Sunday, December 22, 2013

Small Fetters

Small Fetters

Until we clarify our objectives we will go nowhere worth going.  Engineering is a truer index of civilisation than art and in fact makes art possible.  Furthermore, engineering is the key, not so much to human survival in the next few decades or centuries, but in the long term.  To survive as a species we need to marshal our hubris and adjust our concepts of economics to drive projects orders of magnitude greater than anything in the past.  We will have to adjust to time scales of the order of millennia rather than  decades.  Confined to one planet we are doomed to a brief and sterile future. We need commitment to colonise other worlds and the best place to start is Venus.  By adjusting its rotation we can quickly turn it into a world richer in resources than Earth.  That however, would be just the first step in a series of projects to render us immune even to the red giant phase of our sun or supernovae in the vicinity of Earth.  This would give us  scope to improve our individual lives and perhaps to raise art to the stature of meaningful creation and activity. 

Small Fetters

"Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:
and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do."

In their multiple dimensions, human engineering achievement and endeavour dwarf their arts in conception and creation. Fashionable belittling of the subtlety and intellectual depth of engineering stems from the ignorance or insecurity of people unequipped to appreciate such things.  Unconscious of the infrastructure that supports them they mock the very powers that create the tools to feed, educate, and develop artists and to convey their visions to human senses.

Humility is strong meat for weak stomachs. 

Engineering is the most objective index of human civilisation.  In turn, the most essential virtue of both civilisation and engineering is hubris, without which both are sterile and humanity is no better than the other beasts and will perish with the other beasts as yet another beast, and not the most attractive at that. 

Or perish sooner.

We exist in a little warm splash of moisture, vulnerable to dangers from without and within.  The merest flying rock or swirl of heat or cold could wipe us out long before our planet's inevitable incineration.  If we permit smugness and short-sighted greed to chain our descendants to this planet, we doom ourselves to sterility; our species need not even hope for the dignity of ripe senility, let alone a golden age in the future of humanity. 

(Golden ages in the past?  Be serious!) 

Things look bad.  Selfishness and arrogance feed terminal complacency and myopia.  Without the humility of hubris we shall trap ourselves on a planet already well past its prime. Smallness of conception fetters us to our own destruction.  To save ourselves, our people, we need to think in millennia, not decades. We are on the threshold of our ability to build a real civilisation and if what we build lacks scope, we will have earned our destruction by failing to abandon human war in favour of war against the confines of our planet and the walls within our minds.  

Of which the latter are the greater threat.

Like any chick that pecks first at the scraps round its nest, we started by fouling and consuming most of our planet.  It is time to break out and work more widely and a good deal more creatively and less wastefully and destructively.  As we begin we may hope that the necessary scale of building and co-operation will develop a greatness of spirit in us that also will enrich the spirit of our civilisation. 

It needs it.     

Let's take a practical example, one that we could begin to tackle in the present century and that should come to fruition about the end of the current millennium, or maybe the one after.  It is a finger exercise, but we need finger exercises before we can undertake really serious works.  The exercise I propose is the colonisation of Venus, the most rewarding and easily accessible of the planets in this solar system. 

Venus is almost suspiciously tempting in the combination of its characteristics.  It is near, comfortably sized, and needs only a tweak to convert it into an industrial powerhouse with twice the habitable capacity of Earth.  Its atmosphere is nearly perfect, the main problem (and opportunity) being an excess of carbon dioxide, and all we need if we are to deal with that is to speed up the planet's rotation till its day is the same length as its year (which it already nearly is).  Once one half of the planet is in perpetual darkness, the equatorial winds will die, the night side will cool and within decades carbon dioxide will rain down in the dark to form a hemisphere of dry ice with an eventual average depth of some two kilometres.  That is nothing excessive, we have mountain ranges on Earth about four times as high. Sulphur compounds and water would have settled out earlier, ready for mining at need, a repository of concentrated chemical feedstocks for industrial purposes.  

As a generalisation, industrial chemists love concentrated chemical feedstocks; high concentrations tend to increase yields and reduce costs.

