Communications and Tectonic Package Sent to Mars

In case you missed it, Saturday NASA launched the InSight mission to Mars, scheduled to arrive November of this year. The science package contains a seismometer to determine if the fourth planet from the sun is still alive geologically. We know it was once by the volcanoes left behind, the largest being the 25 kilometer tall Olympus Mons. In addition to listening for a heartbeat, InSight will also drill fifteen feet into the soil and measure temperature and temperature gradient, providing a starting point for estimating temperatures much deeper inside the red planet. In addition, the science package will deploy two radio antennas with the purpose of determining how much the internal workings of the planet cause it to wobble.

But what is very cool is the pair of very small (14 inch x 9 inch x 4 inch), inexpensive – relatively speaking ($11 million) communications satellites that are transmitting along the way. CubeSats use commercial parts and are meant to improve accessibility to space by reducing the cost. If the satellites survive the trip, it will prove that lower cost alternatives for future trips to the planet are viable.

Atlantis – Yes, Really

It's amazing how much information we have at out fingertips. David Livingston spent five years of his life, and nearly died trying to find the source of the Nile. This morning I did the same thing in about an hour from the comfort of my couch using Google Maps. Unlike any generation before us, we can look up primary sources for ancient antiquities without not just getting to skip learning dead languages, but without even leaving the house for the library.

We're a family that watches a lot of history programming, so Atlantis comes up. I decided to look under the hood, and here is what I found:

Where Did the Atlantis Story Originate?

The only primary sources (first documented accounts)  for the story of Atlantis are two Dialogues of Plato - Critias and Timaeus. Some context is helpful here. Plato's dialogues are a student's (Plato) recollection of some of the very best conversations he overheard or participated in. It's a bit like a fan of someone famous writing down the very best memories of their journey with that famous someone. Hopefully, given the level of detail in the dialogues, Plato is working from notes as well as memory, but there's no indication of that. 

The context of Critias and Timaeus are these two individuals trying to entertain  Socrates with strange-but-true tales. Socrates is Plato's teacher and the person being recollected in the Dialogues. Critias and Timaeus both admit they partly consider the story a myth. Critias was looking at turning the story into a play. Either he never got around to it, or the play is lost.

Critias, now a very old man, received the story when he was ten from a popular poet named Solon. So bear in mind, this is a professional storyteller saying he got this story from another professional storyteller. Searching for Atlantis may be bit like overhearing Michael Bay and Stephen Spielberg discussing the next Transformers movie and using that as the basis to search for a historical Cybertron.

Solon claims to have encountered the story while visiting Egypt. He had intended to turn the story into a poem, but had not gotten around to it. Instead, Solon did translate the story from the original Egyptian, or so Critias claims, into Greek. Critias also claims to still have a copy of the original Egyptian manuscript.

The story Critias passes to Socrates from Solon is one of a great war between all of the nations inside the Mediterranean sea versus all of the nations in and around the Atlantic ocean. The battle, according to Critias took place at least nine thousand years prior to the present (the present being around 360 BC). Socrates' home town Athens was the leader of the Mediterranean forces in the world war, and Atlantis was the leader of the forces from the ocean. 

Characteristics of Atlantis in Original Sources

According to Plato's recollection of Critas and Solon Atlantis was:

  • Located past the Pillars of Hercules, outside the Mediterranean sea in the Atlantic Ocean
  • Close enough to the Pillars of Hercules that the disaster that overtook Atlantis made it impossible for the Greeks to reach the ocean for some time afterward.
  • An island chain (Critias uses the word "islands", not "island")
  • Had natural deposits of copper (red metal)
  • Had hot and cold springs
  • Had native elephants
  • Was destroyed by some natural disaster

The Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules were an important landmark in identifying the location of Atlantis. These are two mountains identifying the expanse of water that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. These are very large and a noticeable feature, not easily mistaken for something else.

Finding Atlantis (Without a Wetsuit)

Although Critias gives us an easily identifiable landmark, you probably see that there is nothing to the west immediately past the Pillars of Hercules. The nothing continues west until you hit North America, causing some to consider places like Bimini in the Bahamas or other parts of North America as candidates for Critias and Solon's early civilization.

The Polynesians may have pointed their boats out into the unknown, but the Greeks didn't sail that way. They hugged the coast when travelling, even in the Mediterranean sea.

And, if you are hugging the African coastline outside the rock of Gibraltar (Pillars of Hercules) the first island chain you find is: the Canary Islands.

The Canary Islands

Close enough that a natural disaster would have prevented coast-hugging European sailors from going any further down the African coast line, the Canary islands were an early candidate for Atlantis.

Not only is the location right, but the islands fit the description in several other respects : having hot and cold springs, precious metals, and an being close enough to Africa that an indigenous population of elephants is possible, if unproven. It's even close enough that a hypothetical armed conflict between Mediterranean nations wanting access to coastal Africa and a hypothetical kingdom of Atlantis situated on the Canary islands seems plausible.

In fact, there was enough of a fit that people spent real money studying the geology of the region to find one significant problem: there is no evidence of any catastrophic natural event having happened there.

What Did Solon Get Wrong?

Did Solon get something wrong? It seems all theories of Atlantis assume something in his description must have been mistaken. Those favoring Thera as Atlantis assume he was mistaken about it being outside the Mediterranean Sea. Those favoring Bimini discard the elephants, hot and cold springs.

Since it was a story about a major war, written by one side, maybe Solon got nothing wrong. Maybe the original Egyptians, or Solon (being a poet), improvised to give the "bad guys" of the story a fitting ending - being struck down by natural disaster, when what might actually have happened is the country fading away, as so many nations do.

What Does a Mudslide Look Like?

Mudslides happen. However, still shots do a poor job of demonstrating the speed and power of these natural disasters. If you are have not had the privilege of seeing one up close, here is video of a 2012 mudslide in  Johnson's Landing, British Columbia

Digital Colloids – Self Assembling Liquid Memory

Tiny drops of oil can be arranged to write information and read it back remotely, described in this 2014 paper. The oils suspended in water, literally colloids can be written to or read from using both optical and electronic mechanisms. When written to, the information is stored by rearranging the stable pattern of the droplets within a larger grouping. The applications of this technology include mixing the substance into batches of other goods as a marker, high density memory (estimated in the range of terabytes per gram), or memory for nano machines (still being much too large for than application, but showing promise).

Usefully, the structures assemble themselves under the right conditions lending themselves to industrial application. 

Knowledge Transfer Over the Internet

"I know kung fu"

The line from "The Matrix" summarizes the cool of being able to compress weeks, years, or decades of subject mastery into a data stream. Significant progress has been made since 2004 transferring knowledge between animals and people.

The technology, called Brain To Brain Interface (BTBI) achieved results of successfully transferring information 70%, compared to 50% of the time due to random chance. Not very impressive, but more recent work in people transfers more complex information with a 72% success rate, compared to 18% random chance of getting the same answers.

(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.