#Fusion2033

Nuclear fusion, the always-just-over-the-horizon technology that will solve humanity’s energy needs forever, may be a step closer. Over at Nature:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge will work with a private firm to develop technology for producing energy from nuclear fusion within the next 15 years. If successful, the multimillion-dollar effort could help to unlock a virtually limitless source of pollution-free energy…

“It’s about scale, and it’s about speed,” says Robert Mumgaard, chief executive officer at CFS. The company — a spin-off from MIT — has attracted $50 million from Italian energy giant ENI, and plans to invest $30 million of that sum in research and development at MIT over the next three years.

Massive public funding for theoretical research such as this would be a hard sell for any government, so attracting private-sector investment has long been thought key in making fusion a reality. The free market showing faith that investing in the science will have a positive return will likely attract further investment in the field.

So how does it work? (Broadly.)

Fusing hydrogen atoms to form helium releases massive amounts of energy, which can be harnessed to produce carbon-free electricity. But sustaining the extreme temperatures that are required for this process in a confined space remains a daunting challenge that has defied most hopes and expectations to date…

The first challenge will be to transform a commercially available superconductor into a large, high-performance electromagnet, which could take around three years. Within the next decade, the team hopes to develop a prototype reactor that can generate more energy than it consumes. Then, they hope to develop a 200-megawatt pilot power plant that can export electricity to the grid.

Not actual size.

Exciting stuff.

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Ooh, It’s Been a While. Also: STAR WARS

Hey gang. Apologies for the recent silence, but it’s been a hectic week or so: I’m getting ready for a month-long trip back to the UK for work shenanigans and family fun, so lots to do.

But hey: IT’S STAR WARS WEEKEND. Tickets have been booked for months, so Mrs. Dan and I will be seeing The Last Jedi in glorious IMAX on Saturday at noon. Then a mere six hours later I’ll be jetting eastward to the motherland.

Based on what I know of my readership, I’m pretty confident that if you’re reading this you’ll also be seeing the movie this weekend. Altogether now:

Catch you soon!

Some Elk are Shy, and Evolution Is Quicker Than You Think

Some fascinating articles on the animal kingdom in the New York Times recently.

First, a delightful story about elks and magpies helping each other out, at ‘Shy Elk and Bold Birds Become Partners in the Wilderness‘. But only the nice, shy elk, not the bold curmudgeonly ones!

They get along, so to speak, because the elk needs grooming and the magpie is looking for dinner. But they may have never entered into this partnership if it weren’t for their particular personalities…

Robert Found, now a wildlife biologist for Parks Canada, discovered over years of observing their personalities that bold elk stayed, while shy elk migrated. But he noticed something else in the process of completing his research: As elk laid down to rest at the end of the day, magpies approached.

There appeared to be a pattern: elk of some personality types aggressively rejected magpies. Others didn’t. “Sometimes the magpies will walk around right on the head and the face of the elk,” Dr. Found said.

Also, ‘Things Looked Bleak Until These Birds Rapidly Evolved Bigger Beaks’

The population of North American snail kites — birds that use curved beaks and long claws to dine on small apple snails in the Florida Everglades — had been dwindling for years, from 3,500 in 2000 to just 700 in 2007. Things began to look particularly bleak in 2004, when a portion of the Everglades was invaded by a species of larger snail that the birds had historically struggled to eat. Ornithologists assumed the shift would hasten the snail kite’s decline.

But the number of snail kites in the Everglades grew over the decade following the invasion of the larger snails. The reason, according to a study published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is that the snail kites have rapidly evolved larger beaks and bodies to handle the bulkier snails.

Wait. One decade?

[Scientists] analyzed 11 years of morphological data they had collected on the birds. Because snail kites can live to the relatively old age of 8, that time period represented fewer than two generations for the birds. Nonetheless, the researchers found that beak and body sizes had grown substantially (about 8 percent on average, and up to 12 percent) in the years since the invasion.

Good news! Perhaps in thirty years humans can rapidly evolve to have webbed feet, to better survive the Waterworld-style post-climate change archipelago of the future. Maybe gills too!

“It’s not as great as it sounds.”

STARSLAM ’17

Science!

FiveThirtyEight has a wonderful story about how August 17th was pretty much the biggest day in astronomy history.

