The Habitable Zone

Few things are more exciting to me than the idea of finding a habitable planet somewhere out in space. Given the hundreds of now confirmed exoplanets, and the likely millions more that we have not yet found, it seems inevitable that we will find an exoplanet in the habitable zone. Part of figuring this out is understanding where the habitable zones will be.

Using the latest data, the Penn State Department of Geosciences team has developed an updated model for determining whether discovered planets fall within a habitable zone.

Aside from the obvious awesomeness of the fact that people are spending time and energy figuring this stuff out, I think that the most exciting part of all this is that we are likely to find a viable planet in the habitable zone of another star sometime in the next few years.

The graphic shows habitable zone distances around various types of stars. Some of the known extrasolar planets that are considered to be in the habitable zone of their stars are also shown. On this scale, Earth-Sun distance is one astronomical unit, which is roughly 150 million kilometers.

The graphic shows habitable zone distances around various types of stars. Some of the known extrasolar planets that are considered to be in the habitable zone of their stars are also shown. On this scale, Earth-Sun distance is one astronomical unit, which is roughly 150 million kilometers.

The big question will then be what to do about it. I hope that the next step will be to point some high-powered telescopes at it and see what else we can learn.

The science fiction loving part of me is very interested to know what will happen to our own cultural assumptions if, or when, we find such evidence. If you think the anti-science crowd gets offended at the idea of an old earth and the concept of evolution, what do you think they will do with evidence that we are not as special as we used to think we were.

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Book Review: 2312 By Kim Stanley Robinson

Any avid reader knows that good books come in many forms.  Some are fast, accessible, satisfying stories that demand little from the reader yet present exciting adventures and creative new ideas.  Many SF writers are masters of this form, including (but not at all limited to) Spider Robinson, Richard Morgan and hundreds of others.  I love reading their books when riding the bus, flying or otherwise wanting an excellent novel that doesn’t make me work too hard.  Other writers are masters of the sprawling story full of overlapping complex ideas that demand the reader slow down, pay close attention and absorb every detail.  I am convinced Kim Stanley Robinson fits well within the latter category, and when I undertake to read one of his books I know that my work is cut out for me – and that my work will be paid off beautifully.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson is a brilliant, thought-provoking novel of humanity’s near future.  His commitment to plausibility and realism combine with a thorough consideration of the dramatic changes that our species is creating combines with some very likely problems we will face because of, and with, our growing technological prowess.  At the same time Robinson manages to create very real characters with whom it is easy to empathize and even worry about.  Swan er Hong’s rebelliousness and Wahram’s dogged stolidity are wholly realized and enjoyable to observe as they navigate the challenges of their era.

The novel’s main weakness is in its slow pacing, which I suspect was a deliberate choice by the author.  It stands to reason that a story told through the perspectives of people well into their second centuries is not going to have a sense of frantic urgency.  Even when they respond to genuine emergencies, it is with a pragmatism that would only grow with experience and age.  Robinson has done a masterful job of presenting believable characters who have lived a lot, yet are not remotely feeling or approaching ‘old’.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the gradual evolution of a very believable love interest between two of the characters, over the course of many years.

2312 is a well worth the read.  It is definitely what I call a bedside table book, meant to be enjoyed slowly, over many readings.  When I pick up a Kim Stanley Robinson novel I know that I am starting a large project, but that I will like the result.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys serious science fiction.

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The Great Filter

We know now that our galaxy is filled with rocky planets, a percentage of which will almost certainly fall within the category of ‘earth-like’.  (100 billion stars mean even a 1:1000000 chance allows for 100 000 earth-like planets).  If we ever do find evidence of microscopic life on Mars the odds will go way up as well – meaning that life is much more likely to exist elsewhere.   And yet, we see no evidence of extraterrestrial life in our observations of the galaxy, a fact known as the ‘Great Silence’.

