Mad Science #7 – Radioactive Lighting

Charles Fraser-Smith had a problem.  He had a lot of problems actually;  he was the chief gadgeteer for the British espionage agency MI6 during WWII.  He was responsible for all the gear that agents would need on the Continent, from the right styles of clothes and shoes and cigarettes, to maps hidden in buttons, to cameras and radios that could be concealed anywhere.  Ian Fleming happened to know him, and based the character of Q in the James Bond books upon him.

His problem was that British planes couldn’t find the French fields that they needed to land on to supply the Resistance. With German soldiers and planes everywhere you could hardly set up bright landing lights.   You couldn’t even give them powerful flashlights for fear of being stopped and exposed.   He tried making flashlights that looked like innocuous other objects:

But the batteries failed when needed.  He needed something bright and reliable and so came upon this:

Plastic balls painted on the inside with glowing radium paint.  Just toss them on the edges of a field before the plane was due to land, and they would stand out against the dark ground of the countryside.  Then stash them in the woods afterwards in an opaque bag for next time, since they’ll still be shining. Radium was in regular use for glow-in-the-dark watch and clock faces, so there were supplies of it even in wartime.

Click for link to exhibit at the Tangmere Museum

He describes this in his memoir The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith (1981), but doesn’t talk about how well it worked.  It’s possible that it was used only once or perhaps not at all.

Maybe that’s because it was a really terrible idea.  Radium is poisonous even in microgram quantities, and these would need a lot of it.   Even so they wouldn’t be all that bright.  Radium paint glows by phosphorescence, which isn’t that efficient.  The phosphors do get damaged by the radium’s alpha particles over time, so present-day antique radium clocks no longer glow.  Also, the Germans had Geiger counters even then (they used them to find their own radioactive land mines), so if the radium ever got on someone’s hands they could be discovered.   Fraser-Smith had plenty of ingenious ideas, and his book is a really fun read, but this wasn’t one of them.

The US military actually did make use of glowing radium disks for marking people, ship decks, and bridges:

Radium Personnel Markers – click for good article.  Note the Poison marking

These had a belt clip so that you could wear them right next to the family jewels.  They switched to Strontium-90 in the 1950s because it was cheaper and lasted longer.  This was in use right up into the 1960s, incredibly.  Oak Ridge Associated Universities has a big collection of radioactivity-related items, and discusses these here.

The other big use of radioactive lighting was for uncrewed lighthouses in remote places.  These used the heat from radioactive decay to power thermocouples to generate electricity, a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.  They generally used strontium-90 and produced 10 to 100 watts for about 10 years. The US and UK built a few, but the big user was the USSR.   The Russian-Norwegian environmental watchdog Bellona estimates that there were 1000 abandoned units like this scattered around Russia:

Looted Soviet RTGs.  Note the cooling fins around the hot core

Records of them were lost when the USSR fell.  They’ve gotten looted for scrap metal, and people have come into ERs with radiation burns.  Tens of millions have been spent on finding them and disposing of them properly.  They’ve been largely replaced by systems with solar panels and batteries, but Rosatom has announced that they’ve come up with a new scheme based on nickel-63.  This one will be completely safe, honest.

This highlights the real issue with this whole concept – you only get light out of them for a few years and then they become dangerous radioactive waste.   The more broadly they get used, as on bridge markers or beacons, the more likely they are to be mishandled.  50s SF stories were full of eternal atomic light bulbs, but the reality is much nastier.  The 20th century put so much radioactivity into the ecosphere that it’s a mark of the Anthropocene, and here was another example.

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William Gibson Reading “Agency”

Click for link

Gibson is on a book tour for his new novel, and I got to see him read from it and take questions in the First Parish Church in Cambridge. There was a big crowd! It was nearly full, largely with people who, like me, read Neuromancer when it came out in 1984. They now have long grey hair or beards. He said “I can’t tell if I’ve read here before, or if there are a lot of churches like this in Cambridge, but it’s really nice.”

He then read Ch. 3 of Agency, “The App Whisperer”, where we first meet the novel’s protagonist, Eunice, a snarky AI cobbled together out of an upload and various military programs by Valley bros. Eunice introduces herself to the viewpoint character, Verity Jane, through an earbud and a pair of AR glasses.  Gibson spoke slowly, and still has a southern drawl after all these decades in Vancouver, and with a fair number of pauses while speaking. He’s now 71, and confesses that these tours are wearing. It’s a fun, dense chapter, like the book as a whole. He then took questions, which I’m reconstructing from memory:

Q: How did Agency end up being on a stub timeline?
A: I had pitched the novel as a parodic romp through Silicon Valley, and then Nov 9, 2016 happened. From one week to the next everything turned stupid. My plot was ruined. But I had an epiphany a couple of weeks later. This is a sequel to The Peripheral, where the oligarchs up in the 22nd century are messing around with timelines for their amusement. One of them could be doing it out of sadism. I could keep this story in a plausible timeline, and leave the actual one to turn into the 22nd century dystopia. Saved!

Q: Would you ever do another collaboration like The Difference Engine? Please do it with Kim Stanley Robinson!
A: I really haven’t done that many: a couple of short stories, that with Sterling, and a script with the actor Michael St. John Smith called Archangel. No one was interested, until it got picked up as a graphic novel. Now people are saying it should be a screenplay! I did some commissioned work in Hollywood, but it doesn’t work for me unless I have a really close relationship with the person. No one but Sterling could stand working with me.

