Monday, September 24, 2007

The Decay of Science into Fiction

Posted by goatchurch at 10:50 AM
Skepticality Podcast (minute 28) interviews a contributor to the astronomy cast:
This is a change in direction that NASA is taking. There has been a mandate put out that we're going to the moon, and we're going to Mars, and to fullfill that Presidential mandate that doesn't come from the scientific community we have to reshape what NASA is doing. We have to start building extremely heavy-lift vehicles. We have to basically take our old idea of how the Saturn rockets work and amp them up so that we can start getting big things to the Moon and start building construction platforms so it's not a big deal to build something in space that can take humans on interplanetary missions...

For a while we were looking to the decadal studies: the long term well-thought-out-by-the-entire­-scientific-community studies that stated, "Here are the questions that we want to answer. Here are the needs in order to do it. This is what has to be accomplished to answer these questions."... That way to define programs has been set aside.
In other words, the guys setting the policy are following Science Fiction rather than Science, or even recognizable Mundane-SF. It breaks my heart to see Science Fiction being used as a tool to suppress science.

Happily I've just discovered the Space Cynic blog:
"We are NOT anti-space. We are anti-Koolaid."
If they come good on their promise to say all the right things about the Google Lunar Prize, it'll save me a lot of time.

I got onto this today because Colin Pilinger, our modern day Heath Robinson, is getting the go-ahead to do a Lunar lander. This man is the world expert at doing ambitious space projects at bargain prices. The point is it's got absolutely zero to do with the ideological source of funding, and everything to do with whether the people advocating it are just BS-ing and proven that don't care about the known technicalities.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Astropreneurs are kidding no one

Posted by goatchurch at 11:53 AM

Now they've got dear old Arthur C. Clarke to record a video promoting the Google Lunar X-Prize. Yes, even he couldn't keep a straight face when he read out the sentence: "Now the Google Lunar X-Prize will inspire a new fleet of private space craft to take humanity back to the moon."

Just so you get the message properly, the speakers at the launch party said:
Today we're challenging private teams around the world to design and build robot explorers and race them to the surface of the Moon. The Google Lunar X-prize is a competition that will once again demonstrate that small dedicated teams of individuals can do what was once thought only possible by governments.

Science has a serious marketing problem. This is the best antidote I've seen for that... We believe that setting an ambitious goal like going to the Moon is a really good way to improve the state of Humanity and the World, and that's why we care about this.

How many of you [young people] would like to go to the Moon? Raise your hands. Yeah. That's why we're here. We're capable of doing that. Maybe not all of you, but at least some of you will be able to go.
And there's also an official cheezy short movie dramatizing what the winning the prize will be like. An excerpt:
Until recently, space was off-limits to the public, but in 2004 the winners of the Axsari X-prize proved that private enterprise could travel to space in a reliable reusable spacecraft less expensively than any government programme.

The competition ignited a revolution that will launch thousands of civilian passengers into space. Today, the Google Lunar X-Prize is challenging free enterprise to reach much further, to the Moon to pave the way to harnessing its wealth of resources. Only days away its earth partner in a unique two world system.


Earth's off-shore island, the Moon can become our greatest asset. It could help provide our world with abundant resources and clean affordable limitless energy.

Much of the lunar soil is Silicon, a key ingredient of solar cells. In the future the silicon could be mined and used to build huge solar powered satellites. These satellites could be deployed to capture clean solar energy for the Earth, each one capable of powering a large city.
I am going to scream! Guess what most of the dirt on the Earth is made of? Silicon! You don't need to go to the Moon for that. Why isn't it being used on the ground already then? Solar powered satellites are one of those very bad old ideas that have been looked into at length over the years, admittedly by Government scientists who must by definition be stupid. (After all, they only invented the internet.) The fact that you mention it as an idea, and the only idea proposed in the movie, proves you still haven't thought of anything better!

Look, kids. None of you are going to the Moon. There are certain more pressing matters which will present issues of human survival in your own lifetime that you'll know about if you've been paying attention to the scientists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think if any science fiction reader from the past saw this prize going down as the one great hope for Humanity, he would die of shame that the whole endeavour has withered down to this. Sure, there may be a few die-hards with nowhere else to go who will claim that the Surge is working. But this was not how it was supposed to be.

