Hyperloopy

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Musk gives a technical briefing on his latest big idea

I recently looked at the hyperloop system proposed by SpaceX founder Elon Musk and highlighted a number of problems with the proposed system, notably its likely very high costs, the technical challenges involved in building it, the barf enduing ride and the safety issues. Recently vlogger Thunderf00t (aka Phil Mason) paid the hyperloop prototype track a visit and I thought it would be interesting to review some of his findings.

Firstly he noted that several of the brackets on the hyperloop system are absent and levelling rubber pads have been used here and there to prop up the brackets that remain. He also got out a thermal imaging camera and noted a temperature variation between the top and bottom of the tube. I suspect these two factors are related. Basically the tube is buckling due to the differential rates of expansion between top and bottom (caused by the sun’s heat and the temperature fluctuations you’d get in California over the course of an average day), which probably explains why they’ve had to remove some brackets and prop up others.

Keeping the tube level would be critical to the full sized system, otherwise it would be impossible to maintain an air tight partial vacuum and this “bowing” effect will spread to the track itself, throwing off the tight tolerances needed to operate the pods safely. There appears to be no shock absorbing, suspension nor seismic isolation, all of which would be necessary to level the tube and operate it safely. Without such measures it would likely be impossible to maintain the sort of speeds talked about by Musk and any energy savings gained operating in a partial vacuum would be cancelled out by the energy spent pumping out the air that leaked in.

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The rustaloop….

Thunderf00t also point to signs of rusting within the tube (which isn’t that old) and a significant dust problem. Given that air contains a certain payload of moisture and dust, pumping large volumes of it in and out of the tube would cause a build up of moisture on the walls (leading to rust) and dust accumulating in the tube. Given that the dust would play havoc with the maglev track and equipment he wants to put in the tube, it would be necessary to control this problem.

There are solutions, most factory clean rooms use advanced filtering systems to remove dust particles from the air and a climate control system to control humidity levels. However such systems are also horrendously expensive (I worked on more than a few such systems during my time in industry and I’d estimate you’re talking about a few thousand per cubic metre of space). Building and maintaining a tube hundreds of miles long to those sort of conditions would not be cheap.

Now the supporters of hyperloop would likely point to the latest competition at the track as “proof” that the naysayers are all wrong. Why one of the prototypes hit a speed of over 200mph! Ya, it was basically a glorified electric car running on a monorail, with a range of only 1km (I’m reminded of the joke from Jeremy Clarkson about how Musk’s original Tesla car could achieve the same sort of speed but had a range of only ten metres because that’s when the plug came out of the wall). It was only a fraction the size of the hyperloop tube (hence the loading it put on the tube would be much smaller than a full sized system). And, as Thunderf00t points out, it can actually run faster outside the tube than inside it.

If you want to run high speed electric cars or buses, why not just create a dedicated lane (with crash barriers either side) down the side of existing motorways exclusively for autonomous electric vehicles. Or how about a monorail (as that’s essentially what Musk’s test track amounts too). Either would be significantly cheaper than hyperloop, require no major leaps forward in technology and would be much more flexible than hyperloop, given that you could now make intermediate stops. And this is kind of my point, there’s other practical ways of achieving the same thing. They might not be as “cool” as hyperloop, but they achieve the same end result and would cost a lot less.

This raises an important question, to what extend is Elon Musk aware of these technical problems and potential show stoppers? It could be he’s aware of these issues, but he’s also aware that the media are basically giving him a free pass with no fact checking of his claims and thus he gets free advertising for the products he’s actually trying to sell (such as his cars) along the way. Or it could be he’s simply deluded and actually believes what he says, that such a system can be built on an insanely tight schedule for a budget that is laughably lower than what most experts estimate (and I’m increasingly of the view those experts are if anything under estimating just how expensive a hyperloop would be).

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And pondering this question, we must look at another announcement from Elon Musk, the idea of using his as of yet unbuilt and untested Mars rocket for city to city transportation. And he’s also talking of getting to Mars by 2024, which is just insane.

