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Unsustainable Interstellar Civilization, Hotspot Colonies, and Dwarf Culture

While I'd like to write SFF or rewrite Hot Earth Dreams, this year I'm stuck spending most of my energy fighting developers who decided not to let a good housing crisis go to waste and are busy clogging California with million dollar fire traps. Right now, worldbuilding is my way to blow off steam, and I figured I'd pass some of it along for your amusement. If you're a writer, feel free to appropriate anything here. My ask for comments is to contribute to the effort: help me unpack the science in this essay, ask questions, and contribute cool worldbuilding science of your own. If this goes over well, there are other topics we can cover.

The subject of this essayare the three little ideas in the title. Without further ado:

Unsustainable Interstellar Civilization

Yes, I'm an environmentalist, so if you think I believe truly this, you'll also believe that Charlie's an ardent royalist. Nonetheless, there's this meme floating around the SFF universe that the only way we'll make it to the stars is if we solve all the sustainability problems that plague global civilization today. This is correct, if we're stuck with STL (slower than light) interstellar transportation, because you can't live bottled up in a starship for centuries without mad sustainability skillz. However, if FTL (faster than light) transportation is possible, sustainability no longer matters.

Yes, I know FTL isn't physically possible. Whatever. As a plausible explanation for how it came about, consider the following scenario: Following WWIII, the global internet was destroyed, simply to prevent cyberattacks from continuing to wreck civilization all over the world. The internet backbone was physically severed, and Kessler syndrome destroyed satellite communications. No WMDs were deployed in WWIII, but it turned out the price of democracy (and autocracy) was isolation. That left a number of large data centers sitting idle, so some bright bulbs decided to repurpose these behemoths for deep learning and evolutionary engineering, to solve society's problems. One of the problems they threw at the data centers was The Theory of Everything; they fed in vast libraries of particle accelerator and cosmological data, and out popped the Theory. It didn't make any sense, but when they plugged numbers into the equations, the resulting predictions were accurate. One of the weird things about how the Theory of Everyhing handled spacetime was that C wasn't the limit we think it is now. When this theory was plugged into an evolutionary engineering system with an absurdly optimistic set of output specs, after some huge number of iterations, the system spit out a working FTL drive. Again, the design made no sense, but it could be built and flown, and it worked. Why it works is a mystery, because the systems weren't designed for helping humans decipher their outputs.

When you have FTL, you don't need long-term sustainability, so long as the rate at which successful colonies are founded is greater than the rate at which established colonies fail, with successful colonies being those that can build their own starships and found their own colonies. There are actually a number of Earthly species that live this way, and there's a whole little scientific field, metapopulation dynamics, that studies them. If humans can learn to pull off this trick with our extraterrestrial colonies, in theory we can expand indefinitely, especially if we expand slowly enough to return to this section of the galaxy in, say 50-100 million years, after which the planets we formerly colonized have fallowed long enough for us to colonize them again (basically by recycling the top kilometer or two of crust).

The way it works is that, once the first settlers on a new planet demonstrate that they won't die horribly from allergies, pathogens, or getting buried under the excrement of herds of titanosaurs, they then spread out to build mining settlements all over the planet, high-grade all the most accessible mineral deposits, drill for oil, and grow the infrastructure needed to build starships. With starhips built and trade links established, they grow into a mature colony over the course of a few centuries, all the while founding as many daughter colonies on new planets as possible. Eventually, they run into serious pollution problems, loss of usable mineral deposits, changing climate (both natural through the equivalent of Milankovich cycles, and anthropogenic), and a biosphere that coevolves to exploit the colony, because that's just what life does (think pesticide resistant bugs, coyotes, superweeds...). At that point, the colony starts to fall apart. Interstellar trade shifts away from it (after all, whatever's causing them to collapse them might be contagious). Ultimately the survivors hang on to become a truly resilient indigenous population in a backwater world--or all die horribly as their critical infrastructure fails. Their fate doesn't matter to our interstellar civilization, because it has literally already moved on to new frontiers, boldly going where no man has gone before. So long as they can find new worlds to conquer, they can go on forever.

Oh yes: planets, you ask. Why planets and not, say, asteroids? Or ice moons? The short answer is gravity, radiation shielding, atmosphere, and biosphere. We still haven't figured out how to complete a human life cycle in space, and it's not clear it's possible. We require gravity, and unless someone invents a usable gravity generator, we need planets to warp space for us. Even if someone does invent a gravity generator, on a planet you get gravity as part of the price of entry. If that planet has an active core, you also get a magnetosphere, which helps a lot with radiation shielding, plus things like plate tectonics. We don't have decent, light radiation shields either, so until people start building force fields that keep out radiation, a magnetosphere is essential. A nice, oxygen-rich atmosphere also does a lot to moderate the radiation experienced on the surface, and again, with a planet with a biosphere, you get this for free. And you can (to a first approximation) breathe the air. And yes, an alien biosphere can be counted on to cause problems. However, life does a lot of useful things, one of which is concentrating elements into ore bodies (something bacteria do with some elements). A combination of plate tectonics and an active biosphere means that you've got possibilities for a lot of concentrated ore bodies, petrochemicals like oil, and useful biochemicals--all the stuff you need to build a starship. While asteroids have these elements, they don't have them so much in concentrated ore bodies, so you've got to spend a lot of energy refining asteroids into useful feedstocks and dealing with the slag. The bottom line is that alien biospheres are dangerous, but so is living on an asteroid, and I suspect the former is the less dangerous option, at least for humans.

Hotspot Colonies

So you've found a fine, middle-aged planet, and you want to settle it (there's a little aside here about the evolution of planetary crusts that I won't go into here--ask in comments). Where do you site the first colony? My suggestion is to locate it on a mid-ocean, hotspot volcano, like Hawai'i, Iceland, or Tenerife. The advantages are that you're dealing with an isolated, fairly simple ecosystem, and if island species are sufficient to overwhelm your immune system and rot your brain (or cover you in piles of dung), you wouldn't have survived the mainland either. As the Polynesians and Guanche demonstrated, it's possible to terraform an island using neolithic technology, so you can probably establish an island colony with the contents of one or a few starships, even with 21st Century tech. Moreover, islands are quite fertile, both from the elements coughed up by the volcano and also from the excrement left behind by sea life hauling out on the island or using it as a rookery. Yes, what I'm recommending will result in the extinction of many no-doubt fascinating, even cuddly, island species, but if you're planning to do that on a massive scale anyway (it's called terraforming for a reason) and you have to start small, then it makes sense to start on mid-ocean volcanoes and see if you can establish a beachhead there. If living on an idyllic, isolated volcanic island causes your children to die horribly, then it's likely that you're not going to be able to successfully colonize this world anyway.

To successfully colonize a planet, though, you can't stop at one island chain. Islands may be good for agriculture, but they're missing things like the rare earths lithium that you'll need for electronics and batteries. Mainland settlements are necessary for the long-term success of a colony. At a minimum, there have to be mines and oil wells, extractive operations to feed back to the main colonies on the islands. At a maximum, the entire planet can be colonized and terraformed. But for a first colony, I'd suggest targeting a hotspot volcano in the middle of a big ocean. We know how to settle those on Earth.

Yes, I know there's a lot of planetology I'm ignoring here, like the story of planetary crust evolution. If people are interested, we can discuss it in the comments.

Dwarf culture

Red dwarf exoplanets, I mean. Can life even exist on a planet orbiting a red dwarf star? I have no clue, although reading the dueling model papers is fun. Here I'm assuming it's possible, but whether this is plausible is something to hash out in the comments. Anyway, assuming oxygenic biospheres can form on planets orbiting red dwarf stars, and assuming humans can live there...well, life gets interesting. The problem with red dwarf stars is they have the bad habit of emitting large blasts of x-rays and coronal mass ejections, so for humans, the best place for a long-term colony is either underground or behind a mountain. Being in the shade of a volcano isn't a bad idea.

Shade? That's the second issue. Red dwarfs are cool little stars, and that means that the habitable zone where water is liquid is far closer than Mercury is to our sun. A year for a habitable dwarf exoplanet is on order of days to weeks. As a result, the planet almost certainly has no moon(s) and it is tidally locked to the star. Tidal lock means that the planet rotates one day in one year, so that one side of the planet always faces the red dwarf, while the other is in perpetual darkness. The planet stays habitable because all the water on the planet flows to either the front side (so there's a huge ocean under the sun, due to a massive day/year long tidal bump) or the backside (where it freezes, except that heat from the ground below melts water at the base of the glacier, and this flows somewhere). Anyway, the star evaporates water and heats air, which together drive formation of huge storms under the sun, but which also move a lot of water and hot air around the rest of the planet, driving a planet-wide atmospheric circulation cell, so that hot air travels towards the back of the planet, while cold air moves to fill in the gap, and the whole thing reaches some sort of windy stable system.

There's probably no volcanic islands directly under the red dwarf (the sea's too deep there), and you wouldn't want to live there anyway, with perpetual hurricanes. The better place to live is closer to the terminator between day and night, where the sea is shallower and there are perpetual shadows behind the volcanoes. Or you can dig in. Earthly crops, unless they're massively genetically engineered to have photosystems that don't need ultraviolet light, will have to be grown in greenhouses, but with the sun in the same place in the sky, even setting up massive solar farms is pretty trivial, assuming you don't simply posit a fusion planet to power it all.

As for human culture on a red dwarf planet, that's where it gets weird. To start with, it's underground or in the shade. Sunbathing is a risky sport at best, and you'd better be wearing a dosimeter when you're casting a shadow. Timekeeping is even weirder. Humans have circadian rhythms as does most terrestrial life, so keep track of days, weeks, and so forth is useful in a red dwarf culture. However, there's no reason for everyone to stay on the same day-night cycle, because the sun never changes position. Why not organize the colony around shifts, say, three eight-hour shifts in a 24 hour notional day. It doesn't correspond to what's going on with the local sun, but it helps the colony be more productive and keeps everyone on time.

This is where dwarf culture comes into being. Since I like corny slang, I suspect that, in an FTL culture, "dwarf" will shift from meaning vertically challenged and refer to anyone who grew up on a red dwarf planet. After all, an underground culture where daylight is unending but which shift you work is culturally important is pretty alien to someone who grew up on Earth, with its days and nights, seasons, going outside, and not worrying about solar flares. In terms of interstellar politics, dwarves from different colonies may find that they have more in common with each other than they do with people who grew up on swiftly spinning planets like Earth. Since there are a lot of red dwarf stars out there, factional splits between dwarf and "normal" colonies could have huge political implications for how interstellar civilization works. Working out the details is where the fun begins for the writer.

That's my three tidbits. Feel free to add your favorite exoplanetology lessons for writers in the comments below.



Except .... You can recomstitute petrochemicals from other organic feedstocks & air, if you have enough electricity. This is already being much-worked-on here-&-now. If this tech is laso exported, then tere is no need or reason to "exhaust the planets you arte colonising, is there? Um. Ditto "ammonia cycle" engines etc - which is also just-about feasible now.

IIRC, Poul ANderson addressed some of the more exotic problems of living on Red-Dwarf planets, & would those starflares really be that dangerous to us - different wavelegths, maybe, lower energies that Sol, also depedant upon degree of atmospheric shielding ....

IF you are going to be aggressiv about it ( And we are, by your definition ), then we also need to have aggressive coloniser-plants (NOTE) ready to go" as either seeds or potted samples, to turn loose on the unsuspecting local biota.

NOTE: But remember, that one biome's aggressive coloniser is another's pussycat & vice versa. Think Japanes Knotweed, which isn't a problem in Japan, or Viper's Bugloss, which is a menace in the USA, etc etc ....


Aplogies 4 the tipoes ......


So far as either feedstocks or fuel EROEI (energy returned on energy invested), it's really difficult to beat an oil well under pressure, such that you drill in and oil gushes out.

Now if you know this going in, and you're looking to make a lot of plastics and set up a local power station to process them, then I hate to say it, but it does make a lot of sense to drill for oil on alien planets.

I'm quite sure that, if people did start drilling, they'd use the perfectly normal excuse that they're only high grading the stock to make the colony successful, build a starship or two, and set up a repair depot for the same. Of course, once the industry gets established, it's really hard to get rid of.

And that's the dilemma: if you're a frail colony struggling to survive on an alien world, do you forego a source of really cheap energy and materials because you know it will have bad consequences two hundred years later, or do you tap it on the thought that you're too small to have an impact now, and if you survive, then you'll deal with it when your situation is more stable?

I'm bringing that up because it's logic I see every time I have to deal with politicians and developers around this housing crisis we're dealing with*, but I almost never see that logic brought up in SF as an excuse for excesses in colonization.

*incidentally, the crisis, in a nutshell, is that there's too little affordable housing getting built (affordable is around $300,000 per home). The stock of $700,000+ homes is 150% of capacity, reputedly. As a result, the developers are building: lots of $700,000 and up homes, in high fire areas, on roads where the people are going to have a lot of trouble evacuating.

When I see prim and proper colonization, where everyone does the right thing, and compare it with my everyday reality, I get this little glint in my eye. The thing is, we could conceivably launch an interstellar civilization by using today's development logic, so long as we develop new planets as fast or faster than we trash old ones.


If anyone gave a shit about EROEI everything would be running on Fast Breeder reactors. FTL or no, I just refuse to believe in an interstellar civilization which cant do full recycle or has energy shortages, because it is a ridiculous idea.

Uhm. Actually, there is one thing which is finite, and which could cause an infinite cycle of intrepid explorers poking their noses into everything.


So, imagine this future: Climate goes a bit wonky, but ultimately, building infrastructure that does not fall down in a stiff breeze and food supply chains that cant be ruined by storms are employment programs, and the world has so many idle hands to throw at the problem that it goes away. There is a generation there that eats a lot of factory raised locust and candy manufactured on the Elephantgrass->Cellulose->Brute Force Chemistry->Sugar path, but not any mega-deaths.

In the longer run, genetic engineering is gradually perfected, and some time around 2392, the generation of the optimized are born. Retro-fitting superior biochemistry to the old takes another 50 years.

At this point, humanity is very healthy, very smart, very conscientious, and nearly arbitrarily rich. Also extremely bored. Turns out, when the average intellect and work ethic hovers someplace around that of John Von Neuman / Ruth Lawerence, sitting at home watching tv satisfies nobody. Physics gets a complete solve in just under a century. The engineering implications take longer, but there are only so many projects to engage with at once in this field.

So to stop people from causing problems at home out of sheer boredom, the Mercury shipyards turn out star ships at a rate that is going to cause the entire planet to cease to exist in less than a thousand years, and people are looking into star mining to replace it. Just so billions of grad students can do xeno-.. well, everything.


"The planet stays habitable because all the water on the planet flows to either the front side (so there's a huge ocean under the sun, due to a massive day/year long tidal bump)"

Dubious. The tidal effects are stationary with respect to the planet; over the long term, the solid body will relax into the same equipotential surface as the water (apart from local topography), just like it does for Earth's rotational bulge.


How much faster than light?

If you can only go twice as fast as light it takes more than 2 years to reach the nearest star (acceleration time + transit time + deceleration time).

So you still have the same sustainability problem during the journey plus however long it takes to establish yourself on the new planet that you would have with slower than light colony ships, even if it's only for decades instead of centuries.

Once you find the exo-planets, even if they're in the "life zone" you've still got to have some way to determine they will support human life (or are close enough that current level technology can modify them sufficiently)? It's going to take some kind of probe to find out if they are actually habitable. Those probes are going to have to get the information back to earth somehow. Radio? Laser? Turn around and sail back to the solar system?

So maybe it's not twice as fast. Maybe it's 10 times as fast. Or maybe you only get 1.5x ...

On a galactic scale, even with FTL travel star systems are a long way apart. Sustainability is still going to be a problem. Not just for the journey, but here on earth while we're waiting to find out if there's anywhere out there we can go.

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.

"clogging California with million dollar fire traps"

  • You don't live in California, as I understand things, so why are you wasting energy?

  • Could you document this or provide a link or two?

  • 8:

    Actually, I do live in San Diego. Not sure who you're confusing me with.

    As for documents, check out


    Actually, the usual claims that FTL is impossible are somewhere between flawed and bogus. The standard 'proof' involves the graphical axis transformation, but over many years I asked (professional) relativists if they knew of a (two-way) equivalence proof, but answer came there none. I finally got pissed off enough to remind myself of enough of my mathematics to analyse the equations directly. Unfortunately, I am too rusty to do a complete job, but I could do a fair amount.

    Yes, it's correct that unconstrained FTL is impossible, and so is inertial motion at FTL speeds, but think in terms of whether FTL information transfer is possible in quantum tunnelling. I have also enquired about THAT from professional relativists, and the relativists are dogmatically certain that the quantum mechanics will eventually see the light, but none I spoke to could actually say what was wrong with the standard quantum beliefs. There have been some recent papers claiming to prove this but, unfortunately, I am no longer good enough to analyse exactly what they prove.

    So back to good old special relativity, which is both rock-solid and fairly simple. Subject to my aging memory forgetting the details of what I proved a month or two back, and me having got it right, you can have FTL without a breach of causality under at least the following conditions:

    A) Between two frames moving at a speed V relative to each other, up to a FTL speed of c^2/V. Yes, if they are at relative rest, that means it could be instantaneous. That's been known all along, but is often denied.

    B) Instantaneously between two pairs of frames each at relative internal rest over a maximum distance of D, moving at a speed V relative to one another, provided that they are at least V*D/c apart. That's the key result.

    Consider more than two pairs of frames doesn't change anything, provided that they are all separated by condition (B). A weaker rule exists, but I am too rusty to want to spend the time to derive it.

    Does that mean even FTL information transfer is possible? Obviously not. And, equally obviously, FTL information transfer may be possible but FTL transport impossible. However, it DOES mean that the standard claim that FTL is equivalent to time travel is wrong - that applies only to unconstrained FTL.


    If I recall correctly, relative speed differences between stars are on order 10-20 km/sec, at least in our neck of the galaxy. The speed of light is 299,792 km/sec, so C^2/V is a pretty rapid transit. Presumably a physicist will speak up and demonstrate the mistakes we've likely both made.

    JBS' point about the speed of the FTL drive is quite true (e.g. slow FTL still requires that canned monkeys be shelf stable for years to decades), but if Elderly Cynic is correct, it may not matter. Or you can engineer a jump drive that can put you just about anywhere (possibly subject to a time lag), but you've still got to use conventional engines to match velocities with your target. That will take days to months, depending on how far you jumped.


    When you have FTL, you don't need long-term sustainability, so long as the rate at which successful colonies are founded is greater than the rate at which established colonies fail, with successful colonies being those that can build their own starships and found their own colonies. There are actually a number of Earthly species that live this way,

    Ewww! Yuk!

    A future for the 0.1%, where everyone else dies under hellish conditions!

    Because this works fine for species survival. But it's horrific for the members of the species. You're talking about species that build huge colonies that then collapse, killing almost all members except for the lucky few that move on.

    I think that as usual SF taking things to an extreme gets us to an underlying point about our world: in this case that sustainability is fundamentally not about the top 0.1% who can protect themselves from the consequences, it's about everyone else.


    Well, it doesn't have to be survival of the 0.1%. While this presentation is premised on the behavior of current developers, I got the initial idea from how vernal pools work, and developed it based on how Polynesians settled new islands. Does that change your view of it?

    This scenario certainly can be conflated with the 0.1% living will others die, but the question then becomes: how would you prevent it? Furthermore, if you live in a civilization with FTL, is it ethical or unethical to stop people from trying to start new colonies, based on the damage their descendants might cause in a few centuries?

    When you look at the much of the sustainability movement, I suspect that they'd be perfectly happy with the developers moving somewhere else (like Mars) and out of local politics, so that the activists can get to work making sure everyone's fed and housed at some acceptable level. If the end result of colonial collapse is a sustainable society, is that a bad thing or a good thing? What if collapse only sometimes results in sustainability?

    Finally, I'd point out that this is to help SF WRITERS. As you point out, this scenario raises all sorts of ethical problems. If you're thinking about science fiction, is a problematic scenario a bad thing or a good thing?


    A future for the 0.1%, where everyone else dies under hellish conditions!

    Because this works fine for species survival. But it's horrific for the members of the species. You're talking about species that build huge colonies that then collapse, killing almost all members except for the lucky few that move on.

    Maybe there will be a central coordinating body to ensure that everyone who can gets out alive, and then assigns the world to a species that can use it as is... maybe an "Institute For Migration." This sounds like David Brin's Uplift future, but someone could take this in a dystopian direction and get some interesting stuff out of it.

    Let's think this through: If there was anything like anthropogenic warming from any source, (and a civilization will produce heat) you'd want to have the planet settled by the coldest-loving species possible, and migrated-to in the order from coldest-loving to hottest-loving species possible.

    Meanwhile, each species would settle at the equator, then migrate north/die off, after which any of several kinds of scavenging species might land and strip the planet of anything of value. The last thing the final scavenging species would do is drop an anti-matter warhead into every active volcano in order to encourage the turnover of that top kilometer of crust. (Or alternately, they rain the planet with asteroids, perhaps one every thousand years. Or they do both.) With any luck, you get to settle each planet every couple million years, and each species keeps it for as long as they can because migrations are expensive, (and if you piss off the lower classes, sometimes you have a revolution instead of a migration.)


    Hm, some part of me wants to call the Unsustainable Interstellar Civilizations "locust civilizations", not that they have much in common with actual locusts...

    I'm not sure you'd really need FTL to make it work; creating an infrastructure supporting nanoassemblers recreating the colonists might be sufficient[1]. Or the colonists might be sufficiently posthuman they don't need nanoassemblers any more. It would also work great with Von Neumann probes, or a malfunctioning terraforming machine could turn into a Von-Neumann probe, similar to one theory of viruses being selfish DNA that skipped the cell requirements.

    As for the planets around Red Dwarfs, my first thought were mirrors to illuminate the dark side, but then I thought about a moon with a high albedo. Habitable moons of gas giants are out of the question, BTW?

    [1] Well, yes, I'm working on my own little scenario where that's the main mode of interstellar transport, leaving copies of the persons involved all over the place. Makes for killing the protagonist repeatedly...


    Actually, the simulations of red dwarf worlds (cf: Carone et al. 2015. Connecting the dots – II. Phase changes in the climate dynamics of tidally locked terrestrial exoplanets. You can get a copy on Google Scholar) seem to say that air circulation alone means that at least some part of the planet will be habitable, depending as always on details.

    As for exomoons, I've played with those for years, and I hope someday to go back to the Dio/Nysus system I'd created, with a big ol' retrograde moon orbiting a gas giant. Anyway, big moons depend on some interesting issues. I'd suggest looking at Barnes and O'Brien's 2002 "Stability of satellites around close-in extrasolar giant planets." Their simulations showed that an earth-like moon is sort of possible, especially if the gas giant is pushing brown dwarf size. Go read the paper, and remember that it's a numerical analysis. We've seen before that nature giggles when she reads our papers, then sets out to surprise us.

    The thing I thought was most cool was actually about the evolution of planetary crusts over time--that story is that they start out molten and congeal. A planet that's congeals too fast ends up like Mars, without plate tectonics, as does a planet with too hot a surface. Even if a planet does develop plate tectonics, over time the crust continues to cool and thicken, and eventually plate tectonics stop. This is bad, because there's a fair amount of (really slow) elemental recycling due to stuff getting melted underground and spit out again in volcanoes. As nutrient cycles sputter and slow down, so does the biosphere they support. The upshot is that planets that are too young and too old may not support complex life. Again, according to models.


    Just reread Isle of the Dead by Zelazny, strongly recommend using the FTL system he has. It is simple and you don't have to waste time justifying the physics.

    wiki - Isle of the Dead (Zelazny novel)

    What you describe in your premise is perfect for developing Zelazny's FTL.

    • The drive places you on the skin of space.

    • It takes two weeks while underway to get anywhere.

    • To the outside view it took no time to pass from point A to Point B.

    He points out that if he returned right away he could be back for supper the same day that he left. Two weeks to get to point B, two weeks to return to point A, but all in the same day as far as the people back home are seeing.

    • The value of such a FTL system lets you focus on your main theme of the expanding wave(s) of development followed by the fall(s).

    Strongly recommend that you start "in medias res" with the wave of expansion several centuries or even thousands of years down the road so that you can have a mix of new planets with developed planets with lost planets being rediscovered and resettled. That way you don't get tied up trying to show the wave from the beginning. That can burn you out fast. BTDT, HA!

    • That also frees you to have any mix of interesting social changes happening on the many worlds.

    Strongly recommend, limit yourself to 100k novels, and commit to being episodic. If you start with the right mindset the process becomes a joy rather than constant worries about continuity.

    If you don't already have one, get a classic set of Jenga. The game of stacking wooden pieces in a tower. Once you have played with the Jenga pieces a few times you will see how hard it is to sustain a long form story. The Jenga tower is designed to crash. Think of many different storylines spread out across a surface, with only a few short Jenga towers at a time scattered around.

    • That gives you the freedom to have many different storylines going at once, with the occasional character crossing from one to the next.

    Read Isle of the Dead and realize that whole storylines are there sitting in plain sight waiting to be expanded, he simply focused on one story among many.

    BTW, I was inspired by the desert plant that grows outward in a ring, leaving the center bare. I can't remember the name of the plant.


    Lots of plants grow in rings. Creosote is probably the most famous for its longevity.


    A few comments - (reminder: I'm not a techie/scientist, so pls explain/challenge in plain language)

    a) ‘When you have FTL, you don't need long-term sustainability, so long as the rate at which successful colonies are founded is greater than the rate at which established colonies fail, …’ --- Think this is a US bias. Look more closely at older European and Asian cultures where maintenance/rebuilding (i.e., urban-ecology, urbology?) seem to be a proportionally larger share of the operating budget.

    ‘ … they then spread out to build mining settlements all over the planet, high-grade all the most accessible mineral deposits, drill for oil, and grow the infrastructure needed to build starships.’

    Again, the assumption is that everything will be same-as-Earth although a different planet, different solar system, different part of the galaxy. Part of the SF idea adventure (for me) is seeing what types of physical/geological/chemical/biological surprises the author introduces and how HSS adapts.

    b) ‘If that planet has an active core, you also get a magnetosphere, which helps a lot with radiation shielding, plus things like plate tectonics.’ – Read somewhere that our iron core also provides central heating/heat modulation for the planet, plus helps redistribute minerals, etc.

    Red dwarfs – Tidal lock seems to be a big issue with planets orbiting red dwarfs from the bits I’ve read. However, even though over 3,000 planets have been discovered to-date, all things considered, this is still a very small sample of what might be out there. Kepler discoveries essentially turned what was ‘known’ about planet formation on its ear. The two lines below seem to say opposite things, but because this is still early days, anything could be out there.


    ‘"I think one of the biggest things that Kepler has shown us is that there are lots of these planets that have no analog in our solar system," Morton said.

    Furthermore, the 1,284 newfound worlds further support what previous Kepler discoveries had revealed: that small, rocky worlds such as Earth are the most common type of planet in the Milky Way, Morton added. ‘

    c) ‘However, there's no reason for everyone to stay on the same day-night cycle, because the sun never changes position. Why not organize the colony around shifts, say, three eight-hour shifts in a 24 hour notional day. It doesn't correspond to what's going on with the local sun, but it helps the colony be more productive and keeps everyone on time.’

    IMO, this is where solar energy would make sense. If you could get lots of ‘naturally occurring’ graphene and still have access to rocketry, this is the scenario where you could build solar panels that could not only provide energy to the planet below but if massive enough could blot out enough of the solar rays to make the surface habitable. And, if you had enough of them orbiting in close formation, you could maybe even come up with a day/night sky. [An aside: the 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep is a fairly recent (cultural?) expectation. Apparently it’s fairly normal for humans to wake intermittently during the night usually between sleep cycles which are typically approx. 90 minutes long.)


    You've got to specify when in history you're talking about. From what little I know about human expansionism, it tends to go from rapid expansion to screwup to local adaptation, where the current US and Australia are in the local adaptation part of the cycle. As I noted in a previous comment, the Polynesians expanded across the Pacific rapidly, kept up distant interisland communication for perhaps 2-3 generations, then abandoned it (at least in the case of Hawai'i and Tahiti. Tonga and Fiji were very different) in favor of local adaptation. I get the impression from reading early Asian (The Art of Not Being Governed) and European (bronze age) history that similar things happened earlier on, and what we're seeing now in Asia and Europe is the result of a couple thousand more years of history after that.

