The conceptual designs for the O’Neill Colonies and the subject of Nanotechnology have always managed to capture my attention.
At least when it comes to the O'Neill colonies, often I find myself going back and observing the designs as envisioned by Gerard O'Neill. Also, I keep thinking and wondering about the enormous potential nanotechnology, in a developed form can offer for our species.
To cut to through the chase, large scale sustainable colonization of space is impossible, unless and until our species gets a much a better control over how to structure and positions atoms.
A thought related to this conceptual merger between space colonies and nanotechnology, led me to this very question.
So I started searching the web, and sure enough, my search soon led me to this very book called ‘The Visioneers’ written by a gentleman by the name of W. Patrick McCray.
I was very surprised to observe, that the entire book is a historical record when it comes to the developments related to the two concepts that I was thinking about, namely space colonies and nanotechnology!
As you might have noticed from the front cover (image above), this book is about “How a group of elite scientists pursued space colonies, nanotechnologies and a limitless future”.
Now, since the 60’s, a number scientists and visionaries have been trying to build a case for the colonization space. But, this vision has been met with a fair bit of resistance. Largely, due to the fact that the technology just wasn’t ready. And even if it was possible, then there has always been scare mongering that has been attached with these concepts (at the time) and how it had the (supposed) potential to destroy the world.
But in fits and starts, this movement has also gained encouragement from certain segments of society, academia and the Government. Namely, the United States Government and from what I can gather from this book. I’m sure that (since the 60’s) other governments have also invested in both nanotechnology and the colonization of space, but that is not in scope when it comes to the contents of this book.
The main characters:
Coming back to the book, most of the content revolves around the work performed by:
Gerard K. O’Neill: An American physicist, inventor and space activist. O’Neill tried to champion the cause of giant space settlements that could hypothetically be used for the colonization of space, using materials used from mining asteroids and the moon. O’Neill’s designs weren’t just an artistic rendition of what the conceptual models for the space colonies and manufacturing sites could look like. In fact, these designs were backed by a lot of research and what really distinguished them from science fiction was the meticulous amount of calculations that went into effect, in order to support the overall models.
Eric K. Drexler: The other amazing individual is Eric K. Drexler. An engineer from MIT (at the time), who in my opinion, is the rightful father of nanotechnology. Drexler, took the ideas as envisioned by Richard Feynmann for manipulating and controlling atoms and molecules and helped nurture and guide those ideas towards a path where they could eventually turn into a science.
Drexler’s book ‘Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology’ (published in 1986) is considered to be the first written record that hypothesizing the designs and details of machines that can be operated on a nanoscale. To quote from Wikipedia, Drexler envisioned a world where: “Molecular robots can be used for any purpose, from medicinal robots that can be guided for helping clear capillaries to environment scrubbers that can clear pollutant from air.” To even molecular robots that come together, in order to build lighter and stronger materials. Drexler worked closely with O’Neill, to see how the overall vision for the colonization of space could be supported with the aid of nanotechnology.
Obviously, there are other characters mentioned in this book as well. But like I said, most of the content focuses on the work performed by these gentlemen.
Meat and Potatoes
The overall narrative is really all about the dreams, the vision (backed by engineering designs) that these individuals continued to pursue, sometimes in the face of resistance and setbacks.
Also, after reading this book, I believe that the present day planning and activity when it relates to space exploration, colonization and mining can only trace it’s roots back to the work that individuals like O’Neill and Drexler helped envision and also champion.
Not only were these gentlemen the original dreamers, they were also the very first pioneers who dedicated a significant chunk (if not the entirety) of their lives when it comes to taking certain ideas and concepts from a fuzzy area and help bring them to a place where they could become very tangible in the foreseeable future. It is my wish that society will look back in time and always be indebted to individuals like O’Neill and Drexler and the fine work they did and sacrifices they made.
It’s also interesting to see how things are interconnected. Starting in the 60’s, from the origins of the L5 society and the whole world catalog and even individuals like Timothy Leary. To the emergence of social networks (in the absence of the internet) in the form of telephone networks e.t.c.
Or on the flip side, in a modern day context and to quote from the book “It’s impossible to ignore a certain homogeneity among this book’s characters. O’Neill, Drexler, Raymond Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Ted Nelson, Freeman Dyson, and even Richard Smalley: all men who graduated from elite schools with technical degrees.
This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in the following:
Also, there is a silver lining to the resistance that visionaries like O'Neill and Drexler had faced. As it can now serve as a lesson for new age visionaries. Namely:
It seems like a lot of things in life, kind of go back a full circle. Towards the beginning of this book, they were talking about this movement of sorts in the 60's where there was a lot of emphasis on 'Limits'. And supposedly, how limits had to be imposed on the continued advancement and development of society, if we were to continue living on this planet in a sustainable way. This was precisely the time when creative and intelligent engineers like like O'Neill and Drexler had decided to tackle these challenge head on. Their ideas and designs could help potentially help the human race leap frog these limits and such a movement could also (potentially and theoretically) help usher in a new age of abundance.