On that day, astronomers bore witness to the titanic collision of two neutron stars, the densest things in the universe besides black holes. In the collision’s wake, astronomers answered multiple major questions that have dominated their field for a generation. They solved the origin of gamma-ray bursts, mysterious jets of hardcore radiation that could potentially roast Earth. They glimpsed the forging of heavy metals, like gold and platinum. They measured the rate at which the expansion of the universe is accelerating. They caught light at the same time as gravitational waves, confirmation that waves move at the speed of light.

That’s a big day!

Richard O’Shaughnessy, an astronomer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, describes the discovery as a “Rosetta stone for astronomy.” “What this has done is provide one event that unites all these different threads of astronomy at once,” he said. “Like, all our dreams have come true, and they came true now…”

“It’s a wonderful time, it’s a terrifying time,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I can’t really capture the wonder and the horror and glee and happiness.”

Coincidentally The Wonder and The Horror and Glee and Happiness would be what I’d call a barbershop quartet, if I were in one. Or they were still a thing.

Sunday Roundup

Happy Sunday, folks!

Down in San Antonio, the winners of the 2017 World Fantasy Awards have been… well, awarded. Lovely to see Terry Brooks get a lifetime achievement nod. Shame I almost certainly won’t get around to reading many of these books for years, if ever.

In at #1 in the chart of movies I’m looking forward to that aren’t actually real: Black Panther vs. Wolverine!

That is probably the most lovingly created fan mashup trailer I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok yet (probably will on Tuesday) but if it’s even half as funny as James Corden’s Thor: Ragnarok 4D, it’s going to be hilarious.

“She’s crushed your special hammer!”

“Nooo!”

(Mild spoilers, but nothing you can’t guess if you’ve seen the trailers.)

Meanwhile, Amazon are in talks to produce a live action Lord of the Rings TV show. Personally, I’d much rather they spent their billions producing an adaptation of a never-before-filmed series: how about a Bas-Lag series based on China Mieville’s novels, or a Malazan series based on Steven Erikson and Cam Esslemont’s world? Push the envelope, Bezos!

Finally, over at the Wertzone, or rather at one of his other blogs Atlas of Ice and Fire, Adam has completed another series of wildly ambitious maps of G. R. R. Martin’s SoIaF world. That’s dedication.

Have a good week!

Monday Morning Multiverse

Morning, gang. Let’s get those science synapses firing with some layman’s terms explanation of why ‘The Multiverse is Inevitable and We’re Living in It‘:

Imagine that the Universe we observe, from end-to-end, is just a drop in the cosmic ocean. That beyond what we can see, there’s more space, more stars, more galaxies, and more everything, for perhaps countless billions of light years farther than we’ll ever be able to access. And that as large as the unobservable Universe is, that there are again innumerably more Universes just like it — some larger and older, some smaller and younger — dotted throughout an even larger spacetime. As rapidly and inevitably as these Universes expand, the spacetime containing them expands even more quickly, driving them apart from one another, and ensuring that no two Universes will ever meet. It sounds like a fantasy picture: the scientific idea of a Multiverse. But if the science we accept today is correct, it’s not only a valid idea, it’s an unavoidable consequence of our fundamental laws.

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Basically:

…the Multiverse is a theoretical prediction that comes out of the laws of physics as they’re best understood today. It’s perhaps even an inevitable consequence of those laws: if you have an inflationary Universe governed by quantum physics, this is something you’re pretty much destined to wind up with.

Thus proving what I always knew: DC Comics were right all along!

The Universe Might Be Very WHIM-sical

What a terrible pun. Anyway, a quick one from the Guardian, ‘Astronomers find half of the missing matter in the universe’:

The distribution of galaxies in the universe follows a web-like pattern and scientists have speculated that the missing baryons could be floating in diffuse gaseous filaments and sheets linking the galaxy clusters in the cosmic web.

Theoretical calculations suggest these gaseous threads, known as the warm–hot intergalactic medium, or the Whim, ought to be around a million degrees celsius. A mist of gas at this temperature is too cold to emit X-rays that could be spotted by ordinary telescopes from the Earth – but not cold enough to absorb significant amounts of light passing through it.

