At the Right Place at the Right Time…

11 06 2014

Two BA-330 modules form Bigelow Aerospace's Alpha Station, with SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 depicted docked, (left and right, respectively). [Credit: Bigelow Aerospace]

Two BA-330 modules form Bigelow Aerospace’s Alpha Station, with SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 depicted docked, (left and right, respectively). [Credit: Bigelow Aerospace]


On top of all of the other trouble I’ve been habitually getting myself into during the last several months, a series of unlikely and highly serendipitous events recently culminated in a sudden career shift.  -One that, I might add, I’ve been pressing for and gambling on for some time.

–And for longtime readers, it’s a shift that strikes to the very heart of this blog.  My unorthodox gambit toward the stars, it may appear, may have actually just paid off.

As of two weeks ago, I no longer make the daily drive to the deserted Nevada haunts of the former A.E.C..  Instead, I’m now under the employ of Bigelow Aerospace, LLC right here in Las Vegas(!).

There just aren’t powerful enough adjectives to describe how thrilling a development this has been for me.

(A Lack of) Details:

As a strictly private enterprise, security concerns regarding my activities at Bigelow Aerospace are paramount, so details I can reveal about my position and activities are consequently sparse.  However, I can say that my assignment as a Crew Systems Scientist in the Life Support Systems group, (in addition to serving as the company’s Assistant Radiation Safety Officer), presently has me diving into materials properties in the space radiation environment, with hints of larger project management responsibilities not far on the horizon…

I’ve never enjoyed work more in my life, and suddenly, it seems that everything has come full circle.

Looking Ahead

Growing up in Vegas, I have a deep attachment to the region.  That’s probably why I ended up moving back.  Meanwhile, my suspicion has long been (for a couple of decades, now) that aerospace is the cornerstone industry Southern Nevada has been waiting for and that our economy now so desperately needs.  (See: Assembly Joint Resolution #8, 1999, to learn about Spaceport Nevada and infer the crushing tale of the ahead-of-its-time initiative that might have changed the region as we know it…)  The synergy of Bigelow Aerospace’s location here, the company’s globally-unique, NASA-derived and improved spacecraft technology, and their recent sale of a module to the International Space Station is highly coincidental.

I feel it in my bones that it’s not only Southern Nevada’s legacy, (e.g., NASA Apollo training, NASA-AEC NERVA nuclear rocket program), but it’s Southern Nevada’s destiny to become an aerospace nexus.

Let’s see if I can’t do something about it.

Semper Exploro!

The Science Behind “America Declassified” – Bayou Sinkhole

14 12 2013


The Worst-Case Scenario

Having taken an in-depth look at the tragic salt-cavern sinkhole in Bayou Corne as a scientist-host for the Travel Channel series, “America Declassified,” it is clear it me that the situation there is truly a perfect storm of physical and chemical hazards.

Now, in order to demonstrate this reality, allow me to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

The Nuclear Option

In today’s cultural climate, most perceive there to be no greater environmental hazard than high-level nuclear waste.  However, if it had been nuclear waste bottled up thousands of feet beneath Bayou Corne, and not fossil fuels, I contend that no one would have ever had to evacuate at all.

In essence, radioactive waste could have saved Bayou Corne.

Controversial?  Perhaps.  But it all comes down to the simplest of physics principles: Buoyancy.

Hydrocarbons float.  They’re lighter than water, hence the sheen observed on puddles, streams, lakes, and oceans after a spill.  Conversely, the great majority of radioactive materials manifest as heavy metals.  They do not float.  In fact, they sink like anchors.

So, had even the most fearsome nuclear waste been stored in or near the doomed cavern, because the collapse took place thousands of feet beneath the surface, the disaster as it unfolded would have looked entirely different.

An Alternate-Reality View

In a parallel universe where there were no hydrocarbons near the salt dome, and instead the nation dumped several thousands of tons of nuclear waste in the cavern, let’s take a look at what would have happened:

First, there would have been no bubbling preceding the sinkhole opening up, as no fossil fuels would have been available to float to the surface.  Then, there would be no “burping” of toxic hydrocarbons that according to many have contaminated the region’s shallow aquifer and water supply.

Next, the lack of the many chemical threats from methane and hydrogen sulfide, (i.e., being poisonous, corrosive, flammable and explosive), means that the primary driver for the community’s evacuation order would not have existed.  (Note: Radioactive material is not explosive, corrosive, or flammable.)

Finally, this all means that while the residents remained, there would have been no need for vent wells, flare wells, or the crisscrossing  networks of hoses and pipes to connect them across streets and through neighborhoods – eyesores and constant reminders of the current lurking chemical threat beneath Bayou Corne.

