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the-martianWARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

RATING: 8/10. (Please note my ratings system is harsh and virtually no films get a 10).

In 2011, American sci-fi giant Neal Stephenson bewailed the pessimism prevalent in the genre and called for writers to start thinking more positively about the possibilities of technology in order to inspire new generations to “get big stuff done.”

Of course, he himself hardly set a great example in the next four years with his latest tome.

But the Martian most definitely did. In this hard sci-fi scenario, an astronaut stranded on Mars has to figure out how to survive until a rescue mission could be organized. To do this, he has to, in his own words, “science the shit” of the scarce oxygen and food resources at his disposal, while a NASA that is much better funded than in real life has to solve its own set of problems, which at first glance appear intractable.

Making the story of one solitary man’s struggle to survive is not a enviable task, but the creators pull it off with ample wit and verve. The protagonist Mark Watney is constantly cracking Nerd Lite jokes with himself and mission control in his struggle with the remorseless but indifferent main villain, the Red Planet itself.

nasa-survival-on-the-moon Scientific and technical problems are explained in a way that is neither patronizing nor unintelligible to the average viewer. These problems, though varied, all tend to be in the general spirit of the classic “Survival on the Moon” exercise compiled by NASA, in which different options have to be weighed against each other in a way that in a way that could tip the otherwise dismal odds of survival in your favor.

There are frequent references and homages to NASA themes. The “Rich Purnell manoeuvre” that ultimately enabled Watney’s survival is a direct nod to NASA mathematician Michael Minovitch’s idea of a gravity assist to propel Voyager past all four of the gas giants and into deep space (though the theoretical basis for it had been as early as the 1930s in the Soviet Union).

The film appears to be faithful to NASA culture, down to the contrast between the formal and besuited setting of NASA HQ and the more casual setting of its Jet Propulsion Laboratories. As in real world space exploration, duct tape is the solution to a lot of problems. The “no duct tape on Mars” trope is most decidedly averted.

Most of the challenges faced appear to be technically accurate. This is not surprising, since the book by Andy Weir that the film is based on was rigorously researched and initially published chapter by chapter on his website, where space nerds with encyclopedic knowledge on everything space related continuously corrected him.

There are certainly errors now and then. (I have not read the book and probably will not anytime soon, so these apply exclusively to the film). Gravity on Mars appears a bit too Earth like, with astronauts having to really physically apply themselves to scramble up ladders. Although Mars has the occasional storm, the much thinner atmosphere means that even the most furious tempests will be perceived as a light breeze; certainly nowhere near strong enough to uproot a pole and spear it into Watney. For a novel ostensibly set in 2035, comms systems act as if they are half a century out of date, just to serve a couple of plot points (if otherwise very elegant and clever ones). An astronaut propels himself around the outside of a spacecraft without a tether, while making an appearance in the one case in which a teether would have actually been redundant.

mars-radiation Another criticism of the film is that the astronauts should be all dying of cancer by the end of the film because of all the cosmic radiation (there are no obvious attempts to shield them from it). I am rather skeptical of this. The radiation dose Mars explorers receive will only be 3x as great as that received by astronauts who spend half a year on the International Space Station. But those guys aren’t keeling over dead. Theoretical research shows that the lifetime risk of cancer will only increase by three percentage points over baseline for astronauts who go to Mars, and in real life perhaps outcomes will if anything be even less dire because of the hormetic effects of radiation exposure.

Has anyone actually performed any concrete demographic studies of the death rate from cancer for astronauts (as opposed to theoretical projections)? Let me know in the comments.

But all these are ultimately minor triffles. At its root, it is a highly optimistic, positive, and inspirational story about the victory of technology and human ingenuity over the challenges posed by the last frontier. There should be more of these kinds of cultural products for civilization to continue to flourish.

The Martian is an excellent film, by far the best sci-fi flick this year along with Ex Machina, and incomparably better than the banal Hollywood fare that was Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and by all indications, the final Hunger Games movie.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Film, Review, Sci-Fi, Space Exploration 
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dyson-sphere-by-kerihobo

Image by Kerihobo.

