Posts Tagged Technology

Some rather peculiar designs

If mankind perished today and our remains were dug up by future archaeologists from another species there is one thing that would become apparent quite quickly; we love to build things. From houses to bridges, sky scrapers to motorways we tear up resources lying around us and hammer them into useful and beautiful feats of engineering all the time. Sometimes those things really are inspiring examples of what we can achieve (the Millau Viaduct is taller than most sky scrapers) others are slightly more wacky (see the Hitler house). I’ve encountered quite a lot of ideas of the years that have left me enthused, impressed, awed, disturbed, incredulous and overall gobsmacked! Here are a few that instill all of those things…

  • Alantropa

There’s not enough land so let’s build more!

In 1929 a German man by the name of Herman Sogel had a rather…interesting idea. He believed that the 20th century would see the rise of both the U.S and a Pan-Asian nation that would displace Europe to the third power block of the world (personally I think he was a little over half right, the U.S did rise and many Asian nations are becoming more and more prosperous). To combat this he wanted to turn Europe and Africa into one continent. Yup, you read that right. The continent would be named “Alantropa” and would be created by damming the Strait of Gibraltar, over the years the Mediterranean sea would evaporate lowering its level by 200 metres. The plan had many aims, according to Sogel it would take nearly a century for the project to be completed. Hundreds of thousands of workers would be needed to build the damn in under ten years with potentially millions more required to turn the growing land of the Mediterranean into fertile farmland and colonise it. Alantropa would be powered by the dam which would produce Gigawatts of energy from hydroelectricity. Sogel saw this plan as a way of ensuring co-operation and peace in Europe as well as providing economic and industrial growth (later versions of the plan involved draining some of the mediterranean into Africa to produce three great lakes to turn the desert into more fertile land).

Alas his plan isn’t without its flaws. Aside from the building logistics the dam would cause massive ecological damage to the mediteranian and whilst Sogel had peaceful intentions towards Europe he had less savory attitudes towards Africans who he saw as in the way of an Expanding Europe. Still the audacity of this plan brings a smile to my face.

Artists impression of Atlantropa (Source: Wikipedia user Ittiz)

  • Dubai City Tower

Those with a fear of heights need not apply

City or building?

Of a slightly less extreme nature but by no means less imaginary is the Dubai City Tower proposal. Over recent years Dubai has become a hotspot for extravagant buildings like this, this and this. However of all the future proposals DCT really stands out. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, stands at 800 metres (half a mile!). It is an extraordinary feat of engineering but the DCT would stand three times higher. The ‘tower’ would consist of multiple towers spiralling around each other before meeting hundreds of metres from the ground. With its extreme height the tower would not only have lifts but would have vertical trains that stopped every 100 floors. Each section of 100 floors would be a different “neighbourhood”. The plan isn’t just to build a tower but a vertical city. The DCT would be as self-sufficient as possible generating much of its own power from solar panels and wind farms attached to the outside of the towers, each neighbourhood would feature a sky atrium (domed garden) stretching between the spiralling towers to act as parks and focal areas for local businesses and communities. It’s still doubtful if this structure will ever be constructed and if it is it won’t be for decades. But this idea of arcologies (one building cities) has always intrigued me. The DCT will have everything in it; shops, homes, hospitals, schools, cinemas, hotels, offices….you name it and it will have it. Which intrigues me because of the simple odd fact that a person can be born, raised, work, marry, have kids and die all in the same building! Not that this is a desirable thing (it isn’t to me) it is merely extraordinary.

  • Space Elevator

Going up?

If you thought a mile and a half building was impressive how would you like to take a ride on a cable car….to space? The Space elevator is an old favourite of both science fiction and speculative engineering. The idea is pretty simple; at an altitude of 30,000 kilometres an object can be placed in orbit so that its orbital speed matches the rotation of the Earth. In other words an object in this ‘geostationary orbit’ would always hover over the same place on Earth. From a platform in this orbit a cable could be slowly lowered

