Sunday, 28 October 2012

Dark They Will Be, And Golden-Eyed

I've just finished watching a documentary called The Mars Underground on Youtube. If you have an hour and a quarter and are interested in space exploration, it is worth a view.

Much of the documentary contrasts a thirty-year stagnation in NASA's exploration of space with the determination of aerospace engineers who want to get people onto Mars. Representing them is Robert Zubrin, who created a concept called Mars Direct in 1990, while working at Martin Marietta. It evolved into variants over the years, notably a NASA revision called the Design Reference Mission. Version 5.0 of that was completed on 1 Sept. 2012.

Zubrin suggests that NASA suffers from having no grand Presidential imperative, like the challenge (and deadline!) to get people to the moon, which President Kennedy gave it in 1961. Without such an outside push, NASA cannot overcome the resistance of some administrators and research teams that see Mars Direct as a threat to their relevance and funding. For example, Mars Direct has no use for the International Space Station, which makes the prestige and funding of the Space Station project feel less secure. It uses currently-available rocket technology, which makes several research projects on advanced propulsion methods unnecessary.

If NASA has become conflicted in its desire for human exploration of other worlds, then the way forward is to develop capabilities outside NASA's walls. That way, the next time that a president decides to order a mission to Mars and Congress decides to fund it, much of the technology (from rockets to capsules to inflatable modules for extra room) will have been fully developed, tested, mass-produced, and ready for sale.

Indeed, the progressive elements in NASA, the White House, and the U.S. Congress seem to have realized this when they funded commercial space companies such as SpaceX through the COTS, CRS, and CCDev programs. These are meant to develop and use commercial services to move supplies and people to and from the International Space Station. The third phase of CCDev, now called "Commercial Crew Integrated Capability" (CCiCap) is to have the selected companies produce "complete end-to-end design, including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations and recovery." (According to Wikipedia).

Once such equipment is designed and built, it is, of course, available to other customers, and becomes more independent of political whims than NASA is. For example, (again from Wikipedia), SpaceX has already been hired by
private sector companies, non-American government agencies and the American military for its launch services. It has already launched, for a paying customer, a low earth orbiting satellite with its Falcon 1 booster in 2009. The company plans to launch its first commercial geostationary satellite in 2013 from a Falcon 9.
It is also developing a larger rocket for commercial use called the Falcon Heavy. (More here). Its first customer will be Intelsat.

However, SpaceX has proposed that NASA use the Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon capsule to send an unmanned mission to Mars to look for signs of life. The proposal, called Red Dragon, is being studied by NASA now. "The mission cost is projected to be less than US$400 million, plus $150 million to $190 million for a launch vehicle and lander" In contrast to this $590-million budget, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project, which put the Curiosity Rover on Mars, cost about US$2.5 billion. The Red Dragon project, if funding is granted in 2012/13, could be launched in 2018.

SpaceX is building its rockets and capsules so that they can be certified for human use. Therefore, Red Dragon would test the same equipment that could put some version of Mars Direct into effect. In fact, the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has said that he wants to land humans on Mars in 12 to 15 years (2024 to 2027). This would beat NASA to the red planet by a number of years, as it is currently planning to land sometime in the 2030's.

