some hidden deeper reality, just as the random digits forming pi correspond to the geometry of a circle).

We build increasingly powerful technology for probing the natural world. Yet every question we answer generates more questions, and the revealed knowledge allows even more powerful technology to be invented, resulting in yet more discoveries and so on ad infinitum.

Our centre of consciousness and creativity  exists in a ghostly mileu of particles and force fields. We are ghosts in ghosts searching for truth, love, wisdom, justice and some kind of fulfilment. Are these more real than the world we see, hear, touch, taste and smell?  We are confronted with choices between good and evil and, deep down, we know we have been given free will in some mysterious way.

The ancients were perplexed, inspired, awestruck and terrified by the world around them, by the creation of life from somewhere and its disappearance into somewhere.

So what has changed? Today we have science  to dissect the material world and see how it works as well as medicine to heal diseases of mind and body. Yet science has not tamed the universe. The more it discovers the more mind stretching, unpredictable and miraculous the natural world becomes, while free will, good and evil, justice, love, truth, beauty and immortality continue to be supremely important to every person on the planet, especially philosophers, artists, priests and mystics.
That’s how I see it . Feedback welcome!

Author, 2077AD

Monday, 20 June 2011

Skylon spaceplane: what is NASA waiting for?

When NASA landed men on the moon it was an exciting moment in man’s history, one that many thought would never happen and since then the deniers have convinced themselves that it did not in fact happen – it was all a conspiracy to deceive us, all six Apollo landings, each one fully reported by the western and Soviet media, all the samples of moon rock distributed to labs throughout the world, all the interviews with the astronauts and the books written by them.

The Apollo programme was superseded by the International Space Station and Space Shuttle missions.  NASA is now retiring its Space Shuttle in search of a cheaper way of launching crews into orbit.

Once they can launch payloads at a much lower cost it will be possible to build larger structures in orbit, such as interplanetary ships able ot carry manned expeditions to Mars. This type of craft can’t be built on the Earth’s surface because it would have to undergo the rigours of take off and reentry, and be too heavy to transport into orbit against the Earth’s gravity.

The main barrier to reducing payload costs (dollars per pound lifted into orbit) is the large amount of fuel needed during take off. This fuel has to be carried and this is self-defeating because the more fuel carried the greater the load and the larger the energy needed to lift it against the Earth’s gravity.

 Several companies have been bidding for contracts with NASA to provide a cheaper freight service to orbit. SpaceX, for instance, has won a contract to replace the Space Shuttle with a Falccon 9 launcher and Dragon spacecraft.  Yet one system , it seems to me, stands out above all other competitors: the Skylon Spaceplane. It is being developed by Reaction Engines, a small company near Oxford in the UK, and unfortunately, for reasons beyond me, does not seem to be involved in the bidding and I rarely hear it mentioned in the media.

Initially it would be a cheap way of launching satellites but could be scaled up to take people into orbit and back, as well as transport people between runways anywhere on the planet in less than 4 hours. The Skylon would take-off and land on a runway. It is based on an exclusive propulsion technology called SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). This allows the Skylon to get into orbit with far less liquid oxygen on board. It extracts the oxygen it needs from the atmosphere and mixes it with an on-board supply of liquid hydrogen to generate the explosive energy needed for thrust. A small amount of liquid oxygen would have to be carried for use above 15 miles high, since the air is too thin beyond that height.

It recently passed a thorough technical review by the UK Space Agency. All that  is needed now is investment money. If NASA or large private corporations in the USA were to adopt this in a big way, contracting much of the work to the UK’s space industry (already big and expanding fast) the prospect for manned journeys to Mars, asteroid mining and many other enterpises would be transformed. It would also provide jobs for the western world and an impetus for technological evolution.

If humanity is to continue growing and developing without destroying our planet or destroying itself by internecine conflict over resources, it needs to expand  into the rest of the universe. 

Update on 10 June 2012.
I have just learned that the SABRE air-breathing hydrogen-burning engine (see pre-cooler below) is being tested around now and if the tests go well it will be demonstrated and publicised at the Farnborough air show in the UK.

