Science

Remembering the ‘Eiffel Tower in Space.’

Recent weeks have seen renewed discussion in the technical press concerning the proposals of Russian  startup StartRocket to put billboards into Earth orbit.  This is hardly a new idea; none of the previous proposals have come close to fruition, and that the commentary has once again been overwhelmingly negative is no great surprise.

There must have been numerous examples of this sort of display in Science Fiction over the years, but the one that springs most immediately to my mind is that of Demon Prince Lens Larque getting the last laugh, when the moon of the planet Methlen is posthumously rearranged by a series of planned explosions into a sculpture of his leering physiognomy, as occurs at the denouément of Jack Vance’s The Face (1979).

The first serious real world proposals to put something permanently visible into orbit were made in the summer of 1986 by the Eiffel Tower company, with the launch of their ‘Eiffel Tower in Space’ competition – an initiative to celebrate the tower’s 100th anniversary in 1989.  I remember this quite vividly, as I was a member of the team that put together the entry submitted by the company I was working for at the time.  Our entry, La Tour Eiffel de L’Espace, a rather unimaginative copy of the original, but in orbit, was shortlisted, but didn’t win.  The best of the bunch (a proposal from Southampton University in the UK, which didn’t win either) was clearly the ‘space chronometer,’ a kind of orbiting set of hands, which, through ingenious design would enable anyone who could see it to tell the time at their location.

By this point however, the competition was in serious trouble from objectors.  Astronomers led the way, pointing out that the light pollution from such structures could restrict viewing of the night sky.  Earthbound objectors focussed on the unwanted intrusion, pointing out that like as not the first practical implementation, if such things were allowed to go ahead, would be an orbiting Coke bottle.

And this is where the debate remains today – nothing has really changed.  I note that StartRocket’s idea puts forward the use of a constellation of microsatellites, each one of which would function as a pixel in a display, thus enabling different messages or designs to be displayed over a period of time (or indeed for the whole array to be switched off).  As much as I would be amused to see a laughing Putin image in geostationary orbit over Washington DC, I don’t think StartRocket’s innovations do enough to change the arguments against orbital billboards.

The most positive present day application of this kind of technology is to have orbital mirrors that can be repositioned to divert sunlight to disaster areas (eg; when earthquakes or tsunamis have occurred) at night-time to make the jobs of rescue workers easier.  In the future, if the Earth suddenly became more vulnerable to strikes from wandering asteroids or meteors for some reason, they perhaps an orbital warning system for incoming objects might also be a good use for the technology.

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A Eureka Moment

Today it occurred to me for the first time that I might actually live to see the collapse of civilisation and the ‘End of the World’ as we know it: a eureka moment indeed.

To explain how I’ve reached this conclusion, I can best begin by going back thirty years or so to when I was in Space Policy and Law class at MIT.  Among the policy exercises we used to do, there was one to find justifications for mankind to leave Earth and go out to colonise space and other planets.  Scientific curiosity, the innate human urge to explore, and so as to obtain new raw materials and resources to help maintain economic growth were all taken to be valid reasons, but there was once which was completely taboo, and that was the need to escape from a failing ecosystem.  Anyone in class who dared advance it was immediately subjected to an extreme moral backlash.  The rationale for this was very simple – should mankind not be able to avoid fouling its own nest, then it immediately abdicated the right to leave it and go out and similarly destroy other worlds.

Thirty years on, it seems incredible that this should have been the case.  Today, the Elon Musks amongst us cite escape as one of the most pressing reasons to get on with colonising the Moon or Mars and nobody demurs.  That’s because sadly, they are right.

Back in the day, I cannot emphasise how strongly the taboo against this was espoused, by all the Americans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Europeans in the class alike.  In order to understand this, we can of course point to such landmarks as the publication, not long before, of Frank White’s influential book The Overview Effect, but mostly it is because the political climate was very different then.  Thirty years or so ago we were tantalisingly close to getting global agreement on real action to address climate change (as the New York Times recently reminded us).  The prize slipped through our fingers like sand and now the world is going to Hell in a handbasket – there’s going to be no going back.

In 2002, George W. Bush coined the term ‘Axis of Evil’ to pigeonhole certain rogue states whose perceived militarisation, aggression and penchant for global terrorism was a danger to the civilised world.  In 2018, we might equally well identify an ‘Axis of Environmental Evil’ headed, it would seem by the United States and Brazil, for their current environmental policies are going to kill millions of people in peaceable nation-states around the world, just as surely as it was predicted Iraq and the Taliban would do.  And just as was put forward by Bush in 2002, it is equally clear in 2018 that only the collective military intervention, this time of the environmentally responsible nations, is likely to put a stop to it.  But this will never happen, for the military industrial complex of the US is too powerful and the resulting war would just trash the world another way.