Perhaps we ought to put this whole space-ship fantasy on hold for a couple of generations and pay some attention to the question of its own long-term survival on the home planet, eh? I don't think even the most optimistic man is of the belief that we're going to get these life-rafts off into space before the ice-sheets collapse.

Even if they're only supposed to rescue the billionaires.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning!" by Geoff Ryman

Posted by Trent Walters at 4:34 PM
Geoff Ryman gave this Guest of Honor speech at BORÉAL 2007 SF convention in Montreal on 2007-04-29.

First off many thanks for the opportunity to give this talk. I think probably many people in this room have no idea who I am. Sometimes I wonder who I am as well. I only have one novelette translated into French, from 20 years ago, which saddens me.

I also founded a small group of SF writers called the Mundanes. Being a Mundane boils down to avoiding old tropes and sticking more closely to what science calls facts. We believe that for most of us, the future is here on Earth.

I understand that this translates into French as ‘Profanes’. I think this sounds a lot more exciting, as a movement.

As I’m sure you have all heard, the European Space Agency announced this week the discovery of an Earth-type planet outside the solar system. Other planets that we know of outside the solar system have all been like Jupiter or Neptune. It orbits the red dwarf star Gliese 581 about 20.5 light years from here. At temperatures from 0 to 40 degrees, it could have water, but we don’t know that. It’s gravitational pull would be twice that of Earth’s. Being 14 times closer to its dwarf star than the Earth is to the sun, it is probably also a radioactive environment.

This is life-changing news. Especially for me, because at 20.5 light years distance, it happens to be within my own personal limit for how far I think we can get into interstellar space.

I don’t believe in starships. At least not the starships that turn up so regularly in Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, etc. The speed of the universe is c. Go faster than ‘c’ and something catastrophic happens: mass becomes infinite. We have no idea what that means. It’s a mathematician’s way of saying something can’t happen.

Yet mass-market SF still dreams of faster-than-light travel, through such tropes as warp drives. The Physics of Star Trek by Laurence M Krauss calculates that warp drives would consume energy equivalent to whole galaxies. This is his way of saying something can’t happen without alienating the Star Trek fans who bought the book.

If there are wormholes or portals I see no way that something can travel through them without being converted into energy or crushed by gravitational forces. This is Geoff’s way of saying the starship gets wrecked.

Stephen Hawking says anti-matter engines are possible, and could accelerate to a reasonable percentage of the speed of light. They could get us to Alpha Centauri in 6 years. I accept that on his authority, but for me, that’s a best possibility, an upper limit.

Very fast sub-light speed would still impose a horizon on how far we get. I don’t have the tools to figure out that limit. If someone does please come and talk to me afterwards.

But if Hawking’s ship can go 4 light years in 6 years, then I my rough reckoning done before Gliese 581 is about a 20-25 light-year radius from Earth. It depends how long you think a starship can keep going without risking major malfunction and how fast an anti-matter driven starship could be. I reckon 30 years in its own time-frame, you may think more.

We won’t know til 2020 if Gliese has water or an atmosphere. I don’t think we’ve found a beautiful new Earth to inhabit. The cost of transporting terra-forming equipment and material 20 light years is likely to be prohibitive. Terraforming Mars may be a better bet than travelling those vast distances to terraform a rocky, radioactive wilderness. Both efforts would take tens of thousand years. What human endeavour has lasted tens of thousands of years?

Well, agriculture has lasted that long; and the rearing of children along with language itself. Staying home on the farm and raising kids seems to be just the activities most SF dreams of escaping.

Since the same physical restrictions will apply to aliens, at least aliens made of matter, I don’t believe we are likely to meet aliens. We might be able to exchange some kind of messages with them at the speed of light. If we are picturing our future, it’s a safer bet to imagine one without Mr Spock or even versions of cuttlefish who communicate with shifting skin patterns.

For most of us whose descendants will not be among those specially selected interstellar crews, for our children, for humankind as whole, the future is here on Earth.

I realized that I didn’t believe in time travel either. We are part of the universe, embedded in it. If we travel in time, we have to take the universe with us. I don’t think that’s at all feasible number one, affordable number two and number three: if everything around us is going backwards or forwards in time with us, would we even notice? How could we tell? Oh yes, we go through one of those wormhole loops. That’s of real mathematical interest. You know my views on wormholes.