What’s the problem with using rockets for long distance mass transit? Well the fact that they are horrendously expensive and dangerous! It costs tens of millions to get an astronaut up to the ISS. Even if we could cut the costs of space flight down to a fraction of this somehow (which would take some doing, as I’ve discussed in a prior article), say $500,000, is there really a market out there for tens of thousands of people who regularly want to blow that sort of money on a trip from NY to Shanghai?

And there’s the safety issue, again something Elon seems to forget. Even the most reliable rockets in the world (the Atlas V system) blow up or fail catastrophically every 60 launches or so (SpaceX track record is closer to 1 in 20). There are fundamental reasons (again as discussed in my prior article) why such failures happen, you could improve safety yes, but never to the extend where it would be comparable with air travel or even car travel. Are these ultra rich commuters going to be happy with taking a 1:20 to 1:400 roll of the dice of either dying, being badly hurt (a launch abort involves being shot away from the rocket at 15-20g’s which generally means a trip to the hospital even for a fit and healthy astronaut) and/or ending up in the middle of nowhere overnight surrounded by wolves (as happened to one Russian crew when their capsule landed in the wrong place hundreds of miles off course).

And there’s no way authorities are going to let you land or take off with a rocket anywhere near a major metropolitan area. Rocket launch centres are kept away from cities for a reason. One need only look at the Intelsat 708 disaster (where an out of control rocket with a malfunctioning auto destruct system ploughed into a small town near the launch facility) or the Nedelin disaster (where a rocket exploded during fuelling killing hundreds of technicians and visiting dignitaries) for proof of what happens when you build them to close to town’s and cities.

And also, rockets are best launched from equatorial locations, where there aren’t many cities. And one has to consider the re-entry path of any capsule and the safety of those under its flight path, given the consequences of the Colombia accident. So all in all, one is forced to call BS on this proposal.

Which again raises the question, why is Musk proposing this? Again, it could be he knows many so-called science journalists (or in other words people who studied science or engineering in college, realised the course was too hard and switched to journalism or liberal arts instead) will give him a free pass and media attention so he can plug his wares. But sooner or later he’s going to have to deliver and what does he do then?

So while I’m hoping this is indeed Elon just taking advantage of the media, its possible he does genuinely believe his outlandish claims and might well be seriously deluded, perhaps even crazy, a modern day Howard Hughes.

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A closer estimate on nuclear energy cost options

daryanblog

I stumbled across a tool from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, which purports to calculate the full cycle cost of nuclear energy. While it has its limitations, I think does highlight a few interesting points.

Firstly, the baseline cost they suggest for nuclear power works out at about a LCOE of $ 84.4 per MWh (the site quotes in cents per kWh, however, I’m converting to $/MWh because its what we usually use when quoting LCOE’s). This is a bit less than the DOE’s estimate of $95/MWh for nuclear. The DOE also quotes costs of $74/MWh for wind, $125/MWh for solar. By 2022 they expect costs in the range of $96/MWh for nuclear, $74/MWh for solar, $56/MWh for wind, with gas and coal between $54/MWh and $196/MWh depending on future prices and whether or not we are sequestering the carbon…

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Posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, energy, environment, nuclear, renewables, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Peak Sand

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An interesting video here from the Economist regarding a growing resource scarcity problem, that of a shortage of sand.

Sand is crucial for building projects, notably the production of concrete. Sand is also used for coastal defence to shore up beaches from rising sea levels (thus protecting property behind the beach from storm surges). And with a global boom in construction, as the world’s population both grows and becomes more urbanised, all this means that sand is being consumed at such a furious rate (demand has doubled since 2004, between 2011 and 2013 China used more cement than America used during the entire 21st century) that demand is exceeding supply. And in many parts of the world stocks are now being rapidly depleted.

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Qatar is one of the world’s leading importers of sand

Now at face value you might well say that this is ludicrous, how can the world be running out of sand! I mean the Sahara desert is full of the stuff. However, that statement highlights two problems, firstly most of the world’s desert sand is the wrong kind of sand, its too fine grained (some goes for the stuff on the ocean bed). So much so that many Gulf states actually import sand from overseas. And secondly there’s the matter of costs. Sand is heavy and transporting it long distances can greatly increase the costs. Now while some can simply afford to pay whatever it costs (such as the oil rich gulf states), for others, notably those in poorer parts of the world, paying these higher costs simply isn’t feasible.