 Even if they don't go well the technology is already on its way to being fully proven. How long before big money and a sense of urgency are forthcoming?
added in August 2012
Author, 2077 AD

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The not-so-moral landscape?

Sam Harris believes that atheism must have objective moral values, as do the great monotheistic religions, which ground their morality in the Creator of the universe, the source from which our reality emanates. But Harris, it seems, is unable to show how these originate within his world view.

He makes a valiant attempt to derive absolute moral values by reason alone and defines goodness as that which allows the maximum flourishing of conscious beings. Yet it appears that in his book the Moral Landscape (which I’ve not read) he points out, apparently, that unsavoury characters like serial rapists and Nazis could flourish, so we have to be on our guard. But as came to light in a recent debate, if we have to be on our guard against the flourishing of such people we are making a moral judgement.

Making a moral judgement in this way means having a moral frame of reference: the very thing that Harris is trying to deduce by reason.

Hence the above definition (goodness = maximum flourishing of conscious beings) disappears in a puff of logic. A world in which evil people flourish would be a good world.

To deliberately, unnecessarily and gratuitously inflict suffering on a human being or any other living being and to derive pleasure from doing so, is universally, intuitively recognised as evil. There is no way this can be derived by logic. Most people know this but don’t know why they know it.

However, unlike many atheists, Harris does recognise the need for an objective code of moral absolutes as necessary to avoid anarchy and nihilism. 

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 13 June 2011

Arctic soot and sea level rise

Over the last decade or so there has been growing concern about the accelerating pace of warming in the Arctic. Billions of tons of fresh water are being shed by melting glaciers in Greenland and this MUST have major effects on the ocean currents as well as global sea level rises. (Melting of sea ice, as opposed to land ice, has no effect on sea level anymore than the melting of a block of ice in a bath raises the level of water in a bath because as the ice block gets smaller the water moves into the vacated space.)

Global warming by carbon dioxide remains a problem but in recent years another major factor has been identified as of major importance: soot.

A thin layer of black carbon, invisible to the naked eye, settling on the Arctic snow, allows it to absorb radiant heat from the Sun more rapidly. This adds to the effect of the ambient temperature rise.  The soot appears to originate from old types of diesel engine, wood- or dung-burning stoves and open burning (forest fires, slash-and-burn agriculture etc.). This could cause sea levels this century to rise much faster than previously estimated – more like 5 metres than 1 metre.

Looking on the bright side the airborne soot particles only remain aloft for up to 10 days, so any reductions in the sources of soot would very quickly reduce the rate of temperature rise due to carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide has a much longer lifetime than airborne soot – around a century.

It also has to be born in mind that as the white area of the Earth’s land and sea surface shrinks this will cause less solar radiant heat to be reflected back into space, so that the land and sea temperatures will rise, which in turn increases the temperature of the air above.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Greece and the euro

The international banking crisis is far from over. Huge amounts of debt are owed by banks to their investors. And individual governments have courted votes by allowing themselves, their banks and their electorates to borrow, spend and gamble like there was no tomorrow.  The USA is one of the most indebted nations on the planet but has managed to defy the laws of finance because of the dollar’s status as a reserve currency and the major military power wielded by the US.

One major concern in recent months has been Greece. It, and the European community which is currently financing its debt, appears to be faced with two alternative courses of action , either of which would have major effects on international and national finance both within and outside not only the Eurozone, but Europe as a whole.

Greece and the European Central Bank have to decide between two options.

1. Greece leaves the Eurozone

Suppose Greece decided to write off its foreign debt by ceasing to use the euro as its currency. It could default on its debt by redenominating its currency, i.e. converting the euro into drachmas. How would this work?

My understanding is that it would be something like this (I’m not an expert in finance, or anything, else and I know some of the people reading this are knowledgeable in this area, so please correct me if I’ve got it wrong):

The Greek government would close its banks, probably on a Friday. While they were closed to trading all bills and invoices in euros would be re-stated in drachmas - essentially the word 'euro' would be replaced by the word 'drachma' .  This would of course include money owed to foreign firms, investment banks, hedge funds, governments and individuals.  So when the Greek banks reopened all the creditors would find they were owed in drachmas what  they had previously been owed in euros.