    What I'm suggesting here is that the same thing could be carried indefinitely to the stars. Hopefully it's not a western bias, but I could be wrong about that.

    Things like bacteria concentrating ores and forming petroleum I figure are safe bets. Life on Earth uses dozens of metabolic pathways (almost all in bacteria), involving everything from hydrogen to gold. It would be surprising if something similar didn't happen on other planets. Since one byproduct of some of these metabolic activities is concentration of particular molecules, that's how we get ores developing on Earth, so again, I'd expect that elsewhere. As for petroleum, that's what happens when surplus dead bacteria and algae get buried, cooked until the organic matter is broken down to some degree, then caught as it percolates under some impermeable rock layer like a salt dome. Unlike the production of coal, this process is generic enough that I suspect it happens everywhere that there's dead carbon-based life getting buried in sediments.

    That's why I think it's reasonable to expect things like petroleum and ores of useful elements on living planets.

    As for the whole red dwarf atmosphere thing, see the reference I cited above. There are modeling studies out there arguing about various aspects of whether red dwarfs harbor life or could support Earth-like life. Absent a star drive to actually visit the planet, the best answer we might get is if one has an oxygen atmosphere that we can see through a telescope. If someone wants to write about people living on red dwarf worlds, there's nothing saying they can't--yet.

    As for three shifts, the point is to separate the day into three work periods, not having everybody working, eating, and sleeping together. In some ways it's more productive, in some ways it's less productive. One reason to post this is that I saw one author assume that humans would keep the same sleep-wake cycles on a red dwarf planet, even though they made no sense and were artificial. I'd suggest the opposite, that people may split into shift cultures, where when you work is a big part of your identity (it influences who you socialize with, for example). Since I hang out with a lot of medical workers who live and work on a three-shift system, I know how hard it is to schedule parties and other events so that you'll get the people you want at a party. While it's a normal, minority thing to do here, I started wondering what it would be like if a whole planet ran on a three-shift system, without the circadian rhythm penalties that shift workers face on Earth.


    'When in history' & Tahiti, etc.' ... Okay, how about we assume that there will be different sects/cultures of star explorers. LMBujold did this quite well in her Vorkosigan series, plus at present several nations/cultures have active space programs. The islanders example wrt isolationism after 2-3 generations might have different causes depending on the island. For some it could be the rise of some idiot isolationist ruler; for others, it could be some cataclysmic event that decimated the population thus made far-off travel too costly/risky.

    Not sure what you mean by 'what we're seeing now in Asia and Europe is the result of a couple thousand more years of history after that.' Maybe we're seeing different things. I see most of Europe and Asia striving to keep its history and environment despite pressure to build out (a lot) using modern tech. (Recall my first NYC trip and the cab ride between Manhattan and the airport: falling down abandoned high rises that looked as if they'd been bombed. I'd been to Europe a few years earlier and the only buildings that looked like that had been deliberately left that way as a reminder of WW2. Ditto Detroit trip.)

    Three shift days - Seriously? Sounds like you're describing the worst of the Stalin era. Apart from essential services such as hospitals and police/fire, don't see much need for shift work in a technologically advanced society. Also, I'd expect space-farers would make robotics* a priority esp. if their society wanted to maintain any industrialization thereby freeing up humans to do other things - like not work shifts. So please explain why three shifts.

    Dumb question: Where does your planet get its oxygen, and how do they keep it on-planet? (From the bits I've read, dwarfs - small hot rocky planets - are at high risk of losing their oxygen due to low gravity and/or volcanism while gas giants have no oxygen in their atmospheres at all.)

    • Since you clued me in to AcapellaScience (Tim Blais): expect a new video soon.


    That's it. Thanks, I can never remember.

    It makes such a great model for Civilization. Growing, consuming, leaving barren desolation in the spreading ring.

    Another great example. Since people would see the waves go out and fall, some groups would move out radially, always trying to leap ahead, like plants that grow by sending out runners, staying ahead of the collapsing regions behind them.

    I see the Galaxy mapped with the various waves consuming a region, creating voids, and the lines of linear spread like exploding shrapnel of those racing to avoid collapse, always moving.


    Re: 'Novelty & average intellect and work ethic ... John Von Neuman / Ruth Lawerence, sitting at home watching tv satisfies nobody.'

    First off - like your descriptions!

    However ... if/when the entire population is like JVN/RL, I'd expect the performance and other arts to also get their fair share of geniuses.

    Am curious about how genetic engineering done explicitly to improve specific survival-related physiological and intellectual traits would influence esthetics, e.g., in a low light environment, wouldn't it make more sense to increase the light-dark sensitive rods and lose the color-sensing cones?


    "I started wondering what it would be like if a whole planet ran on a three-shift system, without the circadian rhythm penalties that shift workers face on Earth."

    I'm not sure that you would avoid those penalties. I think that some people would sync to something - even if it was only the numbers on the clock - and end up with an experience not all that different from the Earthly one. Others would never manage to sync to anything, and their personal rhythm would then drift in and out of phase with the planetary system. This is a known disorder on Earth, and it can really fuck people up. I suspect you'd have to create a pretty strong simulation of a 24-hour light/dark cycle in order to avoid this problem occurring for many people who would normally be fine on Earth, and so again things would end up not being all that different.

    Also, the political interaction between three groups of people who can easily socialise within their own group but much less so across different groups might be ... interesting.


    Poul Anderson did do that, but I think he got it wrong; his position was that while a flare might be bad news for the native inhabitants of the planet, the output of a red dwarf even having a really massive eppy would still be so much lower than the normal output of our sun that humans could just ignore it. I think he chose that interpretation simply to make the plot work, along with quite a few other aspects of the exobiology/geology in the story.


    My apologies. I missed your name as the author and assumed Charles wrote the essay.


    I find it difficult to really take a story seriously when we combine low-tech present day energy economy (oil and gas, a few nukes) with magitech stuff like FTL. I mean, I understand that doing so is kind of the point in this particular SF genre, but it just doesn't really work together well for me.

    There are various reasons for this, both technical and aesthetic.

    Technically, when I look at them, essentially what these sorts of FTL drives are implying isn't just a "go faster" button; it's mainly a "free lunch" button. I mean, think about it: is the primary barrier to slower-than-light travel speed, or energy?

    What if I for the sake of argument I give you one of Alastair Reynolds' light hugger ships: clearly slower than light, yes. But going anywhere only takes a few years of personal time: at 1 g, it's only about a year to light speed. This seems eminently suitable for this whole interstellar colonization business.

    Except, there's a bit of an issue: the energy needed to run a ship like this is more than you can reasonably store, even in giant tanks full of antimatter (Reynolds tried to hand-wave this with Bussard ramscoops and magitech, as I recall). Let's assume 100% efficiency, antimatter, and a stupendous mass ratio -- great! Except, in terms of energy input, our STL rocket now looks like it needs a Kardashev type II civilization just to fill up the gas tank.

    The FTL drive is getting us there impossibly fast, sure. But even more notably, it's getting us there impossibly cheap. The TANSTAAFL sense in my is now positively screaming that somebody must be able to exploit this into some sort of perpetual motion machine. How about this design: build a giant coil pointing out from a planet, FTL a magnetic slug to the top, and let it fall through generating electricity. Just before it gets to the bottom, FTL it back to the top. Since the FTL drive is a free lunch, well... Infinite free energy! I'm sure a smart person could invent hundreds of these. Forget oil, with FTL energy will be too cheap to meter!

    Aesthetically, these FTL things always seem like the technology of the gods. Either they fold space, involve exotic wormholes, employ some sort of bizarre hyper-physics, or something even weirder [0]. Combining that with the sort of grubby human technologies we enjoy today, it just seems like a weird anachronism.

    Better to go all-in here: if it doesn't make sense, turn it into a found object. Make it alien portals, or some sort of natural gateways between stars, or something. Otherwise, it should be the technology of the far future, with A-gates and AIs growing orbital cities with nanotech and who knows what else.

    Starting with portals made by the ancients does give this plotline a certain edge, of course: maybe the reason why all these planets are so nicely inhabitable is because we've been there before, and the cycle continues.



    This may seem like a digression, but this sequence is an example of story you can develop using Frank's starting conditions.

    Any society that develops gene editing of people will eat itself in just a few generations.

    • Each new generation supplants the last making the prior generation unemployable. Society collapses.

    • Societies that have baseline humans kept in reserves to ensure a gene pool can recover, but they have to have those people in reserves or you have nothing to build from. (Why else do you think Pratchett's Discworld was necessary. That's where many baseline humans were stored.)

    • If a society can survive that initial ramp-up to full genetic engineering without collapse, they must become frozen in pattern/form.

    -- Watch Man of Steel. Krypton used birthing pods and genetically modified each child to fit their place in society. That did not end well.

    • If society does not freeze it's pattern/form then fashion will dictate changes and the resulting chimera will be HUman in name only.

    Don't get me wrong these scenarios are the heart of a huge number of fun stories.

    Then there are a huge number of stories where people vanish into VR pods and society collapses.

    wiki - The Machine Stops

    ESports mesmerize as traditional sports worry about decline

    BTW, Just for fun, consider Serenity by Joss Whedon as an example of keeping baseline humans in reserve.

    If you look at the Joss Vector, take Dollhouse as the starting condition. The Singularity occurs with only Five godlike individuals surviving the conflict, each with billions of bodies. Since any godlike intelligence at that level will try to optimize its starting conditions, the Five reach back in time and embed themselves in history. That leads to the Cabin in the Woods five movie sequence[*] that causes the Five to reset time again to start the Buffy/Angel stories. As part of the reset they send baseline humans to the star system where Serenity occurs. The people believe that Earth was "used up" when in reality the initial colonists were all bodies with implanted consciousness. Serenity showed that the system is on the verge of crashing with another Singularity. The next story to fix that scenario is obvious. One of the godlike individuals from Earth disperses the planets of the Serenity system to a Globular Cluster so that they are close enough for their ships to move between stars but far enough from the Alliance to avoid a Singularity.

    [*] I don't do fan fiction. I reverse engineer story, extend it, use what I learn and harvest what I want. See the movie Paycheck with Ben Affleck as example. Only I don't edit my memory after, at least I don't think I do. HA!


    I've been busy the past month. I started analyzing Man of Steel, the movie and the novelization, trying to understand how they took the script and turned it into each form. I was going along just fine when I slammed into a wall. I suddenly remembered Smallville. Yikes!

    • Man of Steel v Smallville

    They each cover the same story arc. "Born on Krypton" to "Clark/Superman starts at The Daily Planet". Man of Steel is 143 minutes, Smallville is 217 episodes and 18 related novels. It is going to take me time understanding what I'm seeing. Then I remembered Lois & Clark, 87 episodes and three related novels that extend the story.

    But I digress. HA!

    I'll disappear now, this was fun. Thanks to Frank for starting this thread.


    I find it difficult to really take a story seriously when we combine low-tech present day energy economy (oil and gas, a few nukes) with magitech stuff like FTL. I mean, I understand that doing so is kind of the point in this particular SF genre, but it just doesn't really work together well for me.

    The point about oil is that we forget that it's actually both a really good energy source AND a really good feedstock for all sorts of plastics. Right now, petroleum is more of a problem, because the remaining sources (oil sands, deep ocean, etc.) take a lot of energy to turn into useful oil and feedstocks. Back in the late 1800s, it was a very different situation. There were artesian wells of oil under pressure (remember "gushers?"). When the oil is naturally oozing out of the ground or squirting out under pressure, it's an amazingly good energy resource. If you look at EROEI (energy return on energy invested) an untapped oil field like the old Pennsylvania or LA fields probably beats nuclear fusion in energy return on energy invested in extracting the first bit. All you have to do is drill a shallow well and start collecting the oil. You don't get much less investment than that.

    So yes, it makes perfect sense for any star colony, no matter what their tech level, to exploit the best oil fields they find. They get a lot of cheap energy, and they get a lot of cheap plastic feedstocks.

    The problem is that once you set up a petroleum industry, it seems to be really hard to unwind it, even when that would be a really good idea. One hopes that mature extrasolar colonies would be better at unwinding their petroleum industries than we seem to be, but that's something that might make a good SF plot.

    The other thing you have to remember is that life is always a mix of technologies, some brand new, some millennia old. For example, our basic food plants are neolithic, with the exception of hexploid bread wheat, which first showed up (IIRC) in the classical Mediterranean. Any culture is a mix of old and new. If (as in the initial scenario) some AI system spits out a design for an FTL ship, that won't suddenly solve climate change or let us make plastics by sucking air into 3D printers. All it means is that we're not limited to living only here.

    *And yes, I am an environmentalist who wants our society to go off petroleum ASAP. I'm really interested in why it's so hard for us.


    Off topic, but fun for the SF writers, quarrels about whether the US should form a "Space Force" dedicated to war (taking bits out of the USAF), or a "Space Guard" modeled more on the US Coast Guard. (original article). Something to think about, I guess. Does any other nation have a separate space force yet?


    The FTL drive is getting us there impossibly fast, sure. But even more notably, it's getting us there impossibly cheap. The TANSTAAFL sense in my is now positively screaming that somebody must be able to exploit this into some sort of perpetual motion machine. How about this design: build a giant coil pointing out from a planet, FTL a magnetic slug to the top, and let it fall through generating electricity. Just before it gets to the bottom, FTL it back to the top. Since the FTL drive is a free lunch, well... Infinite free energy! I'm sure a smart person could invent hundreds of these. Forget oil, with FTL energy will be too cheap to meter!

    It's like teleport spells in some fantasy, or rather permanentish teleport areas. You can do the same thing with those, and I've never read a story where the magical society powers itself through teleport spells. I also seem to remember that somebody worked out how to use the 2300 AD rpg FTL drive to get infinite energy.

    Also, now we are thinking with portals...


    That just means the crews of the exploratory swarm include a lot of multi-disciplinarians who are also in it to be the first to paint the moth-analogues of xetersia four or write poems about the icefalls of Bella two.

    .... I have this idea for a star trek knock-off where we follow a crew that is not the best and brightest, but a bunch of decanted cryo cases and very old pensioners that recently got a brisk course of corrective rejuvenation and got handed the keys to a ship that makes the enterprise look dinky.. because Sol Ship-Works is making them by the millions and just handing them out to anyone that files the paperwork and passes the basic course on "Dont fly into planets, and refer first contact back to HQ".

    The point about oil is that we forget that it's actually both a really good energy source AND a really good feedstock for all sorts of plastics.

    Certainly. I was really responding to the idea of energy production...

    If you look at EROEI (energy return on energy invested) an untapped oil field like the old Pennsylvania or LA fields probably beats nuclear fusion in energy return on energy invested in extracting the first bit.

    ... but I think this is running headlong into the problem I have. Sure, if we discovered an ancient stargate buried under Mission Bay tomorrow, we'd exploit any second Earths it led to like crazy.

    But your scenario, even with the inscrutable AI angle, really screams "future supertech" to me. Partly, this is because FTL itself reads "god-tech" to me, but also for a couple other reasons: even with FTL, we need hugely more advanced space ships to colonize anything, but more generally, your scenario is inherently one in the far future because it's built around endless cycles of colonization.

    If energy is free, who cares about EROEI? Things like building the machinery, maintaining it, the difficulty of managing the chemistry, health risks, and so forth are more important. Sure, you could burn some of that cheap nasty oil for power, but why? Your colony ships land with efficient 50th generation E-Z fusion units all the time. They're clean, they're reliable, what's not to like?

    Even for plastics, there are pros and cons. I mean, people perfected synthesizing any sort of hydrocarbon you like from carbon feedstock back in the mists of time, right? Sure, synthesizing it from oil is more efficient, but then people have to do a bunch of icky custom organic chemistry stuff. Meanwhile, when you send out a bunch of colony ships, everyone just includes a bunch of basic elemental units straight from the catalog (because when you start out, where's the oil?).

    Stepping back, there just seems to be a big disconnect between "fossil fuel based economy in a feedback loop" and "far future with supertech and magic." We're starting here with fusion or magic reactors, plastics factory in a box, engineered trees that eat CO₂ and excrete plastics, i.e. a whole toolbox of future tech (not to mention physics-breaking FTL gizmos). In this scenario, it seems hard to imagine that oil wells, even artesian wells, are going to seem that important.

    Then again, as a parable for how screwed we are with global warming, hey, what the hell. We can use more of those.


    Hm, I'd hate the one having to explain this one to Delirium Tremens:

    (OK, I have just woken up, I played Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land a little bit too long on my new tablet yesterday, and then I just got carried away...)

    There are different ways to make things salient for nonneurotypicals, e.g. color coding for dementia and ADHD. With Delirium Tremens, it's said to be "insert his name in the memo so he's reading it":

    (It's somewhat farcical when White House aids resort to things desperate parents use to get their kids reading, e.g. get special books where their names are inserted as the heroes...)

    Maybe they should do a TV series explaining it to him, William Shatner in the leading role, Patrick Stewart as Macron, Daniel Craig could play Putin. Orion Slave girls might look too Mexican, OTOH, the Klingons were a standin for the Russians, and since Delirium Tremens seem to have a thing for South Slavic women. Which indicates Putin should be a TNG era Klingon.

    I'm open to new proposals...


    As the Polynesians and Guanche demonstrated, it's possible to terraform an island using neolithic technology

    I'm sorry that I seem so argumentative. And I think your point about limiting contact to a closed eco-system for terraforming has good points.

    But as someone who live on a Polynesian island, I think you're glossing over some major down-sides.

    First ask yourself: why neolithic? How come Polynesians, who came from cultures in Asia that were technologically advanced, were in the stone age? It certainly isn't because of a lack of brains.

    Imagine your people move to an island with no ores but copper. So your culture loses all metallurgy except that of copper, and never gets it back. 5 generations later they move on to colonize an archipelago with no copper. Repeat across the Pacific. Some islands have resources - but few have many resources, and trans-oceanic trade is a lot harder than river trade or coastal trade.

    Second downside: Polynesians are somewhat genetically disposed towards diabetes and obesity. That's not a co-incidence, it's an evolutionary adaptation to the boom-bust food cycle you get from a small, closed system. Population growth followed by chronic resources shortages followed by starvation followed by regrowth.

    It's idyllic when it's idyllic - and then it really isn't. Neolithic Malthus on steroids.

    Pacific islands are beautiful. But if you want to win at Civ play in a big East-West continent.


    And if you really want to get pedantic, there are the self-replicating programmable nanoassemblers harnessing quantum mechanics building quite a lot of our stuff.

    I heard they are usually called plants and algae, actually, or green goo, if you go with OGH.

    Sadly, we can't tweak the control codes to make them build a house yet, that involves axes and saws. The situation with a deep learning system giving out solutions might be quite similar, hello spaghetti code, there might be a posthuman intelligence able to sort it out, but it's not us.


    While this presentation is premised on the behavior of current developers, I got the initial idea from how vernal pools work, and developed it based on how Polynesians settled new islands. Does that change your view of it?

    Nope, doesn't change my mind. I know too much about Polynesia. :)


    "Maybe there will be a central coordinating body to ensure that everyone who can gets out alive, and then assigns the world to a species that can use it as is..."

    Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is the best work I've read analysing societal collapse. Easter Island, Greenland Norse, Maya, Anasazi - resource collapse leads to crisis, civil wars, and short-term fixes, that lead to resource collapse.

    I like Brin's Uplift work. But as people get desperate it doesn't get nice. "Abandon this dying world for a future in the stars" is a dystopia.


    I found "Collapse" (and is other books) very one-sided. He justified his point, but he ignored that there are other causes, and disasters rarely happen from a single cause. In particular, a healthy society will adapt vastly better to changing circumstances than a degenerate one - which is very relevant to the original topic of this thread! The classic example was the Roman empire, and one would have hoped that our classically-educated rulers might have learnt something from such an appropriate example. There are several other examples where countries fell to conquerers only because they were socially dysfunctional at the time.

    I liked Brin's first three Uplift books, but thought that the later ones were very poor; yes, some good ideas, but far too much hand-waving magic and lack of coherence. I thought the same about the successors to "The Forever War".


    My one issue with this is that there's several practical advantages to going the sustainability route from day one. The equipment needed to extract and process oil is going to take up a large chunk of their mass budget, and then when they get there they'll need to either find somewhere with a readily accessible oilfield and enough arable land to feed everyone or add "build a few hundred miles of road through the wilderness" to their already lengthy to-do list after they make landfall.

    Going for renewables right from the start, on the other hand, can actually reduce a bunch of logistics headaches. Covering all the prefabs in solar panels and bringing along a little submarine-type nuclear reactor means your electrical power needs are met for a couple of generations at least, the organic farming community have put a lot of time and effort into finding alternatives to agrochemicals and got some pretty impressive results, and there's sewage-derived crude oil for anything you really need petrochemicals for like pharmaceuticals. With a bit of forethought and planning, the new colony could have all the resources for a high standard of living with most of the important mod cons without extending their supply chain more than a few dozen miles.

    It couldn't last forever, sure: The machinery is going to break down at some point and need replacement parts that can't be made with the materials accessible on-site. But hopefully it could last long enough that the colony had enough industry and infrastructure in place that they didn't have to resort to quick-and-dirty solutions that would come back to bite their descendants on the arse.

    And honestly, I would have thought that colonists fleeing a dying Earth wrecked by unsustainable resource extraction would have some pretty severe cultural baggage about that sort of thing. Especially since there must be a decidedly finite number of planets we could just step out of the shuttle and pitch a tent on with no advance preparation.


    "Why it works is a mystery, because the systems weren't designed for helping humans decipher their outputs"

    I'm not entirely sure why, but I really found this line appealing. There's something about the "But how does it work?" "We don't really know." that is both hilarious and exciting to me.


    "a couple of generations at least"? Er, no. A couple of decades only. The trouble about those energy technologies (and high-efficiency wind farms etc.) is that they need a large and advanced industrial base, and don't last long without renovation. Oil, coal etc. can be run (inefficiently and pollutingly) with MUCH less.

    However, it would be possible to run a near-western society with (a) vastly less energy usage and (b) largely based on biomass as a fuel and small-scale water power. They key is that it would need a fertile location, non-wasteful soiety, fairly low population density, and (to make the latter two work) a VERY highly skilled and productive society. The last would be no problem, initially, but it's not known how to maintain it.


    Re: 'multi-disciplinarians'

    Good move! Too many contemporary books/movies have one-dimensional characters in both intellect/expertise and outlook. Begs the question: Why wonder what a society made of 'computers/mechanical men' might be like if you've been molding people into single-function units.

    Re: '... a crew that is not the best and brightest, but a bunch of decanted cryo cases and very old pensioners'

    Sounds like Scalzi's Old Man's War & B-Team. Personally think that people are naturally full of surprises because they 'mature' at different rates including different things are important to them at different points in their lives. Also (like Frank said), which part of 'history'/the past each individual comes from will likely make a difference.


    Frank, (Re: The original article)

    The scenario you are creating is a variant on the old sub-light colonisation-wave idea. Going back to Fermi & co. If we can find any way to travel between the stars, we can colonise the galaxy in bare millions of years.

    Combined with the follow-on thought experiment on that expansion: that once you get the first colonies seeding their own daughter colonies, you will end up with a culture selected for nothing but expansion, purely thanks to statistical selection. The most aggressively expanding colony will be the first to throw out its own colony ships, and seed the most colonies. And the most aggressively expanding of those seeded colonies will be the first to expand further. Rinse, repeat. Burning faster and faster across the galaxy. And it doesn't matter if that's a terrible culture for the parent colonies after they've send out colony ships, or even if they collapse immediately after; as long as it doesn't hurt the daughter colonies, it's irrelevant to this process.

    [A few people have mentioned Brin's Uplift stories. This scenario is closer to his Existence novel, with AI-seeds subbing in for the colonies, burning out civilisations in order to reproduce.]

    Your AI-gifted magic FTL is just one "way" of the "any way to travel between the stars".

    That said, FTL fast enough to span the galaxy in a short time (days, weeks), might break the statistical inevitability of the "locust" wave. If early colonies pop up randomly across the galaxy, then expand around themselves, they'll hit each other's bubbles fairly quickly, and the strategy for success changes. Plus fast FTL makes for a better exchange of culture and trade, smoothing out the hyper-expansionist "wave" culture and adding secondary value to the core behind them.

    Or it might just push it out to the intergalactic level.


    Re: 'organic farming'

    Assuming that biochemistry/bio-engineering and data compression/storage will have advanced as much as spaceships, I would assume that labs with seed banks and genetic codes (genetic recipes) would be sent along with the colonists so that various foods could be modified and tested as the ship travels toward its destination. Even with FTL, some destinations might require fairly lengthy travel - a few years or so - enough time that food boredom or malnutrition could become factors.

    There's still one thing that bugs me: even if it would be possible to transport seeds/genetic recipes, there's no guarantee that the destination would have the right mix or accessibility of micronutrients (trace elements). Lots of focus on water and carbon-based chem in SF, but our bodies (or any Earth-origin plant or animal) would not work properly without boron, chlorine, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium, copper, zinc, etc. Okay, during the trip with near 100% recycling capability and zero population growth, you wouldn't run into this problem. But the moment you land and start living planet-side you would lose recycling (mineral reclamation) efficiencies. And once the population starts growing, even 100% reclamation efficiency would still mean that gradually everyone on that planet would succumb to some form of malnutrition.


    The problem here is that you might or might not get petroleum by the second time civilization comes to a planet, particularly if a "scavenger" civilization has used some kind of active measures (asteroid bombardment, etc.) to turn over the top layer of crust.

    I wonder if properly-aimed asteroid bombardment could restart a planet's rotation? And how long it would take for tidal-lock to reassert itself?


    What if the thing you did when you arrived at a no-longer-fallow planet was to stand off in geo-synchronous orbit and drop a tether to the solidest-possible point on the equator, then your Von-Neuman machines scurry down the tether and build you a space-elevator? If you did it right you'd get both a spaceport and power.

    This probably sounds like a fantasy scenario, but if we're talking about a ship sized like a generation ship would be it could easily carry the necessary items. (Of course, this assumes a planet with a rotational period similar to Earth's.) If the planet you're settling is gravitationally-locked to a red dwarf this probably won't work very well, as station-keeping would be a very nasty long-term problem.

    Would a geo-synchronous orbit be higher or lower on a very-slowly rotating planet?


    Two comments:

    1: This is essentially Heinlein's setup in the LLverse. Ditto Alan Steele's in the Humans Ruin Everything, So Let's Spread to Other Worlds series and Dave Duncan's Hero!.

    2: But going anywhere only takes a few years of personal time: at 1 g, it's only about a year to light speed.


    Although the late Donald Moffitt wrote several books with that premise. After a year (in the ship's frame) of acceleration, it would be moving at about 3/4 C (as far as the at rest people were concerned).


    Re: FTL vs. Hubble's Constant

    Have any SF authors used Hubble's Constant in coming up with or explaining FTL? As in: whatever forces are pushing the edge of our universe further away from us at increasingly faster speeds can be tapped and used to 'power' the starship. That is, the starship drive would be 'pushing space' away in order to cover distance. What this might do the space the ship travels through could be an issue esp. for those wanting to return 'home'.


    It could definitely be dystopian. On the other hand, it could be culturally established as a well-understood migratory pattern.

    Your species will start at the equator of Planet YP-269 and migrate northward over the course of a hundred-thousand years as the planetary temperature rises and eventually you will live in the northern-most habitable zones. You and your fellow inhabitants of YP-269 can extend the course of your habitation on this planet by adopting a low-heat method of civilization.

    In hundred-thousand years, your species will enter into a contract with the Vd'nt and trade your land for the space-ships which brought the Vd'nt to this planet, at which point your species will enter a migratory phase, during which you'll settle JW-762 and begin the process over again.

    Any of your species who are still here after year 27,372,631 will be humanely sterilized. Please don't complain about being oppressed; this is how Galactic Civilization gets the most out of each habitable planet, and your species has an equal vote in the process. Approximately 300,000 years from now this planet will be cleared of all civilized relics by the Aoeix, a well-known scavenger civilization, and it's crust will be turned over by a planned asteroid bombardment, after which it will be reseeded.

    As long as your species obeys these rules you may govern yourselves according to any process which does not result in conflicts with other species inhabiting this planet; fascism, socialism, democracy and feudalism are only a few of the choices you'll have. As an enlightened elder civilization we suggest meritocratic socialism, but that's only a suggestion. We wish you a peaceful and prosperous hundred eons of habitation on YP-269.

