Science, technology & design

The next 100,000 years

It’s become fashionable to be pessimistic about humanity’s prospects of late. One gloomy prognostication, from the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at Oxford in 2008, put the probability of our species lasting until the year 2100 at around 19%. Sounds nonsense. Fossil evidence, for instance, suggests the average time a mammal species exists is around a million years, with some species surviving 10 million years. We’re quite smart as species go too, although it is our very smartness with technology that could cause us trouble.

A global pandemic is also a serious threat, but the risk is minimal. The largest recent pandemic was the 1918 flu, which killed 6% of the world’s population. But 94% survived. Super-volcanoes are another threat, blowing up, on average, every 50,00 years. But humanity is widely spread across the globe and, while billions of people could be wiped out if the Earth were plunged into darkness for a year or more, it would not wipe us all out.

What about a gamma ray burst from space or an extreme supernova explosion? These might occur every 300 million years or so and would indeed be catastrophic, but the chance of either happening is tiny. It’s much the same with rogue asteroids. The chance of a whopper hitting earth is quite high – perhaps around 20% over the next 100,000 years - but it probably wouldn’t wipe us all out. So in summary, don’t worry, be happy.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 3 March 2012, ‘The Deep Future’ feature: ‘Why we’ll still be here’ by M. Brookes. www.
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Book links: The Doomsday Handbook by Alok Jha

The physics of eternity

According to the doomsayers, 2012 is going to be a nasty year. Expect the collapse of the global economy, rogue asteroids, solar storms, earthquakes, falling stars or strange combinations of them all. The world ends on December 21 too. It all sounds nutty, but how will the world end and how much time do we really have left?

Physicists think they have an answer to these questions and things won’t get nasty for another billion years. Even so, NASA predicts that before then, at least 10 rocks of a similar size to the one that probably wiped out the dinosaurs, will hit the Earth.

The big question is what will happen to our sun. The sun is already 40% brighter than it was 4.6 billion years ago and this process will continue. Eventually, our oceans will boil dry, the atmosphere will dry out and global warming will reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point Earth will look a bit like Venus and we will all be dead, unless we have decamped to another planet.

Mars is currently too cold for humans, but perhaps a warming sun might change that. One billion years is lots of time to build a fleet of spacecraft and alter the surface of Mars to make it more hospitable. This would be a temporary fix because the sun will eventually grow to 250 times the size it is today and will be 2,700 times as bright. It will vaporise the Earth, along with Venus and Mercury, and melt Mars. Another possible home is Jupiter’s moon, Europa. If this gets too hot, we could try Saturn’s moon, Titan, but even this will eventually fry.

Thinking further ahead, hyper-fast starships driven by nuclear fusion or matter-anti-matter annihilation, could perhaps transport people to a planet with a more stable sun. For example, 4.2 trillion light years away there’s Proxima Centauri, our closest neighbouring star. Being a red dwarf, it is considerably cooler than our own sun and has a life expectancy of four trillion years. So far astronomers have not found any cosy planets orbiting this star, but they might. Roughly 100 trillion years into the future, these stars will have used up all their available fuel and will die.

After this there could be brown dwarfs. These are balls of hydrogen larger than Jupiter that are too big to be called planets, but too small to be stars. When two brown dwarfs collide, they can create energy and this process is likely to go on for at least another10 billion, billion years. Perhaps until then, we’ll have worked out how to mine dead stars for energy or perhaps we can ‘print’ our own stars.

Dark energy is a worry and scientists have yet to work out what dark energy is, though they agree it is bad for life. But even here there’s hope. String theory suggests there are many other universes hidden from view – perhaps as many as 10 to the power of 500. If we could use wormholes to travel from our universe to another…

Ref: Discover (US) December 2011, ‘How to survive the end of the universe’ by A. Grant. www.
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The rise of the neo-Luddites

In 1811, a group of skilled workers attempted to resist the spread of new technology introduced by textile mill owners in the UK. Fast forward two hundred years and a small group of people, neo-luddites, are attempting to do the same thing, only this time battling against silicon chips and computers rather than automated weaving machines.

So what does the term neo-luddite actually mean? According to the journalist and author Kirkpatrick Sale, the individual most widely associated with this movement, it is someone questioning whether or not society wants to embrace certain things. It is not anti-technology per se, but rather anti-technology when the impact of a specific technology hurts the interests of individuals or society.

For example, cheap computing is automating many manual tasks that were previously done by humans (jobs are being lost to machines again). This is in the interests of big companies, which save money and increase profitability, yet there is almost no debate about whether or not ordinary people (who are losing jobs to machines) actually want this. The last person to deeply question whether or not blind embrace of new technologies might lead to our own extinction was the Unabomber, and things went sour for him.

As Sale also points out, technology is not neutral and one consequence is destruction of the natural environment. Other impacts are unemployment and individual isolation. While the neo-Luddite and other anti-technology movements are tiny now, expect them to grow in scale and importance once the full effects of automation and artificial intelligence are felt, by people losing their jobs and each other.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 24-31 December 2011, Opinion Interview, ‘Luddite and Proud’ (Anon).
See also the neo-Luddite manifesto by Chellis Glendinning.
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Book links: Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.

Sky cars

As far back as the 1950s we, and especially Americans, were promised the freedom of personal aviation with our very own flying cars. So where are they? The answer is on the internet, in development and in a handful of garages. More than a dozen flying cars are in development in the US now, largely thanks to a new ‘lite-sport’ category of aircraft that the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) introduced in 2004, to spur innovation in manufacturing. One flying plane, for example, is the Transition.

This is a $US279,000 ‘road plane’ that can be driven to a small airfield and take off, land at a remote airfield and be driven away. The Transition runs on normal petrol and does 600 miles per tank on the road or 400 miles per tank up in the air. When you’ve landed, simply push a button and the wings fold up allowing you to park.

Another ‘road plane’ or ‘sky car’ is Tyrannos, originally developed by DARPA, the US research-funding agency associated with the US military. Tyrannos is essentially a cross between a small helicopter and a motorbike and is expected to cost around $US50,000. Sounds perfect for mustering sheep or simply for a flying visit at the weekend.

Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK) 3 March 2012.
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