There is, besides technology and funding, another potential point of failure for a 2½-year mission to Mars, and that is people. The ability of a small number of people to live together peaceably and to stay sane, particularly over the six-month trips to and from Earth, is untested. Not everyone could manage, and we might not know which people could until we try. This problem was discussed in the beginning of Robert Heinlein's book Stranger in a Strange Land, and it is worth looking at that passage again.
But the physical danger was judged to be less important than the psychological stresses. Eight humans, crowded together like monkeys for almost three Terran years, had better get along much better than humans usually did. An all-male crew had been vetoed as unhealthy and socially unstable from lessons learned earlier. A ship's company of four married couples had been decided on as optimum, if the necessary specialties could be found in such a combination.
The University of Edinburgh, prime contractor, sub-contracted crew selection to the Institute for Social Studies. After discarding the chaff of volunteers useless through age, health, mentality, training, or temperament, the Institute still had over nine thousand candidates to work from, each sound in mind and body and having at least one of the necessary special skills. It was expected that the Institute would report several acceptable four-couple crews.
No such crew was found. The major skills needed were astrogator, medical doctor, cook, machinist, ship's commander, semantician, chemical engineer, electronics engineer, physicist, geologist, biochemist, biologist, atomics engineer, photographer, hydroponicist, rocket engineer. Each crew member would have to possess more than one skill, or be able to acquire extra skills in time. There were hundreds of possible combinations of eight people possessing these skills; there turned up three combinations of four married couples possessing them, plus health and intelligence, but in all three cases the group-dynamicists who evaluated the temperament factors for compatibility threw up their hands in horror.
The prime contractor suggested lowering the compatibility figure of merit; the Institute stiffly offered to return its one dollar fee. In the meantime a computer programmer whose name was not recorded had the machines hunt for three-couple rump crews. She found several dozen compatible combinations, each of which defined by its own characteristics the couple needed to complete it. In the meantime the machines continued to review the data changing through deaths, withdrawals, new volunteers, etc.
Captain Michael Brunt, M.S., Cmdr. D. F. Reserve, pilot (unlimited license), and veteran at thirty of the Moon run, seems to have had an inside track at the Institute, someone who was willing to look up for him the names of single female volunteers who might (with him) complete a crew, and then pair his name with these to run trial problems through the machines to determine whether or not a possible combination would be acceptable. This would account for his action in jetting to Australia and proposing marriage to Doctor Winifred Coburn, a horse-faced spinster semantician nine years his senior. The Carlsbad Archives pictured her with an expression of quiet good humor but otherwise lacking in attractiveness.
Or Brant may have acted without inside information, solely through that trait of intuitive audacity necessary to command an exploration. In any case lights blinked, punched cards popped out, and a crew for the Envoy had been found:
Captain Michael Brant, commanding-pilot, astrogator, relief cook, relief photographer, rocketry engineer;
Dr. Winifred Coburn Brant, forty-one, semantician, practical nurse, stores officer, historian;

Mr. Francis X. Seeney, twenty-eight, executive officer, second pilot, astrogator, astrophysicist, photographer;

Dr. Olga Kovalic Seeney, twenty-nine, cook, biochemist, hydroponicist;
Dr. Ward Smith, forty-five, physician and surgeon, biologist;

Dr. Mary Jane Lyle Smith, twenty-six, atomics engineer, electronics and power technician;

Mr. Sergei Rimsky, thirty-five, electronics engineer, chemical engineer, practical machinist & instrumentation man, cryologist;

Mrs. Eleanora Alvarez Rimsky, thirty-two, geologist and selenologist, hydroponicist.

The crew had a well-rounded group of skills, although in some cases their secondary skills had been acquired by intensive coaching during the last weeks before blast-off. More important, they were mutually compatible in their temperaments.
What could go wrong? The expedition was eventually marred by infidelity, followed by pregnancy, followed by death in childbirth, followed by a murder and subsequent suicide. The result was that the newborn child was "as real as taxes but he was a race of one."

(Note: the quotations from Stranger are from the uncut version that was published in 1991 and not the much shorter version that was published thirty years earlier).

Fortunately, many of NASA's scientists have been fans of Heinlein since childhood and will remember this cautionary tale as they make their plans.


For anyone wondering, the title of this post is a variation on "Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed," one of the late Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" stories. It was in an anthology of stories that we had in school. The title always intrigued me. The story itself made me shudder.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Romance of Lists

A simple list can have a fascination to it that is not so simple to explain. Consider the shopping list written by the Blessed Liebowitz in Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. It is preserved and revered by the good monks of the Albertan Order of Liebowitz.
Pound pastrami, said one note, can kraut, six bagels,—bring home for Emma.
Another list occurs after the dramatis personæ in the play Cyrano de Bergerac. It classifies characters who are not worthy of individual mention but are, nevertheless, needed.
The Crowd, Citizens, Marquis, Musketeers, Thieves, Pastrycooks, Poets, Cadets of Gascoyne, Actors, Violins, Pages, Children, Spanish Soldiers, Spectators, Intellectuals, Academicians, Nuns, etc.
What a cross-section of humanity in these words! I think that most people can recognize themselves somewhere in that list. In fact, the word "etc." guarantees it.

John Steinbeck uses lists to show the rich diversity in Cannery Row.
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
One thing these lists have in common is that we are familiar with their contents. If we are not, then the list becomes a mystery. It gives us an overview of alien thoughts. Jorge Luis Borges illustrated this in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" with a bizarre list of the fourteen types of animals, reputedly taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopædia.
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Thorium Reactors are Coming

If you had to trust your supply of energy and the future of your civilization to someone's hands, which of these would you choose?
Thor Pluto (Hades)

On the left we have Thor, god of electrical power in the form of lightning, tested, protective, and Teutonic; on the right is the god of the depths and the dead. A third choice, not shown, is Uranus, the husband of the earth who, hating the children she bore him, imprisoned them underground.