A development is seen on one of the islands on the World Islands project in Dubai

Much of the sand used in construction projects in the middle east, such as the palm Islands off the UAE, was sourced from Australia

As a result, in much the same way as a shortage of conventional fossil fuels has led to a shift towards alternative unconventional sources, which are often worse for the environment, the same pattern is being repeated with sand. Sand is now being obtained from alternative sources by dredging, digging up rivers, etc. This is causing significant environmental damage and even risking conflict.

This is becoming a very serious problem in the developing world, where the locals simply can’t afford to rely on alternative materials or import it from abroad. Criminal gangs are now openly involved in the illegal sand trade, which is sometimes shipped overseas to neighbouring countries where a higher price will be paid.

Inevitably as the environmental problems associated with sand grow and the costs spiral, which will create an ever strong incentive for criminal activity, theft and murder, eventually alternatives will have to be found. For example using steel (which is more easily recycled, but it has a high carbon footprint) or low carbon materials such as wood. Although, again, this might not be an option in poorer parts of the world, where they simply can’t afford to pay the cost difference.

So we end up with an all too familiar tale, of a material which the cornucopians tell us there’s an infinite supply of. But in truth, only a small fraction of those resources are actually viable reserves, which can’t be extracted at any arbitrary rate of our choosing. And with the low hanging fruit running out, we’re having to go to further and more extreme lengths, running faster to stand still, while the associated environmental degradation grows.

Posted in climate change, environment, sustainability, sustainable | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Hyperloop hyperbole

I discussed the hyperloop proposal sometime ago and I thought I would be worth updating on its progress. On the one hand, they have managed to build a test track and run some tests. However, the critics argue they’ve barely got started and still haven’t tackled any of the major technical challenges yet.

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Figure 1: The first Hyperloop test track [Credit: Hyperloop one]

A structural engineer for example has pointed to a host of challenges hyperloop would face in terms of building the system, protecting it from seismic events, countering the effect of thermal expansion and dealing with NVH issues. The high speeds proposed would mean the system would have to achieve some extremely high manufacturing tolerances, which might not be possible on such a large scale. Certainly if it was possible, it would likely be very expensive. Economic experts with experience of civil infrastructure projects estimate it would cost at least ten times as much as Musk has proposed, perhaps as much as $100 billion, much more expensive than the CHSR project, yet with only 10% of the capacity.

And those NVH issues will make for a very uncomfortable ride. One physicist has suggesting it will be a barf inducing ride (Hyperpuke?). Another points to the enormous technical challenges of maintaining a partial vacuum over a 600 km vacuum chamber, particularly given the needs for thermal expansion joints. And heat represents a particular problem for hyperloop. Aside from the issues of thermal expansion, the compression of air inside the tube, all of that high voltage electrical equipment and even the body of occupants will conspire to create a major cooling problem.

Now while there are solutions to all of these issues, the problem is the complexity of making it all work, while maintaining the sort of tight engineering tolerances needed to do so is going to be a significant challenge, which its likely to take a long time to develop and likely to be very expensive. So when supporters of Hyperloop talk about successful tests being a “kitty hawk” moment, they need to remember how long it took to go from Kitty hawk to reliable long distance air travel.

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Figure 2: Hyperloop’s “Kitty hawk moment”….so only 30-40 years to go then….

And then there’s the thorny issue of safety. Phil Mason (aka Thunderf00t) discusses a number of the engineering challenges faced by hyperloop, but also raises concerns, particularly about the consequences if the tube were to be breached. In such an event, a catastrophic implosion across a section of the tube is likely and the shock-wave released by this down the tube would likely destroy any capsules for a considerable distance in both directions (hence why I suspect the media will be calling it the deathcoaster after the inevitable accident).

Similarly, any stray nut or bolt could destroy a capsule, in much the same way a stray piece of metal on a runway destroyed a Concorde on takeoff. Its worth remembering that the most dangerous section of a flight for a plane is during take off and landing, because the aircraft is travelling at speed in close proximity to the ground and the pilots have no time to do anything should the encounter a major problem. Some of the most deadly aircraft accidents have occurred either on the runway, or just shortly after take off. And being in a pressurised cylinder travelling in a partial vacuum raises some safety concerns as well. Not only of asphyxiation if the capsule the de-pressurizes, but the damage that might do to the hyperloop system itself.

