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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

January 17, 2006

Future History

Something I read in the James May column on hybrid cars set me to thinking. He ends his article on the thought that, the sooner we use up all the oil and get it done and dusted, "the sooner real engineers and physicists will be forced to come up with something better."

This is very interesting to me, because it is an example of the kind of future thinking that you could characterise as robust and optimistic, which is in direct opposition to the sky-is-falling crowd who demand most of the media coverage of science.

The headline in yesterday's Indie, for example, was Environment in crisis: 'We are past the point of no return,' on top of a gloomy story about how James Lovelock thinks we're fucked now and it's too late to do anything about it.

I've always believed that modern science is essentially untrustworthy simply because of the way in which is is conducted. Which is not to say that I'm an anti-darwinist or something like that, but it's a fact of life that science is only conducted by those who have the funding to conduct it. So much is obvious. It's another fact that funding is not easy to come by, and that it tends to me gained by those who make the "best case" for it.

Unfortunately, the "best case" doesn't mean anything as obvious as a good argument, or a well-presented hypothesis. Best case means loudest voice, most effective use of wind to put up a politician's arse. That's for public science. In the private sector, of course, "best case" means "greatest potential source of profit."

Which leaves the rest of us wondering, because, quite clearly, if you plan to make your living doing scientific research, you've got to secure funding. And for some, this will mean following the latest trends and fashions, and joining in with the "environmental lobby", because that's where the money is.

Meanwhile, we still don't know what could happen, and there are any other number of possibilities for the future. What did James May mean by "real engineers and physicists", for example?

I believe he was drawing a distinction between touchy-feely scientists like Lovelock, who hypothesise something almost mystical, like Gaia, and who essentially rely on huge computer models to predict causes and effects. And what do we know about computers? Yes, they're rubbish. We also know that it is impossible to model the complex system of our Earth's climate, even with the biggest supercomputing cluster you can buy.

What might happen.

1. Drastic drop in temperature in our corner of the world due to change in Gulf Stream flow.

2. Higher sea levels caused by melting ice-caps and higher temperatures (but see 1)

3. Radical changes in flora and fauna caused by changing temperaturess (see 1 and 2)

4. Oil and gas run out, and before they do so become exceedingly expensive

5. The world manufacturing economy changes due to 1, 2, and 4, and returns to a simpler, more locally-based, model.

6. Complete break down in law and order, society, system of government, current moral/social values caused by 1-5 above.

All of the above is based - largely - on the most pessimistic predictions, and some of it can be mitigated by:

a. Nuclear option, providing we have a secure source of plutonium or whatever, and come up with a satisfactory way of storing and disposing of waste, and protecting installations and materiel from terrorist nutters

b. Alternative fuel option - wind/solar/biomass - providing the manufacturing economy (5) can sustain the production of solar panels, batteries, generators etc., all of which require supplies of raw materials and energy (see 4 and a).

So. What did James May have to be optimistic about?

Well, the robust optimists have always believed the following: when we need to, we will come up with a solution.

Science Fiction writer Larry Niven, for example, has always maintained that - when things get bad enough - the ingenuity of the human race will see them through, as we come up with HUGE solutions to HUGE problems. So big that they boggle the mind. Like, for example, coming up with a way of moving huge lumps of matter in the solar system into new orbits. Or turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant ring around the sun for everyone to live on. Dropping a comet onto the moon to provide a water supply.

On a smaller scale, current research into genetics and nanotechnology could hold solutions to many problems. Genetically engineered trees that grow incredibly fast, so we can use them more effectively as bio-fuel. Genetically engineered crops that will grow where they currently cannot. Genetically engineered people, who can live longer and lead more productive lives.

Nanotechnology that can be injected into the blood stream to cure diseases and enhance our abilities. Small, tabletop, manufacturing units that can nano-engineer anything we need from raw materials. Vastly improved efficiency in solar panels and battery life/storage capacity, enabling us to capture far more than the 1% of the sun's energy that all life on earth currently manages to grab. That's right: 99% of the sun's energy just pours into space.

There's more. Anti-gravity engines that revolutionise transport and allow us to travel, cheaply, to nearby planets to mine and colonise them. Ramjet engines, that use interstellar hydrogen for fuel, and allow us to travel to nearby stars.

Cold fusion reactors, allowing us to generate almost unlimited amounts of energy from sea water.*

A lot of the above might seem like crazy talk, science fiction, which of course it is. But none of it is necessarily impossible, and if you don't think that there are plenty of people experimenting with nanotech and genetech right now, then you haven't been paying attention.

The message from the optimists is, instead of wringing our hands and complaining about SUVs, we should be cracking on with the research. Three things: genetech, nanotech, and cold fusion, could solve all our current problems.

But, of course, not without risk. We're all scared of genetically modified beasts roaming the hills and killing our chickens. And then there's the famous grey goo effect, which is the fear that small nanobots will self-replicate themselves until everything becomes a big ball of grey goo.

Finally, as well as all of that, there's always the great deus ex machina of First Contact, the friendly aliens who will share their advanced technology with us, showing us how to travel faster than light and terraform other planets. Watch this space.

*Well, not really sea water - but one component of it, hydrogen, in its heavy isotope form of deuterium


  • i'm looking forward to living on a giant ring around the sun.

    By Blogger dog, at 2:07 am  

  • Or we could just be so caught up in banging sticks aggressively on the ground that we get jumped by a cave lion in a surprise attack.

    By Blogger SimonHolyHoses, at 2:46 am  

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