Moving from myth to chemistry, our players are thorium, plutonium, and uranium. During the cold war, the world's nations threw in their lot with uranium because it could create plutonium for weapons. Thorium could not, so research into thorium as a source of energy finally died in the United States in 1976.

Thorium is not as well known as other metals because we don't, at the moment, use it for much. Nevertheless, it is as common as better-known metals, such as lead, and has interesting qualities as a nuclear fuel. Compare it to uranium:
  1. Since thorium reactions need an outside source of neutrons, thorium reactors are safe. If anything goes wrong, the supply of neutrons either stops by itself or gets switched off, and the reaction simply stops. If reactor number 4 at Chernobyl had been run on thorium, there would have been no disaster in 1986. If the Fukushima reactor had been run on thorium, there would have been no disaster in 2011.
  2. Since thorium cannot be used for atomic weapons, it is good for world peace. Consider the example of Iran's nuclear program, which Iran says is only meant to make electricity, and which Israel and the United States believe is for atomic weapons. We could very well go to war on this issue. However, if Iran built a thorium reactor, that would prove its peaceful purpose. All that Israel and the United States could do is take a step back, take a deep breath, and say, "Good for you."
  3. Since thorium is four times more plentiful than uranium, thorium is cheaper. As well, thorium usually comes from monazite sands, which are being mined, anyway, for rare earth elements. In other words, we might not have to build any new mines or take any more ore from the earth than we are already doing.
  4. It is only slightly radioactive on its own.
  5. The products of the thorium reaction have very short half-lives compared to the products of a uranium reaction.
Thorium reactors can be built according to uniquely tailored designs, such as molten salt reactors, but can also be used as a fuel by one existing and well-tested reactor design, Canada's CANDU reactor. The maker of the CANDU, Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd. (AECL) has partnered with a Chinese firm to investigate thorium fuel for CANDUs. Since India has very large supplies of monazite, it is also interested in thorium power. It plans to have 30% of its energy come from thorium reactors by 2050.

I first heard about thorium reactors from a TEDx Talk by Kirk Sorensen. A book on the subject is available from Amazon and its own website: Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal by Robert Hargraves. The book's title is reason enough to look seriously into thorium reactors.

Later, if you are interested in space travel, look into powering NERVA atomic rocket engines with thorium.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Milestone Worth Mentioning

Today, as it turns out, is a special day for both my Beowulf Blog and this one. The Beowulf Blog has just passed its 10,000th page view, and has received a record number of visitors in just the last month, almost 2,000 of them.

On the other hand, this blog, which is quite a bit younger than the other, has its own milestones to celebrate. It received 1,014 page views in just the last month, and will pass a total of 3,000 views over the period of its existence either tonight or tomorrow. The number right now stands at 2,983.

I am happy about the way that the number of visitors has grown. Many thanks to all of you, especially those who keep coming back.

Some posts are more popular than others, of course. Here are the stars so far:
  1. Déjeuner sur l'herbe, and Harper au naturel (410 page views)
  2. Free Symphony Recordings from Musopen Ready (124 page views)
  3. Submarines around China, and Some Thoughts on World War III (123 page views)
  4. John Carter of Mars (389 page views)
  5. Microsoft's Good Taste, and Other Snarkasms (190 page views)
  6. Ron Perlman, Films and Poems, and the Favorite Poem Project (291 page views)

Friday, 5 October 2012

Cleaner Cars; Clean, Cheap Energy; and the Future of the Planet

In 1972, when I was in grade 10, a book called Limits to Growth was published by a group called the Club of Rome. It became a best-seller, its subject was important, and its conclusions were terrifying, so I could not ignore it, even though it was a difficult read for me at the time. The book combined modern data and computer models with the time-tested assumptions of Thomas Robert Malthus in his book An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus and the Club of Rome agree that certain resources are limited or grow slowly, according to a linear growth model, while population and its demands for the resource grow exponentially. The Wikipedia page on Limits to Growth summarizes the study:
Five variables were examined in the original model, on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described their patterns of increase, and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly. These variables are: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion.
And the conclusions:
Two of the scenarios saw "overshoot and collapse" of the global system by the mid to latter part of the 21st century, while a third scenario resulted in a "stabilized world."
The conclusions threatened the ability of many industries and politicians to pursue "business as usual," and the "stabilized world" would be uncomfortably constrained for many people, so the book ended up being widely dismissed and attacked. It was an "Inconvenient Truth," Mark I.

