Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Moon and Beyond

Full Moon

We humans are a migrant species—at least most of us. Out of Africa, across the world. There and back again. We have itchy feet and restless natures. That’s what comes of having a big brain, inventive ideas, and a general dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Of course, over the ages pockets of people have settled down and remained content. Consider the West Africans at the dawn of humanity, who found rich valleys around the Congo and Volta rivers and did not follow the rest of humankind out of East Africa’s stark Rift Valley and into the wider world. And since the dawn of agriculture we have seen the rise of various empires based on water or some other natural resource: the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Qin and Han Dynasties in China, the Mayans and the Incas in the Americas. Once you build infrastructure around a resource, like an irrigation system beside a broad river in a fertile plain, some people will stay put to harvest and use it.

But for the most part, humanity has been on the move ever since we learned to walk. We are one species that has adapted itself, through its brains, muscles, imagination, and courage, to environments as difficult and varied as desert oases, rainforest jungles, and Arctic permafrost.

The story of Europe—to take just a small corner of the globe—has been one of successive overruns from outside. From back before the beginning of recorded history, we have tantalizing pockets of unrelated languages in the continent’s far corners: Finno-Ugric in the far north, the Ural Mountains, and the Hungarian Plain; Pictish at the northern end of the British Isles; and Basque in the northern mountains of the Iberian Peninsula, in the awkward corner between France and Spain. These are mostly places out of the way of regular migration routes. For the rest of Europe—and strangely, parts of northern India—we find a common root language, Indo-European, which is the father of the Norse, Germanic, Greek, and Romance languages.

I attribute this spread of common language to what I call a “people pump” operating out of the Caucasus Mountains. For ages since antiquity it has fed restless groups of people north onto the steppes. There they got up on horses and rode west into Europe and east into the Indus and Ganges valleys. The history of the Greek peninsula and Asia Minor, or modern Turkey, is the story of invasion by the Dorians, Ionians, and the mysterious Sea Peoples, who got moving about the time of the Trojan War. The story of the Mediterranean as a whole is the movement west by Phoenicians, Greeks, and perhaps those misplaced Trojans, who fetched up in Etruscan Italy to become Romans. While the Romans were building their empire, the Celts crossed from Turkey into Austria and progressed through Germany and northern France into Britain. And as the Romans were losing their empire, the Goths and Vandals moved out of the Baltic region and Poland to pass through southern France and Spain and sack Rome itself. The story of the British Isles is the invasion of Celtic lands by Frisians and Saxons, Danes, and finally by those Vikings who had settled in Normandy, became Frenchmen themselves, and then went off north to conquer England.

Europe is a restless place. The movements appeared to subside in the Dark Ages after the collapse of Rome, and it looked like people were finally settling down. But then the art of building seaworthy ships—thanks in large part to the Vikings—caught up with people’s yearning to travel, and Europeans braved the Atlantic Ocean starting in the 15th century. De Gama went south around Africa to find a route to India and its riches. Magellan went south around Cape Horn to find a route to Asia. And Columbus, funded by the Spanish crown, sailed due west and discovered the richest prize of all.1

And the migration has continued ever since. Millions of Europeans have left the Old World for the New one across the Atlantic Ocean, starting almost as soon as the first colonies were established in the 16th century. And in later centuries they “discovered” and occupied large parts of Africa, India, and Australia and built enclaves and empires throughout the old, established empires of Asia.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is full of pleasant, peaceable homebodies. The story of China has been one of repeated invasions from the north—the whole purpose of their Great Wall. And their Mongol neighbors conquered and briefly held the largest land empire in history. The Arabs followed the instructions of their Prophet and invaded Europe through North Africa and Spain, and through the Balkans up to Vienna. They moved into Central Asia along the Silk Road and entered India. Everybody steps on their neighbors at some point. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Iroquois of what would become Upstate New York fought the Hurons and Algonquians. And before that the Aztecs tried to conquer the Tlaxcalans, among other groups, in modern-day Mexico. Everybody invades. Everybody fights.

