Nothing Has Ever Been Manufactured in Space

I happen to own something that has been to space – a laptop bag made partly from the orange nylon of Soyuz re-entry parachute:

A Montreal company, Everquest Design, went out to Kazahkstan in 2003 and recovered the parachute from the Soyuz capsule. They’ve been cutting it up for use in various products ever since.

But after more than sixty years of space flight, after about 8000 launches and 150 person-years in orbit,  the extraordinary thing is that nothing has ever been commercially manufactured in orbit. It’s been talked about from the very beginning. Perfect crystals! Pure proteins! Maybe even solar panels made from lunar silicon and beaming their power down to earth via microwaves. Yes, seriously.

People have tried. Hundreds of experiments have been done, starting on Soyuz 6 and Skylab in the early 1970s, and continuing on the ISS right up to the present:

From Material Science in Microgravity, click for presentation

Blobs of different density diffuse more uniformly in zero-gee.  Materials can be grown without containers, reducing defects. Phenomena such as thermo-capilliary action, where the temperature loss caused by evaporation on the surface of a liquid causes convective currents inside it, can be studied much more easily.

There’s value to this in understanding the mechanisms, but none in manufacture.  Things worth doing have to be scalable.   It’s not enough to make one perfect boule of silicon – you have to make a lot of it to be worth the expense of the research.   50,000 tonnes of mono-crystalline silicon were made last year for use as chips, and that’s just not going to happen in a remote and incredibly expensive location.

So since serious uses of space haven’t worked out, we’re now into frivolous ones.  Like laptop bags!   And space tourism, where people will supposedly spend hundreds of thousands to experience a few minutes of zero-gee.   And this week we heard of the ultimate space novelty item – Space Roasters claims they’ll get perfect coffee roasted completely uniformly in zero-gee: 

From article in  The Guardian

During re-entry the capsule would experience several gees of deceleration, so the diagram makes no sense.  They must mean a short sub-orbital hop where the roasting can be done while the beans float around.  The capsule would splash down somewhere near Dubai, where they would sell it for €100 a cup.  At 60 cups per kilo and 300 kilos per flight, that’s about $2M per flight, which might be reasonable for the Virgin Galactic ship or the plethora of small rocket companies that have been springing up.

But this is ridiculous.   I think the only remaining hope for space manufacture is the Air Force’s mysterious X37B space plane.   It looks like a stubby Space Shuttle but is a quarter of the size.  It’s launched on a regular rocket and then flies back down on its own.  It has spent over seven years in orbit during five flights.  The first was in 2011 and the fifth is still going on.  No one knows what it’s been doing up there.  The boring answer is some kind of surveillance, but you wouldn’t need to return to earth for that.    They are known to be testing Hall effect ion thrusters and exposing materials to space conditions.  People have speculated that they’re releasing sub-satellites or spying on China’s Tiang-gong space station or looking at anti-satellite operations.  

I prefer to think that they’re growing giant laser crystals for Air Force death rays.  The cargo bay is 2.1 m long by 1.2 m in diameter, about the volume of a closet, so it could make something of decent size.   It spends one to two years up at a time, enough to do something serious. This weird zero-gee high-vacuum environment has got to be good for making something!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Best-Looking Movies of the 20th Century

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In honor of the occasion, they’ve put together a list of The 100 Best-Photographed Films. Members submitted nominations, and then an overall list was created and voted on to pare it down to 100. They limited it to the 20th century, including the year 2000, as Arthur C. Clarke would remind us.   That was probably to avoid having too many people vote for the work of themselves or their friends. Rather than having an invidious ranking of all of them, they just broke the list into the Top Ten, and the worthy 90.   They’ll be updating the list with more information about the films throughout the year.

I’ve included the raw list at the bottom of this post, and added the directors for all the movies. Films in the top ten are in bold.  Let’s also answer a few questions about it:

Q: Who has worked on the most of these films?

