Did Amtrak just find the answer to Space/Time travel?

I was as blown away as anyone by the speed of Amtrak’s response in creating its writer residency program. The quick turn of events, from a quick retweet to a full-blown shot in the arm for the image and relevance of the ailing service, was yet another example of how powerful the internet and social media truly is.

However, that story is well-told and, frankly, boring.

What is interesting about the Amtrak story is that it has allowed the company to take what has typically been seen as a drawback to its service (namely the time required to travel from one place to the next) and turn it into a benefit. It has enabled writers to drop out, plug in, enjoy the scenery – and go to work. And that, for the right person, can be a powerful thing.

Being a sci-fi enthusiast, I immediately thought of the next step – the possible implications for space travel. Space is vast, as has often been said as well, and we are typically used to regarding this as a massive drawback. And, truth be told, it very likely is an obstacle that we may never learn to overcome.

But, just for a second, imagine a universe in which we do travel between the stars. In this world, science fiction has typically employed one of two conceits to overcome the time gap: the first, faster-than-light travel, decreases the time between two points though wormholes, warp drives, or other bending of space. The second, cryostasis, requires freezing the human body in time to offset the aging process as the vessel travels within the constraints of current ability and physics.

But perhaps, inspired by Amtrak, there is a third option: maybe it is possible that, instead of avoiding or attempting to overcome the time barrier of the journey, humanity instead embraces and celebrates it? In the aftermath of digital age, where artistic, scientific, or any other works might not require massive storage, or heavy materials for their creation, might not the long voyages in space offer potential to think, to collaborate, to produce and to refine? Might we not achieve our greatest masterworks while in limbo, waiting to begin our future on a foreign world?

Maybe, as Amtrak is currently suggesting, a little extra time between points isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Why SciFi Matters (#1): Bringing Science Home

Statistics are tricky things, in particular statistics based on survey interpretations, and without meaning to jump too hard onto this bandwagon, I have to admit I was floored and embarrassed by the recent finding that suggests 25% of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth.

This is pathetic, not just because it suggests that a quarter of the country is scientifically stuck in the time of Galileo (or before it), but also because of the sheer, willful ignorance that is required to support this view. You would literally have to be blind to avoid the various depictions of our solar system with the sun at its center these days. You would have to studiously avoid all manner of educational websites, textbooks, science texts, or even cartoon illustrations to believe otherwise.

On the one hand, I want to believe this was confusion, a rigged survey, a wording issue, but even that is hard to defend, because this isn’t a tricky question (not something like ‘How many moons does Saturn have?’ or ‘Why is Pluto not considered a planet?’). This is a basic, fundamental concept, a logical extension of gravity, and a building block for vital, larger ideas such as galaxies, space exploration, and the potential for life on other planets. It is perhaps the fundamental relationship that dictates how we view the universe and our place in it. And 25% of Americans, a country that likes to consider itself at the forefront of research and development (although we have, for essentially our entire existence, imported science and tech advancement instead of growing it at home), have this basic, critical concept embarrassingly wrong. In other words, as far as space is concerned, they don’t even make it past page 1.

Even worse, despite the checkered history of scientific concepts in media (from Journey to the Center of the Earth to Armageddon to The Core to 2012, with dozens of issues in between), this is not a question it has gotten wrong. Anyone who has watched Danny Boyle’s 2/3 brilliant movie Sunshine will not be in any doubt as to where the sun belongs in our system. Nor do any of the planets in Halo, or Star Wars, or Star Trek (as far as I know) have suns revolving around them. Even Doctor Who, a show often noted for its fantastical elements or departures from scientific accuracy, does not violate this principle.

I suspect this phenomenon is a growing one, in America in particular, and is a function of a whole generation of students who have managed to pick up only a modicum of science, perhaps even actively avoiding it in their university studies, and have then coasted on into the warm embrace of sitcoms and Sportscenter (not that there is anything particularly wrong with either, but you’re not going to hear about gravity or space in a meaningful way on them).

And yet, this is exactly why science fiction matters: because it allows people who would never otherwise consider scientific principles to encounter, absorb, and digest them. And willingly, at that! Granted, scifi is not always accurate (Sunshine has a whole host of problems, as do all of the above-mentioned films), but in general, the more extravagant the departure from reality, the more likely the audience leaves the theater googling ‘Can the sun really go out?’ (or if phasers are technologically possible, or lightsabers, or sonic screwdrivers). And that, in itself, is no bad thing.