So a few kindred spirits drew up a list of things we didn’t believe in like telepathy. Have you ever experienced it?

Immortality? Suns die, galaxies die, the universe dies. Nothing is immortal outside of God’s heaven. We will all die one day. Leaving Earth won’t stop it.

Brain downloads: transferring something that has four switches (up and down in both directions) to a system works through binaries?

Partly Mundanity was also the result of asking: what’s worked best in the past? My favourite SF authors such as Philip K Dick, J G Ballard, Samuel Delaney or Walter Miller tended to avoid those particular tropes. For a while naming writers who could be considered Mundane was quite a hobby.

We felt as if SF had accumulated so many improbable ideas and relied on them so regularly, that it had disconnected from reality. The futures it was portraying were so unlikely as to be irrelevant, if not actually harmful.

Julian Todd, a British SF writer, pointed out the moral problems as well. If we keep telling ourselves that faster-than-light travel will whisk us to scores of new Earths, then we’d feel better about burning through this one.

In really bad SF, like the movie LOST IN SPACE, environmental catastrophe is almost wished upon us, to justify the cost of interstellar voyages. Why, why the continual desire to escape our beautiful planet?

My particular bugaboo was the cheat of having faster-than-light travel without any relativity effects from different time frames. Mass market SF, the SF that most ordinary people think of when you use the phrase, commercial and media SF want to pick and choose from science, using only those things that will grant us our wishes and dreams.

We want FTL interstellar travel with no more inconvenience than a tour of duty on an aircraft carrier. Mom can ring us up from 30,000 light years away to have a real-time conversation about why we haven’t married yet. She’s still alive when we get back home. Everything is recognizable, comfortable. In Star Trek, we get to the stars without having to change.

Mass market SF doesn’t imagine how different interstellar flight will make us. And I don’t mean the usual posthuman stuff. I mean different culturally. I mean getting back home to find 200 years have passed and that everything we loved and believed in is gone. Yes, some SF has done just that, notably The Forever War. So why isn’t the space pilot coming back from the distant past an SF stereotype? Answer: because that’s not what the SF wants.

Big SF, the stuff that sells hugely or is found in movies, is not really about the future; we know that. It’s also not about the present, though that’s our excuse when people point out that SF couldn’t predict its way of a public restroom. SF, especially mainstream commercial SF, copies the past onto the future, to make it comfortably entertaining. The future will be just like the more exciting parts of the past only with better toys. Perhaps that’s because so many people now fear the future, rather than welcome it as a wonderland of possibility.

So I wrote a jokey Mundane Manifesto. It said let’s play this serious game. Let’s agree: no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel, no aliens in the flesh, no immortality, no telepathy, no parallel universe, no magic wands. Let’s see if something new comes out of it.

In a reference to The Bonfire of the Vanities, I called this the Bonfire of the Stupidities. That was what we call a joke, but jokes can be serious. I also said that we should burn the Manifesto when it got boring.

Some of the blog commentary went a bit angry. I have a better understanding of what I thought of as an invitation to play a game was so widely misunderstood. Essentially it suggested that we left the old tropes to one side, and focussed on more likely futures.

This January I read the introduction to The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. Written at the moment of Sputnik, Arendt was struck that mainstream newspapers said what science fiction had been saying: mankind was now free from Earth.

Science fiction is worth regarding she says, because it is a vehicle for mass dreams and desires. In essence it is a dream of escaping being human. We want to leave Earth, a free gift that gives us life, and substitute artificial environments that we have made. We wish to escape old means of reproduction. We wish to escape death. We want to become post-human.
"This future man... seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence
as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he
wishes to exchange for something he has made himself."
Fifty years after she wrote that, these themes are still with us. Indeed they have been with us from the beginning, and the beginning is Frankenstein in 1818. Science Fiction predates Darwin, has survived Marx and Freud and outlasted modernism and post-modernism. That mass dream it fulfils is no temporary fancy. That dream runs deep.

The dream only cares about seeing its wishes fulfilled. That explains why old, tired, improbabilities survive as SF regulars, while the storytelling innovations of The Forever War have not become genre stand-bys. Only those slim possibilities that help fulfil the dream survive to be re-used: wormholes, warp drives. Because the aim is NOT to write about a real future.

