I was enjoying a most welcome midday pint today when my neighbour’s lunch arrived. He had ordered double-egg, sausage, chips, and beans. It took me back nearly sixty years to the Ace Café on the North Circular Road in west London, near the Hangar Lane Gyratory (as it is now known).
My band played gigs most Fridays and Saturdays, and we were always hungry afterwards. Since the chance of assuaging that hunger occurred rarely before midnight, there were precious few eating opportunities, but the Ace Café (pronounced 'caff') was open 24/7.
It was a dodgy venue. The Ace was a notable biker café and these were the times of Mods and Rockers; woe-betide either one discovered in a watering-hole frequented by the other. We trod a delicate path; not Mods, perish the thought, but wearing vaguely faddish clothes and definitely not bikers. I was challenged in the queue once on account of a paisley scarf and a tailored leather jacket I was wearing. The interrogator was a biker-girl with plenty of reinforcements close at hand. I spluttered my innocence, face turning red. What a wuss.
The ‘food’ was all cooked in animal fat. I recall a large tray half-an-inch deep in the stuff with around twenty or thirty fried eggs in it being brought to the serving bay. Healthy it was not, but it was hot and it was available, any time, day or night …
There is no Planet B
It was a combination of Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon), H G Wells (The Time Machine), and C S Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet) that got me hooked into science fiction literature in the early 1960s. I was soon putty in the hands of the likes of Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and many others. The romance of travel to distant stars and encounters with super-intelligent robots and alien races was intoxicating. I loved it all, and looked forward to the real space age.
So it was with a feeling of déjà vu that I saw the news that NASA has awarded Elon Musk’s Space X the contract to fly astronauts to the moon. Next to the story was an illustration of his proposed Moon-lander. There is no atmosphere in space or on the Moon, so streamlining is entirely unnecessary; the Apollo lander was a chunky almost amorphous shape dictated entirely by the practical needs of the craft. The Space X lander looks like something straight out of 1950s science fiction magazines—a smooth, streamlined rocket with a pointed nosecone sitting upright on its end. Real-life engineering imitates science fiction …
Musk wants to go to Mars; he says he’d like to die there. He also wants to travel to the stars. ‘Futurist’ Michio Kaku, he of the long white hair and plonking Californian drawl, insists we must travel to other planets. He says we need a ‘backup plan’ in case something goes wrong with the Earth. Even the blessed Stephen Hawking declared that we need to colonize planets in other star-systems because of climate change, overpopulation, and dwindling natural resources.
It pains me, therefore, to say that all of this is complete moonshine. What is most surprising, is that someone with the wisdom, knowledge, and insight of Hawking was willing to lend his name to such nonsense.
There is no Planet B. Practical travel to the stars is impossible, and the none of the other planets or moons in the Solar System are in the remotest way habitable by human beings without impossibly expensive life-support systems. It seems that Musk, Kaku, Hawking and others have failed to understand that science fiction is just that--Fiction. There is talk among them of ‘warp drives’ and ‘terraforming’. I’m surprised that no-one has mentioned dilithium crystals …
We have to preserve Planet A. Even now, it may be too late. Global warming is a double whammy. As the sea heats up, it expands and the sea-levels rise; higher temperatures melt more glaciers further raising the sea-level. Low-lying countries will be inundated. As the climate gets hotter, weather patterns will change—possibly even ocean currents. If we lose the Gulf Stream average temperatures in this country will plunge, even as the rest of the world gets warmer. The changing weather will affect agriculture yields. And how long, I wonder, before the first water wars?
Three billion people, nearly half the population of the planet, rely on fish as a primary source of protein. There are virtually no sustainable fish species left due to overwhelming demand and industrial methods of over-fishing. Fishermen will tell you that the size of the individual fish they catch has been steadily declining; the fish they do catch are younger and younger. It cannot go on.