What does all this have to do with the Moon? Simply that we are a restless people by nature. When one place becomes too settled, too predictable, too bound by property rights and rules, too hemmed in with political alliances and charitable organizations, a certain percentage of the people are going to rebel. Some will opt for revolution and social upheaval, but many will just light out for the new territory, the next frontier, the land beyond the mountains.

In the 1960s, we Americans went to the Moon. It was the capstone of a space program begun in the Eisenhower Administration as a response to Russian rocketry and then promoted by President John F. Kennedy—“not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” The Apollo Program was a science experiment, a seed crystal for developing new technologies focused on outer space. In that sense, it was not a migration or colonization effort. It was in the nature of De Gama’s and Magellan’s voyages: go there, prove it can be done, come back.

Since then, we have sent robot probes all around the Solar System and even out beyond the heliopause to interstellar space. We have focused our human presence and efforts on science experiments and scientific and commercial satellites in Earth orbit. But most people, at least in the developed countries, believe we will go back to the Moon and travel to Mars—not just as an experiment or to gather data, but to colonize.

I am one of those people. Whether it’s a government program or funded by private entrepreneurs like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, and whether it’s a base on the Moon or a colony on Mars, those are details. The Moon is nearby and completely airless, washed by the harsh radiation of the solar wind. Mars is farther away and has more available resources, including an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide2 and possibly water in the form of ice, but it still gets a hard blast of radiation because Mars’s core is dead and no longer generating a magnetic field.

Either choice will be hard and will launch us on a new wave of technological discovery. Given the logistics and the ambient environment associated with either place, it would be easier to build a five-star hotel with an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the peak of Mount Everest—or, say, at Camp 4 on the South Col of the mountain, which approaches the “death zone” and its lack of breathable oxygen. Or you could build the same resort 500 meters (1,640 feet) down in the Red Sea. That would probably be easier, because years of submarine building have taught us how to handle water pressure at those depths.

But we will go, if not in this century, then in the next. Once we were a land-wandering people who only looked out on the deep blue with longing, until we acquired the technology to cross the oceans. Now we are an ocean-faring people—a people who routinely fly over the ocean’s vast barrier—who look at the deep black among the stars with longing.

One day, we will go there. And then it will be easy.

1. Except for the Vikings, who had ventured out long before and discovered and settled Iceland, Greenland, and—so rumor has it—Newfoundland. Of course, the greatest migration into the Americas came at the end of the last Ice Age, when Siberian hunters crossed the land bridge that is now the Bering Strait and flooded both the northern and southern continents.

2. Mars’s atmosphere, however, with a pressure less than one percent that of Earth’s, would qualify as a good laboratory vacuum with trace gases.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Original Jedi Mind Trick

Volcanic opening

Supposedly, in the Star Wars universe, the Jedi knights could control the thoughts and perceptions of other people in order to slip through the world without conflict or incident: “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Whether they used telepathy or simply changed the appearance of the world and the other person’s apprehension of it—rippling the Force to their own advantage—it was a neat trick.

My parents taught me something similar, except it didn’t work on other people. It was a form of mind control directed at yourself. This is nothing new or exotic: we see posters all the time, more than ever on social media like Facebook, advising that you can’t change what happens to you, but you can change how you feel about and react to it. Like the Jedi Mind Trick, it’s a Zen thing.

A story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones concerns two monks walking down the sidewalk in the rain. They come to a corner where a beautiful geisha in her fine silk kimono is dithering about having to cross the muddy street. The older monk says, “Come on, darling,” picks her up, and carries her across. This horrifies the younger monk, who fumes about it as they walk along the next block. Finally, he cannot contain himself. “You know we’re not supposed to have anything to do with women, let alone geishas. Yet you handled her in a very familiar way.” The old monk turns to him in surprise. “Are you still carrying her? I put her down back at the corner.”