Again, while these issues are solvable (up to a point!), the expensive of maintaining a 600 km long partial vacuum chamber at aircraft level standards is going to be horrendously expensive. My take on this is to ask what is the rather obvious question I don’t think those behind it have asked – what specific advantage does hyperloop offer? And is it worth the enormous expense, time and effort needed to achieve this?

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Figure 3: The concept of a Vac-train is not a new idea, its been promoted from time to time in the past [Credit: Economist, 2013]

Its supporters claim it will be faster than aircraft. However, given the engineering challenges I mentioned earlier, I would argue that’s far from proven. And the best way of solving those challenges would be to lower the operating speed down to more reasonable levels. Given the dangers mentioned earlier, its unlikely hyperloop can be operated more cheaply, particularly given that with aircraft we only have to maintain a plane and the runways, while with hyperloop we need to develop build and maintain one of the largest machines ever built.

You’d still need to go through some sort of security check in and the current proposal for hyperloop, from LA to San Francisco, won’t actually go city centre to city centre, but from the outskirts of both, so any time gained will be thrown away on a bus crawling into town (obviously city centre to city centre would be even more expensive and raise all sorts of planning issues, given the safety issues mentioned earlier).

And besides aircraft can theoretically go faster, Concorde remember went at about Mach 2. Aircraft manufacturers have tried to revive supersonic travel, coming up with new aircraft designs that fly supersonic but with a reduced sonic boom, or fly at high subsonic speeds. However, such projects tend to falter because the feedback they get from the airlines is that there simply isn’t a huge market for such aircraft. Yes there are some people who’d pay more to get from London to New York an hour or two quicker. But the majority of travellers would prefer to just bring a good book and save some cash.

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Figure 4: One of a number of proposals for new supersonic passenger planes under development [Credit Boom, 2016]

So aircraft could theoretically match hyperloop for speed. The only difference is that aircraft manufacturers reckon that the few billion in costs to achieve that wouldn’t be economically viable given the likely small size of any market for such a service. Hyperloop is based on the premise that this market (for something a bit faster than conventional planes) is sufficiently big to justify expenditure in the order of a hundred billion or so. And that hyperloop can deliver on the levels of speed advertised. Neither is likely to be true.

Of course the major down side of planes is that there’s only so many people you can squeeze on them at any one time. Although that said, there are single class versions of the A380 and 747 which can seat over 500 people. But generally, there’s only so many people you can realistically move by aircraft without seeing a rapid escalation in costs. This is where trains gain an advantage. While trains come with large fixed infrastructure costs and high maintenance costs for the track and signal infrastructure, once those have been met, the costs of running trains on it is relatively small. So they are a great way to move lots of people aroundd. And as noted earlier, hyperloop will cost significantly more and yet still only be able to support a fraction of the capacity of the CHSR system.

Trains can also make multiple stops, so that makes them much more useful for joined up journey’s. Hyperloop’s all well and good if you live in LA or the Bay area, but what if you live somewhere between the two and you’re destination is somewhere else between the two cities or further afield. For many journeys trains are better. Trains also bring economic benefits to the towns along their routes. Someone living in Milton Keynes can conceivably live there and afford a three bedroom house, yet commute into work in London. A small business who can’t effort the extortionate rents of the city centre, can base themselves out of a commuter belt town, yet still be able to get in and out of the city. This brings much needed business and tax revenue to communities along the route of a train line, which serves to counter the negative impact of having a train line in your back yard.

Hyperloop by contrast will offer no such benefits. Indeed, given the time county sheriff’s will need to devote resources to protecting it from terrorist attacks, it will likely cost communities along its route money. And given the performance issues I mentioned earlier, hyperloop will not have a lot of leeway to alter its route in order to limit planning objections (as it can’t climb slopes as steeply as a train can, nor undertake tight turns). So the likelihood is its going to be even harder to hammer through hyperloop proposals in the face of local opposition than it is to get a High speed railway line built. And ultimately that’s going to have a significant financial cost.

Would tunnelling solve some of these problems? Possibly, but it would greatly increase the expense. And it depends what we are tunnelling through. Some types of rock are porous and water leaking into the tunnel would become a problem, particularly if you are trying to maintain a partial vacuum (remember anything pumped out of the tunnel, including the air extraction to maintain a partial vacuum, must also now be pumped all the way up to the surface). Others types of rock are very difficult to drill through. Its difficult to seismically isolate a sealed tube buried underground, so it might not work in earthquake zones. Drilling tunnels underground is also going to have an impact on those living above the tunnel. And inevitably some will object and demand compensation.

Another disadvantage of planes is the high energy consumption. Hyperloop might be able to offer lower rates of energy consumption, but its difficult to say, given the thorny question of how much energy we expend making sure that air tight seal is maintained. And, as I discussed in a prior article, there are various ways the airline industry can be cleaned up. It is going to be far more technically feasible to convert aircraft to run on hydrogen or biofuels than it is to develop an entire new transportation system and built all of the infrastructure to support it. And of course, trains are generally the most energy efficient means of transport.

All in all one is forced to the conclusion that hyperloop seems to come with all the disadvantages of train travel along with all the disadvantages of air travel, plus a whole pile of other excess baggage, which does suggest it might not be a terribly viable idea. However for me what really gets my spidey senses tingling is the lack of any response to such criticisms from the designers of hyperloop. Now granted, if you went back in time and asked Wilbur Wright how he would deal with the issues of aircraft safety, he’d likely say well I’ll just let go of the controls, slide off the wing and do a tuck and roll the 4 ft to the ground. So its a bit premature to be talking about the nitty gritty. But equally, that means its a little early to be making inflated predictions as to hyperloops level of performance or costs.

But where hyperloop really jumps the shark for me, is in relation to how they plan to initially use the system for cargo delivery. I mean have these guys even done the most basic market research? You do know that freight is a highly competitive business with very tight margins?

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Figure 5: Average freight revenue per ton-mile [Credit: National Transportation Statistics, 2009]

But I can order something on Amazon and have it delivered by hyperloop in under an hours its supporters say. Ya, if you’re willing to pay a small fortune for hyperloop delivery and if you live directly opposite the terminus at one end and the seller lives at the other end. Otherwise its going to have to go on a truck either end, which isn’t necessarily going to take a direct route. Likely it will take a circular route with multiple stops….so why not just sent it by truck all the way, save money and get it delivered to your door the next day. Indeed this is the whole reason why trucks are so cheap, they are flexible and can make multiple stops along a route. And aircraft can match hyperloop for speed (as discussed) but probably at a much lower cost.

Air freight is made cheaper these days by using the room in cargo holds on passenger flights for air freight. Its so competitive and cheap these days that some UK supermarkets will fly freshly picked groceries from Spain to the UK so costumers can have freshly picked fruit and veg….well until brexit happens anyway. But its difficult to see how hyperloop can compete with either. And of course for bulk cargo delivery, you can’t beat ships or trains. Its precisely why most of the major industrial areas of the world are built near waterways, ports or they are connected to them by railway lines.

So all in all, hyperloop does not live up to the hype. It doesn’t help that its achieved something of a cult following, particularly from libertarians, as they see a relationship between it and a key plot line in an Ayn Rand book. As with other technologies this is leading to a significant overselling of the proposal by those with an irrational and emotional attachment to it.

There is some potential merits to hyperloop no doubt, but at this early stage to even consider it as a realistic alternative to existing transport options is just silly. Certainly thought there is a need to resist the “grass is greener” syndrome associated with it, as there’s always a tendency to see new ideas as better than existing ones, simply because we don’t know what the real problems with the new proposal are.

Posted in aviation, cars, energy, environment, future, space, sustainability, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trump the African Dictator

daryanblog

We were warned by Trevor Noah, prior to the election, that Trump sounded a lot like an African dictator. Unfortunately, every day he and his regime are becoming ever more like one. The constant posturing for the sake of his ego, the lavish personal spending, the inability to accept criticism and of course the massive levels of corruption.

