Sunday, 29 January 2012

The world going forward: comments on Kasparov

Garry Kasparov, renowned as a chess champion, is chairman of the United Civil Front, a pro-democracy organisation in Russia, and is co-author of a forthcoming  book The Blueprint: reviving innovation, rediscovering risk and rescuing the free market.

In the January issue of Prospect  (subscription only) he gives a one page outline of some ideas which presumably will be dealt with at length in the book.

Here are four of them plus my comments in italics:

  • Implement a global Magna Carta to bind the world’s democracies together in the face of dictatorships and terror. This would replace the UN, which at present gives power to nations which fail to meet basic democratic standards. Some western liberals think that a nation-state should be free to adopt a non-democratic way of life. This means giving power to those who do not believe in the freedoms which have emerged from the Enlightenment in the Judeo-Christian world.  Once such people acquire the technology of destruction  no country is safe (remember World War II?).

  • Launch a global trillion dollar alternative energy initiative to tackle the problem of finite fossil fuel reserves, problems with nuclear power and indefinitely increasing demand for energy. This would create new jobs, stimulate R&D  and hopefully allow a supranational grid on the African continent, where a billion people have inadequate access to the power needed to build a society where there is no hunger, no thirst, good health services, freedom from drudgery, good communication and a rich variety of education for all.

  • Establish bases on the Moon and Mars to inspire the dreams of humanity and encourage innovation. Perhaps, in addition, an asteroid defence system could be developed internationally. The probability of a serious asteroid impact is extremely small but the damage done to civilisation, if not to much of the life on our planet, would be enormous. In any case, cosmic projects of the type proposed by Kasparov would help break down frontiers of nation, race, class and religion, raising our awareness that we all share a common humanity (deriving, I believe, from our Creator).

  • Replace financial engineering with real engineering. No one with a degree should be allowed go into financial engineering. This would lead to the required increase in the quantity and quality of scientists and technologists. Financial systems should be kept simple enough to prevent smoke-and- mirror tricks with oceans and rivers of money. Accountancy should be reinvented as an almost sacred profession, where knowing the truth about the financial state of a bank, company, government or any other organisation is recognised as a necessity for a stable, fair and prosperous society. Science, engineering and education should also revere truth, rather than what gets you a research grant or a pay cheque or the acclaim of your peers.

All this would cost money, but only a fraction of that spent on rescuing a dysfunctional banking system and making ordnance. I don’t pretend that getting from here to where I am suggesting we (as a race) need to be is not a big problem, but this problem pales into insignificance when compared to the problems we would face if the former one is ignored.

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 23 January 2012

Kepler 22-b: how Earth-like?

Kepler-22b is the first exoplanet to be discovered which has 3 basic characteristics fairly similar to those of Earth:

Size: not too different - 2.4 times the diameter and 7.1 times the volume, assuming it is spherical. Its mass is not given on my Exoplanet iPhone app presumably because of the way it was detected.

Parent star: yellow dwarf,  similar to our sun (but G5 as opposed to G2V)

Orbit:  in the ‘habitable’ zone. If it had our atmosphere its surface temperature would be a comfortable, life-supporting 22 deg C

From  the Exoplanet i-phone app, the orbit seems to be circular since its eccentricity is listed as zero; but I’m wondering if this is a mistake because I’ve not come across any media reports which highlight this. A fairly circular, rather than highly elliptical, orbit is quite significant because it is a necessary (though far from sufficient) condition for advanced carbon-based life to develop. Too oval-shaped a path round the sun results in extremes of temperature which would probably limit the range of life forms which could be established, or even rule out any at all.

If the temperature could be directly measured and turned out to be anything like 22 deg C it would be headline news because it would probably mean it had an Earth-like atmosphere, and our atmosphere is a product of the mix of animals and plants on its surface over billions of years as well as plate tectonics and protection from comic rays. In fact to be habitable in the sense of having life as we know it the planet would have to have life on it in the first place to produce the right temperature range. One might call this habitable zone tautology. The conditions for life are produced by life. A planet needs life on it to produce the right temperature, along with the right astronomical conditions, but it needs the right temperature to sustain life.  But as stated elsewhere on this blog (see Our precious planet  and Earth-like planets: is the universe teaming with life?  ) a wide range of conditions have to be met for life to have a chance of  evolving. Since writing those posts  I’ve come across additional conditions and will try to put together a more exhaustive list for a future posting.

As these exoplanet discoveries roll in there are three questions to keep in mind regarding the frequency of extraterrestrial life:

  • How many planets apart from Earth, if any, have the necessary surface conditions for life of even the most elementary kind to get started (anaerobic bacteria etc., which don’t breathe oxygen)?

  • How many planets, if any,  have the necessary conditions for these to evolve into higher, oxygen-breathing forms, perhaps culminating in self-conscious intelligent beings?

  • How many, if any, already have advanced extraterrestrial life on them?

So the first step is to look at our own solar system, preferably by manned exploration. If bacteria or other life forms are found, say, on Mars or below the ice on the Jovian satellite Europa, it will indicate that bacteria may be common in the universe but that very special conditions are needed for it to evolve into something more exciting. It could even be that dormant bacteria are generated in some extraordinary way by stellar or interstellar processes then pushed by light pressure through the universe until they reach a truly Earth-like planet , a process known as panspermia– although it is still possible that the Earth alone is the magic crucible of creation. It will certainly be worth continuing with SETI, although hopefully in a more imaginative way than looking for modulated radio waves.