Arendt hints at some of the sources of the dream. For me personally, there is something in the nexus of Mother Earth, femininity, domesticity, women’s power over reproduction of that clump together in a kind of misapplied need to leave home. A real future will have an everyday life and a home just as domestic as the one the dream needs to leave. So it does not dream of a real future.

I think the sources of the SF dream are not culturally specific. I think they are psychological, perhaps even ultimately biological. That explains the incredible endurance of SF for rising 200 years. I suspect that the dream has something to do with how we as an animal are cared for, the length of time we are dependent, the length of time our parents must love us and have power over us. In other species, parents initiate the process of separation, pushing the fledglings out. In human beings, that process is initiated by the cubs. In order to leave adolescents become angry and resentful, and initiate the separation themselves.

The SF dream recapitulates this. I believe it’s a kind of extension of somewhat undifferentiated drive to leave home, and escape into adventure. The dream therefore belongs essentially to childhood and to early adolescence.

The drive to write and read big-market SF is not much different from the drive to write and read Peter Pan. You never grow up. You fly by magic away from home to Never-neverland. (Take the third star on the left.) It’s full of mermaids, pirates and native peoples, just like Star Trek. Something really weird is going on around the whole idea of mother and Wendy.

I like Peter Pan. I like watching mass market SF. It’s a holiday from being an adult. The fantasies that fulfil the dream may show us wonders, but they are very repetitive, stereotyped wonders. Less to do with real innovation and more to do with a sense of comfort.

To sum up, what I realised reading Arendt was this: I am a Mundane because I don’t share the dream. Not because I have such a peculiarly scientific imagination, and yearn to get out my calculator when I write. I am the last person who should be a Mundane, as I most of my work has some kind of magic in it.

What, I want to ask, is so un-wonderful about Earth? What is so unexciting about our future here? Disaster, innovation, climate change and virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, biocomputers that evolve.

Will cramped, smelly spaceships full of people who have been trapped with each other for twenty years, with terrible food, no light, drugs and entertainment only so long the computers hold out, is that really the most exciting thing we can imagine?

There is a case for saying that our distraction with outer space meant SF missed the information revolution until it was past tense. It had already happened and was on the street when we started to write about it. What are missing now?

What is so useful about dreaming things that are unlikely to happen? Have you not noticed that we are NOT going into outer space? In the Star Trek universe, the Federation has already been founded for nine years.

People who love space blame NASA, and say boldly let the private sector in there. Do they really think if there were fortunes to be made in space you could keep the private sector OUT? There are no silks, sandalwood, or myrrh to be brought back from space, no light, small, valuable things that will pay for the costs of the trip. You can’t trade with balls of frozen methane. There will not be a business case for space.

So, interstellar travel will be a prestige project using vast resources that really are needed elsewhere. I don’t think it will be democracies that get us into space, with their short-term priorities and their reliance on markets. I think it will be a command society that gets us halfway to the stars. It was the Communists and not the Capitalists who got us into space the last time.

I dream of a future here on Earth, a future that I hope continues to get better in some ways. We so face many unpleasant and pressing issues for which there will be no cheap, quick easy fixes. I enjoy reading books like Forty Days of Rain that look at these near future challenges. I’m not sure that democracies are equipped to survive this future either.

Mundanity is not just about a near future, but also a far future, one in which there are new wonders to take the place of the old ones. I dream of a future in which things really change. Post-human, possibly, if we do succeed in controlling our own evolution. These new humans won’t be us, and not because they have extra limbs or can photosynthesize. They will not be us because they value different things, speak differently, think differently, and respond differently in emergencies. They will be the end of everything we love and believe in. And the change will keep on going.

I dream of a science fiction that is literature, right up there with Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, and Jane Austen. There is no reason for it not to be. Forty years ago that was the project, and it seemed like we were going to do it. That was the age of New Worlds, Dangerous Visions, of Ballard, Delaney, LeGuinn, and Tiptree.

Now, I’m not even sure what I meant by literature then, or what I mean by it now.

But here’s a Sartrian stab at it. Literature destroys innocence. It deprives people of childhood. It shows them the world as the writer honestly sees it. If it does show the reader something new, they have lost their innocence about it, and are now responsible for it.

