JF Ptak Science Books Post 943
"One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue."-- Stanislaw Ulam, May 1958, referring to a conversation with John von Neumann [Ulam, S., “Tribute to John von Neumann”, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, vol 64, number 3, part 2, May 1958, pp 1−49.] This is also said to be the first use of the term "singularity", referring to the sometime-in-the-future point where artificial intelligence reaches such a level as to create a race of super-intelligent artificially-enhanced human beings.
In the history of perfect tomorrows, what happens to people when we no longer die, or live to enormous ages, or replicate necessary organs to such a degree that cell death is no longer an issue, or are just able to get rid our biological corpus and live in something else?
I can’t tell when the first references start to appear in literature, scientific or otherwise, regarding the sustainability of the population of the Earth, or of simply filling up the Earth, for that matter. This cartoon (above) by Ralph Wilder, published ca. 1915 (source unknown, unfortunately), may well be in the first wave of what must have seemed at the time to be absurd speculation.
It is impossible for me to imagine what the future of medicine and medical technology may hold for all/some of us in the next 150 years. I chose this number as it gets us back to one of the greatest advancements in the history of surgery—sterilizing instruments and keeping the surgical room clean.
This is the work of Dr. Joseph Lister (remember badly via a popular consumable) who in one fell swoop (and over the course of several years) brought the survivability rate for all surgeries up by half or so, an extraordinary feat, and only four generations old. It is less than 400 years ago that William Harvey figured out pulmonary circulation and paid hell for it for many years. To imagine the obverse, the medical advances that will occur in 2400 may be as foreign to educated us here in 2010 as 2010 looked to William Harvey in 1628 or Joseph Lister in 1863. DNA is only a few years older than me (discovered in 1953), and even though its discovery may seem antiqued at this point, the technologies and understanding initiated by that discovery may look as quaintly fundamental to those in 2150 as the necessity of having a clean surgical environment looks to us.
And who knows how advancements may spiral ahead of themselves once intelligent machines start producing machines that are more intelligent than themselves leading to god-knows-what.
But back to the cartoon, and the mathematician Stan Ulam, who is really at the base of this post. The image depicts the Moon as an escape pod for those who could afford it, the signs suggesting that money would determine who had space to lie and who didn’t. Of course, there was the problem of actually getting there, which in 1915 or thereabouts was still science fantasy (being twelve years after the Wrights and four years before Goddard).
The second image, from LIFE magazine in 1941, shows a rather massive space vehicle powered by U-235. Discovered by Arthur Jeffrey Dempster in 1935, U-235 was a fissile material capable of sustaining a fission chain reaction. (Dempster, 1886-1950, was a Chicago Ph.D. who during the war would be the Chief Physicist of the great Metallurgical Lab at Chicago, from 1943 to 1946.) The ad (for an insurance firm) shows the ship being powered by what would be a series of nuclear explosions—quite a remarkable thing to be printing in a mass market periodical in the second year of WWII. As it turns out the Physical Review was still publishing sensitive articles on these topics ‘till right about this point, after which their appearances were suspended for the duration of the war.
And as it turns out the thinking here was prescient. It was Stan Ulam who first suggested this use of atomic energy in 1947; and it was Freeman Dyson and others who (beginning in 1958) took this many steps further with Project Orion. In short, this project was a think-sink for a pulsed nuclear propulsion system for a class of space vehicle that would range in (three) sizes from 8,000 tons to an incredible, space-insatiable 8 million tons.
Yes, that’s 8 million tons. That was for a city-sized space ship with a diameter of 400 metres and which could travel at 20,000-30,000 m/s with meganewton thrust, being pushed along by series of nuclear explosions, carrying fantastic payloads and enabling the construction of vast structures on, well, other places.
I don’t know how the thing would get off the ground. Evidently this was not an issue, for even in the late 1980’s drawings and plans for this monstrous ark were still being published. But even as I write this I wonder if my own incredulity with the possibility of such travel will be seen incredulous to folks just a few generations down the road. I suppose this is just another small stop in the history of the time it takes for absurd ideas to look not so.