Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Floating Tangent

I’ve just finished a segment for the new book I’m writing. In case you’re interested it has the very unassuming and humble title of, ‘How to save the whole damn world: a madly optimistic manifesto.’ Like I said, humble. Strangely enough I’m finding it hard to snag a publisher. They seem to think it odd that a comedian might have some big ideas that could be useful. They also think I should work with a respectable economist if I want to get some traction. As if! Economists are barely legitimate purveyors of magical thinking and spurious figures. I wouldn’t let them near my book if they paid me all the Dollarized Yield Curve Notes or Constant Maturity Treasury Floaters in the world. And yes, those are real terms.
But I digress. I was working on a chapter about the possibilities for the safe exploration of space. As you do. The chapter was getting a little long and there was one particular tangent that I just could not justify or fit in, so I thought I’d put it out here on my blog.
Have you ever watched a documentary and heard someone say something so unutterably stupid and wrong that you want to punch the telly? Happens to me a lot. In the context of thinking about space exploration and the best sort of fuel to use in space craft, I watched a doco called ‘Moon for Sale’ on SBS. At one point they were talking about nuclear fusion power as opposed to fission power. Instead of splitting an atom to release energy, you fuse two light atoms together and that releases even more energy. Fusion power is the nuclear engine that drives the Sun. The advantages of fusion over fission include: using less fuel for the process and thus creating less waste and that waste is much less radioactive. It’s not commercially viable yet, but people are working on it. One of the versions uses Helium (lightest atom in the universe) as the fuel. Trouble is, a hell of a lot of neutrinos are created in the process and they tend to shred the containment shells of the reactors really quickly. They have to shut down the reactor and replace the shells on a regular basis. It’s frustrating, inefficient and wasteful.
It turns out that a change in the fuel could make all the difference. Helium found on the earth is not the ideal fuel, but a variant form of Helium called Helium 3 (He3) creates far fewer neutrinos and thus causes less damage to the reactor. He3 is produced by the Sun in vast quantities and carried away from it in the solar wind. Over the millennia many tons of He3 have landed on the surface of the Moon, and now the surface rocks are riddled with the stuff. Here comes the point where I got really angry. Some American tool appeared on the doco to advocate strip-mining the surface of the Moon to obtain He3. Even though it would be stupidly expensive to conduct mining operations on the Moon and even though completely strip-mining the entire Moon would only provide 200 years worth of reactor fuel, this was the only option for obtaining He3 that this complete and utter dipstick could imagine. I was screaming at the telly, ‘Why go for the secondary source you numbskull?! Why demolish the surface of our glorious Moon when you can COLLECT IT IN SPACE FOR FREE?! It’s coming from the Sun you idiot, NOT the Moon. Go to the source, not the accidental bystander you cloth-eared, pointy-toed, son of a %$#@&%, who probably $%@!* pigeons when you think no one is looking!’ As you can probably tell, I take my science seriously.
It always causes me a moment of despair when I see such wrong-headed thinking. It speaks to the innate conservatism of the human species and how long it takes for new ideas to take hold. Reaching right back into pre-history, we didn’t change the design of our stone axes for more than a 100,000 years. That’s how innately conservative we are and although it can be bloody frustrating, it does make evolutionary sense. If something works, you keep doing it and don’t give it up until something better comes along. The trouble is, who decides that something is better and how do you convince everyone else? That’s the bit we always struggle with.
As a result, I think we are still bound by our essential conservatism in such a way that we have actually preserved mediaeval and even Neolithic sensibilities to this day. The reason the guy in that doco wanted to strip mine the Moon was because ‘mining’ is still the only way we can think of to obtain minerals and metals. For more than 3,000 years we have done it the same way: crack and grind rock out of the earth and then heat it, beat it and treat it. The machines may have got fancier, the factories may have got bigger but in essence we’re still doing it the same way we did it in the Neolithic.
If you can’t picture a truly 21st century way of mining and processing minerals, try this on for size. In 30 or 40 years time when we’ve cracked proper nano-technology and have really good sub-surface scanners, all you’ll have to do is find the spot where the vein of the mineral you want is closest to the surface and simply inject a few billion nano-machines. They will then tunnel down to the vein, extract every last atom and return it to the surface in the form of pure ingots of the metal or mineral. As they extract they could also rearrange the remaining rock into braces so that the cavity formed by mining retains structural integrity. No cave-ins or land subsidence to worry about. Pretty nifty idea eh?
I think the saddest example of this conservatism occurs in medicine. I saw a doco on SBS called ‘Miracle Cure?’ that talked about modern cancer treatments and was shocked when a researcher actually stated that we were still attacking cancers with essentially mediaeval treatments. We may give them fancy new names but surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the same old cut, burn or poison methods of centuries ago. Surely we can do better than that? When I heard that comparison I was shocked, but not really surprised. I’m not all that impressed with modern medicine to be frank, and those sort of statements don’t upset me as much as that guy in the Moon doco did. I think it comes down to my own biases. I’m a bit of a space nerd and therefore imagine that other space nerds are as open to new ideas and embrace intellectual change as much as I do.  I get more upset when I see examples of stupidity and conservatism in their ranks. Maybe I need to go and have a good hard look at myself and admit my own biases and stupidities. But being a human, I probably won’t.


  1. I used to read your very memorable columns in The Age and am very excited to find your blog! We always need critical reflections on our society and its assumptions.

  2. Um, when I was in Brock's year 10 science class (ask Anthea, she was there too), it went (we had to memorise it): Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine, Neon, Sodium, Magnesium...
    Helium is almost the lightest element, after Hydrogen! (You did say you take your science seriously...)