Battlefield Science?: Internet-linked telepathy

In an absurdly sci-fi development, researchers at the University of Washington have managed – in very limited fashion, with somewhat modest results – to send a brain signal from one person to another, using the internet to convey the sender’s thoughts.

While it is obviously early days with this technology – a 25%-83% accuracy rate is hardly conclusive per se – this is still very exciting, because it suggests that the realm of telepathy (albeit internet-delivered telepathy) may not be quite so far-fetched. That having been said, the current result is very much like the first word of a language yet to be developed – before this can become useful, an entirely new lexicon of brain usage and translation signals will need to developed.

At the same time, the battlefield implications of a thoroughly useful, consistent, soundless link can probably not be overstated – a unit, reacting in real time as a single, coherent, flexible entity could be a very powerful thing, and would be much harder to ambush.

Unless, of course, they lost reception mid-firefight.

Battlefield Science: Instant Wound Clotting

In tech and medicine news today, a new solution for stopping bullet wounds on the battlefield has been announced: XStat, a rapidly expanding sponge that fills the wound and stops bleeding, could stop bleeding, accelerate healing, and save lives on the battlefield.

This is only the latest in a series of recent battlefield innovations which are accelerating the advent of futuristic battlefield scenarios, from AI to Virtual Reality Overlays to killer robots and mechanization. But of all of those updates, this is the first I’ve seen which creates the opportunity to save lives – instead of providing more efficient means of taking them.

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.

Taking the Fiction out of SciFi: Potentially Habitable Super-Earths are ‘Plentiful’

Not long ago now, there was great excitement when we began to discover signs of potentially Earth-like planets in the theoretically habitable zones around their stars. A number of first followed each other in quick succession, each both more impressive and more fanciful than the last, each revising our estimation on the likelihood of life elsewhere in the Universe.

The trend is only continuing: recent discoveries suggest not only that potentially habitable planets exist in a number of places, but that they may in fact be “plentiful.” Thus, little by little, the odds are improving for the potential of life out there, which, to a degree, is an exciting thing (as long as you ignore the corollary implications for threats, either via other life or in terms of extinction barriers, as has been discussed at length elsewhere).

But perhaps most interesting of all of this is that it’s now very clear that we have been, at best, a curious bystander shining a narrow beam around a very large and dark room: we have barely begun to understand the limits of what surrounds us, or the things which we may encounter there. With each improvement in technology, we discover more, see farther, deeper, or measure better, and so it seems only inevitable that, in the very near future, the odds of life will improve again.


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 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.