Timestream Post: A note from 01.07.2011

7 01 2016

Bulls-eye! 1989 movie "Back to the Future Part II" depicts (invents?) a 60" widescreen, flat-screen TV and correctly hangs it above the mantle nearly 20 years before they were actually invented...

In the spirit of this experiment, I send this message half-a-decade into the future.  (Truthfully, I hope to positively litter the digital timestream with notes, showing that cyberspace may not only connect us through space, but also through time.)

First, my greeting:  Hello, 2016!  This is a year made nearly famous by films such as Back to the Future, Part II – where in 1989 the distant future year 2015 was depicted as a fantastic realm of flying cars, keyless entry, ubiquitous cybernetic implants, widescreen-flatscreen TVs, governmental weather control, 3D movies (without glasses), hoverboards, video calls (Skype?), video eyeglasses, and electronic roofies.

Reading the list five years out, 50% isn’t bad.  Do the remaining few years close the gap?  If not flying cars, do electric cars break the entry barrier at least?  I wonder…

So, what preoccupies me today?  Unsurprisingly, it’s space travel.  The future of space travel, to be precise.  In a move that some may consider pure insanity in the midst of an economic Great Depression, I decided last summer to start a spaceflight consulting firm, which I hope to incorporate and launch in the next few weeks.  To that end, I’ve been building a coalition of industry professionals during the last six months who I hope to become private space pioneers with me, and I entered an abstract for one of the company’s services – spacecraft ergonomics – into the Next Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference next month.  The meeting is only the second meeting of its kind, and one I hope will lead to frenetic networking, and ultimately, clients!

I’ve been working with a design studio, Studio Rayolux under brilliant designer Thad Boss, to develop a brand for the company, which I believe I’m calling “Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting.”  We’ll see if it sticks.

So, my question to the future is simply this:  Did it work?  Did the company get off the ground?  Did I get off the ground?  Can industries be forged during a time of economic strife and emerge triumphant?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Until then, take care, faithful readers.  Go for your dreams and never look back!



January 7, 2011.

January 7, 2011. 5:01pm.

Science as the language of time-travelers

16 04 2012

A note today on something that is implicit in many of the popular treatments of time travel that I’d like to make explicit.  Namely, I’d like to explore the answer to the question:

Presuming backward-and-forward time travel to be possible, how could we communicate with those from different times?

This is something that actually comes up quite frequently in science-fiction.  More often than not, the answer to the protagonist’s communication woes is simply: Science. 

More specifically, science is the means by which a character from a less-advanced culture is able to understand and quickly adapt to and utilize new concepts.  -And I think it’s spot on.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean.

The Time Traveler interacting with an artificial intelligence expert system at the future New York Public Library. (Credit: Warner Bros)

The Common Element

Take the recent film incarnation of “The Time Machine” as an example.  When the Time Traveler begins his journey into the future, he does so from the same spatial location – his house in early-twentieth-century New York city – to arrive in a futuristic New York City that looks to be mid-to-late 21st Century.

In attempting to answer his own question about the nature of causality in the universe, he is able to meaningfully interact with a computer system from the future to quickly digest advanced concepts.  (Further, on a related note, the backwards-compatibility of scientific concepts allows the computer to understand him.)

Take this exchange, for example, (bearing in mind it essentially occurs between two characters hypothetically separated by what could be nearly two centuries):

Time Traveler:  “What are you?”

Computer:  “I’m the 5th Avenue Public Information Unit, Vox Registration NY-114.  How may I help you?”

Time Traveler:  “You’re a stereopticon of some sort.”

Computer:  “Stereopticon?  Oh no, sir.  I am a third-generation, fusion powered photonic with verbal and visual link capabilities connected to every database on the planet.”

Time Traveler:  “A photonic?”

Computer:  “A compendium of all human knowledge.  Area of inquiry?”

Time Traveler:  “Know anything about physics?”

Computer:  “Ah.  Accessing physics.”