In making them more responsible, literature makes them more powerful. It can’t be literature if recruits or propagandizes. It can’t be literature if it dupes people or panders to them. And it can’t be literature if it is fundamentally dishonest, if it says its doing one thing, when actually doing another. It can’t call itself science fiction and have nothing to do with science.

Entertainment leaves innocence intact. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it won’t make you more powerful or help you to grow up.

Nothing in our human culture is more adult than science. It doubts and tests our lies, half truths, fond hopes, and unsorted dreams by testing its hypotheses. Science could be working hand in hand with fiction to deliver the greatest possible literature.

The Institute of Ideas is staging the Douglas Adams Debate on May 3rd this year in London. The topic is From Star Wars to the Battle of Ideas: Is science fiction good for public debate? On the distinguished panel are two astronomers, a curator for the Science Museum of the exhibition ‘The Science of Aliens’, a consultant in reproductive medicine who worked on the film Children of Men, a physics teacher, but not one science fiction writer.

Here is a quote from the description:
"Writers and film makers often take their inspiration from science and ask ‘what
if’ but when it comes down to it, they have few qualms about ditching scientific
accuracy in favour of gripping narrative. Does it matter how much actual science
gets into sci-fi, as long as it gets people talking? Do writers and director
have a responsibility to make their science accurate, or even

"Should ‘proper’ sci-fi deal with hard science rather
than ‘issues’? Or should we just enjoy it?"

Hard science rather than issues. That strikes me as a very weird opposition. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to get some measure of any issue than to find out what the science says about it. I find the equation of ‘issues’ with entertainment not what I would expect either. All I can say for certain is that whoever wrote the blurb is thinking in entirely different terms from mine.

Plainly, by science fiction they don’t mean books that we as SF fans and writers value most. Film, directors... they are thinking of Science Fiction as what is called in French une marque du grand surface, the big movies and TV shows.

They mean the stuff that most people think of when you say sci-fi. We have to accept that that is how we are seen. The question for me then is partly, what if anything do I do about that? How do we change people’s views about what it is?

And of course, why no SF writers on the panel? In a debate named after one? I’m trying to avoid putting this down to snobbery. That’s what SF folk usually say when we are excluded. Who’s to say we were excluded? Maybe they tried to get an SF writer and couldn’t.

But let’s also consider the possibility that the scientists wanted to have a debate amongst themselves without us there. Most commercial SF is scientifically out to lunch. Would it be all that surprising if scientists were concerned with that? It is the centre of their lives. What, the debate may be asking, can we do about the lies science fiction tells?

And should there be an element of contempt in this for some kinds of SF; are we sure that it’s entirely unjustified?

If there is an estrangement between science and science fiction, then it should be possible to do something about it. It can only be fruitful.

A small press in Britain has asked me to edit an anthology of stories that are based on research that SF has largely ignored or wildly mis-represented. The aim is to commission these stories and then join up the SF writer with a scientist in that field to advise or co-author the piece.

If anybody here has a suggestion for a field of research that could form the basis of one of these tales, or would be interested in taking part either as a scientist or a writer, please email me.

I’m also guest-editing a Mundane issue of Interzone. If you are interested again please contact me. We have a website up to accept electronic submissions and give some guidance. Please visit

And for more information about mundanity, visit

I’ve spoken a bit about the dream that underlies SF as being essentially adolescent. But there is one aspect of the dream I’ve left out. Surely the urge to leave home and escape everyday life finally ends with the child making a home of its own and becoming adult. There is room in the SF dream for growing up, accepting the mundane. That’s the part of the dream my fiction will try to fulfil.

It’s never too late to grow up.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Can to ten backwards in Japanese?

Posted by goatchurch at 5:10 AM
What the heck is going on here?:
It has been many decades since we explored the Moon from the lunar surface, and it could be another 6 - 8 years before any government returns. Even then, it will be at a large expense, and probably with little public involvement.


To win the Google Lunar X PRIZE ($30 million) a team must successfully land a privately funded craft on the lunar surface and survive long enough to complete the mission goals of roaming about the lunar surface for at least 500 meters and sending a defined data package, called a "Mooncast", back to Earth.
That was published yesterday. Just in case you haven't read the news today:

Japan launches lunar probe

Could these businessmen really be so up their backsides? The Chinese send up one of their own next month. You'll find that their public is actually involved, by agreeing to have their taxes spent on it, and celebrating it as a source of great national pride.

Trust our business elite to formulate an economic theory that implies without any evidence that a particular means of funding is a source of virtue.

In translation, the words "privately funded" can only mean "billionaire joyrider". The Ansari X Prize paid out $10 million dollars for a space-ship that was built at the cost of $20 million dollars by the co-founder of Microsoft -- and it probably cost less than his taxcut.

After all, what else are they going to do with that money? Go for joy-rides into space on former Communist rockets sold off cheap like the rest of the Russian economy? You can read it everywhere:
Google's billionaire founders are also paying $1.3m for a space connection of a different kind.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page have struck a deal to park their personal "party plane" on a restricted Nasa airfield near the internet company's headquarters in California. In return, they will allow the US space agency to put scientific instruments and researchers aboard their Boeing 767 and two other Google aircraft.
Back in the old days we just lifted the $1.3m from their bank accounts using the tax system and only allowed scientists and engineers who moved the project forwards onto the site. In this new era we'll have to waste time putting wrapping plastic over the experiments to prevent Martinis being splashed over them.

Anyways, what kind of scientific instruments can you put in the back of a party plane, exactly? A thermometer? I think we should be told. This is soon going to get out of hand, and we'll have embarrassing incidents like when "14 high-rolling CEOs" took the controls of a nuclear powered submarine in 2001 and sank a Japanese ship with school children.

When you are super-rich, the whole world becomes your play-ground, and everything which the scientists, engineers and mechanics have built up over the decades are just as toys to be used and broken.

By adding a small bit of show-biz glitz, combined with years of mass mis-education, the Western public can be sold the lie that this could possibly lead anywhere, and that the space-tourism movement isn't one vast self-indulgent, counter-productive drag on any human progress no matter how you define it, when we should all be pissed about it, not applauding it.

Our expectations have become this low and this stupified.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The State of the Future

Posted by goatchurch at 2:27 PM
What a treat this is. Just look at these covers of a series of gigantic books from the United Nations. You have got to love it. Check out the table of contents from the 2007 edition:
1. Global Challenges (1,100 pages)

2.1 Global State of Future Index (286 pages)
2.2 National State of Future Indexes (89 pages)
2.3 Global Challenges Assessment (94 pages)

3.1 Normative Scenario to the Year 2050 (21 pages)
3.2 Exploratory Scenarios (41 pages)
3.3 Very Long-Range Scenarios-1,000 years (23 pages)
3.4 Counterterrorism-Scenarios, Actions, and Policies (40 pages)
3.5 Science and Technology 2025 Global Scenarios (21 pages)
3.6 Global Energy Scenarios 2020 (103 pages)
3.7 Middle East Peace Scenarios (91 pages)

4.1 Future Science and Technology Management and Policy Issues (400 pages)
4.2 Nanotechnology: Future Military Environmental Health Considerations (21 pages)

5. Education and Learning 2030 (59 pages)

6. Future Ethical Issues (69 pages)

7. Global Goals for the Year 2050 (24 pages)
I mean, why isn't everyone getting it? Well, it's not available for download, and no one has summarized it in the wikipedia article, though that place does lead you to entities like the futures wheel and the World Transhumanist Association...

Anyways, enough surfing. Back to the executive summary, which contains a lot of bunk about "genetically increased intelligence", "chemical brain enhancement", "artificial microbes enhancing intelligence", and "Web 17.0".

Okay, okay, we get the point. You have something about making humans more intelligent. I feel there is quite enough intelligence already in this world, it just doesn't get to be The President.

Paleontologists have observed that intelligence is a just another of those evolutionary experiments in the life history of this planet, like fish growing legs and coming onto the land, or lizards growing to gigantic proportions. Time may yet prove that it was a tragic mistake.

Maybe if it came onto us as a species gradually over a period of ten million years, rather than what appears to be a sudden big bang a hundred thousand years ago, one could have more confidence that it wasn't going to end in tears.

I can't tell from the summary whether any apocalyptic scenarios made it into the report, or if these were ruled out as being not interesting. The last two paragraphs could be included in a mundane manifesto, however.
There are many answers to many problems, but there is so much extraneous information that it is difficult to identify and concentrate on what is truly relevant. Since healthy democracies need relevant information, and since democracy is becoming more global, the public will need globally relevant information to sustain this trend. We hope the annual State of the Future reports can help... decision-makers and educators who fight against hopeless despair, blind confidence, and ignorant indifference -- attitudes that too often have blocked efforts to improve the prospects for humanity.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Heretical Science Fiction

Posted by goatchurch at 5:44 AM
I've recently been pestered with copies of the article Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society by "Hard" Science Fiction's favourite physicist Freeman Dyson. He writes:
As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions... When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate.
Okay, so predictions are always unreliable. This is not to say that some predictions are less reliable than others. For example, he continues:
To understand the movement of carbon through the atmosphere and biosphere, we need to measure a lot of numbers. I do not want to confuse you with a lot of numbers, so I will ask you to remember just one number. The number that I ask you to remember is one hundredth of an inch per year... We don’t know how big a fraction of our emissions is absorbed by the land, since we have not measured the increase or decrease of the biomass. The number that I ask you to remember is the increase in thickness, averaged over one half of the land area of the planet, of the biomass that would result if all the carbon that we are emitting by burning fossil fuels were absorbed. The average increase in thickness is one hundredth of an inch per year... To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil...

I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.
Must be suffering from amnesia here. The entirety of the Kyto Protocol (signed ten years ago when all this science was well established, but before Exxon and co set to work on our weak and feeble minds) was based on Carbon offsetting and carbon sinks, and was the subject of an entire volume of the 2001 IPCC report compiled by hundreds of scientists. For those of you who can handle more than one number, further figures can be found here. It is important to remember that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been climbing like a voracious weed over the last hundred years, suggesting that it might pose more of a problem than can be dealt with my merely mowing the lawn more frequently.

In fact, Dyson well knows about all this because he started the idea way back in 1976, as reported in this Cornerhouse briefing which reports:
Several decades ago, the British physicist Freeman Dyson, pondering the coming age of interplanetary travel, had a stupendous idea for propelling large payloads through space. Why not set off nuclear explosions underneath space probes and just blast them around the solar system?

Not many people found Dyson's brainwave attractive. But you can't keep a well-intentioned visionary down for long. In 1976, Dyson reemerged with another brilliant scheme: to soak up the excess carbon dioxide which the burning of fossil fuels was putting in the atmosphere by planting gigantic areas of trees.
Clearly, if he had anything important to add in the last 30 years he would taken it to one of the Working Group III meetings and had it looked into by the men with the facts, rather than merely announcing his heresies to the innumerate public. It's like a court of law. If you know the man on trial is innocent, you are suppose to avail yourself as witness, or have a very good excuse for not doing so.

No one has asked him for his excuse. However there's an interesting interview with him from earlier this year where he says:
"My view of the prevalence of doom-and-gloom in Cambridge is that it is a result of the English class system. In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher and have been gloomy ever since."
So, apparently, this whole climate change doom thing and threats to life as we know it is just wealth envy. The Brits and the rest of the world are simply not as optimistic as those rich Americans over there, who by the power of their beliefs can ignore reality. It's always been thus, he says:
"I do not agree that there has been a recent shift from progressive ideas to dystopian anxieties. The best writers have always been dystopian. In the 1890s we had Wells's Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. In the 1930s Huxley's Brave New World. These were the classics that I grew up with seventy years ago. Nothing that has been written recently is gloomier than Wells and Huxley. And in spite of that, there have always been optimists like me and Amory Lovins. I recommend Amory Lovins as an antidote to gloom and doom."
Friends, let me introduce Micawber Principle, by Charles Dickens:
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
Now the question I would like to pose is: Is this an optimistic or a pessimistic person making this statement?

Or is it someone explaining to you in simple terms what you need to do in order to avoid misery?

I would like to think that that's what scientists are doing. And if we make up stuff in order to ignore it, then we might find that their predictions are not quite as unreliable as science fiction writers are.

Meanwhile, while you were sleeping, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado last night have been stunned by the collapse of the Arctic ice sheet. They weren't expecting it. Turns out the climate models are indeed quite inaccurate. The situation is far worse than expected.

UPDATE: Trent, put a link to Edge Foundation, Inc on the right hand side panel, in which Dyson's article was published. It's got exactly the sort of thing SF writers ought to read if there's a chance they'll make stories that are better than real science.