Nevertheless, the production and consumption predictions of the book have been generally upheld in the twenty- and thirty-year updates. I have found it difficult to tuck the book away in the back of my mind and retain a generally optimistic outlook. Only a few general principles have fought back in my mind against the book's specific predictions. One is Buckminster Fuller's "You can do more with less." For example, the amount of copper used in a transatlantic phone cable is huge, but a few ounces of the stuff in a telecommunications satellite could outperform the cable. Another is Larry Niven's dictum that all problems are solvable, if you only have enough energy. Is pollution a problem? With enough cheap energy, you could trap the pollutants then shoot them into the sun! (That is not a serious suggestion, by the way; I'm just illustrating the concept). Finally, there was a calculation, probably by Isaac Asimov, that most of the scientists who had ever lived were still alive. That was a comfort, in theory, but I didn't see results that removed the worries that Limits to Growth had planted.

Until this week.

I've been doing a little research, spurred by a series of TED Talks, that has left me more hopeful than I have been in years. No, strike that. I'm actually feeling excited.

Let's start with energy, a field where changing technology can make a large difference in our use of limited resources and our production of unwanted materials such as pollutants and greenhouse gases. A TED Talk by Amory Lovins breaks down the use of energy in the United States with this graphic.

It illustrates that there are two main types of energy produced in the United States. Three quarters of the energy from burning oil and gas goes to transportation; three-quarters of the electricity that is generated goes to buildings (homes, offices, etc.); one quarter of both goes to factories. The two types of energy are largely distinct: only one percent of the electrical generation comes from burning oil, though about half of it comes from coal.

That means that we could make a substantial reduction--a three-fifths  reduction, in fact--of our demand for oil and gas by switching over to all-electric cars. If you have reservations or objections at this point, please hold them back for a while; I'll address them later. For now, let's look at the present and immediate future of electrical car adoption.

Although there were electric cars before Tesla Motors started production in 2008, the Tesla Roadster, in my opinion, was a game-changer. First, it addressed and reversed the common conception that electric vehicles were, by nature, slow, unattractive, and limited in range--little more than street-legal golf-carts. The Roadster was a two-seater sports car with very impressive acceleration, quiet ride, and suspension and handling that were (thanks to the use of some parts from the Lotus Elise) competitive with other sports cars. The car could go a respectable distance (320 km) per charge. Its base price of $109,000 meant that only rich people could buy it, but those were exactly the people who would set the taste for electric cars in people of more limited means. Tesla has planned, from the beginning, to take the profits from this niche product to create more affordable models, as it has done.

The Tesla Model S is a four-door sedan that began selling in June, 2012. The 85 kWh model achieves 425 km per charge for a base price of $95,000 U.S. and the 40 kWh model achieves 160 km per charge for $57,400 U.S. An intermediate model with a 60 kWh battery pack is planned. These prices are high, but are similar to , say, a BMW 7 Series car at $71,000 to $137,300. The Tesla could compete on price as a top-tier luxury sedan if it also competes in quality. Fortunately, the reviews indicate that it does.  Reviewers and industry analysts love it. More than half of the company's planned production of the model is already reserved by customers.

So, electric vehicles are already competitive with internal combustion vehicles at the mid-upper end of the market. What's needed to bring them to the true mass market is better batteries: ones that hold more charge per unit of weight, recharge faster, and are cheaper overall. The first Tesla solution, a battery pack containing 6,831 laptop batteries, will only take it partway down to mass adoption. We need, at the least, a battery that weighs no more, costs no more, and supports an eight-hour drive on one charge.

Fortunately, there are new battery technologies that could take the electric car all the way down to the common man. For example, IBM recently announced it is working on a lithium-air battery that outpaces the lithium-ion battery we all know. It says that a car with these batteries could achieve 800 km per charge. They admit that, even if the research succeeds, it will not be ready for production until about 2020. On the other hand, GM announced in August, 2012, that it is supporting the development of lithium-ion batteries at Envia Systems that could raise the all-electric range of its cars to 160 or even 320 km per charge while cutting the cost of batteries in half. These batteries may be available in "a couple of years." Other next-generation ideas for battery technologies could cut the costs of electric cars.

If the technology is there, the market could adopt it surprisingly quickly. For example, a study in the U.S. showed that from
July 1, 2008, through September — a period that included the cash-for-clunkers program — more than 14.8 million cars and light trucks were scrapped in the United States.
Since there are 193,979,654 vehicles classified as "Light duty vehicle, short wheel base" (i.e. the common car), it would take a bit over 13 three-month periods to replace the internal-combustion cars in the U.S., or 3.25 years. Once this was done, the car population would make far less noise and no pollution during use and require no fossil fuels to operate. Their energy requirements would come, instead, from the production of electricity. Since that does not require oil, the oil industry would, in theory, be decimated. Oil-producing countries that have little else to sustain their economies, such as Saudi Arabia, would see their income shrivel. Powerful forces would struggle to prevent the change. At the same time, though, we must admit that these powerful forces once included the auto industries themselves. Those companies, plus the public demand for clean, cheap transportation, will probably, messily, prevail. Let's give the transition a decade or so to happen.