In short: science matters, basic scientific facts matter, and scientific advancement matters – for us, for how we see ourselves, for how we approach our world, and yes, for our long-term survival potential. However, the rise (or persistence) of willful, apathetic ignorance creates a real barrier to social advancement. Science fiction offers a very powerful tool for smashing through that barrier, and we should embrace it as such.

Things that are surprisingly SciFi (but don’t get credit for it) Part 4: Recycling

The 1960s – and 2001 – made a strong case for future materials and space age manufacturing, what with their gleaming grey, smooth megastructures and match-cut-level sleek designs. Manufacturing, then, was the future – the ability to take organic, wood, oil, and metal inputs and come out with a self-evidently artificial, unnaturally aerodynamic, custom-built (and single-purpose) products.
This, of course, was the appeal of the space age: that we could make anything we needed to, cheaply and to order, and that we should feel no shame about waste as a result.
But plastics, at least the first generation, were not limitless: they were brittle, they were inflexible, they were very susceptible to heat or cold, and they did not decompose productively, once they had failed in their primary (and only) use.
Recycling is the unsexy child of that first wave of innovation; the undesired progeny of the excesses of synthetics production. Recycling was (and in the US, generally speaking remains) the unwanted, uncool patch job on the torn jeans, the obvious darning on the dress – it was, at best, an acknowledgment of scarcity. At worst, it was an expensive, inefficient method for pointing out how imperfect and unsustainable the space age really was.
But recycling is underrated.
Even now, recycling does not solve the issue of limited resources completely (indeed, it is likely that nothing can), but it re-awakens the potential in these items, and points the way forwards for material mining and usage. Recycling is not universally cheaper than mining new materials, but it generally does require less expenditure of energy to repurpose a material already converted into plastic, or aluminum, or other alloy, than it does to produce a fresh batch. Both through advancement of technology and through the accelerating scarcity of key materials, the recycling process has come a long way since its days as the lead nerd in the after-school specials.
And, dare I say it, recycling is pretty damn SciFi.
No, really. Consider the simple case of a spaceship made of single-use plastic and metal and sent to the stars to seek a new home. Sleek and sexy? Certainly, but also, almost certainly doomed to failure. Once broken, individual pieces of the vessel would be hard or impossible to replace, and would be dead weight once broken. Carrying spare parts would be theoretically possible, but between the need to use the space for food and life-support machinery, and the prohibitive cost of excess weight during lift-off, having significant stock of duplicates would essentially be a non-starter.
Only recycling – by which I mean the modern process of recycling, including separation, refinement, and production of new material – would allow such broken items to be used again.
And think past the flight itself: once landed on a foreign moon, settlers would have little use for their former cargo bays, thrusters, or even most navigation equipment (assuming, of course, this colonization is a one-way trip). Stripping material from the spacecraft and bending or welding it into place might be a temporary solution, but in the long term, the creation of a stable, inhabitable colony would require more stable building materials. As a result, a colonization ship would need to include a recycling unit as a core piece of equipment, both for mid-flight maintenance and in order to reuse the components of its spaceflight for the purpose of colonization.
Recycling isn’t flawless, it’s not cheap in terms of energy expended, and it may be a stopgap measure for a runaway consumerist society, but it is very SciFi.

Things that are surprisingly sci-fi (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 3: Global Sports Competitions

With this year’s Confederations Cup in full swing, it’s time to tip the hat of science fiction to the phenomenon of global sporting events.

While in theory, we’ve had ‘global’ sports for at least a century now, the reality is that the early World Cups and Olympics were predominantly regional affairs – as athletes tended to be men of leisure (or college athletes, or both) in the early days, they tended to represent only wealthier nations, or at the least, only the wealthier classes of those nations.

While the number of nations participating increased steadily through the 1970s and 80s, the politics and ideologies of the Cold War overshadowed geographic and ethnic identities, putting the global nature of the competitions into the background.   While it would be difficult to pinpoint the emergence of truly global sporting events, the emergence of a single worldwide football market might be one milestone. With stars from Japan and Africa increasingly complementing and supplanting the traditional European and Latin American superpowers – and with the creation of an economically viable professional soccer league in the United States – it is safe to say that football had become a global sport by the mid 1990s.

Other sports have followed, with global tournaments in baseball and cricket being created and expanded, and the Olympics have increasingly become a two-week festival of international excitement and competition. NewsCorp has been an aggressive part of this expansion, of course, packing its satellites with live sports content from rugby to cricket to american football.

But why is any of this scifi? For two reasons: on the one hand is the creation of single, unified global market. And on the other is the larger picture:  humans from every corner of the world, meeting on a truly global scale to determine the fastest, the most strongest, and the best among them. Where the medieval version of this concept involved bloodshed and pillage, we now have a peaceful (generally speaking), cooperative competition, played with the goal of crowning a true world champion.

