Why will people colonize space?


Noah Smith over at Noahpinion does a rundown on why Firefly doesn’t really resonate with him. I agree with his take:

But in Firefly, why do we – meaning the crew of Serenity – go to space? It’s not for a higher purpose. There’s no science being done, no galaxy being saved. The show’s theme song may be about freedom, but unlike many of the people around them, Mal and his crew aren’t colonists. They aren’t going to found a new, more liberal republic on the virgin soil of a distant world. They aren’t going to build a city on a hill. They have no quest, they seek no knowledge, they fight for no cause, they meet no aliens. Their existence is simply a big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.

And for the same reason, it doesn’t resonate with me much, either.

But neither Noah and I are space colonists. I can’t speak for Noah, but I am above all else a science fiction fan, wedded to romantic notions of human expansion into the wider universe as a higher calling. A secular religion, if you will. Being human feels good, mostly (and I say that as someone who has experienced plenty of strife and difficulty, as well as physical disabilty and mental illness). And being human in the technologically augmented universe of fifty  or five hundred years from now — boosted by 3-D printers, artificial intelligence, robots, smart drugs, transhuman implants — will probably be significantly better, just as the present is vastly better (less poverty, less child mortality, less starvation and hunger, greater variety of tools and products, etc) for the vast majority than fifty or five hundred years ago.

So, if being human feels good, why not go forth and make more of the universe human? After all, if we earthly humans — and our vast chain of simpler and simpler evolutionary ancestors — are little more than awakened chemical elements, why not go forth, spread out, and wake more of the universe up? Let more of the universe experience love, emotion, mathematics, music, logic, technology, and all of the other things that make us human. Could there be a more manifest destiny?

In reality, though, I suspect that the motivations for space colonization will be far baser and more mundane. America’s early European colonists were not exactly motivated by the romantic ideals of free speech and free religion. They were much more motivated by lebensraum, and freedom from rulers they did not like.

First, resources. Resources are limited on earth Asteroid, moon and interplanetary mining offering up the potential to vastly expand the human resource base. This, of course, is basic economics. Humans are often greedy and avaricious. On earth, resources are guarded by the international military order and mutually assured destruction. Invading a country to take its resources is, to say the least, increasingly difficult. And I predict it will get more so as more and more technology (e.g. drones) up the stakes in terms of mutually assured destruction.

In space, no such thing. The universe is — to the best of human knowledge — effectively limitless. If the U.S. — or Microsoft, or China, or SpaceX —  seizes one asteroid, there are plenty more to seize. Once we’re done with near-Earth asteroids, beyond that there’s the asteroid built, and Venus, Mars, Jupiter and their moons, and so on. Then there’s the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud and onward and outward to the nearest stars. Beyond the nearest stars are billions more in our galaxy. And beyond that, lie billions more galaxies. If we are alone in the universe, there’s a whole universe for us to bring to exploit (or, in my romantic vision, bring to life). If not, then we may well have to fight other species for that right.

Hunger for resources and for lebensraum, I expect, will be a very major factor in bringing humanity to the stars, then.

But so too will also be the need to stick a “big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.” In absolutely no way are we humans ideologically homogeneous. Watching the rise and fall and rise of Donald Trump and American nationalism is reinforcing this point.

I am a universalist humanist, and that view stems directly from my view of humanity as a planetary species with the potential to go interplanetary. The vast majority of humanity are substantially more tribal than I am. And very many different tribes of people alienated by the earthly mainstream are likely to want to go. Racial and religious and ideological and tribal supremacists will go to space seeking out their own pure paradises, where rules are set by them, and not by the mainstream. And let them go, these Nazis, and radical Islamists, and cultish sects, and neo-Confederates. Let them fly off to some distant planet or asteroid or space station off in the black infinities to pursue their authoritarian dreams, rather than have them subjugate a corner of the Earth.

The point is that these ideological minorities have far more concrete reason to travel away than anyone from the mainstream. Our species is not homogeneous. That is one of our strengths. Our decentralization allows us to experiment with different modes of government and ideology. Our species over the aeons of history has undoubtedly been carried forward to each new generation by many men and women that we today would deem to be insufferably awful — genocidalists, bigots, rapists, murderers, alongside a few who, I assume, we would see as good people.

It doesn’t matter if we are carried to the stars by the dull and the bad. The point is that we are going. And we — the species — are as a whole species neither dull nor bad. Our children all possess the capacity to deviate from us. Such is the long and winding road of genetic and cultural evolution. Maybe that doesn’t make for great science fiction. But often reality is unspeakably dull, and unspeakably bad.