One small step for man one giant cable for mankind

down and attached to the corresponding place on the ground, then ‘climbers’ can run up and down this cable literally taking an elevator ride to orbit. Of course in reality the project is not that simple! There is no cable material that we can use at the moment that has the strength needed however we have started to produce materials that may be future candidates. Carbon nanotubes are small tubes of carbon nanometres wide made from just one atom thick sheets of carbon. They are the strongest materials known to man and we’ve been researching better methods of making them for years, the only problem at the moment is we can make small fragments but not thousands of kilometres! How the climbers would attach and actually climb is another problem however there are competitions between universities over this kind of thing already. A space elevator is daunting but its biggest advantage is the cost cutting that it would give to the space industry, that is costs of putting something into geostationary orbit would shrink to 1% of today’s price. On a purely weight cost that would change the cost of putting an average man to geostationary orbit from £1,200,000 to £5,000! That’s a pretty good amount allowing the average person to save up to go to space, not to mention the boom that the company/country who owns the elevator would get from trade in the space industry.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these ideas, it’s things like this that still give me a passion for science (though my field focusses on the very small which is slightly less gobsmacking to see). If you’ve come across any crazy plans yourself feel free to let me know, I’m always keen to find the next thing that with that level of wow factor!

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Why don’t I live on the moon?

I’ve just watched a fascinating animation of the international space station being assembled. That got me thinking and next thing I knew I was hammering out a blog post.

The International Space Station, keeping man in orbit since October 2000

When I was young I always wanted to be an astronaut. When I was four I went on holiday to Florida and visited the space centre there, from then on I was hooked. I loved rockets and shuttles to the extent that even now if I see a rocket launch on TV I get glow of pride and awe that our species has managed to do this. In my pre-teen childhood I was quite into all the traditionally geeky space stuff like Star Trek and other shows which now if I ever see annoy the hell out of me for two reasons;

Firstly, any TV show that calls itself “science-fiction” typically takes a white-western conservative culture and bolts on shiny tech.

Secondly, flying off to other planets isn’t a dream that is going to be available to us any time soon.

Every now and then I meet someone who admits that they believe the moon landings were a hoax. My second response to this (my first being to try to beat them to death with their own internal organs) is to ask why they think this way. Aside from flag waving, shadows and reflections the only interesting question that is asked is “why haven’t we been back?” The last Apollo mission was nearly forty years ago and since then there hasn’t been any grandiose feats to rival those missions. We live in a world where technological development appears to progress almost exponentially. Moore’s law is a good example of this (transistor numbers on computer chips double every two years) and we see it in our daily lives. The laptop we bought that was state-of-the-art last week was barely second best when we got it home from the store and by now deserves a dusty shelf in some museum. Now I’m not suggesting that space science has not progressed in the last forty years but it’s important to note that in that time space science has not yet developed to the point where it can give us cheap space travel.

At the time of the space race NASA was costing the US 4% of the federal budget. Out of every dollar the US spent 4 cents went to NASA and with this they got to the moon. This is thing about manned space travel, its hideously expensive, it takes a significant cut of a very rich country’s budget and it gives no profit back. I’m not suggesting that we should only commit to projects that have economic benefit (far from it) but the fact is that any manned space travel project requires a fortune in surplus funds (Note: the US didn’t go to the moon because they had some spare change and a twinkle in their eye, they did it for competition and the potential dangers of having a USSR military dominance in orbit).

Space travel is inspiring, it’s romantic but above all its bloody expensive. But all is not lost to the warcries of “cuts”, “audit” and “profit”. As technologies progress and economies grow we may find ourselves again in the position where we have the capability and the will to strive out into space with manned travel. Mars has always been seen as the next step for human exploration but a Mars mission is a world more difficult than a lunar one. Once a ship leaves the protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere (which the moon is within) the intensity of radiation exposure from the sun massively increases. Even more of a problem is the fuel and engine technology it takes to get there, the probes we send to Mars take years and are only making a one way trip.

Will VASIMR rockets like this take us to Mars and beyond?