_97476408_louiseandsteve Your tax dollars hard at work….

Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but instead, he’s done the opposite, with his cronies and family members increasingly using the assets of state for as their personal play things, be it to go shopping in Europe, holidays, or business trips abroad. The Secret service is at risk of going bankrupt given the huge bill its run up guarding Trump during his trips to Florida every weekend (where the state pays the cost of putting him up in his…

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A possible counter to the Fermi paradox

If we were made of some rare isotope of Bismuth you might have an argument for us being alone in the cosmos

Neil DeGrasse

One of the things that often comes up when discussing topics related to space or future technology is the Fermi paradox. Quite simply put, this begs the question that if the universe has been around for billions of years, where are all the aliens? There’s been ample time for them to evolve and either travel to our planet, or for the radio traffic they generated (perhaps millions of years ago) to reach us and be picked up by the likes of the SETI institute.

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Figure 1: Where’s ET?

As a result the Fermi paradox is often cited by those who favour the rare earth hypothesis (REH). This states that the chances of a planet evolving life, never mind intelligent life, are so rare its highly unlike to have occurred twice and certainly any other species will likely be a very long way away (as in, that we are probably the only intelligent life in this galaxy). We are only here because we live on a planet with a very stable orbit, in exactly the right orbit, a planet with a magnetic field and volcanic activity, we’ve a large stabilising moon (which stops the planet wobbling around, causing severe climate change) and Jupiter acts like a sort of planetary hoover, disposing of asteroids and comets that would lead to us getting hit more often. And had that big impact that killed the dinosaurs not happened, then neither would we have evolved, or a few dozen other events over the last few billion years.

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Figure 2: An outline of some of the factors REH cite as essential for the formation of the earth and our evolution

This idea has never sat well with me. Indeed this whole concept of the REH seems to have been dreamt up by someone who doesn’t understand statistics. Any event, no matter how unlikely, will still occur over a suitably long enough time period, if a sufficient number of trials are held. The odds of winning the lottery are extremely remote, yet every week someone generally does win it. The odds of being killed in a plane crash are also very remote (you are more likely to slip in the shower on the day of the flight), yet planes do crash on a pretty regular basis and people do die (a few thousand every year are killed in plane crashes). Indeed the whole reason plane travel is so safe and cars and other products are increasingly much safer is precisely because we engineers understand these statistical truths and factor this into our designs (usually by making sure that no single point of failure should result in catastrophic failure of the entire system).

There is also a sort of Sliding Doors (a reference to the film by the same name) element to the REH. In that it is assumed that there is only one possible outcome that will yield a positive and all others possibilities lead to disaster. Its like trying to argue that you have to bake a cake exactly the way you did it last time. That if you don’t start at exactly 18:25:03 and if you don’t take exactly the same amount of time to prepare ingredients and you you have to put in exactly 54.56g of sugar and 303.56g’s of flour and the oven must be set to exactly 222.43 °and you bake for 1 hr 23 mins (rather than the 220 °C and 1.5 hrs the recipe says), otherwise baking a cake is impossible. As Douglas Adam’s in the Hitchikers Guide quibs, if you take the naysayers at their word the theoretical population density of the universe is zero and thus anyone you’ve ever met (including yourself) are all elements of you’re own over active imagination.

A useful counter to the REH is Jack Cohen and Iain Steward‘s “What would a Martian look like”. Their key point is that life on earth is a lot more diverse and capable of surviving in much wider extremes than we often realise. And as a consequence alien life could indeed be very alien to us indeed. An earth that was a bit warmer, colder or has a more variable in climate would be bad news for us or the organisms we evolved from, but there’s plenty of life on earth that would not be the least bit troubled by this. Indeed, given that such conditions would eliminate the competition (us!) they’d positively thrive. The authors also go on to argue that our narrow definition of a “habitable zone” might not be accurate, as there might be different habitable zones for different forms of life. Speculation about the possibility of life on Juipter’s moon Europa does pretty much blow the concept of a narrow “habitable zone” right out of the water.

