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Did you all watch Moana?  That movie was amazing! It may be my favorite Disney movie (and I am a big fan of hand-drawn animation instead of the computer rendered stuff, so that is really saying something).  The eponymous hero is brave and truly heroic, yet her strength does not come from magic or violence (or a marriage proposal from some foppish prince), it comes from constant striving to go farther and understand things better.  That is a rare thing in our entertainment world.

There is an amazing revelation early on in the movie.  Moana longs to leave her island paradise and sail the broad oceans, but society forbids anyone–even a hereditary princess–from sailing beyond the reef.  Then, in a scene of breathtaking wonder, Moana discovers the secret history of her people. They were not originally from that island…once they were fearless explorers who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on enormous exploration canoes.  Yet they have become insular—obsessed with rules, hierarchies, and the past.  Not only have they become fearful and small, but they have caught all available fish and their fruit groves are dying…

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Naturally, the talk about Moana has largely centered around two things: (1) whether it is secretly an allegory of American politics (I don’t think it is…exactly…but clearly there are uncomfortable parallels); and (2) whether it bowdlerizes Polynesian culture (it does, but, come on! kids’ cartoons flatten and distort every story and the movie presents Polynesian culture with respect and wonder).  “Hercules” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” destroyed those stories: in Disney’s hands they literally ended up with opposite meanings (and endings) than in the original versions, but you don’t hear French people and ancient Greeks complaining.

Lately, in our world, everyone seems to be becoming ever more tribal. We are swift to find (or imagine) insult about anything concerning our group or worldview, and strangely unable to perceive the wonder and possibilities of the bigger picture.  I have been writing about princesses because I want people to stop being so stupid and tribal.  We need to re-examine the leadership archetypes we grew up with so that we can make some better choices.

There are two antithetical reasons we sell the concept of princesshood to little girls.  The first reason is about making children behave.  If you master rules and norms, people will like you and you will succeed. The other is about true leadership, not by coercive means like threats, lawsuits, or bossing people around, but by generosity, and imagination, and beautiful example. If you making your life into something remarkable and amazing, other people are drawn towards you and want to follow you.

Everyone has to tread the line between these two poles– whether you have to submit to the whims of the great masters and the weight of society–or whether you can build a life of beauty, meaning and worth on your own terms. Moana masters both, and is able to lead her people beyond the reef back to their true heritage of exploration and discovery.

People worldwide are growing dissatisfied with the self-satisfied conclusions of the post Cold War era of globalization and automation.   They ask whether we should turn back the clock to make society more insular, static, tribal, and impoverished (yet more safe), or whether we should instead keep growing, learning, and discovering—even if it puts us at danger.   It strikes me that there can only be one answer: the insular society of the 50s was not really all that safe.   The only way is forward; there actually is no road back. We will keep exploring this idea, but in the meantime watch Moana, and tell me your opinions about princesses (or share some favorite childhood memories).  We are starting from the beginning in rediscovering what is best about leadership and how to move on to a future which is worthwhile.   Reexamining some cherished archetypes is a good place to start, but there is a lot we need to talk about concerning where we want to go and who we want to be.

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My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.

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If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.

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Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).

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We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).

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I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.

 

Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.

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Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.

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Color transcends history.  The wavelengths of light…the chemical compositions of the pigments…these things are part of the physical universe.  Yet how we apprehend color is a part of our eyes, and our minds, and our upbringings (and involves some quirks unique to human physiology—as demonstrated by the colors magenta and stygian blue).  Most of the colors I write about were first mentioned in the 18th or 19th century.  Some colors are vastly older—like Han purple (which I like more all the time, by the way). However today I am writing about a color first mentioned in the distant year of…2009.  This color found a name after the rise and fall of Britney Spears.  The great recession had already set in by the time this color made the scene.  I am talking, of course about “Arctic Lime” which was invented by Crayola’s for its “eXtreme” line of ultra-bright colored pencils.

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At first gasp, Arctic lime seems like a sad effort by a marketer who was not at the top of his game.  Chartreuse and the Arctic do not initially go together in the popular imagination (nor do tropical limes belong in the frozen tundra). Yet the more one looks at this hue, the more it makes sense.  It is not the color of ice, but it is the color of the aurora as it sweeps past inhuman vistas of alien frozen waste. Also, Arctic lime may not have a beautiful name, but it is a beautiful color (in its own unnatural and eXtreme way).  Perhaps people of the far future will think of this color the way we think of Han Purple and they will imagine us going about our lives in Arctic Lime leisure clothes and neckties.  Come to think of it, the color is pretty similar to the high-visability fluorescent green of my bike helmet.  Maybe the imaginary people of the future are imagining us more accurately than we imagine ourselves!

