Category Archives: Anthropology

What humans have been, are now and might yet be.

2312: Terraforming the Solar System, Terraforming the Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book “2312″ is set in that titular year in a Solar System alive with busy humans and thousands of artificial habitats carved from asteroids. Earth is a crowded mess, home to eleven billion humans, but no longer the home of thousands of species, now only preserved, flourishing in fact, in the habitats. Spacers, those living in space, are long-lived, thanks to being artificially made “bisexual” (male & female) and some are living even longer by virtue of small size. Humans live from the Vulcanoids – a belt of asteroids just 0.1 AU from the Sun – out to Pluto, where a quartet of starships are being built for a 1,000 year flight to GJ 581. Mars has been terraformed, via Paul Birch’s process of burning an atmosphere out of the crust to make canals, while Venus is snowing carbon dioxide (another Birch idea.) The larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn are extensively inhabited and debating their terraforming options.

On Mercury Stan introduces us to the moving city Terminator, which runs along rails powered entirely via thermal expansion of the rails as they conduct heat from Mercurian day and radiate it away in the Mercurian night. Mercury is a planet of art museums and installations of art carved out of the periodically broiled and frozen landscape. Sunwalkers walk forever away from the Sunrise, braving the occasional glimpse of the naked Sun, which can kill with an unpredictable x-ray blast from a solar flare.

The two main protagonists are Swan, an Androgyn resident of Mercury, a renowed designer of space-habitats whose mother, Alex, has just died; and Wahram, a Wombman resident of Titan, who is negotiating access to solar energy for the terraforming of his home world. Due to a freak “accident” the two must journey through the emergency tunnels underneath Mercury’s Day-side, an experience which draws them together inspite of being literally worlds apart in personality and home-planets.

There’s a lot going on in 2312 and Stan only shows us a slivver. Plots to reshape the worlds and plots to overthroe the hegemony of humankind. But for our two interplanetary lovers such forces can’t keep them apart.

Of course, I’m not here to review the book. This being Crowlspace, I’m looking at the technicalities. Minor points of fact have a way of annoying me when they’re wrong. For example, Stan mentions Venus wanting to import nitrogen from Titan, which is rather ridiculous. The atmosphere of Venus is 3.5% nitrogen by volume, which works out as the equivalent of 2.25 bars partial pressure. Or about 3 times what’s on Earth. So importing nitrogen would be the equivalent of the Inuit importing ice.

Stan is critical of interstellar travel being portrayed as “easy” in Science-fiction. He mentions a fleet of habitats being sent out on a 1,000 year voyage to a star 20 light-years away – given the uncertainties of these things and the size of habitats, that’s not an unreasonable cruise speed. Yet he describes it as being “a truly fantastic speed for a human craft.” But at one point he mentions that a trip to Pluto from Venus takes 3 weeks, an unremarkable trip seemingly, yet that requires a top-speed of 0.022c – significantly higher than the starships!

He’s a bit vague about the pace of travel in the Solar System via “Aldrin cycles” – cycling orbits between destinations, timed to repeat. Buzz Aldrin developed the concept for easy transport to Mars – have a space-station with all the life-support in the right orbit and you only have to fly the passengers to the station, rather than all their supplies. The station either recycles everything or is resupplied by much slower automated freighters using electric propulsion. Stan’s mobile habitats do the former, with some small topping-up. But such Cyclers are slow. Stan mentions a Mercury-Vesta Cycler trip taking 8 days. Not possible for any Cycler orbit that’s bound to the Sun (i.e. cycling) – a straight-line parabolic orbit would take a minimum of 88.8 days. A proper Cycler needs to be on an orbit that can be shaped via the gravity of the planets to return it to the planets it is linking together, else too much fuel will be expended to reshape the orbit. Preferably an orbit that isn’t too elliptical else the shuttle fuel bill is too high. A minimum-energy Hohmann orbit would take 285 days to link Mercury and Vesta.

These are quibbling points. The real meat of the book is the optimistic future – a dazzlingly diverse one – that is basically plausible. Enticingly possible, in fact. Yet the optimism is tempered by the fact that not everyone is living in a wise, open society. Earth, even in 2312, remains a home to suffering masses, their plight made worse by the greenhouse effect’s flooding of low-lying parts of the Globe, and the Sixth Great Extinction’s erasure of most large animals from the planet (fortunately kept alive or genetically revived in the mobile habitats.) New York is mostly flooded, becoming a city of canal-streets, something I can imagine New Yorkers adapting to with aplomb.