The disaster would have simply appeared as a new lake appearing nearby, one which has expanded away from the town as the disturbed earth beneath settled.

Without hydrocarbon contamination, this new lake would be safe to boat, fish, and swim in after the ground beneath finishes settling.  It would have simply served as a somber reminder of the need to better understand the environment of our natural resources before harvesting them while marking the silent, entombed radioactive waste sitting nearly a mile below.

Quite a different scenario than that facing the residents of Bayou Corne today, and all the more reason to keep critical thinking alive when assessing our environment, the best ways to preserve it as a resource, and the possible effects of our activities on Planet Earth!

Semper Exploro – Always Explore.
Ben McGee

The Science Behind “America Declassified” – White Sands

6 12 2013


Unintended Consequences

My adventures as a scientist-host with the Travel Channel television series, “America Declassified” took me across the blinding flats of the White Sands Missile Range, which had unintended consequences.  Unnervingly, it deposited a sliver in my mind that I simply cannot ignore.

In forging outward across the staggeringly-immense, derelict runways we now know as White Sands Space Harbor, witnessing firsthand the contrast between what had until so recently been a fully-functional spaceport and today’s blatantly inhospitable reality, I was left with a persistent awareness of a haunting, obscure truth:

Ours is a civilization that is mature (and immature?) enough to have developed space travel technology… and then completely let it go.

Space Shuttle Columbia's landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Space Shuttle Columbia’s landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Sifting the Future Past

This disturbing truth, revealed to me as we barreled across the slow-motion avalanche of selenite crystals relentlessly erasing the spaceport from existence, is that from this moment onward the science of studying humanity’s artifacts – archaeology – will include not just arrowheads and pottery, but also advanced spaceflight technology.

Could it be that we have reached an era where we – due to social, political, or economic difficulties – actually regress technologically?  A time where what we currently achieve is less advanced than what we achieved in the past?

It is here that we venture headlong into the little-known, frontier science of Space Archaeology.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Archaeology at the Final Frontier

Beyond the obvious, the study of historical space technology also includes places like White Sands Space Harbor.  The facility boasted several features unique to human history, like runways that were flat, long, and wide enough to be used to train people to land vehicles returning from space, or the fact that they were marked in such a way that they could be seen by human pilots reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 18,000 miles-per-hour, or speeds greater than Mach 23(!).

Admittedly, this concept of archaeology runs contrary to our popular view of archaeologists.  It seems difficult, for instance, to envision Indiana Jones racing against the clock to retrieve a turbo-cryo-pump from an abandoned rocket testing facility before it is demolished, or diving to the bottom of the ocean to rescue a historic rocket engine before it rusts to pieces… Yet, that’s exactly what a select few scientists are attempting as I type.

Travel Channel’s Citizen Science-Explorers

In the final analysis, it could very well be that viewers who share in this segment’s exploration of modern lore, tromping off the beaten path with me onto restricted territory at White Sands, were themselves briefly transformed into citizen space archaeologists.

-And in this light, we might all unwittingly serve a very important role through the lens of history – to help ensure that while spaceflight technology might indeed be lost to the sands of time, it will never be completely forgotten.

Semper Exploro – Always Explore!

Ben McGee

System of Fear: A Dose of Radiation Reality

14 10 2013

In line with last week’s post, please see the below infographic, which paints radiation doses in the visual context of a sort of system of planets according to size (click to enlarge):


As is plainly evident, it’s shocking how much the public perception of radiation doses and negative health effects differs from reality.

(For example, in today’s perceptual climate, who would believe that a person could live within a mile of a nuclear powerplant for a thousand years before receiving the radiation dose from a single medical CT scan?)

If feedback to this is positive, I think I’ll make this the first in a series of similar infographics.  (Perhaps people would find it interesting/useful to next have illustrated the relative magnitudes of nuclear disasters?)


If anyone doubts the numbers in the above diagram, please feel free to investigate the references for yourselves!

International Atomic Energy Agency:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

U.S. National Council on Radiological Protection (via the Health Physics Society):

U.S. Department of Energy:

Nuclear and Atomic Radiation Concepts Pictographically Demystified

10 10 2013

Greetings, all.  Today I’m attempting a different, largely pictographic approach to demystifying the concept of “radiation” for the layperson.

Despite the hype, radiation is a natural part of our planet’s, solar system’s, and galaxy’s environment, and one that our biology is equipped to mitigate at ordinary intensities.  It’s all actually surprisingly straightforward.