A: Here are all the cinematographers who have two or more films, or one in the top ten:

Cinematographer Number Films
Vittorio Storaro 5 The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981), The Last Emperor (1987)
Gordon Willis 5 Klute (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Manhattan (1979)
Conrad Hall 5 In Cold Blood (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993), American Beauty (1999)
John Alcott 4 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980)
Caleb Deschanel 4 The Black Stallion (1979), Being There (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984)
Vilmos Zsigmond 3 McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978)
Freddie Young 2 Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Michael Chapman 2 Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980)
Owen Roizman 2 The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973)
Gregg Toland 2 The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Citizen Kane (1941)
Jack Cardiff 2 Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)
Robert Surtees 2 The Graduate (1967), The Last Picture Show (1971)
Haskell Wexler 2 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Stanley Cortez 2 The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Janusz Kaminski 2 Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Robert Burks 2 Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959)
Jordan Cronenweth 1 Blade Runner (1982)
Néstor Almendros 1 Days of Heaven (1978)
Geoffrey Unsworth 1 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I should know more about Vittorio Storaro given that great list. Gordon Willis is much better known, and rightly so given what he has worked on. Note that Conrad Hall’s films span 32 years, from In Cold Blood in 1967 to American Beauty in 1999 – that’s a tremendous career.

Q: Directors also have great input to a film’s look – who among them shows up the most?

Director Number Films
Stanley Kubrick 5 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980)
Steven Spielberg 4 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Francis Ford Coppola 3 The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)
Bernardo Bertolucci 3 The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987)
David Lean 3 Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Orson Welles 3 Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958)
Ridley Scott 3 The Duellists (1977), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982)
John Ford 3 The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956)
Martin Scorsese 2 Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980)
Terrence Malick 2 Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)
William Friedkin 2 The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973)
Akira Kurosawa 2 Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954)
Mike Nichols 2 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967)
Wim Wenders 2 Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987)
Bob Fosse 2 Cabaret (1972), All that Jazz (1979)
Alfred Hitchcock 2 Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959)
Alan J. Pakula 2 Klute (1971), All the President’s Men (1976)
Miloš Forman 2 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Amadeus (1984)
Michael Powell;Emeric Pressburger 2 Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)
Victor Fleming 2 The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939)

Kubrick and Spielberg are no surprise, and all of the top few are known for the gorgeous look of their films. Note, though, that the big SF directors George Lucas and James Cameron don’t appear at all. They seem to be somewhat discounting effects-heavy movies, although Blade Runner, Alien , and 2001 still make the cut.

Q: When were these films made?

Decade Number
1920s 3
1930s 2
1940s 9
1950s 10
1960s 17
1970s 26
1980s 17
1990s 15
2000s 1

The 1970s were a good decade!   As many have noted, it was a peak for Hollywood, before blockbusters conquered all.

Q: What does the full list look like?

Here it is in date order. It’s here in spreadsheet form. Note that most of the cinematographers belong to the ASC, unsurprisingly.   They have 66 out of the 105 people listed, followed by 19 from the BSC, the British Society of Cinematographers, and 8 from the AIC, the Italian Society of Cinematographers.  

So have a look at all of these films, preferably on a big screen!