The real challenge of the 24th Century, in Stan’s view, is the terraforming of the Earth, remaking a biosphere that we’ve ruined in our rush to industrialise. Perhaps. We certainly have many challenges ahead over the next 300 years…

Fermions & the Fermi Paradox

R.J.Spivey writes a provocative essay for the arXiv…

From Fermions to the Fermi Paradox: A Fertile Cosmos Fit for Life?

…basically Spivey suggests we’re jumping to conclusions too soon about Life in the Cosmos, that the real party is after our current Stelliferous Era, when Life exists in a multitude of planets formed from supernova remnants, powered by neutrino annihilation in pressurized iron. Spivey is also disinclined to include us as that “Life” – we might yet attain that level of advancement, but for now our Future fate is for us to create. We might fail to advance to the level of Galactic Colonists, able to adapt to Ocean planets under ice, living off the thin trickle of energy from neutrinos (via the reverse photo-neutrino effect) for 100 billion trillion years. He suggests that the efforts to make artificial life will fail and that we’ll need to hone our bioengineering skills to remodel an ecosystem fit for the Ocean planets of the distant future.

Plenty More Room…

A commenter on a discussion of femtotech at HPlus gave a detailed breakdown of how to feed 30 billion people on Planet Earth and squeeze them in…

Work Free Future / There’s Still Room on Earth – BUT SHARE

…was kind of a non-sequitur in the context. Here’s my reply…

Nice, though kind of unrelated. And you’re missing the point. All those foodstuffs could be manufactured via nanotech food-fabbers from basic CHON materials (plus essential micronutrients) from any source. If you want a world fed and powered by solar, then we can do much better than the ~0.1% energy storage efficiency of living things. Every person on Earth could be fed and serviced from an associated tank of raw-materials feeding into the right nano-tech system. We might need to get used to the idea of throwing our things back in the fabber to be reconfigured, but I am sure we could adapt.

In that situation, then how many can be accomodated on Planet Earth? Personally, given the prospect of bulk carbonoid materials of near diamond strength materials, I like Arthur C. Clarke’s concept from his “3001: The Final Odyssey” of the large inhabited towers reaching up to geosynchronous orbit. Assuming 3.5786 metres per level, then each tower is 10,000,000 levels high. Assuming a lateral cross-sectional area of ~ 1 km^2, then 3 towers arranged equidistant around the equator represent 30,000,000 sq.kilometres of accomodation. Giving each person a generous 1,000 square metre allotment, then allows the 30 billion previously proposed to be accomodated with minimal use of terrestrial landscape. Of course a wider set of Towers can squeeze more in. 300 billion? 3 trillion?

How much energy do they need? Connected to geosynchronous orbit directly the Towers might be powered entirely from the bounty of the Sun directly. Supporting 3 trillion at the 10 kW/person level – the energy equivalent of 100 times a person’s recommended caloric intake – means 30,000 TW is required. While this is a full quarter of the light absorbed by Earth the collector arrays need only be ~8.4% the area at 50% efficiency due to the near perpetual sunlight at that great remove from Earth’s shadow.

Of course since most people would then be living in space and reduced gravity, the next logical move is further out. Really thinking nano – and human engineering – we might adapt our bodies to empty space itself, recycling most of the time and powering our bodies with the sun. We’d need to work-out how to survive flares (x-ray photosynthetic symbiotes?) and high energy particles, but with nano…

Linda Nagata‘s “Vast” features a variety of different space-adapted humans and aliens, quite convincingly portrayed.

Brainy Blogging from Brazil: Part 1

The human brain as a linearly scaled-up primate brain.

There are truisms in brain-science which hide more than they reveal. For example, the old line that there’s 100 billion neurones in the brain and ten times as many non-neurones as neurones. It’s true, and not true, but the details are complicated. From the diagrammed average brain we have the following breakdown…

Whole Brain:
1500 grams, 170 billion (170 B) cells
86 B neurones
84 B non-neurones
ratio non/neurone: 0.99

Cerebral Cortex: 81.8% mass, 19.0% neurones
1233 grams, 77 B cells
16 B neurones
61 B non-neurones
ratio non/neurone: 3.76

Cerebellum: 10.3% mass, 80.2% neurones
154 grams, 85 B cells
69 B neurones
16 B non-neurones
ratio non/neurone: 0.23

Rest of Brain: 7.8% mass, 0.8% neurones
118 grams, 8.4 B cells
0.7 B neurones
7.7 B non-neurones
ratio non/neurone: 11.35

…which is interesting because the even ratio of neurone to non-neurone (which includes glial cells and blood vessels etc.) is not evenly distributed. Surprisingly the cortex isn’t the main show for neurones – the “Back-up Brain”, the cerebellum, has more. Which makes sense because of its intensive role in fine-motor control and similar real-time computation heavy work. If the cortex is the repository of cognition and memory, with the hippocampus as the “pattern buffer” of memorising processing, then the higher glial component is needed for its support role for the chemical and hormonal changes needed by memory and “higher level” thinking.