So, without further ado, here goes – a post in two parts…

PART I – Radiation and Radioactivity Explained in 60 Seconds:

The Atom

This is a generic diagram of the atom, which in various combinations of the same bits and parts is the basic unique building block of all matter in the universe:


This somewhat simplified view of an atom is what makes up the classic “atomic” symbol that most of us were exposed to at the very least in high school.

Radioactive Atoms

However, what is almost never explained in school is that each atomic element comes in different versions – slimmer ones and fatter ones.  When an atom’s core gets too large, either naturally or artificially, it starts to radiate bits of itself away in order to “slim down.”  This is called being radio-active.

So, there’s nothing to “radiation” that we all haven’t been introduced to in school.  Radiation is the name given to familiar bits of atoms (electrons, protons, neutrons) or beams of light when they’re being flung away by an element trying desperately to squeeze into last year’s jeans… metaphorically-speaking, of course.

Here is a diagram illustrating this process.  (Relax! – this is the most complicated-looking diagram in this post):


So, when a radioactive element has radiated enough of itself away and is no longer too large, it is no longer radioactive.  (We say it has “decayed.”)

That’s it!

That’s as complicated as the essential principles of radiation and radioactivity get.  It’s just basic chemistry that isn’t covered in high school, (though in my opinion it should be!).

PART II – Take-Home Radiation Infographics

So, in an effort to help arm you against the rampant misinformation out there, here is a collection of simple diagrams explaining what everyone out there seems to get wrong.  (Feel free to promote and/or distribute with attribution!)

First, what’s the deal with “atomic” energy/radiation versus “nuclear” energy/radiation?  Do they mean the same thing?  Do they not?  Here’s the skinny:


That’s all.  “Nuclear” means you’ve zeroed in on an atom’s core, whereas “atomic” means you’re talking about something dealing with whole atoms.  No big mystery there.

Next, here is a simple diagram explaining the three terms used to describe radiation that are commonly misused in the media, presented clearly (click to enlarge):


(Armed with this, you should be able to see why saying something like, “The radiation is releasing contamination!” doesn’t make a lick of sense.)

Now, here is a diagram explaining the natural sources of radiation we’re exposed to everyday on planet Earth:


And here are the basic principles of radiation safety, all on one, clean diagram (click to enlarge):


The End! 

Despite the time and effort spent socially (politically?) promoting an obscured view of this science (or so it seems), there is nothing more mysterious about radiation than what you see here.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and remember:  We have nothing to fear but fear itself!

Semper Exploro!

Exploring a Logarithmic Temporal Technology Scale

19 09 2013
Industrial archaeologist performing an underwater survey. (Credit: NPS)

Industrial archaeologist performing an underwater survey. (Credit: NPS)

In a previous, fairly soft-content post, I mused about the possibility of the existence of a logarithmic pattern in history that relates, in a predictable way, the subjective perceptions of technology within a civilization to their pace of technological advancement.  (In a sort of tongue-in-cheek gesture, I called it the McGee Scale of technological advancement.)

At the time, I based the scale itself on our civilization’s history and our historical understanding of the possibility of flight.  Then, I turned the scale around and anchored it to the present day to use it as a tool to make some tantalizing projections about the pace of our own future technological advancements.

However, while a fun, neuron-tickling exercise, after playing around with it a bit more, the scale has taken on something of a more serious light.  With this in mind, I thought I’d share the work and the resulting possibility that such a proposed relationship might actually be more than trivial.

Review: A Logarithmic Scale of Cultural Technological Achievement/Advancement

To begin, let me review what the scale looked like.  Being temporally-logarithmic in nature, it’s an intentionally coarse scale over time, which has the distinct benefit of smearing out statistical noise like wars, upheavals, disasters, and dark ages to provide an average pace of technological development in a civilization.

It’s admittedly subjective and tenuous in that we really only have one technological civilization’s history to base/test this upon (our own), but here’s what it looked like as compiled.  (Note: I also added an extra step at the end of the scale for grins.)

So, from any point in time for a given technological civilization, the scale defines the following general relationship in technological advancement, where “τ” (tau) is a reference moment in a civilization’s past or future technological history, and all units are in solar years:

  • Recent technological achievements at τ+1 year would have also been considered commonplace at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+10 years would have been considered generally commonplace at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+100 years would have been considered uncommon at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+1,000 years would have been considered unachievable/fantasy at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+10,000 years would have been considered unimaginable at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+100,000 years would have been incomprehensible at time τ.