    Oppressive? Assuming a normal human life-span, it's oppressive to 3-4 generations every five-thousand generations, so I'm not terrible worried.


    I wonder if this model would work in universes with As Fast As Light spacedrives? From the traveller's POV, those are instant.


    You can build a turbine generator by focusing parabolic mirrors (polished metal) on a pipe filled with oil and use a rankine cycle steam turbine. (There's one in the desert just north of here.)

    This is obviously not a perfect solution, and they're not cheap, but we're talking about a reasonable low technology which anyone can build if they can make steel. (However, you'd lose about 30% of your power if you lost the ability to build a mirror,) and a really-big battery would definitely help, because they have to burn natural gas to run the place at night.


    ...our bodies (or any Earth-origin plant or animal) would not work properly without boron, chlorine, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium, copper, zinc, etc.

    This is why you need an Institute for Migration; so that humans are not assigned to a planet wiht (for example, insufficient zinc. This is also why you need a "scavenger species." One of the things they're responsible for is making sure that a "fallow" planet is bombarded by asteroids with the right mix of elements to support as many species as possible. Maybe every species has to do a shift as the "scavengers." There's a story!


    The problem with the Institute for Migration is that they've still got to figure out how the planet works before they can let it be colonized or not, plus they've got to have the political pull and the nobility of purpose to both keep wildcatters out while they're testing a world for colonization, and to not let their buddies know in advance which places are good for colonies. It's a situation ripe for corruption--in other words, great material for a SF story, not so good for people trying to make it work.

    In place of a UN/Uplift-style Institute for Migration, I've got a suggestion: the Cuy Corps (and do follow the link). They're the first-in settlers, a sort of foreign legion for pioneers. If they make their first colony work, they and their descendants get first-in land rights. If they fail...well, they're supposed to pass on useful information to their successors, if any.

    I'd also suggest that Cadillac Desert could be used as a great way to understand how the bureaucracy of interstellar colonization could work, if you read it a certain way...

    What if the thing you did when you arrived at a no-longer-fallow planet was to [... have your] Von-Neuman machines scurry down the tether and build you a space-elevator?

    A space elevator is the sort of just on the edge of possible technology that, if it appears in a SF setting at all, pretty strongly indicates that it's of the high-tech variety. If you're including that and self-replicating robots, it's hard to see how the humans in the story are going to be scrabbling for resources or even relevant with all the AIs running around.

    Would a geo-synchronous orbit be higher or lower on a very-slowly rotating planet?

    It's higher. For a tidally locked planet, I think the only options are to tether it to a Lagrange point. For reference, Earth's Lagrange points are about 1,500,000 km away.

    Instead of tethering to an object in orbit, you could in principle tether to a statite of some sort. However, given the numerous problems with space elevators in general, it seems silly.

    Why not stick with more plausible gizmos like rotovators and skyhooks?


    There's a general problem with space elevators: vibration in the tether. To point to the example here, if you've got a line 1,500,000 km long, it's not going to stay perfectly straight. It's going to vibrate like the string of a guitar. In this example, if the cable vibrated only one kilometer horizontally for every 1000 kilometers of vertical length, those waves would still lash back and forth 1,500 km at the midpoint and between the nodes. That's a pretty miserable experience for any person riding it (you're going to be stuck for weeks on something that's whipping horizontally at hopefully km/hr instead of km/sec, and even keeping the cargo carriers on the tether is going to take some nice engineering.


    I followed the link. It led me to an article on Guinea Pigs, and a search didn't get me anything. You might want to revise.


    Indeed. In my crude understanding, you basically don't get any petroleum produced for something like 50 million years after the sediments are first buried.

    This leads to two interesting scenarios: one is that interstellar colonization can't go too fast, or it will burn out when people hit too-young fallowing planets.

    The interesting what-if is when the human colonists start finding fallowed worlds left behind by a previous species, and they can't be colonized using the methods I pointed to above.

    Why didn't these paleosophonts colonize Earth? There are a couple of possibilities. One issue is that stars don't move in synch, so if they were around a very long time ago, Earth may have been outside of wherever they colonized. The stars they colonized are now within reach of Earth, but they weren't say, 25 or 50 million years ago.

    A bigger issue is that they may have found Earth, say, 57 million years ago and decided it wasn't worth the trouble. The combination of a deathworld on the continents and the Deccan Traps changing the climate in unpleasant ways would make Earth in the late Cretaceous a not-very-suitable place for anything more than a perfunctory colony with a hideously high death rate around the mining camps.

    Heck, for most of the Mesozoic, Earth would have been a deathworld for extraterrestrial colonies. A colony could have gotten started on a hotspot island, certainly (just chase off all those nesting pteranodons), but even starting a fishing fleet would have been problematic (mosasaurs et al.). The continents were covered with big animals that left huge amounts of dung (which may have supported its whole dung-processing ecosystem), huge predators, and not many places where plantations would go undisturbed. Not a fun place to settle, especially if the only way to do it was to start a really big mass extinction event to get rid of the pesky megafauna.

    So yeah, the bottom line is that it's perfectly possible that if humans get to the stars, we'll find the fallowed colony worlds that other species left behind when they decided our planet wasn't worth settling for whatever reason. The aliens might even still inhabit those worlds, but they're the distant descendants of those earlier waves of colonization. Settling where these aliens are might not be a good idea, because the stuff humans would need to make more starships may well have been used up millennia to millions of years before humans got there, and geological forces haven't either exposed more deposits or regenerated stuff from the interior of the planets.

    That, incidentally, is one of three story lines I'd figured out when I started playing with this idea.


    Cadillac Desert would be a very good guide to the deep bureaucracy of an interstellar civilization. Would terraforming be the equivalent of building a dam?

    Also, I can see a very disturbing recruitment program, in which Interstellar Civilization waits until a new species has screwed up it's own planet, then shows up and says, "Hey, why don't you join us. We can fix your problems. We've got a heat-loving civilization ready to move in, and a fallow planet you can settle. There's just one catch... Now be a good species and sign the contract."

    If someone turns this into a book, there's the hook!"


    Why not stick with more plausible gizmos like rotovators and skyhooks?

    That makes pretty good sense. Or maybe one offshoot of an FTL drive is anti-grav. I'm not particularly a mundane science-fiction fan, so I'm not particularly concerned with how someone gets down to a planet.


    That's the correct link, and you didn't read very carefully.

    Cuy is one of the local Andean names for guinea pigs. I happen to think Cuy Corps has a certain ring to it.

    A sample Ad for it might read: Join the Cuy Corps: See strange new lands, meet interesting people just like you, pioneer and get rich!* (*or die trying)


    First, I have a decent hard-science background, and I am not convinced that FTL is impossible (and since I can't find a collaborator who a) is heavy in math, and b) is not a libertidiot, I need to brush up on my calc, and learn that I can finish my Famous Secret Theory (FST), I'll not only prove it, but build one, and then I am so out of here. And yes, it has to do with gravity....

    I would expect interstellar colonies to be like those on earth when we had only sail and oar, often months apart, for a very long time.

    I disagree though: why should the only mark of a successful colony be "build a starship of their own"? Some colonists may just want a peaceful planet (like Basketball, sorry, couldn't help that reference). Even if a star drive isn't zillions of dollars to build, a large starship, and its support facilities, would be.

    Also, I do not think I'd settle on a volcanic island. Now, maybe a large island off the shore of a larger continent, or an archipelago....


    Or maybe there are two kinds of civilizations. One is deeply conservationist, and teaches civilizations to manage their own biospheres and adapt their physiologies to new planets so as not to need to terraform.

    The other is the civilization we have been discussing.

    These two civilizations hate each other, but the conservationist civilization manages their worlds by managing population, while the "use a world then let it lie fallow" civilization suffers from not having enough planets, so there isn't really "war" as such, just low level conflicts, brutal races to find new worlds and get to them first, plus lots of ugly politics.


    Yes, but the same comment applies as to wind turbines, though I accept to a lesser degree - and to water power, to an even lesser degree. To get high efficiency (especially in the generators) needs a large and advanced industrial base. But I agree that, in places like where you are, solar heating makes more sense than a water-driven turbine. The converse is true in the UK, the Pacific north-west etc. :-)


    Maybe they dumped the "dinosaur killer" on earth and forgot about us.


    I've seen that, but I can't remember where. It's the basis of some widely disbelieved scientific theories, too :-)


    For reasons that probably would not hold up under examination, this recent article struck me as relevant to geoformy and even the current topic.

    Southern Australia’s Strzelecki Desert is home to two very different landscapes: an area of 10-meter-high sand dunes with patches of dense woody shrubs, and—just a few kilometers away—shorter and flatter dunes surrounded by sparse vegetation. The reason for the difference? Dingoes.

    Oh, I get it. "Guinea Pigs." I haven't heard that particular use of the word for years.

    There's a general problem with space elevators: vibration in the tether.

    Here's a few more:

    The tether's path intersects every orbit around the planet below its tether point. This means that it's on a collision course with basically every single piece of space junk, given enough time. Amusingly, the proposed solution... is to vibrate the tether just so.

    The tether is prone to degradation by radiation, atomic hydrogen, weather, winds, lightning, errant blimps, woodpeckers, you name it. Even if you manage to avoid the space junk, you need to inspect and replace the tethers regularly. Or build them out of self-repairing magitech.

    It's somewhat unclear that the tether can even exist using physically plausible materials.

    It takes days to weeks to climb the tether, and the resulting orbit is GEO (or worse). Why did we want this again? Some form of momentum-exchange tether could put us in LEO in a matter of minutes.


    I'd say that the environmentalism is built in. After all, the people who really enjoy pioneering the wide open spaces tend not to be those who are thrilled by cookie-cutter development.

    That's a central conflict inherent in any colonizing scenario--if you, the pioneer, do your job right, an ecosystem that you may well come to admire, respect, and love, disappears. While it's totally normal for people to try to figure out technical fixes to this conflict, it's inherent in the process of colonization. The only true way to have no impact is to not colonize.


    What is SFF?


    As a little prelude, I'm going to introduce you something related to the general topic of space exploration. This is a story that happened to me, and I just did not have an opportunity to tell it anyone up until this moment. There's the game called Space Engine, and it is most advanced space planetarium out there. It is developed by a single guy who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, and he is my compatriot. He develops the game all by himself for almost 10 years now, from first conceptual draft to current beta status, and does not have any plans to stop at it. There's also a decent modding community and some people who help him a lot with other things.

    However, this post is not about game itself, per se. Around 2012, when game was only in alpha status and only rarely sighted on the Internet, we (me, dev, several other people on forum) were talking about game concepts. Space Engineer (developer) wanted to make both planetarium and a sort of game, and the game part was about exploration and spaceships in hard sci-fi setting. So, we discussed a lot of concepts about gameplay, and even more about scientifically correct space exploration at the age of interstellar travel. The basic technical requirement was that there should be no magic involved like "inertia nullificators" or "magic force shields", etc., with exception of FTL engine itself. I mean, as far as we are concerned, nuclear photonic engine is not a magic. Neither is space tether or elevator. Or maybe a practical immortality.

    Around 2015, after many lances were broken, the following things settled: 1. We developed a core concept of sub- and super-light interstellar spaceships that look like a bunch of spheres, girders and boxes nailed together. One person also developed special external program to construct 3d models these ships for the in-game use (it is available for download). I was also the one who made at least half-dozen of current ship designs of SE, using said program, when we've had a contest for Beta version content. 2. I came up with my on, brand-new concept of interstellar civilization, as well as several major gameplay concepts like industrial crafting system akin to Space Engineers. I wrote them down in several abstracts in series documents (they are still with me and can be easily translated with Google) and dropped them on the forum, and we discussed some of them for a while.

    We were looking for possibilities of exploration, civilization and physics concepts, at the time when modern games like Elite:Dangerous, Infinity Battlescape (when it was named different) or Space Engineers appeared on horizon, and all the ideas were literally in the air. Unfortunately for us, we ran into a problem that plagues many developing communities of this size - we weren't too concerned about who is going to program these ideas into code. Space Engineer himself is an astronomer, and he is not interested in game aspects like crafting mechanics, inventory management, economy, etc. So the game part went out of the window and is rarely mentioned, leaving us only with planetary part. But nevertheless, he makes a great progress in his planetarium and I wish him all the best dreams to be realized.

    As for me, I did not talk too much on topic since 2016, and especially after forum migration on new platform, and I have no serious plans to return back there.

    There's also a person on YT who is called exactly as my e-mail I left for this account (my real name is somewhat diffrent) - Anton Petrov, he does a lot of videos about space using Space Engine. I am not big fan of astrophysics myself, so I watch them only from time to time.

    I'm going to take my time to summarize my own current (already conpiled) concepts of interstellar civilization, after which I will present some of them here, if you wish so. This is all for today.


    SFF= science fiction (and) fantasy. It's a catchall to avoid endless arguments about whether some works (often Star Wars and/or Star Trek) is fantasy rather than science fiction.


    That's easy. Star Wars is space fantasy, and Star Trek is wildly uneven (and frequently bad) science fiction.


    ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: We're NOT derailing this into argument about what is science fiction and what is fantasy.


    Some years ago I put some thought into exactly those objections. (Then lost all but the first page of the story it was for, though, due to forgetting what disk it was on...)

    It was important that it should not be "godlike technology", but mostly understandable in terms of known technology, and kind of clunky in a British way. So, like a nuclear power station is just an ordinary steam engine with a wee bit of novel (to the steam era) physics to make the fire work, this was just an ordinary nuclear reactor with a wee bit of novel physics around the behaviour of energetic massive charged particles in gigatesla magnetic fields - discovered by chance in experiments for fission-fragment rockets - that had got the unified-field theoretical physicists all excited with the possibility that they might get somewhere at last, and was also practically usable on an empirical rule-of-thumb basis - much like steam engines were practically usable long before thermodynamics was understood. So someone like Space Trevithick could combine a fairly small nuclear reactor with some huge fuck-off magnets and build a ship with it, never mind that Space Clausius hadn't figured out why it worked yet; and working on it would involve something more like a big non-ferrous hammer and greasy hands than advanced mathematics.

    It worked by flipping the ship into a kind of "bubble" of "private" space, disconnecting it from normal space and then reconnecting it somewhere else. But the somewhere else had to be at the same gravitational potential as where you started. If you tried to re-emerge higher up, it wouldn't work because you didn't have the energy. If you tried to re-emerge lower down, you'd have surplus energy, which would come out as heat and you'd get vaporised.

    So it was not "godlike" and it did not violate conservation of energy. It also had lots of other interesting properties to build plot points around. Moving radially across a galaxy would involve multiple steps interleaved with rocket burns in normal space. Subjective time in bubble space would be limited by waste heat buildup. The unreflected critical mass of any fissile isotope would be very small in bubble space because escaping neutrons would just go right round the universelet and come back in the other side. It didn't give you anything "for free", and there were lots of ways the pilot could cock things up.

    If you were using something like that for colonisation, it would make some interesting differences to how you'd go about it. Some ideas: You'd tend to colonise other systems that were the same distance from the galactic centre as where you started from, so the development would tend to spread in rings rather than spheres. It doesn't do communication, only travel, so if the colonies were to keep in touch with each other they'd have to send material messages. Being further from the galactic centre would have military advantages, both defensive and offensive, with the attendant political implications. The balance of advantages between colonising a planet vs. colonising an asteroid belt would be a bit more in favour of the asteroids. You could do mining without digging anything more than shafts; if the vein was up a mountain, without digging anything at all.


    But the somewhere else had to be at the same gravitational potential as where you started. If you tried to re-emerge higher up, it wouldn't work because you didn't have the energy. If you tried to re-emerge lower down, you'd have surplus energy, which would come out as heat and you'd get vaporised.

    I like this system a lot, but please define "gravitational potential" as it would work in this system. It would seem your exit point from "private space" would need to have equivalent energy but not an equivalent situation to the entrance point.

    You'd have a small margin for error - who cares if the ship's temperature goes up 3 degrees* - but the gravitational potential could manifest itself in multiple different ways. You might enter private space while in orbit around a gas giant, and exit it moving very quickly towards an asteroid and the gravitational potential still might be the same, but your likelihood of a crash has changed enormously, which leads to some interesting possible plot points, particularly if the pilot knows that an exit from private space is possible but doesn't know why an exit is possible... maybe you're a hero, maybe you're the Captain of the Titanic.

    And what if there is a solution which allows the pilot to force an exit, but the consequences of doing so is a random expression of the gravitational potential upon entrance?

    Holy course change Batman!

    I'm probably not expressing my point about gravitational potential very well, but hopefully I'm making sense. Ideally you wouldn't make a transition until you were in deep space and your gravitational potential was low.

    The military implications are also interesting. Your missiles could be nothing more than small ships designed to exit "private" space inside another vessel, and bombarding an enemy planet might involve nothing more than having a missile exit private space into solid matter just as the neutron flux built up to a critical level. You'd get a combination of nuclear explosion and the results of two masses occupying the same space at the same time, which would presumably be an "earth-shattering kaboom."

    • You've got a "Neutron Star"-like story if someone dies upon exit because they've cooked themselves...

    The problem with using gravitational potential (and I'm not a physicist) are two, at least that I see:

  • Gravity scales as distance squared, which means it falls off rapidly. That means you've got to target fairly precisely, if you're deep in a gravity well. On the other hand, gravity is the weakest of the four forces, so turning a slight difference into heat doesn't matter, if you're in deep space with not much of a gradient.

  • While conceivably you could jump from orbiting, say, Earth, to orbiting NiuEarth, they're probably moving at 10-15 km/sec (or more) difference in speed relative to each other (remember that bullets move around 1 km/sec). That saves you on gravitational potential, but if you immediately smack into the atmosphere of your destination at 15 km/sec, you're a fireball.

  • So, yeah, could be interesting.

    OTOH, why just look at heat? Gravity is warped space-time, so you could have the problem of matching metrics: moving to a space that has a different warp in it could cause the ship to have to suddenly rewarp itself, which would look like a bunch of shearing waves propagating at light speed through the ship as the local metric asserts itself on the relatively warped metric of your ship (in other words, your ship suddenly shrinks or grows a few nanometers or micrometers). We don't know what this is like, because in the real world, such transitions are quite slow, but it could be extremely damaging, especially in things (like rocket engines and connections in modern computers) where the tolerances are quite fine.

    The other fun problem about being in a space bubble is: how do you shed the heat? It's not like you have an infinite void to shoot photons into.

    If you wanted to make the limits more esoteric, the problem might not be distance but processing time and power: you've got to fold your way into a pocket space, disconnect the pocket, and reconnect it somewhere else. This takes work, and if it takes too long or too much work, you cook from waste heat. Moreover, if there's too much of a gravitational potential difference between the pocket and the destination, the ship may get shocked hard, and it might take a lot of repairs to get it working again (not sure what it would do to things like neurons and capillaries either, come to think of it. That might hurt.


    I have no idea if this is what @pigeon has in mind, but i can tell you how gravitational potential is usually defined for orbital mechanics calculations.

  • If we need a universal reference frame, then we define that an object has 0 potential when infinitely far from all other masses.

  • Using Newtonian gravity, the potential an object feels from a single mass is: -GM/r (potential) or -GMm/r (potential energy) where G is "big G" the gravitational coupling constant, M is the mass of the mass, m is the mass of the object, and r is the distance from the mass. Following from this, the object's total potential is the sum of its potentials from all masses in the universe. That said, things get trickier if you want to use general relativity (which may be what @pigeon ment)

  • Using a visual representation, this would mean that ships would have to arrive at the same "height" in the gravity well that they left from. (Sorry if you knew all this already.)

    I would be interested to know how your kinetic energy would affect this transfer in addition to your thermodynamic and gravitational potential. For instance could you arrive lower in the gravity well and convert the excess energy into speed so as to match velocity with your target star? Can you only do this if you also generate heat and light so that your ability to jump between stars or objects with vastly different velocities is limited by your temperature tolerance? Ect.


    @ 72 - 74 "SFF" As in the venerable pulp-zine: "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction" And still going strong it seems.


    Pigeon has a good point, but it's not solely gravitational potential that matters; there are other potentials, too, such as electrostatic and magnetic. But those are 'soluble' by providing or bleeding energy. What is trickier are momentum and other tensors (energy is a scalar), if you want to avoid creating a perpetual motion machine, though those are probably soluble, too. Once upon a time, I might have been able to work out suitable conditions, but I am no longer up to it.

    The executive summary is that MOST physicists talk crap on this matter. As I said, unconstrained and inertial FTL are flatly incompatible with sanity and relativity, but (despite asking a good many) I have never seen any evidence that FTL per se is, still less that the quantum mechanics have got it wrong. And, yes, some effects in quantum mechanics DO imply that FTL may be possible. As I also said, I have seen claims that people have provided such proofs. Unforunately, I am not and never was a good enough quantum theorist to analyse them.


    Ok, I disagree with a few things you say, but isn't it kind of beside the point? We're world building a FTL drive. We want to use as much physics as is practical too help with suspension of disbelief and to provide natural story telling hooks, but we're not trying to decribe the real world. We want to go faster than light.


    Even fantasy should be self-consistent. You have also misunderstood the point of my posts - and, if you disagree with what I am stating as facts, I should be interested to see the mathematics :-)

    The standard arguments against FTL are (a) that it breaks some very well-proven laws of physics and (b) that it is equivalent to time travel into the past. I am pointing out that those arguments are somewhere between misleading and bogus, and it is perfectly possible to assume limited forms FTL that does not do either.

    So have FTL by all means. But, if you want unconstrained or inertial FTL, please include the changes to causality or physics in the model for your story.


    From the article: "the planet almost certainly has no moon(s)'d better be wearing a dosimeter when you're casting a shadow."

    Yes, that's your number-one problem. Most (all?) M stars flare, so the hard-radiation levels are worse than they would be near a quiescent, G-type star. No moon suggests no magnetosphere, so anything on the day-side surface, or near the terminator, dies screaming under the proton flux. That includes all your surface crops and any solar panels. You need an energy source that works underground and it's not going to be fossil fuels because zero biosphere to make them. Also, free water (perhaps) but a reducing atmosphere.

    Therefore, your power is going to come from fission, or fusion, or something exotic not known so far in RL - possibly connected with the FTL drive that got the colony there. If a techie power-station breaks, some of the colonists die because their life-support goes away. If the colony has a cultural oops and loses its technical knowledge, everybody dies quite quickly.

    This is the unsustainable colony writ large and the social effects might go further than just living a shift system..


    "that MOST physicists talk crap on this matter."

    The world is full of crackpots thinking they've found some obvious flaw in physics, it can often be hard for a non-expert to see the specific flaw they've made, but I find the above statement is a pretty good indicator.

    (Likewise when you consider that physicists aren't afraid of proposing and debating FTL implications of QM'ing Relativity. There's hardly a conspiracy against FTL. Oh and when every single proposed "loop-hole" has turned out to not actually allow FTL, in the normal sense, I always think it's worth accepting that the universe is trying to tell you something.)

    "The standard arguments against FTL are [...] (b) that it is equivalent to time travel into the past."

    No, it's that it's always possible to construct a frame of reference in which FTL is time-travel. Regardless of the proposed FTL method.

    For example, your own proposal that there's an FTL speed-limit precisely turned to prevent time-travel. Does the FTL method somehow magically "know" that there's a relativistic ship flying along your route before you jump? (A ship in a frame of reference enabling it to see you return to your origin before you left, immediately creating a causality paradox in its frame of reference, even if not in yours.) It's not enough to look at the velocities of the start and finish, you have to account for the state of every possible observer.


    I played around with a slow ftl drive where heat management was the big problem. Hauling extremely cold water ice turned out to be surprisingly effective.

    (oddly, inspired by a visual on an old Blizzard game, which made me wonder about what a fire on a ship with no way to dump heat would be like).

    What role would gas giants play in "must jump from and to the same gravitational potential" settings?


    Since we've hit this now twice, let me go over the problem with red dwarf stars again. The better reference is Jupiter and the Galilean moons, not our sun.

    Red dwarf stars are small, intermediate between Jupiter and our sun, and the habitable zone is close in. The seven planets of TRAPPIST-1, for example, have orbital periods from 1.5 to 18.7 days. In comparison, the Galilean moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) have orbital periods of 1.7 to 16.7 days.

    They also revolve in 1.7 to 16.7 days, since they're tidally locked so that one side faces Jupiter at all times. That's what would happen with a red dwarf planet too.

    The Galilean moons are a bit bigger than our moon, but they generate enough gravitational tugging on each other that Io is molten and Europa probably has a huge liquid water ocean. That would also cause planetary tides in a red dwarf incidentally, along with the big ol' tidal bulge from the sun's pull too (cf #5).

    As for the magnetosphere, Ganymede (the largest Galilean moon, which rotates every seven days) has its own magnetosphere independent of the huge Jovian magnetosphere. Going back to TRAPPIST-1 with its seven planets, supposedly planets D,E, and F are within the habitable zone. Their orbital periods are 4, 6, and 9 days, and they're rocky worlds about the size of Earth. I'd suggest that they've got molten cores (they're tugging on each other pretty hard, probably harder than the Moon tugs on Earth. That, coupled with heat from radioactive elements in their cores, will keep those cores molten), and they're revolving in 4, 6, and 9 days, in the same range as Ganymede. They most likely have magnetospheres.

    Where you're getting fooled is you're thinking about them as akin to Mercury and Venus, which have very slow days (58.6 and 116.8 Earth days respectively). Venus rotates too slowly to have a magnetic field, but Mercury does generate its own weak field.

    Still, the problem with being close to a red dwarf is that these tiny stars throw off more crap than does our sun, and the planets are far closer to them. As a result, they get bombarded with X-rays and coronal mass ejections more often. A nice, thick atmosphere will absorb a lot of the X-rays (possibly generating clouds), and being in the thickest part of the atmosphere (near the horizon) helps even more. Still, humans aren't well adapted to that kind of radiation environment, so if someone was living on a red dwarf planet like TRAPPIST-1e, they'd probably want their house in the shade of a volcano, and want to have at least a foxhole ready to dive into for when they have to work in the sun, because the only warning they'll get before the X-rays hit is if someone's doing a really good space weather watch and can predict the emission before it occurs.


    Not surprising, really. Silica sand has been in high demand for decent concrete for years. Wired had an article on sand piracy in India back in 2015. Given the current dysfunctional state of politics in Wisconsin, I'm a little surprised that the cranberry farmers in the sand counties (mostly corporate owned, now hit by Chinese tariffs because they're Republican) haven't stripped out their bogs and mined the absolutely wonderful silica sand under them.


    We know how to build warped space, using a rotating frame of reference instead of mass. Centripetal force. Spinning habitats. This is old-school "Space habitats for Man" stuff.

    Radiation. The solution is mass. A bunch of water is an easy to handle way to deal with that.

    Atmosphere. You're going to have an artificial life support system at first anyway (see below) so you might as well only have to worry about stuff leaking out instead of having to worry about contamination from stuff leaking in as well.

    Biosphere. You're going to have to trash any biosphere that's already there and build your own, because you have no chemical defense against their bottom level scavenger species (molds, fungi, lichens, etc) and there's probably thousands of native protein(oids) you're allergic to. So you need to go for dead planets, with a reducing atmosphere, seed photosynthetic organisms and all the infrastructure they need, and wait. So you might as well wait on orbit.

    So grab a comet or twenty, dig holes in them, install big old ferris wheels for gravity and to hold air, and live there while you're waiting for your planet to cook.


    I think that this is a good scenario. It runs into what may or may not be a huge problem: demographics. Our civilization was stuck at the high birth rate stage for over a hundred years because industrialization was slow the first time. Look at how rapidly Japan and China industrialized. When you have a roadmap the process is much faster. This means that you will start off with high birth rates and then it will likely drop quickly.

    Mind you, this brings up the question: how bad would natural resource usage today be if by magic Earth was only populated by developed nations. In other words, how many of our environmental problems are due to other nations catching up?


    Reynolds tried to hand-wave this with Bussard ramscoops and magitech, as I recall

    VERY much magitech. Nothing so plebian as Bussard ramscoops; Conjoiner Drive employs a microscopic wormhole, the other end of which opens into spacetime few seconds after the Big Bang. And that's how it gets enough energy to accelerate a four million ton spaceship at 1 G (up to 10 G when necessary).


    Re: Gravity, Radiation, and Air.