There could be many explanations for this phenomenon.  A short and not at all comprehensive list includes:

  1. We are leading the development curve.  Other life has not yet reached or surpassed our current development level, and those who have are so far away the evidence still has not arrived (1000 light years is really far away).  This theory makes the assumption that humans are outliers, which is always possible but statistically less likely.
  2. We are well behind the development curve, and would not recognize evidence of extraterrestrials because we haven’t developed far enough yet.  Just as an Amazon tribesman might not grasp the significance of a Predator drone at 20,000 feet, we might not recognize or understand what we are looking at.  For a long time we assumed that radio transmissions would be evidence of life, but would a 1970s SETI researcher have recognized a typical WiFi or cell phone transmission as evidence of sentience, or merely dismissed it as noise? Even if an ET civilization did have recognizable transmissions at some point, it wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone on Earth until the middle of the last century.  It is possible that ETs developed beyond us while we were bashing away at each other with clubs or muskets.  The thought that irrefutable evidence of ETs might have been readily available in the form of recognizable radio transmissions during the Spanish Inquisition makes me chuckle for some reason.
  3. Life is harder than we think.  Just because it happened here doesn’t mean that it is easy.  Perhaps the places where it might happen number in the dozens.  Add in some random elements like planet killing asteroids, and we have a quiet galaxy.
  4. The Great Filter.  The notion that some point in the development of a civilization is very hard to overcome, and that most species do not actually succeed.  If this filter is in the past, something like the development of language or writing, then we may be outliers leading the pack.  If it is in the future, like developing into a star-faring civilization before we destroy our own planet, then we might be in trouble.  We certainly aren’t doing well at planet management so far, it isn’t hard to imagine humans entering a downward spiral long before leaving the solar system.

Whatever the situation, our current rush of exoplanet discoveries and the dawn of private space travel make me hopeful that humans will be able to explore at least our own solar system, with an eye to exploring further in some capacity (biological or not).  Meanwhile we should really be trying to find ways to avert civilization killing catastrophes like war and climate collapse.


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Anonymity in the Age of Panopticon

How would a person remain anonymous and/or protect her privacy in the age of endless tracking, database building and modelling by ever more sophisticated computers?  Currently our search engines and web providers have the ability to develop highly sophisticated models of our activities and interests.  Current commercial interests tend to focus on tailoring ads to reflect content, the trend is towards ever more nuanced information gathering and modelling.

The fact that we see ads directly relevant to our search terms or the content we are accessing is commonplace, on this site and almost everywhere else.  Content and interest oriented advertising is a rapidly growing field.  Imagine if the ads not only reflected your interest, but used models that reflect your attractions that are holding your favourite drink or wearing your style of clothing.  Historically advertising has always had to focus on broad demographics, aiming a particular magazine ad at a few generalizations about the readers.  Now ads and ad generating algorithms can or will create ads specifically targeted at an individual.

Most of us might not like the extreme targeting that might occur with ads, but very few of us would like it if our governments were using the same databases to build personality and relationship profiles to us.  For that matter, not many of us will like the idea of political ads specially tuned to create a specific response, depending on all the information in the database.  (The same party might show a very different variation of the same ad to different people, depending on their search history, news preferences, social network and a thousand other data).

At deeper levels of detail, ads might be varied to reflect our mood depending on how our day or year might be going.  For example, if I were searching for divorce lawyers and single bedroom apartments, a political ad might seek to appeal to my frustration and anger.  If I were looking at cribs and strollers the ad might focus on my optimism.  This tendency to greater nuance and data collection is enough to get any conspiracy theorist into a froth.

All of this is very much the near future, and has been explored in various ways in science fiction.  A panopticon of (mostly profit oriented) surveillance over every nuance and detail of our lives is already becoming normal.  Where science fiction might get interesting is in exploring ways an individual, nefarious or not, might hide in plain sight.  Every system has its weaknesses, and humans are innately keen to exploit weaknesses in systems.  Early system hackers did things like scare buffalo so much they ran off a cliff, rather than merely killing them with weapons and risking injury.  Current system hackers have a much more complex system to engage with, and so are likely to have much more subtle and complex responses.