All current rockets use chemical fuel as a propellent, but this gives a very limited burn time before the fuel runs out. With an equal fuel:rocket ratio our current technologies can give only a few minutes of thrust (for more info see “specific impulse“). There are other technologies being used, some probes use ion thrusters which can burn for months but they give very very low thrust (0-60 in about four days). However all that may be soon to change, the next generation in rocket technology will soon be launching to the international space station. In 2014 a VASIMR rocket will be attached to the side of the station, this type of rocket promises to give high thrust with very long burn times (hours-days). It does this by heating its fuel until it turns into a superhot plasma that it then shoots out of the back of the engine with a magnetic field. If this engine passes testing and gains investment we could be seeing a wave of VASIMR craft capable of taking us back to the moon and across to Mars in just months of travel time rather than years. In addition to this there have been a sprinkling of other technologies proposed such as a plasma bubble generator that would protect the ship from radiation by making a strong magnetic shield to deflect it, and the always jaw-dropping proposal of building a tower to orbit.

Space science isn’t as attractive as it used to be, the middle generation grew up with the images of moonlandings and shuttle launches. We’ve got budget cuts and Justin Bieber. But this isn’t the end of man’s story in space, our science marches on and when conditions are favourable we’ll be able to invest in technologies that will get us back out there. I’d like to think that this lull we are in is just the first interval in a long epic play…and the second act is starting soon.

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Living forever?

One of the more remarkable gifts our technological world is the increase in our life expectancy. Even but a century ago the average life expectancy of a British man was half of that of today, even in the last two decades it’s gone up by five years. This increase has a myriad of reasons; an abundance of food, water, law and order, an increase in hygiene and sanitation and finally massive advances in medical science.

Extending one’s life and capability through innovative means is part of what makes us human. This trend of increasing life expectancy is one that doesn’t seem to be slowing down, indeed as we develop our biosciences we are gaining a deeper understanding as to the mechanisms of ageing. This occurred to me as a topic to talk about when I saw an article on the BBC news website reporting on the state of anti-ageing science. The report highlighted a few issues that were vehemently discussed in the comments, to get to the issues I’ll go over a bit of the science behind ageing.

We don’t fully understand every mechanism that goes on whilst we age. There are many contributing factors that we have discovered though; the most often touted cause of ageing is the shortening of telomeres. These are stretches of DNA found at the end of chromosomes, every time a cell replicates a bit of these telomeres are cut off. Over time this leads to shortened telomeres and a more likely chance of DNA damage. Other contributing factors include protein build up inside and outside of cells, DNA mutation and cellular replacement (many cell types die faster than they can be replaced, this is more apparent in the elderly). Designing therapies to counter all of these (and any undiscovered causes) would lead to a stabilisation and even reversal of the ageing process.

Chromosomes with telomeres highlighted in red

This is all interesting science but it has far reaching consequences for our society and people have a lot of different ideas about the ethics of life extension. Let’s imagine that effective treatments for all the causes of ageing are produced, in this scenario a regime of drugs is introduced to the public that when taken every day reverse your age to a physically fit, healthy 25 year old body and keep it that way. I’ve heard many arguments for why this is apparently a bad thing. A common argument is that we should not “play god” or “mess with the natural order”. The argument states that death is natural and any attempt to prevent death from old age is morally wrong. Whenever I am faced with this argument I simply ask the person if they take medicine, drive cars or use the internet. If the answer is yes then the argument for being unnatural seems pretty thin. Furthermore nobody has ever died from old age; people die from age related disease. Getting old is simply a slow wearing out until finally something vital fails. In curing old age diseases we ramp up the life expectancy. Are these people really going to advocate not researching medicines for these diseases? Are they going to tell elderly patients “we don’t have medicine for your kind. It’s natural! Accept it”?

Another popular argument is that of overpopulation. Proponents state that if we do not allow people to die the world will be overfull. I’m always sceptical of this claim; firstly it assumes that we cannot support this amount of people. In the year 1800 we could not have supported the 6 billion people we have today because it took over 200 years of technological development for us to be able to support us. The claim that there will be too many people assumes that this progression will not continue. Secondly the claim assumes that we will still give birth to as many people as we do today. Add to that the fascinating discovery made over the last century that if you give women rights, education and prospects they (shock horror) don’t want to spend their lives spitting out children like high-throughput human factories! The birth rate in countries with equal rights for women shrinks enormously. Couple this with the decreasing need to have so many children (you don’t need to have 12 in the hope 6 will survive to adulthood to take care of you) and we get a scenario of 1 or less children per adult.