Q: Your style has gotten leaner as you’ve gone along. What is your writing process like?
A: Ugly. I don’t think we as writers are here to talk about it, but to do it. No one else can give you writing advice. But for me, I start with a character, like Verity. I put them in a room like Joe-Eddy’s apartment, and come to know it as well as my own house. Soon they get full autonomy and the story flows from there. It never starts with an idea.

Q: How did you end up with so many female protagonists?
A: When I first started writing SF in the late 70s, I had a Post-It note list in my head of things to do. One was to avoid “The Future is American”. Another was to put literary realism into a genre that really didn’t have it. But another was to get women into the stories. I remember going to Norwescon in Seattle and hearing Joanna Russ talk about feminism in SF. I had never heard the word. I’d read it a few times, but didn’t really know what it meant. On hearing her I got it.   That led to Molly Millions being the kick-ass co-protagonist in Neuromancer.

Q: This will probably be the most boring and nerdy question this evening, but you seem to use a lot of null subject sentences. This comes up in Arabic and Japanese; people say “Jack picked up the apple. Ate.” The subject and object are implied.
A: I’ve never heard it so clearly described! It just seems to pass my internal editor as a natural way to speak. I catch myself doing stuff like that sometimes. I was using “liminal” way too much, and so made sure to put it in the second paragraph here, even though we’re in liminal times.

Q: How do you react when people ask you about the Future?
A: I have a cladding about that. All SF is actually written about the present. It’s like taking an ice cream cone from the store; it’s melting away as you carry it out. People credit me with coining “cyberspace”, but no one except the military uses it without air quotes. The actual Internet is nothing like what I described. In Neuromancer it was still a thing separate from the world, a different space. Some time ago it all everted, and now we’re living inside it. I also used “cyberpunk” with air quotes when it first came out, and parts of that did come true.

He then apologized for fading (this is only the first week of the tour!) and sat down to sign. I had hoped to get my Neuromancer hardback signed, but there were hundreds of people ahead of me.  It’s great to see someone who can still deliver after over 40 years in the field!


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What Has the US EV Tax Credit Cost?

Last month the US EV tax credit expired completely for Tesla. I happened to get my Model 3 lease just under the wire, and actually saved something. The dealership was really busy in the credit’s last few days!  The credit has clearly been a great success in kick-starting the electric vehicle industry, but how much has it actually cost?

The credit, which is called IRC 30D, was passed in 2009, and is $2500 for any car with a battery of 5 kWh or more, plus $417 for every kWh above 5 up to $5000. The amount per model is given here: Federal Tax Credits for All-Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles.  Everything above 12 kWh gets the full $7500.  Full EVs of decent range need at least 50 kWh, while plug-ins tend to have 8 to 16 kWh. The credit applies to the first 200,000 cars made by a company, and then gets cut in half to $3750 for the six month after that, to $1875 for the next six months, and then to zero.  The credit was meant to encourage the design and marketing of these cars, but not be an open-ended subsidy.

So first let’s see how many EVs have been sold in the last 10 years.   This data comes from the InsideEVs  EV Sales Scorecard and I’ve put it all into this spreadsheet: EV Sales and Tax Credits.  Here it is, sorted by the units sold in 2019:

The first major EVs, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, were introduced in 2011.  The Volt was updated in 2016 but cancelled in 2019.  The Leaf did well until it was superseded.  Toyota introduced a plug-in Prius in 2017, which make it now #2.  Tesla introduced the Model S in 2013, but sales exploded with the Model 3 in 2018.  That was such a hit that it threw the growth curve off for 2018.   There have been 57 EV models all told, of which 46 are still in production.  Overall sales are doubling about every 2.5 years.

Given the raw sales and the credit per model, we can calculate what the total credit cost if everyone took it:

The biggest year was 2018 when at most $2.4 billion would have been granted.  The actual amount could be much less, depending on how many people filed for it.  Even that was only 0.06% of the US federal budget.  The budget can’t even be tracked to that precision.  It dropped in 2019 to $1.3B because the Tesla credit was way down.   Chevrolet hit the 200K limit in April 2019, and its credit will expire in April 2020, so it was down too.  Nissan has sold 140K all told, and Toyota and Ford are at 120K, so they’re not all that close.

The total credit available from  2011 to 2019 was $8.8B.   Spread over 1.5M cars, that amounts to $6000 per car.  Tesla has gotten a total subsidy of $3.1B, followed by Chevrolet at $1.5B, Nissan at $1.1B, BMW at $0.5B and Toyota at $0.5B.

The Trump Administration has proposed canceling the credit altogether, unsurprisingly, but it has been renewed every year.  The House Democrats have proposed extending it to 600K units. That would mainly help GM, which has already exceeded the 200K limit, but will help Ford soon.  All of the other companies have 2.1M cars left before they hit the limit.

This year a lot of new models will be introduced, so Tesla will get some real competition.  The Kia Niro is the only one that’s close right now, because it’s bigger and significantly cheaper.  GM has faded, as I’ve mentioned before, but VW is all in because they need to get over the scandal around their hacking of diesel emissions tests.

Overall, this credit has done exactly what it’s supposed to.   It’s enabled the creation of a new category of cars, and they’ve sold about $70B worth so far.  The whole world is converting over to EVs, and this helped. It’s been particularly important to the growth of Tesla, which was up to about $25B in sales for 2019.  It’s the first successful new car company in the US since Jeep in 1941.   After driving my Model 3 for a couple of weeks I can see why.  It’s the fastest, smoothest car I’ve ever driven.  It could use more space, and the touch screen is annoying, but once you’ve driven on juice, you never want to go back.