    Agreed. This isn't a mark against asteroids, but a mark for. You build rotating habs inside an asteroid. Shielding, gravity and you strip volatile asteroids/comets for air/water/ammonia and other volatiles. With any planet, you are taking what you are given, wrong gravity, wrong air-pressure and O2 levels, wrong rotation rate, etc. With artificial habitats, you tune them to whatever you like.

    However, "So you need to go for dead planets, with a reducing atmosphere, seed photosynthetic organisms and all the infrastructure they need, and wait."

    You'll be waiting a long time. There was a billion years between Earth getting oxygen-producing life and Earth seeing an accumulation of oxygen in the air.

    It takes a really long time to oxidise a planet.


    And that is the sort of crap I am referring to.

    Firstly, I was NOT finding a flaw in physics, obvious or not, but using the actual mathematical equations rather than the hand-waving graphical representation 'proof'. What I was pointing out was that the claim that FTL is equivalent to time travel is wrong, using the equations of special relativity.

    Secondly, I had said at least three times that unconstrained and interial FTL does lead to a causality violation. Yes, I know damn well how to construct such frames of reference, and have done for over 50 years. The fact that you can create a straw man does not disprove a possibility.

    Thirdly, you HAVE heard of of quantum tunnelling and entanglement, haven't you? If the communication or transfer were by a 'private' path, there would be no causality violation because there would be no communication with your third frame of reference. Special relativity is about (inertial) motion, and general relativity adds gravity to that - they say NOTHING about any other (real, speculative or imagined) communication or transfer channels.

    Fourthly, I repeatedly said that I was NOT claiming that FTL was possible. I had said that the standard 'proof' that it is necessarily equivalent to time travel is bogus. It is. I was talking about what an author could do to keep his FTL consistent with known physics.

    If you can point to a REAL proof of either (a) that any and all, FTL creates a causality violation or (b) there can be no non-Einsteinian communication or transfer channels (whether via quantum theory or new physics), I will take your objections more seriously. But I have asked some quite high-powered relativists that question, and none have seen one.


    Damn. HTML error. If a moderaor would add the missing angle bracket, I should be grateful.



    OK, so perhaps the magnetosphere is there and helps somewhat. But we agree that the radiation is a major issue anyway. What, I wonder, is the margin between "stellar flares kill humans who don't take cover" and "stellar flares prevented a biosphere forming before the colonists arrived" or "stellar flares prevent terraforming"? Also, it sounds like living and farming under some depth of water might be a good strategy.

    In literary terms, I'd be particularly interested in what happens when Cuy Corp dumps a colony on a dwarf-star planet that can't be terraformed because of the bad sun-side environment. It suggests some very stressed, angry people with only short-term goals. Do they fight amongst themselves for the least-worst living space and the greatest share of the food and fuel (which is going to run out)? Do they give up and spend their store of organics on having the best life possible for a few years? Or do they commit everything to re-activating their ship and take a better planet to live on, possibly by force?


    Hmmm.... Any interest in working with me (privately) on my FST (which, in fact, is real, not just a joke)?

    If so, you can find my real email searching for my username, if you ahem care 5 cents.


    I have this impression that Lord Dunsany said that writing fantasy was much harder than writing ordinary fiction, because in the latter, everyone knows the rules of the world, and what can and can't be bent. Meanwhile, in fantasy, you have to make the rules, and then you can NEVER break them, or you've cheated, and lost your readers.


    You do realize that the "Great Oxygenation Event" that Lynn Margulis(?) introduced is incorrect? Her idea was that Earth's atmosphere went from reducing to oxidizing very rapidly, resulting in the death of the anaerobic biosphere and evolution of the current one.

    This is incorrect. The "Great Oxygenation Event" took something like 1.8 billion years (from when cyanobacteria first appeared to when oxygen levels started approaching today's concentrations), mostly because it wasn't just the atmosphere that had to be oxidized, it was a huge amount of iron and sulfur that also had to be oxidized. Also, there are large numbers of anaerobic species around today, so they weren't wiped out at all. In this case, Lynn Margulis (or whoever came up with the Great Oxygenation Event) was incorrect, because the so-called event took three times longer than vertebrates have been walking on the surface of the planet.

    So no, seeding planets with a reducing atmosphere and waiting in orbit is a strategy that simply won't work. It was a neat idea when it was first proposed in the 1980s, but subsequent science has rejected it.

    People might want to settle on planets with reducing atmospheres, because they're undoubtedly more common than those with oxygen atmospheres, and perhaps some will turn out to have nifty mineral deposits or be needed as prisons or industrial sites. However, oxygen has some neat chemical dynamics that produce the ozone layer on Earth, which shields us from otherwise problematic ultraviolet photons. So in addition to being breathable, an oxygen atmosphere is a better radiation shield.

    Ultimately, it's a tradeoff: if you live on a planet with a toxic atmosphere, it's hard to expand a colony under those conditions. Think of living inside Biosphere II and building Biosphere III somewhere else. Doable, but it takes a higher level of skill and poses more challenges. If the atmosphere's breathable and providing a decent radiation shield, it's easier.

    The next question is whether the biosphere producing the oxygen is innately toxic to Gaian life or not. If it is, you're screwed. If it isn't, it's a far better choice than living in methane, where a minor leak around an outside door can make the air inside flammable.

    As for chemical defenses, that's a red herring: most of the really dangerous things are hacks on our biochemistry, viruses that hack our DNA and toxins that repurpose some chemical that's commonly used by all cells to make it toxic (often stored as safe binary precursors). One example is salicylic acid, which is toxic in large doses to us. It's also a plant hormone, and the reason it works on us as aspirin is rooted in our shared deep evolutionary heritage. Alien viruses won't be a problem to us (unless panspermia turns out to be true), because their DNA code is alien to ours and they can't hack our genomes. Similarly, alien toxins may be irrelevant to us, because we lack the shared evolutionary heritage that promotes toxin evolution. For example, theobromine may be the equivalent of tetrodotoxin in an alien biosphere, for some random evolutionary reason. Things like cyanide will still be toxic, of course, but when you look at the really nasty poisons, like ricin, it's unclear that something in an alien biosphere would evolve to do the same thing to us.

    This isn't to say that alien biospheres are safe. However, they may be no more dangerous than, say, the Amazon, Congo, or Papua New Guinea, and people have lived in each of these "death zones" for tens of thousands of years, using only the most primitive technology. Still, compared with the risk of living in oxygen-filled habitats in the middle of a huge sea of methane, I think the oxygenic alien biosphere is the lesser danger.


    Yes, that would be a good story. Hopefully my notion of a barely established colony pushing hard to build more starships makes more sense now...


    Re: 'how do you shed the heat?'

    a) Always wondered why would this could be a problem if re-entry is into empty space (no atoms colliding to produce temperature) with an average temp of about 3.7 degrees Kelvin. However, just checked and apparently ...

    'Some parts of space are hot! Gas between stars, as well as the solar wind, both seem to be what we call "empty space," yet they can be more than a thousand degrees, even millions of degrees.'

    Solution would be to send a probe a few instants before you make the jump/transition to verify temp and other potentially hazardous conditions. Could probably be done automatically via some sort of built-in AI nav.

    b) Business opp - deliberate jumps into 'hot space' could be a convenient way to gather energy provided you had a super fast-charging battery. Maybe a convoy of drones?


    That statement's certainly true, though he was writing before science got so complicated that even specialists don't fully understand their area :-) I had hoped that my posts would give people an indication of how far you can push FTL before it breaks causality, which in turn breaks people's minds, even if it may not be inherent in the universe (*). As Pigeon points out, that's not the only limit, but it is one that is often claimed to be absolute, and isn't, even ignoring the highly speculative general relativity sometimes published in prestigious journals.

    (*) Causality breaks in some weak consistency models that are actually used in existing hardware. Naturally, it doesn't REALLY break, but it does as far as the programmer sees it. I have tried to explain that and its consequences to some people on standards committees, and failed dismally :-( It's possible to work with the mathematics, but even the top experts don't rely on their intuition.

    As far as collaborating with you, I can't find your Email, but am happy for the moderators to pass mine onto you. But I am not really the right person, and don't really want to do much - I am just TOO rusty. Working with basic special relativity is one thing (though I baulked at doing a proper tensor analysis), but I never worked on general relativity, and that's much harder anyway.



    Space Engineer's initial proposition was a civilization that is based on FTL drive of certain unconventional design. The idea is that it still uses orbits and Homann transfers, however, with slight modification. While staying on the transitional orbit in normal space, the ship can initiate a series of micro-jumps along the trajectory of the orbit, thus accelerating ship's movement through the orbit (apparently, it depends on gravitational field strength to determine frequency of these jumps). So, it is still important to achieve an escape velocity to lift off the planet and gain access to interplanetary or interstellar space, and you also need to match speeds between different point of your start and arrival, should you hope to match orbits to your target. This is really important, since other stars around us also move with different relative speeds, and, as he explained us, in other sectors of galaxy stars are moving in different direction with the same blinding speed up to and beyond 250 km/s. So, even if you want to jump 60 000 light years directly to the other side of galaxy, you will have to compensate at least those 500 km/s.

    For current game mode, however, this is not used, since Engineer decided to reduce the idea towards simple pint-to point "jump" with ludicrous speed acceleration mode. Probably because it is quite difficult to plot orbits in current frame of reference system he is using. Still, the simulator part of it does correctly calculate and simulate speed matching, as well as simple point-to point transitions in space with acceleration and deceleration (I did not check relativistic speeds yet).

    So, I was asking myself, how the FTL does break causation, and I invented a little thought experiment. Say, we have a spaceship with FTL drive, that decides to jump exactly 1 light second distance in the time frame of 0.1 second. We take the case of absolutely spherical ship in absolutely empty anisotropic space.

    -00.010 The ship is stationary in the frame of reference, jump drive charged, no other forces are affecting the ship at the moment. +00.000 A jump happens, and the ship "disappears" from the frame of reference toward the next point. +00.001 Ship arrives at destination exactly 1 light second away from the starting point.

    The ship now "looks" at the point of origin, and there's the (very same) ship, and since it is still there, it should be attracting the ship from the future with his gravitational force. But if we look at -00:01 mark, we see no ship in the future out there, so the difference between points of reference makes us believe that this situation violates Newton's third law - the ship is dragged back into space by force that shouldn't be there. And if you add some other virtual force that should attract the ship from the past towards ship from the future, you get causality violation.


    Another, really dirty way of getting around the causality violation is to talk about photons.

    The problem with an FTL jump in standard relativity is that the ship can look back at itself. The problem with this is that real world photons attenuate, in the sense that the sphere of photons hitting a point in space at a point in time dissipates as a square of the distance. What that means is that, a light year away, if you're trying to see what happened in a particular cubic meter at a particular second, only about one photon per meter squared from that event is in your immediate vicinity, assuming that all the photons made it through the dust and stuff in the light year of space between where the event happened and where you observed it.

    This is one of the problems with trying to see exoplanets, actually: there's just not a lot of photons from the target planet getting to our telescopes.

    Anyway, if you want to annoy physicists, you could postulate a FTL jump drive where suitable targets are places where the consequences of the jump can't be observed from where the ship first jumped. After all, the galaxy is a dirty place, and observation distances are far from infinite.


    I'd also point out that the original scenario (wherein someone feeds in quantum and cosmological data into some sort of massive deep learning system, and thereby gets the Theory of Everything, and the ToE will not make intuitive sense) is likely what will happen.

    We already know, from decades of experience with failed ToEs, that it's not intuitively obvious to even the most advanced physicists. We also know that quantum theory and general relativity contradict each other in the way they deal with space-time. We even know that many scientific fields are using deep learning to solve problems, and that one of the big debates in deep learning is whether researchers using it should uncritically accept whatever the AI spits out, or whether any answer published has to make sense before it can be published. So just at a guess, if a Theory of Everything is possible, it's going to come out of an AI, it won't make perfect sense to humans, and it will deal with space-time differently than do both quantum theory and relativity.

    While I personally doubt that a Theory of Everything will give us FTL, it's a good peg on which to hang a story.


    The first step would be to produce a genuinely intelligent AI. While those 'deep learning' approaches do extract results that humans have missed, and those can occasionally be 'insightful', they haven't produced any genuinely groundbreaking results. And there are good reasons to believe that they won't.

    I am not, of course, supporting Penrose's delusions, but it is extremely doubtful that such breakthroughs will come from the current approaches, and we simply do not know how to model the sort of intuition and innovation that leads to them. Indeed, there are both theoretical and practical reasons to suspect that we cannot produce a machine that is in a different class of intelligence to us.

    As far as FTL and not enough photons are concerned, it doesn't solve the causality problem as soon as you allow multiple such jumps. There isn't a causality problem in simply seeing your past self, anyway.


    So far as "genuine intelligence" goes, I'm with Frans De Waal on human intelligence. He doesn't see human intelligence as a point on a unidimensional scale. Rather, he sees it as a fairly small blobule in a massively multidimensional space. Many species (including squirrels) have better spatial memories than we do, chimps seem to have better memories for random strings of characters than we do, sperm whales have much more complex sonic processing and communications systems than we do, almost every species has process chemosensory better than we do, many species have better visual acuity than we do, and so on. The point here is not that humans are stupid, it's that intelligence is much more vast than what's in our heads. We occupy a unique space, not the apex, and it's possible that a Theory of Everything is more understandable in some very different part of intelligence space.

    As for deep learning, I'm thinking of it as either a brute force or (more likely) random-walk exploration of the data, looking for the specified relationships (here, equations that work both on the quantum and cosmological scale). Since it can do this much faster than a human brain can, it's more likely to stumble randomly into an answer than a human is.

    I'd point out, incidentally, that your statement that While those 'deep learning' approaches do extract results that humans have missed, and those can occasionally be 'insightful', they haven't produced any genuinely groundbreaking results is incorrect. Cladistics has used this method since the mid-1990s, because constructing hypotheses of evolutionary relationships based on informative phylogenetic data is really effing hard for human brains beyond about ten taxa, but it's easier for computer programs. As a result, basically every tree of life you've seen since the early 1990s is the result of AI doing both brute force and random walk surveys to find the shortest tree that best explains the data set presented.

    The hard parts with using AI to do a Theory of Everything seem to be 1) developing the capacity, since the data sets are huge, unlike, say, organismal genomic data, and 2) figuring out how to ask the question in a way that makes it susceptible to a deep learning approach. I think the second one's probably the hard part, since 1) will develop automatically as long as people continue to upload and share cat videos.


    I take your point about Frans de Waal, though I don't regard spatial awareness, memory etc. as being intelligence, but different mental skils; that's merely a matter of terminology. I accept that we might need a different aspect of intelligence, but that simply strengthens my point - we REALLY don't know how to build a compiler that has a sort of intelligence that we don't have!

    However, absolutely NOT on cladistics. I am fully aware of that, did a bit of work in that area in the 1960s to 1980s (yes, really), those methods do NOT count as 'intelligent', and don't do anything that humans can't do. Those tools are no more advanced than the number-theoretic ones, and William Shanks calculated pi to 527 places in 1874, taking 15 years. The only way that those cladistics programs are better than doing it by hand (been there, done that) is they are faster. And, in any case, 'breakthroughs'? No way.


    Oh, right, but there's the catch that nullifies this as well. When I say "look", I talk about gravitational waves, and those are, as we know, not stopped by the light. Anyway, it's better not to think about it too hard. I would just put it into a spacious field of ideal machines and perpetual motion in our backyard.

    So, here's what I was going to say about sustainability. I am an electric engineer, and I have what can be considered a master's degree in our regional university, so I've got some insights about energy sustainability, electrical or otherwise different. Energy, so to say, is they key component of every system.

    The problems we got to solve with sustainability, are just not really well-understood yet. At any scale. We can talk about short-term systems like nuclear submarines or ISS mission, but even then, there are hard limits nobody dares to breach. There's still enormous need for support, material supply and information for any of them, with cascades of reliability redundancy. If we even want to do something within our solar system, we need to work much, much harder. This is one of the reasons I am not optimist for modern space exploration and I don't think we'll get there in next 30 years. If we will be able to feel comfortable in our solar system, it is OK to think about the stars.

    I do believe this will be solved at some point, since it is an organizational and technological problem. Maybe we will invent some hyper-intellectual system that will be able to balance out all of our needs within our environment without invocation of violence and budget shortages. I am no expert of this, I should focus on energy side, once again. In every system, be it a nuclear reactor, steel factory or air conditioner, sustainability is achieved, providing that you can keep resources flowing through it, as intended. If you cut the flow of energy and materials or even reduce it by a significant amount, the system starts to choke and get out of working cycle, expelling more materials that it is reasonably needed or initially designed. Take a nuclear reactor, for one, it is a system so complex, you can not set it at lower setting like a diesel engine, you have to either shut it down or power up back again, and each of these procedures take many hours to settle - otherwise you run into increased expenditure. To keep the resources flowing, you need other systems and machines to move them. Which in turn need more of different materials, and more of the same energy.

    Long story short, every sustainability problem comes back to energy sources. Our current civilization's blood - fossil fuels, electricity. The thing that powers our cars, trains and planes. The thing that is being burned in our engines and turbines. There's a neat graph which explains the flows of energy in our modern situation. The waste heat generated is bigger than the useful energy, but it is going smoothly. Did you ever wonder why?

    I personally do not take peak fuel events too seriously. They do not mean we will be left without resources at all, it only means we will have to make do with what we get. You see, the only reason we still use fuel is that it is more profitable to extract energy from fossils than actually use any alternatives, given the circumstances. These engines are more compact, powerful and energetically dense than many other systems we created. Not because of some oil producers conspiracy, as many want to believe. I have nothing against electrical engines, especially living in the country that possesses a large network of electrically driven public transport. Hell, my Steam friend in US does have electric bike, and I would like to have one as well, if only I did not live in region with 5 months of snow and it wouldn't have price of a medium-class car.


    So, the only real problem is to maintain positive loop in the system. This is why I am so sceptical about biofuels projects I witnessed out there. You see, to grow plants in modern technology effectively, you use machines (like fore watering the plants and gathering them afterwards). If you take those plants and process them on the same site, and you need additional fuel to distil the plants back into fuel for machines. At last, machines consume fuel you made and processed, to grow more plants. It may work for some time, but if efficiency is below 100%, you will be left with less fuel on the next year. And even less in next year. And so on until your idea goes bankrupt (your external funding fizzles out or you stop buying fuel elsewhere) and you can't even collect enough fuel to finish the cycle. Your sustainability will be below that of a human labour.

    Anyway, biofuel is not what I'm talking about. What I am talking about is that you can close the loops in your sustainable cycle by having more energy, a lot of it. You can regenerate fuel from air by using A HUGE amount of energy. I saw that discussion earlier in the blog, but people only plan to bury the carbon into the soil - what a waste of useful material. You can regenerate useful materials from industrial waste by atomizing them and reassembling into pure materials - this requires A HUGE HUGE amount of energy. But, provided you can have a positive loop in the system, not only you can maintain everything, but also plan your development. If you don't have it - you are done for.

    I've had this idea yesterday, about space-based sustainability. Suppose, in space, you have access for virtually unlimited amounts of energy, you can collect it directly from the sun, provided that your solar panels don't decay before they pay off their energy budget. The problem is, for now, you can only get there by fuel-powered rocket, and if you are out of fuel, you are out of options. So you need to regenerate fuel on the ground, launch your space panels into orbit, mine energy, beam it down to ground, collect the dispersed rocket exhaust from the atmosphere and regenerate fuel. Close the loop, get simplest sustainable system.


    Troutwaxer @ 76: yes to pretty much all of that. With respect to the temperature rise of a misaligned exit - yes, there is a bit of margin as you suggest, although it's not the structure of the ship whose thermal resilience you have to worry about, but the occupants, who are rather more sensitive, and the liquid helium for the superconducting magnet coils, which boils at 4K. So 3 degrees is pretty near the limit, and the safe range is pretty tiny compared to the range you might encounter. xkcd has a good picture of gravity wells in our solar system at (of course the horizontal scale is whacked).

    Frank @ 77: also yes; some of those consequences were intentional, and the rest were useful difficulties. (It's weird to be engineering something where it's good for it to have a wide selection of ways to blow up in your face.) It would probably be useful to enter the bubble from next to some lump of space debris and take it with you to dump heat into. Navigation would be a sod, and I didn't really solve it to my satisfaction, but some of my criteria for "satisfaction" were to do with the specific plot I was building it to fit.

    DaffGrind @ 78: Making the surplus energy come out as KE rather than heat was something of which the story's engineers would have said "yes, we think it ought to be possible, but we haven't got any useful idea how to do it yet".

    EC @ 80: to my shame I completely forgot about magnetic/electrostatic potentials. Too used to the only significant ones being those that only exist because of my circuit, I guess. I'd assumed conservation of momentum, on the same sort of basis as Doc Smith's "intrinsic velocity" concept.

    JDN @ 86: Gas giants would provide a "hole" that could be used to get between systems at (not too greatly) different average potentials which might be in a more convenient position (sometimes) than the sun. You'd need to be careful with your navigation though. They would also be useful for slingshot manoeuvres to correct your "intrinsic velocity".

    SFReader @ 100: "how do you shed the heat" is a problem because if you're in a small "bubble" space there's nowhere to radiate it to. It just goes round and round with the flux getting ever more energetic as long as you keep emitting heat. It'd be dead handy for doing nuclear fusion, mind.

    In normal space it's just a case of having enough radiating area because you're radiating into an infinite (in engineering terms) volume. As long as you don't do something daft like letting a sun shine strongly on your radiators, you're fine.

    It is true that some of the matter in "empty" space can be considered to be at an extremely high temperature. But it is also incredibly tenuous - to the extent that, to my mind at least, it's something of a stretch to even apply the concept of "temperature" as we normally understand it - so the amount of energy it has in a spaceship-comparable volume is incredibly tiny and can be ignored.


    Grrrr.... The largets trolleybus system on the planet USED TO BE in London .... Got rid of because of stupidity & shirt-termism.


    "a star trek knock-off where we follow a crew that is not the best and brightest, (...) got handed the keys to a ship that makes the enterprise look dinky.. because Sol Ship-Works is (building them faster than they can crew them)" is literally the premise of Seth McFarlane's "The Orville"


    "As for chemical defenses, that's a red herring: most of the really dangerous things are hacks on our biochemistry"

    On Earth, maybe; I agree with your point that alien versions of them wouldn't work on our architecture. I'd think the most dangerous alien organisms would be the generalists: the equivalents of the bacteria that cotton on to any old redox exchange you can get out of whatever gunk they happen to be living in and derive energy from it; the decomposers that eat anything as long as it's dead, or even if it isn't if its defences aren't up to scratch. It's quite possible that, against alien decomposers, human defences would never be up to scratch, because the mechanisms by which the immune system identifies hostile organisms have evolved to respond to the signals presented by Earth biochemistry and might not know what an alien biochemistry was talking about.


    Yes and no. First, you're right about everything except the generalist decomposers. We're routinely bombarded with spores from these things every second of every day, and until we die, we're pretty much proof against them. If a generalist decomposer (the analog of, say the various Penicillium species on Earth) turns out to be lethal to humans on a planet, that's a very serious problem from the get-go, and it might stop a colony. The thing about generalists is that they generalize, so I'd guess that they'd only be dangerous to humans through random chance, not design.

    The more interesting problem, which I wanted to cover in another post, is the one of coevolution: Assuming a human colony is successful and expands, it represents a huge, untapped resource that's available for whatever can figure out how to metabolize us. Moreover, as the colony expands, it will necessarily run into more and more organisms (as we're doing now, resulting in problems with Nipa, Ebola, and so forth on Earth). Finally, evolution will pretty much guarantee that if alien pathogens, pests, and predators start getting around human defenses, then we get into a red queen race where the results might (but are not guaranteed to be) bad for humans. However, it's a likely fate for a mature colony to get increasing amounts of its time and resources sucked into dealing with these kind of Red Queen situations, which on Earth we know as dealing with pesticide resistance, antibiotic resistance, and so forth. That's also why a world might put on a quarantine list. Depending on what they're dealing with, people might not want it to spread to other worlds.


    Am I missing something or has this discussion actually got two largely incompatible sub-points? It seems that we've been discussing two different types of successive colonisation under the same heading.

    On the one hand we have the rapaciously unsustainable, fast-moving, strip-propagate-repeat Nimon model. This depends on planets which have geologic activity, a long-established biosphere, and some kind of water (ammonia, supercritical CO2, whatever solvent the local life works on) cycle, to have produced easy fossil energy and bioconcentrated mineral ores, so you have stuff worth stripping and simple means of stripping it.

    On the other hand we are talking about colonising the planets of red dwarfs. These may have geologic activity, but probably don't have much of a biosphere if they have one at all, and the solvents are probably all condensed round on the night side and don't, or barely, circulate. Obtaining energy is going to involve elaborate, awkward and quite possibly large and fixed engineering, and you're not going to have much by way of conveniently concentrated metal deposits. (With asteroids/comets things are even worse.)

    This means there's much less reason to set up resource extraction operations in the first place; the colony will take a lot longer to get to the point of setting seed; and the people, certainly the colony-born generations, will have the concepts of sustainable behaviour deeply ingrained in their psyche because it's necessary for the colony to survive at all. Such a colony might very well set seed, but I find it rather hard to swallow the idea of them recklessly wrecking their own yard to the point where they have to evacuate, because it involves a complete inversion of what would be their natural principles.


    I was thinking that while we are proof against them nearly all the time, there are instances where our defences do fail, and the consequences are pretty horrible (eg. gangrene); and the logic that something that has evolved to respond to foreign organisms of its own planet's biology probably isn't going to be compatible with some arbitrary other biology, from which we get the result that alien viruses/toxins probably won't affect us, also gives the result that our immune system probably won't respond effectively to alien organisms. So in the case of the kind of organism that doesn't really care what it eats as long as it can transfer electrons to/from it, while we are indeed mostly well defended against the Earth versions, we might well not be able to do much to stop their alien equivalent.


    Perhaps they're mutually incompatible, perhaps not.

    The thing about red dwarfs is that they're the most common star in the galaxy, and they're the longest lived. As noted above, planets orbiting them almost certainly have molten cores (and ones like TRAPPIST 1-B are probably more like Io than Mercury), and they spin fast enough to generate a decent magnetosphere, even if they're tidally locked. In turn the molten core means that they could easily have plate tectonics and they probably have at least some resistance against solar flares. The bonus is that systems like TRAPPIST-1 have planets that dump gravitational energy into each other, and that helps keep their cores molten longer than they could on radioactive heat alone, thereby prolonging plate tectonics on those planets.

    The other thing is that oxygen, provides the most energy for biochemical reactions known of the dozens on our planet, and it's the only type of metabolism that supports multicellular life. The oxygenic pathway evolved early in Earth's history, but for whatever reason (some part huge amounts of reduced iron and sulfur, probably some part crust heat making it too hot for plate tectonics) oxygen didn't dominate the atmosphere for billions of years after it first started being evolved. This is why old planets are good--they have a better chance of having an oxygen atmosphere.

    Are red dwarf terrestrial planets habitable? That's the question the modelers have been having a field day with, and I'd say the jury's out. I've found papers on all sides of the argument. If they are habitable, they're the majority of colonizable real estate in their galaxy, despite their very real problems. If they are not habitable, then habitable planets are fairly rare, and it's going to take a huge search effort to find them.

    Since we're talking about writing SF stories, not exploring the galaxy, take your pick.

    As for wrecking your planet and wanting to desert it for greener pastures, I think that's idiotic too, but Hawking, Musk, and Tyson (among others) think I'm the idiot here. Who do you believe?


    Re: ' ... you can close the loops in your sustainable cycle by having more energy, a lot of it. '

    First - again - very interesting comments/ideas! I followed your link - the prices are on the high side so I'm assuming that the models are intended for orgs with budgets (business/research) rather than consumers.

    WRT to your comment above: Would much prefer 'energy' that can be used in one system with end products that can be readily used by another (downstream) system. Really, really dislike the shortest route for all energy proposition because I feel that's not how a living system works.


    Re: 'The first step would be to produce a genuinely intelligent AI.'

    OOC, have any AIs been programmed for or pointed at trying to develop/discover new maths? Or, based on AI outputs, does it look as though any AIs have developed new /their own maths (symbolic logic)?


    Making the surplus energy come out as KE rather than heat was something of which the story's engineers would have said "yes, we think it ought to be possible, but we haven't got any useful idea how to do it yet".

    Actually, there's a very easy way to use heat to generate electricity, but the engineers don't want to admit it, because the idea of a steam-driven starship is just too humiliating! ("Scotty, we're losing power! Is something wrong in the boiler room?)