Some ideas for hiding in plain sight include:

  • Each individual maintaining an automated array of hundreds or thousands of randomized identities, so that each interaction is spoofed as a different identity and no meaningful profile could be created.  I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hasn’t already thought of this and put it into place.
  • Deep encryption of every interaction with the web, perhaps also using multiple identities.  The funny thing about encryption is that using it is a quite rational choice, and yet the mere fact of encryption is seen as evidence of nefarious intent by authorities.
  • Complete detachment from all electronic media.  The survivalist concept, ‘going off the grid’.  All well and good, but hardly forward looking.

There are a lot of juicy SF issues tied to the amazing mixed blessing we call the internet, and it is not at all certain what the end result will be.  I don’t think I can imagine disconnecting from the internet and electronic media now, especially since it is a significant part of my livelihood.  I suppose I’d best set about anonymizing myself.

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Robot Jogging Coach/ Agent of Terror

So a grad student has created a hovering robot to go running with, the idea being that it will help with setting a pace and motivation.  That is likely to work for some.

The robot is suited to all types of joggers – it has a companion mode that moves in tune with your pace and a more challenging coach mode. ”The coach mode basically tries to push you to your limits,” Mr Toprak says.

Of course, I might benefit more from a re-hacking of the robot to pursue me and give me an incentive not to slow down.  The angle of the picture already gives us a sense of menace.  It isn’t hard to see the runner as looking back in terror.  It could be a fitness revolution – running for your life every morning.

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Ubiquitous Surveillance and the Profit Motive

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the commodification of our daily activities, especially online activities.  The cycle of ‘Facebook Privacy’ scandals continue, and most of us (myself included) opt to keep letting Facebook and Google build models of our interests, behaviors, social relationships, employment activities and everything else that crosses our minds while we use computers.

It isn’t much of a stretch to say that Google and Facebook know a lot about us.  They are corporations, and as such seek profit.  Not in itself a bad thing, I own a corporation myself, and have partial ownership of a few others (all small, but the point remains). Where they see opportunity they will pursue it, in fact they are legally obliged to do so.

In the process of setting up an online business elsewhere, I have been wandering around behind the curtain of this customer tracking and targeting data system, specifically Google’s ad and marketing infrastructure.  As a businessperson and writer I am impressed at the ability to target ad campaigns at specific neighborhoods, demographics, interests and goals.  I am also in awe of the ability Google has to track a customer from clicking on an ad through purchasing, and give sellers feedback about what is working.

All well and good, in some respects.  A business is most efficient when it isn’t wasting money advertising to people who are not interested in their products.  Businesses that were too micro-niche to survive a few years ago can now thrive.  Prices are lower, everyone wins.  Business models are possible now that were beyond imagination even 20 years ago, and innovation is proceeding furiously along (outside of Wall Street, which is not a place for innovation so much as creative system hacking).

However, privacy advocates and civil liberties defenders are very understandably concerned.  If a corporation knows that I like science fiction, I don’t suppose it matters much unless they are trying to sell me science fiction novels (not a tough sell).  If a government knows my tastes, that might concern me more – if a book I like is contraband, or a perceived indication of criminal intent.

Where my concerns escalate is when my data is refined into models that effect the availability of certain services.  If I lived in the U.S. I would be very concerned about my occasional curiosity about extreme sports or greasy food might have an impact on my insurance rates and eligibility.  Perhaps some of my cousins or friends have criminal tendencies (I have a great many cousins, so while I know of nothing untoward probability suggests somebody is up to something illegal), and their socially networked connections to me might degrade my eligibility for loans or travel.  Being a relative of a ‘bad person’ is certainly enough to put you in serious jeopardy in other parts of the world.

A further degree of alarm arises with concepts like privatized prison and parole corporations using ubiquitous surveillance to manage their bottom line.  The two best ways to improve profits are to increase sales or decrease costs.  Any SF aware reader can imagine how those motivations might cause trouble with a profit-oriented prison system.  If a prisoner is profitable, the goal might be to get more prisoners – not exactly what a healthy society might see as a good goal.

Matt Stoller writes a very good article over at Naked Capitalism about the growing privacy and moral hazards of our budding ubiquitous surveillance society.