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Apollo and Marsyas Toy Theater (Wayne Ferrebee, mixed media, 2015)

Apollo and Marsyas Toy Theater (Wayne Ferrebee, mixed media, 2015)

OK, I promised everyone a Halloween treat, and here it is.  This past year I spent some time (ahem, well, actually hundreds and hundreds of hours) working on an art toy–a 19th century-style miniature theater for action figures!  It is sized for four inch tall action figures because I grew up with Kenner’s “Star Wars” figures.  I made the toy with a jigsaw, a lathe, and plywood. I painted/drew the images with watercolors, color pencils, markers, and Photoshop!  Since I used Photoshop I can print eveything up and make as many as I like! However I haven’t finished scanning all of the backgrounds in yet and altering them (and I still have a couple more backgrounds I want to make).

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The proscenium arch shows the musical competition between Apollo and Marsyas, an evocative tale which reveals dark truths about art.  I have showed the contest instead of the outcome. On the left a nesting swan is left bereft because a cruel cupid has stolen her mate and shackled him to a chariot (he is flying away at the top). marsyas has heartbroken love and the muses behind him.  Apollo has his dead python and a cold white temple  The farms and cities of humankind can be barely glimpsed in the background behind them. Shears, a wineskin, shackles, and a flaying knife hint at the future.

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On either side of the stage are great mock-Egyptian columns which support the aristocrats and rich folks in the top boxes. The best seat in the house go to the state–which I have represented on one side as a beautiful princess and on the other as an evil inquisitor (although if you look closely you will see they are the same person). The orchestra is filled with musicians and music makers from around the world like a serpent player, the devil with his fiddle, a splendid lyrebird, a ponce with a triangle, a vaudeville ukulele player in pancake makeup, and a toy monkey with some cymbals.  
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The wings of the theater fold out to show all of society.  On the bottom are various groundlings like the shouting lout, the woman with her stupid iphone, my crooked ex business partner (with his vodka bottle), and a hungry walrus watching the fish tray above him. A couple of witches have slipped in without anyone noticing (Terry Pratchett would understand).  The middle level is filled with thieves, lovers, merchants, and clergy people.  The top level is filled with faceless shadow-folk on one side, and noble heroes on the other (notice the lady scientist, the luchador, and the martial arts master). The enraged colossal squid in the lower right was added expressly for this blog (although dedicated readers will notice many familiar elements).

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I have placed some action figures from my collection inside the theater to give you a sense of scale–and of the play operas you could invent with your own action figures and toys!

Clever viewers will note that this is really a fancy frame with footlights.  The real purpose is the interchangable sets–a collection of strange artworks featuring imaginary scenes from throughout history and the imagination.  There is an ancient churchyard in front of a medieval church (notice the undead form and the megaliths on the moor beyond).

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Here is French Colonial Timbuktu.  Effete er…elite officers ride by on a half-track as cobras and scorpions prowl the thronging marketplace.

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Regular readers will remember this seascape of adventure and excitement.  Perhaps it is showing a scene from the spice wars!

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I spent a long time drawing Hell. I was really afraid of hell when I was a child and I tried to capture some of those concepts in these horrible monsters and gruesome punishments.  It is unclear whether it is hell or Diyu (if there is a difference).  I wanted it to be beautiful in its depraved horror.  There are burning cities and red deserts yearning for water…but the aqueducts are broken. There are churches everywhere because I figure hell will be full of the devout.  After all, people who believe in Hell worship evil deities–gods who purposely created flawed spirits just to torture them forever.  But maybe I am just angry about being scared so badly when I was little.  I added pterosaurs because I like them, not because I think they were especially evil.

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My favorite scene is the garden aviary (pictured in the first picture at the top).  It is filled with beautiful flowering trees, spring bulbs, and birds from around the world.  I put the tropical jungle half-set in front of it (see the arborial marsupials), but it sort of blocks the scenic vista.  In fact I had all sorts of trouble photographing this.  I am a better toymaker than photographer.  Also some scenes are not finished (like the future city filled with post-humans and sentient robots, below).  I also left the secret door on the back unphotographed.  I will save it for a later day (but it is really cool and it also unifies the toy greatly). More to follow.  In the mean time get out there and enjoy Halloween (oh, and direct some traffic over here, if you have a moment–I have been working hard making things for you to enjoy!).

