Archive Monthly Archives: January 2018

(Almost) Blackest Black Available For Sale to Public

You may have heard of the U.K. vertically aligned nanotube array (VANTA) super black coating, created in 2006 and advertised to absorb 99.965% of visible light directed at it. However, U.K. export restrictions prevent private individuals - with the notorious exception of artist Anish Kapoor in 2016. If you wanted to see Vantablack yourself, you would have to be satisfied with either a sample from Surrey NanoSystems or with the purchase of the $95,000 MCT luxury watch, which feature vantablack minute and second hands.

Now a U.S. firm, NanoLabs, has provided for sale its own nanotube based black pigment, called Singularity Black, which can be bought for $50 per 20 milliliters. The pigment has a much less impressive 98.5% absorption, but it's effectiveness is demonstrated in a collection of images made in concert with artist Jason Chase.

The material must be heated to 600 degrees Fahrenheit to boil off the binder material and, although water proof, the surface becomes no-touch in order to keep the best black effect. These requirements make finding the right place to use the paint challenging.

Artist Stuart Semple released his own "Black 2.0" blackest paint. While quantitative data for "Black 2.0" isn't available, the product was featured impressively in the YouTube video "Light vs. Dark". Semple has also released a "pinkest pink", "greenest green", and "glitteriest glitter".  Other user anecdotes have been that "Black 2.0" is not as dark as some other commercial grade paints. Semple's paint is available for the much more reasonable price of $18.90 for 150 milliliters at Amazon.  

Trends in High End Robotics

Robotics may seem like the stuff of far-away science fiction, but it's much closer than you think. Look at these products and prototypes in development.

What you see in the video above jumping and performing flips is Boston Dynamics' 'Atlas' robot. Boston Dynamics was purchased in 2013 by Google's Alphabet holding company and sold to SoftBank group in June of 2017. Atlas is only one in a long line of seemingly far futuristic robot products including the surprisingly agile Big Dog pack mule-like robot, the 28 mile per hour running Cheetah, and the tree climbing badger lookalike called RiSE.

While Boston Dynamics is exploring the limits of humanoid and animal inspired shapes, other companies are pushing the frontiers of robotics in other areas. Hanson Robotics (video below) has been working hard on developing machines with human like behavior, "feelings", and body language. Part of Hanson Robotics' work is open source in the OpenCog platform, that you can download and experiment with yourself (some Linux expertise required).

In the domain of artificial intelligence, IBM has expanded the famous Jeopardy-winning Watson into a suite of products including interactive assistance and research. If you would like to try out Watson for yourself, you can sign-up for a 30-day free trial. The tools provided are intended for use by non-programmers and a large body of tutorials is available on IBM's website, although you might spend the entire 30-day trial just walking through the tutorials.

Amazon has also released it's suite of publicly available AI tools as part of it's AWS package of on-demand services.

Microsoft famously released it's self-teaching chat AI, Tay, on the world. The experiment ended unfortunately as the robot learned from both the best and worst influences of the public.

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How Plausible is a Reality Show Means of Selecting a Space Crew?

How plausible is it that a one way trip to another world would be privately funded by a reality-show like recruitment and selection process, partnered with merchandising, licensing, and donations? That was not science fiction, but science fact.

Founded in 2011, Mars One has gotten off to a slow start and been the subject of a great deal of criticism, but they have kept the conversation going. With an estimated $400 million milestone unmanned mission scheduled for 2022 and no actual crews scheduled until 2031, it remains to be seen if they will succeed.

Their 2017 financial statement shows an organization that has well developed ideas about how it will raise the funds it needs, and how it must invest in it's fundraising.

Telepresence Technologies

In a globally connected world, it's harder than ever to "be there" without actually being there. Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and video over internet allowed families to connect from far away over technologies like FaceTime and Skype (among many).

Telepresence is a set of technologies intending to increase that sense of being present in a remote (or even completely unreal) environment. As you can imagine, such a broad goal has created some very different ideas. 

Immersive Telepresence

Immersive telepresence technologies connect one or more people in a completely simulated world. Imagine any massively multiplayer online (MMO) game you've ever seen. Or Minecraft for examples of people working together toward a common goal in a completely virtual world.

Augmented Reality

You may have seen augmented reality technologies that work by mapping elements in a virtual world to a position in the real world. A see-through screen or camera captures live and virtual elements putting them together. 

Robotic Telepresence

iRobot, the company that gave you robotic vacuums and mops that navigate your home is also working on solutions to allow you to roam an open space remotely. Called the Ava 500, the robot is what you might currently expect from teleconference technology - picture and sound. Where this innovates is that the camera, screen, speaker, and microphone are mounted on a simple robot. This allows the visitor to roam, squeeze in for a better look, and do many other things that watching from a fixed camera angle simply doesn't allow.

Holographic Telepresence

Long a goal from science fiction movies and television, Cisco is featuring stage holograms very much like you've seen on television.

Could the Tower of Babel Actually Stand

This excellent question on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange asks if the tower of Babel, as it is described could actually stand.

I guess there are several questions to consider when trying to answer this.

Could Ancient People Have Drawn Straight Lines Tens of Kilometers in Length?

The Nazca lines were up to 370 meters long, and could achieve surprisingly complex patterns. One of the hypotheses for how they did this was by drawing in a valley and having construction managers spotting from higher elevation.

Could a Multi-Kilometer Structure be Kept Level?

Egyptians (almost a contemporary) had sight levels consisting of a plumb line and a triangle on a table. Look here for an example.

Wooden sticks, marked at a common desired height, with string run between them was the technique used to level the pyramid. The sticks were initially sighted with the sight level, and reviewed periodically by construction site managers.

Between the two base lengths given (2.6 km and 52.5 km), the curvature of the Earth would be between 2 and 53 meters. This curvature would foil the plumb lines, as gravity is curving with the Earth. However, the alignment and design of the pyramid also indicates that the curvature of the Earth was not unknown, and near contemporaries had calculated the circumference, and thus radius, of the Earth accurately, so it would be possible for building site managers to pre-calculate the curvature and account for this 2 to 53 meter curvature that would happen at these very large dimensions.

Are There Physical Limitations to Such a Large Height and Width?

There would be some side force, due to the curvature at the very largest dimensions. To calculate angle, get the arctan of the drop (53 meters) and half the base (26 km ~ 26,000 m) = 0.11 degrees. To find the percentage of all force that is transmitted as a side force, use the sine of this angle.

At the largest dimension (52.5 km) you mentioned, this side force would be about 0.19% of the weight is being transmitted as a moment trying to crack the structure apart.

Tensile strength of mud bricks (which is the type of strength that applies here) 1.5 MPa for mud bricks and 15 MPa for fired clay bricks (same as it's compressive strength). The density of mud brick is 1520 kg/m-cubed; for fired clay brick 2000 kg/m-cubed.

Geometery (whether this tower tapers as it gets higher or is straight up) plays a very important part in total load. For a straight up tower, the total pressure on the bottom tier is the density of your brick multiplied by the structure's height (in meters). P = rho * g * height * 0.2% (the amount of load being transferred)

So, at what height would this set-up fail? 390 kilometers for fired clay brick; 52 kilometers for mud brick.

Also, since brick is not a solid piece, some of this pressure would be absorbed by the bricks shifting in the mortar. And the case mentioned was for a vertical tower - the load could be greatly reduced by tapering the structure as it rose to the top.

How About Maximum Height?

The crushing strength of modern bricks are between 3.5 to 50 MPa. Mud bricks are 1.5 MPa and fired clay bricks are about 15 MPa. The equation, for a straight tower is still that the pressure on the bottom tier P = rho * g * h

For mud brick, the highest altitude before mud bricks start crumbling is 100 meters; for fired clay bricks 750 meters; for modern bricks 2.5 kilometers. This does not include a factor of safety - normally you'd cut these values by 4x to 5x for safety. Again, you could taper the structure to reach greater heights.

For comparsion, the ziggurat of Ur stands at 45 meters and the great pyramid stands at 139 meters.

How High is High Enough?

Per here, altitude sickness begins to set in at 2,500 meters height. Also, per the same site, the highest altitude a human can reach without a compressed air supply is only 8,000 meters.

How Much Height Can We Squeeze Out of Tapering?

The advantage of such an impossibly large base is that you can do a LOT of tapering. With the largest base of 52 km, reaching altitude sickness @ 2.5 km an extremely gentle 5 degree slope (an 85 degree taper). To reach the highest possible altitude for humans @ 8km is a not-terrible 17 degree slope (73 degree taper).

At such a shallow angle, you're not really building a structure (I guess you still are), but merely piling up a mountain. If you could effectively keep the pressure distributed, only 9% to 30% of the total force is being communicated down to the bottom layer. That would allow a height of 1,000 meters for mud brick; 4,400 meters for fired brick at a 10 degree incline; and 8 km for modern brick. You would still want a factor of safety for the structure. Then again, maybe not, because this thing is so shallow.

Effects of Wind

Wind adds a small amount of pressure to the stack. The density of wind is 1.225 kg/cubic meter. A 60 mile per hour wind would add 440 Pascals, and this is without including the effects of the shallow slope.

Breakdown Mode

At these very shallow slopes, the tower wouldn't fall down when it breaks. The failure mode would be more like erosion. Failure can be controlled the same way we control erosion with retention walls made of piled-up dirt, wood, or bronze.

So, I'm really surprised by this, but it's possible.

What’s New with Mars One?

Started in 2011 Mars One has been a science fiction fan's dream come true. As private endeavor, recruiting from the public, with an aggressive timeline, it has everything a dreamer of alien worlds could hope for.

But in the intervening years, Mars One has endured a great deal of criticism - about the feasibility of its plan, about it's down selection process of recruits, the projected cost of the endeavor, and the progress of fundraising efforts compared to it's timeline.

Mars One has presented an updated plan to collect funding and major spending milestones along the way.