The world may exist in itself—objective data and incidents do exist outside your field of perception—but how you perceive it, what you make of it, and how it affects you is the Jedi Mind Trick. You can stare into the open caldera of an active volcano, or walk the steaming lava fields of Kilauea, fear fire and death, and become paralyzed. Or you can experience these things and see their wonder and beauty. Your response shapes the world.

When I worked in the Kaiser organization, one of the many stories about its founder, Henry J. Kaiser, came from the end of World War II. He heard at a dinner party that the U.S. government was putting up for sale some aluminum smelters it had built along the Columbia River to supply metal for manufacturing aircraft as part of the war effort. The war was over and the smelters were being sold as surplus. Now Kaiser knew nothing about aluminum. But when he got home that night he called his vice president in the iron and steel business, Tom Price, and asked for a report on the aluminum business. Kaiser wanted it on his desk by eight o’clock the next morning.

Price didn’t know anything about aluminum, either. So, according to the story, he went to his children’s encyclopedia and looked up about mining bauxite (which is just a form of dirt that concentrates a common mineral, alum), then chemically processing that dirt into pure aluminum oxide powder (Al2O3, also known as alumina), and electrolytically smelting that powder into aluminum metal. Clearly, just owning the smelters was not the whole business; you needed facilities in two or three areas. For example, the smelters had to be near a ready source of electricity, which the dams of the Columbia River were already supplying, while the mines might be a continent away on ground rich in bauxite, and the chemical plants could be anywhere in between where it was profitable to operate them. Tom Price copied this all down in a couple of handwritten pages. Kaiser read them and bought the smelters the next morning.

The difference between what the government was going to let go as surplus and what Kaiser wanted to buy as the core of his new business was vision. They were the same smelters either way. But the government was through building airplanes for the war, didn’t want to pay to run the smelters anymore, and was willing to let them go for scrap. Kaiser saw how this lightweight but strong metal had served in one application—becoming fighters and bombers—and was willing to bet that it could be useful in any number of other applications, from lawn furniture to house siding to soda cans and the trays for TV dinners. He wasn’t the only one to see this business, but he saw the opportunity and was willing to act on it fast.1

Henry Kaiser had a positive outlook on life. When he was in the cement business, he wanted to paint his trucks pink, even when other officers in his company suggested a more sedate gray-and-green pattern. “Pink is a happy color,” Kaiser responded. People also said that his negotiating style was that of the “happy elephant”: when confronted with opposition, he would just lean and smile, lean and smile, until he got his way. That man understood the Jedi Mind Trick; it just took longer than waving your fingers and speaking in a reassuring voice.

Another aspect of the Mind Trick is not letting personal hurts matter you. A scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia has Lawrence demonstrate to some young officers how he puts out a match with his fingertips. When one of the others tries it, he exclaims, “It damn well hurts!” Lawrence smiles and replies, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”

The world is full of burning matches and a lot worse. One is reminded of Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” As a fully functioning human being, we can either dwell upon them, take offense, file a grievance, and nurse a grudge,2 or we can accept that being alive in the world comes with an infinite number of bumps and stings, hard looks and rude responses, and we can let them roll off as if we were personally coated in Teflon.

And when we die, as we all must, we can look back on that life as we pass out of this world. Whether you believe that you will go to some elsewhere mystical place, a heaven or hell, or that you will simply go out, like Buddha’s candle flame or Lawrence’s match, you can bet that you yourself will definitely be beyond caring, and probably be beyond even knowing, what effect you had in life and whether it was positive or negative. In that situation, your life as you live it here and now in this world can either be a futile waste, just one more surplus human being taking up space and consuming value, like those government smelters, or you can see the same sort of opportunities for a better future that Henry J. Kaiser saw all around him. You can make your space in the world as big and happy, as pink and elephantlike, as your imagination allows.

