What Language on Mars? (2)


Predictions Revisited

The Chinese space programme

Still catching up after Christmas, I’ve been reading an official report from China issued on 29 December, about their plans for space activities in the next five years. In a post in August 2010 called “What language will they speak on Mars?” the answer was “Chinese, on present showing”.

It harked back to a prediction by Wernher von Braun made in 1964.

Man may have landed on the surface of Mars by 1984. If not, he will surely have made a close approach for personal observation of the red planet. Likewise, manned ‘fly-bys’ to Venus will have been made.

Lunar landings will have long since passed from the fantastic achievement to routine occurrence. Astronauts will be shuttling back and forth on regular schedules from the earth to a small permanent base of operations on the moon.

Although unstated, von Braun’s reliance for the Mars flight was on a nuclear rocket called Orion, which was cancelled soon after he wrote his article. Since then the US space programme has faltered or veered about under a succession of Presidents with different priorities. The present lack of American transport to take people to the International Space Station ranks with the British navy’s current construction of aircraft carriers for which there’ll be no suitable aircraft.

By contrast the Chinese space engineers, although starting about half a century behind the USA and Russia and still only moderately funded, are now moving steadily ahead with a programme that has clear and mutually compatible objectives. The new plan includes developing a space laboratory and collecting samples from the Moon by 2016, and building a more powerful manned spaceship. No date is given for a manned landing on the Moon, but that is under study.

A module for a Chinese space laboratory, the eight-ton Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace-1”), lifted off from the Jiuquan launch site near the Gobi Desert on a Long March 2FT1 rocket on 22 September 2011. Image: Caters News Agency.

The Army coordinates the space programe. Although the report is careful to say, China always adheres to the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space, there’s military significance in the BeiDou (“Compass”) navigation satellites. Western and Russian systems are downgraded to stop them guiding hostile missiles too precisely. But with ten BeiDou satellites already launched and focused on East Asia, the Chinese intend to have a 35-satellite global navigation system by 2020.

As for their first shot at Mars, the Chinese have been thwarted by the hoodoo on Russian missions to the Red Planet. Yinghuo-1 (“Shining Planet”) rode piggyback on the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft launched from Baikonur on 8 November last. The pair failed to escape from Earth orbit and disintegrated into the Pacific Ocean on 15 January. There’s been word that the Russians would like to blame a US radar for spoiling their mission, but that’s far-fetched. And the name Yinghuo-1 surely implies that the Chinese will try again.

The post “What language will they speak on Mars?” is here http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/what-language-on-mars/#more-1442

You can read the full Chinese report in English here http://www.scio.gov.cn/zxbd/wz/201112/t1073727.htm (clicking on the panels 1, 2, 3 etc at the bottom of each page)

The Royal Aeronautical Society will have a lecture at its London HQ about “China’s Expanding Space Programme,” next Thursday, 26 January, at 8 pm. Karl Bergquist of the European Space Agency, a Swede fluent in Mandarin. Summary, details and registration here http://aerosociety.com/Events/Event-List/318/Chinas-Expanding-Space-Programme

Utopia beats Dystopia


Predictions Revisited

Let’s lay Malthus to Rest

After all that Halloween anguish about the global population reaching 7 billion, how refreshing to have an upbeat assessment of the world food situation! It comes from the retiring professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Hindsights in Perspective” was the title of Rudy Rabbinge’s farewell address, and you can see a press release about it here http://www.wageningenuniversity.nl/UK/newsagenda/news/RR_UK111129.htm

Two hundred years ago, Malthus predicted that the world would be unable to feed the growing population. The fact that he was manifestly wrong is illustrated by the current situation in which the population has increased seven-fold, but there is now more food per head available than in 1800.”

Other points from Prof. Rabbinge:


Rudy Rabbinge. Photo Wageningen U.