    Oh KE. Kinetic energy. Sorry.


    Not that I have heard. If I recall, one was reported to have 'discovered' a new algorithm, except that it didn't :-) It found some heuristics that worked, and simplified them to comprehensibility, but it took a human to recognise that (a) that wasn't just coincidence and (b) extract the algorithm from the procedure. And developing new mathematics is categorically more 'advanced' than developing new algorithms - and I speak as someone who has done quite a lot of the latter, successfully, and only scrabbled ineffectually at the former.

    With the restrictive (and essentially mainstream) meaning of intelligence, it is mental skills involving things like analysis, deduction, insight, intuition, extrapolation, imagination etc., and such so-called AIs don't even get started on those. Simply extracting organisation out of a huge morass of data, or extracting new empirical procedures, is merely what was done in the 1960s, writ large.


    Er, steam engines do NOT generate energy from heat, but from heat differentials. Sorry, but that difference DOES matter in an enclosed system.


    True, but so long as the waste heat is more energetic than the cost of pumping it around there is a possible net gain. But any system with energy inputs and outputs isn't really closed (so your point applies). You'd still ultimately need to radiate waste heat out to space, and you'd need some inputs - whether those are the uranium or the refined fossilised cycads you brought with you, solar or something else. Isn't life just a small homeostasis of spontaneous order in the inexorable flow toward heat death?

    When people talk about nanobots, I am usually wondering about how they are powered... too often that's handwaved over or it's just assumed they can be perfect perpetual motion machines (albeit tiny ones).


    First off thanks Frank (and commentators) have been enjoying this thread.

    I have a couple of things to query on your original premise given your original questions (and for the record I totally agree with icehawk on the Polynesian experience except some of the Jared Diamond bit as JD has stepped away from some of his conclusions since Collapse came out after new evidence)The following comments are just as if I was reading a book based on your premises above, not a criticism (ie they are the thing that would throw me out of a novel I was reading personally) And for the record have taken FTL as a given.

  • If WW3 is based around killing off the internet to prevent cyber attacks, how did all those data centres survive with the knowledge and processing power intact enough to come up with a TOE? (let alone one that can produce FTL) if we went to another WW based on info and data, surely those data centres would have been targeted?? There wouldn't be enough data left for a TOE???

  • You seem to basing your expansion premise on historical models that don't take into account new tech that is available even today eg. In inhospitable climates currently - check out the west Australia mining industry - it's a trash and dash philosophy, no-one sticks around long enough to build a colony, they just create a small camp with some associated infrastructure and piss off when the resources are depleted. Why would you terraform / remodel a planet if you were only there to strip out the resources? You only do that if you want to live there. There are billboards on my way to work this week looking for gamers to remote control truck and trains from 2000kms away because that is where the tech is already. You need satellites not terraforming.

  • Hawking, Musk and Tyson may have their views but none of them have had to financially support those models. It's theoretical to them. The actual industry as it operates today is in a completely different direction and they are getting funded not by the Holy 3. if you need tension in a novel plot, the new order are still having to deal with solar flares knocking out satellite transmissions and cocking stuff up. perhaps a protagonist that does that on purpose?


    Pigeon was talking about an enclosed bubble, where there is no space to radiate into - in such a case, there is no way to convert excess heat to useful energy.

    There's been some research on developing batteries that work on a nanobot scale, both conventional and biochemical. I haven't been following it.


    They don't have to be generalist decomposers, either, if they target some of our essential materials and can tolerate the others. Athlete's foot isn't caused by a parasite, after all, but by the unnatural conditions caused by wearing shoes enabling a keratin decomposer to thrive. There are a lot of rare opportunistic infections, and they even include green goo :-)

    Yes, if we can tolerate a biosphere, it stands to reason that at least some decomposers and exoparasites will be able to tolerate us!


    I'm sure you're right, but the idea of a steam engine on a starship is very funny, which I mainly what I was aiming for.


    Bertram Chandler's ships had diesels, which I agree isn't as amusing.


    EC, let's do some research here about the ubiquity of AI.

    First off, there's automated theorem proving, which is routinely used in mathematics, along with automated proof checking.

    As for cladistics, if you were working in the 1960s-80s, you saw numerical taxonomy, not the explosion of data caused by the use of polymerase chain reaction, because that took off in the 1990s. So you've missed the recognition of domains of life, the recognition of the plant kingdom phylogeny, the radical reorganization of mammal phylogeny, birds, fungi, and so forth. As an example, when I started working on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi around 1999, they were considered an order in the zygomycetes. By the time I finished in 2002, they had been placed in their own phylum.

    All of this was due to AI implementing cladistics on a scale that humans can't do directly. A revolution happened while you weren't looking. I lived through part of it, and you didn't. Now you're trying to claim that it couldn't have happened, because computers still aren't smart. You'll probably want to do some reading before arguing your original claim, that AI hasn't made any contributions to science.


    Glad you're enjoying it!

    To answer your questions:

  • What I'm thinking of here is the problem that any system connected to the internet can be hacked, including democracy. The simplest defensive solution to this isn't aerial bombardment, it's cutting subsea intercontinental cables and manually taking out switching stations. While these connections are tremendously useful, if having an intercontinental connection means that script kiddies in Nanjing are holding DC's sewage treatment plant hostage under contract from the People's Liberation Army, along with others trashing infrastructure throughout the US (just as an example), the rational solution may be to cut the cables to mechanically shut out the attackers.
  • The problem with data centers is that they're huge. If they get idled because internet traffic drops precipitously, I'd guess that someone may try to find another use for them rather than just trashing them. Reprogramming them for deep learning to try to solve intractable problems (like scaling up carbon capture and storage) seems like a reasonable thing for a surplus data center owner to try. Perhaps only Elon Musk would try programming a surplus data center to design an FTL drive for him, but stranger things have been attempted.

  • The trash and dash you're describing only works if you have an infrastructure that can support it. In Australia, there's also a global infrastructure providing petroleum, vehicles, equipment, computers, and so forth. If you've only got one starship, or worse, if you have use a starship that must land on a red dwarf exoplanet because the space around the planet is a high energy hellscape that you don't want your ship orbiting in for years, then you're probably stuck following historic models, where you develop the colonial infrastructure before you can start exploiting the planet and move on (and where would you go to? Back to a climate changing Earth?). I'm thinking of trash and dash on a scale of centuries, not years.
  • 132:

    I know some of the leading people in automated theorem proving, have taken some interest in this, have discussed it with them, and I assure you that it (a) doesn't do anything that humans can't (given enough will and time) and (b) hasn't and isn't likely to produce any new theories. It does mean that it is possible to prove a theory that humans have postulated, but baulk at putting the time and effort into proving, which is what it is used for. Occasionally, it is used to search for a result of a form postulated by humans, but baulk at putting the effort into finding. There is NO WAY that is going to lead to something like the Eschaton!

    I have taken an active interest in taxonomy, from then until now, and I did not say that I had not looked at that area since; I have. No, I have NOT missed those, and I stand by my points. In particular, please do NOT put straw men into my mouth by misrepresenting me. Those TOOLS (and that IS what they are) have been useful - but less so than gene sequencers (which also do something that humans can't or won't) or, for that matter, agricultural tractors. There are a couple of detailed points I could add:

    Cladistics and those approaches are NOT as robust as they are claimed to be, which accounts for why those classifications keep changing. In particular, almost none take account of the fact that genetics is nothing like as simple as is generally believed. One of the reasons that my wife and I stopped subscribing to Nature was that I got disgusted with the quality of the papers on that topic, and my recent searches on the latest results indicated that nothing has improved.

    More importantly, I could easily write a program to do the same, given access to the data. People in the area knew how to do that in the 1960s (which was the point in mentioning it), but neither the data nor the computing power was available. Now, both are - but it is total crap that such analyses are beyond human capability.

    And you STILL don't seem to have grasped how much of a CATEGORICAL difference there is between doing simple searching and pattern matching (which is what those problems are) and creating a new mathematical or scientific theory. Indeed, merely creating a new algorithm requires a class of intelligence that current 'AI' can't reach - and I have done it dozens of times. But creating a new mathematical theory is and always was beyond me, NOT because of the effort involved, but because of insufficient mental powers of the sort of described in #122. And then you are talking about creating a new theory that is beyond mere humans!


    to SFreader @118:

    Thanks for the review! I hope the people will find the program worth of support, so the author will have less constraints continuing the development.

    the prices are on the high side so I'm assuming that the models are intended for orgs with budgets (business/research) rather than consumers I was confused by that statement for a while, until I decided I should check the site design by myself (I did not review it since last year's changes). Indeed, it seems like the design of donation section need some improvement - the numbers stated are not individual donations, but total amount of donations he manages to gather each month... I should relay him about this misunderstanding.

    to Troutwaxer @128: I'm sure you're right, but the idea of a steam engine on a starship is very funny, which I mainly what I was aiming for. The other, less known of engine is what is called Stirling engine. It does not require any fuel to burn, it is very simple and it has only one major downside - modern models have low throughput and weight-to-power ratio. Otherwise you can place this thing on space station, face the "hot" side towards the heat source, "cold" side towards the stars and it will generate power indefinitely. At least, in theory.

    On topic of AI (I wanted to write it earlier, but decided to hold off for a moment).

    In Soviet sci-fi literature, infused by materialist view of the time, there was pretty clear distinction between Artificial Intelligence and what can be closely translated as Artificial Sentience (direct translation of the word would be "Reason"). The first thing is a mere instrument and addition to the human thought process, like the most of intelligent items we have with us for the good part of last century. Like an instrument, it can only be used by humans, and can not have it's own reasoning, purpose or maybe even self-awareness. Artificial Sentience is entirely different league and we can not even hope to know what it is, really - we only hope that it is something similar to humanly reasonable behaviour and goal-setting.

    To illustrate that, I would like to show you two examples by my favourite authors, Strugatsky brothers. The first one is a superficial description of the analytical machine from "The Mystery of the Hind Leg" story. A great, pretty intellectual machine, that is capable of making very complex calculations to collect "dispersed" data and restore for human-readable format. For one, it was shown capable of reconstructing scenes of prehistoric nature. It tries to solve innumerable amount of practical and non-practical problems, presented by scientists, and it sometimes involves pretty strange contraptions and robotic models. Still, after all considerations, it is an instrument, and his fate is rather pitiful especially when people try to use it for their own goals.

    In contrast, the same time line mentions a creation of so-called "Massachusetts Machine" - a machine capable of self-modification, i.e. "self-guidance". The sub-plot in "Far Rainbow" mentions it briefly. It was treated entirely different in story - after scientists launched it and let it work for some time, they saw what it started to do (it is never specified really), and decided to terminate it. They stopped it's operation, disconnected all the power, sealed all the exits from the research complex, set a quarantine, surrounded the zone with barbed wire and tried to forget it ever happened. I suppose, that would be a birth of Machine Life, so to say.

    I am very much inspired by the idea of practical AI behaviour, and, in fact, I am currently trying to write a a novel (in my own near-future setting), which heavily involves ideas of super-intelligent and human-like programs. But that would be off-topic already.


    Actually I'd expect most of the biosphere on a HORDBOD[1]to be lithophil or in the deep sea, so most likely bioaccumulation of ores should work.

    Looking back at UXSCOL[2] pattern, a problem I see is why we need bioaccumulation or any other kind of accumulation at all. At least in some cases, e.g. the siderophiles, asteroids or other bodies have a higher content than the crust, though I'm not sure strip-mining the asteroid belt makes sense if you factor in energy requirements etc.

    Also note at some point trash or urban soils might become a viable resource compared to ore deposits:

    So I'm not sure if there is an economical advantage to mining fresh ores on a new planet compared to strip-mining last centuries trash humps.

    As for hydrocarbons, hm, part of their allure might be we already have an infrastructure dealing with them in place; building up a structure emplying electricity, hydrogen etc. from scratch might make for a difference; I'm assuming some kind of technological stasis[3], of course.

    BTW, concerning lithophiles, found this one:

    Cute, isn't it?

    [1] Habitable Orbit around Red Dwarf BODy; better acronyms welcome, I just got into SLIME with endoliths

    [2] Unsustainable eXploitaion Space COLonization. Again, find a better acronym.

    [3] Funny tidbid, stasis in Ancient Greece was hardly static...


    the radiation might not be that much of a problem if you're below a few metres of water, I guess. Though make that "a few hundred metres", come to think about it.

    Of course, radiation implies photolysis of water, with the hydrogen lost due to the same radiation...


    Humph! Next, you'll be complaining about our steam-powered airships...

    Line at a 1632 Minicon panel: "the only thing that steampunk ariships are missing are wheels... since they weight too much to get off the ground."


    The other, less known of engine is what is called Stirling engine.

    NASA has been flirting with Stirling engines, mostly using radioisotope heating, for use in space for a long time and I'm sure other people around the world have been doing the same sort of thing. Nothing has made it to flight, AFAIK, apparently for lack of a strong requirement and the availability of ever more efficient solar cells.

    For an oldish (1994) overview of solar-heated Stirling engines, see


    Re AI: that is precisely the difference I am referring to. We have the former, after a fashion, but currently do not know if developing the latter is even possible. We THINK that it is, but haven't a clue how. And it is the latter which is needed for a Theory Of Everything - if, indeed, there IS a Theory Of Everything and, if there is, it is discoverable by an object subject to its laws - neither of which may be true.


    Hey, steam-powered aeroplanes - aerodynes, not aerostats - have been built and flown, quite successfully. Mostly in the period between WW1 and WW2. A particular advantage was that they were so much less noisy than internal combustion piston engine planes - all the more so since the main method of long-range detection of enemy planes before radar was by directional acoustic receivers.


    Why we need bioaccumulation - something that seems to be largely missing both from the wikipedia and microbewiki articles is that quite a bit of the chemistry behind many of those groundwater-circulation ore-formation processes is driven by microbes. Changes in pH and redox potentials due to microbial activity cause the elements you're interested in to switch between soluble and insoluble forms. You get spectacularly colourful demonstrations of this in some abandoned metal mines, where sulphur-oxidising microbes generate sulphuric acid which leaches metals in sulphate form into the groundwater, then when that water gets to somewhere some of it can evaporate, concentrated sulphate deposits precipitate. It's also important in uranium transport because uranium can quite easily be switched back and forth between insoluble U(IV) and soluble U(VI) by common microbes that are interested in iron. Certainly you'd still get some ore formation going on without biology, especially the purely igneous processes, but you'd also be missing quite a bit. Given that on Earth such microbes have existed for longer than most crustal rocks, I wouldn't be surprised to find that very few ore deposits haven't been influenced by microbial activity at some point.


    Re: ' ... creating a new algorithm requires a class of intelligence that current 'AI' can't reach '

    Is anyone systematically looking for/testing what might be missing in current AI (vs. very bright human) in order to plug this gap?

    Somewhere read/heard that humans are much better than current AI at figuring out/predicting the consequences/effects of black swan events. No idea whether this just means humans can recognize and then disregard scaling problems/inconsistencies, or human problem solving involves some sort of step-down approach where variables that do not sufficiently predict something are tossed aside and we then go on to test with the next likeliest (lower-power) variable until we get an answer that 'makes sense'. I'm guessing that a programmed AI would probably use the same p value across the board regardless of type or quantity of data. (Note: I understand that what I've just described is a probability scenario and nothing to do with 'new maths', but the differences in how humans vs. machines address/respond in this scenario intrigues me.)


    I don't know, and have not been following that area recently, though I know of two areas of research that have been (and may well still be) being pursued. One was to investigate how humans do such things, and the last I saw was the conclusion that almost everything we previously 'knew' was wrong. And the other was to create such an AI by adding long-range randomness and allowing self-modification, but that tended to make a bonkers or irrelevant AI rather than an imaginative one.

    I could certainly program an AI to do the more pedestrian algorithmic development that I did. Yes, AI's are programmed, in most cases by giving them a set of rules, objectives, search procedures and learning data. Change those, and change the AI. But whether that would be possible in all cases of algorithm development, on a practical computer, I don't know (either way).


    Well, even if microbes were not involved directly quite a few minerals owing their existence to the free molecular oxygen says something:

    E.g. look ad banded iron:

    As for direct involvement, I'd have to look it up.

    Saying all ores are due to abiotic processes (oxygen aside) reminds me somewhat of the abiogenic petroleum origin hypothesis. It can happen, there are complex hydrocarbons on Titan, the majority of oil has a biological origin. I'm not sure where we'll be in a few years with research into deep microbes.

    OTOH, some of the examples of biogeochemistry cited by the Gaia hypothesis[1]

    might be wrong, so I'm as usual somewhat skeptical[2].

    [1] Hm, we could have much fun with that one; for starters, even if you think calling the Earth alive is somewhat too far, it's still reasonable to think of the biosphere and its interaction with geochemistry as a hypercycle. Which is a model for early life. And the you wonder if cells are really necessary, There would still be mutations and some kind of selection. Reminds me somewhat of the discussions in Lem's Solaris if the ocean is alive or just an example of Le Chatelier's principle.

    [2] At least as long as my congenital enthusiasm and lack of critical thinking doesn't come through.


    There's a difference between "taking an active interest in taxonomy" and doing it, and at this point you're trolling well into aquatic ape theory territory on this (remember how that felt like to support that theory on this blog?).

    In any case, you're making the mistake that Frans De Waal spent a good chunk of his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? That mistake is that you have no good notion for what intelligence is, beyond, a) you'll know it when you see it, b) you "know people" who agree with you (we all do, so this is irrelevant), and most importantly c) when anyone brings up evidence that contradicts a claim you make that artificial intelligence doesn't exist, you immediately reformulate your rhetoric so that you're still correct, and you try to browbeat the person you perceive as an opponent into silence.

    If a computer can do something a human with a paper and pencil can't do in a lifetime, that's a form of artificial intelligence, period, end of story. We've been in that territory for decades. The problem is that white, male egotism gets in the way of admitting it, and dealing with that egotism is the real discussion we're having now.


    Cells as such are probably necessary, although there are organisms such as seaweeds (notably Caulerpa taxifolia) that are coenocytic, meaning they have multiple nuclei and not many cell divisions.

    Still, the point about cells is that membranes are where most of the chemistry happens, so you want a structure that maximizes membrane area if you've got to do a lot of biochemistry. One simple way to get that is to divide up a solid into a bunch of little cells, each of which is surrounded by at least one membrane.


    Really? I have used the same definition of intelligence for 40 years, and I have lost count of the number of world-leading researchers in that area who have told me that they loathe the term, because what they were doing was NOT reasonably classifiable as intelligent. They were particularly pissed off with the way that a subset of self-proclaimed AI kept downgrading the definition of intelligence sp that they could claim their systems were artificial intelligence. As I said in my retirement speech, with that definition, my old organisation was doing AI (but not calling it that) in the mid-1970s.

    Your claim that I keep changing the definition is a falsehood - I won't claim that it is deliberate, but it is definitely at least trolling and perhaps worse.

    If you seriously think that there is no difference between merely being able to outperform (in terms of speed and capacity only) a human with a pencil and paper, and inventing a new Theory Of Everything, you are completely cuckoo.


    I'd disagree that you need sentience to find a Theory of Everything. What you have are huge clouds of data about how particles act, and huge clouds of data about how gravity acts. What you're looking for is a single equation or set of equations that explain both sets of data, when everything is suitably scaled.

    The problem here is figuring out how to parse both quantum and cosmological data so that the equations can apply to both, but after that, it's basically a horrendously complicated iterative curve-fitting process, where you fit an equation to one set of data, try it against another set of data, keep fiddling until the equation exceeds a uselessness standard and is deposited the discard archive (so that it doesn't get tried again), or gets kept as the best to date, to be tried against new data.

    In this case, an artificial intelligence of the type sleepingroutine mentioned (thanks for that!) is useful, because it can do the grunt work of starting with a random dataset, fitting equations to data billions of times. As cladistics has shown, there's quite a lot of utility in just starting somewhere random in a dataset and making the best fit one can, and doing this repeatedly until the whole mathematical space has been explored and local optima have been found, if they exist.

    The problem with an equation that's found via random walk optimization is that the system that created the equation will have no idea why it works--it will just work.

    People have been dealing with this issue for at least 20 years, and not just when they ask their smart phone for directions. So far as I know, it's still an active debate whether scientists should accept, even provisionally, equations that make no sense, or whether they should automatically discard them in favor of ones they can explain. The unanswered question seems to be what to do about equations that make good predictions but which make no sense.


    Hm, synthesizing lipid-like molecules to create membranes or mineral nanoparticles biocatalysts can adhere to might be other ways. And there'd still be plenty of catalyst replicators swimming around.

    The result might be some kind of primordial soup, or more likely a film similar to desert varnish (I remember this stuff from a discussion about shadow biosheres. Funny, I'm not sure if this concept predates Peter Watt's βehemoth or the other way around.).

    Evolution would not be driven by different rates of cells replicating, but by other factors; the catalyst replicators would be more akin to the usual ideas of selfish DNA in the genome, so there's have to be mechanisms to curb that one.

    For starters, AFAIR enzymes are somewhat more stable when bound to a substrate, so catalyst replicators binding other groups would be more stable. You'd still have a problem with parasitic side reactions.


    Hetromeles: The unanswered question seems to be what to do about equations that make good predictions but which make no sense. Like the predictions of the Pythoness at Delphi, do you mean? Oops.


    (This is a digression, but it's your digression and your thread :))

    "If a computer can do something a human with a paper and pencil can't do in a lifetime, that's a form of artificial intelligence, period, end of story."

    A power drill can penetrate in minutes a concrete wall that a human with a flint can't do anything useful to in a lifetime...

    All four items - computer, paperandpencil, drill, flint - are augmentors of existing human abilities, ie. tools. None of them are intelligent in themselves; all of them function usefully only when they are controlled down to the last detail by human agency. The difference is that the computer and the drill are more suited to the tasks in question than the paperandpencil and the flint; they are effective enough to augment human ability to the level required where the simpler tools are not. They still need a human to set them up and direct them, otherwise they just spin and waste energy doing nothing; they are amplifiers, and with zero human input to amplify the output is just louder noise.

    If egotism comes into it at all, it is that of the AI researchers who insist that intelligence is manifested as rapid penetration of concrete.

    147: Ouch! Applying that method to physics is a highly effective way to produce industrial quantities of bollocks. Especially in conjunction with capitalist academic politics. See numerous past threads for diatribes on the hopelessness of string theory.

    Who said anything about string theory? This method, incidentally, is how phylogenetic trees are constructed and tested. It's also similar to the natural selection process of making random variation, testing it against a standard, and discarding the failures. You're right that (almost?) everything it produces will be useless, but then again, that's what we've gotten out of every other method.


    No... she made predictions which (apparently) made good sense, but were not good :)

    (Equations which make good predictions but make no sense are "edged tools" - you can use them, but you'd better be careful, because they don't do anything for understanding (which is what it's all about) so you can't know when not to use them because the situation is one where they won't give good predictions, nor can you tell when that has happened. They're non-critical engineering, but they're not science.)


    Nobody said anything about string theory, but your description was so close a parallel to the way people attack it that I had to point it out :)

    Phylogenetic trees are a different class of problem - basically dictionary compilation. AFAICT they are a pretty close parallel to Mendeleev working out the periodic table. You get a useful tool for sorting things according to where they fall on various different scales of characteristics, which has some predictive value for other things that can be measured on those scales, but it doesn't give you any understanding; you have all these things laid out in an interesting shape, but you don't know what makes it that shape instead of a different one, or why things have to fit into it, only that that's the way things Just Are.

    Understanding - knowing what the words in the compiled dictionary actually mean - needs something deeper. In the case of the periodic table, that was quantum physics and relativity. In the case of phylogenetic trees, I know only that we haven't got it, because if we did we wouldn't have to generate them by repeatedly throwing jigsaw pieces in the air hoping to see parts of the pattern self-assemble when they came down until we've got enough to work it out, we'd be able to predict the wanderings of the jig cuts and identify where each piece fitted the pattern just from its shape.


    So who understands quantum theory? As I understand it, it's a set of equations that gives accurate predictions, but is it about calculating Bayesian probabilities for where particles are to be found, observer effect, infinite worlds...? That's the problem with understanding.

    Cladistics isn't just sorting stuff. That would be more classical evolution or numerical taxonomy. It's using parsimony or maximum likelihood to take a dataset and find the tree graph that has the shortest cumulative branch length for the entire tree, where branch length is defined as the number of changes to the dataset required to join two end taxa to a common ancestor. For example, if the two end taxa A and B differ in one base pair in a genetic sequence, that's one change. If that's all the data you have, you can either assume that A or B is unchanged from the ancestral state for that base pair, and as the other evolved through the point mutation that now distinguishes them. It's more complicated, but that's the basis.

    To test the tree, they do various randomization procedures on the data set (taking out taxa or characters) to see how robust the tree topology is. Generally these days they only accept tree branches that show up in 90% or more of the 1000 or more trees generated using some randomly generated subset of the initial data.

    The difference between cladistics and classical evolutionary biology is the latter was based on the educated guesses of experts: they accumulated data and published their understanding of the relationship based on their extended work with the group. Cladistics is a way of quantitatively testing an evolutionary relationship as a hypothesis that can be disproved. Say some evolutionist posited an evolutionary relationship among families. You get the right data set, run it through the program, see if the tree matches the original guess, and also test the robustness of both the proposed tree and the minimum length tree generated using the data you have. The interesting thing is that the old evolutionary biologists got a lot of stuff right. Of course, they got a lot of stuff wildly wrong (kingdom fungi, bacteria), but that's science.

    As for why cladistics works, the critical thing you have to remember is that evolution is a process that builds on RANDOM changes that successfully passed the challenges thrown at them. When you're studying evolution, you're studying the outcome of a random process. It's quite possible that, when you study quantum mechanics or cosmology, you're also studying the outcome of a random process, and that asking why ad infinitum is no more useful to you as a cosmologist than it was when you were a child and annoying your parents with that question. I'd finish by arguing that understanding should only be privileged when it helps you with something, not held up as the gold standard for what any science should accomplish.


    SFreader @ 20:

    "'When in history' & Tahiti, etc.' ... Okay, how about we assume that there will be different sects/cultures of star explorers. LMBujold did this quite well in her Vorkosigan series, plus at present several nations/cultures have active space programs."

    Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga may be relevant. I'm thinking about technological blind alley's and such. Consider her "Quaddies" - a whole "race" of people gene modified specifically for the zero gee environment suddenly made redundant when Kline Station develops artificial gravity. And I'm thinking about the way their corporate "owners" tried to dispose of them when they were no longer profitable.

    "Three shift days - Seriously? Sounds like you're describing the worst of the Stalin era. Apart from essential services such as hospitals and police/fire, don't see much need for shift work in a technologically advanced society. Also, I'd expect space-farers would make robotics* a priority esp. if their society wanted to maintain any industrialization thereby freeing up humans to do other things - like not work shifts. So please explain why three shifts."

    A colony on a tidal locked planet would have no day/night rotation? I don't know if a colony would need to keep to a 24 hour day if there's no natural day night cycle, but IF it was going to maintain a 24 hour "day" with 8 hours of work, 8 hours personal time & 8 hours sleep, three shifts makes sense. But, why limit it to three.

    Six shifts might be even better because you could off-set the triads by four hours and really have a city that never sleeps, without penalizing those whose work period happens to be in a different phase. I don't see a colony rigidly assigning the population to specific shifts and locking them in to them forever. People would work, play & sleep during the shift or demi-shift that was most convenient to getting on with their lives.

    It's not shift work so much as it's maximal flex time.

    In early days, until the colony was fully established, three shifts makes "hot bunking" possible, but as soon as it was possible you'd want to establish more traditional housing arrangements. People need a personal space they can claim for their own, even if it's tiny.


    Pigeon @ 23:

    "Others would never manage to sync to anything, and their personal rhythm would then drift in and out of phase with the planetary system. This is a known disorder on Earth, and it can really fuck people up."

    It's a problem on earth because we do have the natural day/nite cycle due to planetary rotation. You're going to have trouble if your work cycle doesn't naturally conform ... OTOH, there are people whose cycles run contrary to the norm. We call them "Night Owls" and "NOT a morning person". [The problem with mornings is they start so damn early in the morning!]