For me life extension always makes me wonder; I am 21 years old; once I’ve lived that many years again I hope to have had kids, be married and have a good career. At that age I can expect that once I’ve lived that many years again I will probably be dead or close to it. But that is on the basis that near 80 is the age I will kick the bucket. If the regime of drugs we have supposed comes to pass and my life expectancy jumps from 80 to several hundred years I doubt my principles will stay the same. Why have kids at any age before 100? Why not spend a few centuries learning, travelling and establishing a good life before tying myself down with other humans to raise?

Personally I would work for decades then take a sabbatical (instead of retirement) and spend a few decades travelling, studying and generally being on holiday. I’m interested to know what you all think. Do you think age-stabilising drugs would be a good thing? What would you do if your life expectancy jumped by orders of magnitude? How do you think society would change? Ultimately these issues are nothing new, but as science marches on our life expectancy is shrinking over the horizon. So who knows? Perhaps one of you will be mulling over this blog on your 200th birthday…

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What the ruddy hell is this ‘science’ thing anyway?

First things first I need to declare that I am indeed one of those long haired, lab coat wearing boffins known as a scientist. I have always been a scientist even before I actually got to wear the coat. From a very young age I wanted to know things, I wanted to figure things out and I wanted to use that knowledge to build wicked stuff (I’ve still not entirely fulfilled my childhood dream of building my own spaceship but we’ll see…). I do accept however that I am in the minority. Most people don’t like studying science whether it’s because they find it hard or boring or perhaps just have a penchant for something else. But there is a problem with this that I have come to notice over my (admittedly short) career, whilst its absolutely fine if people don’t want to be scientists most people don’t even know what science is. And that as we shall see is like being a sailor whose doesn’t recognise the water beneath him…

A typical scientist at work

It should be self evident to anyone reading this blog that we live in a technologically developed world. I’m touching a variety of pressure sensors that are converting that pattern into a digital code that is then represented on my screen as words and images. That code can be distributed on the interwebz for all to enjoy. Our lives are an expression of an ocean of knowledge that has been painstakingly gathered and built upon over thousands of years. There’s little I can point to in my life or the lives of anyone I know that hasn’t been affected by science and technology. This brings us neatly to our first question “what’s science and whose technology?”

The broad definition of science that most people might say is that it is a process of gathering facts about the world. A more accurate definition though would be that science uses empirical reasoning to build predictive models about the world; it’s all about model building. Empirical reasoning in science simply put goes observation – hypothesis – experimentation – conclude. We observe natural phenomenon, we develop a hypothesis about how it occurs (what in colloquial terms may be called a ‘theory’ or ‘idea’), we then test this hypothesis and from that we make a conclusion. Technology is the application of the understanding drawn from these models. We build shiny machines and funny sounding chemicals that run on the principles we have discovered to perform tasks that we find desirable.

What makes science so different? Sometimes in life truths are rather unpalatable for us humans. Whether it’s finding out that the Earth doesn’t revolve around us, that we are indeed related to other animals or that yes our bum does look big in this there is a plethora of things about the world that many might not like. But whether or not you like an answer has no veracity on its truth. Whilst this seems obvious it’s a statement I often see disregarded; just watch Fox News or read the Daily Mail and you’re bound to be bombarded with ideas like climate change is a conspiracy, vaccines cause disease and that its only ‘fair’ to teach fundamentalist religion in school science classes as a matter of ‘balance’.

In science no answer, no matter how devastating to our world view, is disregarded or accepted on the basis of what it is. The only reason to accept anything in science is that it has evidence for it no matter what it is. Science isn’t about what people think or what people reckon based on personal experience or anecdotes they’ve read about, it is about demonstrable truth through good, repeatable unbiased experimentation. This doesn’t mean that I go and do some experiments then just tell you the answer, other scientists will repeat my work over and over to see if the results are correct, to see if my method was flawed or to see if the results I obtained do not match the conclusions I have made. Nobody’s word is taken as gospel in the scientific community, something is considered to be true only when it has been demonstrated time and again by other experts in the field. This is the peer review process and I will go into it in more detail in another post.