The trick, as Lawrence would say, is not seeing fiery death in the volcano but seeing the beauty of nature that surrounds you. The rest is simply walking the path that you see.

1. Another Kaiser venture after the war, when he tried to turn the business of making Jeeps into a car company to go up against General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, didn’t work out so well. But then, Kaiser also knew the motto of every venture capitalist: “You pay your money and you take your chance.”

2. Or to quote the painter Paul Gaugin: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge—and has to content oneself with dreaming.”

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Biological Nanotech

Algae making biofuel

I can remember, oh, twenty years ago and maybe more, seeing on television the microscopic image of what was supposed to be the world’s smallest electric motor. It showed a rotor that had been cut—inexactly, so that it was not a perfectly round circle—from some kind of metal. It spun—not fast and not smoothly—against a stator plate made of some other metal. It wasn’t good for much else than the gee-whiz factor, but it was a motor smaller than, say, the period at the end of this sentence. That motor was probably the beginning of humankind’s dreams of nanotechnology.

The world of tiny motors has gotten a lot smaller since then. What is now supposed to be the smallest on record is a slim fraction of the width of a human hair, and the current effort is supposed to have a rotor that is just one molecule. Not a material one molecule wide or thick or high, but the whole rotor is composed of a single molecule. That makes the manufacturing process more a matter of chemistry than metalwork.

The idea behind nanotechnology is to design machines that work at the submicroscopic level, down at the scale of micrometers (millionths of a meter) and more likely nanometers (billionths of a meter).1 At the nano level, we’re not just talking about active dust—more like tiny mites compared to which dust is a boulder the size of a house. What any of these machines might do is in the nature of “If you build it, someone will find a use for it.” And that may be why the whole enterprise has been so slow to start: it is a world of theory looking for a purpose, rather than, as Henry J. Kaiser used to say, “Find a need and fill it.”

One thing is certain though: nobody is going to build just one of these nanites or nanobes or whatever you call it and expect to accomplish much of anything. One of them would be a technological wonder, which might be examined with a scanning or tunneling electron microscope, applauded, and then dismissed with a shrug. To achieve any real effect at the quantum level—which these machines are approaching—you have to make and launch thousands or rather millions of them and then rely on statistical measurement to observe their effects. That is, however many of the nanites or nanobes you make, a certain percentage will be defective and not work at all; a larger percentage will technically work but may never find the “shop floor” on which they are supposed to operate; and an even larger percentage will work for a while and then hit an air pocket or a vacuole or some other dry spot or barrier and wander away. This is like counting the number of molecules of acetylsalicylic acid in an aspirin tablet and asking how many of them you actually need to relieve a headache: as many of them as find the right nerves.

On this basis, with the machines so tiny and their singular effects so negligible, I can’t imagine that anyone is seriously going to try making them using the traditional methods of materials processing. That is, nobody will be buying raw materials, molding and cutting individual pieces and parts them (like that tiny metal motor), and then assembling these components in the same way Ford puts together the chassis, engine, wheels, and doors to make an automobile in Dearborn. Nobody is going to drop a molecular motor into a molecular framework—not even with a tiny molecular eyedropper2—and hook it up to molecular axles and wheels.

Down among the microbes and the nanobes, you have to stop thinking of this technology as some kind of machine. You have to treat it as a life form. Why would you try to design and fabricate metal wires, springs, and motors, manually pack them into tiny plastic shells and metal frames, and hope to have everything work at the molecular level, the nano-scale? It would be so much simpler to program these components in DNA and grow electro-chemical control circuits with actual nerves, achieve motor function with the elastic expansions and compressions of muscle fibers and proteins, and house everything in shells made of cellulose or keratin and frames made of calcium.3

When I was working at the biotech company, I heard about Craig Venter sending his 95-foot sloop Sorcerer II around the Sargasso Sea, then the Baltic and the Mediterranean seas, to sample the world’s oceans. He wasn’t looking for new sea creatures, although his team did discover that what we normally think of as isolated plankton species are usually whole genera that evolve and change every twenty miles or so. No, he was looking for novel proteins, in novel combinations, and with novel functions, along with the DNA genes and promoters that would code for them. His idea was to find ways to change the life-cycle, the operation, and the metabolic inputs and outputs of existing microbes to make them more useful to human beings.

For example, adding the right set of new genes might give algae a way to turn their photosynthetic processes to making lipids—fatty liquids with properties similar to crude oil—and then secrete them through their cell walls, so that each cell can go on making this oil substitute without becoming engorged and either stopping production or exploding. Such an algae cell—or a whole pond full of billions of them—would lie there in the sunlight and produce a form of oil that could be siphoned off the surface and refined to make gasoline. And then, with a bit of chemical tinkering, the cell might even be coaxed into making gasoline itself, if the stuff weren’t so toxic.

Of course, these would be cells that have been modified with the DNA sequences, proteins, and functional relationships between proteins that are already present in nature.

All such DNA is currently purposed to design and repair living creatures. Any adaptations either serve to improve the living body or else they become discarded over time—immediately if they are lethal to necessary functions. But the principles of coding and self-assembly might easily be adapted to small machines that operate in the submicroscopic environment, like single-celled creatures, for other purposes, ones designed by human beings. It would, after all, be easier to grow a microprocessor as a network of neurons than to etch one in silicon at the nanoscale, install it inside a mechanism, and wire it into sensory and motor systems.

Purposefully designing DNA to create new nanomachines might even employ metals and other materials we don’t currently think of as organic. For example, the epithelial cells in the mammalian jaw that form tooth buds secrete a mineral called hydroxyapatite, a crystalline form of calcium phosphate, which becomes the enamel surface of our teeth. Enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, and it contains the highest percentage of minerals. With a bit of chemical tinkering, such cells might be taught to absorb—from the managed environment of a bioreactor—and secrete other minerals and compounds. A pure structure or surface of, say, vanadium steel is not likely, or not at first. But hard parts made of bonelike and stonelike materials should be possible. And of course, making anything with polymers and resins, like plastics, should be a DNA-coding snap.

Nanomachines—or certainly micrometer-scale machines—might be made by groups of preprogrammed cells. Like tooth buds, or the embryos of living beings, they would form a cocoon of tissue that produced each part in place and then would be programmed to die and wash away,4 leaving the new micromachine in place and ready to operate.

And what would the new machine do? Well … it’s hardly likely we’ll need anything that small to pave roads or drive on them, or to manufacture complex machinery like automobiles or kitchen blenders. And we already have little cellular machines that can make usable oils and even drinkable beer and wine; they’re called seeds and yeasts. Complex little machines might be designed to repair the human body, or even repair and resurface the bodywork on your car. It will all depend on what you want.

Find a need and fill it.

1. Remember that a meter is just over a yard, 39.3701 inches. So a millionth or a billionth of that length is a significantly reduced measurement.

2. For which the technical term in biochemistry is “pipette,” and those things can only be accurately calibrated at scale of about milliliter, or thousandth of a liter—which itself is about a quart.

3. Of course, one-celled animals already have chemical motors that can whip around in circles, powering flagella for their movement through the liquid medium; so even the electric motor can be replaced with a living example from the biological world. That might be the easiest part of the machine to design, because the prototype already exists in nature. But circular motion has limited use in the submicroscopic environment. We use round wheels at the human scale mostly to propel loads over level terrain, and when the going gets too rough we revert to horses or mules. Motive power from limbs articulated by mechanical joints and muscle fibers might be more useful in the world of the really tiny. Other wheel-like functions, such as the gears in clocks, can be achieved in other ways.

4. The technical term for “programmed cell death” is apoptosis, and the word for “wash away” is lysis, involving the chemical dissolution and destruction of the cell membrane and its contents.