One might equally despair of the vast energies of millions of activists frittered-away in recent decades on other issues, like equality and the rights of minorities.  Strangers may castigate me mightily for so daring to say; those who know me, know I would fight until my last breath for true equality between people of every gender, race and sex, but if mankind does ever achieve that, it would really be quite nice to have a world left to enjoy it all in.  I wonder where we might be today if all that colossal amount of effort had instead been directed towards saving the planet first.  Hindsight is a terrible thing.

There now seems to be no good reason not to take even the most catastrophic of the climate change models currently in play as anything other than ludicrously optimistic.  Why?  Well for a start, they don’t take into account things like the United States rolling back all its environmental laws of the past few decades, nor of Brazil razing the rest of the Amazonian rain forest within a few years, both of which are happening already or going to happen.  But the big thing, I think, is the effect of the huge methane releases that are going to come from melting permafrost.  This is a relatively recent geophysical phenomenon which it has not yet been possible to accurately add to the models, and it’s huge.  After that, all that is left is for the dreadful engines of positive feedback to administer the coup de grace.

Can anything save the world?  Frankly I doubt it, but possibly, just possibly there could be some sea change, twenty or so years from now when Miami and Shanghai and dozens of other cities are already under water.  One could not then completely rule out the technological ingenuity of the entire global military industrial complex being re-directed towards the construction of huge machines to purge the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, sequester and store carbon, re-freeze the permafrost and increase the Earth’s albedo, whilst the ordinary men and women of the planet labour to reverse desertification one plant at a time.  What the timeframe for that is, and whether it’s possible to pull it off while keeping everyone fed and with a roof over their heads, who knows?  One thing’s for sure, the elite of Elonville,  living in the shadow of Olympus Mons, will be laughing.

 

Let’s Hear it for the ‘Sloth Weevil’


In 2009, the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) issued its first ‘Red List’ report, on water beetles, in collaboration with scientists from NI and Scotland. As an enthusiastic amateur entomologist, I often devour such documents for fun.  Gradually, however, it has dawned on me that there was something a little unique about this one: specifically, the rather unusual common names ascribed to a number of the water beetle species covered within its pages.

Here, amidst the sparse distribution maps and dry inventories of hundred year old sightings, one can meet such fine fellows as Little Nobby, The Upland Frenchman, The Dinghy Skipper, The Chummier Australian, The Orangeman (‘typically associated with large tracts of brackish water’), The Artist (Gyrinus urinator), sundry sloth weevils and many more.

I particularly enjoyed The Turlough Long-Claw.  It put me in mind of a Robert E. Howard and George R.R. Martin mashup – A monstrous avenger, yomping through marsh and mire, to right the wrongs of reclusive crannogmen.

I have no idea what one is looking at here.  Surely no serious scientific publication, before or since, has whipped up common names out of nowhere for so many obscure species all in one go like this.  Are they translations of names from elsewhere in Europe? (I’m reminded, for example, that the common longhorn beetle Rhagium mordax, sometimes, thanks to the wonders of online translation, goes by the moniker of Black Spotted Pliers Support Beetle).

Perhaps we’re seeing a laudable attempt by the NPWS to kindle some public interest in a group of endangered insects.  Maybe it’s an attempt to leaven a dry tome with some welcome humour or, shock horror, could it be a wee prank that may have so far gone unnoticed?

My favourites are the sloth weevils (Bagous sp.), be they short, broad-beaked or miry.  The name creates an image in my mind’s eye of one of these lugubrious insects, hanging upside-down from a bending plant stem, looking goofy.  That the name fits its owners well, is reflected by how far it has propagated since 2009.  A quick google, shows ‘sloth weevil’ to have reached numerous Irish and NI sites (including an appearance in the October 5th 2012 Hansard for the NI Assembly),  Buglife and the RSPB in the UK, The EU-wide PESI species directory portal, Fauna Europaea in Berlin, and the swedish-hosted Naturalist portal covering Sweden, Finland and Estonia.

Many of their fellows have not fared so well.  The Chummier Australian and The Upland Frenchman net respectively four and five records and nothing beyond our island.  I do wonder who coined all those names in Red List No 1 and what the process was behind it.  Maybe someone from the NPWS will read this and comment 🙂