The cerebellum is the “robot controller” which has to smooth out the commands from the cortex and monitors them in real time. Thus lots of neuronal circuits working to keep “body programs” running smoothly in dynamic response to external conditions , thus the neurones are all squeezed close together for maximum speed.

More glial are needed in the brain-stem and cortex because they contain more “cabling” – longer neuronal ‘wires’ feed-up from the body, and back to the body, through the brain-stem and fan-out into the different cortical areas, as well as cross-wiring the different cortical areas.

Ok. Enough description. Part 2 will explore some of the implications.

Neanderthal Man is… Us!

NEANDERTALS LIVE! from Assoc. Prof. John Hawks’ weblog.

John Hawks discusses how Neanderthals have survived to the present day, as recently revealed by their sequenced genomes. More interestingly it means the Neanderthals were the same species as Homo sapiens – they really were Homo sapiens neanderthalis, a sub-species variant, as a lot of older paleoanthropologists insisted c.30-40 years ago. We didn’t evolve from them, but they have contributed genes to our common humanity. All us non-Africans, and probably many living Africans, owe them a debt of ancestry. Our expanding population of African-originated variant Homo swallowed up the smaller population of regional variants that was ‘Neanderthal Man’, some 50-40,000 years ago…

Neuro-Theology Part 1

Dr. Michael Persinger is a researcher in neuroscience at the Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. He has made a wide-range of often controversial claims for the origins of “spiritual” experiences – for example, that magnetic stimulation of the brain can cause out-of-body and “Sensed Presence” experiences, or that natural geomagnetic disturbances, from “earth-lights” and similar geo-plasma, can cause people to see UFOs and the like. Here are some recent papers of particular interest, an annotated bibliography of neuro-theology.

On the Possible Representation of the Electromagnetic Equivalents of All Human Memory within the Earth’s Magnetic Field: Implications for Theoretical Biology …in this 2008 paper he discusses the possibility of “all human memory” being represented/stored in the Earth’s EM field. All animals with similar neurology, and maybe plants with electrically active biology, could also being stored there, I’m extrapolating. Does provide a possible explanation for ‘telepathy’, ‘race memory’, ‘past-life memories, and similar esoteric tropes.

ON THE POSSIBILITY OF DIRECTLY ACCESSING EVERY
HUMAN BRAIN BY ELECTROMAGNETIC INDUCTION OF
FUNDAMENTAL ALGORITHMS
…a 1995 paper in which he describes a possible mechanism for ‘telepathy’ and mass influence, an often remarked feature of cultural groups. He mention briefly a lot of ideas for the way consciousness and the body’s neurology interact, some of which feature in recent neuro-imaging studies that try to identify the neural correlate of consciousness.

Johnjoe MacFadden is another bioscientist with a theory of consciousness, the Conscious Electro-Magnetic Information field theory, which he discusses most recently in this paper… Conscious Electromagnetic Field Theory …from 2007. He also has an interesting theory of Quantum Evolution that’s well worth exploring. Basically, due to the quantum nature of DNA’s atomic components a sequence of DNA can exist in a superposition of all possible mutational states and, somehow, this can steer mutation towards a selectively advantageous direction. Read Johnjoe’s discussion to understand it further. Interestingly Greg Egan, a Western Australian SF writer I heartily recommend, uses a quantum-trick about a fictional “super-mutational” enzyme in his novel Teranesia, an apparently independently developed idea.

Evidence of Macroscopic Quantum Entanglement During Double Quantitative Electroencephalographic Measurements of Friends vs Strangers …in this December 2009 paper Persinger et.al. discuss apparent evidence of macroscopic quantum entanglement between the brains of different people. Apparently “telepathy” though just what information exchange in this fashion means is difficult to discern. One doesn’t know that “telepathically” received information is correct or otherwise without a regular communication to verify the content. Prior to the conventional signal arriving one has to take one’s “impressions” entirely on ‘faith’. Makes for an interesting SF scenario, perhaps.