Film Cinematographer(s) Director(s)
Sunrise (1927) Charles Rosher Sr., ASC; Karl Struss, ASC F. W. Murnau
Metropolis (1927) Karl Freund, ASC; Günther Rittau Fritz Lang
Napoleon (1927) Leonce-Henri Burel; Jules Kruger; Joseph-Louis Mundwiller Abel Gance
Gone with the Wind (1939) Ernest Haller, ASC Victor Fleming
The Wizard of Oz (1939) Harold Rosson, ASC Victor Fleming
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Gregg Toland, ASC John Ford
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Arthur C. Miller, ASC John Ford
Citizen Kane (1941) Gregg Toland, ASC Orson Welles
Casablanca (1942) Arthur Edeson, ASC Michael Curtiz
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) Stanley Cortez, ASC Orson Welles
Black Narcissus (1947) Jack Cardiff, BSC Michael Powell;Emeric Pressburger
The Bicycle Thief (1948) Carlo Montuori, Vittoria De Sica
The Red Shoes (1948) Jack Cardiff, BSC Michael Powell;Emeric Pressburger
The Third Man (1949) Robert Krasker, BSC Carol Reed
Sunset Boulevard (1950) John Seitz, ASC Billy Wilder
Rashomon (1950) Hazuo Miyagawa Akira Kurosawa
Seven Samurai (1954) Asakazu Nakai Akira Kurosawa
On the Waterfront (1954) Boris Kaufman, ASC Elia Kazan
The Night of the Hunter (1955) Stanley Cortez, ASC Charles Laughton
The Searchers (1956) Winton C. Hoch, ASC John Ford
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Jack Hilyard, BSC David Lean
Touch of Evil (1958) Russell Metty, ASC Orson Welles
Vertigo (1958) Robert Burks, ASC Alfred Hitchcock
North by Northwest (1959) Robert Burks, ASC Alfred Hitchcock
Breathless (1960) Raoul Coutard Jean-Luc Goddard
Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Sacha Vierny Alain Resnais
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Freddie Young, BSC David Lean
Hud (1963) James Wong Howe, ASC Martin Ritt
8 ½ (1963) Gianni Di Venanzo Federico Fellini
I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) (1964) Sergei Urusevsky Mikhail Kalatozov
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) Gilbert Taylor, BSC Stanley Kubrick
Doctor Zhivago (1965) Freddie Young, BSC David Lean
The Battle of Algiers (1966) Marcello Gatti Gillo Pontecorvo
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Haskell Wexler, ASC Mike Nichols
In Cold Blood (1967) Conrad Hall, ASC Richard Brooks
Cool Hand Luke (1967) Conrad Hall, ASC Stuart Rosenberg
The Graduate (1967) Robert Surtees, ASC Mike Nichols
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Tonino Delli Colli, AIC Sergio Leone
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC; John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Conrad Hall, ASC George Roy Hill
The Wild Bunch (1969) Lucien Ballard, ASC Sam Peckinpah
The Conformist (1970) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Bernardo Bertolucci
The Last Picture Show (1971) Robert Surtees, ASC Peter Bogdanovich
A Clockwork Orange (1971) John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
The French Connection (1971) Owen Roizman, ASC William Friedkin
Klute (1971) Gordon Willis, ASC Alan J. Pakula
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC Robert Altman
Last Tango in Paris (1972) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Bernardo Bertolucci
The Godfather (1972) Gordon Willis, ASC Francis Ford Coppola
Cabaret (1972) Geoffery Unsworth, BSC Bob Fosse
The Exorcist (1973) Owen Roizman, ASC William Friedkin
Chinatown (1974) John Alonzo, ASC Roman Polanski
The Godfather: Part II (1974) Gordon Willis, ASC Francis Ford Coppola
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Haskell Wexler, ASC Miloš Forman
Barry Lyndon (1975) John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
All the President’s Men (1976) Gordon Willis, ASC Alan J. Pakula
Taxi Driver (1976) Michael Chapman, ASC Martin Scorsese
The Duellists (1977) Frank Tidy, BSC Ridley Scott
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC Steven Spielberg
The Deer Hunter (1978) Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC Michael Cimino
Days of Heaven (1978) Néstor Almendros, ASC Terrence Malick
Manhattan (1979) Gordon Willis, ASC Woody Allen
The Black Stallion (1979) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Carroll Ballard
Apocalypse Now (1979) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Francis Ford Coppola
Being There (1979) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Hal Ashby
Alien (1979) Derek Vanlint, CSC Ridley Scott
All that Jazz (1979) Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC Bob Fosse
The Shining (1980) John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
Raging Bull (1980) Michael Chapman, ASC Martin Scorsese
Das Boot (1981) Jost Vacano, ASC Wolfgang Petersen
Chariots of Fire (1981) David Watkin, BSC Hugh Hudson
Reds (1981) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Warren Beatty
Blade Runner (1982) Jordan Cronenweth, ASC Ridley Scott
Fanny and Alexander (1982) Sven Nykvist, ASC Ingmar Bergman
The Right Stuff (1983) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Philip Kaufman
Paris, Texas (1984) Robby Müller, NSC, BVK Wim Wenders
The Natural (1984) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Barry Levinson
Amadeus (1984) Miroslav Ondricek, ASC, ACK Miloš Forman
Brazil (1985) Roger Pratt, BSC Terry Gilliam
The Mission (1986) Chris Menges, ASC, BSC Roland Joffé
Empire of the Sun (1987) Allen Daviau, ASC Steven Spielberg
The Last Emperor (1987) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Bernardo Bertolucci
Wings of Desire (1987) Henri Alekan Wim Wenders
Mississippi Burning (1988) Peter Biziou, BSC Alan Parker
Raise the Red Lantern (1991) Fei Zhao Zhang Yimou
JFK (1991) Robert Richardson, ASC Oliver Stone
Baraka (1992) Ron Fricke Ron Fricke
Unforgiven (1992) Jack Green, ASC Clint Eastwood
Schindler’s List (1993) Janusz Kaminski Steven Spielberg
Trois Coulieurs: Bleu (1993) Slawomir Idziak, PSC Krzysztof Kieślowski
Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993) Conrad Hall, ASC Steven Zaillian
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC Frank Darabont
Seven (1995) Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC David Fincher
The English Patient (1996) John Seale, ASC, ACS Anthony Minghella
L. A. Confidential (1997) Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC Curtis Hanson
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Janusz Kaminski Steven Spielberg
The Thin Red Line (1998) John Toll, ASC Terrence Malick
American Beauty (1999) Conrad Hall, ASC Sam Mendes
The Matrix (1999) Bill Pope, ASC The Wachowski Brothers
In the Mood for Love (2000) Christopher Doyle, HKSC Wong Kar-wai