This Whim stuff sounds a bit like aether to me. Very nineteenth-century.

Back in the Guardian:

The initial measurements still do not account for all the ordinary matter, and some believe the remaining portion could be made up by exotic unobserved objects such as black holes or dark stars. Cosmologists are also still yet to discover the nature of dark matter, which makes up even more of the universe.

I, for one, have faith that our cosmologists will solve this mystery, as soon as they complete their 1960s Soviet-era spacewalks and come on home.

Wait, that’s cosmonauts.

Space, it turns out, is much like getting a beach-ready body while having it all at work and learning sizzling sex moves: dominated by Cosmo.

Sunday Roundup

Hey, did you know there’s a Justice League movie coming out soon? No? You didn’t?

I DON’T BELIEVE YOU.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. BvS: DoJ was pretty relentlessly grim and… whatever the opposite of uplifting is. Downdropping? But I’m hopeful that DC will have taken on board what made Wonder Woman so popular and leaned into the more positive themes that made the League so popular in the comics. Bringing Jos Whedon on board to captain the ship after Zack Snyder’s sad departure was a good choice, too.

Meanwhile, check out the Pacific Rim: Uprising trailer for HOT ROBOT VS. ROBOT NINJA SWORDFIGHTING ACTION:

Over at io9 they have news on Amazon’s upcoming series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams:

“I don’t like to call it episodes, I like to call it a series of 10 movies,” showrunner Michael Dinner said.

Dinner explained each episode has different writers and directors, and they were given creative freedom to take the short stories and interpret them in whatever way they saw fit. This is in addition to the rotating cast, which includes stars like Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Janelle Monae, and Liam Cunningham, the only actor who appeared at the panel. Executive producer (and Philip K. Dick’s daughter) Isa Dick Hackett said she felt this was the best way to approach Dick’s short stories, which she called “the gems of his ideas,” in a way that both honored his work but also made the messages relatable to a modern audience.

Aslo at io9, we discover Scott Snyder is working on a new Batman book:

Here’s how Snyder describes Last Knight:

Batman suddenly wakes up and he’s… young. But he wakes up in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, crawling out of the sand in this Gotham City that’s been ruined. He’s got the Joker’s head chained to his belt, but it’s alive and like, ‘You gotta move, kid!’ It’s got old Wonder Woman, Baby Superman—it’s like my Lone Wolf and Cub Batman story.

Cheerful!

The Atlantic has a very interesting–and somewhat worrying–piece on satellites, on Sputnik’s sixtieth anniversary.

Sputnik’s spectators could not have anticipated that this event—the launch of the first human-made satellite into space—would ignite a race to the stars between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor could they have known that they were, all of them, standing at the precipice of a new era in human history of near-complete reliance on satellite technology. For them, Sputnik was a sudden flash of innovation, something at which to marvel briefly. For their children and grandchildren and generations after, satellites would become the quiet infrastructure that powered the technology that runs their world.

And what if they all fell out of the sky tomorrow?

Without operational communications satellites, most television would disappear. People in one country would be cut off from the news reports in another. The satellite phones used by people in remote areas, like at a research station in Antarctica or on a cargo ship in the Atlantic, would be useless. Space agencies would be unable to talk to the International Space Station, leaving six people effectively stranded in space. Militaries around the world would lose contact with troops in conflict zones. Air-traffic controllers couldn’t talk to pilots flying aircraft over oceans….

“Would it severely disrupt the way we live right now? Yes,” Collins said. “Would people be starving in the streets or would there be civil disobedience? That’s hard to say. Potentially.”

Fingers crossed for no, then.

Finally, in vaguely fantastical but mostly just hilarious TV news: you should be watching The Good Place.

When Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in the afterlife, she’s both relieved and surprised that she’s made it into the Good Place. But it doesn’t take long for Eleanor to realize she’s there by mistake.

Oh my word is it funny. Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, sharp writing, great acting all around. Season one is on Netflix now. Check it out!

Our Whole Universe Was In a Hot, Dense State

A quick science read to get the brain moving in tandem with your morning coffee: over at Medium, The Big Bang Wasn’t The Beginning, After All.

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“Wait, what?”