Now we have to admit that switching to electric cars does not eliminate the demand for energy; it simply switches the source of the energy to power plants of one sort or another. If their primary fuel is coal, then we simply move our pollution from the cities to the power plants. Admittedly, this in itself may be worthwhile, although the CO2 levels in the atmosphere might not benefit. To achieve the full environmental benefits of electric cars, we must supply them with power from environmentally clean sources--hydro power (where available), thorium (when available), solar, and wind. Unfortunately, though, solar and wind power have a common problem. The sun goes down, the wind dies down, and the lights in town will dim until the old reliable sources can ramp up to make up  for the shortfall.

Solar and wind power, frankly, will not be able to reliably fill the need until there is a way to store large amounts of power until it is needed and then release the power instantly. A Canadian Chemist teaching at MIT, Donald Sadoway, thinks that the Liquid Metal Battery solves this problem, and has formed a company called Ambri to commercialize it. In 2012, Time magazine listed Sadoway as one of the "Hundred Most Influential People in the World." Bill Gates believes in this technology, and is one of its major investors. Its effect on the economics of clean electricity production may wean whole countries off coal, the same way that electric cars will, I believe, wean them off oil.

Limits to Growth is correct that the demand for certain resources expands exponentially and that the earth cannot indefinitely supply that demand. The only way to stave off the collapse of all the systems that maintain our civilization is to make use of two other resources that can also grow exponentially: science and technology. The results of certain fundamental changes due to these two resources can slash our demand for other resources, such as oil and coal. What I have learned in the last week is that game-changing new technologies either have appeared in the last few years or will appear in the next couple of years. These, as a byproduct, offer hope of reducing the carbon we put into the air by four fifths. In short, as Donald Sadoway put it in his TED talk,
If we're going to get this country out of its current energy situation, we can't just conserve our way out. We can't just drill our way out. We can't bomb our way out. We're going to do it the old-fashioned, American way. We're going to invent our way out, working together.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Children's Choirs in the London Olympics Opening Ceremony

The Opening Ceremony is the only part that I saw of the London Olympics, and even that was only after I came across some news reports that were deeply impressed and others that were trying, at length, to explain it to a confused American audience. Its writer himself tried to explain it in an article in the Guardian.

I loved it, myself. I saw England, in particular, showing off to the world how it sees itself, what it is proud of, whether or not the world understands the references. The result sets England's "green and pleasant" pre-industrial land against the engineers who ushered in the Industrial Revolution, classical against modern music, the two World Wars against the National Health Service, Shakespeare against the classics of modern children's literature. Watching that with one of my students (who are typically Canadian or Korean), explaining as I go, is a pleasant class in British, particularly English, history and culture.

One bit puzzled me, though, about the children's choirs who introduce each nation of the U.K. through a characteristic song.

The English, of course, get "Jerusalem." It is, in effect, the unofficial "national anthem" of the English nation. It also has a set of passionate, inspiring, metaphorical lyrics by one of the world's great poets, William Blake. 

I did not know the Scottish song, "Flower of Scotland" (or "Flùr na h-Alba," in Gaelic) but it has apparently reached the same status as an unofficial anthem in Scotland as "Jerusalem" in England. Appropriately, given the family rivalries of the nations in the U.K., it refers to fighting the English in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but it focuses on the soldiers' courage and love of home, not the battle itself. It is a suprisingly recent song, having been written and first sung by the Corries in 1967.

I approved that the Welsh choir did not go for the Welsh anthem "Land of my Fathers" (or "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau," in Welsh) but for something even more representative, the hymn "Cwm Rhondda," sung in harmony. One of the defining features of Welsh culture is the "Gymanfa Ganu," a get-together to sing this and other hymns in harmony. My family once had a record of one such gathering of ten thousand expatriate Welsh who rented the Royal Albert Hall and sang there most beautifully, in parts, without rehearsal. In a sense, they had been rehearsing all their lives.

The Irish tune, however, puzzled me. "Danny Boy" is definitely associated with Ireland, and may refer to diaspora of Irish at different points in history, but it is a sad song lamenting the absence of a loved one. Why this for the Olympics? I admit, many Irish patriotic songs would be even less appropriate because they celebrate the killing of the English more directly than the Scottish song did.

Today, I had an epiphany. The song "Danny Boy" was perfect because the ceremonies were directed by Danny Boyle. It's his signature on the piece.