So why is it important that everybody understands how science works? We all rely on the fruits of its labour to survive and flourish; in the developed world we live in a Garden of Eden where we suffer little threat from parasites, predators, natural disasters and where food and water are plentiful. All this is a product of science and technology but don’t take it as a constant! There are people in this world who have little interest in truth, merely agenda. It is because of these people that we all must have a fair understanding of how science works, if we don’t then how can we know what to do about issues such as climate change, pandemics and so on? A scientifically illiterate person has no immunity to the bullshit and propaganda that surround us like wolves beyond the campfire. How can the public know whether it’s right to teach evolution or creationism? To vaccinate or not? These are issues that I will address in further depth later on, until then I hope I’ve sparked a curiosity and shed a little more light on what exactly this ruddy ‘science’ thing actually is.

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How many men does it take to make a light bulb?

Not just men in fact but women as well. The question has been one that I’ve been throwing back and forth for a while now. I’ve encountered similar questions before all essentially asking “how many people does it take to sustain a technologically developed society?” The question implies a society that we in Britain are used to with as much consumerism, technology, law and light bulbs as we have today. The answer might be a little more than most would guess.

Throughout history we have gone forth and multiplied. Countless times wooden boats have been built carrying less people than the average train on the Tube across waters to new lands where those people have managed to build a society. From that we would think that the answer to “how many people does it take to sustain a technologically developed society?” wouldn’t be that much. Perhaps the citizens of our hypothetical society can each be employed only in jobs that are necessary with no overlap or needless jobs (by needless jobs I refer to multiple companies providing the same service which in our hypothetical society can be cut down). In colonial times they would start essentially from scratch and work their way back up with trade and supply from neighbouring lands boosting the fledgling society. But in trying to answer “how many men…” we need to come to a number of how many people we need to maintain the world we are used to rather than rebuild it.

Pre-1900 most things could be constructed by generalist industries (blacksmiths, carpenters, masons etc). Over the past century however our world has exploded into an ecology of superspecialisms. Whilst early machines could be built or maintained by the typical tinkerer in his workshop the complexity of everyday objects today has pushed the reality of one dedicated jack-of-all-trades up to a large interdependent group of masters in one field.

A few examples; today’s smartphones contain microprocessors built from transistors just tens of nanometres thick, wires etched a few dozen atoms wide, GPS systems, radio transmitters, microscopic pressure sensors underneath a full colour screen all packaged in a palm sized container. In the medical field rather than having the traditional doctor, surgeon, nurse, dentist we have specialists in far narrower fields like cardiologists, radiologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists etcetera etcetera. Examples like this can be seen in all walks of life and in building our hypothetical society we can forget none of them! A temporal lobe neurosurgeon might seem unnecessarily specialised until you get a tumour that needs to be excised. And for each field we must have a sizable portion educating the next generation. Contrary to Heinlein’s popular quote specialisation is not just for insects.

So to address the original question, how many men does it take to make a light bulb? Let’s break it down; a typical incandescent light bulb is made up from a glass bulb containing a tungsten filament surrounded by an inert gas. Sounds simple at first but for all of that we need an industry to mine and refine the materials, transport to take those materials to factories (and consequently an industry to maintain that infrastructure), make the bulbs and ship them out to the people. Apply that to every product we have and how many industries do we need now? Sure there may be no overlap in some areas (we may only need one tungsten mine and one infrastructure maintenance consortium) but the sheer complexity of life in the developed world today is mind boggling.

Adding together the populations of large hives of industry such as NAFTA, the EU and China we come to a number of over two billion. This number can be trimmed to about one billion by taking into consideration the communities that provide little overall input (half of China’s population is solely agrarian for example). If we take one billion people to be the upper bound we can consider removing as much overlap as possible whilst maximising efficiency but I see no reason as to why the lower bound number would not be less than the high tens or low hundreds of millions. So to live in a society capable of providing all the technologies and services we are used to would require a population greater than that of the United Kingdom today.

This realisation has important implications. For those of an ideology that the world would be a better place with less people simply living in one with nature or those who have a special place in their heart for the idea of living on Mars (or any other non-Earth body) the reality is quite different. To maintain a technologically developed society such as ours we are not going to be living in self sufficient pioneering communities, instead we have to be a thriving interdependent hive of industries, experts and above all specialists.

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