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Gibbous Europa (Credit: Galileo Project, JPL, NASA)

Gibbous Europa
(Credit: Galileo Project, JPL, NASA)

Tonight is Yuri’s Night, when space enthusiasts around the world celebrate the first human trip to outer space made by Yuri Gagarin fifty two years ago.  You can read about Yuri here.   It is an excellent occasion to assess what is most exciting in space exploration.  Unfortunately nobody has jumped forward to build a floating colony on Venus.  Indeed NASA seems rather flat footed lately—building a series of colorless rockets and sending successive similar rovers to Mars.  Fortunately there is one exciting mission which still has not definitively been cancelled because of budget stalemate.

Proposed Europa Clipper (NASA)

Proposed Europa Clipper (NASA)

The Europa Clipper mission is a $2bn dollar project to launch a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a large icy satellite covered in cracked ice.  Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon and has a thin oxygen atmosphere.  It is one of the smoothest items in the solar system.   Astronomers believe that an ocean of liquid water lies beneath Europa which is warmed by tidal flexing (a process which causes orbital and rotational energy to be converted into heat).   The surface of Europa is bathed in exotic radiation which rips apart water molecules and leaves oxidants like hydrogen peroxide.  All of this means that Europa is the most likely planet in the solar system to harbor unknown life.  It has even been theorized that beneath the ice the ocean could have black smoker type environments–and just possibly thermal vent or “cold seep” ecosystems.

Artist's concept of the cryobot and hydrobot probes (NASA)

Artist’s concept of the cryobot and hydrobot probes (NASA)

Because of this, scientists have been anxious to get a closer look at the intriguing moon.  Various proposals have been put forward for missions directly to the moon. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft took pictures of it as they flew through the solar system and subsequent missions also took readings and photos—but there has been no Europa-centric mission to really find out about the oceans below the cracked ice.  One (amazing!) proposal was to send a nuclear powered melt probe to melt through the ice and sink to the bottom of the ocean, whereupon a mini-sub probe would emerge and explore the extraterrestrial ocean!  That plan was shelved because it was too expensive (and nobody could figure out how to sterilize the probe).  The proposed Europa Clipper mission is more modest but still quite amazing. Here’s how the Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes it:

The Europa Clipper mission would send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.

The possible payload of science instruments under consideration includes radar to penetrate the frozen crust and determine the thickness of the ice shell, an infrared spectrometer to investigate the composition of Europa’s surface materials, a topographic camera for high-resolution imaging of surface features, and an ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyze the moon’s trace atmosphere during flybys…The nominal Europa Clipper mission would perform 32 flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 2700 km to 25 km.

That sounds amazing!  Join me in lifting a glass to Yuri Gagarin and also join me in hoping that our moribund government funds this far-sighted mission to what might be life’s other home in the solar system!

Yuri Gagarin--the first human to go to space

Yuri Gagarin–the first human to go to space

Biologists estimate that there are approximately 8.8 million species of eukaryotes (animals with complex cell structure) currently alive on Earth.  So far, humankind has only cataloged 1.9 million species and entire biomes remain largely unknown to us.

Unknown Order of Nudibranch Sea Slug swimming in the depths off Monterey (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

To illustrate this point, here is a photograph of a completely unknown genus of nudibranch mollusk photographed 1 mile beneath the surface of the ocean near Davidson seamount (which is an extinct underwater volcano just off the coast of Monterey).  I wish I could tell you more about the strange mollusk, but this photograph, taken from a robotic deep sea submersible in 2002 is pretty much all that humankind knows about this species.  The mission photographed a huge number of other gelatinous creatures in the middle depths of the ocean, and in fact caused scientists to rethink the importance of such animals in the oceanic ecosystem. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) worked on the mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their website explains the robotic study by paraphrasing Bruce Robinson, an ecologist who pioneered the use of robot submersibles:

One of the most important discoveries has been the realization that gelatinous animals are important as grazers and predators that comprise a large percentage of the open ocean animal biomass. Robison estimates that gelatinous animals make up about 40 percent of the biomass in the deep sea water column.