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The Carboniferous and the Anti-Carboniferous Eras

Here’s a cool recent discovery – the reason the earth has so much coal is that it took fungi 60 million years to figure out how to digest lignin, the compound that gives wood its strength.  Before that the trees were free to coat the earth.  They just lay where they fell until they burned or were buried in sediments.  This was the Carboniferous Era, the time from about 360 to 300 million years ago when almost all coal was laid down.  There was just an enormous amount of plant life on land then.  The oxygen level hit 35% (vs 21% today), as the trees consumed CO2 to build themselves and released O2.   Invertebrates, which have to breathe through their shells, reached enormous size, meters long.   Don’t click on this if you’re arachnophobic.   Plants with roots and leaves first appeared about 390 My ago, so that marks the start of the era.

So what caused the end?   People have thought that it was climate change or a reconfiguring of the continents, or the evolution of new kinds of trees.   This fungal explanation appeared in 2012, as published in Science“The Paleozoic Origin of Enzymatic Lignin Decomposition Reconstructed from 31 Fungal Genomes” by Dmitrios Floudas of Clark University in Worcester, and 70 other authors at 25 other institutions.   This is not easy work!   A lay explanation from Scientific American can be found here.

White rot fungus eating oak wood

Lignin is the brown stuff in wood.  Most of the rest is relatively clear cellulose.  The lignin is what gets removed to make paper.  It’s a tough molecule that consists of long chains of carbon clusters with lots of cross links.   It repels water, and apparently originally evolved to form the surface of tubes to transport water throughout a plant. Then it became the main structural compound of woody plants.  Once plants could hold themselves off the ground, they raced upwards to capture as much sunlight as possible, since tall plants shade out short ones.

Nothing could eat this stuff until white rot fungi came along.   People still don’t know quite how the enzymes in it work, but they can track the genes that make them across a lot of different fungal species.  By looking at the number of random mutations in those genes, and knowing the rate at which those mutations accumulate, they can work backward to when the common ancestor to all those species began to diverge.   This happened about 290 million years ago.  Given the inaccuracies here, that’s pretty close to when the Carboniferous closed.

The trees of the Carboniferous weren’t like those today – they were mainly an extinct species called Lepidodendrales, or scale trees.    Here’s a fossil of one that I found near the coal town of Joggins, Nova Scotia:

That’s how common these trees were – you can find them lying by the side of the road 300 million years later.  They were huge, up to 30 m tall, with meter-thick trunks of mostly bark.  The bark was green and photo-synthesized, unlike modern trees.  Those little indents were actually pores on the trunk for taking in air and water.   They weren’t as strong as modern trees, but they didn’t need to be because white rot wasn’t around.  They went for maximum growth instead of defense from attackers.   That worked great until it didn’t.

A long time after this a vertebrate came along with an unusually developed nervous system.   It found that the remains of these trees could be digested by steam engines, and used for rapid locomotion and for the construction of artificial skins out of wool and cotton.  Thus began the Anti-Carboniferous, when all these ancient deposits began to be consumed.

There appears to be about 1100 billion tons of mine-able coal today, and a couple of trillion more tonnes that cannot be mined.   The number keeps going up as new deposits are discovered and mining techniques improve.  There’s no telling how much was laid down originally, since it can be destroyed by plate tectonics.    Compare that 4000 billion tonnes total to the 750 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere, and the 600 billion that are in modern-day trees.  Those scale trees sure took out a lot of CO2.  Maybe the Earth would have been Venus were it not for these incompetent fungi.

Humanity has burned somewhere between 300 and 400 billion tons of coal since the early 19th century.   It’s hard to tell because there are only good worldwide statistics for recent decades.   The oil company BP has stats from 1981 to 2018 in this spreadsheet.  This probably covers the majority of the coal burned, since the world population is so much higher now and so much more industrialized than it was earlier.

According to BP, humanity has burned 216 billion tons of coal in the last four decades.  The breakdown by region looks like this:

Region % World Consumption
1981 to 2018
% World Consumption
in 2018
China 33% 50%
Europe 19% 8%
USA 17% 9%
India 6% 12%
Rest of World 25% 21%

China now consumes far more than anyone else, but India is coming on strongly. Both countries are ruining their air as a result. Both are still building coal plants, while Europe and the US have been shutting them down as uneconomic.

All this consumption is one piece of evidence that there have been no other industrial species on Earth before us. They would have mined this stuff too. We’ve consumed 20-30% of it in just two hundred years, and there won’t be much left after ten thousand. Anyone before us would have taken it all, along with all the readily available iron, copper, and gold.

The Anti-Carboniferous is going to be a lot shorter than the Carboniferous! For our sake it had better end in the next couple of decades. Let’s hope the trees can then put all this carbon back into the ground where it belongs.

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Mad Science #6: Nazi Fusion Fraud

I can’t believe I’ve never come across this story.   An actual Nazi scientist, Ronald Richter, was working on an actual super-technology, lithium-hydrogen nuclear fusion, in an actual secret lair, the island of Huemul, surrounded by razor wire, machine guns, and patrol boats.  All of this in Argentina! And it used a spectacular technique, shock waves in plasma arcs, that would shake the whole building when they went off.  His work was fraudulent, but his ideas sparked (so to speak) research that continues to this day.  It also shows a lot of the standard elements of engineering fraud, ones that we see in the biggest recent one, Theranos.