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Microbeads through a Microscope

Microbeads through a Microscope

Back when I was at school in the 90s there was a breathless sense that we all lived on the threshold of a nanotech revolution.  In the future we would quaff chalices filled with infinitesimal robots and the little machines would devour our cancers and grant us superpowers.  Flash forward to 2015 and what we have instead is microbeads.  These are exactly what they sound like–polyethylene microspheres which have worked their way into consumer goods of every sort.  Microbeads were supposed to “exfoliate” or “microcleanse” or perform some other nebulous pseudoverb dreamed up by marketers.  What they really do instead is abrade microfissures into our gums before passing through the filters of water treatment plants and pouring into the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In these larger ecosystems, the beads soak up pollutants and are mistaken for eggs by tiny arthropods and fry.  The infernal little spheres are working their way into the food chain and causing havoc.

Ahh...consumer goods!

Ahh…consumer goods!

Ferrebeekeeper believes that technology is the solution to most problems.  This blog often excoriates the powers that be for not moving fast enough to bring us breakthroughs and marvels.  So why are we featuring the troubling story of microbeads?  First (and most-obviously) because technology only works if we all pay close attention and correct errors and problems as they occur.  This is no easy task when dealing with systems as complicated as those seen in biology and ecology.

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More importantly it is a rebuke to the market system.   There is a certain segment of society which continuously holds aloft the market as the final and greatest arbiter of what is right and best.  This seems dangerously misguided.  The market prefers expensive baldness therapy, instantly obsolete cellphones, and microbeads to the expensive and abstract research into fundamental science where real breakthroughs come from. The market is a single shiny gimcrack in our collective box of tricks for dealing with the world, but it should not be mistaken for the toolbox…or the world! Markets are better at making a few charlatans rich then for helping us all understand existence.

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Let’s remove little beads from our soap and work a bit harder in the nanotech laboratory.  We are not getting any younger and some of those little cancer eating robots might come in handy…provided they are not brought to us at a horrifying markup by Ciba-Geigy (and then end up eating our spleens).  If we do not work a bit harder to correct the excesses within our resource allocation system, we are going to end up with more micro cleanse and less true understanding.

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

Martian Gothic (James Beoddy, 1997,  mixed media)

Martian Gothic (James Beoddy, 1997, mixed media)

Time sort of escaped me today, so here is a strange and intricate painting to think about.  This is “Martian Gothic” by James Beoddy.  It is an exciting retro-future tapestry of techno-humans piecing together a patchwork future. The networked world of the painting looks alien but also strangely familiar—as though today’s political and consumerist trends just moved a bit further down the road.  The dark glittering society is not as dark as some visions of tomorrow—but it does seem to have lots of sharp edges.

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Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014.  It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important.  But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014.  Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds).  The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005.  It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit.  Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth).  It is now presumed destroyed.

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Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA.  Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth.  This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere).  Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well.  Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice.  It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.  We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet?  We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself!  That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus!  Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

Lovecraft's Nightmare (Painting by Michael Whelan)

Lovecraft’s Nightmare (Painting by Michael Whelan)

Even among modern folk with our science, technology and networked thinking machines, dreams possess an unearthly and overwhelming power. To state this bluntly: nightmares can be terrifying to a degree unrivaled by anything save the most terrible moments of trauma or devastating personal loss.

In nightmares I have watched our lovely world of nitrogen skies, teaming oceans, and green forests snuffed out in an instant by ghastly void. As a ghost, I have swum through oceans of plague skeletons each of which glittered with unwholesome light. Worst of all, with mine own hands I have poured oil on my chanting followers and touched the torch to them and exalted as together we burned like fat in a fire.

And it was all just dreams, of course it was. But, oh! it seemed so horribly real…

「菌類学者Hの誤算」  パネルにテンペラ、油彩  1988年 1621x970mm

「菌類学者Hの誤算」  パネルにテンペラ、油彩  1988年 1621x970mm

Awaking from such visions, it is difficult not to see the hand of providence writing out the dire warnings of destiny. In ancient times, when science did not exist to explain the world, people thought exactly that—that the gods communicated through dreams.

Dream augury is mentioned in the most ancient Mesopotamian texts as well as throughout ancient Egyptian writings. In both the Iliad and Odyssey, the gods communicate with mortals through dreams (in the Iliad, beautifully, false dreams fly to the world from a gate of ivory, but real ones go through the gate of horn). Even the first book of the Bible has the following story, where the reader goes into Pharaoh’s dreams with him.

And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow. And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke. And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good. And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream. And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof: and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.

Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day: Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in ward in the captain of the guard’s house, both me and the chief baker: And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream. And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret. And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged.

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as an omen of coming climate change: the seven fat cows are seven years of plentiful harvest while the seven starving cows represent a terrible drought. Only by long-term planning can the political leadership of Egypt avert humanitarian crisis (coincidentally, it is a story which makes me wonder if the most stridently religious folk have even paused to think about their favorite text).

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream

Dreams are the most numinous experience we are likely to have. It is very hard not to be like Pharaoh and see portents of the future in the strange imagery of dreams. However for all of the time that dreams are filled with apocalyptic farm animals or oracular produce, they are just as often filled with the Flintstones, sailboards, toothpaste, the girl from algebra class, Honda hatchbacks and suchlike detritus of one’s personal experience and/or contemporary mass culture.

Sigmund Freud, the doyenne of dream interpretation in the contemporary(ish) world, believed that our dreams and nightmares revealed truths hidden by the conscious mind. In the symbolic language of dream imagery, we are able to put together patterns which are obscure (or distasteful or forbidden)—at least according to Freud.

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Naturally I am an adherent of science and reason. I hold no truck with imaginary supernatural beings such as ghosts and gods. Yet dreams constitute  phenomena which I have experienced—which we have all experienced-which can and do stand outside the ordinary mundane frame of reference.  Even if they are not sent by Hypnos or Yahweh, it seems wise to allow dreams to influence what you create and desire…and what you are afraid of.

As the poet said, “Learn from your dreams what you lack”

earth-globeSo it’s Earth Day again. I would like to express my very best wishes for our beautiful home planet! I wish the brightest and healthiest future for Earth and Earth life! I am sure all sane people feel the same way. Frustratingly, however, Earth Day is tinged with all sorts of political controversy and antagonism–because different people have very different ideas about exactly what constitutes a bright future for Earth and its inhabitants.

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People whose politics incline to the right are broadly guilty of ignoring the deleterious effect which billions of people constantly running engines and throwing away rubbish are having on the poor oceans and skies. Many religious folks are also seemingly inclined to think that animals have no souls and are meant to all be driven to extinction for humankind’s amusement and profit. The extremely devout laugh outright at the idea of conservation: saving the planet is unimportant to them since some messiah, or demon, or god is going to show up any minute to save/end everything (all while lifting the few faithful up into a parochial paradise filled with virgins or harps or whatever and throwing everyone else down to hell).

 

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

These ideas are bad—morally, scientifically, and philosophically. Yet I also find the environmentalists who created earth day to be a bit smug. People on the left can be just as antiscientific—for similarly nonsensical reasons. Every day on the internet or on the subway, I hear people despise genetically modified organisms or voice paranoid suspicions about vaccines—vaccines for goodness sake! Some of my dear friends fight against bioengineering and geoengineering while advocating organic everything. Some people on the left belittle those on the right for being anti-science while stridently opposing new energy technologies—especially new nuclear technologies. It makes me want to knock the damn-fool kombucha out of people’s hands and explain the actual nature of the world’s energy economy in greater detail.

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All of this illustrates that I have some serious prejudices and preconceived inclinations myself. I’m sorry. It’s a problem I’m working on. In fact we all need to look harder for solutions while being more respectful of other people’s differing viewpoints. Those religious people whom I so thoroughly disparaged are (mostly) good people and we need their steadfastness, bravery, and compassion. Likewise we need the dreamers who wish for a gentler world of sustainable farming and mining. The people who are afraid of vaccines are afraid for their children: too often they have heard self-serving megacorporations speak as if with the weight of science when those corporations were just spouting more misleading advertising (even if that is not at all what is happening with vaccines). The people who steadfastly deny anthropocentric climate change presumably realize how central hydrocarbon energy is to every aspect of economic, defense, and agricultural activity. Society simply can not transition away from consumer culture and fossil fuels. Not without some big breakthroughs.

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The answers are hard to find and even harder to understand…and it’s all about to get even harder as the human population expands further and competes more intently for resources. Only through understanding math and, above all, science can we move forward. No god has given me reason to believe in any divine rescue. Likewise the raw economic data indicate that organic farming and windmills will not be enough to provide basic sustenance—much less a livelihood– for everyone. Humankind’s gawky and protracted adolescence will need to end and we’ll all have to get smarter if we hope to build a worthwhile future for all living things.

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work...