Because once we start thinking peacefully in terms of planetary supremacy, we are not far from considering new world. If for no other reason than to expand the TV market!

 

 

Things that are surprisingly science fiction (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 2: Shipping Crates aka Intermodal containers

shipping container Costa RicaOn the surface, they don’t seem like much: four dirty, sometimes rusted metal walls and a simple locking mechanism. They are everywhere – in harbors, on the highway, on train cars, on construction sites – so much so that they are almost invisble.

But their ubqiuity also underscores their importance and versatility. By standardizing dimensions and making the same container transportable via multiple methods, the humble shipping container makes it possible to pack a unit in Chapel Hill and know – with certainty – that that unit can be delivered in Bangalore, or Murmansk, or Antarctica (whether it arrives or not is another story). This is incredible because it flies in the face of thousands of years of societal development, whereby incompatible systems flouted globalization, trade, and advancement at every stage. As recently as the 19th century, Russia and Europe still boasted different gauges of railroad track (not to mention the Northern and Southern States in the United States!), preventing the easy flow of goods and creating very distinct cultural mindsets (while the Civil War is better known in the West, Russia’s Westernizers vs. Russophile debate has arguably had more impact on the 20th century. That it is neither dead nor buried can be seen in the policies of Messrs. Putin and Medvedev today).

More than that, the shipping crate is hardy and internally customizable, making it possible to ship refrigerated foodstuffs on the same vessel as heavy machinery or cloth goods. As a result, trade routes are simplified, with larger ships taking generic boxes filled with unique content to one port and smaller boats and trucks ferrying it on. Further, the shipping crate makes it possible to deliver packages of survival items to remote locations with greatly reduced effort. It allows humans to exist and thrive in inhospitable and improbable climates such as the deep sea, where cargo ships can hoist food, supplies, and housing onto barren, windswept platforms, or Antarctica, where tons and tons of supplies are delivered every year to allow habitation and research where it could never exist otherwise.

If we developed a space elevator tomorrow, or if we adopt railguns or use SpaceX on steroids or any form of mass cargo delivery system offworld, the shipping crate is where we would start in terms of packaging and consolidating cargo needing to head off world. It’s more than just logistics: this is modular thinking’s mascot. In theory, with five shipping crates and a solar cell, a human can live quite comfortably on Mars – or any other non-melting, non-crushingly pressurized body in the solar system. It is both the brick and mortar of human colonization, and it will be there when we move off-world.

Things that are surprisingly science fiction (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 1: Polders

Terraforming is a word that conjures up images of dark red and brown planets, massive, industrial processors and billowing clouds of god-knows-what chemicals spewing into the sky. It seems, at first glance, to be an improbably distant ability, a process requiring scale, technologies, and knowledge ecosystems centuries (or at least decades) beyond the present.

Of course, this isn’t exclusively true. Anthropologists have suggested for some time that we live in the ‘Anthropocene Age’, that is, an age dominated and heavily shaped by humans. From strip mines to crops planted, consumed, and fertilized, from roads to reservoirs, humans have made an indelible mark on the world we inhabit, and have for thousands of years.

That this is already terraforming is hard to dispute; we have shaped this planet to our purpose, and in some ways this has been a very good thing. One prime example of the utility provided by human modification of the land are polders, or land reclaimed from the sea.

Anyone who has heard of Atlantis, or read of the various existing sunken or flooded cities knows the concept of losing land to the oceans. Encroachment and destruction by water is a constant threat, whether in floods of Biblical proportions such as has been suggested for the Black Sea, or by the regular and unpredictable flooding of the Nile river during the ancient civilizations there. These floods had catastrophic impacts on human lives, both directly in terms of people killed and houses destroyed, and for the lingering infrastructure effects that they created, such as crop failure and famine. From the beginning of human civilization, our relationship with water has been one of struggle and dependency.

So the concept of harnessing, controlling, and even shaping water channels, and the effect this had on the landscape, are almost doubtlessly underestimated in terms of their impact on civilization, on the stability of human populations, and in terms of their importance to future explorations on other planets.

Polders involved using manual and automated devices to channel, redirect, and control water so as to cut low-lying land off from direct access to the sea or natural water channels, and to make this reclaimed land available for human use. They were nothing short of revolutionary in terms the insurance they provided against flooding and the new land they provided for settlement and agriculture. They allowed civilization to exist where it could never have before – at or below water levels and on the coast – and they provided means for managing waters as they rose during flooding or due to storm surges. The large-scale application of this type of water management technology is older than the United States, dating back to the early 17th century.

