Friday, September 27, 2013

Links 27/09/13

'The Tommy Westphall Multiverse is a thought exercise, a parlor game writ large. And it’s tailor made for pop culture obsessives.'

Volume 1 of the Richard Feynman Lectures on Physics is now available free online. Volumes 2 and 3 are to follow.

'In 1881, Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, had a problem: the volume of data coming into his observatory was exceeding his staff’s ability to analyze it. He also had doubts about his staff’s competence–especially that of his assistant, who Pickering dubbed inefficient at cataloging. So he did what any scientist of the latter 19th century would have done: he fired his male assistant and replaced him with his maid, Williamina Fleming. Fleming proved so adept at computing and copying that she would work at Harvard for 34 years–eventually managing a large staff of assistants.

'So began an era in Harvard Observatory history where women—more than 80 during Pickering’s tenure, from 1877 to his death in 1919— worked for the director, computing and cataloging data. Some of these women would produce significant work on their own; some would even earn a certain level of fame among followers of female scientists. But the majority are remembered not individually but collectively, by the moniker Pickering's Harem.'

'The paleo-tectonic maps of retired geologist Ronald Blakey are mesmerizing and impossible to forget once you've seen them. Catalogued on his website Colorado Plateau Geosystems, these maps show the world adrift, its landscapes breaking apart and reconnecting again in entirely new forms, where continents are as temporary as the island chains that regularly smash together to create them, on a timescale where even oceans that exist for tens of millions of years can disappear leaving only the subtlest of geological traces.'

'Whole solar systems are needed to generate life, not just terrestrial planets with water.'

The Kawasaki Warehouse amusement game park in Japan 'has been designed as a historical replica of Kowloon ‘Walled’ City, capitalising on the enduring fascination with the lawless metropolis ever since its demolishment in 1980s.'

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Green Martians

From an essay over at 3quarksdaily, discussing Mars-colonisation booster Robert Zubrin's claims that 'radical environmentalists' are bent on suppressing progress in favour of protecting 'a fixed ecological order with interests that stand above those of humanity:'
'As we reflect upon our environmental challenges, two poles therefore define our actions. On the one hand is the ascetic modesty of sustainability, on the other the hubristic desire to colonize the galaxy. In some ways Mars colonization may seem the more immediately attractive solution as it come with all the thrill of a technical challenge and the allure of subsequent conquest.'
I explored this in the first two Quiet War books and (not to spoil the ending) it seems to me that it's a false dichotomy; it isn't a question of either creating a sustainable civilisation or going to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System. And while one can imagine, as I did, that in certain extreme circumstances some kind of Gaian religion might come to dominate politics, at the moment the balance is tipped far in the opposite direction. Right now on lifeboat Earth we're burning the furniture and decking for fuel, and looking the other way as water laps over the gunwhales.

The human species hasn't yet learned how to use technology responsibly, and we're still discovering that the biomes we're despoiling are packed with intricate interconnections that can't be easily reproduced. As the failed attempt in Biosphere 2 showed, we aren't yet up to the task of creating a fully self-contained ecosystem here on Earth, let alone in a space city on Mars. Both sides have a lot to teach each other: the kind of knowledge acquired from stewardship of increasingly fragile environments on Earth will be essential for creating the gardens of Mars; the kinds of technology needed to survive in extreme environments and recycle everything with as close to 100% efficiency as possible will have all kinds of uses here on Earth.

Or are Martians supposed to live off imported rations inside charmless cans while strip-mining the Hellas Basin (and if Earth is wrecked, who will they be selling their Martian ores to)? I admire Zubrin's passion, but I'm dismayed by the way he's directing it at straw men.
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