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Figure 3: Real aliens could be very alien indeed

Of course this brings us back to the Fermi hypothesis, if life isn’t extremely rare in the universe where are all the aliens? Well firstly, as I discussed in a recent piece, space flight is very difficult. Once we eliminate such fantastic sci-fi as warp drives, anti-gravity or transporter beams, getting from one star system to another is a monumentally difficult task. That only a tiny handful of species that evolve might actually do this isn’t that crazy a suggestion. And the odds of us bumping into any of these aliens (given the vast distances) are pretty low. Indeed this is probably closer to the point Fermi was actually trying to make than the rare earth hypothesis. But what about radio traffic, surely we should be picking up masses of radio traffic from various alien species?

Well not necessarily. Put it this way, when was the last time anyone reading this used a radio? Sent a telegram recently? Probably not. Most internet traffic, telephone calls and TV signals now go via fibre optic cables. And its likely that over the next hundred years our communications technology will change radically, using directional lasers (essentially fibre optics without the cable), short range wi-fi or even perhaps neutrinos. Bottom line, if you pointed a dish at the earth 150 years ago you’d hear nothing but static. Point one at the earth in another hundred years and you’ll probably also hear nothing but static (of course if Trump has his way you’ll hear only static in a year or two’s time!).

Assuming other species follow a similar trend, then the window of opportunity during which we could detect another alien species (by current means) is likely to be very narrow, 200-300 years, which is practically a rounding error on the time scales of the universe. The chances of two species (ourselves and someone else) both evolving to a point where we both have similar communications technology at more or less the same time, yet we are both sufficiently close enough to one another to establish communication links, before one goes off the air. Well that’s pretty remote.

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Figure 4: Radio telescopes might not be the best means of finding ET

And radio signals don’t travel an infinite distance. The further away you are from the source, the larger the size of the dish you’ll need, the more sensitive instruments need to be. Beyond a certain distance it would be impossible to hear any of the signals we generate and thus impossible for us to eavesdrop on any aliens.

The drake equation is often cited in relation to this topic and what essentially I’m saying is that we might need to re-calibrate the last two factors in this equation Fc (the fraction of civilisations who attempt to communicate) and Fl (years during which communication occurs). Many assign values to these in the order of 1 and 1e9 respectively. I’d argue a figure of 0.001 (reflecting the low probability of them communicating in a way we can intercept and the probability of such a signal being actually picked up) and 200-300 years instead. Run those numbers and even assuming a reasonably optimistic values for all other factors, you get a very low result, perhaps only a handful in this galaxy, even in a scenario where we are otherwise estimating maybe a million civilisations within our galaxy alone (not that I think there are that many, I’m just pointing out that even if they existed, we are likely to encounter “technical difficulties” in communicating with them).

Certain types of signals would be detectable at a considerable distance. For example certain types of focused radio signals used to contact distant spacecraft or for planet to planet (or perhaps star to star) communication. There is also the concept of using focused and powerful beams of microwaves to shunt power from orbiting solar power satellites either to the ground (for electricity) or to propel distant spacecraft. Again, these would be detectable at a considerable distance.

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Figure 5: Powerful beams to power spacecraft is the sort of signal that could be detected at a considerable distance

However the “flash light” of such signals would be very narrow and the odds of us seeing such a signal are very low and it would only be fleeting, not unlike the infamous “Wow” signal. More recently there’s been the topic of Fast Radio bursts (FRB’s), which potentially fit the signature of these sorts of signals. Fraser Cain from the Universe Today, discusses the ongoing investigation into FRB’s here. Suffice to say, it probably some natural phonomeon, but scientists have yet to come up with a conclusive explanation.

Then there’s the matter of deliberate communication. We’ve blasted out the odd signal ourselves that would be detectable some distance out, so surely it must have occurred to some aliens to do the same? Well no, not necessarily. Why would a civilisation which is perhaps tens of thousands of years old, maybe even millions of years old resort to using a technology they briefly employed thousands of years ago when they now have far better technology available?

It would be the equivalent of the Chinese trying to communicate with the Russians by lighting beacon fires or Trump sending a telegram (oddly enough Western Union only stopped doing those in 2006) to Putin (likely saying, when can I defect?). And as for aliens looking out for our radio traffic, that would be like the US spending billions on new high resolution cameras on its spy satellites on the off chance the Iranians go back to using signal flags to convey military intelligence.