The world’s dumbest idea: Taxing solar energy

We shouldn't be taxing these guys.	 (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

In a setback for the renewable energy movement, the state House in Oklahoma this week passed a bill that would levy a new fee on those who generate their own energy through solar equipment or wind turbines on their property. The measure, which sailed to passage on a near unanimous vote after no debate, is likely to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin.

The bill, known as S.B. 1456, will specifically target those who install power generation systems on their property and sell the excess energy back to the grid. However, those who already have such renewable systems installed will not be affected.

Still, it’s the new customers who will rapidly make up the majority, even in a traditional oil-and-gas powerhouse like Oklahoma. That’s because the cost of solar power systems has beendrastically falling for the last five years. Solar installations nationwide are going to shoot up to an estimated 45 gigawatts in 2014, a new record, and are projected to grow even more in coming years as solar prices fall further and fossil fuel extraction gets harder and more expensive.

Read More At TheWeek.com

Get ready for a massive renewable energy boom

Renewables will be the fastest growing source of energy between now and 2040, according to new projections from the Energy Information Administration.

The EIA forecasts that from 2012 to 2040, solar, wind, and geothermal production will nearly double, rising 97 percent. The next closest projection is for natural gas, which is expected to grow 56 percent.

Of course, renewables make up a small proportion of global power generation. So even after all that growth, renewables are estimated to account for a measly 3.8 percent of total energy production in 2040, compared with 38 percent for natural gas.

But this is actually an extremely conservative estimate. Renewables — and especially solar — aren’t really like other energy sources. Non-renewables are energy-rich fuels, but there is only a finite supply in the ground. This means that prices are unpredictable and subject to large spikes that badly damage the economy, as occurred in the 1970s and the 2000s.

Read More At TheWeek.com

Why the post-antibiotic world is the real-life version of the zombie apocalypse

Right now, humanity is engaged in an epic battle against fast-adapting and merciless predators. No, zombies are not beating down doors to tear chunks of flesh out of the living. Rather, humanity is being hunted by deadly pathogenic bacteria that have gained resistance to antibiotics.

And thanks to the peculiar incentives that drive the pharmaceutical industry, it looks like the cavalry may be a long time in coming.

Read More At TheWeek.com

Can Google Go 100 Percent Renewable?


This week, Google announced in a blog post a new $80 million investment in solar energy in California and Arizona, bringing its total investments in renewable energy since 2010 to over $1 billion. It’s just the latest step in an ongoing project by Google to keep at the forefront of the green energy industry.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability, explained Google’s shift into the renewable energy industry:

“When Google thinks about sustainability, one of the big areas that we think about is energy because that’s fundamentally a core piece of what drives our company. We think what can we do as a company to make sure we’re operating sustainably and the ways we can enable a more sustainable world. We ask what can we do to get us to a place where clean energy is an option for everyone.” [The Guardian]

He adds that Google’s ultimate aim is to derive 100 percent of its energy usage from renewable sources:

“We want to be 100 percent renewable. We don’t have a date set for that target, but with our investments, we aim to move the market in that direction.” [The Guardian]

Besides attaining the dream of clean and sustainable energy, I can think of three business reasons why Google might want to go totally green.

Read More At TheWeek.com

On My Enthusiasm For Solar Energy

I am a solar energy enthusiast. The energetic parts of the universe are clustered around stars. We sit here on this dusty ball of rock and water, heated continually by the Sun. The difference between when we face toward our local star and when we face away from it is — in the most literal sense — day and night. Our lives on Earth are already solar-powered; the plants (and plant-eating animals) we eat get their energy from photosynthesis. The trees and other biomass we have used for energy for much of our history, as well as the fossil fuel reserves we use today are forms of stored solar energy from earlier organisms that died and were trapped under the Earth. Wind energy and tidal energy are perturbations of dynamical systems heated by solar energy. Even the nuclear energy we use extracted from fissionable uranium and plutonium is stored from supernovae in early stars that exploded and pushed the complex elements — including the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in our bodies — out across the universe.