Granted, this all makes general sense, and the sentiment is a fairly logical one.  So, I’ll admit that at first this seems like an exercise that goes out of its way to justify something that is already straightforward or intuitive.  However, the intriguing and unique factor here is that this scale is based on actual historical information, and its utility is therefore a testable hypothesis.

Navigable balloon by Henri Giffard (1852). 19th century print.

Navigable balloon by Henri Giffard (1852). 19th century print.

Testing the Logarithmic Scale Looking Backwards: Practical Flight

It becomes easier to see how the scale might be tested if instead of working forward through time in the general case, the scale is anchored at the present moment but instead operates backwards through history.

With this conversion, the scale now becomes:

  • At τ-100,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are incomprehensible.
  • At τ-10,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are unimaginable.
  • At τ-1,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • At τ-100 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered uncommon.
  • At τ-10 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered generally commonplace.
  • At τ-1 year, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered commonplace.

Now, let’s dive into specifics.  In my original thought-experiment, I evaluated the technology/science of flight.  So, where the above scale in the general form reads, “technological achievements commonplace at time t,” let’s insert the term, “practical human flight,” to refer to regular use of technological aircraft for transport between settlements.  Let’s also insert real year values, using 2013 as civilization reference time τ, and see what it all looks like:

  • In 97,987 B.C.E., practical human flight is incomprehensible.
  • In 7,987 B.C.E., practical human flight is unimaginable.
  • In 1,013 C.E., practical human flight is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 1913 C.E., practical human flight is considered uncommon (but possible).
  • In 2003, practical human flight is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 2012, practical human flight is considered commonplace.

With this, we have real values and predictions, so let’s pick this list apart.

First, in the 98th millennia (or the 980th century) B.C.E., there is no historical information from humanity.  Originating in Africa, anthropological studies suggest humans (homo sapiens) became anatomically-modern roughly 200,000 years ago and began migrating to Eurasia ~100,000 years ago (our target period).  However, evidence suggests humans only became behaviorally modern, (meaning the development of language, music, and other cultural “universals,” such as personal names, leaders, concepts of property, symbolism, and abstraction, etc.)  some 50,000 years ago.  This means that our time period is nearly 90 millennia before the advent of agriculture and some 50 millennia before the widespread development of language and culture, where humans at the time operated only in nomadic groups known as “band societies.”  Therefore, it would have been impossible not only to convey the idea of practical, technological flight to them, but even describing the idea of a human settlement would have been problematic.  Therefore, this one is spot on; to these early humans practical human flight between settlements would have been incomprehensible.

Second, in the 8th millennia (or the 80th century) B.C.E., there is very little historical record to evaluate.  However, all we need to do to break (falsify) this logarithmic scale/model is demonstrate that practical human flight had been considered by that point.  Archaeologically, it can be demonstrated that the first steps toward technological civilization are being taken at this point in history.  Agricultural technology is being developed simultaneously in South America, Mexico, Asia, and Africa; stone tools, granaries, and huts are being developed in Africa; the creation of houses, carvings, stone tools, counting tokens and musical flutes made of bone are developed in Asia; statues, pottery, and evidence of ceremonial burials are found in Greece and the Mediterranean, along with wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and pigs, indicating a food-producing economy.  In all cases listed here, it seems that the problem of sustaining civilization, (i.e., food and shelter) is still paramount.  Of them, the early Greek civilization may have had the most technologically-developed system and therefore the most opportunity to consider technological advancement in the direction we’re considering.  Yet, based on a lack of both technology and historical/archaeological evidence, it appears safe to say that in this tumultuous time of antiquity practical human flight between settlements would have been plainly unimaginable.

Third, by the 11th century C.E., there are a few small-scale examples of individual flight attempts using kites, gliders, or even bamboo-copters across Asia and Europe.  None of them illustrated practical success.  At the specific time (11th century), of all civilizations on Earth, those of the Islamic world and of China had reached a technological and/or scientific peak.  So, in the interests of breaking this scale as a model, it is there that we’ll look for evidence that human flight might have been considered achievable in a practical sense.  Islamic contributions, insofar as history records them, are restricted largely to mathematics and not practical engineering.  Further, the year 1,013 C.E. preceded the birth of famous Islamic mathematician Omar Al-Khayyam by several decades, and neither he nor his predecessors offered any known discussion of technological flight. On the other hand, the existence of the Song Dynasty in China gives us the greatest run for our money.  There, the relatively advanced use of technology, including boating, magnetic compasses for navigation, horology, along with the development of art, literature, and sweeping advances in science (e.g., geomorphology, climate change,) push this boundary to the limit.  However, despite the sophistication of the civilization at the time as well as their notable use of hot-air Kongming lanterns for nearly a millennia prior(!), it seems that there is no evidence to suggest serious considerations or attempts concerning the development of a practical airship.  Hence, it is safe to say that globally, practical human flight would have been considered either unachievable or simple fantasy.