The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences …a 2001 paper, quite lengthy, discussing exactly what it says. I’m currently reading this one, so I’ll elaborate more in part 2 of this post. Persinger’s philosophical stance is made clear within its conclusion…

To date there has not been a single type of paranormal experience that is not understandable in terms of known brain functions. The consideration of these experiences as predictable components of brain activity will allow the differentiation between the illusions of intrinsic stimulation and the validity of information obtained through mechanisms yet to be explained.

As his other papers indicate, there’s something collective about human consciousness too. We’re not just a blob of neurones locked away in our skulls. A “geopsyche”, as he dubs it, can be produced like the sub-domains of a magnetic field can merge together to form one field. In the case of humans, for good or ill. In esotericism such a concept, without a physical cause, is known as an ‘egregore’.

God of the Goofs

Theology and theodicy are fraught with pitfalls and surprises. Amateur theology even more so. Here’s a review that is a case in point…

A caring God would not have designed us like this

…discussing a review of a new book, Inside the Human Genome: A case for non-intelligent design by John C. Avise, which argues the genome is such a demonic mess that it had no Designer. The reviewer makes the interesting point – perhaps we have a moral imperative to then fix the mess.

But what of the Designer? With a hat-tip to Anne Rice I wrote this…

Perhaps the Designer intended for biochemical Life to remain as ‘immortal’ archea & eubacteria, and was taken by surprise when they ganged together, made eukaryotes, then sex & death at the same time. After a billion years of watching the carnage S/He decided “enough is enough” and chose to intervene by developing an Intelligent Watchmaker who could fix the biosphere… but we’re just not finished yet. The Designer is still struggling with how to handle “junk memes” and is working on new software to upgrade us to Humanity 2.0…

As believeable as any religion, just more up-to-date.

…tongue firmly in cheek, but the point is that perhaps God didn’t know how the world would turn out – until it turned out this way. Even a “god outside time” has to let events occur to foreknow them, else they’re all being directly orchestrated by god and any “freedom” and “free-will”, as well as any evil and sin, is written into the Script of the cosmos, and God really is just a mask for the Devil. So even a God outside time must be surprised, from time to time, but eternally surprised.

And why should we be surprised by that fact? A number of mathematical arguments imply that knowledge, even perfect knowledge, of a system is only possible by letting that system ‘run’ when it is past a certain level of complexity. God took a cosmic risk when S/He created space-time and all else that followed.

A Secret Gospel?

Prof. James Tabor is a scholar whose work on Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity I have a lot of respect for. His teacher, in turn, was Morton Smith, who attracted a storm of controversy in his life because of his discovery of “Secret Mark”, quoted in a previously unknown letter by the early 3rd Century Church Father Clement of Alexandria. James Tabor discusses this episode in his mentor’s life here… Vindicating Morton Smith …which is worth a read. His blog post was sparked by a very even-handed treatment of the controversy in the latest Biblical Archeology Review (Nov/Dec 2009)… Secret Mark: An Amazing Discovery …and a previous Tabor Blog piece on the latest status of the debate over “Secret Mark”. The previous Tabor-blog piece references this
article by Anthony Grafton which discusses Gershon Scholem’s influence on Morton Smith and their correspondance which makes the ‘forgery’ case more unlikely for any fair-minded observer.

So what of the offending piece itself? The indispensable Early Christian Writings website discusses “Secret Mark” in detail and provides a translation of Clement’s putative letter in which the contentious text is quoted. In the end one either follows the data on trust or retreats into utter scepticism. There is no slam-dunk argument or clue in this case.

Other Links:
A short summary of arguments in favour of authenticity
Book blurb on “Secret Mark” …and a not so friendly review.
An interesting thesis… Identification of the Bethany Youth in the Secret Gospel of Mark with other Figures Found in Mark and John
…a surprising answer, but not a unique conclusion as to a certain mysterious disciple.

Beyond the Desert Earth…

Long, long after Earth has dried up it may end up locked tidally into facing the Sun on one side and the Cosmic Heatsink on the other, forever. What would such an Earth be like?

Earth: 7.5 Billion AD

…a description of an end-state scenario described by Jeffrey Kargel in 2003 (“New Scientist” article… “Hell on Earth” ), best seen in this graphic…

(a larger version can be found here… graphic) Basically one side of the Earth is a magma ocean at 2500 K, while the other is covered in the deepest, coldest night at 33 K. In between is an annular ocean surprisingly of liquid water. An ocean between silicate rain and argon snow. What strange remains might be scavenged from the strata of the Earth that many aeons beyond our day? What would we leave behind?