While everybody is discussing the tantalizing possibility that this far off star with its strange dimming patterns hosts an alien megastructure, perhaps a Dyson Sphere under construction, there are even more exotic scenarios out there.

For instance, why not the ruins of one? One of the obvious (if pessimistic) solutions to the Fermi Paradox is that space is a war of all against all, with every surviving alien civilization soon realizing that they can’t afford to show their head above the cosmic parapets. Due to the vast distances involved across space and time, stealth is surely the decisive factor in space warfare, so the offensive reigns supreme over the defensive. Chuck a big, cool clump of dense matter at a very high velocity into a location where it is likely to intersect with the path of a rival space civilization and the guys at the receiving end would hardly have any time to know what hit them let alone where it came from.

It is thus possible that xenocidal aggressiveness is an evolved behavior across all surviving alien civilizations. Just as any good or trusting creature dreamt up by mortals and given flesh in the northern Chaos Wastes of the world of Warhammer gets instantly killed by stronger and more evil entities, so too, perhaps, the less paranoid and aggressive space civilizations get snuffed out as soon as they make their existence known to the cruel gods of the heavens.

Or maybe, Nick Bostrom is correct and we are living in a simulation – with the catch that computing resources are limited and cannot support more than a certain number of superintelligent civilizations and their subsimulations, to say nothing of some kind of Kurzweilian “the universe wakes up” intelligence saturation scenario. Maybe that explains the “supervoid.” A singularitarian civilization attempted to “wake up” the universe in an expanding radius from its home planet, and got their section of space Ctrl-Alt-Deleted by The Architect for their trouble. Since then, other advanced civilizations logically deducated what must have happened, and universally agreed – without any consultation, naturally – to adopt the Lannisterian code that everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.

Or maybe the very observation of KIC 8462852 at this moment in history is an elaborate trap. For instance, here is a particularly paranoid but not implausible scenario from a comment to a Less Wrong article by the Russian futurist Alexey Turchin on the risks of passive SETI:

A comment by JF: For example the lack of SETI-attack so far may itself be a cunning ploy: At first receipt of the developing Solar civilization’s radio signals, all interstellar ‘spam’ would have ceased, (and interference stations of some unknown (but amazing) capability and type set up around the Solar System to block all coming signals recognizable to its’ computers as of intelligent origin,) in order to get us ‘lonely’ and give us time to discover and appreciate the Fermi Paradox and even get those so philosophically inclined to despair desperate that this means the Universe is apparently hostile by some standards. Then, when desperate, we suddenly discover, slowly at first, partially at first, and then with more and more wonderful signals, the fact that space is filled with bright enticing signals (like spam). The blockade, cunning as it was (analogous to Earthly jamming stations) was yet a prelude to a slow ‘turning up’ of preplanned intriguing signal traffic. If as Earth had developed we had intercepted cunning spam followed by the agonized ‘don’t repeat our mistakes’ final messages of tricked and dying civilizations, only a fool would heed the enticing voices of SETI spam. But now, a SETI attack may benefit from the slow unmasking of a cunning masquerade as first a faint and distant light of infinite wonder, only at the end revealed as the headlight of an onrushing cosmic train…

Or maybe it really is something very banal, like a cloud of disintegrating comets…

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Existential Risks, Space Exploration 
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Keep those questions coming! My Ask.fm account: http://ask.fm/akarlin88

I don’t always answer immediately, but will come around to it eventually. And repost them here.

Incidentally, it’s also a great way to fulfill a blogging quota. ;)

***

what do you think is the single biggest difference between Russians and Anglo-Saxons?
Books can be written about this, and have been, so I’ll be brief and answer in one word: Honesty.