  • The notion of a present or future shortage is a misunderstanding – this is not the case anywhere in the world, except in China.
  • We do not need extra agricultural land in order to feed the world population in the coming decades.
  • The damage caused to the environment by farming has dropped considerably.
  • Ineffective policy, unequal distribution of production and poor food distribution still leads to a billion people going hungry — a disgrace that warrants a world-wide reaction.
  • Science gives cause for utopian thinking with good prospects rather than anti-utopian (dystopian) defeatism; whilst naive optimism is dangerous, unfounded pessimism is discouraging and frustrating,

Back in 1967, in The Environment Game (Secker & Warburg) I visualized an implosion of food production into small, intensive operations, such that most land could be restored to nature. This is a theme at Wageningen too:

Rabbinge refers to the energy-producing greenhouse (which could be operational in the coming years), energy-neutral buildings, and small-scale power generation by means of bio-solar cells. If agricultural production is concentrated at the well-endowed locations, geared up to high production, the world will be in a position both to sustain agro-biodiversity (the combination of natural disease control and biological control mechanisms in the fields) and to release areas of agricultural land for nature. This will require more energy per unit of area but less per unit of product.

Postscript: Prof. Rabbinge feels more affinity with the Malthus’s French contemporary, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, who believed in dramatic change thanks to man´s ingenuity. You can see the Marquis de Condorcet’s book on Progress (1795, trs into English 1796) here http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1669&Itemid=27#toc_list Before getting too zealously utopian, please remember that Condorcet was a prominent supporter of the French Revolution but then died as one of its many victims. Failures are due to politics, not science and technology.

For earlier posts about Malthusian errors see: http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/the-population-bomb/ and http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/malthus-with-a-computer/

Sausages without the pig


Predictions revisited

Food production by tissue engineering

This drawing by Nik Spencer shows an as-yet unrealised concept of Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, It introduces the theme, rather than illustrating the work in the Netherlands noted below. The source is an article by Nicola Jones in Nature 468, 752-753 (2010) and you can see a larger and more legible version here http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101208/full/468752a/box/1.html

I’d still like to trace just where the idea originated. I know that In 1967 I was predicting “beef-steak without a cow” in The Environment Game, a book that visualized the land areas needed for agriculture being greatly reduced. In 1983, my contribution to The Future of a Troubled World, pictured “endless sausages growing by tissue culture of pork muscle”. But now I learn that Winston Churchill was talking about “chicken breast without the chicken” back in 1931. Where did he get it from? I’ll go on checking.

The Churchill quote comes in a segment in “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” on Channel 4 (14 November). It follows up stories of the past few years about developments, most notably in the Netherlands, that are gradually making it a reality.

Here’s what I wrote in 1967:

Tissue culture itself is one of the most attractive ideas for artificial food production. It is no longer far-fetched to think that we may learn how to grow beef-steak, for example, without a cow. Tissue culture, the technique for growing cells outside the organism from which they originated, is already used for special purposes in research and also for growing viruses in the manufacture of vaccine; the advent of polio vaccine depended on the successful cultivation of kidney cells. That in turn followed the introduction of antibiotics to preserve the cultures from the ravages of stray micro-organisms.

When cells are cultured by present techniques they tend to lose their specialized character. By deliberately letting specialized cells such as kidney or muscle revert to the undifferentiated nature of a newly fertilized egg, we can use them in a quite arbitrary way for a variety of synthetic purposes. If, on the other hand, we want to grow beef-steak we must simulate the conditions governing the growth and arrangement of the cells in the live animal, otherwise we shall finish up with something like finely divided mince.

The Netherlands launched a well-funded multi-university project in 2005, and in the Hawking show, Mark Evans visits Mark Post at Maastricht University who shows him muscle fibres forming artifically. Post has some commerical backing and declares himself “reasonably confident” that next year (2012) he’ll make a hamburger. But with a price tag on the burger at 250,000 euros it’s “still in the scientific phase”.

Besides reducing the land areas for meat production, eventual success with “in-vitro meat” will mean that astronauts bound for Mars can still have their burgers, sausages and chicken breast.

Added 15 November.

Suspecting that J.B.S. Haldane might have been an early predictor of synthetic food, I’ve dug out this 1923 lecture http://www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm But he visualizes synthesis from scratch. “Many of our foodstuffs, including the proteins, we shall probably build up from simpler sources such as coal and atmospheric nitrogen.”