Time Traveler:  “Mechanical engineering.  Dimensional optics.  Chronography.  Temporal causality.  Temporal paradox.”

Computer:  “Time travel?”

Time Traveler:  “Yes!”

Very quickly, the Time Traveler is able to accurately communicate the advanced concept of technical time-travel to the point that the artificial intelligence from the future is able to anticipate his inquiry.  No small feat!

Crossing the Generation Gap

For another example, let’s take the more recent film “Tron: Legacy.” 

But wait, astute readers might say.  There’s no time travel in that film!  I beg to differ.

Programmer Kevin Flynn learns about the outside world from his son, Sam, in Tron: Legacy. (Credit: Disney)

In the story, programmer Kevin Flynn is marooned inside a computer system for nearly two decades.  Based on his technical background, he is easily able to digest the existence of technology twenty years ahead of the world he knows during a conversation with his son, Sam, (which is essentially like talking to someone from 20 years in the future).  He asks his son what the world he’s been separated from has changed:

Sam Flynn:  “I don’t know.  The rich are getting richer, poor getting poorer.  Cell phones.  Online dating.  Wi-fi.”

Kevin Flynn:  “What’s Wi-fi?”

Sam Flynn:  “Wireless… interlinking.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Of digital devices?”

Sam Flynn:  “Yeah.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Huh.  I thought of that in ’85.”

A Universal Language

And let’s not forget that this principle – the idea of science as a universal language – was essentially the basis of Carl Sagan‘s landmark book, Contact.

Dr. Ellie Arroway, moments from receiving an extraterrestrial signal using math and scientific principles to communicate engineering plans across space and time. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Being that it’s impossible to separate the distance of space from the passage of time, (and one of the reasons that my two passions – space exploration and time travel – are not too dissimilar,) any electromagnetic signal received from an extraterrestrial source comes from the past and must be able to communicate to future civilizations – whether technologically advanced or inferior.

This is why science is (or will be… or has been?) the language of time travel.

-Just a fun aside to keep in mind during your next millennial jaunt.

Room with a (global) view

3 11 2011

When you gaze outside of your spacecraft, what do you see?

What’s it really like to be there?

With the advent of digital photography in the hands of determined astronauts willing to make time to steal moments to snap images like the above, now we can know. 

Have a look.  Blow the image up with a click.  You’re really just sitting there, looking out the window; A perfectly mundane act performed from an extraordinary vantage.

This reality represents (to me, anyway) one of the most inspirational aspects of 21st-century human space exploration: for the first time, the human experience of spaceflight is being not just communicated but also shown to those of us on the planet surface in real-time (via Twitter, for example,) to great effect.

I believe it is the responsibility of those who support and/or are professionally involved in space exploration to promote imagery like the above, for I truly believe it will be via exposure to this media that the next generation of planetary explorers will be engaged to careers in the student-starved sectors of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (see: STEM).
-And the more ordinary orbital space feels, not only will the goals of work off-world feel attainbale, perhaps the next generation will be even more compelled to see the world as a fragile, interconnected system and seek out the extraordinary in their experiences farther beyond…

Radiation, Japan, and irresponsible reporting: Part III

19 04 2011

Image of one of the damaged Fukushima reactors. (Credit: Reuters)

As detailed in Part I and Part II of this series, the vocabulary of radiation science, (known as “health physics,”) is being chronically misused and confused by the news media in its coverage of the Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan, and critical context is being ignored when details are reported.  The result?  There is so much misinformation flying around that it’s basically impossible for an ordinary person to make sense of the situation.

This post series is an attempt to help.  So, to briefly recap:

  • “Radiation” cannot travel in a cloud, nor can it “settle” onto something.  Radiation is simply the atomic/sub-atomic particles and rays of x-ray-like energy beamed out from overweight, (i.e. radioactive,) elements.  The effects of these particles/rays are pretty short-range.
  • “Radioactive material” is what can do the distance traveling – actual bits or chunks of stuff – which itself emits radiation.
  • When some radioactive material lands somewhere you don’t want it, it is called “contamination,” and none of it is really mysterious.  You can wash contamination off, wipe it up, etc.  It’s really just chemistry, after all.