The main theme of a recent IBM consulting document on the future of the insurance industry is how much more money an insurance company can make if it tracks and tags its customers. This is particularly true for auto insurance companies, some of whom like Allstate and Progressive are experimenting on new technologies. For instance, IBM suggests that “A “pay-as-you-live” product would trade some location and time-of-day privacy data for lower insurance bills overall.”


Of course, the innocent have nothing to fear, and those of us with relatively legal and healthy habits would probably save money.  But even with ubiquitous surveillance, the data can be wrong and people unfairly labelled.  Science fiction is full of thoughtful explorations of this concept, from Minority Report to Brazil to Accelerando.  The moral hazard for a corporation faced with an opportunity to increase profits by invading privacy is significant.  Most of us would probably volunteer for the lower rates in exchange for surveillance, and those of us who might resist will find ourselves on the margins.

This all sounds like the seeds of a very good SF novel.

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What Would Reliable Fusion Power Do?

The joke goes that reliable fusion power is about 50 years away, and has been for about 60 years.  This may be the case, but it is also a simplistic dismissal of a scientific process that has been going on for decades.  There has been a lot of progress on fusion power, and we are now approaching some new developments that could bootstrap us into a fusion energy future.

Extremetech has a good piece on current and pending developments in fusion power, and what might happen next.

Hopefully, though, a new discovery made by Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) — the home of Project Matterhorn in the ’50s and ’60s — could result in magnetic confinement fusion that breaks even, or even produces electricity.

Hear that?  A process that produces more energy than it consumes.  This is big, because it could be self-perpetuating.  The fuel is essentially free, being the most common element in the universe (Hydrogen).

What would this mean for our current energy hungry society?  Good question.  I suspect it would take a lot of building to get up to meeting existing demand, and demand is sure to continue rising.  Nevertheless, this could be really big.  In about 30 years.

Meanwhile, at ITER, a vast fusion chamber that’s three stories high is due to begin fusing deuterium-tritium fuel in 2026. ITER is hoping to produce 500 megawatts over 1,000 seconds from just 50 megawatts of input power and 0.5 grams of hydrogen fuel. If it’s a success, an actual fusion power plant, called DEMO, will be built.

This could be one of those things that changes everything.  Pure unallowed grist for the SF mills.  First of all, fusion power as currently envisioned would be the domain of large utilities – highly centralized and structured.  We couldn’t have little fusion plants all over the place, too expensive and too dangerous.

Cheap energy has been the fuel of most of the rapid development of the 20th century.  It is hard to imagine a future that includes transportation, lights and the internet without cheap energy.  The big challenge will be to figure out ways to distribute it and store it.  Of course, battery technology is also improving at dramatic rates.

Politically, I don’t see cheap fusion power eliminating a demand for oil.  Global hotspots would remain so, but it is unlikely there would be any conflict over hydrogen.  Attention might shift away from places like the Middle East, though humans love to fight irrationally so that is by no means certain.

Space exploration could be impacted.  Currently the biggest cost of spaceflight is the energy required to escape Earth’s gravity.  There may be ways to reduce that cost (though I personally hope someone will build a space elevator), and there will certainly be impact on space activities outside the gravity well, if fusion power becomes available off-planet.

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SpaceX Falcon Launch & the Implications of Private Space Exploration


So SpaceX is going ahead with launching their Falcon Rocket on a mission to the ISS tomorrow.  Good on them, and I wish them the best of luck.  Not because I wish ill on NASA or any of the other government agencies who currently or formerly launch vehicles into space, but because I think the next stage of space exploration is necessarily going to be private.

Governments should be subject to the needs and perspectives of their citizens. Governments also have a huge array of responsibilities. In most cases, it is hard to make a convincing argument that it is prudent to colonize Mars while children starve or any significant portion of a population experiences poverty.  On the other hand, private interests operate on different rules and with different incentives.

When the ‘Space Race’ was between two competing superpowers, an incentive existed for both governments to prioritize space exploration – if only to prevent the other side having a monopoly.  Since the end of the Cold War there hasn’t been any such competitive incentive, and space exploration has predictably fallen down the list.  I doubt any sane individual would prefer a return to Mutual Assured Destruction and the looming fear of mid-20th century, but the loss of space is a cloud in that silver lining.