The real problem, driving all other issues to do with the health of the planet, is the size of the human population. This currently stands at 7.8 billion, and increases by more than the population of the UK every year. It is what drives the ever-increasing demand for water, food, energy, and raw materials. Pressure on governments to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide only address the symptoms of the problem. The only real, long-term solution for saving Planet A, is a massive, world-wide programme of birth-control. Until we do that, we are doomed to end up fighting over dwindling resources in an environment becoming ever more hostile to human life.
Anyone interested in the history of high power laser research and development in the UK, might like to peruse a paper just published. Sixty-seven authors, of whom I was one, have produced an 86 page review. This link will take you to the paper:
Eine kleine Schadenfreude...
It can be satisfying watching people who were formerly staunch allies, both of whom you hold in the deepest contempt, tearing lumps off each other. But when those persons are Johnson and Cummings, the two people most guilty for the catastrophic exit of this country from the EU, then satisfaction turns into unbounded joy.
In truth the ‘revelations’ in Cummings’ blog amount to small fry—dodgy financing of Johnson’s flat makeover, and the suggestion of suppressing a leak enquiry in case the culprit turned out to be Carrie’s friend. But Cummings is due to appear before a House of Commons committee shortly, and he knows where the bodies are buried. Johnson must be shaking in his boots.
It can’t come too soon. The voters in this country seem to have developed a blindness to Johnson’s careless indifference to the truth, as well as mass amnesia when his falsehoods are brought out into the open. Take a look at this video from Peter Stefanovic on just a few of Johnson’s lies in parliament …https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-Zbf5Wkt7M
‘But,’ people will say, ‘Look how well the UK has done on vaccinations! We’re well ahead of the game there, and far better off than most of our European neighbours let alone countries further afield.’ True, but deaths per head of population in this country are still higher than any of our close European neighbours except Italy. We were late in going into the first lockdown, even though it was quite clear that what was happening in Italy and Spain, would happen here two weeks later. As an island state we had a perfect opportunity unavailable to the rest of Europe to quarantine from other countries early on, which we declined to do. Even now, evidence from immigration queues at Heathrow is that arrivals from ‘red’ countries are standing one or two feet away from those from ‘safe’ countries.
I expect that ‘teflon’ Boris will manage to wriggle out of this latest revelation, but it cannot go on forever …
Note added 25 April
As a tribute to my very good mate Paul R—he knows who he is—I have modified the title of this post. It was his idea, and he pointed out (privately) to me a glaring solecism in my initial text for which I am most grateful.
Does Nuclear Pulse Propulsion—see previous post—solve the problem of travel between the stars? The Dyson paper proposes exploding H bombs behind a spacecraft at the rate of one every three seconds for ten days to achieve a speed of 10,000 km per second. At that speed, a ship would still take best part of 150 years to travel between the Sun and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, a distance of four and a third lightyears. Even a one-way journey would require as much again propulsion to slow down at the other end, and the mass of this would have to be accelerated on the outward journey, nearly tripling the size of the craft and its cost. The legion questions regarding the practicalities of multi-generational crew survival in a very limited living area over such a long period are too obvious to need detailing.
It seems then that even nuclear pulse propulsion is impractical for the transport of biological species between the stars. But what about robots? The argument goes something like this: an advanced civilization would soon realize that interstellar travel is only possible for machines. Wishing to explore the galaxy, announce their presence, and proclaim their achievements, the civilization would conclude that the only way to do this would be to send out thousands of self-replicating ‘von Neumann’ machines on one-way journeys directed to different parts of the galaxy.
A von Neumann machine can build an exact copy of itself; in this case, a robot spacecraft capable of travelling to the stars. It uses built-in instructions and the raw materials that it finds on the planets it where it lands. The complete machine includes all the robotic paraphernalia needed for finding, mining and refining the minerals and other materials required, as well as setting up factories to manufacture the parts and fuel needed for the spaceship and new robot crew. It must also be able to construct a spaceship capable of lifting off from the planet and travelling to the nearest stars. It would be programmed to continue manufacturing copies of itself, each one to be directed to a different nearby star. Given enough time, and if such an advanced civilization really did exist, the Galaxy should be full of von Neumann machines.