Now, some 50 ++ years later, the human race finds itself confronting a somewhat similar scenario. Where, among a host of other problems, we also have the looming threat of climate change. Luckily, for us, the debate this time around is not so much around the imposition of limits. There isn't much of a debate, the way I see it. But the one good movement I have noticed is the very nascent framework that is beginning to develop around space exploration, manufacturing and mining.
Hence, the vision as it was conceived by Gerard O'Neill and Eric K. Drexler, is still alive. It was dormant for a while and now it is slowly beginning to materialize. These individuals performed all this intelligent work decades ago, sometimes in the face of resistance, so that one day humanity could benefit from it. That era is getting closer with the passage of each day.
Overall, great read. Backed by a lot of research. Great work by Patrick McCray!
So apparently this aerogel technology is 83 years old and it has certainly evolved during this timeframe.
Future state and potential unconventional uses for the aerogel. I am thinking of a couple of ideas here and in random order.
This is definitely future state. Maybe 10, 15 or 20 years out.
Some of these thoughts and then some more, were inspired by this book I am reading. 'The Visioneers', written by a gentleman by the name of W. Patrick McCray. Who, by the way, was very kind in responding back to one of my tweets and even ended up retweeting one of them.
Halfway through this book, I started thinking of a somewhat new form of transportation and perhaps a new mechanism and method for manufacturing. Not so new, if you read the book, as a significant majority of the content revolves around the fine work done by Eric K. Drexler. What a great guy!
Then, I started thinking of lighter than air particles and eventually lighter than air machines. Or a combination of the two. Then I happened to be looking at some basic research being done when it relates to self-assembling nano-machines. And I thought to myself, could all of this be combined together? So that a million different individual components could come together to form a bigger structure?
Next, I literally got this idea of injecting stuff in space, over the more conventional approach of using rocket based technology. Don't get me wrong, I love the advances that have been made when it relates to rocket based technology. But in order to colonize space, we either need to build an elevator that goes into space or we need to come up with another mechanism for getting huge amounts of materials into space and back.
Hence the idea of a giant space needle, the kind that injects stuff into space and sucks it back. During that brief moment, when I started questioning my sanity. I happened to be looking out the window and saw the sun shining on a set of puffy clouds.
That's when I got my Eureka moment! Thinking, wondering if what I had envisioned in terms of swarms of machines that we can ride atop lighter than air material. Then we could theoretically transport them onto a different level of elevation. So again, clusters of machines, sitting atop clusters of aerogel. Picked up by a charge of static electricity. Taken to a higher level of elevation. Eventually transported into space. That is where the machines break free from their aerogelly mould and would then come together.
I admit, this is one of the craziest idea I've ever thought of. But, it is theoretically possible, specially with the advancements being made with certain technologies and how they will evolve in a relatively short amount of time.
These ideas compliment part of my vision for the future. Where objects move seamlessly, in a very stable method, without any noise and with very little to no human intervention. Poetry, must possess multiple forms.
A 2.5 kg brick is supported by a piece of aerogel with a mass of only 2 grams. (Source: Wikipedia)
Could this be the future of building settlements? Here on earth, in space: any other terrestrial planet and any other natural satellite that possesses a sandy surface. (moons)
Imagine, an enhanced and much larger version of this machine pumping out entire structures.
If we are going to colonize other worlds, then we need to use as much of the local resources as possible.
Update: June 20, 2014:
I just noticed this on Twitter. NASA is working on a 3d printer that is designed to print structures using dirt.
Noticed this in the news a couple of days back.
Google's Project Ara
Project Ara is the codename for an initiative by Google that aims to develop a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. The platform will include a structural frame that holds smartphone modules of the owner's choice, such as a display, keyboard or an extra battery. It would allow users to swap out malfunctioning modules or upgrade individual modules as innovations emerge, providing longer lifetime cycles for the handset, and potentially reducing electronic waste.
Excellent timing for such a project. In fact this is how I envision the smartphone/computing device of the immediate future to be. And infact, this is what I was partly thinking of when I made the following blog-post in May 2012.
The next big thing in Tech: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff.
Yeah Baby! + 1 for ideas!
I came up with the exact same idea last year link. Just have to start believing in the power of our very own ideas!
Originally published sometime in October, 2012
We are headed towards a multi-polar world. While this phenomenon is good from a lot of different perspectives, it does have some costs associated with it.
Now, these costs are very tangible, as with the rise of global consumerism, the price for virtually everything goes up. It starts with oil as the engine of global growth and it then has a ripple effect on everything from food, to lumber, metals, precious metals, uranium to tons of other commodities. Plus the consumption necessitates increased cycles of industrialization and with our current mechanisms of production, it equals into increased carbon emissions.
The ‘engine’ that is driving this consumption is the global growth itself. As billions are lifted from poverty and towards a better life. This phenomenon is rapidly picking up pace in the BRIC countries and thenext eleven will soon follow.