Fourth, the scale’s prediction for the year 1913 is not hard to corroborate, and further, is right on the money.  The successful invention of the manned, practical, but non-directional hot air balloon was made in the year 1793.  The first dirigible design that could have been utilized in the fashion described for this exercise (for practical transport between settlements) was invented in 1852.  The first commercial Zeppelin was launched in the year 1900, and the Wright brothers’ flight was performed in 1903.  So, yes, it is safe to say that while there was likely widespread belief by the year 1913 that flight was indeed possible, (graduating us out of the previous “bin”), such flights would certainly have been considered uncommon.

The rest, 2003-2012, is obviously correctly categorized – Success!

A printing operation as depicted on a woodblock ca. 1568.

A printing operation as depicted on a woodblock ca. 1568.

Testing the Scale Again: Electronic Text

Now, having gone through the first technical example, let’s attempt another and see if the agreement was a fluke.  This time, let’s leave the time scale intact from the previous example but shift to an entirely different sort of technology: printed language.  Working backwards, in order for this to work, we have to figure out what a “recent technological achievement” in “printed language” means at civilization reference time τ (now).

Well, for the purposes of this experiment, I’m drawn to consider so-called e-books, being digitally-formatted and distributed writings or texts to be displayed and read on electronic devices.   Hence, instead of inserting, “modern human flight,” let’s instead insert the term, “the use of electronic text” to refer to regular use of digital language technology and see what it all looks like:

  • In 97,987 B.C.E., the use of electronic text is incomprehensible.
  • In 7,987 B.C.E., the use of electronic text is unimaginable.
  • In 1,013 C.E., the use of electronic text is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 1913 C.E., the use of electronic text is considered uncommon.
  • In 2003, the use of electronic text is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 2012, the use of electronic text is considered commonplace.

Again, since we have real dates and descriptions, let’s see how well they match up with history.

97,987 B.C.E. – Language has not yet been developed, hence this fits the scale’s definition of incomprehensible.

7,987 B.C.E. – Writing has been developed, but printing of any kind (stenciling was the earliest possible technology that qualifies) is still more than five millennia away at best; hence this fits the scale’s definition as unimaginable.

1,013 C.E. – The earliest example of printing with movable text was within a couple of decades of being first premiered in China.  So, the process of printing could be argued to be understood, but extending this to describe self-luminous text, single machines that can store entire libraries of information, and text that can change itself – Yes, this would clearly have been considered physically-impossible fantasy.

1913 C.E. – To start, history reveals that the pantelegraph, which can be considered an early version of a fax machine, was invented in 1865.  This leveraged technological advances to transmit printed text electronically, though it did not store said text, nor display or reproduce it electronically, only mechanically.  Next, electromechanical punch-card data storage was invented in 1880, so it can be truthfully claimed that the technological storage of numeric or text data was at least conceptually available by 1913, though again, this invention did not display any of the stored information electronically.  However, the technology gap regarding electronic displays began to close with the nearly simultaneous invention of the scanning phototelegraph in 1881, which allowed for the coarse electric transmission of imagery, (and at least hypothetically, visual text).  Finally, the invention of the Nipkow scanning disc in 1884 provided the first electromechanical means to scan and display imagery in real-time.  So, by 1913 we can reasonably claim that the existence of these inventions, used with greater prevalence over the course of at least three subsequent decades, implies that the key concepts necessary for using electronic text – electric scanning of visual information, the electromechanical storage of information, and electromechanical display of information – were all acknowledged realities.  Therefore, while perhaps a stretch to say that use of electronic text is merely “uncommon” in the year 1913, I would claim that the concept of electronic text would not seem unachievable or fantastic (the previous temporal “bin”).  Though there was admittedly no market for such a device, one could conceive of a large, hard-wired or wireless invention composed of a punch-card library, text-analogue mechanical counters for mechanically displaying lines of text (as stored on the cards), and a Nipkow televisor to transmit and display that text to a receiving/viewing station.  Highly uncommon, yes.  But clearly possible.  (I think we made it in right under the wire on this one.)

And again, the remaining categorical descriptions for 2003-2012 are obviously correct.  Success again!