Space, time, and all the matter and energy within began from a singular point, and then expanded and cooled, giving rise over billions of years to the atoms, stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies spread out across the billions of light years that make up our observable Universe. It’s a compelling, beautiful picture that explains so much of what we see, from the present large-scale structure of the Universe’s two trillion galaxies to the leftover glow of radiation permeating all of existence. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong, and scientists have known this for almost 40 years.

“Great, so this is another topic where my physics teachers were just lying to me throughout school. Thanks, childhood.”

Anyway, tell us more!

[However, some] specific things you would expect from the Big Bang didn’t happen. In particular:

  1. The Universe doesn’t have different temperatures in different directions, even though an area billions of light-years away in one direction never had time (since the Big Bang) to interact with or exchange information with an area billions of light-years in the opposite direction.
  2. The Universe doesn’t have a measurable spatial curvature that’s different from zero, even though a Universe that’s perfectly spatially flat requires a perfect balance between the initial expansion and the matter-and-radiation density.
  3. The Universe doesn’t have any leftover ultra-high-energy relics from the earliest times, even though the temperatures that would create these relics should have existed if the Universe were arbitrarily hot.

Theorists thinking about these problems started thinking of alternatives to a “singularity” to the Big Bang, and rather of what could recreate that hot, dense, expanding, cooling state while avoiding these problems. In December of 1979, Alan Guth hit upon a solution.

1979? Six years before I was born, we knew about this. I’m outraged. I won’t spoil the reveal, but go read the full article–it’s fascinating, slightly head-scratching stuff.

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Image credit: NASA / CXC / M.Weiss.

I’ll never watch The Big Bang Theory in the same light again.

Sunday Roundup

A series of varying regularity, wherein I point at things I’ve read on the internet. Some sci, some fi, some fantasy, some very random.

Elon Musk continues to be entirely serious about colonizing Mars. And now he’s pretty sure he can make money doing it, and business being what it is, that makes the whole endeavor a lot more likely to succeed. From NYT:

Speaking on Friday at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Mr. Musk said he had figured out a workable business plan, although his presentation lacked financial figures to back up his assertions.

Mr. Musk has long talked about his dreams of colonizing Mars, and at the same conference last year, he finally provided engineering details: a humongous reusable rocket called the Interplanetary Transport System.

But he did not convincingly explain then how SpaceX, still a company of modest size and revenues, could finance such an ambitious project.

“Now we think we have a better way to do it,” he said Friday.

The new rocket and spaceship would replace everything that SpaceX is currently launching or plans to launch in the near future. “That’s really fundamental,” Mr. Musk said.

 

While we’re on the topic, if you haven’t already read Tim Urban’s incredibly in-depth post on Space X and Musk’s plan for a Martian colony, you really should set aside a while and dive in. It’s truly fascinating stuff. In fact, do yourself a favor and read his entire series on Musk and his businesses: you may not be as big a fan as Urban is (and, full disclosure, I am) but it’s worth your time to understand the man and what he’s aiming to do. He’s one of a few individuals, along with Bezos and Zuckerberg, who have the ambition, finances and staggering arrogance to fully believe they can change the world for the better–and who knows, might even be right.

Elsewhere, Luc Besson has written a script for a sequel to Lucy:

I’m a bit surprised simply because the original, which starred Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous Lucy, who gains super thinking powers after a weird run in with some superdrugs, didn’t leave much room in its ending for a sequel.

I thoroughly enjoyed the slightly trashy original, so I’d certainly give a sequel a look. Interested to see what direction he’s gone with it. ScarJo as God? With Luc Besson, you really never know.

Justice League meets Power Rangers! Friendship ensues! Aww.

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The British Fantasy Awards happened, which means there are even more books I should read that I won’t get to for ages.

And finally, Amazon continue to be a TV production company with some potentially mouth-watering SF adaptations:

It will adapt Neal Stephenson classic, neo-quasi-cyberpunk novel which introduces us to pizza deliveryman/hacker Hiro Protagonist, his business partner YT, and their adventures in a future divided between life in a grim corprocracy and in the Metaverse, a virtual reality that is being threatened by a terrifying virus.

I’d particularly like to see Snow Crash on TV, just to see a group of actors attempt to say ‘Hiro Protagonist’ with a straight face.

Have a good week, folks.

P.S. 2,100 words of the WIP written today!