Richter with his reactor instruments

I came upon this through another great chapter in Atomic Adventures by James Mahaffey, and it’s fully described (albeit in German) by Dr. Paul Hahn here: Das Richter- Experiment.

In 1948 the new dictator of Argentina, Juan Peron, asked a German refugee engineer, Kurt Tank, what he could do to Make Argentina Great.   Tank was a serious guy, a major aeronautical designer at the German company Fokker-Wolf.  He did the Fw 200 transatlantic passenger plane in 1936 and the Fw 190 fighter plane in 1941,  and had come to Argentina after the War to build a jet fighter. He said “Get Ronald Richter out of Europe”.

Richter was born in 1908, and got his physics doctorate from Prague University in 1935. He then kicked around for the next ten years doing miscellaneous tech jobs in Germany.   There were lots of openings in those days even for erratic figures like him, since the Nazis had removed all the Jewish scientists and engineers.  He didn’t do well, but all the while he had been working on the side on unstable plasma arcs. 

These are formed by two graphite electrodes when they’re put close together.  When a voltage is put across them, a spark will jump the gap and form a brilliant arc.  This was the first form of electric light, and was still used in bright sources like searchlights and movie projectors right up into the 1980s.  But if a little too much current is put through them, the arc expands and explodes with a deafening bang.  Richter thought that there might be enough energy in that explosion to actually get hydrogen atoms to fuse.  He claimed he had measured the gamma rays that would be emitted by such fusions.  Mark Oliphant had already demonstrated the fusion of deuterium and tritium in 1933 at Cambridge, so the theory was in place.

He was unemployed and broke after WW II, and so jumped at the chance to work in Argentina.  His talk of building miniature suns to generate unlimited power convinced Peron, and he was given a lab in the corner of Tank’s aircraft plant.  When one of his experiments exploded, he cried “Sabotage!” and flew into a rage.  He insisted on working somewhere more private, so Peron set him up on Huemul island on the border with Chile:

Prime supervillain lair real estate

There he specified the construction of huge concrete reactors:

And quite nice housing for himself and his family.   The reactor itself consisted of an arc setup driven by a huge bank of capacitors and transformers.  The arc electrodes were hollow, and he would squirt some hydrogen and lithium into the arc when it went off. 

He knew that an arc had nowhere near the temperature and pressure to really do fusion.  Arcs get up a few thousand degrees Centigrade, and fusion needs many millions.  He hoped, though, to exploit two things:

  1. Resonance induced by Larmor Precession, an effect used in MRI machines that can make nuclei bop around in strong magnetic fields.  Maybe this would let the hydrogen and lithium nuclei get close enough to one another.
  2. A fusion chain reaction, where the fusion of a few atoms would release enough energy to heat up the others to where they fused.

In  1951, he finally thought he saw evidence of fusion, or maybe Peron was pressing him for results after the huge amounts he had spent.  He and Peron gave a big press conference, announcing that backwards Argentina had achieved fusion, accomplishing what the world’s leading science countries could not.  The local press had no idea what to make of this, but the news excited and dismayed physicists in the US, UK and France.  Few believed it.  

Local physicists demanded a look at his equipment.   They found that his radiation detectors were behind the shielding, and so could not have picked up anything.  That’s a pretty basic mistake. The radio antennas needed to induce the Larmor effect were not even connected.   The fusion evidence that he claimed, a broadening in the spectral lines of the arc, could not be seen.

Peron was humiliated, and cut him off at once.  He had to leave Huemul, and tried without success to find physics work elsewhere, applying to the US, France, and even Libya.   He died in penury in Buenos Aires in 1991.  The buildings in Huemul are still there but in ruins:

Ruins of Richter lab

credit Katia Moskvitch, click for nice article

So how does this compare with Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos blood-testing company?  A few common elements:

  • A good pitch – They both offered something quite valuable: science glory for Argentina here, and easy tracking of health problems for Theranos.
  • A reputable validator – Hardly anyone can evaluate the quality of a proposal, so you have to rely on experts.  Here it was Kurt Tank, and there it was Channing Robertson, an engineering dean at Stanford who had taught Elizabeth Holmes when she was an undergraduate, and still backs her.
  • Deep secrecy – Richter made sure that his lab was far from anyone who knew anything about nuclear physics, and wouldn’t let anyone see his work. Holmes made everyone sign strict NDAs and threatened dissenters with major lawyers.  They were both right about this; exposure did them in.

But there were some positive outcomes here.  A physics institute, the Bariloche Atomic Centre was established at the nearby town of Bariloche using Richter’s equipment, and it has done good work on cosmic rays and nuclear waste management.  The initial report of Richter’s work prompted a lot of people to think seriously about fusion, and Lyman Spitzer of Princeton then came up with the stellarator scheme, a magnetic confinement plasma system that underlies most of current fusion work.

Of course, fusion still doesn’t work after almost 70 years of intense effort.  It seems ludicrous now that anyone thought it could be done on some remote island, but no one would have known that at the time.  The credulous Peron was convinced by the Nazi reputation for tech wizardry.   Maybe that’s the most important lesson for tech fraudsters – find ignorant but rich patrons.  Please don’t make use of this advice!



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GM Abandons Green Cars, And Blue Staters

I’ve been a pretty satisfied customer of the Chevy Volt for three years now.  It’s a plug-in hybrid, meaning that it will go for about 50 miles on battery power and then switch over to a gas engine.   It’s quiet, well-equipped, fairly spacious, and has good zoom.   50 miles lets me drive electric about 80% of the time.

My lease is almost over, and I’ll be getting an all-electric car next time.  Their battery range is well over 200 miles these days, so I don’t need the backup engine.  I pulled into a gas station yesterday and realized that this might well be the last time I ever fill up.  One more tank will take me through the end of this lease, and the next won’t use gas.  Good!  As I was thinking about this in the gas station, I noticed just how awful they smell.

But that next car will not be from GM.  They stopped building Volts last April.   Everyone told them to build a CUV, but instead they gave up on plug-ins altogether. They do have an all-electric, the Chevy Bolt, but it hasn’t been updated for three years.  The Tesla Model 3 costs about as much and is outselling it 13 to 1.  It has more electric range, more acceleration, more space, and looks sleeker:

The Bolt econobox vs the Tesla Car Of The Future

GM says that they’ll be coming out with more electric models soon, but they haven’t for a long time even as Tesla has been rolling over them.

Worse still, GM just sided with the Trump administration in trying to stop improving mileage standards.  Trump wants to freeze them, while Obama then and California now want them to improve by about 4% per year.   Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW sided with California in maintaining the Obama increases, but GM decided to go with the least popular president in American history.   He’ll only be president for another year, and maybe not even that. Any Democrat is certain to reinstate the standards.  California is now actually saying that they will refuse to buy GM for state car fleets.

The Volt was their bid to get back into the good graces of blue states. When GM went under in 2009, it was a big reason why the Obama administration bailed them out. It was a sign that GM really could adapt to the future.  The whole world needs to get off gasoline cars, and the Volt was a strong first step.   They sold about 155K of them total, and another 50K Bolts.  But the Volt and Bolt together were only 2% of unit sales to Chevrolet, and their profit margins weren’t great either.  They’re now going to drive that bloated SUV/truck product line right into the guardrail.

I also wonder whether the Administration threatened them.   Trump has made open threats against GM in the past when they have closed plants in districts that voted for him.   Maybe he extorted them just as he extorted Ukraine.   He also apparently denied Amazon a $10B cloud computing contract at the Pentagon, just because Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post writes mean stories about him.  Extortion seems to be his standard operating procedure these days.

In any case, this GM customer won’t be buying again.  I really, really want mainline US companies to stay competitive for the sake of the country, but they’re just not keeping up.




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A Heinlein Meme Started the Space Race

… according to the excellent Washington Post podcast Moonrise.  It’s an account of what led up to the Apollo 11 moon landing, starting with Robert Goddard, John W. Campbell, Sergei Korolev, and Wernher von Braun in the 1920s and 30s, and leading up to July 1969.  It’s hosted by the journalist Lillian Cunningham, who says up front that she’s not an SF or space person, but was startled to find out just how weird and dark the origins of the program were.

The Space Review: Heinlein’s ghost (part 2)

Virginia and Bob Heinlein on the set of “Destination Moon”, 1950

In 1947 Heinlein wrote the first of his YA novels, Rocket Ship Galileo, wherein a scientist and a couple of teens build a rocket in their neighborhood. They power it with a thorium reactor, fly off to the moon, and tangle with Nazis at a secret base there. You know, as one does. The novel then got reworked into the script for a big Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, with Heinlein as a contributor. It was a great success, and contained the pitch:

We are not the only ones who know that the moon can be reached. We are not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on, and we better win it, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.

This was in 1950, way before anyone had a hope of even getting into orbit.  Heinlein was the best SF writer of the period, and he was saying what most fans believed.  All through the 1950s they hammered home the idea that the nation that controls space will control the world.

But someone who didn’t believe it was Dwight D. Eisenhower.   When the first request for an orbital rocket program came to his desk in 1955, he was reluctant.   Orbital rockets had almost no military value.   Missiles do, sure, but they only had to go a few thousand miles, and not get up to the five miles per second needed for orbit.   This stuff was crazily expensive and unreliable.   He knew how the V-2 had been a disaster for the Nazis, so much so that it may have shortened the war.

What convinced him was the prospect of spy satellites.  Cameras that could not be shot down and could see the whole of an enemy’s country were a great idea. If the principle of unrestricted overflights by satellites could be established by having civilian, scientific satellites, then all the better. The committee behind the International Geophysical Year wanted to do an orbital mission, so the US could slip their spy satellite work in as part of their program.

But then came Sputnik in 1957. The US knew that the Soviets were also planning an orbital launch, but had no idea that it would be that soon or that big.  Eisenhower systematically downplayed its importance, but Lyndon B Johnson, who was then the Majority Leader of the Senate, saw a political opportunity. He convened hearings in Congress, and speaker after speaker repeated Heinlein’s theme – we were behind and they were going to overwhelm us from this new high ground.   Johnson concluded the hearings with a big speech:

Control of space means control of the world. From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the Earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid.

This is ridiculous, and should have been known to be ridiculous at the time.  “Masters of infinity” indeed; that’s an SF story title.  Yet there was the huge and intimidating LBJ saying this to all the country. He was saying it partly to just attack Republicans, but he also believed it. He had been primed for it by a systematic campaign by SF writers like Heinlein and polemicists like Campbell and von Braun.

That kicked off the vast and unproductive Space Race.  Kennedy also saw the political advantages of the Missile Gap, and the propaganda value of a moon landing. When he was killed, it had to be finished as part of his legacy. A few landings were done, but then its PR value was exhausted, and no one ever bothered to go back.

In the end, Eisenhower was proven right. There has been military value in space reconnaissance, but that’s it. There has never been any military, commercial, or scientific value to having people in space. It really has been amazingly expensive.   NASA has more than twice the budget of the actual US science agency, the NSF, ~$20B vs ~$8B, and has spent ~$1.3T total in current dollars.

Yet he was wrong as well – space matters as a symbol. That’s why SF fans latched on to it early, and why people of genius like Goddard, von Braun, and  Korolev spent their lives on it.   It really was inspiring to both Soviets and Americans, and to the two dozen other countries that now do their own launches. Heinlein may have thought that space was important for military control, but its actual importance was in control of the imagination.

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Space Is Not That Big

So we just had the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and there’s renewed interest in doing another landing on the Moon.  That got me thinking about space as the final frontier. How much is there out there really?  I added up the area of the all the places in space that we could ever reasonably land on, and found that there’s just not that much of it.  There’s actually less area in the solar system than there is on Earth itself.  Here are all the habitable places in the system drawn to scale:

Click to embiggen

The units are in the area of the USA, just to pick something people might be familiar with. One USA (including Alaska) is about 10 million km2.  All of the Earth is only 52 times the area of the US.  The other bodies are in order of distance: the Moon is 1/15 the area of the Earth and Mars about 1/3.  Then there’s tiny little Ceres at 0.3 USAs, then the big moons of the gas giants, and finally Pluto and all the oddly named iceballs that have been discovered in the last 20 years. The total is 48 USAs spread over 23 bodies.

What’s not here?  The gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are out because they may not even have surfaces.  People talk vaguely of floating cities in their atmospheres, but there’s nothing to build them out of, and there are winds of over 1000 km/hour.  Forget Venus because even robots last only a few minutes under 90 atmospheres of CO2 and sulfuric acid, and temperatures of 480 C.   Mercury and the inner moons of Jupiter and Saturn are out because their radiation levels would kill you in a day.  On Jupiter’s moon Io the radiation would kill you in minutes, except that you would already be dissolved in molten sulfur.   Titan is shown, but is actually a marginal case, since its dense, cold atmosphere of nitrogen and methane is probably lethal, and certainly dark and dismal.  There are lots of tiny asteroids, but collectively they don’t add up to much.  There are lots of planets around other stars, but no one knows how to send even a probe to the closest one, Proxima Centauri b, much less send a probe that can stop, much less send a ship with people.

Calling any of these places habitable is already generous, of course.  Every square foot of the Earth is more habitable than any square foot outside of it.  The bottom of the Marianas Trench still has water, organics, proper gravity, radiation shielding and a biome, and that’s missing from everywhere else.

But note that there’s one other body on the picture above – Planet X.  No one has seen it, but there appears to be something that’s perturbing the other bodies way beyond Neptune.  It’s thought to be 5 to 10 times the mass of the Earth, and may be a fifth gas giant that was ejected from the solar system early in its formation.  It would be 20 times as far out as Neptune with an orbit tens of thousands of years long.  If it really had a surface, and if its density was such that the gravity was 1 G, then it would be a bit over twice the diameter of the Earth, and at least 5 times its area.

That would be something worth settling!   Light it with fusion-powered stars in orbit, sail its liquid nitrogen seas in boats with vacuum-insulated hulls, and seed its continents with warm-blooded Dyson trees,   Spread out under its dark star-lit skies like the first Elves in Middle Earth before the Sun arose.  It’s space colonization’s greatest hope!  Let’s put Duck Dodgers right on it:

Duck Dodgers claiming Planet X

From Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 th Century, Chuck Jones, 1953



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MIT On Climate Change

Every year MIT has a Technology Day on its alumni reunion weekend where faculty discuss what they’re working on.   These are consistently interesting, and I’ve written about them before: The Oceans Are Dissolved Information and Print Your House and The Engineering of Biology at MIT.

This year the topic was climate change.   There were five speakers in total: two analysts (Valerie Karplus and Janelle Knox-Hayes), one researcher  (Noelle Eckley-Selin), one policy maker (John Holdren, co-chair of Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) and one inventor (Don Sadoway).    The moderator was Maria Zuber, an astronomer who manages Lincoln Labs and MIT’s own Climate Initiative.

First half: Valerie Karplus, Janelle Knox-Hayes, moderator Maria Zuber

Second half: John Holdren, Noelle Eckley-Selin, Don Sadoway,  moderator Maria Zuber

You can watch the whole session here:  Tech Day 2019 Live Webcast: MIT on Climate Change.    Sorry about the Facebook link, but that’s where it’s posted.  Let me say something brief about each, but then concentrate on Sadoway, who was much the most fun.  Here are the panelists:

Valerie Karplus (the 30:20 mark in the video): China now emits 1/3 of the world’s CO2, largely because they had a huge burst in coal usage in the last 15 years.  Only 50% is for power, though. Yes, they have also built more renewable capacity than anyone else, but coal is very much a government policy.   Their wind turbines are actually idle 10-15% of the time because the coal operators have to meet quotas.  It is literally killing them – there are something like a million deaths a year in China due to smog.

Janelle Knox-Hayes (52:00): Has been looking at who is actually adopting carbon pricing and whether it has had any effect.   Her slides, sadly, were unread-ably detailed in that large auditorium.

Noelle Eckley-Selin (2:04:40): Had a nice way of expressing what’s happening to the planet: “Those of you here for your 50th reunion are from class of 325 ppm CO2, as measured by the Keeling Curve on Mauna Loa.   The 30th reunion is the class of 353 ppm, the 20th is 387 ppm and the newly graduated are at 410.”  Her angle on increasing action w.r.t. climate is to note that emissions have directly horrible health effects.   Coal and diesel emit a lot of tiny particulates, ones less then 2.5 um across (1/10000 of an inch), which which cause lung cancer and heart disease.   Burning coal also emits mercury, so much that it can be seen rising in the 20th century in the geological record.  These kill millions.  Rising temperatures make this worse, as it accelerates chemical reactions in smog.  Oddly enough, the reduction of sulfur in ship fuel may have increased warming by reducing cloud cover, since clouds condense on the sulfur particles.   Heat stroke is now a major issue in India and the Persian Gulf in the summer time.

John Holdren (2:24:50): Actually teaches at that liberal arts school up the river, but is an MIT alum.  He has been in the halls of power for decades and so was much the best speaker.   He noted that climate change makes extreme events worse, even lightning storms.  Wildfires burn four times the area that they did just ten years ago.   Hurricanes used to be cooled down when their waves brought cold water to the surface, but now even the deeper water is warm, so the hurricanes last longer.  Sea level rise has accelerated from 1 mm/year in the 1900s to 5 mm/year today.

He actually had recommendations.   We’ve got to put a price on carbon immediately, and raise it to $100 per tonne by 2030.  The US ought to be spending five times what it currently does on research and mitigation.  As academics, our main contribution is to teach the next generation of leaders – Eckley-Selin was actually a student of his.   He found that for faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School, 50% of their personal CO2 emission came from travel.   Do more video-conferencing!   He recommended that people tithe 10% of their time to climate issues.

Don Sadoway (1:48:10)  – Talked about two of his startups, Ambri (molten metal batteries) and Boston Metal (making steel with electrolysis instead of coke).   He noted that electricity equals modernity, which this EE readily agrees with, but that means we use enormous amounts of it and need it all the time.   We need batteries that store gigawatt-hours, and complex Li-ion ones are never going to get there for reasonable cost.   It’s got to use dead simple chemistry with dead cheap materials – “If you want to make something dirt-cheap, make it out of dirt, and local dirt at that.”  Don’t replace a dependence on foreign oil with one on foreign neodymium.   He’s thinking of something enormous, like a modern aluminum smelter.   He showed a hall of smelter cells a hundred feet wide and a mile long.   It sucked 500,000 A at 4V, which would be the entire output of a large nuclear reactor.  That’s the scale we need.

He’s a senior professor, but teaches the intro to solid-state chemistry course 3.091.  His lectures were put up on Open CourseWare, and Bill Gates happened to watch them.   His assistant then wrote to Sadoway asking if he could spare 90 minutes to meet with Gates.  He ignored it.  He figured that one of his students had hacked his account.  The assistant wrote again, wondering if he had seen the earlier email.  He then decided it was real, agreed to meet, and they had a good discussion about distance learning.  At the end Gates asked him what he was working on.   He sketched his idea for a battery made of liquid metals, and Gates said “That’s interesting.  If you decide to spin that out let me know and I’ll put some money into it.”   So Ambri got Round A funding from Bill Gates because Sadoway taught intro chemistry!  Keeping the attention of undergraduates is good training for keeping the attention of VCs.

He originally called his startup Liquid Metal Batteries, but that was clunky.   He learned that the network giant Cisco was named after San Francisco, so he pulled the middle out of Cambridge to get Ambri.   That was in 2010, and they’ve had a lot of trouble since then.  They got close to release in 2015, but found that their seals failed at high temperatures and they nearly went under.   They have a different chemistry now and hope to release their first product next year in 2020.

Sadoway himself is on to something new – steel-making.  This involves reducing iron ore, Fe2O3, into pure iron.  In the normal process the ore is heated up with coke, processed coal, to pull away the oxygen with carbon to produce CO2.   Steel-making actually accounts for 9% of world emissions!   That’s over 3 billion tonnes a year.   His approach is to use electrolysis instead.   Heat up the ore to liquefy it and then break off the oxygen with huge currents.

The key is getting an anode that doesn’t melt away and is cheap.   There’s a good discussion of the whole scheme at Technology Review:  A New Way To Make Steel Could Cut 5% of Emissions At a Stroke.  Boston Metals started in 2013 with with DOE and NSF money, and now have demos and just got Round A funding.

So Sadoway is taking the traditional technical route to solving a problem – find a better, cheaper way to do it.    That seems much more satisfying than the analysis and advocacy of the other speakers.   Trying to persuade corrupt Trumpists and those whose regions and livelihoods depend on fossil fuels is a way to ruin your blood pressure and waste your career.  Crush them in the marketplace, say I.

Maria Zuber: But what about MIT itself?  In 2015 they set up a A Plan For Action on Climate Change –  Summary  Details, which Zuber is running.  Most of it is organizational – trying to coordinate the efforts across the vast range of activities that happen at the Institute.   That’s fine, but they were also pressured to reduce MIT’s own emissions.  With great reluctance they  committed to a 32% reduction from 2014 emissions by 2030.  32% is weak.   Obama wanted the whole US to reduce by 30% by then, and the entire planet actually needs to do at least that much.   MIT has already gotten 20% of that by funding a solar farm in North Carolina, and will get another 10% by upgrading the co-generation plant that supplies most of the campus power and heat. In 4 years they’re almost at their 15-year goal.

Worse still, they officially refused to divest from fossil fuel companies, and actually committed to working with them.  The fossileers have not acted in good faith.  They’ve funded smear campaigns and outright lies against anything that threatened their revenue.  Including them in your plans could well be giving them inside info to use against you.  That may sound paranoid, but as we’ve recently seen, kompromat has become a standard tactic.

Overall, though, it was encouraging to see good efforts coming out of my alma mater.   That’s what these Technology Days are supposed to do!   Remind alums of their bright college days, and tell them that things are still going well.   Well, not going well in terms of climate change, but at least they’re on the job.

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Is “The Biggest Little Farm” For Real?

This new documentary is so wholesome and uplifting that it immediately raised suspicions in my skeptical heart.  It describes the odyssey of a young couple in Los Angeles who started their own organic farm, Apricot Lane, on 200 acres of desolate land about 50 miles west of LA.  After eight years it has become an oasis of greenery and wildlife among the barren hills, but while watching it you really have to wonder – who paid for all this?

The couple, John and Molly Chester, had been living in Santa Monica doing very LA-ish jobs.  He had been a cameraman and director on various TV shows, and she was a private chef for one-percenters.  She had come out with a cookbook, Back to Butter,  and really believed that the quality of food depended directly on how it was raised.  While filming a bit about a woman who had 200 dogs in her house, John rescued one of them, a soulful black Lab named Todd.  Unfortunately, Todd barked incessantly when they weren’t there, causing them to be evicted from their apartment.

But it was time for a change anyway.  He had grown up in farm country and she wanted better food.  They found this property up in the barren hills west of the city.  It had been a horse farm, and then raised lemons and avocados, but the killer drought of the late 2000s had done it in.  Everything on it was dead except for a few eucalyptus trees, and the soil had turned to clods and dust.

The first step was raising money, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.   They bought it in 2011 and hired a consultant, Alan York, to get the property laid out.   He constantly stressed the value of biodiversity.  They wanted to have three kinds of fruit trees, but he insisted on 75.  They added a pond for ducks and wild birds, pastures for chickens, sheep and cows, and a “vermi-composting” shed, which means processing manure with worms.  They landscaped the hills into contour lines for the orchards, and planted ground cover everywhere to aerate the soil and hold rain.   An artesian well supplied irrigation water.

Everything then went wrong.  The drought continued.  Duck poop turned their pond into green slime.  The trees were attacked by snails and aphids, and their roots were damaged by gophers.  Starlings took little bites out of each piece of fruit, ruining them.  Coyotes ate their free-range chickens.  The cattle were overwhelmed by flies.   Yet the Chesters were dead set against using pesticides or herbicides, and didn’t even want to shoot the coyotes.

But the inspiring part about the story is that they solved all these problems through ecological means instead of mechanical ones.  Too many snails?  The ducks love them.  Keep the ducks penned into one part of the orchard until they clean out the snails, then move them to the next.  That spreads their droppings around too.  Too many aphids?  Add ladybugs.   Coyote problems?   Guard the chickens with dogs and let the coyotes eat the gophers.  Chickens also love to peck at fly larvae, so have them keep the fields clean for the cattle.  Add birdhouses to attract barn owls to keep down rodents and starlings.

When the drought finally broke in the mid-2010s, their ground cover saved them.  Everyone else’s soil got washed downhill in the torrential rains, but theirs absorbed it, and just helped to deepen the grass’s roots.   That helps maintain the underground water table as well.  The roots are also good for carbon sequestration, but even they couldn’t avoid the oncoming climate catastrophe and had to evacuate during one wildfire season.

These days the farm is thriving.   It appears to employ about 15 people, and has a crowd of volunteers through WWOOF, World-Wide Opportunites for Organic Farming, who get room and board in return for labor.  They sell through farmstands (people stand in line to get their eggs) and LA restaurants.   They tried to open their own restaurant and market in the nearby town of Moorpark, but gave it up after too many delays and costly requirements.  They also have tours of the property, and since this is the 21st century, have an online gift shop.  John Chester has been drawing on his film skills for the entire process, releasing short films along the way, and now this major documentary.

So how did all this get funded?   They’re cagey about that in the movie, saying only that they found venture money.    There’s nothing about their investors on any of their sites, but I found the actual owners with a bit of web sleuthing.   I won’t give their names because they don’t matter, but they were real venture capitalists in the early 2010s.  They don’t seem to be involved in it any more, though, and have shifted their attention to high-frequency trading and bitcoins.

Well, that’s sketchy.  More sketchy, though, is the philosophy behind the Chesters’ farming style – biodynamics.   That word also did not come up in the movie.   It’s based on the theories of the German mystic and philosopher Rudolf Steiner from the 1920s.   It does stress ecological management practices, but also proposes sympathetic magic techniques, like burying ashes in a cow’s horn, and planting according to astrological calendars.   The farm is actually certified by Demeter International, an organization that makes sure that strict biodynamic standards are being obeyed.    There are a few other such farms in California, but the bulk of them appear to be in Germany.

So this farm is California all over: a New Age ideology crossed with Whole Earth Catalog redemptive environmentalism, underpinned by modern finance, and spending a good fraction of its energy on publicity.

And that’s OK!  Publicity is crucial to everything these days.   The money put into this looks to be in the $10M range, but that’s negligible by VC standards.  Better this than yet another phone app.    I don’t mind New Age-ism if it’s used to inform your worldview instead of to control empirical decisions, and I was an avid reader of the Catalog back in its 70s heyday.  The Chesters seem to have hit on something that is economically and more importantly, environmentally sustainable.  They are not Masters of Nature, but gardeners within it.  Their life looks like a lot of work and heartache, but greatly rewarding.


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