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work…

It will involve studying harder and taking science much more seriously—despite all of its fraught ambiguities and uncertain answers. It will also involve everyone setting aside some of our fears, prejudices and certainties and reaching out to understand the scariest big animals that live on Planet Earth—our fellow people.

...then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there...

…then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there…

jcosmosWhen I was a child, my favorite tv show was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Although the good doctor’s naïveté about cold war politics sometimes dismayed my realpolitik-minded parents, the amazing breadth of his show’s exploration of the natural world–and the wider universe beyond–was a wonder to me.  For the first time I was introduced to quasars, pulsars, and stellar aging. From Sagan’s delightfully filmed documentary, I learned about Kepler, the Kreb’s cycle, DNA pair sequencing, and the great library of Alexandria.  The eclectic scope of Cosmos was a direct inspiration for this blog (although I can hardly claim to be such a polymath). Hopefully the new Cosmos–with a new science hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson–will inspire today’s generation of children to look beyond sports and the internet up to the soaring science of the firmament!

Jovian Life Envisioned by Adolf Schaller for COSMOS, Carl Sagan (1980)

Jovian Life Envisioned by Adolf Schaller for COSMOS, Carl Sagan (1980)

My very favorite segment of Cosmos however, did not involve real science at all, but rather airy speculation about extraterrestrial life on a gas giant planet.  Carl Sagan, his physicist colleague, E. E. Saltpeter, and the space artist, Adolf Schaller, worked together to imagine a floating ecosystem which might exist on a planet such as Jupiter. In the tempestuous atmosphere of such a world, ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water are violently stirred together to form organic molecules.  Small drifting organisms might feed on these compounds and reproduce as lighter spores before air currents bear them down to their doom (in a cycle reminiscent of phytoplankton). Giant floating life-forms like living hot-air balloons would stay in the habitable zone of the atmosphere by photosynthesis or by grazing on the microscopic “plankton”.  These beings could be kilometers in diameter and would congregate in vast aerial schools.  Sagan and Saltpeter even envisioned jet-propulsion super predators which would blast through the alien skies feeding on the huge clouds of “floaters”.


It is a tremendously compelling vision! Now, whenever NASA or ESA releases a new list of exoplanets, I pause to wonder whether such alien creatures are actually found floating on the super-Jupiters and strange giant worlds which orbit far-off stars.  However today I would like to present an even more fantastic vision—and one which humankind could actually create!  By combining Sagan’s imaginary vision with contemporary aerospace and biotech research, it is possible to visualize my own fantasy of human colonization of Venus…or even upon other worlds with complex atmospheres.

Ornithopter based on Jellyfish (Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress)

Ornithopter based on Jellyfish (Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress)

Just this year, two aeronautical engineers, Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress, crafted an ornithopter based on the swimming motion of a jellyfish.  The tiny mechanism relies on four teardrop-shaped wings oriented around a dome-like apex to achieve stable, directed flight. At the same time a new array of futuristic blimps, zeppelins and dirigibles are being brought to market to transform the skies of earth.  Most importantly Craig Ventner, the bioengineer-entrepreneur, is out there sampling the esoteric genetics of the deep ocean and forging ahead with synthetic genomics (which is to say he is building new living things from scratch).  In our lifetime someone will figure out how to meld Ventner’s synthetic organisms with the advanced engineering and technology which are the hallmark of our age.  The possibilities then grow exponentially out of this world.

“Space Zeppelin” by Rugose.

“Space Zeppelin” by Rugose.

Imagine if the floating ecosphere invented by Sagan and Saltpeter were instead a floating society-economy based on advanced engineering and bioengineering.  There would be levitating cities which are also bioengineered life-forms (like the vast balloon beings of Sagan’s invention).  Between these cloud cities would fly flocks of tiny ornithopters that would gather resources for further farming/engineering.

TSWScreenshot96
Jet propelled aircrafts and super habitats would zip between the living arcologies.  Armored crawlers would inch through the deeper layers of atmosphere or creep along the molten pressurized ground. Eventually there might be flying bio-colonies which self arrange out of many highly specialized flying zooids—like the siphonophores which are so prevalent in our oceans! These collective entities would act as sky factories to build an ever more symbiotic and efficient synthetic ecosystem. Humankind, living things, and technology would no longer be at odds but would grow together to form the ideal world of tomorrow.  Life, beautiful and united would expand to new planets and develop into a stronger, brighter presence in the cosmos.

Siphonophorae (Ernst Haeckel, 1904, plate 7 of "Kunstformen der Natur")

Siphonophorae (Ernst Haeckel, 1904, plate 7 of “Kunstformen der Natur”)

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