One can kind of extrapolate what this phenomenon means for everyone with GDP’s and standard of living rising for billions of people. There is going to be an impact of sorts on the G-20 countries and it’s inhabitants, but between the predictions from Jeff Rubin and James Wolfensohn, I am not entirely sure what the true quantitative impact would really be. Also, one of the major points to consider is that we haven’t really seen the full impact of globalization due to the economic lull since 2008.
* Before we get into the details, it’s a fairly common observation that in order to grow economies of scale you need energy. That is why I decided to start this blog-post and it’s title with a focus on energy. Part of the same observation is that our world runs on Oil. If the production of oil gets substantially impacted due to any given reason, then the repercussions for the world economy would be disastrous. Actually it reminds me of the article that Asimov wrote, titled the Nightmare Life without Fuel. Too bad Time Magazine requires a subscription to view this article. But like I said, the predictions (by Asimov) were nothing short of dire/end of the world kind of scenario.
In terms of a litmus test: Now maybe this is a really crude mechanism, but generally I just compare theBaltic Dry Index with the Price of Oil and I’m thinking that we should get ready for some serious turbulence in the immediate future. That is, when the global economy eventually picks up steam.
But before that, there are a couple of very dynamic changes occurring. These changes, might offset the repercussions when it comes to the rising cost of commodities. Oil being the first and foremost amongst all of them. Also, a very crucial element to consider is that if the cost of oil in particular keeps increasing the way it has been increasing, then it has the potential to further wreak havoc with most of the developed (nascent recovery) economies.
Specific to the topic of dynamic changes, the key points to consider are:
There are also some really interesting news item, such as the one about China and it’s aspiration for putting a man on the moon by 2024. China wants to mine the moon for Helium 3 link While it appears that mining the moon for Helium 3 and then shipping it back to earth will not be that sustainable by conventional methods. Nonetheless, it will set the precedent for setting up a lunar colony and then potentially venture out further in space for mining other minerals (by mining asteroids e.t.c). link and link
So like I said, really dynamic mix and the possibilities are indeed endless. But there needs to be a collective will to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and then using our imagination to think of the possibilities. Off topic, but I am increasingly beginning to believe that a lot of the crisis-es come to existence due to a) a collective failure of our imagination and b) failure as a result of the very institutions and experts that we have created. And how major decisions that have the potential to impact hundreds of millions or lives (quality of) are made by one or two expert analysts! –> without any kind of consensus from a wider body. One genius can maybe think of a majority of the possibilities, but they will always miss one or two crucial aspects of the Big Picture. Better to consult with the crowd for some of these perplexing problems. c) Failure of these institutions because they were not designed to handle the growth of 7 billion inhabitants? These very failures have resulted into these institutions (I don’t even know what these institutions are btw) using weird tactics. But that’s a different blog-post.
There are answers hidden in the collective human intellect and maybe even the collective human consciousness. But the various systems and mechanisms we have designed, never even allow these questions get out of those very systems! So how can we expect to find answers? In short, I see bad systems design (systems thinking) which leads to bad policies, which leads to really bad problems. But on the flip side I also see how Technology (the Internet) is bringing people together and how institutions of various kinds are leveraging technology and systems (crowdsourcing) to find answers to question that they have been unable to fix inside the firewall. I truly hope this trend of global collaboration, transparency, problem solving continues and that it gives birth to a culture of global honesty.
* The next portion of this blog-post was supposed to evolve into the topic of prosperity. But that too is a very wide and varied topic, involving a dynamic mix. In an ideal world, prosperity itself, doesn’t just have to do with growing economies of scale and increasing net exports. Actually, I am getting tired (lol), but I am reminded of this one talk by Hans Rosling at the Ted Talks. It manages to harness how the entire world is doing in that respect, as Hans talks about poverty and how the world is digging itself out of this menace. link. The part I like the most about this talk is the enormous positive changes going on in Africa.
* The last topic that I wanted to focus on was, the Carbon Footprint. One of the fundamental dichotomies if not the most fundamental, is for the species to tackle this problem. It’s a dichotomy, because we need to grow economies but it doesn’t need to come at the expense of destroying the environment. So that is why it is very important to wean off of fossil fuels, to stop, stall and then reverse deforestation, to protect our fresh water systems, to stop the loss of Eco-systems and subsequently the loss of the millions (yes millions) of other species that inhabit the planet along with us and that have also evolved with us for hundreds of millions of years. Some have proposed that the only way for this to occur is for the human race to go back to a hunterer-gatherer era. I don’t think so. Rather, we just need to make sure that our actions and the industrial growth is sustainable. We can certainly develop the technology to get us there, but it’d need a collective will before that happens. It’s really not a wide scale conspiracy that the impending threat of climate change and the impact of non-sustainable industrialization continues to be ignored. But it rather has everything to do with how the circuitry in our brains is just not wired in a way (anymore), that would allow us to acknowledge and act against these threats. link
A massive, wide scale shift in consciousness is required, unfortunately I am not sure how that is going to be accomplished at this time.
Maybe, this is really it. By just talking to each other openly and honestly.