In the last 20 years we have seen the rise of distributed computing and an exponential growth in technology, with a rate of change that makes five years ago seem like a technological Dark Age (as Charles Stross has pointed out, five years ago Androids and iPhones did not exist, yet now they are ubiquitous).  The practical matter of moving stuff into space has become merely very difficult and expensive, rather than monstrously so.

In this context we see the rise of private space exploration as a necessary next step.  Governments are cash strapped and risk-averse, particularly with long-term concepts such as space exploration.  Space exploration will be the realm of private individuals and groups (which include corporations, but could as easily be co-operatives, families, or other affiliate structures).  Private interests can define their goals and risk tolerance much differently, and are less obliged to solve the problems of the world at the same time.  Few people criticize Apple for focusing on its customers while children go hungry in Florida, but many would (and should) criticize a government for doing the same.

I propose that the next major phase of space exploration will be driven by private interests, mostly with a profit motive.  Asteroid mining is a start, as well as simple ferrying of goods like the planned launch tomorrow.  Other possible private goals could be lunar mining, lunar construction as a low-gravity launch site for Asteroid Mining interests, and solar power harvesting.  Spinoff private projects will likely include tourism, especially if someone finally manages to build a working Space Elevator.

At some point in the future, likely when space-based industry becomes large enough to be interesting or threatening to governments, states will again take the forefront of space exploration (assuming that the nation-state is still a viable concept).  A tourist flight to Low-Earth-Orbit is one thing, but a rapidly expanding asteroid mining industry that is impacting commodity prices will be another thing entirely.  One state benefiting significantly from such exploration will likely be an incentive for the rest to get involved.  I have no idea what profits might be gained in the Asteroid Belt, but you can bet nobody will want to be left out.

Privately driven space exploration won’t be without its flaws, of course.  Just as on Earth, private interests do not always coincide with the best interests of all.  A sudden market glut of a particular resource could displace thousands of jobs, as an example.  High risk-tolerance could also mean high losses or damage done.  In fact, losses and damage are almost a certainty no matter who does it.  Private interests without government oversight are not known for treating people particularly well.  Many things can and will go wrong, and it will be a long time before space travel becomes as commonplace as your regular commute.

All of that is (informed) conjecture, but tomorrow is a launch that will mark the beginning of the private space venture.  I am excited.

Image from Wikipedia.

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The Plausibility of a Dyson Sphere.

George Dvorsky over at IO9 has a thought-provoking article outlining how humans might go about building a Dyson Sphere in our solar system.  Given the implausibility of long-distance space travel in anything like the near future, Dyson spheres are one of the most probable options available to humans wishing to expand beyond our fragile Earth.

This hypothetical megastructure, as envisaged by Dyson, would be the size of a planetary orbit and consist of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star. With this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of the energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. He speculated that such structures would be the logical

consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to propose that we build a Dyson swarm (sometimes referred to as a type I Dyson sphere), which will consist of a large number of independent constructs orbiting in a dense formation around the sun. The advantage of this approach is that such a structure could be built incrementally. Moreover, various forms of wireless energy transfer could be used to transmit energy between its components and the Earth.


The practicalities of such a massive undertaking seem remote given our current inability to agree on anything even remotely as large, but change is a rapid and constant thing.  Technological advancement is accelerating at alarming rates, and the impossible one year becomes the merely difficult a few years later.  I am an SF optimist, but I think 50 years to begin is a bit pessimistic.  It could happen sooner, assuming we don’t enact any of our collapse/apocalypse scenarios.

Of course, it will be awhile before we develop the capacity to mine or dismantle any planets, but the nascent beginnings of asteroid mining are a definite start.  Technological change happens quickly and decisively, making old arguments quaint and silly seeming very quickly.  I suspect this will be one of those cases.

Of course, sign me up to live in the new Dyson swarm (ideally in my cloned new 20-year-old body).

Link to original article.



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