It is not so much a question of whether we use solar energy, but whether we use direct solar energy, or some derivative form. As our civilisation has advanced and grown, we have had to tap into larger sources to meet the demand for cheap and easily-accessible energy. Our technological sophistication and understanding of basic physics and chemistry has had to grow with our energy hunger to take advantage of different forms of energy; windmills, steam engines, oil refineries, cold water reactors and photovoltaic panels, and so on. In the long run, it is a mathematical certainty that to sustain our civilisation at present levels, or to grow and increase energy consumption we must transition to renewable energy both because quantities of fossil fuels and star fuels like uranium and plutonium on Earth are finite.

The availability of direct solar energy on Earth dwarfs other energy sources, including renewable energy:


All that is necessary in the long run for renewable energy sustainability is that the level of output exceeds the level of input enough to provide a reliable energy source. Even at current solar efficiencies — and thus assuming that the technology won’t improve — photovoltaic solar generates seven times more energy than it takes to generate:


While this is not currently as good as oil or natural gas or coal, it already beats shale oil and biofuels. The beautiful thing about solar energy is that there is so much of it that the technology does not have to be greatly efficient. And prices are falling and efficiencies are improving. While some renewables like wind and hydroelectric are more efficient, they are not abundant enough to even cover the bulk of our energy needs today. In the short run, combined with hydroelectric and wind and nuclear there is a real basis for long-term renewable energy sustainability. To smooth the transition, renewable technology needs investment and development.

In the long run, while obviously renewables still cost a lot more than non-renewables in the marketplace, but we have already established that that cannot last forever. Even the supply of uranium is limited. While we may discover superior technologies like cold fusion, we should be completely prepared for the eventuality that we don’t discover a better technology. While photovoltaic solar remains the largest and most long-term source of available energy — and thus the best hope for the continuation and expansion of sustainable human civilisation — it should receive a bulk of funding and development, and we should assume that in the very long run it should meet the bulk of our energy needs. There are still challenges like solar energy storage, but these challenges are being surmounted with improved battery technologies, and improved distribution technologies such as microgrids. 

Of course, if the photovoltaic solar price trend known as the Swanson Effect that has seen solar fall over 99% in cost since the 1970s continues, then solar will reach and exceed parity with other energy sources and be crowned the winner by the market based simply on  low cost. After all, solar energy is superabundant compared to the alternatives, so it would not be at all surprising for it to become the cheapest. But even if the Swanson Effect does not play out and solar does not become super-cheap, direct photovoltaic solar is extremely likely to play a major role in continued human civilisation on this planet and elsewhere.

Is Global Warming a Blessing in Disguise?

This is highly speculative analysis, but looking at the most recent climate data, I can’t help but think that this is more evidence that anthropogenic global warming is averting an ice age:


There can be no doubt that in recent years that there has been a large uptick in temperature, probably related to the sharp uptick in carbon dioxide levels. Temperatures have returned to levels last seen during the peak of the most recent interglacial period, 6,000 to 8,000 years ago Analysis by climate scientists has tended to focus on the disruptive effects that this may have — sea level rise, glacier loss, drought, etc.  What’s striking about the extended timeframe data, however, is the gradual downward slope over the last 6000 years — the Earth’s climate was changing in the opposite direction when humans began offsetting this by burning fossil fuels. It does not seem unreasonable, given the evidence of a longer-term glaciation cycle, that had humans not started to emit massive quantities of greenhouse gases, that the cooling trend would have continued. Burning fossil fuels seems to have had a powerful countercylical effect.

Falling temperatures and increased glaciation may have made it very difficult for human civilisation to continue to progress. The fossil record suggests humanity has existed in various forms for four million years, and there is evidence that non-anthropogenic climate change — including glaciation — has been a disruptive force in the past. So it seems increasingly likely to me that the countercylical climactic effects of the industrial revolution may have been supportive to the continued existence of human civilisation. Furthermore, had the anthropogenic emissions occurred at a different time — say, during a time of cyclical warming — the probability of catastrophic effects may have been much higher, because the effects would have been cumulative. That doesn’t mean that the current trend may not have catastrophic effects in the long run, especially if emissions and greenhouse gas levels continue to grow.

I look forward to decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, and decreased carbon emissions. As solar power and nuclear power (etc) become cheaper and more efficient (inevitably eclipsing fossil fuels, whose extractable quantities are naturally limited) carbon emissions should gradually decrease. Given that we have already experienced significant countercylical warming, that is probably a good thing. Indeed, we may have gone too far already, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (perhaps even to pre-industrial levels) may be necessary. But given the pre-existing trend of falling temperatures, we must take seriously the possibility that anthropogenic global warming has averted big problems.