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Peak Gas Cars Are Already Past

Here’s an extraordinary thing – the peak sales of gasoline-powered cars in the US was in 2016:

Click to download spreadsheet

This includes straight passenger cars, SUVs, and pickups, which are all lumped together as Light Vehicles. The data comes from the Bureau of Economic Analysis via FRED, and EV sales from InsideEVs. It only goes up to November 2018 because the BEA has been closed by the federal government shutdown. Sales grew after the Great Recession as people regained their incomes, but have been flat for the last three years.

Note, though, that Electric Vehicles (including pure battery cars like Teslas and plug-in hybrids like the Volt) are now actually eating into the sales of gas cars. 2018 was a great year for EVs with 360K sold, almost twice 2017 sales. That’s about 2% of total vehicles. This is largely because of the Tesla Model 3, which sold about 140K total, and now accounts for about half the EVs sold each month. In December 2018 Tesla sold about as many cars as BMW in the US. If you break it down by state, the leading technological state, California, saw 10% of vehicle sales be EVs in August 2018.

The story is the same for world sales – about 1.7M EVs were sold out of 80M total. Most of those are in China, but Europe is electrifying fast.

Things will only get worse for gas. Electrics are already cheaper to run than gassers because they use energy more efficiently. They’re also faster, quieter, and need less maintenance. The main advantage of gassers is initial price, but that will be wiped out as batteries continue to get cheaper. They have dropped by a factor of 5 in the last 7 years according to BNEF, and were at $200/KWh in late 2017. Tesla thinks they’ll be $100/KWh by 2020. In the current Chevy Bolt the battery accounts for about a quarter of the price, so cheaper batteries help a lot.

So if all this is true, why did GM just cancel the Chevy Volt? I like my Volt, but sales actually fell this year, from 20K to 2017 to 18K in 2018. It’s probably getting eaten by the Model 3 and the Bolt. GM also says, as do most in the industry, that 2019 will be a bad year overall, and is cutting back in preparation. They do intend to keep building the Bolt, so maybe they believe that the days of plug-in hybrids are over, now that the battery-only range is up to 240 miles. Now everyone is wondering when they will announce a battery SUV or plug-in. Some think that they’re holding off for fear that people will delay current SUV purchases, others that GM is just on a death spiral.