Since Earth is not knee-deep in von Neumann machines, we can conclude that there are no advanced civilizations in the galaxy… Can’t we?
Note added 18th April
Anyone with a basic understanding of Newton’s laws of motion will realize that there is a fatal error in my reasoning, detailed above, concerning the deceleration ‘fuel’ needed. In Dyson’s calculations, the mass of 300,000 H-bombs is 300,000 tons; the mass of the ship on its own is a mere 150,000 tons. Total mass, 450,000 tons. At the end of the acceleration period when the ship is travelling at 10,000 km/sec, the bombs have been expended and the mass of the ship is only 150,000 tons.
But, to slow down at the other end, we need to add to the payload of the ship the mass of another 300,000 H-bombs needed for deceleration. That increases the mass to be initially accelerated by a factor of three. Thus not 300,000, but 900,000 H-bombs would be needed for the initial acceleration. The total nuclear weapon inventory required, is 1,200,000 Hydrogen bombs.
Furthermore, blasting the components of the starship into Earth orbit for assembly in freefall, would need the equivalent of more than 9,600 boosters the size of the Saturn V used in the Apollo programme. Common sense dictates that such a venture is financially and practically absurd.
Per nuclear ad astra…
A few years ago I presented a course somewhat ambitiously titled A History of the Universe to a number of WEA groups. One of the most interesting sections (to me) was a discussion of the enormous number of stars and galaxies (and their ‘astronomical’ distances), and the fairly recent discovery that many—probably most—stars have a retinue of planets, including rocky Earth-like planets. Could we even find extra-terrestrial life out there, I wondered?
In one of the course modules, I considered the difficulties of travel to the stars. The great physicist Enrico Fermi suggested that life on Earth was unique. If it wasn’t, and considering the vast age and size of the universe, many other civilizations must have arisen millions of years before humanity, developed space travel, and have come to visit us. Since they have not done so, we can safely assume that they do not exist. A most interesting idea (I said), but it has one fatal flaw: the vast distances between the stars mean that manned (or creatured) spacecraft based on any known scientific principles would take many thousands of years even to travel from here to the nearest star.
And then, via good old Wikipedia, I came across a declassified Los Alamos paper from 1955 authored by C J Everett and S M Ulam. Stanislaw Ulam, along with Edward Teller, developed the thermo-nuclear ‘hydrogen’ bomb, and suggested the idea of Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. The paper with Everett developed the idea which was, quite seriously, to propel missiles to very high speeds by exploding a series of H bombs behind them…
Following the reference trail, I found an article in Physics Today from October 1968. The author was Freeman J Dyson, a renowned (originally English) mathematician from Princeton, who had worked on the defunct Orion project. Project Orion, funded in the US by DARPA, had examined the possibility of nuclear pulse propulsion as applied to a spaceship for travel to the stars. There is more detail on the Wikipedia page, but the basics can be condensed from Dyson’s paper.
Dyson proposed a starship propelled by sequentially exploding one megaton H bombs behind a ‘pusher’ plate connected to a shock-absorber. The bombs would detonate every three seconds over a period of ten days or so, requiring around 300,000 bombs. This would produce an average acceleration of one g, with a final velocity of 10,000 km per second—around one thirtieth of the speed of light. The cost of such a ship at 1968 prices would be 60,000 million dollars, around 0.1 US GNP. The shock absorber would ensure that the crew were not squashed by the force of the explosions, and suitable shielding would protect them from radiation from the bombs.
Dyson suggested that it would have been much cheaper to send a spacecraft to Mars powered by nuclear bombs, than it was costing to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon. For travel to Mars, only a few bombs would have been needed, so that’s a relief.
Tomorrow is the birthday of Emma Joan Brunel, the younger of Isambard's two sisters. Anyone loitering around the western portal of the Box Tunnel at around 5:30 in the morning, might be able to see the rising sun shine right through the tunnel.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs