The Coming Amnesia

[Image: Galaxy M101; full image credits].

In a talk delivered in Amsterdam a few years ago, science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds outlined an unnerving future scenario for the universe, something he had also recently used as the premise of a short story (collected here).

As the universe expands over hundreds of billions of years, Reynolds explained, there will be a point, in the very far future, at which all galaxies will be so far apart that they will no longer be visible from one another.

Upon reaching that moment, it will no longer be possible to understand the universe’s history—or perhaps even that it had one—as all evidence of a broader cosmos outside of one’s own galaxy will have forever disappeared. Cosmology itself will be impossible.

In such a radically expanded future universe, Reynolds continued, some of the most basic insights offered by today’s astronomy will be unavailable. After all, he points out, “you can’t measure the redshift of galaxies if you can’t see galaxies. And if you can’t see galaxies, how do you even know that the universe is expanding? How would you ever determine that the universe had had an origin?”

There would be no reason to theorize that other galaxies had ever existed in the first place. The universe, in effect, will have disappeared over its own horizon, into a state of irreversible amnesia.

[Image: The Tarantula Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

It was an interesting talk that I had the pleasure to catch in person, and, for those interested, it includes Reynolds’s explanation of how he shaped this idea into a short story.

More to the point, however, Reynolds was originally inspired by an article published in Scientific American back in 2008 called “The End of Cosmology?” by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

That article’s sub-head suggests what’s at stake: “An accelerating universe,” we read, “wipes out traces of its own origins.”

[Image: A “Wolf–Rayet star… in the constellation of Carina (The Keel),” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

As Krauss and Scherrer point out in their provocative essay, “We may be living in the only epoch in the history of the universe when scientists can achieve an accurate understanding of the true nature of the universe.”

“What will the scientists of the future see as they peer into the skies 100 billion years from now?” they ask. “Without telescopes, they will see pretty much what we see today: the stars of our galaxy… The big difference will occur when these future scientists build telescopes capable of detecting galaxies outside our own. They won’t see any! The nearby galaxies will have merged with the Milky Way to form one large galaxy, and essentially all the other galaxies will be long gone, having escaped beyond the event horizon.”

This won’t only mean fewer luminous objects to see in space; it will mean that, “as a result, Hubble’s crucial discovery of the expanding universe will become irreproducible.”

[Image: The “interacting galaxies” of Arp 273, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

The authors go on to explain that even the chemical composition of this future universe will no longer allow for its history to be deduced, including the Big Bang.

“Astronomers and physicists who develop an understanding of nuclear physics,” they write, “will correctly conclude that stars burn nuclear fuel. If they then conclude (incorrectly) that all the helium they observe was produced in earlier generations of stars, they will be able to place an upper limit on the age of the universe. These scientists will thus correctly infer that their galactic universe is not eternal but has a finite age. Yet the origin of the matter they observe will remain shrouded in mystery.”

In other words, essentially no observational tool available to future astronomers will lead to an accurate understanding of the universe’s origins. The authors call this an “apocalypse of knowledge.”

[Image: “The Christianized constellation St. Sylvester (a.k.a. Bootes), from the 1627 edition of Schiller’s Coelum Stellatum Christianum.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are many interesting things here, including the somewhat existentially horrifying possibility that any intelligent creatures alive in that distant era will have no way to know what is happening to them, where things came from, even where they currently are (an empty space? a dream?), or why.

Informed cosmology will, by necessity, be replaced with religious speculation—with myths, poetry, and folklore.

[Image: 12th-century astrolabe; from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

It is worth asking, however briefly and with multiple grains of salt, if something similar has perhaps already occurred in the universe we think we know today—if something has not already disappeared beyond the horizon of cosmic amnesia—making even our most well-structured, observation-based theories obsolete. For example, could even the widely accepted conclusion that there was a Big Bang be just an ironic side-effect of having lost some other form of cosmic evidence that long ago slipped eternally away from view?

Remember that these future astronomers will not know anything is missing. They will merrily forge ahead with their own complicated, internally convincing new theories and tests. It is not out of the question, then, to ask if we might be in a similarly ignorant situation.

In any case, what kinds of future devices and instruments might be invented to measure or explore a cosmic scenario such as this? What explanations and narratives would such devices be trying to prove?

[Image: “Woodcut illustration depicting the 7th day of Creation, from a page of the 1493 Latin edition of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle. Note the Aristotelian cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, below, with God and His retinue of angels looking down on His creation from above.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

Science writer Sarah Scoles looked at this same dilemma last year for PBS, interviewing astronomer Avi Loeb.

Scoles was able to find a small glimmer of light in this infinite future darkness, however: Loeb believes that there might actually be a way out of this universal amnesia.

“The center of our galaxy keeps ejecting stars at high enough speeds that they can exit the galaxy,” Loeb says. The intense and dynamic gravity near the black hole ejects them into space, where they will glide away forever like radiating rocket ships. The same thing should happen a trillion years from now.

“These stars that leave the galaxy will be carried away by the same cosmic acceleration,” Loeb says. Future astronomers can monitor them as they depart. They will see stars leave, become alone in extragalactic space, and begin rushing faster and faster toward nothingness. It would look like magic. But if those future people dig into that strangeness, they will catch a glimpse of the true nature of the universe.

There might yet be hope for cosmological discovery, in the other words, encoded in the trajectories of these bizarre, fleeing stars.

[Images: (top) “An illustration of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, from the 1579 edition of Piccolomini’s De la Sfera del Mondo.” (bottom) “An illustration (influenced by Peurbach’s Theoricae Planetarum Novae) explaining the retrograde motion of an outer planet in the sky, from the 1647 Leiden edition of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera.” Images and captions from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are at least two reasons why I have been thinking about this today. One was the publication of an article by Dennis Overbye earlier this week about the rate of the universe’s expansion.

“There is a crisis brewing in the cosmos,” Overbye writes, “or perhaps in the community of cosmologists. The universe seems to be expanding too fast, some astronomers say.”

Indeed, the universe might be more “virulent and controversial” than currently believed, he explains, caught-up in the long process of simply tearing itself apart.

[Image: A “starburst galaxy” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

One implication of this finding, Overbye adds, “is that the most popular version of dark energy—known as the cosmological constant, invented by Einstein 100 years ago and then rejected as a blunder—might have to be replaced in the cosmological model by a more virulent and controversial form known as phantom energy, which could cause the universe to eventually expand so fast that even atoms would be torn apart in a Big Rip billions of years from now.”

In the process, perhaps the far-future dark ages envisioned by Krauss and Scherrer will thus arrive a billion or two years earlier than expected.

[Image: Engraving by Gustave Doré from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri].

The second thing that made me think of this, however, was a short essay called “Dante in Orbit,” originally published in 1963, that a friend sent to me last night. It is about stars, constellations, and the possibility of determining astronomical time in The Divine Comedy.

In that paper, Frederick A. Stebbins writes that Dante “seems far removed from the space age; yet we find him concerned with problems of astronomy that had no practical importance until man went into orbit. He had occasion to deal with local time, elapsed time, and the International Date Line. His solutions appear to be correct.”

Stebbins goes on to describe “numerous astronomical references in [Dante’s] chief work, The Divine Comedy”—albeit doing so in a way that remains unconvincing. He suggests, for example, that Dante’s descriptions of constellations, sunrises, full moons, and more will allow an astute reader to measure exactly how much time was meant to have passed in his mythic story, and even that Dante himself had somehow been aware of differential, or relativistic, time differences between far-flung locations. (Recall, on the other hand, that Dante’s work has been discussed elsewhere for its possible insights into physics.)

[Image: Diagrams from “Dante in Orbit” (1963) by Frederick A. Stebbins].

But what’s interesting about this is not whether or not Stebbins was correct in his conclusions. What’s interesting is the very idea that a medieval cosmology might have been soft-wired, so to speak, into Dante’s poetic universe and that the stars and constellations he referred to would have had clear narrative significance for contemporary readers. It was part of their era’s shared understanding of how the world was structured.

Now, though, imagine some new Dante of a hundred billion years from now—some new Divine Comedy published in a trillion years—and how it might come to grips with the universal isolation and darkness of Krauss and Scherrer. What cycles of time might be perceived in the lonely, shining bulk of the Milky Way, a dying glow with no neighbor; what shared folklore about the growing darkness might be communicated to readers who don’t know, who cannot know, how incorrect their model of the cosmos truly is?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the Dante paper).

Alien Geology, Dreamed By Machines

[Image: Synthetic volcanoes modeled by Jeff Clune, from “Plug & Play Generative Networks,” via Nature].

Various teams of astronomers have been using “deep-learning neural networks” to generate realistic images of hypothetical stars and galaxies—but their work also implies that these same tools could work to model the surfaces of unknown planets. Alien geology as dreamed by machines.

The Square Kilometer Array in South Africa, for example, “will produce such vast amounts of data that its images will need to be compressed into low-noise but patchy data.” Compressing this data into readable imagery opens space for artificial intelligence to work: “Generative AI models will help to reconstruct and fill in blank parts of those data, producing the images of the sky that astronomers will examine.”

The results are thus not photographs, in other words; they are computer-generated models nonetheless considered scientifically valid for their potential insights into how regions of space are structured.

What interests me about this, though, is the fact that one of the scientists involved, Jeff Clune, uses these same algorithmic processes to generate believable imagery of terrestrial landscape features, such as volcanoes. These could then be used to model the topography of other planets, producing informed visual guesstimates of mountain ranges, ancient ocean basins, vast plains, valleys, even landscape features we might not yet have words to describe.

The notion that we would thus be seeing what AI thinks other worlds should look like—that, to view this in terms of art history, we are looking at the projective landscape paintings of machine intelligence—is a haunting one, as if discovering images of alien worlds in the daydreams of desktop computers.

(Spotted via Sean Lally; vaguely related, “We don’t have an algorithm for this”).

An Abundance of Glass

Going through some old notes, I found this great line from architect Kengo Kuma’s 2008 book Anti-Object, describing the conceptual ambition—and ultimate anticlimax—of modernist architecture. “Modernism set out to connect time and space,” he wrote, “but ultimately managed only to create objects that used an abundance of glass.”

Space Grain

[Image: A micrometeorite, photographed by Donald Brownlee, University of Washington].

A paper published last month in Geology reported “the discovery of significant numbers (500) of large micrometeorites (>100 μm) from rooftops in urban areas”—or “cosmic dust grains,” in the words of New Scientist, that have been “found on city rooftops for the first time.”

Although the samples were “collected primarily from roof gutters in Norway,” according to the original paper, their presence there “demonstrates that, contrary to current belief, micrometeorites can be collected from urban environments.” That is, the dust of ruined cosmic objects can be found intermixed with autumn leaves, cigarette butts, and brake pad dust, perhaps even accumulating on your bedroom window sill.

[Image: Gorgeous photograph of a micrometeorite by Matej Pašák].

Of course, it has long been possible to sample urban areas for micrometeorites, so this is not entirely new.

What’s fascinating, nonetheless, is that these micrometeorites are most likely to have arrived on Earth within the past six years, the study points out, but their size is notably larger than the average sample of micrometeorites from the recent geological record, indicating “variations in the extraterrestrial dust flux” on the scale of 800,000 years.

As New Scientist points out, this means that larger cosmic shifts can be deduced from the size and shape of these grains:

The differences [in size] may be linked to changes in the orbits of planets such as the Earth and Mars over millions of years, [researcher Matthew Genge] says. Resulting gravitational disturbances may have influenced the trajectory of the particles as they hurtled through space. This in turn would have an effect on the speed at which they slam into the Earth’s atmosphere and heat up.

“This find is important because if we are to look at fossil cosmic dust collected from ancient rocks to reconstruct a geological history of our solar system, then we need to understand how this dust is changed by the continuous pull of the planets,” Genge says.

Something’s changing in our local cosmic-dust environment, in other words, and evidence of this shift is slowly collecting on our roofs and sidewalks, accumulating in our gutters and sills.

(Conceptually related: War Sand).

The World as a Hieroglyph of Spatial Relationships Yet to be Interpreted

drones
[Image: Courtesy Iris Automation].

In an interview published on the blog here a few years ago, novelist Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, pointed out something very interesting about the nearly limitless, three-dimensional space of the Earth’s atmosphere and how it relates to artificial intelligence.

“One of the problems with A.I.,” Mason explained back in 2010, “is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and [these are] solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across a desert, though—or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions—is vastly more difficult.”

Another way of thinking about Mason’s comment—although Mason himself might disagree with the following statement—is that it is precisely the sky’s ease of navigation that makes it ideal for the emergence and testing of artificial intelligence. The Earth’s atmosphere, in other words—specifically because it is an unchallenging three-dimensional environment—is the perfect space for machine-vision algorithms and other forms of computational proto-intelligence to work out their most basic bugs.

Once they master the sky, then, autonomous machines can move on to more complicated environments, such as roads, mountains, forests. Cities.

In any case, I was thinking about Mason’s interview again earlier today when I read that drones are close to achieving “situational awareness”—albeit through visual, not artificially intelligent, means. In other words, it’s not AI—at least not yet—that will give unmanned aerial vehicles their much-needed ability to avoid colliding with other flying objects. Rather, it is a sufficiently advanced visual processing system that can identify and, more importantly, avoid potential obstacles.

Exactly such a system, TechCrunch claims, has been built by a Canadian firm called Iris Automation. Their system is able “to process visual data in real time, so it can see structures that suddenly appear, like a plane, flock of birds or another drone—not just static objects and waypoints that might be mapped using older technologies like GPS.” The company refers to this as “industrial drone collision avoidance,” which suggests a kind of on-board traffic management system for the sky. Air traffic control will be internal.

Now connect a drone’s “situational awareness” to sufficient processing power, and you could help steward into existence a computationally interesting form of autonomous intelligence.

To return to Zachary Mason’s computationally-inflected rewriting of The Odyssey, it would be AI as Athena, springing fully formed into the world from an empty sky.

A Window “Radically Different From All Previous Windows”

LIGO[Image: The corridors of LIGO, Louisiana, shaped like a “carpenter’s square”; via Google Earth].

It’s been really interesting for the last few weeks to watch as rumors and speculations about the first confirmed detection of gravitational waves have washed over the internet—primarily, at least from my perspective, because my wife, Nicola Twilley, who writes for The New Yorker, has been the only journalist given early access not just to the results but, more importantly, to the scientists behind the experiment, while writing an article that just went live over at The New Yorker.

It has been incredibly exciting to listen-in on partial conversations and snippets of overheard interviews in our home office here, as people like Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and David Reitze, among a dozen others, all explained to her exactly how the gravitational waves were first detected and what it means for our future ability to study and understand the cosmos.

All this gloating as a proud husband aside, however, it’s a truly fascinating story and well worth mentioning here.

LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—is a virtuoso act of precision construction: a pair of instruments, separated by thousands of miles, used to detect gravitational waves. They are shaped like “carpenter’s squares,” we read, and they stand in surreal, liminal landscapes: surrounded by water-logged swampland in Louisiana and “amid desert sagebrush, tumbleweed, and decommissioned reactors” in Hanford, Washington.

Ligo-Hanford [Image: LIGO, Hanford; via Google Earth].

Each consists of vast, seismically isolated corridors and finely calibrated super-mirrors between which lasers reflect in precise synchrony. These hallways are actually “so long—nearly two and a half miles—that they had to be raised a yard off the ground at each end, to keep them lying flat as Earth curved beneath them.”

To achieve the necessary precision of measurement, [Rainer Weiss, who first proposed the instrument’s construction] suggested using light as a ruler. He imagined putting a laser in the crook of the “L.” It would send a beam down the length of each tube, which a mirror at the other end would reflect back. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, so as long as the tubes were cleared of air and other particles, the beams would recombine at the crook in synchrony—unless a gravitational wave happened to pass through. In that case, the distance between the mirrors and the laser would change slightly. Since one beam was now covering a shorter distance than its twin, they would no longer be in lockstep by the time they got back. The greater the mismatch, the stronger the wave. Such an instrument would need to be thousands of times more sensitive than any before it, and it would require delicate tuning, in order to extract a signal of vanishing weakness from the planet’s omnipresent din.

LIGO is the most sensitive instrument ever created by human beings, and its near-magical ability to pick up the tiniest tremor in the fabric of spacetime lends it a fantastical air that began to invade the team’s sleep. As Frederick Raab, director of the Hanford instrument, told Nicola, “When these people wake up in the middle of the night dreaming, they’re dreaming about the detector.”

Because of this hyper-sensitivity, its results need to be corrected against everything from minor earthquakes, windstorms, and passing truck traffic to “fluctuations in the power grid,” “distant lightning storms,” and even the howls of prowling wolves.

When the first positive signal came through, the team was actually worried it might not be a gravitational wave at all but “a very large lightning strike in Africa at about the same time.” (They checked; it wasn’t.)

Newton[Image: “Newton” (1795-c.1805) by William Blake, courtesy of the Tate].

The big deal amidst all this is that being able to study gravitational waves is very roughly analogous to the discovery of radio astronomy—where gravitational wave astronomy has the added benefit of opening up an entirely new spectrum of observation. Gravitational waves will let us “see” the fabric of spacetime in a way broadly similar to how we can “see” otherwise invisible radio emissions in deep space.

From The New Yorker:

Virtually all that is known about the universe has come to scientists by way of the electromagnetic spectrum. Four hundred years ago, Galileo began exploring the realm of visible light with his telescope. Since then, astronomers have pushed their instruments further. They have learned to see in radio waves and microwaves, in infrared and ultraviolet, in X-rays and gamma rays, revealing the birth of stars in the Carina Nebula and the eruption of geysers on Saturn’s eighth moon, pinpointing the center of the Milky Way and the locations of Earth-like planets around us. But more than ninety-five per cent of the universe remains imperceptible to traditional astronomy… “This is a completely new kind of telescope,” [David] Reitze said. “And that means we have an entirely new kind of astronomy to explore.”

Interestingly, in fact, my “seeing” metaphor, above, is misguided. As it happens, the gravitational waves studied by LIGO in its current state—ever-larger and more powerful new versions of the instrument are already being planned—“fall within the range of human hearing.”

If you want to hear spacetime, there is an embedded media player over at The New Yorker with a processed snippet of the “chirp” made by the incoming gravitational wave.

In any case, I’ve already gone on at great length, but the article ends with a truly fantastic quote from Kip Thorne. Thorne, of course, achieved minor celebrity last year when he consulted on the physics for Christopher Nolan’s relativistic time-travel film Interstellar, and he is not lacking for imagination.

Thorne compares LIGO to a window (and my inner H.P. Lovecraft reader shuddered at the ensuing metaphor):

“We are opening up a window on the universe so radically different from all previous windows that we are pretty ignorant about what’s going to come through,” Thorne said. “There are just bound to be big surprises.”

Go read the article in full!

“Building with metals not from Earth”

I missed the story last month that a company called Planetary Resources had successfully 3D-printed a small model using “metals not from Earth”—that is, metal harvested from a meteorite. “Transforming a chunk of space rock into something you can feed into a 3D printer is a pretty odd process. Planetary Resources uses a plasma that essentially turns the meteorite into a cloud that then ‘precipitates’ metallic powder that can be extracted via a vacuum system. ‘It condenses like rain out of a cloud,’ said [a company spokesperson], ‘but instead of raining water, you’re raining titanium pellets out of an iron nickel cloud.’ (…) ‘Everyone has probably seen an iron meteorite in a museum, now we have the tech to take that material and print it in a metal printer using high energy laser. Imagine if we could do that in space.’”

“A City on Mars is Possible. That’s What All This is About.”

A005_C008_1221PL
Last week’s successful demonstration of a reusable rocket, launched by Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX, “was a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars,” Musk later remarked. The proof-of-concept flight “dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible,” he added. “That’s what all this is about.”

Previously, of course, Musk had urged the Royal Aeronautical Society to view Mars as a place where “you can start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big.” He later elaborated on these ideas in an interview with Aeon’s Ross Anderson, discussing optimistic but still purely speculative plans for “a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.” In Musk’s own words, “If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people,” within this century.

(Image courtesy of SpaceX. Elsewhere: Off-world colonies of the Canadian Arctic and BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson).

Dead Ringer

[Image: Mars’s moon, Phobos; courtesy NASA /JPL/University of Arizona].

Oh, to live another 40 million years… “One day,” Nature reports, “Mars may have rings like Saturn does”:

The martian moon Phobos, which is spiralling inexorably closer towards the red planet, will disintegrate to form a ring system some 20 million to 40 million years from now, according to calculations published on 23 November. Other research suggests that long grooves on Phobos’s surface may represent the first stages of that inevitable crack-up.