Regardless, what is clear from past disruptions is that change happens faster than anyone expects. EV sales have been doubling every two years for the last seven. Five more doublings, ten years, and they would be at 64% of cars sold in 2028. It happened with PCs, it’s happening with solar and wind, and it could happen with EVs. For the sake of the climate, it had better.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Warming Harms the US More Than the Northeast

I’ve been looking at the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment, the US government’s considered opinion on what climate change will do to the country.  This program has been running since 1990, and is protected from hostile Administrations by legislation.   It looks bad, as all these reports do, but I was struck by how much less bad things are for the US Northeast, my own region, than they are for a lot of the country.  Take the overall rise in temperature, as expressed by the number of cooling degree days:


The baseline case in the upper right shows that the South is going to cook, while the Northeast changes hardly at all.   Cooling degree-days are calculated by taking the daily average of high and low temperatures and subtracting 65 F.  If the average is higher than 65F, it’s a certain number of cooling degrees; if less, it’s heating degrees.  Add them up for a year and that’s a measure of one’s air conditioning needs.   Boston has about 700 cooling degree days, while Miami has 4200. The Northeast will actually have less heating degree-days as things warm, which could  reduce CO2 emissions because of less natural gas usage.

The NCA breaks down effects by region, and does the 12 northeastern states here: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: Northeast .  They consist of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.  This covers a fifth of the country’s population, 64 million people, and a fifth of its GDP, about $4T.   Temperatures have already risen here by 2 F from 1895, and sea level is up a foot.  It could rise by another 8F by 2080, and another four feet of sea level, depending on how fast Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melt.

It notes that agriculture could be hit hard by warming, but that accounts for only $17B in the Northeast, 0.5% of its GDP.   The Midwest and Far West are likely to be hit much harder.   Northeast agriculture is pretty diverse, and could shift crop mixes to match temperatures changes. 

Likewise, the Northeast could see much worse storms, with the precipitation in the worst 1% of events increasing by 70%.   Hurricane Sandy (2012) really damaged New York City, and was the third most expensive storm in US history at $65B, after Katrina (2005) and Harvey (2017), both at $125B.  It killed 150 people, half in New England, but that’s a far cry from the 1800 deaths of Katrina.  A Sandy could happen again, but New York is much better prepared these days, with fewer underground substations and better emergency plans for subway flooding.  The Southeast, though, has been hit by five big storms in just the last two years. 

Wildfires have become catastrophic in the West, but the Northeast is too wet for them.  It’s actually more heavily forested than any other region: 52% vs about 38% for the Southeast and Northwest, and 23% for the whole country.   The Northeast’s forests could do a lot of carbon sequestration if they were managed right, and could actually be worth a lot of carbon credits.  They’re not absorbing much at present, possibly because the temperature shifts are causing tree species changes.  The boundary between hardwoods and boreal softwoods has moved by 400 feet in the mountains of Vermont since 1964.   Changing temperatures also mean new insect species, and that has devastated forests in the Northwest.  We’ll get them too, along with more mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus.

So the climate here will change to that of the mid-Atlantic, and we’ll get more bad storms, and the vegetation will shift.   Beaches will wash away, so shore property values will decrease.  There’ll be more flooding, but that’s something that can be managed.  Last August Massachusetts authorized $2.4B in spending on climate adaptation, covering seawall, dam, and other infrastructure upgrades, surveys, and planning.  They’re also discussing “rolling easements”,  a plan to manage what happens when sea level rise claims land.  The plan tries to preserve wetlands and maintain access to beach property as the roads wash away.

The area is also doing its bit on CO2 reduction.  Its states have banded together into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and emissions from power generation have dropped in half since the peak of 2005.   This is partly due to demand reduction from better lighting, partly due to conversion to natural gas (coal is gone), and some due to wind and biomass power (largely methane from landfills).   For instance, I get 100% of my home power from wind farms at about $0.14 per kWh.  Natural gas appears to be $0.12/kWh in MA, so going green only costs me about $20/month.

The path to zero carbon for the Northeast is fairly clear: maintain the 25 nuclear plants still operating, open up hydro-power from Quebec, and expand on-shore and especially off-shore wind.  Solar will help, but the sunlight here isn’t steady and there is less open space.  Cars go electric, heating switches from furnaces to heat pumps, and planes go to biofuel.  Now that renewable energy generation is largely solved, the biggest thing the area can do for energy is to solve storage.  That could be through the enormous molten batteries of Ambri, or flow batteries that offer unlimited capacity but limited power.  In the longer term, we have to figure out how to get CO2 out of the air itself, either through better trees or some mechanical system.