The Antikythera Mechanism. (Credit: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987)

The Antikythera Mechanism. (Credit: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987)

Viewing the Scale in Both Time Directions: Testing the Wheel

First, readers may note that the “forward” and “backwards”-looking versions of the scale are actually two halves of a single scale with respect to arbitrary civilization reference time τ.  In complete form, note that the scale looks like this:

  • At τ-100,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are incomprehensible.
  • At τ-10,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are unimaginable.
  • At τ-1,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • At τ-100 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered uncommon.
  • At τ-10 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered generally commonplace.
  • At τ-1 year, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered commonplace.
  • [τ = the current civilization/technology temporal reference point]
  • At τ+1 year, recent technological achievements would have also been considered commonplace at time τ.
  • At τ+10 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered generally commonplace at time τ.
  • At τ+100 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered uncommon at time τ.
  • At τ+1,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered unachievable/fantasy at time τ.
  • At τ+10,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered unimaginable at time τ.
  • At τ+100,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been incomprehensible at time τ.

Well, considering this now-complete scale (operating in both temporal directions) and presuming that the previous two examples demonstrated some general agreement between this scale and the history of technology, let’s explore what happens if we do not anchor time τ at the present-day.

For the following exploration, let’s consider advances in the technology of the wheel, but let’s set time τ instead to the height of Classical Civilization – smack in the middle of the scientific Hellenistic Period in the year 250 B.C.E. seems about right.  Where was the wheel then?  Well, the spoked wheel and chariot had been invented more than a millennia earlier.  So what was new then?

The answer, as it turns out, is the water-wheel, newly invented by the Greeks and used both for irrigation as well as for a mechanical power source in mining, milling, and other industrial activities.

So, including this in the scale as “the use of a technological water wheel,” the predictions in both directions are now:

  • In 100,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is incomprehensible.
  • In 10,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is unimaginable.
  • In 1,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 350 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered uncommon.
  • In 260 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 251 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered commonplace.
  • τ = water wheel technology reference point in the year 250 B.C.E.
  • In 249 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered commonplace.
  • In 240 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered generally commonplace.
  • In 150 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered uncommon.
  • In 750 C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered unachievable/fantasy.
  • In 9,750, advances in wheel technology would have been considered unimaginable.
  • In 99,750, advances in wheel technology would have been incomprehensible.

So, here we go:

100,250 B.C.E. – Language, agriculture, and settlements had not yet been developed amongst humans, and so technology like a water wheel for irrigation and mechanical power cleanly fits the scale’s definition of incomprehensible.

10,250 B.C.E. – While language and culture have been developed by this point, the world’s oldest known wheel dates back to roughly 5,300 B.C.E., which is five millennia into the future; hence the concept of a functioning water wheel fits the scale’s definition as unimaginable.

1,250 B.C.E. – The spoked wheel and the chariot had been invented a few centuries prior, yet it would still be seven or eight centuries before the first invention of the water wheel – essentially a giant wooden wheel powered by a stream to automatically deliver water to fields or grind grain.  The description in this context would likely have been considered unachievable/fantastic (in the technical sense), and therefore fits the scale’s definition.

350 B.C.E. – Being that the waterwheel was invented in in third century B.C.E., and we’re not quite there yet, the use of one certainly qualifies as “uncommon.”   Yet, is that too generous?  Would it have been considered unachievable or fantastic then?  To answer this, let’s look at the technological innovation going on at the time.  Hellenistic scholars of the 3rd century employed mathematics and dedicated empirical research to further technological and intellectual advances.  Specifically, there is evidence to suggest that finely-machined gear systems to represent the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets had been constructed (see: Antikythera Mechanism).  Thus, considering that 350 B.C.E. is just a century before the creation of such finely-tuned machines that their precision would not be reproduced for another two-thousand years, while a waterwheel might have seemed unusual prior to widespread adoption, it would certainly not seem impossible or fanciful.  Therefore, I would argue that its characterization is accurately predicted by the scale.

260, 251, 249, and 240 B.C.E. qualify with generally commonplace use of the water wheel and no major loss, upheaval, gains, or advances in wheel technology.

150 B.C.E. – Moving forward, this is where subjective decisions must be made about what the evolution of “water wheel technology” means in order to continue.  In my mind, what we’re really talking about is the mechanical use of the wheel – a circular disc – itself in technology.  From this generalized perspective, we now have the latitude to consider technological innovations that incorporate the wheel, but are not necessarily direct evolutions of a “water wheel,” as technological descendants of the technology under consideration at the reference point.  (This is doubly-reinforced by the reality that innovation is anything but linear.)  So, what wheel-based technologies came into being approximate a century after our reference point in 250 B.C.E.?  The astrolabe, which functioned as an analog calculator typically used in solving astronomical problems.  While precision technology using the wheel had been occasionally in existence for a couple of centuries prior to the reference time (250 B.C.E.), its use in this fashion would have definitely been considered uncommon.  This is accurately predicted by the scale.