Specifically, I refer to honesty in relations between strangers. This expresses itself in such behavior as the maintenance of clean public spaces. The impulse to punish bad behavior, even if doing could potentially rebound against yourself. Thanks to this, Anglo-Saxon societies work much better at the micro level, enabling distributed self-government that is both organic and effective. This is impossible in most of Russia. Trying to recreate Anglic systems leads only to nepotism and chaos. You need a “power vertical” to get anything done, and hope that the Tsar is a clever, competent guy who has the nation’s interests at heart and isn’t too psychotic.

***

What kind of space colonies do you support?
Pure computronium.

Seriously, humans are adapted to Earth, down to the nutrients and minerals we take in, and the microbiota we rely upon. All else equal, life in space will be extremely uncomfortable, frugal, expensive, and precaurious. I doubt it is sustainable in principle in terms of EROEI in the absence of massive energy subsidies from Earth.

While I enjoy space exploration in sci-fi as much as the nerd in the neighboring cubicle, I do not think unaugmented homo sapiens is capable of being a space ape longterm.

***

AK, what do you think the endgame for Novorossiya will be? It’s the greatest prize there is. As a putinologist I’m concerned by the lack of aggression, because Putin loves leaving things half-done. Was Girkin-Prosvirnin shobla right all along? Poz and Echatology
I never put much stock in the Putinsliv theories and I still don’t to be quite honest.

It is clear that Putin has chosen the frozen conflict route.

There are good arguments to be made for this approach. Supporting the LDNR might be expensive, both economically and diplomatically, but it’s still a lot less expensive than outright intevention (which appears to have seriously been on the cards up until April 2014). We have to assume that Putin and his team carried out an informed Weighted Average Decision Matrix (or something like that) analysis of the situation and the policies we’re seeing now came out ahead, though perhaps by a thin margin.

The military power of the NAF continues increasing. It now has 40,000 well-equipped troops and (reportedly) 450 MBTs. A year ago, it had no more than 20,000 troops, with just a few dozen MBTs. More importantly, it is a *real* army now, with centralized C&C, whereas a year ago it consisted primarily of independent militias. These can be adequate in defense, but you cannot carry out coherent, large-scale offensive operations with that kind of structure. Prosvirnin and Co. say the purging of the most recalcitrant militia leaders is “proof” that a zrada is nigh. But it could just as plausibly be interpreted as rational, consecutive steps to increase the NAF’s military power. I do not think these changes could have been possible without Russia’s support. Ultimately, why would Russia bother with upgrading the NAF if it planned to give it all back to the junta anyway?

In the meantime, with any luck, the Ukrainian economy will continue to degrade, and Poroshenko finds himself trapped between a rock (the Minsk Accords) and a hard place (the Maidan absolutists and the hardliners of the Far Right), and we will see a collapse into complete chaos, which may finally convince the Western powers to give up on Ukraine and create many other opportunities. But it’s also quite possible that the system will manage to pull through. That is the risk Putin took when he decided against military intervention last April.

***

What is your opinion of the “Euro-Siberian” empire that some people on the alt-right (eg Guillame Faye) like to put forth?
Bismarck said that Europe is nothing but a geographical expression. Eurosiberia isn’t even that.

Broadly speaking, I support a Europe of independent nation-states. I do not see a problem with extending the common economic space across the Eurasian steppes, in a gradual, unforced way, and at a pace with which its constituent peoples are comfortable with. But I see no point in any grander constructs.

***

The devaluation of many currencies this year has changed global economy a lot. For example, average income in Russia is now about 500 USD per month, almost same as China. And countries like Brazil will be more like third world. What’s your understanding of the effect caused by huge devaluation
In Russia’s case, wage growth has overstripped productivity growth for the past decade, so in this sense devaluation can be considered as an overdue correction. It’s a two-sided coin. Its bad for consumers, especially the richer ones who buy many foreign luxury/brand-name products. On the other hand, its a quick and reliable way of regaining competitiveness, helping lead a recovery in manufacturing as happened in the last huge devaluation after 1998. For instance, Volkswagen is going ahead with plans to build a huge new engine factory in Kaluga.

***

When will you post the next Russian demography article? Paul Golowatschew
Will put this on my to do list. Thanks for the reminder.
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.