Why would that be a problem? The answer is that the Greek government would fix the drachma at a lower value in terms of other currencies. Probably the drachma would be worth only around 50% of a euro. Whereas before a Greek firm owed a British firm £1 million, it would now owe only £0.5 million. Similarly with all organisations and persons abroad who had lent euros, dollars, yens, yuans or any other currency to a Greek organisation or person, or had stored it there, or invested it, or had it tied up in Greece in any way. All would suddenly be out-of-pocket.. They would get back only half what they could have expected by the normal rules and ethos of trading.

A private UK company with funds saved in Greece and at the same time having a critical public service role (e.g., a large private care company looking after the elderly) could be put into debt by this and need to be rescued with UK public money.

A chocolate factory, however, would probably be allowed to go out of business, thereby adding to unemployment. Those made jobless would have to be paid benefits or job seeker’s allowance. Again, the public would pay.

A bank or other financial intitution with large amounts in, say, Greek property, might find itself defaulting. The public would then have to rescue it.

There is another kind of consequence to Greece leaving the Eurozone. Other heavily indebted countries like Ireland, Portugal and Spain would be perceived as likely to pull off the same trick.  Their economies could collapse almost overnight as creditors of all shapes and sizes suddenly removed their money. This in turn would affect all other nations with substantial investments or assets in the defaulting countries.

So if you or your country has got a lot of money tied up in Greece or any other of the countries heavily in debt, it may  be in your interest for the Eurozone to stay in tact.

2. Greece stays in the Eurozone

This too has its downside. The Greek institutions in debt are at present being lent money by the better-managed countries, mainly Germany, within the Eurozone. And because it is in few people’s interest for Greece to disengage, even countries outside of the Eurozone are under pressure to help with the financial rescue not only of Greece but of Ireland, Spain and Portugal. Again, the public in those countries would be the ones footing the bill.

Either course is likely to result in unemployment and inflation, especially so in view of the escalating costs of fuel and commodities. In my view, of the two options, the second would be the least damaging, but with one proviso. No country in the Eurozone must be allowed to get into such debt again.

The financial crisis is truly international and in the last analysis the cause is two-fold: greed and pride.  

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 6 June 2011

Consciousness vs electrical signals in the brain

Journalists often give an exaggerated view of the significance of some brain research. They show an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan with parts of the brain lit up, corresponding to certain neurons firing, when the subject is having certain thoughts. This pattern of brain activity they imply is the cause of conscious thought.

Does this make sense? Not to the neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, who wrote Aping Mankind: Neuromania , Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen). He claims this to be philosophically untenable and has also written an article, called Neurotrash, in the May issue of Prospect. I’ve not read the book but may well do so. 

Moreover, there are numerous questions even about the degree of this correlation between neural and reported conscious events. E.g.  the correlations often do not happen and there are often no neural pathways between some of the firing neurons.

But even leaving aside these objections, the assertion of a causative effect of neural activity on consciousness certainly makes no sense to me.  It is like saying that the handwritten symbols on a piece of paper cause the message they convey to you - a story, say. The story only makes sense when your brain has decoded them and merged them with a mass of coded experience and knowledge. More important, the writing is only there because the author has created a story and written it down. The handwritten symbols are meaningless in isolation from the author and the reader. They do not cause the author to create a story, and without a reader they have no value.

The nerve firing patterns produced in the brain do not wilfully cause the experience or creation of consciousness any more than the words on a page cause the experience or creation of a novel.

What then is going on in the mind or soul or whatever strange arena consciousness takes place in?  Here is one possibility (I’m sure it is not original and that other explanations exist).

 Just as the written symbols are part of a greater process of creative thinking, coding and reading, so the neural events are part of a greater process within us. Maybe one aspect of our being  - the soul perhaps - creates unconscious ‘thoughts’ and these are turned into neural patterns which can be decoded by another aspect of our selves (the mind?) into conscious thoughts. So the MRI scan is simply intercepting one stage in a mental/mystic experience.

Understanding ourselves is a prerequisite for bringing peace to the nations. Pretending that we are machines seems to me a denial of reality and a depressingly mechanistic, reductionist view of a living being.

Author, 2077 AD