Further, in the 20th and 21st centuries, in combination with dredging, the lessons learned in the creation of polders have further helped to create land where it had never existed before, including the Dubai luxury islands. It is not only possible, but wholly likely that the kind of large-scale terraforming we imagine when it comes to colonizing other planets will make use of this four hundred year-old technology. Polders, meanwhile, don’t look like much from the ground, but they are remarkable – and remarkably sci-fi, when you think about it.

On space exploration, Apollo 13 and the need for off-world urgency

Early in Apollo 13, when a reporter asks Jim Lovell (i.e. Tom Hanks) why the Apollo program should continue on after ‘One small step…’, Tom’s answer is (loosely paraphrased) ‘Imagine if Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and no one followed in his footsteps.’ At the time, it seems a strong response, and the reporter at least acts as if his question has been answered.

This line struck me immediately and instantly as oddly flippant and insufficient, partially due to the fact that we now know that someone (i.e. the Vikings) actually reached America nearly 500 years before Columbus and that for those five centuries, no one did follow, and partially because it reflects the degree to which Hanks’ character in the film (not necessarily Jim Lovell in real life) has become removed from the real world realities that govern his world.

The first issue is of course one of hindsight. Lovell likely did not know at the time that the Vikings had reached North America, or at the very least would not have considered it a confirmed fact. However, to someone in our present situation, this knowledge is significant as it provides both a precedent and a cautionary tale. The precedent is that of outliers, of concerted efforts and overachievement that extend past the boundaries sustainable by societal structures. The cautionary tale is the flipside of that equation, and concerns what happens when we overextend: failure, suffering, and – in the case of the Greenland settlers – starvation and ultimately extinction.

This dovetails nicely with my second issue with the response – namely, that it reflected the idealistic fervor of a true believer. To Hanks/’Lovell’, it is inconceivable that we would not continue to fly to the moon, to mine its secrets and perhaps the moon itself, whether that made economic sense or not. But of course, in the 1970s, it made absolutely no economic sense to colonize the moon – reaching it had been a primarily political achievement, a proof that the strongest nation in the free world, through a combination of concerted efforts and supported by the free market, could achieve more, and more quickly, than a totalitarian state. Once this political end was achieved, there was little left on the moon that was of interest to society as a whole.

Nor has this absence of interplanetary purpose been overcome since. The probes to Mars and Venus, and across the rest of the solar system, only served to reinforce this: outside of the spectacular announcement of life on another planet, there has been little of interest off-world to a society that has developed none of the cultural or technological structures to support an extraplanetary presence. Even now, the ISS is little more than an ultra-high-altitude observation balloon, conducting scientific experiments whose primary cultural function is to exist and occasionally upload cool zero-gravity (or more precisely, low-gravity) clips on YouTube.

More broadly, the question of whether space exploration has reached a near-term apex is one that bears serious thought. Despite plans to launch to Mars by 2030, despite various plans (including the aforementioned Mars One reality TV concept) to extend the reach of human space exploration, and despite the work that the various Mars rovers are doing, the merit/relevance of space exploration is not yet proven in the cultural psyche. For better or for worse, and James Cameron’s half-baked idea of mining asteroids notwithstanding, space exploration is a big ‘so what?’ at present, one that is somewhat hard to answer. Let’s not forget that, while the Viking expeditions to North America were the result of petty individual one-upsmanship and fortune-making, the Columbian expedition was one fueled by a global arms race for riches and dominance. In other words, despite some evidence that the Americas existed prior to Columbus’ expedition, there was no need to follow up on this information before the factors that launched Columbus in the first place made the new lands relevant. We may, unfortunately, need significantly higher pressures on Earth to overcome a similar hump in our space exploration.

Finally, there is a third, nagging question regarding the above question: “What if no one had followed in Columbus’ footsteps?” Why then, millions of Native Americans might have survived and thrived, the Incan culture might have reached new heights, and the eventual global confluence might have had a very different power dynamic. That the outcome was what it was is partially due to the factors that created the demand for exploration in the first place: an exploration born out of a thirst for power and riches is not likely to be a benign one. If our space exploration is likewise fueled by greed for wealth and power, as it inevitably will be if we wait for the large-scale cultural factors  supporting permanent settlements off-world to be in place, then it can be expected we will meet similar disasters. This, then, to me, is a healthy portion of my reason for writing near-Earth science fiction: to make real the potential, to consider the present possibilities, and to light a fire under our cultural backside and make it happen – before the economic and political imperatives kick in.