750 C.E. – The early centuries of the Common Era are pretty tough on this scale, as coincidentally it is a period of particular turmoil and conflict… and therefore not much innovation.  However, a monk, astronomer, and engineer under the Tang Dynasty in China was notable for advancing the use of clockwork mechanisms with an escapement and integrating it with the movement of a large celestial sphere.  In common terms, he enabled the construction of an impressive, accurate, and automated astronomical display not unlike what is found in a modern planetarium.  Despite their relatively advanced technological achievements at the time, describing such a device to someone from the year 250 B.C.E. would have arguably seemed fantastic.  Therefore, the scale holds up.

9,750 C.E. and 99,750 C.E. – Now, here’s where we run out of data.  However, considering the many unbelievable technological achievements of even the last century that incorporate wheels or discs, including electrical dynamos, automobiles, two-wheeled personal transports (see: Segway PTs), electronic interface devices (e.g., Intellivision), etc., etc., all of which would have been either unimaginable or incomprehensible to someone from the year 250 B.C.E., it isn’t a stretch to say that technological innovation at these proposed times in the distant future would be even moreso.  And so, by convenient definition and temporal increments, the scale holds up here.

So – this makes three examples of using the scale with real-world data.  Is there any utility to it?

Assumptions (Weak Spots?)

Immediate objections amongst the astute may be that this scale is too coarse to be testable and/or of any meaningful value to us, (which may ultimately be true).  However, even this does not necessarily mean that the use or consideration of such a scale has no utility.  Perhaps where it fails can lead to even more interesting territory.

Of course, such a scale presumes human existence tens or hundreds of millennia into the future.  Is it too bold to be that optimistic? =)

Thoughts in general?

Relating Different Cultures via “τ-Power” Values

Used in another way, I propose that this scale may find its greatest utility in providing a means to compare the technological development within or between different cultures at separate stages of technological development.

Logarithmic scales may be thought of conveniently in powers of ten.  So, if we consider the technological time-position of a given reference culture to be the origin, or τ^0 power, the relationship of the technological level of a target culture to the reference culture may be simply described as a sequential power integer in either the positive or negative direction, as illustrated in the following converted scale:

  • Technology in use by the reference culture is incomprehensible to the target culture; (τ-100,000 years) = τ^-5 culture, or a negative-fifth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is unimaginable by the target culture; (τ-10,000 years) = τ^-4 culture, or a negative-fourth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered unachievable and/or fantasy by the target culture; (τ-1,000 years) = τ^-3 culture, or a negative-third-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered uncommon by the target culture; (τ-100 years) = τ^-2 culture, or a negative-two-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered generally commonplace by the target culture; (τ-10 years) = τ^-1 culture, or an order-of-magnitude culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered commonplace by the target culture; (τ-1 year/τ+1 year) = τ^0 culture, or in other words are both considered to be technologically-equivalent cultures.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered generally commonplace by the reference culture; (τ+10 years) = τ^1 culture, or an order-of-magnitude culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered uncommon by the reference culture; (τ+100 years) = τ^2 culture, or a two-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered unachievable/fantasy by the reference culture; (τ+1,000 years) = τ^3 culture, or a third-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered unimaginable by the reference culture; (τ+10,000 years) = τ^4 culture, or a fourth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is incomprehensible to the reference culture; (τ+100,000 years) = τ^5 culture, or a fifth-power culture.

Utility of the “McGee Scale”?

By considering the technological time-position of a reference civilization (which may itself possess different “t-power” values for different technologies within it), I believe the development of such a scale at least conceptually achieves or enables two objectives:

First, it provides an alternative means to describe, compare, and (at least roughly) quantify past cultures in terms of technological development.  This may yield new insight into both the relationship between evolving technologies and cultural change as well as the effects of introducing foreign technology (e.g., from a culture of a more advanced t-power) to the evolution of a given culture.

Secondly, gaining the ability to describe technological cultures in simple and quantifiable terms (based on human history of technology and not solely upon speculation, as is the case with the Kardashev Scale), also provides a more formalized method of evaluating the concepts underlying pursuits proposing non-terrestrial cultures and technology, such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

So – with all of that, I think I’ll fire this post off into the cyberwild.  Critical feedback is very welcome.  This whole concept scheme evolved organically, and if left to my own devices for much longer, I just might convince myself that this is worthy of a full write-up and submission to a journal – (perhaps Contemporary Archaeology?)…

Thoughts, anyone?