Let’s take a moment to further the discussion and talk about why radiation is something we don’t like, and what we can do about it.  In truth, radiation is far more natural than anyone (particularly with an anti-nuclear agenda) tends to broadcast.

Water around Idaho National Laboratory Advanted Test Reactor glows blue due to the intense radiation field. (Credit: Matt Howard)

To be completely fair, you should understand that light is radiation – that’s right, regular ol’ light from your edison bulb.  However, it’s low enough energy that it doesn’t do any damage to you.  All types of light are types of radiation, including infrared light, ultraviolet light (which is why it burns/causes cancer), microwaves (which is why it can cook your food), x-rays (which is why you need a lead apron as a shield at the hospital), as well as the stronger gamma-rays that are one of the main types of radiation people talk about when they say something is radioactive.

However, what few know is that your own body emits gamma rays.  It’s a fact (see: potassium-40).  So do plants growing in the wild, the sun above us, generally half of the mountains around you, and your granite countertops.  Our bodies are built to withstand ordinary amounts of radiation exposure.  Alpha and beta particles (other types of radiation) can’t even penetrate our skin.

Radiation is a normal part of the natural world.

Giant fireballs rise from a burning oil refinery in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture. (Credit: Associated Press)

So, now that we understand that, of course there are intensities of radiation that are unhealthy, just as breathing too many chemical fumes can be quite harmful to you, (e.g., gasoline, cleansers under your sink, bleach, etc.)   This is one of the largest misconceptions about the Fukushima disaster – that it is the worst part of the earthquake/tsunami effects.  In my opinion it is not.

The nuclear reactors are definitely gaining the most media attention, but the biochemical aspects of the earthquake/tsunami disaster are much more widespread.  -Ruptured sewer lines across the nation.  -Burning oil refineries.  -Dumped chemical warehouses swept over by the giant wave and spread out all over the place.  -Biological hazards.  The media is ignoring the true scale of the disaster in its addiction to the nuclear mystique.

But I digress.  Yes, there certainly are harmful and dangerous levels of radiation being emitted by the damaged reactors, which like a more powerful version of a sunburn can damage DNA and cause certain types of cell mutations (cancers).  So, we ask the question: If you’re near to a source of harmful radiation, whether it’s a nuclear fuel rod or a cloud of fallout, what can you do about it?  Fortunately, the answer is very simple.  There are three things you can and should do, and these are the same things you would do in the event of a nuclear attack as well, (so take heed):

  • Get away from the source as fast as possible.  [Time]
  • Get as far away from the source as you can.  [Distance]
  • Position yourself so that dense objects are between you and the radiation source, such as hills, mountains, brick walls, mounds of dirt, etc.  [Shielding]

That’s really all you need to keep in mind, and in that order.  Time, distance, and shielding.  The intensity of radiation drops off exponentially the farther away from it you get, and the less time you spend being bombarded by radiation, the more likely your natural defense mechanisms will be capable of dealing with it and you won’t even notice.  If you can’t do the other two, then maximize your shielding and ride it out.

So, this has swelled beyond my original intent, so we’ll leave explaining the utility of iodine pills ’till next time.  But trust me.  -If you’re not in Fukushima Prefecture, you don’t need them.  (And even then, you probably still don’t.)

One final note of context.  Neither Chernobyl nor Three Mile Island (which was  nothing like Chernobyl) were a result of natural disasters.  Peculiar engineering and human error were the culprits there, respectively.

The Fukushima plant, on the other hand, took a cataclysmic magnitude 9 earthquake followed by an apocalyptic 25-foot-tall wall of water.

I think it’s a testament to their superb engineering that the reactors there are even standing at all.

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