    You wouldn't really have that on a colony world that was tidal locked. Or a planet might have a day/night cycle that is wildly variant from that of earth. As near as Earth's moon you have a 14 day "DAY" alternating with a 14 day "NIGHT". You could have a planet with a Day/Night cycle that lasts a lot less than 24 hours. What are you going to do if the "days" are only 9 hours long? What about planets in binary systems where the day/night ratio is weirdly variable?

    If you have to create a simulated 24-hour light/dark cycle, there's no reason you'd have to make it a single universal cycle with "daylight" everywhere at the same time.

    When it's Midnight In Moscow, it's only 9:00 at night in London; 4:00pm in Washington, DC - it's 6:00am in Tokyo and time for second breakfast in the Shire (8:00am in New Zealand). Somehow we manage to bridge the difference

    Some common use areas would be "day" all the time and other areas would have their day/night cycles. You could choose the section whose cycle most closely matches your own. No one would ever have to work nights, because their "night" would occur on a cycle that was convenient for them.

    If I could only solve the problem of having to work weekends so easily!


    I vote for Space Guard


    Troutwaxer @ 46

    "Would a geo-synchronous orbit be higher or lower on a very-slowly rotating planet?"

    Higher. The longer it took the planet to rotate, the higher you'd have to position a satellite to achieve Geo-synchronous. orbit. Suppose the earth was tidal locked to the moon instead of vice versa, giving the earth a "DAY" that lasted 28 days. I'm pretty sure there are all kinds of scientific reasons this couldn't work, but IF it were so, the Moon would be in a Geo-synchronous orbit.


    Troutwaxer @ 51:

    "You can build a turbine generator by focusing parabolic mirrors (polished metal) on a pipe filled with oil and use a rankine cycle steam turbine. (There's one in the desert just north of here.)"

    Every extra-solar colonization effort should have a library containing DVD copies of the complete Mother Earth News; The Whole Earth Catalog; Firefox books and some way to play James Burke's Connections.


    Frank Landis @ 57:

    "Indeed. In my crude understanding, you basically don't get any petroleum produced for something like 50 million years after the sediments are first buried. "

    So why bury it in sediments? Use the organics to make bio-diesel directly.


    Troutwaxer @ 58

    "If someone turns this into a book, there's the hook!"


    Frank Landis @ 74:

    "ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: We're NOT derailing this into argument about what is science fiction and what is fantasy."


    AFAIK, oil is what happens when you get dead organic matter in an anoxic environment (as in the Black Sea, off the mouth of the Mississippi) buried. There's a long bit here about hot-house Earths producing shales (the remnants of the above turned to rock), but I'll avoid that, since it's intimately related to climate change and parts of the deep ocean going anoxic.

    To shorten it up, oil forms when you take these anoxic black sediments and bury them under a lot of rock. This both compresses and heats the sediments, so that the organics break down into something resembling petroleum. Actually, most of it gets turned into useless stuff called kerogen, but some of it becomes petroleum. This liquid then starts bubbling up. If there's an impermeable layer above the oil shale that's producing petroleum, the oil gets caught against the impermeable layer, and you have an oil deposit.

    This all happens naturally, using sediments that would be an effing nuisance to pull up off the sea bottom and turn into anything useful. Rock only accumulates so fast, and that's what takes the 50 million years or so.

    If you use it to make biodiesel, it takes energy. Thus, bio-diesel is effectively an energy storage medium, a kind of liquid battery. Yes, it's an extremely energy-dense, fairly stable, and very versatile battery, but it's still equivalent to a battery, because you made it using energy.

    Petroleum really shines as an energy source when you can pump it out of the ground, and even more so when it flows out under its own pressure. What I'm suggesting for colonies on worlds is looking for this as an energy source that they can easily exploit, especially early on when they don't have many people or much infrastructure.


    Nestor @ 112:

    "a star trek knock-off where we follow a crew that is not the best and brightest, (...) got handed the keys to a ship that makes the enterprise look dinky.. because Sol Ship-Works is (building them faster than they can crew them)" is literally the premise of Seth McFarlane's "The Orville"

    And then there's Star Wreck


    I was thinking something more like "humans get all the shit jobs for the next million years," but YMMV.


    Pigeon @153 Phylogenetic trees... Surely they rest on the similarity or not, of the DNA-readouts of the relevant species? The current methods are presumably being used because it's faster & cheaper (?) than doing all that sequencing?


    John M. Ford's "How Much For Just The Planet" had the Worst Ship in the Federation Fleet, The USS Jefferson Randolph Smith (NCC-29407), a small cowardly ship that at one point tries to hide from the Klingons in the Enterprise's hangar bay. It doesn't quite fit... Hilarious book (well, look who wrote it) where the characters break out in song at various points for very good reasons, just like in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera (which the plot somewhat resembles).


    I am with EC on this one. I think the distinction is more or less what Judea Pearl (pioneer in computing/AI/statistics/machine learning) is trying to convey here, in an interview about his new book:

    (Confession: I haven't read the book (yet) but I am familiar with some of his other stuff.) Some quotes:

    "As much as I look into what’s being done with deep learning, I see they’re all stuck there on the level of associations. Curve fitting. That sounds like sacrilege, to say that all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just fitting a curve to data. From the point of view of the mathematical hierarchy, no matter how skillfully you manipulate the data and what you read into the data when you manipulate it, it’s still a curve-fitting exercise, albeit complex and nontrivial."


    "But I’m asking about the future — what next? Can you have a robot scientist that would plan an experiment and find new answers to pending scientific questions? That’s the next step. We also want to conduct some communication with a machine that is meaningful, and meaningful means matching our intuition."


    There have certainly been AIs unleashed with "basic understanding of maths" (essentially Peano arithmetics) that self-guided have proven a bunch of things we already have proofs for. I don't know if one of these, unleashed for long enough, has managed to find interesting results, though.

    For not-quite-similar results in applying genetic algorithms to silicon circuits, see


    Overall similarity isn't cladistics, it's phenetics. There were some uses for it, but it went by the wayside back in the 1990s.

    The biggest problem with phenetics is what is known as symplesiomorphies: shared ancestral traits. If you do overall similarity, then the species with the most shared ancestral traits come out as most closely related, and there are a large number of such traits. Since these shared traits can be things like presence of hemoglobin, chlorophyll, four limbs, or flowers shaped like digitalis or lilies, not having a way to distinguish what is ancestral and what evolved within the group is a real problem. Overall similarity analysis is also bedeviled by convergent evolution (where two species that aren't closely related evolved the same trait independently) and adaptive radiation (where one species evolved into a large number of very different looking species that are nonetheless closely related).

    Cladistics has methods for spotting these and dealing with them. Simple similarity analysis does not.


    I think you misunderstand me ( or the other way round ) I wasn't referring to "overall" similarity, but to the closeness-of-match of any 2 or more species DNA codes. Which is usually (always?) a very good indicator of how closely any group is inter-related. Yes/No?


    Nope, overall similarity isn't that useful. To add a bit more, what cladistics does is to "polarize" the tree by using an out-group (and lots of jargon). The basic idea is that a trait that is shared by two species was likely shared by their last common ancestor (unless that trait evolved convergently, something we're going to ignore for now). Overall similarity just tells you whether something is the same or different. It's like us and weasels having red blood--it doesn't tell you anything about whether, say, BoJo is more closely related to a stoat than you are.

    Cladistics analysis is applied to the "ingroup," the group of samples you are studying. You also analyze an "outgroup" which is a close relative. Any trait that is the same in both the ingroup and the outgroup is assumed to be the result of the last shared ancestor also having that trait. This lets you figure out what was ancestral and what evolved in the ingroup that you are studying.

    The only difference between DNA and other types of data is that there's more of it, because each base pair has five possible states: A, C, G, T, or absent (it's a more complicated, but there are ways to code the complexities, too). If you think about it, it's extremely easy to get a switch from and A to a T or a G to a C, so all the discussion of convergent evolution applies even more to genetic evidence. The only saving grace on genes is that they're relatively easy to work with and you get huge amounts of data for the effort, something that is not true for, say, doing morphometrics on fossil bones.

    The way to see this is to look at a study of human phylogenetics using a chimpanzee as the outgroup. Since humans share 99% of our DNA with chimps, everything that's similar between chimps and humans probably comes from our shared ancestor, so that's all shared ancestral DNA and not informative about human evolution. What is informative are those bits that we not only don't share with chimpanzees, but that we don't share with each other. Now this is a bogus example, because studies like this have shown that human populations readily breed with each other, and have been interbreeding with each other for millions of years. However, the basic principles apply.

    As for EC's whining about not getting "The Truth," hopefully you can start to see that what matters in studies is what specimens are included, which ones are excluded, what data are used, and what species is used as the outgroup.

    The really amazing example is when they first figured out the phylogeny of flowering plants. The data sets had a bad reputation, because they chewed up computer time and gave conflicting results, as you'll see if you look at plant systematics textbooks from the mid 1990s, where every one had a different species listed as the most primitive living angiosperm, and relationships among them aren't resolved. Everyone knew which plants were primitive, but we didn't know which was the most primitive or which had evolved from each other, and things like pine trees are so different that they didn't do well as outgroups.

    Then someone (I think on a whim) decided to include an obscure bush from New Caledonia called Amborella trichopoda, just because there was a specimen of it growing at the UC Santa Cruz botanic garden (presumably because some collector had brought it back for novelty value). With the inclusion of that one sample, all of a sudden, the computers took much less time to find really good angiosperm trees, and the most primitive living angiosperm was undoubtedly Amborella, which shocked everybody. But this result has held up over time. Similar things have happened when they started sorting out the daisies, and including a few weird plants from South America and Africa made a huge difference.

    That's the ultimate point: it's data driven hypothesis testing. Add more data, and the picture changes. It's not wishy-washy, it's a revolution in progress.


    I was, of course, referring to steam-powered Zepplin-style airships, beloved of steampunkery.

    But IC engines, loud? No shit! Back in '79, I knew and gamed with this guy who had a 6-seater small plane, and got a lift from him from Philly to DC for a con. Inside the cabin, it really was LOUD. Had to yell to talk.


    Excerpt: Three shift days - Seriously? Sounds like you're describing the worst of the Stalin era. Apart from essential services such as hospitals and police/fire, don't see much need for shift work in a technologically advanced society. --- end excerpt ---

    Um, say what?

    Steel, etc, mills do not shut down - that's a multiday process. Non-automated transport.

    And, of course, the businesses that cater to folks who work first shift (so, if I really need it, I can get to my bank Sat morning, or the PO, or....).


    You forgot How Things Work.

    Seriously, what they need is the Junior Woodchuck Manual (as owned by Donald Duck's nephews; as near as I can tell, if you were kidnapped by a UFO and dropped on an inhabitable but uninhabited planet, with your Manual, within five years you could build civilization, and within ten, duplicate the UFO and fly home.

    As a first draft of the JWM... a collection of all usenet FAQs.


    Teach your AI cause and effect?

    My instant reaction is, of course, to say "teach the bomb phenomenology!" (Dark Star, the movie....)


    Hm, but why not use nuclear fission as an energy source?

    It might not be cost efficient on Earth, but on another planet, it might be different, e.g. as for nuclear waste, take one continent as a waste dump.


    The point people forget is that with a tidally locked planet, the sun doesn't move in the sky. Day and night are geographic terms related to longitude, not timekeeping terms.

    Humans are stuck with a ~24 circadian rhythm, meaning we all do have to sleep, as do most earthly animals. On Earth, shift work is bad for your health, because there's a disconnect between the cues your environment is giving you about what you should be doing, and what you actually are doing.

    On a tidally locked planet, the circadian rhythm is irrelevant, because the sun will always be at 8 am or 4 pm eternally. Since the light doesn't change, it doesn't matter when you're working on a notional 24 hour clock. You'll want to keep the clock, because that allows you to follow a calendar and stay in sync with other colonies, but that's just timekeeping.

    So why not work in shifts? Unlike on Earth, it doesn't cause any harsh conflict with circadian rhythms. Socially, it has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that people who don't like each other can effectively avoid each other by working different shifts. Unfortunately for a democracy, there's a challenge of how you get people together to decide something, because everyone's working at different times. Still, there are ways around this. The question is effectively social, whether it's better for everybody to be on the same, artificial, circadian cycle, or whether it's better for people to adjust when they're working and when they're not based on other factors.


    Question for the group here: I've been talking about underground life on a red dwarf planet, but why not trench instead of tunnel? One meter of soil drops the amount of gamma radiation let through by a factor of 1,000 (that from the survival blogs), so if you're worried about getting hit by solar X-rays, piling a few meters of soil is sufficient to make the problem go away.

    Since the sun's in a fixed point in the sky, there's not a need for complete coverage, only a decent shield between you and the star.

    What are the problems with this, and is it worse than tunneling?


    Hm, going by my own experience[1], who's to say John von Neuman and Ruth Lawrence wouldn't be bingewatching Star Trek, ReGenesis and Farscape nowadays, or discussing Breaking Bad and Orphan Black, or...

    [1] Err, "Sex, Drugs and Mensa(eV)". And RPG. And reading Sf and Fantasy. And listening to NIN. And...


    Wonderful! And absolutely on target.

    I haven't thought about that movie for years. LOL much appreciated. :)


    The long answer is contained in Charlie's old post:

    The short answer is that it takes 1860s technology to tap an oil field and get surplus energy out. It takes a lot more technology and infrastructure to build a fission reactor. If you're a struggling colony, why not go for the surface oil fields first? From a return on effort perspective, it's even better than digging for coal.

    This also holds true for manufacturing your own solar panels or high efficiency wind turbines and huge banks of lithium batteries to build them--you've got to find all the rare earths, pure silica, lithium and so on (which on Earth, requires mining all over the planet), then bring them together to keep your struggling colony from imploding.

    Or you can do like Los Angeles did a century, and build your colony right on top of an oil field, grow your crops, and then gradually crowd them out with buildings as the colony expands.

    Yes, I'm fully aware of the problems with long term oil use. My point is the same one that trapped our modern society--oil is really energy dense, versatile stuff. There aren't any good substitutes, especially if you have limited resources and need a lot of energy quickly to build vital infrastructure. Drilling for oil means you're giving your colony a petroleum addiction that it may not be able to wean itself off of in time, but then again, if the colony is going to fail anyway, shouldn't it succeed first for a few centuries, and send its children off to found their own colonies? I'm not saying this logic is moral or even correct, but it is terribly, terribly seductive.

    It's even more seductive when the people tapping the first oil field console themselves with the thought that their colony is tiny and desperately needs the energy and the petrochemicals. That they're only doing this to insure the survival of their friends and family. That their children and grandchildren will of course develop the technology to wean themselves off oil before it becomes a problem. That they'll do better on this new planet than their ancestors did on Earth. This is the kind of logic I see at play in politics all the time.


    You might like to look into some old books on experimental chemistry and physics.

    In Germany one example might be "Chemie des Alltags" by Römmp, I'm not sure about British or American examples.


    I see, but I'm still somewhat skeptical: the spaceships getting your colonists there need energy, and if they are fission powered, quite a lot of the technology is already in place.


    Hm, should be sufficient to keep the primary radiation from the sun away.

    But there is also secondary radiation

    which might come from directly above. It's going to be less, still not that healthy, I guess...


    Re: 'I can get to my bank Sat morning, or the PO, or....).'

    Why would you need to do any of this on some remote, sparsely populated new colony?

    Note to NASA: Do not send any bankers to the Moon or Mars!


    Yes, but if your starship is generating all the colony's power, then your starship is permanently tethered to the colony. Wouldn't that be a problem in itself?


    The short answer is that it takes 1860s technology to tap an oil field and get surplus energy out. It takes a lot more technology and infrastructure to build a fission reactor. If you're a struggling colony, why not go for the surface oil fields first? From a return on effort perspective, it's even better than digging for coal.

    I wouldn't argue about the surface oil, but once you need to start drilling and pumping it out from subsurface deposits, would at least wonder how much more difficult a reactor would be if uranium ore could be found and mined.

    It might not be so much a matter of technology as knowledge of what could be done with available resources -- and if the colonists were offshoots of an interstellar-capable civilization, they'd have lots (as in exabytes) of knowledge. To take your 1860s technology date, how far away from an unenriched uranium reactor would it have been if provided a nuclear physics and engineering library from today?


    To take your 1860s technology date, how far away from an unenriched uranium reactor would it have been if provided a nuclear physics and engineering library from today?

    About the same. You're totally right that deep drilling oil gets to be expensive. The question is what is the minimum infrastructure and number of trained people, on a largely unknown planet, that is required to build a nuclear reactor (or for that matter, a fusion plant or any other advanced power source) starting with only the raw materials? I, for one, would be interested in others' speculation on this, because I don't know all that much about building a fission plant from scratch.

    I'm not disputing that a colony, over time, must start building starship power plants and their stationary equivalents, nor am I saying that they shouldn't wean themselves off petroleum as a feedstock for things like rubber washers, insulation, and plastics. It's the question of how the colony bootstraps itself up to that level of complexity, whatever it is. Can you envision a group of 100 colonists (or 1000 colonists, or 10,000 colonists) building themselves a nuclear plant in the middle of nowhere?


    It would pretty well have been there. After all, to get a chain reaction going all you need to do is make a big enough heap of uranium (as metal or oxide) and graphite, and you just take it from there... it might not have been pencils that Keswick was famous for. Or heavy water, which you can produce simply by electrolysis.

    On the other hand, if the time between the supernova that produced the uranium in the first place and the arrival of humans on the planet formed from the debris was not all that much longer in astronomical terms than was the case with Earth, you're screwed until you've set up an enrichment plant.

    But never mind all that, because if the purpose of your colony is resource extraction you're not going to extract anything just sitting around in domes next to your power plant. You'll need mobile power sources, and nuclear power is not very good for that. You could, of course, head out on foot hunting for lead deposits and then mine a bunch of it by hand (note: while you're building your own industrial base from scratch, lead-acid is a much more sensible choice of battery chemistry than lithium because it's so much easier in lots of ways), but the same amount of effort would get you much further along if you looked for oil and burnt it - and always will, as IC engines make much better mobile mechanical power units than batteries and motors do.


    why not trench instead of tunnel?

    The problems appear to have been solved on a small scale, from earth-roof/arable-roof houses to cliffside towns (and those go back quite a way). I suspect population density is the problem, but since no-one has actually tried it here it may well be that you can get 90% of the benefit just by roofing your existing city with a 5m layer of rock and having robot arms to flip your solar panels under the roof when there's a storm.

    The canukistan underground malls system might work better. Kind of what we do in cities here, actually - the surface is a hellscape of dangerous toxins and big moving things that kill, underground is where the fragile meatsacks go. When there's a storm all the surface stuff flees to shelter and a street-cleaning process occurs :)


    huge banks of lithium batteries

    You've ruled out small electric motor vehicles and that's about it. Some early cellhones used lead-acid batteries before NiCd/NiMH became common, and for large stationary batteries even nickel-iron work quite well. The reason we don't still use NiFe batteries is efficiency rather than capacity (65% round-trip efficiency, 20% self-discharge per month).

    But for a new colony you might not care about that so much as you care that you can make NiFe batteries really easily. The answer to "1MWh this year or 10MWh in a few years" is very situational...


    I thought of NiFe as it ought to be really easy, with those common elements, but they're also really frigging expensive, which I thought was why we hardly use them any more and must indicate that there's some sort of catch with making them so it's not as easy as it looks. They're better than lead-acid for applications where robustness is important, but we tend to use lead-acid anyway because it's cheaper, and we've been doing that since well before NiFe and lead-acid stopped being nearly the only choices.


    the surface is a hellscape of dangerous toxins and big moving things that kill. If you're talking about Montreal, I'd guess the big moving things that kill fragile meatsacks are the traffic and the dangerous toxins are in the bars, but maybe I'm missing something...

    There's another question actually: what would the biota on a red dwarf exoplanet be like? Deinococcus radiodurans is the commonly cited organism for radiation resistance, and you can follow the link to see the Wikipedia entry, which talks about how it achieves that. One of the more interesting ideas is that "Conan the bacterium" (real nickname) is actually quite desiccation resistant, and its radiation resistance is a side effect of that durability. The same thing apparently happens with tardigrades. Imagine scaling that up to your critter du jour.

    Assuming the critters are radiation resistant (and possibly desiccation resistant?) I'm not sure what the other limits are to plant and critter design, beyond the usual. Thoughts?


    they're also really frigging expensive

    Nickel is a commodity and it's not especially cheap now. But mostly it's sheer volume of production. There's like one company in Russia that makes NiFe batteries and they're for very specific markets where efficiency is less important than being able to rely on them on decade-level timescales (did I mention Russia?). It means the batteries cost 10x the metal price if you're lucky, then you have to ship them from Russia.

    These days you can buy lithium packs for not much more than the material cost (the input materials, not the scrap value) because every dog and his man is competing to micro-optimise their production process and order to get another 0.01% margin on the commodity they produce - 18650 cells. That's why Tesla used those cells, BTW, although now they make their own and half the market is switching to prismatic they might switch to a slightly bigger cell. (laptops and phones are now thinner than 18650 cells, so the switch was forced). But then... Tesla use more cells every year than the whole world produced even 5 years ago.


    I'd guess the big moving things that kill fragile meatsacks are the traffic and the dangerous toxins are in the bars

    Yeah, I'd switch to "all cities" and the toxins are what happens when you burn petrochemicals in the open air, plus the grinding where the rubber meets the road. It's better than tetra-ethyl lead but that's a pretty low bar.

    I suspect you might see burrows for even small insects - imagine how ants would react to the radiation problem. Obviously build underground, but when you have sterile workers you might find advantages in letting them burn up rather than waiting until they burn out.

    I wonder you'd also see rock-capped plants with a block of rock over the core plant and leaves spreading out. The leaves die when there's a flare but the plant gets much less of a hit. You may even bioselection of the capping material to favour stuff that doesn't transmute badly or shed gamma when hit. That might be where your minerals come from... just wander round picking to the paving-stone sized chunks of nickel calcite that sit atop every lettuce plant.


    D. radiodurans is capable of withstanding an acute dose of 5,000 grays (Gy), or 500,000 rad, of ionizing radiation with almost no loss of viability, and an acute dose of 15,000 Gy with 37% viability. A dose of 5,000 Gy is estimated to introduce several hundred double-strand breaks (DSBs) into the organism's DNA (~0.005 DSB/Gy/Mbp (haploid genome)). For comparison, a chest X-ray or Apollo mission involves about 1 mGy, 5 Gy can kill a human, 200-800 Gy will kill E. coli, and over 4,000 Gy will kill the radiation-resistant tardigrade. (source).

    That's what some terrestrial bacteria (and tardigrades) can do, Whether it handles what a particular red dwarf does...? Here's the Wikipedia article on habitability of red dwarf systems.


    SFR @ 186 Do not send any bankers to the Moon or Mars! No, send lots of Telephone Sanitisers, instead .....

    Pigeon @ 190 Does it HAVE TO BE "IC" engines? One of the great might-have-beens of technological history, a path not taken would have been if the Rev Robert Stirling had kept on, rather than being side-tracked into that death-trap of "perpetual motion".

    NOTE: Rev'd Stirling had two sons: Patrick & James & Patrick's son was Matthew ... All became Chief Mechanical Engineers of various British Railways. Patrick's masterpiece is still with us, I'm glad to say. Old Number One


    ISTR reading somewhere on this very blog that NiFe battery technology is dependent on the purity levels of the metals involved and that small amounts of contaminants in the anode or cathode structures can kill a cell quite quickly. Producing 99.9% pure nickel is a lot more expensive than 99% pure nickel and commonly-produced iron is famously a zoo in terms of contaminants (sulphur, phosphorus, carbon etc. in significant amounts on assay).


    Stirling engines are good at getting very small amounts of mechanical motion out of small temperature differentials but with horrendous efficiency in terms of joules in versus joules out. If super-efficient Stirling engines able to act as prime movers could have been built in the past hundred years or so then they would have been. There are some useful things about a Stirling engine that keeps them in niche applications -- they are reversible, put in mechanical work and they produce a heat differential which can be used to cool things down. Hobbyists can even buy Stirling-cycle cryocoolers nowadays for reasonable prices to do useful things like produce liquid oxygen and such.

    The thing we missed until just before WWII at least was the concept of the gas turbine engine. We already had turbines driven by steam produced by external combustion, the next step was to cut out the steam part of the cycle and burn fuel to turn the turbine impeller discs directly with the combustion gases. Of course we needed much better materials and a lot of mathematics to make it work properly and a couple of engine design optimisations like having the compressor stage driven directly by the turbine stage but there were gas turbines with external compressors driven by IC engines being mooted even before WWII.


    Difficult to get Tin on a Stirling engine anything like as high as on an IC engine; also their power density is a lot lower. For a mobile power source that you can take with you on the spaceship so you can use vehicles and portable power tools straight away to get the colony going, you really can't beat an IC engine.

    They are however useful for situations where Tin already is low, for example a bottoming cycle on your fixed nuclear power plant, or a geothermal plant.


    I prefer to think of a gas turbine as cutting out not the steam bit of a steam turbine plant, but the pistons and crank bit of a reciprocating IC engine. It's a logical evolutionary path from the idea of supercharging a piston engine, starting with driving the supercharger from an exhaust turbine instead of the crank, and proceeding through things like the Napier Nomad and the free-piston engine to the point where there's nothing left of the original engine except combustion.

    Their big problem is the compressor drawing essentially constant power of about twice the full power net shaft output, so the fuel efficiency hits the deck anywhere below full throttle. This is the main reason they were found unsuitable for railway use.


    Stirling engines are also super-useful if you want a low-vibration engine. Like, say, in a submarine.


    Re: 'No, send lots of Telephone Sanitisers, instead .....'

    Had to look this up (Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide). Yeah - and to be on the safe side, also send the Doorknob Sanitizers.


    Re: Habitability of Red Dwarf star planets

    Read the Wikipedia article and then found this which seems more up-to-date and more optimistic. There's a link to the paper which other folks here are a lot likelier (vs. me) to understand/parse.


    'In a NASA release, the paper’s lead author, Yuka Fujii, said this: “Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study.” Fujii was formerly at NASA GISS and now is a project associate professor at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo.'


    Re: Space-age materials for space-age colonies (Aerogel)

    No one's mentioned this tech so far but it seems a likely candidate for tunnels, habitat, etc. The current market price is still extremely high but some of this cost might be because there are too few manufacturers producing it, i.e., less incentive to make its manufacture more efficient/cheaper.

    Anyways, here's what the current leading manufacturer has come up with re improvements:

    'The aerogel, made of a proprietary polymer, weighed in at an impressive 7x lighter than typical plastics. Unlike traditional aerogel production, the new manufacturing technique developed by Aerogel Technologies is performed at ambient conditions eliminating the need for a pressure vessel and enabling production of aerogel parts of theoretically unlimited dimensions.'

    Personally think that newer materials with very high performance/extreme functional properties and lengthy lifespans (e.g., graphene and aerogel) need to be investigated for space colony scenarios where replacement and maintenance (labor & materials) and transportation costs need to be kept as close to zero as possible.


    Of course we needed much better materials and a lot of mathematics to make it work properly and a couple of engine design optimisations like having the compressor stage driven directly by the turbine stage but there were gas turbines with external compressors driven by IC engines being mooted even before WWII.

    Same story with electric engines. Only quite recently we got good enough electric transmissions and hybrid engines. Still, I personally expect people do continue go extended lengths to increase efficiency in the future. Unless, of course, some of the dumber environmentalists will not grab their money to build their "green energy" dreams over some moot points like solar power above subtropics. In the middle of the 20th century, many of the industries were colossally wasteful, throwing out useful resources that were less profitable than certain others, but since then, the efficiently has been rising with many methods. So, there are combined cycle plants, there is co-generation, all of this allows to draw heat energy more effectively, so that the efficiency at some point went from like 30% to 45% for thermal power (that 50% increase for decent amount of investment). Adding some EC engines on top of that would increase the efficiency even more, but again, it is unsustainable in current conditions.


    Seriously, what they need is the Junior Woodchuck Manual (as owned by Donald Duck's nephews; as near as I can tell, if you were kidnapped by a UFO and dropped on an inhabitable but uninhabited planet, with your Manual, within five years you could build civilization, and within ten, duplicate the UFO and fly home.

    In the Orion's Arm setting that's called the Encyclopaedia Everythingiana. Of course it's a normal part of spacecraft emergency supplies and colonizing gear. They also hold competitions as you describe: a group is dropped naked onto a habitable planet and left to work themselves from the stone age to mature spacefaring civilization.