If no bacteria or, even viruses, are found anywhere else in our solar system it will point to life here being truly unique unless some other form of non-biological life beyond our imagination and powers of detection has evolved.

I’m sure some of the readers of this post know more about astrobiology than me so please use the comments box  so we can all benefit from your input. Alternatively just send an email to the address below.

Author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Free will rules OK

Reading magazines like the New Scientist (an established popular science magazine in the UK) there seems to be a growing awareness that science cannot ever give us all the answers to the riddle of existence. This in any case follows from Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem  (see Do some scientists come from the planet Vulcan?). I find this quite refreshing and it only adds to my enjoyment of the discoveries and advances across the spectrum of science, because it is an acknowledgement that the world of reason and senses is not the whole of reality – a world view I find claustrophobic and, in the last analysis, dysfunctional.

It is fairly obvious to most people that reason is not the only access to knowledge (although in my enthusiasm for science I personally tend to forget this at times). 
 For example, can reason tell you what the experience of love is like, or of exhilaration, or of fear, or of faith or of despair or of disillusionment or of indignation or of justice or of perception or of reasoning? At most it can hypothesise how these come about or tinker with drugs and neural stimulation to modify them but the actual existential experience of these is beyond the gambit of logical analysis or experiment. (see also Reweaving the rainbow).

For this we can be grateful. If the natural world is all there is, then decision making can be nothing but a product of the natural world and nobody has free will, or, ultimately, any moral responsibility for any action. The decisions of a serial killer can be attributed to the atoms and force fields in his brain-body system, in his parents, in the people around him, in the ancestors of these and in the natural world going right back to the creation of the universe – or, if you believe in an eternal natural world, to an infinite number of past events which have occurred an infinite number of times and which will repeat themselves an infinite number of times in the future.

I have not knowingly met a person who claims he has no free will. We know it is not an illusion. It is as basic as believing that we exist. Anyone who considers himself or herself as devoid of moral responsibility cannot function as a human being in a human society. In effect, this means that nobody can really claim that the material world is all there is.

Author, 2077 AD

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Songdo: is this the city of the future?

If present trends continue the world population will be 9.2 billion by 2050 and 70% of this number will be in an urban area; so making new cities environmentally friendly and pleasant places to live is a high priority and the techniques pioneered can be applied to existing ones.  See Focus article by Charles Arthur (Jan, p.55).

22,000 people are already living in Songdo, an offshore city being constructed 35 miles west of Seoul in South Korea. By the planned completion date, 2015, there should be 65,000 people living on a 2.5 square mile island site. There will be a 100 acre Central Park within the city. About 20 experimental cities are being designed and constructed in China and India, largely with western finance and engineering. Songdo is financed to the tune of several billions of dollars by Gale International and Morgan Stanley Real Estate, while Cisco is largely responsible for designing and installing an intelligent network for monitoring and control.

In a sense the inhabitants are participating in an experiment for a new way of life which could allow the planet’s population and the global economy to continue growing without destroying the biosphere, giving each individual a better quality of life.

Roads, pavements and buildings will be packed with sensors and cameras to gather data, e.g. the weight of pedestrian traffic will be measured by transducers in the pavements and people’s pattern of energy use in heating, lighting, computer operation and cooking will be monitored in real time. Such data will be collected at a central hub.

Songdo and cities like it are being planned to minimise or optimise:

  1. Water consumption: landscaping and roof gardens will reduce drain off and  grey water from washing up, baths and washing machines will  be used for irrigation.
  2. Power generation: this will be carefully matched to demand using data from the hub and continually updated weather forecasts. Alternative energy will be used where possible.
  3. Energy wastage: buildings will be well insulated and the intelligent matching of demand to supply will itself avoid power dissipation.
  4. Transport: traffic flows will be optimised by using hub data to control LED traffic signals; mass transit systems and access to rail networks and airports will be needed.
  5. Materials wastage: trash disposal will be through a city-wide pressure-driven network of pipes. This will avoid the need for refuse collection lorries.
  6. Microclimate: the roof gardens and Central Park will help keep the air moist.
  7. Green space: the Central Park will occupy about the same proportion of Songdo as the Central Park in New York does of that city. 
  8. Agriculture: I’m not sure about Songdo in particular but some cities at least will be using permaculture to supply local produce. This is already happening in existing towns.
  9. Leisure: art, drama, music and sport must be facilitated for both participants and spectators. E.g. the Incheon Arts Center.
  10. Medicine: a state of the art Songdo International City Hospital is planned.

There are two related aspects of life which could easily get overlooked but which could do a lot to make a city a desirable place for long term residence: silence and privacy. This is a real challenge for architects, landscapers and acoustic engineers. How do you allow people in adjacent apartments to make a reasonable amount of noise without disturbing neighbours? And how do you provide pleasant public spaces or communal areas where it is possible to sit down and think, reflect, read or write without being distracted or feeling threatened?

In the short term these building projects should generate jobs and get the world economy moving in a sustainable way. In every country there would be opportunities to specialise in a range of skills or products or services needed; and the world economy could grow in GDP without ruining the planet.

What happens when most of the world is living in well designed and pleasant cities? Will there be more green areas for breaks, holidays and exploration? I don’t think this would be enough. Maybe, for a while, the huge marine environment would satisfy those with a need to explore. But in the longer term I believe we have to get serious about the rest of the universe.

See also posts on


 transition towns & C40 cities