A step in the extrapolation to tissue culture seems to have come from Haldane’s evolutionist chum, Julian Huxley, in fictional form in a short story, “The Tissue-Culture King” (1927). There the tissue of an African ruler was proliferated in that way – but for power, not for food. So where did Churchill get his rather precise prediction from? En route I’ve found the Churchill source. In Fifty Years Hence, In Thoughts and Adventures, Thornton Butterworth (London) 1932, Winston wrote:

“Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”


Nicola Jones, Nature, 468, 752-753, 2010

Nigel Calder, The Environment Game, Secker & Warburg (London) 1997

Ritchie Calder (ed), The Future of a Troubled World, Heinemann (London) 1983

Channel 4 (London), “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking,” Part 4, Environment, 14 November 2011. See http://www.channel4.com/programmes/brave-new-world-with-stephen-hawking/4od#3253407

Who blew up Jerusalem?


Predictions Revisited

Who blew up Jerusalem?

A nightmare from the 1970s persists

US Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent” says a headline on a recent New York Times report, available here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/world/middleeast/20policy.html . It seems that US intelligence is saying, “Relax, Iran won’t have a nuclear weapon for a year or more.”

For 30 years since the producer Peter Batty and I explored the possible triggers of nuclear war, in our TV blockbuster Nuclear Nightmares: The Wars That Must Never Happen”, a truly depressing number of people have continued to play with fire, in the proliferation of bomb-making technology. The accompanying book, Nuclear Nightmares, quoted an anonymous American strategist calling proliferation “the least unlikely route to nuclear war”. And because Israel was known (in 1979) to have already made nuclear weapons at a plant in the Negev Desert, we set our story in the Middle East.

Each scenario in the programme culminated with a fictional survivor trying to make sense of what happened. Here’s the relevant extract as broadcast.

PRESENTER (Peter Ustinov) on a vantage point above Jerusalem: The holy city of Christians, Jews and Moslems – the order is strictly alphabetical. It has been the focal point for conflict for thousands of years. Jerusalem is at this time in Israeli hands. But you can look North towards the Soviet Union with its Moslem minorities and affiliations. East towards a patchwork of Moslem states, patient yet unforgiving. South towards Mecca, the power of religion and of oil. And West toward America, Israel’s powerful friend.

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Guided hurricanes


Predictions revisited and Climate Change: News and Comments

Guided hurricanes

When speculating four decades ago about the military uses of geophysics, Gordon J.F. MacDonald of UCLA contemplated the triggering of earthquakes or tsunamis, or melting polar ice with nuclear weapons. And he didn’t overlook the idea of steering hurricanes to ravage the enemy’s coasts. Reminding me of that prediction is a report now in press in Geophysical Research Letters, about how natural variations in the colour of the sea help to guide cyclones in the Pacific. A cyclone, remember, is a loosely used generic term that includes the major storms called hurricanes (Atlantic), typhoons (Pacific) or tropical cyclones (Indian Ocean and Australia).

Contributing to Unless Peace Comes, (1968), in a chapter entitled “How to Wreck the Environment”, MacDonald wrote:

… preliminary experiments have been carried out on the seeding of hurricanes. The dynamics of hurricanes and the mechanism by which energy is transferred from the ocean into the atmosphere supporting the hurricane are poorly understood. Yet various schemes for both dissipation and steering can be imagined. Although hurricanes originate in tropical regions, they can travel into temperate latitudes, as the residents of New England know only too well. A controlled hurricane could be used as a weapon to terrorize opponents over substantial parts of the populated world.

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What Language on Mars?


Predictions Revisited

What Language Will They Speak on Mars?

The planet Mars in Chinese script. Credit: About.com: Chinese Culture, written by “js”

Chinese, on present showing. Never mind that seven men – Russian (4) European (2) and Chinese (1) – are now two months into a 520-day isolation trial in Moscow, simulating a manned mission to Mars. That’s for show. Political willpower will settle the issue.

In 1964 the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun forecast a human visit to Mars by 1984. That might well have happened had the US not cancelled its proposed Orion rocket in 1965 – the year after von Braun made his prediction. The trouble was that Orion would have had nuclear propulsion, not merely by nuclear motors, but by nuclear bombs. So it had to be abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear test-ban treaty, much to the annoyance of Freeman J. Dyson and other enthusiasts.

Orion – the gigantic might-have-been

Here’s a diagram from my book Spaceships of the Mind (1978) which accompanied the BBC-OECA series with the same title, produced by Dick Gilling of BBC-TV. Assembled in Earth orbit, Orion would have carried about 2000 10-kiloton nuclear fission bombs, released at a rate of one a second to explode close behind a large spaceship. With a pusher plate absorbing the shocks, the spacecraft would quickly reach a speed that would take about 20 astronauts around Mars and back to Earth in just six months.

It may seem daft now but Orion was a recognition, at the very start of the Space Age, that if human beings are ever to become serious about space travel, they’ll have to think nuclear. That’s still the case, although nuclear fusion will be preferable, of course, with ignition as far from the Earth as possible.

When von Braun contributed to the New Scientist’s 1964 series on “The World in 1984” he remained mute about Orion although he glanced the nuclear option. At the time he was director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with the Apollo missions to the Moon at the top of his agenda. Here, for a start, are two early extracts from his article entitled “Exploration to the Farthest Planets”:

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Wishful thinking Czech style


Predictions Revisited

Wishful thinking, Czech style

Every since Thomas More invented the term, utopias have cast futures in a “normative” manner, saying here’s how the world ought to be. Such wishful thinking is political. The Marxist vision of a better world of true Communism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” led huge sections of the human species into the long dark tunnels of Stalinism and Maoism, where utopia was deferred indefinitely.

A memorable episode more than 40 years ago was an attempt in Czechoslovakia to outwit the thought police and modernize Communism by highly organized speculations about the future. Unusually for a science writer I found myself on the inside track of political news, when routeing myself home from Moscow via Prague. It was Christmastime in Wenceslas Square – just three weeks before Alexander Dubček came to power and began trying to throw off Soviet shackles in the “Prague Spring”.

The mathematician Jaroslav Kozešnik, vice-president of the Academy of Sciences, briefed me about what was in the wind. And in August 1968, when the Soviet bloc was closing in on its dissident member, I wrote about it in the London magazine New Statesman, as follows.

Czech Crisis: The Czechnocrats’ Key Role

If the writers were the shock troops of the movement that overthrew the residual Stalinists in Czechoslovakia, the heavy armour was provided by the Academy of Sciences. Ideas emanating from years of officially-sponsored reformist studies are much less stoppable than Soviet tanks. Even if they were to be extinguished or compromised by present events, they would reappear elsewhere. Nor do I mean only in Moscow or Warsaw; in London and Paris, New York and New Delhi, we all have a lot to learn from the Czechs. Starting from a higher political level they have thought more deeply than any other nation about the impact of current science and technology on everyday life. They have sought to re-invent democracy in modern form.

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Amazon rainforest


Predictions Revisited and Climate Change: News and Comments

Will the Amazon rainforest survive?

A flurry of stories about the rainforests confirms that the proper concern about tropical deforestation has been thoroughly confused by improper attempts to invoke man-made global warming. Before turning to thunderstorms felling trees,  let’s start with the big picture of expectations, past and present, for the Amazon rainforest. For more than 30 years, large-scale assessments have been based on satellite imagery, despite the problem that much of the forest is covered with clouds at any one time. Brazil’s own Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, INPE, has played a leading part.

In a forecast that proved wrong even more rapidly than The Population Bomb (see the previous post) an ecologist Philip Fearnside declared in 1982 that the Amazon forest was vanishing at an accelerating rate, with more than 40% to be gone by 1988. I told the tale in my 1991 book about remote sensing, Spaceship Earth, after visiting INPE in São Paulo.

During the 1980s Brazil found itself at war on two fronts. At home, the government tried to moderate the rate of clearances in the Amazonian forest, and police a frontier region as gun-happy as the old Wild West of the USA. Internationally, they had to deal with a rising chorus of criticism about the rate at which the forest was disappearing. In 1982, on the basis of INPE’s figures, predictions by an American scientist P.M. Fearnside amounted to a forecast that 44 per cent of the Amazonian forest would be lost by 1988.

The Brazilians greeted such estimates with frank disbelief. There then followed a contest between calculation and remote sensing to try to establish the true facts. …

In 1989, the World Bank published estimates indicating that 12 per cent of Legal Amazonia was already deforested by 1988. This was based on calculations from the state of affairs in 1980. By this time the Brazilians were growing very angry. Although the figure was far less than the Fearnside estimate, the fact that it came from the World Bank secured it a place in international environmental folklore. The Brazilians appealed again to the umpires in space: the unblinking instruments of the remote-sensing satellites.

At INPE, Roberto Pereira da Cunha decided to make a ‘wall-to-wall’ assessrnent of the deforestation in Legal Amazonia. As he remarked, ‘No one wants to do the dirty work of gathering the data. It is a very trivial task for scientists.’ Trivial, but not unlaborious. Pereira’s team assembled 234 Landsat scenes and selected for close interpretation 101 images that showed evidence of deforestation. From colour composites of three wavelength bands the scientists outlined the deforested patches, and used a grid to measure their areas. Images for different years established rates of deforestation.

The most important conclusion was that there was no acceleration: deforestation was proceeding at a more or less steady rate. As for the total recent deforestation up till the end of 1988, INPE’S answer was 5 per cent of the area of Legal Amazonia. Meanwhile, Fearnside had changed his forecast. His new figures indicated 7 per cent deforestation of Legal Amazonia by 1989 – a far cry from his 44 per cent figure of just 7 years earlier, and almost in line with INPE’s figure. In 1990 Jim Tucker and Chris Justice of NASA broadly confirmed the Brazilian result by a similar large-scale use of Landsat imagery, but with a different technique, using only a single infra-red channel.

So what do the umpires in space say now, two decades later?

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The Population Bomb


Predictions revisited

The Population Bomb

On World Population Day (today, if you didn’t know it) the Royal Society of London announces a new working group on human population growth, led by the geneticist Sir John Sulston. But this is no exercise in professional demography. Political overtones are evident in the working group’s inclusion of “experts on the environment, agriculture, economics, law and theology drawn from a mix of rich and poor countries including the UK, China, Brazil and the US,” as the BBC tells us. So when the working group reports in 2012 we can expect technocrats once again to be wanting to tell other people how to live.

Of course the population scare goes way back to Thomas Malthus (1798), but in its modern guise it has underpinned militant environmentalism for more than 40 years since a butterfly expert, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, published The Population Bomb in 1968. Never mind that what he predicted turned out to be wrong. That sort of mishap doesn’t matter once you’ve been sanctified by true believers.

Ever been stuck in traffic on a hot night in Delhi? I once was in the 1960s, before I first read The Population Bomb, so I recognised the scene described by Ehrlich:

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.”

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Ceramic superconductors disappoint


Predictions revisited

Why ceramic superconductors are disappointing

Helping to explain one of the biggest let-downs of 20th Century technology is a report from a US-European team centred at the University of Florida. It was released yesterday online by Nature Physics. Any scientifically minded person over 35 may remember the huge excitement about ceramic superconductors in 1987. For example, Time magazine called them “a discovery that could change the world” and continued:

That discovery, most scientists believe, could lead to incredible savings in energy; trains that speed across the countryside at hundreds of miles per hour on a cushion of magnetism; practical electric cars; powerful, yet smaller computers and particle accelerators; safer reactors operating on nuclear fusion rather than fission and a host of other rewards still undreamed of. There might even be benefits for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which could draw on efficient, superconductor power sources for its space-based weapons.

Most scientists believe.” Now where have we heard that before?

Writing in Scientific Europe (1990), Ian Corbett of the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Lab summarized the ceramics story, but much more cautiously.

Sensational events are rare in materials science, but superconducting ceramics attracted media attention of a kind normally reserved for football cup finals. In a heady year that followed their discovery in 1986, even respected newspapers implied that our lives were going to be revolutionized overnight, and that an instant fortune awaited anyone who was quick off the mark in exploiting the new superconductors commercially. Such exaggerated expectations were soon damped down by the reality of the technical problems still be overcome.

The scientific breakthrough was real enough. The phenomenon of superconductivity, in which a material loses all resistance to the flow of an electric current, was previously known only in certain metals and alloys, and at temperatures below -250 oC, close to absolute zero. A wholly new class of superconductors opens the way to higher operating temperatures and presumably to wider applications in the electrical and electronic ind ustries.

Georg Bednorz (left) and Alex Muller. Image AIP

In the autumn of 1987 one of the fastest Nobel Prizes ever was awarded to Georg Bednorz and Alex Muller of IBM’s Research Laboratories at Ruschlikon near Zurich – just a year after the first publication, in Zeitschrift für Physik, of their observation of apparent superconductivity in a ceramic material, lanthanum-barium-copper oxide, and at a somewhat higher temperature than any previously authenticated in other materials.

The promise of new applications remains, but unless another unexpected discovery changes the prospects, the road ahead appears at the time of writing to be long and stony.

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