Anyway, it’s a lot easier to adapt to beach erosion than it is to Cat 5 hurricanes and fire tornadoes!   The direct impacts on the Northeast are serious but not catastrophic. The larger impact will be damage to the national and world economy.   No one will come to our schools and hospitals if they’re broke!  We may be better positioned than many areas to adapt to this change, but we’re all in this together.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Obsolescence of White Nationalism

I was sitting in a conference room the other day, meeting with a company that wanted to supply a component for a new chip we’re working on.  These days most chips are assembled from big pieces from other firms.   It’s the only way to handle the hundreds of millions of transistors that go onto a $10 chip.

I was looking around the room.   Here was our internal expert on this kind of hardware, a Chinese-American.   Here was our expert on this software, from Eastern Europe.   The senior person from the presenting company was a tall, thin Dutch guy, and his US application engineer was a brusque Israeli.   East Coast sales were handled by a genial Boston Irishman.   I was the only WASP there, and I’m a first generation American myself.

When I started my career it wasn’t like this.   A significant number of people I worked with then had been born nearby.  Those were days when ten people could build a competitive chip, and would design every transistor on it.  It still takes about ten people to do a chip, but they won’t ever touch a transistor, or even do much logic design.  They can’t possibly, if they want to finish in their lifetimes.

So we use larger and larger blocks, that have to come from a wider and wider range of sources.   There’s a wider range of skills involved too, from physics at the process level to system experience with software tools. The talent to do this has to come from a wider and wider pool as well.  Thus the range of backgrounds in even this one meeting.  Even the country with the largest and oldest electronics industry in the world , the US, can’t develop  chips by itself.

If you’re in tech, you’re familiar with this.   Globalism is taken completely for granted, and is an obvious necessity.   Not so for a lot of people.  They seem to think that Harley Davidsons can be made entirely in America.  The Brexiters thought that their small island could manage a modern industrial economy, and they’re finding that they can’t even manage the negotiations with the EU.  Worse still are the people who think that an all-white country can work, that letting in only certain people like, say, Slovenian models (to pick a random example)  is enough to sustain a country.

They’re bigots, and they’re obsolete.   It hasn’t worked that way for decades.   Look at the poor Russians — their one technical success, rocketry, has been running on old tech for so long that it’s both failing (E.g. the recent Soyuz abort and upper stage launch failures) and getting surpassed (E.g. Vector, SpaceX and Blue Origin).  They aren’t part of the worldwide slosh of ideas and talent, and they’re getting left behind.    If it can happen to a country as full of determined and brilliant people as theirs, it can happen to anyone.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Immigration and the Nobel Science Prizes

It’s hard to take the current Administration’s stance on immigration seriously.   Their policies are deliberately cruel, as in family separations, and clearly motivated by bigotry.  In response, people have pointed to the 80 million US immigrants and their huge contributions to the country.   This includes the ancestors of many of the people in the Administration itself, such as the president’s grandparents and wives.

But let me do a quantitative take on this.   The most prestigious prizes in the world are the Nobel science prizes, those in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine.   These even outweigh the other Nobels: Peace, Literature, and the new Economics.   The Peace choices are often terrible, like Kissinger and Obama; Economics is not as important a field as the others; and the Literature awards are usually obscure.   But the science Nobels have been for consistently important work for over a century, and are about the only technical prizes anyone knows about.

[Irresistible side story: Brian Schmidt was visiting his grandmother in Fargo  North Dakota, when was stopped by the TSA in the airport.  They saw a solid black disk in the X-ray of his carry-on.  “Sir, what’s this?” they asked.  “A half pound of gold.”  “Where did you get it?”  “It was given to me by the King of Sweden.” “Oh really?”  “Yes, for discovering the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.”  Physics award, 2011.  “Yeah?  So why are you in Fargo?”]

So how has immigration contributed to winning science Nobels?   For each laureate, we can identify the country where their work was done and whether the laureate is a native of that country or was born elsewhere.   For the top ten work countries, the split between native and immigrant looks like this:

The data comes from this List of Nobel Laureates by Country, but each laureate was only given one country where the work was done.   The full list and charts are in this spreadsheet: Science Nobel Prizes and Countries.