After that point, a red mineral ring will gradually coalesce from the dust storm, circling the planet in a desert halo.

In terms of human experience, 20-40 million years obviously dwarfs our anatomical and genetic history as modern Homo sapiens, and I am excessively confident that no humans will be around to witness this event. Nonetheless, it’s not actually that far off. The Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old; 20-40 million years is the geological blink of an eye. In a sense, we will just miss it.

For what it’s worth, Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel, Seveneves, is about a similar event—but set on Earth, not Mars.

“What if Earth’s moon suddenly and spontaneously broke apart into seven large pieces?” a review in the New York Times asked. “What would happen to life on Earth? It’s an intriguing premise, one that could conceivably go in any number of interesting directions. What would be the ramifications for every aspect of society, including economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy and security, not to mention even more fundamental matters like reproductive rights, religion and belief?”

In any case, read more over at Nature.

Slingshots of the Oceanic

[Image: A diagram of the elaborate loops and ribbons of self-intersecting movement allowed by gravity-assisted travel, in this case heading toward a comet; original artist unknown].

Gravity-assisted space travel is when you use the gravitational pull of one planet or other celestial body as a fuel-efficient way to “slingshot” yourself toward another, more distant goal, someplace you could not have reached without assistance, either in terms of your velocity or even your basic direction.

You head toward one place to get to another—or “by indirections find directions out,” we might say.

These “gravity assists” can be pieced together to form almost a kind of invisible jungle gym, helping send probes into the outer solar system or even toward Mercury and the sun. As the Planetary Society explains:

Voyager 2 famously used gravity assists to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s. Cassini used two assists at Venus and one each at Earth and Jupiter in order to reach Saturn. New Horizons will arrive at Pluto in 2015 thanks to an assist at Jupiter. And Messenger used assists at Earth, Venus and three times at Mercury itself not to speed up, but to slow down enough to finally be captured by Mercury.

This can result in all sorts of insane weaving maneuvers, as objects can be made to loop stars, double back on themselves, veer off unpredictably, or even stop moving altogether, effectively parking themselves in space, as this GIF by David Shortt illustrates.

[Image: GIF by David Shortt, via The Planetary Society].

It’s like gravitational judo: using the speed and mass of your opponent as a counterbalance to perform something extraordinary yourself. Or perhaps it’s more like interplanetary spirography, where you could even loop-the-loop and slingshot your way between stars.

In any case, these types of assists can be made far more fuel-efficient—if not even possible in the first place—if you launch your journey at certain times rather than at others. In other words, you deliberately wait until the orbital cycles of Mars or Jupiter bring them near particular locations in space so that you can better use them to loop further outward toward, say, Neptune, a destination whose future position you will also have calculated in advance. If you want to use as little fuel and energy as possible, or even just to be as graceful as you can, you don’t just launch whenever you want and hope for the best.

The metaphoric potential of all this is obviously incredibly rich, but the real reason I’m writing this is because of a fascinating comment or two found in Brian Fagan’s book Beyond the Blue Horizon.

While discussing the human settlement of extremely remote islands in the South Pacific, what Fagan calls “remote Oceania,” he explains how ancient mariners relied on “seasonal winds” and celestial navigation to push “ever farther east” to the most extreme outer island edges of Polynesia. These seasonal winds formed part of what he calls “the Pacific’s waltz of atmosphere and ocean,” whereby known or predictable climatological events could be used to help propel people from one archipelago to another.

Here, Fagan writes that “[e]arly human settlement of the offshore Pacific revolved, in part, around enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood. Ultimately, most of them depend on what one might call an elaborate, usually slow-moving waltz involving two partners—the atmosphere and the ocean.”

[Images: Polynesian “stick charts,” via The Nonist].

What fascinates me here is the idea that we can draw a rough analogy between Fagan’s “enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood” and gravity-assisted space travel.

You can imagine, in other words, a well-organized group of extreme maritime navigators standing on the shores of a remote Pacific island chain, looking further out to sea together, knowing that there are distant land masses out there, implied by the winds and currents—but, more crucially, knowing that they will need a particular atmospheric event strong enough to take them there. They are thus timing their launch.

As people basically sat around waiting till the skies were right, Fagan’s “enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena” would have produced amazing local mythologies of storms yet to come and other atmospheric folklore.

Like NASA scientists calculating the positions of Mars and Jupiter as they hoped to slingshot themselves beyond the black horizon of the solar system, these beach-going super-navigators would have known that the regional winds move in seven- or ten-year cycles, or even that a one-hundred year storm is required to bring them further out into the oceanic. They thus temporarily become land-based, settling there on a particular island chain and raising their children on tales of a journey yet to come. Navigators in waiting.

[Images: Polynesian “stick charts,” via The Nonist].

Imagine the diagrams or folklore that might have explained all this, like Arthur C. Clarke tales passed down family to family a thousand years ago on a windswept atoll—a science fiction not of interplanetary travel but a kind of anthropological Star Trek of outer-sea navigation.

Then the winds pick up, or strange Antarctic clouds begin to appear again for the first time in a generation, and everyone knows what it means: the signs are right and the skies are clicking back into place, and they start to build canoes, those little wooden space probes for pushing the limits of a maritime universe.

It’s just a different kind of slingshotting: not slingshotting yourself between planets using gravity, but slingshotting yourself from island chain to island chain, riding the long tail of predictable winds you know can’t last and that only appear once per generation. Those future storms will take you to distant archipelagoes where your descendants will have to wait another decade—or century or millennium—memorizing wind patterns and plotting their woven way through Fagan’s “slow-moving waltz” of rhythmic wind patterns and currents.

Greek Gods, Moles, and Robot Oceans

[Image: The Very Low Frequency antenna field at Cutler, Maine, a facility for communicating with at-sea submarine crews].

There have been about a million stories over the past few weeks that I’ve been dying to write about, but I’ll just have to clear through a bunch here in one go.

1) First up is a fascinating request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, who is looking to build a “Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation.” It has the handy acronym of POSYDON.

POSYDON will be “an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning” in the deep ocean either for crewed submarines or for autonomous seacraft. “DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin,” but I imagine there is some room for creative maneuvering there.

The idea of an acoustic deep-sea positioning system that operates similar to GPS is pretty interesting to imagine, especially considering the strange transformations sound undergoes as it is transmitted through water. To establish accurately that a U.S. submarine has, in fact, heard an acoustic beacon and that its apparent distance from that point is not being distorted by intervening water temperature, ocean currents, or even the large-scale presence of marine life is obviously quite an extraordinary challenge.

As DARPA points out, without such a system in place, “undersea vehicles must regularly surface to receive GPS signals and fix their position, and this presents a risk of detection.” The ultimate goal, then, would be to launch ultra-longterm undersea missions, even establish permanently submerged robotic networks that have no need to breach the ocean’s surface. Cthulhoid, they will forever roam the deep.

[Image: An unmanned underwater vehicle; U.S. Navy photo by S. L. Standifird].

If you think you’ve got what it takes, click over to DARPA and sign up.

2) A while back, I downloaded a free academic copy of a fascinating book called Space-Time Reference Systems by Michael Soffel and Ralf Langhans.

Their book “presents an introduction to the problem of astronomical–geodetical space–time reference systems,” or radically offworld navigation reference points for when a craft is, in effect, well beyond any known or recognizable landmarks in space. Think of it as a kind of new longitude problem.

The book is filled with atomic clocks, quasars potentially repurposed as deep-space orientation beacons, the long-term shifting of “astronomical reference frames,” and page after page of complex math I make no claim to understand.

However, I mention this here because the POSYDON program is almost the becoming-cosmic of the ocean: that is, the depths of the sea reimagined as a vast and undifferentiated space within which mostly robotic craft will have to orient themselves on long missions. For a robotic submarine, the ocean is its universe.

3) The POSYDON program is just one part of a much larger militarization of the deep seas. Consider the fact that the U.S. Office of Naval Research is hoping to construct permanent “hubs” on the seafloor for recharging robot submarines.

These “hubs” would be “unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected—and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks.” Hubs will be places where “unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way.”

“You could keep this continuous swarm of UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] wherever you wanted to put them… basically indefinitely, as long as you’re rotating (some) out periodically for mechanical issues,” a Naval war theorist explained to Breaking Defense.

The ultimate vision is a kind of planet-spanning robot constellation: “The era of lone-wolf submarines is giving away [sic] to underwater networks of manned subs, UUVs combined with seafloor infrastructure such as hidden missile launchers—all connected to each other and to the rest of the force on the surface of the water, in the air, in space, and on land.” This would include, for example, the “upward falling payloads” program described on BLDGBLOG a few years back.

Even better, from a military communications perspective, these hubs would also act as underwater relay points for broadcasting information through the water—or what we might call the ocean as telecommunications medium—something that currently relies on ultra-low frequency radio.

There is much more detail on this over at Breaking Defense.

4) Last summer, my wife and I took a quick trip up to Maine where we decided to follow a slight detour after hiking Mount Katahdin to drive by the huge antenna field at Cutler, a Naval communications station found way out on a tiny peninsula nearly on the border with Canada.

[Image: The antenna field at Cutler, Maine].

We talked to the security guard for a while about life out there on this little peninsula, but we were unable to get a tour of the actual facility, sadly. He mostly joked that the locals have a lot of conspiracy theories about what the towers are actually up to, including their potential health effects—which isn’t entirely surprising, to be honest, considering the massive amounts of energy used there and the frankly otherworldly profile these antennas have on the horizon—but you can find a lot of information about the facility online.

So what does this thing do? “The Navy’s very-low-frequency (VLF) station at Cutler, Maine, provides communication to the United States strategic submarine forces,” a January 1998 white paper called “Technical Report 1761” explains. It is basically an east coast version of the so-called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that “would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin,” turning the Cheese State into a giant military antenna.

Cutler’s role in communicating with submarines may or may not have come to an end, making it more of a research facility today, but the idea that, even if this came to an end with the Cold War, isolated radio technicians on a foggy peninsula in Maine were up there broadcasting silent messages into the ocean that were meant to be heard only by U.S. submarine crews pinging around in the deepest canyons of the Atlantic is both poetic and eerie.

[Image: A diagram of the antennas, from the aforementioned January 1998 research paper].

The towers themselves are truly massive, and you can easily see them from nearby roads, if you happen to be anywhere near Cutler, Maine.

In any case, I mention all this because behemoth facilities such as these could be made altogether redundant by autonomous underwater communication hubs, such as those described by Breaking Defense.

5) “The robots are winning!” Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. The opening paragraphs of his essay are is awesome, and I wish I could just republish the whole thing:

We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:

…He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.

Mendelsohn goes on to discuss “the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil,” and it seems incredibly interesting to read it in the context of DARPA’s now even more aptly named POSYDON program and the permanent undersea hubs of the Office of Naval Research. Click over to The New York Review of Books for the whole thing.

6) If the oceanic is the new cosmic, then perhaps the terrestrial is the new oceanic.

The Independent reported last month that magnetically powered underground robot “moles”—effectively subterranean drones—could potentially be used to ferry objects around beneath the city. They are this generation’s pneumatic tubes.

The idea would be to use “a vast underground network of pipes in a bid to bypass the UK’s ever more congested roads.” The company’s name? What else but Mole Solutions, who refer to their own speculative infrastructure as a network of “freight pipelines.”

[Image: Courtesy of Mole Solutions].

Taking a page from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, though, perhaps these subterranean robot constellations could be given “hubs” and terrestrial beacons with which to orient themselves; combine with the bizarre “self-burying robot” from 2013, and declare endless war on the surface of the world from below.

See more at the Independent.

7) Finally, in terms of this specific flurry of links, Denise Garcia looks at the future of robot warfare and the dangerous “secrecy of emerging weaponry” that can act without human intervention over at Foreign Affairs.

She suggests that “nuclear weapons and future lethal autonomous technologies will imperil humanity if governed poorly. They will doom civilization if they’re not governed at all.” On the other hand, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, we have, in a sense, been dealing with the threat of a robot apocalypse since someone first came up with the myth of Hephaestus.

Garcia’s short essay covers a lot of ground previously seen in, for example, Peter Singer’s excellent book Wired For War; that’s not a reason to skip one for the other, of course, but to read both. See more at Foreign Affairs.

(Thanks to Peter Smith for suggesting we visit the antennas at Cutler).