Monday, February 16, 2009

Spin Cycle: Some ideas from an alternate reality.

Recently I read Spin by Robert Charles Wilson and found it an entertaining if a little frustrating read.

Here's a brief synopsis to catch you up on the relevant technology.

In a very close to present time Earth some aliens dubbed 'hypotheticals' engulf the planet in a 'spin membrane.' Time inside the membrane passes normally but for every earth second 3.17 years pass by. Naturally the spin mitigates solar radiation and gravity to make the earth habitable. If it didn't every second the earth would absorb 3 years worth of solar radiation and the tidal forces from the moon would turn the ocean into a giant frothing mess leading to mass extinction.

Also the friction generated by the tidal forces would be tremendous.

Now in the book the spin is used creatively to accomplish a number of otherwise impossible feats such as the terraforming of Mars and the blanketing of the galaxy with little information-crapping replicators all in a few earth years. Pretty badass right?

Well as I closed the book, satisified that I had read it to completion a few nagging thoughts kept bubbling up and I wanted to divulge a few ideas that, had I written this excellent novel, would have included. I've broken them into categories.

Computer Power Outside the Spin.

What defines the power of a CPU? The grossest measure is throughput but I'll simplify to cycles per second. A Pentium III with an 800 mhz processor is considered incredibly slow compared to a modern Quad Core i7. However even modest processing power, given the time differential outside the spin membrane could be put to excellent use.

A standard desktop computer can crunch one Folding at Home work unit in less than a day. Rather than devoting millions of distributed nodes to crunching away you could have a big chunk of processing power up in orbit chugging away for years or centuries and once done it could spit out some flash memory to dump the processed data back to earth for analysis.

A node that can operate for 50 years in space (solar powered) could in 16 seconds outperform any terrestrial computer by leaps and bounds and could probably do it economically. Let's do some napkin math.

Consider a supercomputer that can operate above Petaflop speeds. That's 1 Quadrillion Floating Point Operations per second or 1,000,000,000,000,000 Flops.

Now consider a desktop that perform 1 Teraflop or 1,000,000,000,000 Flops. Hmmm, only 1000th the speed isn't much good on earth. However take that same computer, hardened and shielded and drop it outside the spin Membrane. In space it operates at a modest Teraflop but the RELATIVE performance as observed on earth would be:

3.17 years = 99969120 seconds
Therefore 1 Teraflop x 99969120 = 99969120 Teraflops or I'll round it up to 99,969,120,000,000,000,000

Tweak it to an even number and you get about 100 exaflop computing power. That's a relative increase of 5 order of mag. Just imagine the possibilities.

For one thing completing ALL work units for every distributed processing project on earth in say, a day would be nice. Now obviously this wouldn't work as a substitution for all terrestrial super computers but it would go a long ass way for certain projects.

After all what's a few million dollars for a satelite launch when you can sequence genomes or simulate particle reactions in seconds.

Plans for the Moon:

This is another terraforming project that could have been explored. A handful of little robots that can deploy solar panels lands on the daylight side and starts charging up their batteries. Each day they acquire enough energy to make a brick or sift some lunar material in order to turn it into something useful like glass.

Even at a snails pace of construction they could build huge cities, tunnels, sewers, greenhouses and all manner of fun stuff that would be too heavy to pack on conventional rockets. Given time the little robots could transform the surface of the moon into a livable space.

Once done we could send a handful of hardy explorers packing a shit load of oxygen and biomass to land and set up a permanent settlement for human habitation. This would require a lot more ingenuity and gusto than our technology currently allows but the moon is much closer than Mars and the only time constrained missions would be those carrying people. Once settled the people could set up a miniature ecosystem using plants and algae reactors coupled to copious, you guessed it, solar arrays.

Lunar civilization could build and thrive at their leisure once enough stuff was amassed to keep the population self-sustaining. This could be facilitated by a roving band of probes that could swing out to the Oort and hunt down comets for ice. That begins to get pretty dicey so I'll leave it there.

Planet Moving:

The reason all the devices I have mentioned are solar powered are because solar power is more or less constantly available in space. Better yet the solar output increases over time so it becomes even more abundant. Other sources of energy like liquid fuel or nuclear powered stuff would be impractical since resupply would take forever and many isotopes would degrade after a few measley centuries.

If orbital power was no big deal we could just dump a shit load of nuclear waste into orbit and let it cook down for 50,000 years. That'd be about 4 earth hours. Easy money.

Now one of the technologies that features prominently in Spin is the ion engine. It's a little thruster that puts out a meager push over a long period of time. No good for earth travel but in space with minimal friction it's an ideal way to kick around. Take away time constraints and you have an opportunity to put that to even better use.

After all physics is physics and even the feeblest push over a long time will yield results. Working in the human lifespan this doesn't matter much. What good is moving jupiter a tenth of a millimeter over 50 years?

Take away the time constraint and you have a reliable way to move not just space probes but anything with mass. This could be ships, probes, Asteroids (though the spin membrane protected earth from them) or even planets.

That's right, planets.

Now you might be thinking what good could possibly come from moving planets around the solar system? After all the FSM put them there with good reason and there's not much to be accomplished by throwing them around.

Not unless you want to triple the habitable living space in the solar system. Let's consider an alternate method of terraforming mars.

Mars is small and tiny, and somewhat bleak. However a little extra mass and some liquid water could make it a fun place to live. If you can yank a few heavenly bodies to lend a hand then mars could become quite comfortable.

So you send a probe with a sustainable Ion Engine and slap it onto the surface of say...Europa. You start thrusting and thrusting, little bits at a time until you can send the moon inward through the solar system. Maybe it picks up some mass via asteroids and stellar dust along the way. Then you crash it into Mars.

All that water and mass impact tremendously and then you give a few earth years to cool off and settle down. Now you have a bigger wetter planet to work with and resources aren't quite so constrained as they were in the book.

We won't stop there by any means. Venus could be much more liveable if only we could yank it out of the relative position it currently occupies. Nudge it a little past Earth orbit, let the lead-melting atmosphere calm down a bit and slap yourself on the back. You just formed 2 livable planets within easy striking distance of earth. All that's left is to terraform and populate which, given the time dilation effects of the spin becomes super easy by comparison.

Well, the lunch break is over now so I must go back to work. I'll probably revisit this at a later date if I come up with any more fun ways to reshape the solar system or apply humble earthly technology to good effect.

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