There have been 609 Prizes awarded to individuals between 1904 and 2017 inclusive.  Three people have won two: Marie Curie, John Bardeen, and Frederick Sanger. 32 countries in total have gotten Prizes for work done there.  Switzerland appears to get the most per capita, followed by Sweden and Denmark.

The US dominates the list with 271 of them, 45% of the total.  This isn’t just because the US has a much larger population than the others.  It only got 26 prizes before 1950, but then Congress poured money into the NSF, NIH, and other Big Science programs, and it won 245 more, 54% of that total.  That’s still true in the 21st century – the US has 77 out of 142 since 2000, which is still 54%.  Only 2 native Americans have done their work elsewhere.

What’s even more striking is that 79 of the US prizes come from immigrants.  More immigrants have won Nobels for work done in the US than for any entire country, except the UK.  The UK has 82 and Germany 72.

So where did those immigrants come from?

                            Birth Countries for US Laureates
Region Country Number each
Europe (41)
Germany 14
Italy 6
Austria 5
Hungary 3
Netherlands, Poland, Norway 2
Czech Republic, Ireland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, France, Lithuania 1
Anglosphere (16)
Canada 8
United Kingdom 6
Australia, New Zealand 1
Other (22)
China 6
Japan 4
India 3
Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, Egypt, Korea 1

Looking more closely at the European immigrants, we find that 18 out of 41 of them, about half, were driven out by mid-20th century persecution by Nazis, and by Italian and Spanish fascists.  16 of those were driven out by anti-Semitism, and 2 were not, Max Delbruck and Severo Ochoa. Europe’s loss was the US’s gain.

Immigrants from the Anglosphere would have had a much easier time transitioning.  But Canada in particular lost a lot of talent – it lost 8 people to the US while only getting 9 itself, and 4 of those were also immigrants.  More native Canadians have won Nobels in the US than in Canada itself.

Immigrants from other parts of the world would have had difficulty getting into the US before the 1960s, when immigration rules were greatly relaxed.   Notice what a range of countries they come from, many of which would be considered undesirable.

The current Administration is explicitly denying entry to those fleeing persecution, and trying to eliminate immigration from non-white parts of the world.  If it had kept out the 22 from the Other parts of the world, and the 18 that were fleeing European persecution, that’s 40 of the world’s leading scientists.  Fleeing and non-white immigrants have won more Nobels for the US than any whole country has won, except the UK and Germany.  That’s more than all of France.  The Administration’s anti-immigration policies will damage US science even at this very top level.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

SF Inventors

Unlike other groups that I’ve written about (Beautiful Inventors, Political Inventors, Criminal Inventors and Movie Inventors), science fiction authors are known for their interest in technology.   You would think, then, that a lot of them would have made real-life contributions, but I haven’t actually found that many.  Here are a few of interest:

Arthur C. Clarke is the probably the best known SF inventor, and that’s because he came up with the best use for spacecraft – geosynchronous communication satellites.   Its first mention is here, in a letter in the Feb 1945 issue of Wireless World, and he gave it a full write-up in the Oct 1945 issue:

Click for article

People had talked vaguely about communication satellites before, but he figured out the right way to do it.   The idea of orbiting anything was pretty far-fetched in 1945, much less what to do when you were up there.  Clarke thought that it would be 50 years before such a service could be built, but it took only 19 – Syncom 3 launched in 1964.   There are about 530 operational satellites in GEO now, about 30% of the total.  Satellite comm overall is a $200 billion industry today, which is about 2/3 of all space activity.   Not bad for a radio technician!  Clarke never made a dime off of the idea, but it was worth immortal fame.

James Cameron – In between making some of the biggest movies of all time, like Titanic and Avatar, and some of the best SF movies, like The Abyss and The Terminator and Aliens,  Cameron has found time to get two patents and one design patent:

  1. 5,189,512 (1993) Helmet Integrated Display System – a scheme of projecting a video image into both eyes of a cameraman so that they appear at a virtual distance
  2. 4,996,938 (1991) Apparatus for propelling a user in an underwater environment These were both with his younger brother Michael, who has also been in the Industry as a stuntman and actor.
  3. D783522S1 (2017) Solar Power ArrangementImage result for cameron solar sunflower -2015He likes solar power, but admits that the panels are ugly.  He designed these tracking solar sunflowers for his wife’s school, MUSE, and five of them supply most of the school’s needs.  When they came out in 2015 he said that he would open-source the plans, but hasn’t yet.   He does appear to be a busy guy.