The residual atmosphere would be largely nitrogen, similar to earth's atmosphere once we generate enough oxygen.  Plants, bacteria, and photochemistry would have no shortage of carbon dioxide and solar energy to work on.  

To adjust the planet's rotation, we would exploit the solar system's resources of angular momentum and potential energy, both in huge supply.  The trick will be to steer bodies from the Kuiper belt and from between the planets so that they hit Venus as nearly as possible tangentially on the equator, to adjust its spin.  Some tens of thousands of kilometre-sized comets and lumps of debris should do it.  This is roughly equivalent to the mass of Mount Everest plus some of its foothills; an almost embarrassingly tiny contribution.

The best way to run the project would be to harness private enterprise.  Pay prospectors a bounty to find the missiles and steer them to impact.  Going rates would depend on the effect achieved and the hydrogen content of the missiles; Venus is poor in hydrogen.  Professions and specialisations would arise and skills would be developed beyond anything that Earthbound hand-wavers and armchair pilots could foresee.  Whole dynasties of space dwellers would rise and fall during the exercise, generating epics to trivialise the likes of Gilgamesh and the Iliad. 

And maybe even Dallas. (errr... Remember "Dallas"?)

Those dynasties and their technology would found the generation to pioneer the next great frontiers. 

Simply redirecting the orbits of Kuiper and Oort objects to fall sunwards should yield something like a hundred times the energy input, but hauling huge masses would still be an expensive business and we would want to give our missiles the highest possible velocities.   Fortunately, between Venus and the sources of the missiles, lie our four gas giants: Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter.  Prospectors would steer their rocks past as many of the giants as possible, using gravitational slingshot effects to achieve speeds much greater than those available from the unaided sunward fall of a Kuiper belt rock.  Harnessing the momentum of the gas giants to spin Venus is a heady thought. 

Because Venus is poor in hydrogen, missiles rich in water, ammonia and methane would be more valuable than dry rocks.  Prospectors would get premium prices for deliveries rich in such volatiles.  If the Kuiper belt turns out to be poor in snowballs, the inner Oort cloud probably would be more generous, though probably too tardily so for our purposes.  On Earth we would be treated to about a thousand years of pyrotechnic miracles as comets rain blazing onto the target a few tens of millions of kilometres away. 

It is sobering to imagine how blas√© such armchair audiences would become. 

After the bombardment and the snowstorm, what will there be for us on Venus?  It may be a little optimistic to hope that the thousands of titanic blows would raise valuable metallic material from inside the planet, but that certainly is one tempting thought.  More realistically though, the night side will remain a useful landing ground for missiles.  After all, once rotational adjustment is complete the planet must not expose its night side to the sun.  For the foreseeable future we would have to monitor Venus's attitude.  For one thing the precipitation of carbon dioxide would affect the rotation for years, possibly centuries, after the end of the rain of fire.  When nanosecond-per-day errors accumulate, surgical bombardment would be necessary.  Where better than in the remote cold and dark?  

It once was believed that Mercury was locked into a year-long day, but that has since been shown to be an error (reasonable, but none the less an error). Therefore Venus would become the first planet in the solar system to have, not two poles, but at least six: the sun-ward solar pole,  the outward dark pole, and of course, a North and South pole, and an East pole on the leading limb of the planet  as it moves in its orbit, and a West pole on the trailing limb. Anyone with a taste for such exercises could define an indefinite number of other poles, but those six would be the most significant for most purposes.

The day side of the planet would range from freezing in the deep twilight, to baking at the sun's ground zero at the solar pole.  That spot would have about twice the intensity of the hottest sunshine on Earth, and it would of course remain so throughout the year and round the clock.  This is a recipe to make any power engineer's mouth water.  Venus would need neither nuclear nor fossil power as long as the Sun lasts.  With huge sources of intense heat and vast sinks of intense cold, you have power to drive any industrial process you like; with perpetual solar power of high intensity, solar cells would be really profitable.  The hottest areas would be the hottest industrial sites in the solar system and between fire and ice about half the sunlit surface would be comfortable for humans. 