“Astronaut Politics” Meme

11 09 2013

One of the universally-championed benefits of human space exploration is not actually related to any physical activities performed while in space.  Instead, an important aspect of leaving our world is the change in perception that space exploration has upon astronauts themselves, and the societies that receive them, upon their return.

ASTRONAUTPOLITICSMEME_MITCHELLQUOTEIrrespective of country of origin, religion (or lack thereof), cultural background, or political ideology, and having seen firsthand the fragility of Earth in the context of the rest of the cosmos, a great majority of astronauts return as prophets of a unified Earth and humanity upon it.

Hearing what they have to say is powerful stuff, considering that they’ve lived through something still very, very unique to human experience.

Fighting Fire with Fire

So, as a bit of a social experiment, I took one of my favorite astronaut images and paired it with some of the more poignant, (if not also somewhat charmingly coarse), “overview effect”-inspired astronaut quotes as a meme (see image at right for an example) to inspire the question:

“How might the world be different if astronauts ran it?”

The six images I whipped up in series are included below – if so inclined, feel free to distribute at will.  (Attribution not necessary – I want to promote their opinions, not mine.)

They’re intended to trigger the consideration that the same training, rigors, education, problem-solving skills, decisiveness, and unique experiences required of and provided to those selected to venture off-world might also happen to make them ideal for leading us here at home.

I’d argue that we need more out there communicating the idea that supporting human space exploration has more behind it than the development of new technologies, probing the laws of our universe, figuring out if we’re alone in the cosmos, turning a profit, or even capitalizing on our species’ deep-seated impulse to explore.

By no means a new concept, many have instead suggested that with the apparently-universal nature of the Overview Effect and an increasing number of astronauts in our midst, conflicts may be given a broader or different context, and world contention might thereby diminish.  (It’s an admittedly lofty hope, but that’s no reason to avoid testing it; In my opinion, it provides all the more reason!)

About the Meme: Why That Picture?

The picture itself, that of future moonwalker Alan Shepard severely chomping on a cigar while leading ground control during the Gemini 6 mission to space, provides several subtly unsettling contrasts that I hope inspire thought or debate.  On its face, by depicting a very assertive, gruff 1960s American male stereotype, we’re shown a side of science and exploration that is not really depicted today.

Next, by just placing the picture of an astronaut (not in a spacesuit) in a vaguely political context, I feel that the concept of the explorer and the politician – two seemingly unrelated or even incompatible archtypes – are juxtaposed in such a way that the idea of an explorer-politician might be seen as something beneficial or even desirable.   (Many are unaware that several astronauts have, indeed, gone on to political careers after hanging up their flightsuits, John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt being two noteworthy examples.)

Further, however, is the fascinating contrast made by the impression of the picture and the content of the quotes superimposed over it.  Most today would consider the quotes to be promoting “liberal” leaning opinions, (i.e., ideas that those of a “hawk”-style international relations stance would consider to be fundamentally weak views,) – yet the majority of the quotes were made my military men epitomized by the stereotype the image suggests!

In addition to highlighting that no personality types, even those perceived to be warlike, are immune to the power of the spaceflight experience, this contrast visually assaults two modern myths currently operating in America’s evolving cultural narrative:

  1. That stereotypical, “20th Century male” (i.e., overt or hegemonic masculine) personalities or gender identities are synonymous with physicality and are incompatible with intellect.
  2. That the same personalities typified (or classified) at the time by masculine stereotypes are synonymous with aggression and conflict and are incompatible with humanist views.

Meshed with the deconstruction of a stereotype, (to the point, several of our “Right Stuff” astronauts, themselves amongst the most disciplined and committed military men of our country at the time, admitted to being moved to tears at the simple sight of the Earth from beyond,) it’s my hope that their message finds a memorable channel to the public, if not to a virgin audience.


For those inclined to do so, let me know what you think, and please copy and “fire at will,” as they say, on your social media outlet of choice.  Who knows?  These might not get a single view, or they just might plant a seed to someone whose eyes drift over it in the daily waterfall of social media that washes over us all.

Hopefully, discussions will result.

Having had their eyes opened, (perhaps metaphorically-dilated by the cosmic darkness to resolve a reality we’re evidently excellent at blinding ourselves to down here on Earth), I believe that there is a pressing social motivation for broadcasting the consistent messages carried back by humanity’s astronauts.

Especially given the increasingly-polarized political views on display these days, and considering the global, long-standing ideological conflicts that persist to this day, I think the message from our off-world explorers is becoming only more, not less, relevant with time.


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