Nudibranch mollusks are largely thought of as colorful predators of the tropical reef, so it is a big deal if they (together with other floating mollusks, cnidarians, and siphonophores) constitute such a substantial percentage of the biomass of the largest portion of the ocean.  As an unscientific postscript I think the delicate translucent nudibranch is very beautiful with its alien and ghostlike (and, yes, gelatinous) features.

The same mollusk (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers.  The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets.  The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative:  farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories.  Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees.  The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).

Industrial Robots installed at Kia Motors' Slovakian plant by Hyundai Heavy Industries

Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress.  And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving.  Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers.  The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs.  Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector.  Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors.  Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.

A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class.  The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories.  Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.

"But the Roomba is my friend."

So are the Luddites finally correct?  Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing.  To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines.  At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines.  That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back.  Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!).  Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs.  Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at.  I don’t know.  Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?

Welcome to Utopia--Beep!

In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there.  The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting.  It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations.  We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!

Two weeks ago I was back at my Alma Mater, the University of Chicago.  As a special treat I got to go on a tour of the nearly finished Mansueto Library book depository, which is being built as an addition to the Regenstein library. The Mansueto depository is housed in a lovely oval dome made of glass, but the real heart of the library is five stories underground, where a huge steel rack holds thousands of uniformly sized metal boxes.  These boxes are indexed in a computer database.  When the depository is finished, these boxes will be filled with books and periodicals of the same size (to create maximum efficiency).  Once a reader requests a book, huge robot cranes mounted on metal rails (in the fashion of trains) will zip to the correct box and route it to an industrial elevator up to the surface world. The Mansueto depository will hold 3.5 million books.

A Cross Section Diagram of the Mansueto Book Repository

The Regenstein library, a huge brutalist limestone building on 57th street, already houses 4.4 million books.  A large part of the library’s charm is the easy- to-browse stacks: if you wish to look up 8th century Byzantine emperors you can find an entire shelf of books about them. Scholars and students appreciate the unexpected discoveries and ideas which spring from such an arrangement (although I spent far too much time in the Regenstein browsing increasingly off-topic books which called out to my fancy). The librarians in charge of the Mansueto project did not wish to sacrifice this aspect of the stacks, so the Mansueto will largely house periodicals and academic journals (which aren’t easy to browse without an index anyway).  Books about related subjects will continue to be grouped together in a fashion visible to library patrons.

The Mansueto Depository takes shape beside the Regenstein Library

My tour group was one of the last groups of people allowed down into the Mansueto depository. Once the staff starts moving books into it, the cranes will be active and the space will become dangerous.  Then only technicians and service professionals will be allowed down into the temperature and humidity controlled space. Before seeing the apparatus, I kind of imagined the library as being like a computer browser: one types in a title and the relevant information magically appears. But the tour revealed how naïve such thinking was.  The robot workings of the huge depository were amazing to behold and their scale was unnerving. Serious and remarkable engineering went in to the building of the complex–which reminded me less of a library and more of the modernized steel foundry which I visited many years ago.  Like that foundry, the underground compound had the unearthly feeling of a place humans aren’t really meant to be in.  The scale of everything was wrong. The shelves were inhumanly large whereas the walkways were too small to be comfortable.  The dry cold air smelled of steel and electronics.  Yellow warning signs were inscribed all around the huge motionless robot librarians and it was easy to imagine them springing to life and going on a crushing rampage.

A Robotic Crane in the Mansueto Depository

Here is a colleague beside the metal shelves to give you a sense of scale

When the Mansueto is full, the Regenstein will be the largest collection of books under the same roof in North America. It may be one of the last edifices of its kind. Digital information is supplanting traditional printed books and magazines everywhere, and I feel a bit as though I am describing the scroll repositories of the library of Alexandria (even if I’m actually describing a state-of-the-art triumph of robotics). I hope the digital revolution does not undo printing and libraries to the extent that has been forecast.  Standing in the beautiful dome and looking out at the gothic campus I felt like I was visiting a future built around books rather than a dreary future without them.

The Gothic Buildings of the University of Chicago Quads seen from the Mansueto reading room

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

December 2020