    A lot of the restrictions on development depended on materials and engineering capabilities. It's possible to build a simple atmospheric steam engine using wood for a lot of the pressure components such as cylinders and pistons but you can't really do that with an internal combustion engine, at least one that will run for more than a few minutes. IC engines require good quality steel components in various areas like the crankshaft, connecting rods and valves to have any sort of reliability. The fact we expect any commodity car engine these days to last 200,000km or more without a rebuild, rebore etc. assuming regular oil changes and preventative maintenance testifies to the easy and cheap availability of such materials to the production engineer.


    But, Frank, you're missing something, too: don't you remember when the world was divided into two kinds of people, those that divide the world into two kinds of people, and those that don't... er, sorry, larks and owls? I've known folks who get up, eat, go to the gym for a game of racketball, shower, and get to work and are productve as they walk in the door before 08:00. I, on the other hand, as the button I have someehre reads, "not a morning person doesn't begin to cover it", and happily get up (weekends, anyway, and cons) at the crack of 09:30 or 10:00, and head off to bed around 01:00 or 01:30 (and did I mention that the shift I voluntarily take at Balticon is to run the consuite from midnight to 03:00?

    On a world just colonized, however... I'd think that there would be some things that do need to run constantly (steel production or aluminum, for example), and need to be monitored.


    About manufacturing wind power systems, that leads to question # ! HOW MANY people are you assuming are in the colony to start? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? I have doubts about the last number, and even 10k would be high.

    In that case, far lower-tech windmills would provide plenty power, along with a power storage ability.

    Lessee, a 6.5kw generator (which I've coveted for decades) would power everything in my house and more, other than possibly the a/c. (I have gas heat & h/w.) So, 250 families could do with , what, < 2MW. Make it 3MW for HVAC. Then you'd need real power for steel or aluminum refineries, but why not load the starship with the transportable version of windmills? That's not a big deal. Lessee, I see one wind turbine can generate 1.5MW.... Add solar into the mix - and I'm assuming you're shipping 3D printers, so you can print more solar cells, and storage, and you're good to go, for a few generations.

    [[ html fixed - mod ]]


    I have the 1914, I think it is, US Dispensary and Formulary, which tells you how to make the drugs.


    "Rock capped plants".... Or maybe like truffles, which I've seen alleged to be the single largest organisms on the planet, a mile with, and just tendrils that come aboveground to be found by pigs.


    Gas turbine? You mean like the Pennsy's T-1 locos?

    And that Stirling loco - that's jaw-droppingly gorgeous!


    Thanks to H N Gresley, Old No 1 was put right at the back pf King's Cross Loco Shed under a tarpaulin, so that the WWI scrap-scroungers could not find it. As a result, all the principal steam express types since then have also been prsereved, or in the case of the Peppercorn "A-1's" been reconstructed Here are the others 990 - Henry Oakley of 1898 251 - Ivatt large Atlantic, 1905 Flying Scotsman - as rebuilt ( originally from 1922/3 ) The A-4's fastest steam on the planet and the first high-speed diesels powered by the Napier Deltic engine.


    You're thinking of Armillaria, the honey mushrooms, which form the "Humongous fungus" and apparently even larger infections in Siberia. They're weak parasites on tree roots.

    As for the biology of a red dwarf world, that's a post in and of itself. I'm not sure this is the proper forum, since most people here aren't biology nerds and maybe won't appreciate extended riffs how sun angle and predominant wind direction affect the shape of trees, or that perhaps the plants have "resurrection" leaves instead of being classically evergreen or deciduous. Maybe I'll post it on my own blog or something.

    The thing to remember about red dwarf life forms is that a few millimeter of soil won't do much to stop x-rays, so a plant behind a pebble is still going to get zapped. Presumably any life form that's on a red dwarf world and living in the sun has mechanisms to deal with repairing radiation damage. These would include the equivalent of polyploid cells (multiple copies of genes, so that damage can be readily repaired), really good damage repair proteins (as tardigrades have), and biological metamaterials that form radiation shields, if such proves to be possible (lots of turtle equivalents. Gamera, perhaps?).

    I'd note in combination with the aerogels comment above that metal foams can make a decent radiation shield. If metal foams can be made in the colonial setting (with the handy, dandy 3-D printer every good SF colony now has dozens of), that will help. Perhaps anybody working in the sun can lug around a lightweight foamed lead tower shield, to cower behind when the radiation alarm goes off. Or something.


    I, for one, would be interested in reading that blog post.


    The short answer is that it takes 1860s technology to tap an oil field and get surplus energy out.

    The Chinese have been drilling for far longer. I'm on the road away from my library right now, but this article is interesting:

    This one claims oil drilling goes back to 347 CE:

    I've seen other references placing the start of gas and brine wells before the Han (400 BC) but can't locate anything definitive right now. (Like I said, away from my library.) Needham probably has a lot on it, if you can locate a copy of his book.


    Me and my big mouth. I'll see what I can do and post the link here.


    Frank Landis @ 163

    "If you use it to make biodiesel, it takes energy. Thus, bio-diesel is effectively an energy storage medium, a kind of liquid battery. Yes, it's an extremely energy-dense, fairly stable, and very versatile battery, but it's still equivalent to a battery, because you made it using energy.

    Petroleum really shines as an energy source when you can pump it out of the ground, and even more so when it flows out under its own pressure. What I'm suggesting for colonies on worlds is looking for this as an energy source that they can easily exploit, especially early on when they don't have many people or much infrastructure."

    Natural petroleum is as much a "storage medium" as bio-diesel. It just takes a lot longer to charge up the battery.

    At first read, it came across as if you were proposing new colonies burying organic wastes and letting nature turn it into petroleum they wouldn't be able to harvest for several million years. What you're saying about drilling for already existing petroleum makes more sense.

    Still, if you had a new colony world where natural petroleum was non-existent or very rare, you aren't completely out of luck if you can manufacture bio-diesel.


    Trottelreiner @ 177:

    "Hm, but why not use nuclear fission as an energy source?

    It might not be cost efficient on Earth, but on another planet, it might be different, e.g. as for nuclear waste, take one continent as a waste dump. "

    I wouldn't rule it out, but as a practical matter, I believe refining Uranium ore to the point where it can be used to fuel a nuclear reactor is a good bit more work than refining petroleum for fuels. Plus petroleum distillation provides a lot more useful byproducts. I wouldn't use another continent as a waste dump. Your colonists already have space travel. Just "dump" the radioactive wastes into the local star.


    Frank Landis @ 187:

    "Yes, but if your starship is generating all the colony's power, then your starship is permanently tethered to the colony. Wouldn't that be a problem in itself?"

    That's not the only way to do it though.

    Your colonists could take along an extra un-fueled reactor or two, along with the tools necessary to refine the fuel to get them up and running.

    Might want to do that in any case if you're using fission reactors for ship power. Fission reactors have to be refueled periodically. Lot less hassle to plan ahead for refining new fuel at the destination instead of having to carry along excess fuel rods.

    Under the principle of "Don't carry all your eggs in one basket", your colonists should have multiple options for how to power the new colony through the establishment phase. You're probably going to need both nuclear power AND petroleum based fuels. How are you going to power your oil refineries when you first set them up?


    Given the knowledge base to manufacture star ships, space based solar should be relatively simple and the tools should be included in any extra solar colonial expedition. For that matter, the capacity to build off-world habitats from whatever else is available in the destination system needs to be available in the event the destination planet isn't immediately habitable (An omission that damaged my enjoyment of KSR's otherwise excellent Aurora.). Now, if the handwavium includes "Spindizzies" and "Counter grav", never mind.


    Not necessarily. The big problem is that the environment around a red dwarf star isn't exactly conducive to space stations, unless they're heavily armored (and therefore heavy), or protected by magitech force fields. Also with red dwarfs, the planets are tidally locked, meaning there's no place where a solar array can take a station over a receiver closer than the local LaGrange points. Also, you've got to set up the ground receiver, and on Earth, the proposal for space solar was a receiver on the order of miles wide. If you're going to haul that much hardware, why not haul a on-the-ground solar farm or a fusion plant?

    Remember, this post assumes FTL is possible, so the default options if the planet isn't habitable is to pick everyone up and head home, or (if they're contagious) to quarantine the planet. I'm thinking that next week, we'll talk about all the (interesting? questionable?) technology involved in making STL work.

    As for Aurora, I started rolling my eyes when he mentioned they were bringing along a cougar in a starship (why would anyone do that, when they could have packed yet another different way to farm into that space?)


    Just checking in.

    wiki - Commonwealth Saga

    By Peter F. Hamilton. They use wormholes to connect to habitable worlds. They have trains, pipelines, resource extraction, like petroleum, wood, grain, etc...

    He took the basic premise you have and ran with it, but using wormholes. Very little story time was spent on opening up worlds.

    Read KSR's Mars Trilogy, and you will notice that none of the stuff you guys are worried about appears on the page. He got people to Mars and followed the next obvious steps.

    There was the classic series The Expendables by Richard Avery(Edmund Cooper).

    wiki - Edmund Cooper

    Each story was the team opening up a planet and facing the deadly biome of the planet. I think it only lasted four books. If you read them you will see he starts repeating himself fast.

    • The Deathworms of Kratos, Rings of Tantilus, Wargames of Zelos, Venom of Argus.

    An even more simple example:

    I was born in 1956 and I have watched subdivisions, whole cites, being built, lived in, bulldozed, built again, or abandoned. At no time did any of the stories that were told based in those places ever spend major time on the infrastructure. HA!

    May advice, stop worrying about details that will never make it to the page and get on with it. i.e., focus on Story, not the infrastructure.

    BTW, I love the concept of how Orchids work. They send out a seed that has no stored food, it is basically a DNA packet. The seed lands on soil that tries to eat the seed. The DNA packet hijacks that attempt to eat it and uses the fungus as source of food to grow into an Orchid.

    Your planetary ecologist and his team of guinea pigs[*] trying to establish a beach head, could land on the habitable planet as packets of information, hijack the local soil to grow into human size, emerging like cicada, fully adapted to the local biome.

    [*] I worked with a guy who was married to a woman from South America. He would come home from visiting her family with fried cuy in his suitcase. It would drive the drug sniffing dogs crazy.

    Now, I'll vanish again. Thanks...


    You remember the Mars Trilogy differently than I do. What I remember was all about infrastructure and the subversion thereof--building the first habitat, hacking the domes, burrowing into the sides of moholes, the mechanics of terraforming and its uses for ecotage, arguing about which economic system was better...

    Of course it's easy to ignore the infrastructure. People do it all the time. At that point, the story could have as easily taken place in Dodge City as around Alpha Centauri B. Have some smeerps scurry away out back of the saloon with the swinging doors, and you've got yourself a story.

    What I'm trying to do here is both to see how technology drives stories (no great train robberies without great trains), and to help people trying to understand how stuff works without going to grad school.


    why not load the starship with the transportable version of windmills

    Because they're big? The bits that go into a big, efficient wind turbine require delicate fabrication and are themselves necessarily big. Leaving you the problem of getting 50m long, lightweight and fragile, parts down from orbit. Assuming you managed to get them into orbit in the first place. An ideal turbine blade would have zero mass and zero surface drag, so magic materials don't actually help you much... you end up with the same thing, but lighter. Making it stronger necessarily means making it heavier.

    Also, if there are dust storms or other local weather problems the thing might not work for long enough to be useful. Plus they're critically sensitive to the speed of sound. So if it turned out that the new planet had even 5% different speed of sound you'd either have an inefficient turbine or one that had to be trimmed down (you remove the supersonic bits of the tips, getting less power at close to the design efficiency). But if the speed is faster you can't add extra bits, that involves redesigning the whole unit.

    If you go with small, easier-material turbines you have a completely different set of requirements and it may well turn out that a fixed ducted fan is more suitable (viz, that fixed wind direction). You can make the duct out of concrete, and put all the electronical bits under a nice big lump of rock so they don't get fried. Coz by definition a generator is all about generating voltage from a changing magnetic field... god know what happens to the outputs during a decent magnetic storm. The duct also gives you control over the wind speed in the turbine, and it might well start to look more like a hydro plant than a terrestrial windmill. You may even use the local geography in the same way... find a valley or more likely a pass, chisel a hole for the generator, build a dam over the top that shields the generator and also increases airflow through it.


    Also, note that passes might not exist - it's plausible that without ongoing vulcanism the incessant wind will give you radial valleys and destroy any circumferential ones. But on human timescales a dam across such a valley is straightforward. Without something to push the mountains back up a whole lot of terrestrial biochemistry stops working so I suspect the place wouldn't be inhabitable. It might at best look like the geologically older bits of Australia ... the famous Narryer Gneiss (hint, you have to zoom out to almost the whole of WA to see any human habitation in that area).


    Actually, the parasitism of Armillaria mellea is more complex. There are many strains of mellea with different levels of lethality, and different plants respond in different ways; I saw a paper once that explained why it is so common but very rarely wipes out whole woodlands.


    I have sometimes wondered how well I would have done in a tropical area with adequate easily-gathered food, when I was younger. I know in practice how to make crude slings, spears, bows and arrows (and can't use any of them!), shelters, stone tools, rope, nets and bricks, and in theory how to make fire, pottery, tanned skins, and crude metal smelting. Yes, I know bricks need fire :-)

    But, realistically, the effort involved is immense, especially if you have only limited practical experience, and you have to keep yourself adequately fed and sheltered while doing that, which is especially difficult before you have got as far as solid shelters, tanning and fire, and is the reason for the preconditions. Based on that, I doubt that most groups would succeed before they died out from hunger, poisoning, cold, disease, accidents and predators.


    There are a bunch of people on YouTube demonstrating that it's a lot of work - the keyword seems to be "primitive". You just have to remember that it's ad revenue and donations that keep them alive, what you're seeing is somewhere between their job and their hobby.

    When I was a kid I made basic weapons from scratch, and it's a lot of work from something marginally effective (I could easily have killed a sheep... by strangling it, or with my sling or bow). Bow hunting feral deer and goats was a whole different game, and even as schoolkids the gear we used would make a primitive type weep.

    Unless you want to spend a lot of time practicing the effective weapons are snares and poison. There's a huge problem in SE Asia with people who have family memories of snare hunting, so they buy a bit of steel cable and when they go "bush walking" set a snare or two, then go back to the city and that's that. Multiply by thousands of people all over the zone and you're talking an awful lot of dead animals. You can even call them "by-kill", it's worse than what cats do, pure thoughtless slaughter.

    (and many, many more. We find a few in Australia but there's more of a problem with young men from the city getting gun licenses and running round shooting random stuff).


    Yes. But I also know the problem with gathering food. In suitably fertile and non-toxic locations at the right time, it's trivial to gather enough of everything except calories, though it takes a lot of time and effort, and is not risk-free. But gathering 2,500-3,500 calories per person is damn-near impossible, especially without fire and effective hunting, and that's what's needed.

    The point about the hobbyists is that they aren't relying on what they do for survival, so the absolute limit on time and effort doesn't hit. Even the 'extreme' examples start with enough clothing for the conditions. But my estimates are that it isn't feasible in the vast majority of biomes, starting from even a pretty good skillset. One problem is that toxicity and nutritive value are closely linked; another is expending more resources gathering and experimenting than they bring in.


    First off - thanks for this!

    C/Q1: Where does gravity fit in?* For example, California's redwood giants have the strongest wood which is what allows them to grow so tall. Basically, I'm guessing that even with a highly efficient circulatory (xylem, phloem) system the maximum height might depend on total mass vs. foundation/support, trunk, roots, etc. (* Do tidally locked red dwarf planets have evenly distributed mass/gravity?)

    C/Q2: Although tree/plant shapes would likely be more interesting than on Earth, the image that immediately popped to mind was that the leaf shape (geometry) would be the biggest difference - more complex, spirally/twisty - therefore no top/bottom but more like pine needles except not flat/smooth but pebbly to maximize working surface area. OTOH, could also mean much thinner leaves - maybe one or two molecules thick - but wafting around/from every part of the plant.

    C/Q3. Leaves (cont'd) - Also thinking leaf and esp. petal/sepal color adaptation would include enhanced light capture/reflective ability, therefore plants would be very shiny. This could mean that the shiniest plants would form the largest plant colonies/groupings therefore be the top predator.

    C/Q4. Foam bark - really nice idea this! Combining this with C/Q3, imagine that this would mean that red dwarf plants generally have more silica integrated into their parts. (Sorta like ramped up seashore grasses on Earth which also (?) have the highest silica concentrations. Not sure, very vague memory of seeing something like this on a PBS doc.)

    C/Q5. Size/scale - Must plants be planet-bound, why not plant life that's part of the atmosphere instead? If light-capture efficiency is the live-or-die in this environment, wouldn't it be energetically more efficient for plants to be smaller rather than larger?


    I suspect that there are a couple of reasons it's so hard.

    One is that the most fertile areas have been farmed and built up, sometimes for thousands of years. The areas that are left wild are typically areas that, for various reasons, aren't suitable for farms or towns. There are certainly exceptions, such as Yosemite and Great Smokey Mountains national parks in the US, but generally, remaining wildlands are pretty marginal for human use.

    That puts an additional barrier in adopting a foraging lifestyle. Not only have us moderns not been brought up in the lifestyle since infancy (so that our bones, jaws, feet, eyes, etc. are not structured for it, and so that the basic skills and knowledge aren't ingrained), the places where we can practice aren't that productive.

    Another barrier is cultural. In cities, there are any number of pigeon, starlings, and rats around, but people frown on hunting them. That makes practicing up your skills in built areas technically and legally tricky and probably socially isolating. Of course, the same is true about living a sustainable lifestyle, especially in a city.

    Hobbyists do serve a vital role, though--they keep the skills alive for when our descendants need them.


    Actually, the parasitism of Armillaria mellea is more complex.

    That's what you said: pathogenic fungi kill, parasites live off their hosts, to the hosts' detriment. The fun thing about the huge Armillaria clones is that they're almost certainly much older than the trees that live on them, in some cases by the thousand or more years it took for them to spread miles wide. It's not often that the parasite is older than the host is.


    Re: 'In cities, there are any number of pigeon, starlings, and rats around, but people frown on hunting them.'

    Hence cats. The next door cat is a phenomenal mouser - have found dead mice planted here and there around my shrubs. The other 'cultural barrier' is fear of the various diseases these creatures are associated with.


    What I meant was that different strains vary from being lethal in short order to being almost symbiotic. The research was explaining why A. mellea is a largely stable feature of British woodlands, many of which are 500 years old.


    I was making allowance for the first, and assuming that the original biome (*) was intact and unharvested. With a relatively few exceptions, there simply AREN'T any enough useful sources of plant calories in (at least most) boreal biomes that can be eaten raw, and it's pushing it even with pots, baskets and fire. Vitamins etc., no problem except in winter. Many tropical ones are better in the availability of calories, but they have a much worse toxicity problem. Note that even the moa hunters had this problem when they discovered New Zealand.

    As far as the second goes, yes, but the context was people just dumped in a totally unfamiliar biome. Given extensive survival training and experience, they would do better, but it STILL takes a lot of effort and time. And, in an alien biome, things are much, much worse.

    (*) In the case of the UK, any of them from 5,000 BC to 1,500 AD, excluding cultivated crops.


    I think you're missing the point a little, since people demonstrably lived by foraging for some 300,000-odd years and before that when we weren't even modern humans.

    Part of the problem is that modern perceptions of what wilderness are, are modern. We don't know how ice age foraging worked, because the last few thousand years have been remarkably stable climatically, and that gives us a sense of wilderness as far more stable than it typically is. Ditto with things like megafauna: someone in Britain would have trouble understanding the island with wolves, bear, and boars, let alone mammoth.

    This all feeds into our understanding of how difficult (or easy) it is to survive by foraging. The great example from the 1970s was a study of a !Kung tribe that they spent less than 20 hours/week foraging to provide all their food, and the rest of the time doing other things. That tribe, incidentally, now only forages as a hobby, so the study can't be replicaed. It wasn't that foraging was hard and modern life was easy, it was apparently social pressures, government policies, the honey trap of desirable gadgets and technology, and also their "backward" status as the poorest and least politically represented people making them marginalized both socially and politically. There's a lot of stuff that gets in the way of living as a forager, not the least of which is that it's effectively illegal if not immoral, unless you can pay for expensive hunting licenses and buy approved gear, pay to camp or go homeless (which brings its own legal challenges) and so on. Governments don't like people outside their control, and being able to feed yourself without being integrated in the economy makes you an outsider subject to sanction, at least in today's world.

    Still, it's worth promulgating the skills as a hobby.


    Re: Early human diet

    Fish/seafood which is available year-round seems to be consistently overlooked as a major food source. When did this emphasis on land meat and vegetation come about when human settlements clearly favored waterways/sea coasts?


    In the tropics, using the experience of previous generations. As far as I know, there have NEVER been any purely foraging societies boreal and cool temperate biomes, though groups have resorted to that for short periods (or until they died out) in desperation. I can't even think of any primarily foraging ones that far north. Also, most anthropologists believe that hunting has been a major component for longer than Homo sapiens has been around.

    As far as northern European biomes go, I am pretty sure that long-term survival by foraging alone has been effectively impossible for at least the past 100,000 years, even WITH pottery, cord and fire, and I think that it's the case for most of Europe and north America. There just aren't the sources of calories to survive the winter - you HAVE to be able to hunt or fish effectively.

    So, yes, I agree that it can be done in SOME biomes, and with enough skill and experience of THAT particular biome. But that isn't the same as taking even a well-trained person from an 'advanced' society and dumping them in the middle of an alien one, even if it is theoretically possible to survive by foraging in that alien one.

    To SFreader: surprisingly recently, in many places. There were lots of societies that depended almost entirely on fishing a few hundred years back (and still are a few). But the problem with foraging is that it gets you mainly shellfish, which have almost no calories. You need oily fish for those, and that generally needs quite a lot of technology, though eels are an exception.


    As far as I know, there have NEVER been any purely foraging societies boreal and cool temperate biomes, though groups have resorted to that for short periods (or until they died out) in desperation.

    Neanderthals? Cro Magnon? Inuit and the other Nearctic peoples? All the indigenous people of inland Canada? It's safe to say that, were it not entirely possible to forage successfully in temperate and Arctic biomes, the New World would not have been colonized 15000-20000 years ago. Even today, the most ardent hunters in the US tend to be found in the northern tier of states and especially in Alaska, not down where I am in southern California.

    There's even a simple reason for that: hunting's easier in the winter, because freezing temperatures keep meat from spoiling after you've killed the animal. Deer hunting in southern California is a pain in the ass, because you've got to work fast to get the animal butchered and the meat cooling before it goes bad, and then you've got to lug it out of the mountains. Fall here is generally hot, and that's when the hunts are.

    So far as I know, the only places where it was impossible to live for multiple generations by foraging were remote Pacific Islands (especially atolls) and Antarctica. Every place else was first settled by foragers.


    whitroth @ 175

    "You forgot How Things Work.
    Seriously, what they need is the Junior Woodchuck Manual (as owned by Donald Duck's nephews; as near as I can tell, if you were kidnapped by a UFO and dropped on an inhabitable but uninhabited planet, with your Manual, within five years you could build civilization, and within ten, duplicate the UFO and fly home.
    As a first draft of the JWM... a collection of all usenet FAQs."

    I had a copy of How Things Work when I was a child, maybe 10 years old. I don't know what happened to it. I went to look for it amongst my family's old books when my mom passed away, but it was gone.

    The Junior Woodchuck Manual would be a good thing to have, but I guess we'll have to settle for my old Boy Scout Handbook - the old version from the 1950s/1960s rather than the later versions.


    Elderly Cynic @ 233:

    "I have sometimes wondered how well I would have done in a tropical area with adequate easily-gathered food, when I was younger. I know in practice how to make crude slings, spears, bows and arrows (and can't use any of them!), shelters, stone tools, rope, nets and bricks, and in theory how to make fire, pottery, tanned skins, and crude metal smelting. Yes, I know bricks need fire :-)
    But, realistically, the effort involved is immense, especially if you have only limited practical experience, and you have to keep yourself adequately fed and sheltered while doing that, which is especially difficult before you have got as far as solid shelters, tanning and fire, and is the reason for the preconditions. Based on that, I doubt that most groups would succeed before they died out from hunger, poisoning, cold, disease, accidents and predators."

    Check out this guy's YouTube channel:


    With red dwarf sizes ranging from .08 to .45 of our sun's mass I think easy predictions about planetary behavior in the habitable zone are just about impossible.

    But if we're talking about terraforming, we're looking for a red dwarf which has passed through it's flare cycle (per Wikipedia lasting around 1.2 billion years) and probably in the larger range of red dwarfs because I'd assume wider planetary orbits result in less chance of tidal locking. Then if the planet has lost it's atmosphere as expected we hit it with a series of big comets, carefully chosen for the elemental mix we'd like, drop some algae into the newly formed sea and move in a hundred-thousand years later...


    Eh? The Inuit are primarily hunters or fishers, not foragers, and the Neanderthal are believed to have been, too, which is why they died out. All of the Cromagnon societies and others that I know of were at least largely hunters or fishers, based on the archaelogical evidence.


    Thanks, but it was more the personal challenge aspect. I doubt that I would have succeeded, but I should have liked to try.


    Re: Oily fish

    We've family recipes for fish done every possible way. Smoked or pickled herring seems to keep forever and was served at most family get-togethers when I was a child. Anyways, oily fish like this was probably an insurance food to tide folks over in case of a poor harvest or particularly harsh winter.


    It was and, in many places, it was a winter staple.


    Why do we have to stick to the 24 hour day? There are people whose normal 'day' is longer than 24 hours, as measured in studies without light cues and clocks (it's been proposed that potential colonists being sent to Mars should have that particular variation--and some of them would still complain about having to get up too early). In a red dwarf situation ("Toast?"), why not set up a colony that caters to them? Imagine a society where everyone gets enough sleep. I have an axe to grind here, because I was an owl, who would get complicated questions asked of me at 7:30 am by a Lark Boss who had been up since 5 am. It was not a fun time.


    Depends on what you mean by foraging, doesn't it? I see a cross-purposes argument arising here for no good reason. I'm not sure where this foraging vs hunting distinction came into the discussion, I don't really think that Frank was making it (he explicitly refers to hunting as part of a "foraging lifestyle" above).

    The main gist of this discussion, I thought, wasn't about semantic distinctions but rather about the viability of modes of food production other than the modern, agriculturally-oriented ones. I guess this is a space where terminologies can get in the way. You can't really say "pre-modern", because that implies certain things that are not true and includes them in how you frame your understanding. Likewise "non-agricultural", "forager" and "hunter-gatherer" all imply things that are not true, by placing a context of opposition to concepts that are not really oppositional.

    The !Kung example isn't isolated. Pre-1788 Australia enjoyed abundance and significantly less labour-intensive food production than the European standards of the time. This was the case in several climate zones, the temperate being among most productive. The interesting question is how to describe what Aboriginal people were doing (and would still be doing if they could). Europeans carry a lot of cultural baggage that makes understanding this harder, but if you don't wish to call it agriculture (the term "firestick agriculture" is used, but it has baggage too), you must accept that it is at least as sophisticated as anything we understood as agriculture up to the 19th century, and in certain respects still more sophisticated than what we do now.

    If this is new to you, Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth is a good starting point. Frank may have other suggestions that suit your own interests. There seems to be a growing literature where these things are becoming grudgingly acknowledged in mainstream academia (much as the Tories may see this as a sign of the academy drifting further left, something that itself illustrates the politicisation of knowledge all the more).


    The !Kung example isn't isolated. Pre-1788 Australia enjoyed abundance and significantly less labour-intensive food production than the European standards of the time

    I thought that was common knowledge, as well as common sense?

    We have a name for groups that can only just manage to survive if they spend every waking second working to do so... locally extinct. It only takes one problem, however slight, and they swap from "just barely alive" to "almost alive". Sadly the transition back the other way is much less common.

    What's surprising is the actual amount of leisure available in more productive areas. There's also a whole of of "don't need that" going on, and people do indeed argue about whether it counts as technology. The cliche (IMO) is selective planting and breeding. Why bother harvesting and storing food when you can just make sure you have a year-round supply of fresh stuff?

    There are plants that are no longer found in parts of Australia although we have various evidence that they used to be, and one theory is that the animals that used to fertilise them and distribute the seeds are no longer around. This is utterly uncontroversial right up until you include food plants and homo sapiens in the list and suddenly it's "primitive hunter-gatherers didn't do that" all the way down.