Cameron and a partner, Vincent Pace, were also key to the revival of 3D movies, largely through their Fusion Camera System.  This split a single optical path into two stereoscopic ones with a variable distance between them, and allowed for the capture of both 2D and 3D simultaneously.   Plus, of course, he has been deeply involved in deep sea diving, using one of his own submersibles to visit the bottom of the Marianas Trench.   It’s not clear if he sleeps.

Gene Wolfe – has written brilliant outré fantasy such as The Book of the New Sun, the best long novel of the 1980s.  But his day job in the 1960s was as a mechanical engineer at Proctor and Gamble, and that’s where he worked on  Pringles potato chips.   In a 1998 interview with Lawrence Person he said:

GW: I developed it [Pringles]. I did not invent it. That was done by a German gentlemen whose name I’ve forgotten for years. I developed the machine that cooks them. He had invented the basic idea, how to make the potato dough, pressing it between two forms, more or less as in a wrap-around, immersing them in hot cooking oil, and so forth and so on. And we were then called in, I was in the engineering development division, and asked to develop mass production equipment to make these chips. And we divided the task into the dough making/dough rolling portion, which was done by Len Hooper, and the cooking portion, which was done by me, and then the pickoff and salting portion, which was done by someone else, and then the can filling/can sealing portion which was done by a man who was almost driven insane by the program. Because he would develop a machine, and he would have it almost ready to go, and they would say “Oh, instead of 300 cans a minute, make it 500 cans a minute.” And so he would have to throw out a bunch of stuff, and develop the new machine, and when he got that one about ready, they’d say “make it 700 cans a minute.” And they almost put him in a mental hospital. He took his job very seriously and he just about flipped out.

Pringles are everywhere – I’ve seen them lining the shelves of Central Asian convenience stores.  Maybe that’s because one can make 700 cans a minute. Wolfe was also the robotics editor at Plant Engineering magazine in the 1970s before switching to writing full-time.   How Pringles and manufacturing robots got him to think about far-future medievalist societies is mysterious.

Neal Stephenson – and four others received US patent 9,037,478 in 2015 for “Substance Allocation System and Method for Ingestible Product Preparation System and Method”.   It’s  written in impenetrable patent-ese, but appears to be a machine that will mix a dose of a drug like aspirin into a something like a smoothie. It was assigned to Elwha, a patent troll outfit started by Nathan Myrvold, formerly CTO of Microsoft. Stephenson appears to have gotten several patents associated with this, and Myrvold is on some of them.  This may be an attempt to lock up the concept of a personalized food fabricator.

Stephenson is also into western martial arts, and tried to develop a sword-fighting video game called CLANG.   It would have had a sword-like motion controller and use actual fighting styles.  He raised half a million for it on Kickstarter here. , but that doesn’t go all that far for a real game, and it never shipped.

He now has the title Chief Futurist at Magic Leap, a secretive augmented reality company with some new display scheme.  They too are having trouble getting anything out, but he is more concerned with what the best use of this tech is.  That sounds more up a writer’s alley than getting embedded controllers to work in swords and food makers.

Let me finally briefly mention some people who really do have tech day jobs:

  • Robert L Forward – inventor of the StarWisp interstellar craft concept and interesting solar sails, and author of the notable novel Dragon’s Egg, about life on a neutron star.
  • Geoff Landis – actual NASA researcher on the Mars rover missions and advanced propulsion concepts, and Hugo and Nebula award winning short story writer.
  • David Brinholder of US7124372B2 “Interactive communication between a plurality of users”, and notable author of the Uplift trilogy.
  • Leo Szilard – discoverer of the fission chain reaction, which he actually patented in Britain in 1934 as GB 630726. In 1961 he published a book of SF short stories, The Voice of the Dolphin, where the title story is about how dolphins use scientists as fronts to save the world.

These are all I could find!   I’m sure there are more, but perhaps writing invention and mechanical invention are very different skills.  One or the other can certainly occupy all your time!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment