Communion Of Dreams


Here there be robots.

Oh, this is just delightful:

Here there be robots: A medieval map of Mars

Recently I’ve been really into old maps made by medieval explorers. I thought it would be fun to use their historical design style to illustrate our current adventures into unexplored territory. So here’s my hand-drawn topographic map of Mars, complete with official landmark names and rover landing sites.

Go check out the whole thing, but here’s a glimpse of the map itself (which is much larger on the original post):

 

You can even support the artist and buy a copy! Quick, before they’re all gone!

 

Jim Downey

HT to Margo Lynn.

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“We are on a marble, floating in the middle of … nothing.”

Via BoingBoing, this completely delightful short video about the scale of our solar system:

That does a better job of getting the real sense of scale than just about anything else I’ve seen. Wonderful.

 

Jim Downey

 



“We.”

The Globe and Mail has a wonderful essay by Col Chris Hadfield as an introduction to a new edition of Ray Bradbury‘s The Martian Chronicles. Here’s an excerpt:

Bradbury’s Mars offered unlimited new opportunity for exploration and discovery, and expansion of human awareness. Yet virtually every step in the Chronicles, as through much of human history, is a misstep. Mutual ignorance and distrust between normally peaceful peoples leads to violence and death. Greed causes unfathomably bad behavior; uncomfortably reminiscent of gold-hungry Conquistadors in the New World, five hundred years previous. Anger and frustration at the constraints of an intensely bureaucratic society somehow permit the craziest of personal behavior. And the ultimate threat of the destruction of it all somehow draws everyone back into the maelstrom, as if there is no escape. As if we all have a necessity to accept the consequences of everyone’s actions, and take our punishment, no matter how deadly.

Bradbury’s inclusion of the repeated patterns of human behavior, right down to inadvertent genocide caused by external pestilence and unfamiliar disease, makes The Martian Chronicles an ageless cautionary tale. It made me pause and ask myself – could it be possible that we are forever unable to go beyond who we were? Will every great opportunity of discovery be tainted, tarred and eventually destroyed by our own clumsy, brutish hand?

Are we so cursed by our own tragic humanity?

Wrestling with that very question … and depicting it … has been at the heart of my struggle to write St Cybi’s Well. And wrestling with my own demons at the same time has led me into some very dark moments, particularly over the last couple of months.

But there is hope. Here is the closing of Hadfield’s essay:

Their spaceship will be improbable, and the voyage will have been long. But as our first emissaries thump down onto Mars, stand up and look around, they will see who the Martians really are. And with that sense of belonging will come the responsibility and appreciation that has allowed us to flourish and grow on Earth for millennia, in spite of ourselves. By the time we land on Mars and first step onto the dusty, red soil, it will be alien no longer. We will know that we are home. And that may be what saves us.

As chance would have it, yesterday I started working on another conservation project which, in its own way, also affirms how exploration may save us. You’ve probably heard of the author, who had his own struggles and failings. Here’s the title page:

We

Maybe there’s hope for all of ‘we’, after all.

Jim Downey

Thanks to Margo Lynn for sharing the Hadfield essay.



Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.

 

The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.

 

Jim Downey



Hey, I’ve seen this movie … *

NASA Eyes Crew Deep Sleep Option for Mars Mission

A NASA-backed study explores an innovative way to dramatically cut the cost of a human expedition to Mars — put the crew in stasis.

The deep sleep, called torpor, would reduce astronauts’ metabolic functions with existing medical procedures. Torpor also can occur naturally in cases of hypothermia.

* * *

Economically, the payoff looks impressive. Crews can live inside smaller ships with fewer amenities like galleys, exercise gear and of course water, food and clothing. One design includes a spinning habitat to provide a low-gravity environment to help offset bone and muscle loss.

Hmm … seems that I’ve heard of something like that before …

 

Jim Downey

*Obviously. Hat tip to ML for the link.



A useful swarm.

Another interesting item about developing the technology to create a useful swarm of small robots:

Harvard Researchers Create a Nature-Inspired Robotic Swarm

Some scientists believe that the way to solve the flocking enigma is to replicate it. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) recently developed a micro-scaled robotic technology that enables a controlled, flash mob–like assembly. In August, the team led by Harvard computer-science professors Radhika Nagpal and Fred Kavli demonstrated the ability of 1,000 robots to self-organize into user-selected shapes, such as a five-pointed starfish and the letter K.

* * *

“Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether it’s hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” Nagpal said in the press release. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

One provocative concept is the possibility of building and infrastructure construction that is carried out by thousands of self-organizing modules. Although many technical hurdles remain, this notion is especially intriguing in the case of hazardous and other challenging settings. In the near term, we will likely witness simple, one-story pavilions built from a collection of mobile robotic bricks to create emergency relief shelters following natural disasters.

Hmm … seems I’ve heard about that idea before someplace. Oh, yeah, from Communion of Dreams:

They were, in essence, enclosing the entire planet in a greenhouse of glass fabric and golden plasteel. It was going to take generations to finish, even using mass microbots and fabricating the construction materials from the Martian sands. Tens of thousands of the specially programmed microbots, a few centimeters long and a couple wide, would swarm an area, a carpet of shifting, building insects. As each cell was finished, it was sealed, joined to the adjacent cells, and then the microbots would move on.

But it is pretty cool to see the work being done to bring that about.

 

Jim Downey



Pennies in heaven.

Well, a single penny, anyway. And it’s on Mars. But you know what I mean.

Cool story:

Rare Coin Found on Mars!

It’s true.  At this moment there is a rare coin on Mars.  Specifically, the coin is a 1909 ”V.D.B.” Lincoln-head American penny.

The question is, why is this penny on Mars?

 

Go read it and find out.

Reminder: tomorrow is the third anniversary of Her Final Year being published! Remember to get your FREE copy!

Oh, and there’s a brief new review on Amazon of Communion of Dreams you might want to check out. And while you’re there, why not leave your own review? It helps. Thanks.

 

Jim Downey

‘Penny on Mars’ story via MetaFilter.