    (also: hey, my local library actually has that book. On the Road of the Winds is still allegedly wending its way from the state library to my hands via interloan).


    This all feeds into our understanding of how difficult (or easy) it is to survive by foraging. The great example from the 1970s was a study of a !Kung tribe that they spent less than 20 hours/week foraging to provide all their food, and the rest of the time doing other things

    At that point you need to ask: why wasn't the population of the !Kung tribe growing exponentially for the last millenia? If they had so many resources that they could live a good life by working only 20 hours a week?

    To generalize: Archeological evidence is that the agricultural revolution appears to have led to larger populations of less well-fed people. So why does the "Malthusian trap" of "if there's surplus food our population will grow to eat it all until people are again just above subsistence" seem more applicable to agricultural societies?

    One obvious possibility is that hunting & foraging is less land-intensive. Suggesting that you can live a good life foraging only if you consistently drive off (or kill off) surplus population to ensure that your territory only contains a small enough number of people.

    A second is that hunting & foraging gives a more unstable food supply. Implying that you can happily survive on 20 hours work a week most of the time, but every now and then (every few seasons, or every few years, or every few generations) a lot of your population dies off. That's true of all low-tech societies, of course, but may be more true of hunting/foraging societies.

    A third is that hunting & foraging is dangerous to your health in other ways. Implying that foraging too many hours a week actually reduces population as the surplus food isn't worth the risk.


    More generally, this is the conflict between productivity and resilience, which many hold to be inversely correlated. With productivity, you're trying to maximize production. With resilience, you're trying to minimize the chance of having no production, and these aren't at all the same thing. With food, this is about maximizing crop yields, versus people not starving. The problem is that when you set out to maximize yield, people tend to focus on a few (generally one) crop, and maximize that, under the assumption that with that crop banked, you can trade for everything else you need. If that crop fails, you're screwed, especially if you have nothing saved. With resilience, you're willing to eat perhaps a hundred foods. Most of them are suboptimal, but if you do it right, it takes some really nasty conditions to completely wipe you out. After all, how bad would it have to be for you to not even have a rat to eat?

    Generally, in famines, foragers do better than farmers, which is why farmers whose crops have failed generally turn to foraging, while foragers in conditions that are severe enough to make them hungry don't start planting crops.

    The advantage farming has is that it produces huge surpluses, which are good for having more people and for supporting people (like warriors and chiefs) who aren't farmers. There's no good case where a society that existed solely by foraging also developed a non-productive hierarchy.*

    Since farming produces more people, it appears that the fate of foraging cultures like the !Kung, at least in the face of expanding farming, is to be outnumbered and forced to become farmers--so long as agriculture works. Right now, we're looking at both the biggest population of humans the Earth will ever see, and serious threats to agriculture. If I had to make a bet, if Big Ag crashes, the surviving people will learn to forage in a hurry. I'd also point out that there are any number of precedents (in neolithic Europe and historical SE Asia, among others) for people leaving agriculture for a foraging lifestyle. Even today, we have a nascent foraging and freegan movement.

    *Yes, about those Pacific Northwestern Indians, with their chieftainships, slaves, and apparently running it all on salmon fishing. Turns out their women were farming, but the male ethnographers didn't recognize what they were doing. Some of the tribes are now trying to re-establish their old crops (reference). As Damian wrote so well above, there is a lot of prejudice and confusion when it comes to both non-grain farming and to land management practices that blur the line between domesticated crops and just grabbing whatever you see, especially those that don't fall into good categories for European colonialist ethnographers. Heck, even "hunter-gatherer" is pretty sexist (man the hunter, woman the puller of plants). It ignores women hunting, male gathering, fishing and invertebrate collecting in all its forms and gender roles. Now that mushrooms and seaweeds are in their own kingdoms and not just considered weird plants, it gets even more artificial. That's why I use foraging as an catch-all.


    The example I know best is California, where the "primitive" Indians never figured out agriculture, despite being exposed to corn along the Colorado River and Camass lily cultivation in the redwoods. Here's what the ethnographers missed on the first go-round:

    --Evidence of field tending for any number of species, from clovers to mariposa lilies to wild hyacinths to tarplants. None of these are terribly productive, but if you look carefully, you can find remnants (I tripped over an old field on Catalina, and you couldn't step without stepping on a food plant). The PNW Indians were doing this with camass lilies and some other plants that the ethnographers also didn't see as crops.

    --When oaks masted (mass produced) acorns every few years, the Indians would harvest enough acorns in a few weeks to feed the family for the rest of the year. But acorns didn't set every year. In fact, California's got such a notoriously variable climate that depending on agriculture before the 20th Century was generally a bad idea. The natives, whose ancestors had been here for 15,000 years, knew this pretty well. While they tended fields of wildflowers, oak groves, and the like, they didn't depend on any of them every year for all their food. That would have been suicidal. Being able to shift from wildflower bulbs one year to acorns the next is the advantage of foraging.

    The reason California agriculture works at the moment is the massive irrigation system the state invested in, coupled with non-sustainable ground water mining for agriculture. Unless a miracle happens, I really don't see this system lasting indefinitely. However, it can support 37,000,000 plus people, at least while it works. The foragers lasted maybe 15,000 years, but foraging supported maybe 200,000 people. That's the difference between the two.


    Damien & others ... Pre-1788 Australia enjoyed abundance ... Really? Except ... that like the Moari in NZ/Aotorea & H.sapiens in the whole of the "Americas" they had eradicated the super-macro-fauna & changed the landscape, not necessarily for the better. Certain other assumptions in play here, I think.

    Frank: productivity and resilience, which many hold to be inversely correlated. Well, balls to them, they are standing too close to it? Mind you, to have high food productivity & resilience you would have to completely re-structure your (Modern Industrail) society, but it would be do-able. Why do I say this? I'm an allotment holder & provided I can guarantee scure storage ( a very imprtant point ) I would not need to buy vegetables, ever. But - it's a lot of work, hence the parable of the "fall" in the xtian bible - it's describing the changeover from nomadic to settled agricultural societies, after all ... Camassia huh? V interesting - read the article. Like Manioc & Breadfruit, it takes a lot of processing, as does Oak-mast of course.


    & changed the landscape, not necessarily for the better

    You preferred the ice age? Or maybe you think the Australians were responsible for the global warming that lifted sea levels 50-odd metres within recorded history (last ~15-20ky)? After all, they're the ones who kept the records...

    On the scale you're looking at in Australia stuff changes, often dramatically. So blaming one species is hard. This isn't 100,000 Maori wiping out moa on a couple of little islands over a few hundred years, this is longer than recorded history (anyones!) and covers a period when we suspect that the last non-human hominids were wiped out. Also a whole lot of other stuff, and as mentioned we saw major changes in geography.

    There may be an argument that the anthropocene started a millenium ago or even two, but I think 15 is really pushing the envelope and 60 is fantasy.

    Processing food to make it edible is one of the defining traits of humans. Fire, sure, but fermentation, chopping, drying, mixing, all the things that mean we can eat the inedible (the quote about fox hunting springs to mind).


    At that point you need to ask: why wasn't the population of the !Kung tribe growing exponentially for the last millenia? If they had so many resources that they could live a good life by working only 20 hours a week?

    The idea that population always grows to consume food resources is a cultural assumption. In certain types of agricultural societies, the ones familiar to our culture from Europe and Asia, the rural feudal peasantry has a strong motivation to have as many children they can, as they are the main source of labour and security for old age. In Australian Aboriginal cultures, each individual would become responsible for managing part of the land, so the social and economic pressure was for a stable population.

    hunting & foraging gives a more unstable food supply

    Only when viewed at a particular scale, with a particular time horizon, and if you discount the ability of an established culture to manage the land.


    Well that's annoying - I'd written a long description of (among other things) kangaroo traps here, got as far as "Preview" and my PC crashed. It's worth pointing out that "kangaroo traps" are not what you might imagine from the words, and a full description is really needed. But I can't rewrite that now.

    But by way of illustration, you remember that anecdote about the roof of the dining hall in New College at Oxford, how the plan for replacement timbers was made centuries before they were needed? Australian Aboriginal culture has a humbling number of examples of things like that. It's just full of them.

    A simpler example - there were worked-stone fish traps, really a system of weirs and sluices, in an inland river setting, that had been in continuous use for thousands of years until European settlers re-purposed the stonework.


    Actually, where did the assumption that populations must increase exponentially come from? We've got the most resources in the world, yet our populations aren't increasing exponentially. Why not?

    There's the extremely well-known phenomenon of the demographic transition. The model's four stages are: --In an undeveloped country, there are high death rates, and high birth rates to compensate (notice the compensation part). The population is roughly static. (As a side note, populations could fluctuate dramatically due to pandemics, warfare, and famine. Oddly enough, when these happened, the population typically rebounded within a generation or two). This is stage one. --In stage two, public health measures like clean water and modern medicines (antibiotics) caused the death rate to drop. However, due to people keeping "the old ways" there is a surplus in births over deaths, resulting in population growth.
    --In stage three, the culture reacts to its changed circumstances, with more women working, fewer births (especially when contraception becomes available), women education, children needing increased education, so that they cost their parents more, leading to parents having fewer children, and so forth. Birth rates fall. --In stage four, the developed culture may have a birth rate below its innate death rate, resulting in population falling, and calls for increased births or more immigration.

    There have been various tinkering and proposals for a fifth stage in the demographic transition model, as well as criticism of it. It's a model, not destiny, after all. Given the various climate issues I'm not talking about (for once), it's possible that the real stage five of the model is depopulation, primarily through emigration at first, as the resource base can no longer support the increased population. At that point, death rate increases, emigration becomes a major factor, birth rates stay low, and the population drops to some point, probably it is stable again.

    Still, the point is that, rapid human population growth is the exception, not the rule. The question needs to be: who wants growth, not why people fight it. I'd say the innate human impulse is to keep things as they are, because it's hard enough to get through life with the changes the world throws at us, never mind the disruptive idiots who are trying to destroy things, just so that they can get rich.

    If you want exponential human growth, you'd better start colonizing more planets.


    California, where the "primitive" Indians never figured out agriculture, despite being exposed to corn along the Colorado River and Camass lily cultivation in the redwoods.

    Isn't corn one of the most mutilated staple food crops we have? Primitive wheat is pretty recognisable, ditto rice, but corn you wouldn't know it if someone pointed it out to you. Which suggests that either they had someone else's food crop and didn't notice, or they were looking at a couple of tiny little seeds inside a leaf and not seeing its potential to be engineered into a major food source. The latter isn't really surprising. A bit like looking at a reddish rock and completely failing to notice the steam locomotive hiding inside...

    Except maybe eggplants. Eggplants are weird.


    Um, hopefully I understand what you're saying.

    Anyway, the local Kumeyaay knew about maize, because they occasionally stayed along the Colorado River with groups like the Yuma who planted corn. AFAIK, they didn't bring corn across the mountains to coastal San Diego for the simple reason that San Diego in summer is dry, and there aren't really any nice riverine floodplains where irrigated corn could grow. Corn is a summer crop, so without summer rains (which they get in the desert, due to the summer "monsoon,") corn's not a good crop. The Spanish figured this out, which is why they grew Sonora white wheat in San Diego, not corn. This wheat cultivar makes great tortillas but crappy bread, and oddly enough, we get modern burritos and similar border fare from the decision to grow tortilla-making dryland wheat in San Diego. We can grow corn here, but it needs to be irrigated, with all the issues that entails. While there are stories of some desert tribes doing irrigation, the Indians on the ocean side of the mountains didn't go in for that kind of thing (probably for good reason--the rivers flood and run dry unpredictably). As a result, corn and the other kinds of agriculture coming north out of Mexico didn't make it in to California.

    As for the genetic complexity of its domestication, corn turns out to be a sheep in wolf's clothing. Modern maize is very different from wild teosinte, even though they can still hybridize and produce fertile young (clue #1--they're closely related, despite the massive morphological differences). It turns out that as few as five genes are involved in the shift from teosinte to corn, and simple breeding of favorable mutants would have sufficed to get corn out of teosinte. You can read a summary at The real weirdos to date are things like hexaploid bread wheat (apparently the result of a series of lucky accidents), most cole crops (more accidents, and tricky to replicate in the lab), and marijuana (no wild relatives, so what happened again?). Oh, and dogs. Definitely dogs. Why does no one think that it's weird that chihuahuas are genetically wolves?


    OK, you were talking about cultural spread of information rather than movement/development of crops?

    Also, "cole crops" was a whole new term to me, I've only heard brassica as the generic before.

    I read a(nother) interesting article the other day with someone (again) trying to explain that responding to "GM crops are bad because they concentrate power in the hands of multinationals" with "but they're safe to eat" is completely missing the point. Scientists and activists who do that should be ashamed, and if they do it expecting their response to have persuasive power they're deluded. The main focus was on how how countering fear with fear doesn't work, and countering fear with argument from authority also doesn't work - especially when the fear is partly of authority.

    The context there was the use of CRISPR and variants to GE stuff, making the point that GE has gone from hundreds of millions of dollars per output to sub-million, and now it's the approval process that is the main cost (and takes the most time). Which is not necessarily bad, but it means that arguments about use of GMOs need to be updated.

    The author was suggesting that perhaps the GNO fans should be ethusing about how cheap and easy GE is now, and how that means it'll be practical for smaller groups to do it. Also there's the potential to production-line specific changes, so that rather than "this is the one and only golden rice" it'll be possible to say "whatever rice you use, we can add the genes to make it golden". That addresses (some of) the monoculture fears as well.

    Of course, the subtext to the whole article was "and we should do this before the gene hackers start doing it to people rather than with them". Because if you think Monsanto suing Canadian and Westralian farmers into bankruptcy is bad, just wait until some numpty adds the missing few pesticide resistance genes to, say, lettuce, and that becomes a widespread urban pest species (sticky, wind-spread seed and all). It sounds funny until to realise that you don't get edible lettuce out of it, just a bitter-tasting ground cover that sprouts out of gaps in concrete as well as any exposed bare soil (why yes, since you ask, I do have about 10 square metres of micro-lettuce in the recently cleared part of my garden at the moment).


    Ha! Wait until someone finds out an undesirable grass can pick up pesticide resistance. I understand that with "micro lettuce" the youngest leaves are the least bitter.


    "but it's safe to eat" :)

    Yeah, exactly that. WTF did they decide to make it herbicide-tolerant in the first place? And it's a(nother) perfect example of the whole problem with GMO's in the first place. It presumably has some desirable characteristics that made them want to do that, but it was never approved for release and now that it has been the company found it cheaper to buy lawmakers than fix the problem they created.

    Not that it really matters, if the problem got too large they'd just have used the various bankruptcy systems to remove their practical obligations. James Hardie did that with asbestos in Australia, and even public shaming hasn't persuaded them to cough up. I can't imagine Monsanto being amenable to any form of persuasion short of actual confiscation of assets and imprisonment of top-level staff (perhaps start at the board and work down).

    But that's a whole different topic... social engineering: why and how :)


    Frank & Moz 264/265 AFAIK the closest relative of Marijuana is also a Dioeceous plant, grown commercially in large quantities. As for The Weed, we use the female flowers & male plants are grown in the field corners: Humulus lupulus The Hop .... ( Mine's a Pint, thank you very much )

    "Eggplants are weird" - no they aren't ... they are Solonaceous The entire family has a strange realtionship with humanity, as the plants seem to be either highly edible or highly poisonus, or both at the same time, or edible when ripe & poisonous when under-ripe etc ..... Like: Don't eat Tomato leaves or Potato fruits or unripe "Kangaroo Apple". Classic example of Linnaeus' classification - the flowers are very distinctive & a "dead" give-away & they all seem to have a similar growth-habit with 3-way branching of the stems

    [ Others: Chili peppers, hairy peppers, deadly nightshade, black nightshade, tomatillo ..... ]


    Actually, except for cereals, most of our food crops come from families with many highly toxic members, and are often derived from toxic ancestors or are toxic untreated (almonds, cassava, Phaseolus beans etc.) Many (especially herbs and spices) are toxic in large quantities.

    I may have posted this before, but what the hell? Arising from a debate on uk.rec.gardening on black nightshade pie, I did some research, and found an interesting (scientific) paper. Black nightshade is global, very widely eaten, and there was little to no consistency in the rules for eating it safely: e.g. never, only when ripe, only when cooked, only THIS variety etc. The author speculated that there may be different regional varieties and (human) genetic effects.

    There are actually quite a lot of crops with no wild ancestors, including ones as widely naturalised as plums. Like bread wheat, it is a hexaploid and we have no idea how it developed.


    Back in the days when the UK led the world in plant-breeding, the Plant Breeding Institute (Maris ... potatoes et al.) was using GM to try to put a rust-resistance gene from another grass into bread wheat, to avoid the use of fungicides. Now, I assert that sort of use of GM is justified, especially now we don't need retroviruses but, unfortunately, companies like Monsanto dominate plant breeding.

    Unfortunately, Thatcher gave the Department of Total (Treacherous?) Incompetence licence to cripple the Agricultural Research Council's innovation, which it had been trying to do for years, and (illegally) privatised the PBI (a charity), which ended up in the hands of Monsanto. All the competent staff left, and the site is now a park and ride site, supermarket and housing estate.


    "Actually, where did the assumption that populations must increase exponentially come from?"

    Primitive economists and oligarchs. Seriously.


    To correct some misapprehensions:

    --Yeah, I wouldn't eat a black nightshade pie. The berries were eaten in Hawai'i, but then again, many native Hawaiian fruits have fewer toxins (a normal pattern of island species). Some people in Southeast Asia eat nightshade, but an anthropologist almost died trying a bit. Apparently you can acclimate yourself to some degree to eat nightshade, and that group did (they start by feeding the children just a little bit and gradually increase the dose until it's food). Unfortunately, they didn't communicate this properly with the anthropologist, who sampled a dish and passed out. So toxicity varies and so does tolerance. Would you eat it, if you're not acclimated and don't know anything about the source of the fruit?

    --Bread wheat we know quite a lot about, since the genome's been published. It's hexaploid by chromosome number but pentaploid by the number of genomes in it. What is not clear is what one the genetic parent of the B and G genomes are, since no one's found them. They're obviously Aegilops, but they may be extinct. (Bread wheat has five genomes apparently, two from Triticum species, three from Aegilops, and two of the latter haven't been found and may be extinct). As my grass systematics teacher noted, the warning over the Gates of Hell in Dante's Inferno applies to talking about both taxonomy and hybridization in the wheat tribe. It's notoriously complicated.

    --On GMOs, apparently Monsanto has (temporarily) backed off of GMO production. It turned out to be simpler and more profitable to go back to classical breeding strategies and then to use DNA technology to rapidly screen the resulting seedlings for the traits the breeders wanted, and so Monsanto was investing in that. Now that we have CRISPR, I suspect the GMO battle will heat up again. Before that, gene introduction was a scattershot affair, sometimes literally. Using CRISPR to more precisely target things may make a difference.

    One of my objections in general is breeders' attempts to monopolize markets through things like hybrid seed production and intellectual property rights. We need more plant breeders, not fewer, right now, and I'd suggest a freeware or GitHub approach might be more useful for developing new plant breeds (especially ones that are heat tolerant and drought resistant). I guarantee that Bayer (nee Monsanto) will fight it.

    My one brush with Monsanto was when they asked me over to lunch to chat about the possibility of genetically engineering arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. That group seemed nice enough (they always are. Even developers can be charming). I told them it was a horrible idea, because they'd have trouble keeping the engineered fungi in their greenhouse, and as soon as they were introduced to the field, they'd lose control of their intellectual property as dirty boots and equipment tracked it all over the place. So far as I know, they didn't proceed.


    Actually the "wild" ancestors of several crops appear to have died out ... Garlic f'rinstance DOES NOT SET SEED - we are reliant on clones & very narrow genetic variation for this crop. At least one place ( The Garlic Farm, IoW ) are trying to remedy this by attempting back-breeding & stress-testing - & not getting anywhere at the moment. As for edibility & toxixity in hogh doses or very similar plants being toxic or edible - look at the Umbelifferae Carrots, Parsnips, Fennel (both sorts), Dill, Hemlock, Hemlock water dropwort etc Then there's the "Mints" (Labiae/Labatiae) Overdoses of some of those can be very bad for you & many of the culinary ones are also medicinal ....


    While I don't eat more than the occasional berry (to remind myself that it's not exciting), either, I have been told by several people (including more than one 'British-ancestry' person in the UK (which is NOT an island in this sense!) that they eat black nightshade regularly. It's definitely not a simple matter, as the paper I mentioned said.

    I didn't know about the pentaploid aspect of bread wheat. Thanks.


    genetically engineering arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

    I can see how that would be useful, but geez, any idea of keeping control over it sounds far-fetched. Spores are itty bitty teeny weeny things and quite robust. OTOH, while the potential for screwing up is high that does seem like the most likely way to get rid of the giant mounds of plastic littering the landscape. If you could get them eating away at polystyrene or something I'd be very happy :)

    (no, I'm not fussed at the prospect of having to guard against them digesting my house, I will deal with it... the woody bits already have that problem)


    The author speculated that there may be different regional varieties and (human) genetic effects.

    That seems very likely to me. I would not be even slightly surprised to hear that there are reef fish, for example, that are toxic to to foreigners but happily eaten by polynesians. I swear I have been sick as a landlubber in a tumble dryer eating stuff that even babies eat, raw or cooked. Bastards.

    OTOH, I have also fed guests a bean casserole that had them fighting to use the toilet even though I'd had no problems and in fact (causal connection, even) habitually ate stuff like that. Stuff like al dente red kidney beans.

    As you point out with nightshade, the tolerance variations range from discomfort probably all the way to death. Ooops.


    The author speculated that there may be different regional varieties and (human) genetic effects.

    Not to mention differences in gut microbiomes. I suspect that different gut microflora will affect how much nutrition you can extract — and whether you have negative effects after ingestion.


    The idea that population always grows to consume food resources is a cultural assumption.

    No, it follows from biology and population modelling. Populations that grow beat populations that don't.

    You're the one making cultural assumptions by saying "they didn't do that because of culture". But that's just begging the question: why that culture?

    'Culture' evolves: cultural practices that help more people make it to the next generation tend to thrive and ones that don't tend not to.

    Surely neither of us believes that there was a magic aura of pacifism and loveliness that suffused the entire Australian continent for 10 millennia - and every other place hunter/gatherers live - and stopped normal competition between groups.

    But if not, then why did groups that grow their population not just take over and win out everywhere over those that didn't? How could cultures of limited growth be all the successes?

    The answer, surely, must be that actually they were resource-constrained. Cultures that didn't respect those constraints didn't do well.

    (BTW, while I know little of Australian aborigines, I am a bit suspicious of the claim you imply that they're all one "culture". Wikipedia tells me the continent had 300 different languages in 28 language groups.)


    A very good point. The paper I was referring to was written before the importance of gut flora and the dynamism of gene expression were realised. As Moz said, there is immense variation between people, and we rarely know why.


    I have also fed guests a bean casserole that had them fighting to use the toilet even though I'd had no problems and in fact (causal connection, even) habitually ate stuff like that. Stuff like al dente red kidney beans. Which instantly made me think of .


    You'll probably want to read James Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, about the history of SE Asia.

    His point was that civilizations there tended to fall apart after a few generations, because "populations that grow beat populations that don't" turns out to be not true.

    Populations that grow rapidly also tend to be harder hit by famines, for one thing. Resilience is the inverse of productivity, and that's why many groups (especially in California and Australia, which have extremely variable climates) didn't go in for productivity. It's also likely why modern humans have been around for 300,000-odd years, but the neolithic revolution and civilization are no more than 7,000 years old. It's not recent genetic changes in humans, it's that the Younger Dryas was when the climate became predictable enough that agriculture (doing the same thing year after year) became practical. We know humans had been experimenting with agriculture over 10,000 years before the Younger Dryas ended.

    In South East Asia, growth was all about rice paddies, which meant getting a lot of people to farm small spaces. Unfortunately, those spaces are limited by the large number of mountain ranges on the peninsula, so when the local ruler started pushing people beyond what they wanted to do, they'd leave for the mountains. Living in the mountains, in part or entirely by foraging, wasn't idyllic, but it beat being a peasant under a repressive king. As a result, many kingdoms only lasted a few generations before they fell apart due to defections. Then some other would-be god king would attract a following, attract people from the hills with the promise of land and good rice harvests, and the cycle would begin again. It only started to end in the 1950s, when helicopters made it possible for the lowlanders in what is now Myanmar to subjugate the hill tribes, and that fight (the Kachin rebellion, the Rohingya, etc.) is still going on.

    I know you're wedded to growth, but growth is at best a short term answer. We personally won't know otherwise, because the real test is whether there are still 10 billion humans living on the Earth in 2100. If there are a few billion or less, then it will turn out that growth wasn't the answer for us either.


    FL @ 283 And, if the answer is in the 5 - 9 billion range?


    (BTW, while I know little of Australian aborigines, I am a bit suspicious of the claim you imply that they're all one "culture". Wikipedia tells me the continent had 300 different languages in 28 language groups.)

    Then wikipedia is overstating the success of the genocide... there is evidence for at least 500 languages (or 700) but the "language groups" thing is a guess - there are areas where we only know that "people lived here, then the British exterminated them leaving no trace". Plus linguistics is approximate. Culturally there's a degree of regional homogenuity, but even the Australian Government recognises the island culture in the north as distinct enough to justify calling them "Torres Strait Islanders" rather than "Aborigines".

    I periodically explain to people that it's like saying "european" or "asian"... few would expect a Spaniard to speak Sami, or someone from Vietnam feel at home in Khazakstan. Even within regions you can easily end up asking a couple of people "you're both from the island of Ireland, surely you have the same culture" and... well, getting the sort of response you'd expect from the Irish example. FWIW it's actually worse in PNG, because that island is almost the size of Australia as the hominid travels (800+ languages in a space the size of Sweden). There's a lot more linguistic and cultural variation than a naive visitor might expect even after 100+ years of "civilising influence".


    Australia, which have extremely variable climates) didn't go in for productivity

    I don't know about California, but Australia is also known for the "vanishing colony" problem. Europeans (and possibly others) would arrive, set up, do well for a few years then a ship would arrive and ... no colony. Generally no sign of war, sometimes a few starving survivors, and invariably the rains hadn't come, or the bushfire had, or both.

    Even today morons and dickheads* talk about farming the great northern plains and how modern technology can overcome trivial obstacles like lack of water and infertile soils. Soils that often make coral sand look promising, and in some cases are coral sands.

    • by which I mean scammers and agrarian socialists, like the National Party and the far-reich end of the Liberal Party... ladies and gentles, I give you Tony Abbott

    At least part of the variation in food reaction might be stress mediated; stress inhibits bowel movement, which might lead to bacterial overgrowth, which might lead to bacterial toxins and H2S inhibiting normal cell function in intestines, which might lead to less water absorption, which might lead to diarrhea. Hello IBS (Added fun: organic thiol somehow, blood or whatever reaching my brain and my sense of smell. But I digress).

    Actually, quite a few spices stimulate bowel movement, so it's not that clear what's recreational and what's medicinal.


    And mind you, that's decades without much support, there is a system installed in the 1930s in the Death Valley area of California that is powered by hydro, and it's still going. So, no over charge issues, no maintenance.... and they keep going. So NiFe has it's points.


    Here's another "Australian languages" article that suggests 250 languages plus innumerable dialects with some comments on how hard it is to re-discover the details:

    The great thing about those sorts of stamp-collecting exercises is the discussions about what constitutes a distinct language and what are mere dialects ("define planet", anyone?). Spanish, Portuguese, Italian... just dialects of Latin, right :) And when you only have a few transliterated words recorded, good luck even counting major language groups.


    I periodically explain to people that it's like saying "european" or "asian"... few would expect a Spaniard to speak Sami, or someone from Vietnam feel at home in Khazakstan.

    Quite so, my point was that when you say European or Asian in relation to cultures, people know what you're talking about since there is a mostly shared majority set of influences and values across the diverse specific cultures. While the extremes edges might seem radically different to each other, there is a continuum between them. Add to that the understanding that Australia is and has been remarkably homogenous in terms of these overarching belief systems and cultural themes. The variation is mostly in terms of each group's specific songlines, totems and the land for which they are collectively and individually responsible (at 3-4 levels of "group").

    The homogeneity thing seems to work for post invasion people too, and to have started happening in the first couple of generations.



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    This page contains a single entry by Frank Landis published on July 8, 2018 4:19 AM.

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