This amounts roughly to the entire land area of Earth -- all the continents and islands combined! 

Between night side and day side there would be a twilight belt, the zone where the sun approaches the horizon.  It would be girdled by an enormous stationary smoke ring, a steady and permanent wind of more than hurricane force blowing towards the warm side, balanced by high altitude winds blowing towards the cold.  Like the climatic belts on Earth, but much more stably, there would be weaker convection cells on either side of the twilight zone, combining into a planetary conveyer belt bearing harmful gases to the night side where they would freeze out.  This convection would also warm the night side, preventing part of the rest of the atmosphere from freezing out once the carbon dioxide had settled.  No runaway greenhouse concerns on Venus, either hot or cold!

You get the idea.  The project would create a shmoo on a planetary scale.  Power, material, lebensraum; challenge and reward such as we are not currently equipped to conceive realistically.  We still are weak and callow in our hubris.  Man is old, the planet is older, but our engineering is young -- infantile in fact. We must foster and develop it before we lapse into racial senility.  If we succeed we will gain a new lease of youth, perhaps another ten thousand years or so, during which we can begin to tackle more challenging projects.  At that rate we should have a civilisation extending from the heart of the solar system to the limits of the Oort cloud long before the sun expands into a red giant.  By the time that happens we also should have  established footholds in nearby solar systems, and if we spread fast enough, then as a species we should become immune to destruction of our sun or  to local supernovae, events against which there is no defence but distance.  

Long before the sun blossoms however, we will have had time to colonise Mercury as well, using related, but drastically different techniques. Mercury too would have to be abandoned as the sun expands, but we still could expect more than half a billion years of comfortable living and riches from Mercury before that becomes a concern. 

By the time we have to abandon the inner Solar System, we can stop worrying about our survival as a species on the scale of millennia and start thinking in terms of billions of years; maybe longer.  Of course we will have changed in the process.  Our lives should by then be measured in thousands of years, our brains developed to deal with science and economics in the large and with a lifetime in which an individual's education could be regarded as a serious investment, instead of marginal preparation for a few decades of marginal usefulness. 

Maybe by then we can at last start thinking about art for art's sake in a meaningful way, as part of a meaningful life in a meaningful civilisation, a worthy partner for engineering. 

But not as long as we fetter ourselves to smallness. 


  1. Replies
    1. Not coherently it isn't, and I can't handle two separate conversations; barely one at the moment in fact. Feel welcome to insert a copy here and if I get round to answering it there, I can copy the answer here.

  2. "The residual atmosphere would be largely nitrogen, similar to earth's atmosphere once we generate enough oxygen. Plants, bacteria, and photochemistry would have no shortage of carbon dioxide and solar energy to work on."

    You mean in domed cities, right?

    1. Depends on what you mean by domed cities. The typical SF bubbles are a nutty idea anyway, both as engineering/architectural failures of insight and of imagination, and also functionally. Think about it.

      If all you mean is sealed regions to maintain breathable atmosphere and comfortable living, working, and entertainment conditions, then for humans certainly, yes, indefinitely as long as the equilibrium between the CO2 mountains and the atmosphere remains unfavourable, which might be always unless the inhabitants can be less sensitive to CO2 intoxication than we are now.

      At and around the Solar pole, protected dwellings and industrial regions would be necessary because it would make the Arabian desert in July look like Novosibirsk in February, and at the other extreme, I don't know how close to the twilight zone surface living for humans would be practical.

      In the sunside temperate zones, say 25% of the planetary surface (half the sunside) the question is what the equilibrium between the CO2 mountains and the general atmosphere will settle down to. I suspect that some sort of sealed atmosphere would remain necessary, no matter how much free oxygen was available, but of course, it would be quite possible to adjust the human capacity to tolerate higher levels of CO2, after which O2 supply would be the main limiting factor and no sealed dwellings would be necessary.

      If you are talking about domes for agricultural purposes, certainly not. Loooong before the asteroid rain tailed off, there would be thousands of strains of microbes and plants and scavenger species to consume dead biomass. Unoccupied Venus would be choked with jungle for centuries at least. Even now plants can stand far more CO2 than we can.

  3. Thanks for your feedback. I have to say, I'm quite interested in this idea. I've put a summary up on Reddit, so we can continue our conversation there and maybe spread this idea a little further. I notice it's not even on the Terraforming Venus wiki yet, so it's certainly not out there yet. We have work to do to make this a more popular concept to at least consider, so Reddit, here we come!

  4. Sorry Jon, I can't help myself.
    I just started another summary thread in the Space Colonisation Reddit, (a different subreddit to the Venus reddit). I think you'll like this summary more as it sells your version of partial terraforming as a few gigantic steps faster than the traditional method of terraforming Venus.

  5. This is an interesting comment!

    "If you simply stop the rotation, my guess is that it wouldn't change very much. The atmosphere is so thick and holds in heat so well that the circulating atmosphere would bring heat to the dark side of Venus, and it would never get cold enough to start freezing out the atmosphere.

    But of course this is ignoring the whole fact that it is stupid to live on a planetary surface once we get out into space. The resources will be in the asteroids. At the asteroids you can get solar power 100% of the time. And transportation costs are much lower to asteroids than to other planetary surfaces.

    Why work so hard to make Venus liveable, when for a lot less effort you can build space stations with perfect gravity, perfect weather, cheap transportation costs, easy access to resources, and all the space you need?"

  6. And this point!

    "However the atmosphere circles the planet every 4-5 days. Stopping the surface's rotation would do nothing, since the atmosphere will still carry the heat around. In fact since the surface rotates "backwards", it's been theorized that Venus used to turn the "right" way, slowed to a stop, and then started turning backwards. At some point along that timeframe it would have already had one side face the sun constantly.

    Unless you plan to block or stop Venus' winds somehow, the whole idea is a non-starter."

  7. In other words, why is Venus so hot on its 'dark' side today? It's already fairly 'tidally locked' given the year is only 224 days, and its day is a massive 116 days! It's not as if Venus rotates every 24 hours. Why hasn't the atmosphere already started to freeze on the night side? It's just too fast and too thick. I'd want a team of physicists to analyse your proposal to see if it was even remotely plausible in the first place.

  8. Maybe that's why the idea isn't even on the colonising Venus wiki. It's just not plausible? Do you have any links to any peer-reviewed physicist's work demonstrating that the atmosphere would even freeze on the night side?

  9. I'm no physicist but it appears to me that if the atmosphere on Venus *already* shoots through the dark side with no trouble in the existing 116 day long rotation, then it's not going to cool even if the "day" nearly doubles. It still scoots around from hot side through the dark side and back to the hot side in 2 days! Why is that going to change? For all your bluster, you have not quoted one genuine scientific paper that even verifies the basis of your whole theory. Mars is looking better and better.

    1. Do your maths, physicist or not. The proposal has nothing to do with the day doubling.

  10. Unless you first remove that 90bar CO2, the heat is just going to convect right the way around. It skips through there in 2 days, even though Venus is *already* mostly* tidally locked. Why would it behave any different if Venus stopped rotating? For the purposes of the atmospheric circulation charging around the planet in 4 days, and skipping through the night side in just 2 days, it already *has*, and there's been no dry ice mountain ranges formed so far. You're the one who came in denouncing Mars on The Conversation, and who calls terraforming Mars 'hand waving'. So *you're* the one with the burden of proof on this fundamental question. Why would the convection stop just because you stopped the planet?

  11. EN, I don't believe this! I keep telling you I am rushed. If you cannot work even this circulation one out for yourself, you should be embarrassed to confess it, but you will have to wait a month or two before I can spare the time to fill you in on such basics.

    Go back for a start and check on your facts and implications.

    Just for starters as hints:

    Ask yourself why the circulation is not synchronous wiht the planet's daily rotation.

    And ask yourself what you mean by "*already* mostly* tidally locked".

    Bye for now!