It probably won’t occur to any alien species to do this, and they’d be well aware that if they did find anyone it would be primitives like ourselves. It would be like us going out of our way to communicate with some uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rainforest and I don’t see anyone rushing off to do that.

Indeed, one possibility is that alien civilisations are deliberately avoiding or limit any transmissions that might be picked up by primitive civilisations like ourselves. They would be well aware that the bulk of civilisations in our stage of development are going to be relatively dangerous (fighting wars, following crazy religious belief’s, have despotic leaders, etc.). Most civilisations in our stage of development probably eventually destroy themselves (via environmental degradation or war). Only those who learn to live within their means and to co-operate peacefully will survive beyond a certain point. So it would make sense to give civilisations like ours a wide berth until they’ve evolved to the point where you can get some sense out of them.

So perhaps a different approach is needed. Looking beyond radio traffic, or perhaps trying more direct means to search for ET. And fortunately some surveys along these lines are already being conducted.

A notable candidate is Tabby’s star, which has produced some unusual Kepler data. While this is likely to be nothing more exciting than debris from a planet that breached its star’s Roche limit. But its been speculated that the star might have a Dyson swarm around it (an alien mega structure!).

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Figure 6: There is considerable speculation about Tabby’s star, likely just debris, but could it be an alien megastructure?

We’ve already found a number of exoplanets, some of them in orbits within the habitable zone around their host star. Trappist-1 for example might have 4 planet’s in its habitable zone (that said, remember what we said earlier about habitable zones, it could be broader than we assume and if a planet lacks an atmosphere then it may make little difference which orbit it is in). Within the next decade the next generation of space telescopes should allow us to scan these planets and inspect the atmospheres of these targets for signs of life, e.g. oxygen, water, methane or carbon dioxide. And of course efforts to find life in our own solar system continue.

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Figure 7: Trappist 1 has several exoplanets that join a growing list of potentially life bearing worlds…

Needless to say if we find any hint of life (regardless of how primitive), either in our own solar system or those nearby, then basically the rare earth hypothesis is DOA. Two positives in this small corner of the galaxy, in a universe with more stars than grains of sand on a beach its pretty reasonable to conclude that alien life is fairly common, although intelligent alien life is another matter (between Trump and brexit I’d question whether it exists on earth!).

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Figure 8: ….which future space telescopes might allow us to detect

This also raises another question (this is the problem with any space related topics, you end up with more questions than answers), are aliens aware of our existence? There are some who argue we should try and hide our presence, just in case any aliens show up looking to eat our leaders (well if they are here for Trump, I for one welcome our new alien overlords).

Jokes aside, the cat is out of the bag and has probably been so for millions of years. Using similar technology to what we are now working on, any aliens in our neighbourhood would probably be aware by now that the earth has an oxygen rich atmosphere. The smarter ones might well notice the increased air pollution and carbon dioxide levels indicating industrial activity. And later on, the fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests, indicating we’re tinkering with nuclear technology. So that ship sailed along time ago.

And since we’ve mentioned the topic of invading aliens, aggressive aliens are probably unlikely. And they certainly won’t show up with ray guns in city sized flying saucers. There’s a host of far more effective military tactics a space faring society could adopt, e.g. putting a mass driver on a kuiper belt object and using it to fling large rocks at us. A couple of months of that and you could annihilate every military base, industrial area and city on the planet without having to risk any ground troops or even air/space forces.

So why aren’t they here? Well A) they may not have the technology to get here. B) oddly enough they are reluctant to make contact with a bunch of nutters like ourselves. Or C) Given that it would take hundreds of years for light to travel from our star to theirs (and thus if say they were 1,000 ly’s away they won’t be aware of possible industrial activity on earth yet), it would take some time for them to learn of us and longer still for them to travel here or send a signal.

For example, let’s suppose there is a Dyson sphere at Tabby’s star. Even if that were the case, we shouldn’t expect any sort of signal until at least 4,000 AD at the earliest. Even if someone with interstellar travel was absurdly close, e.g. Trappist-1. And even if on the first sign of nuclear testing in the 60’s (which they would only have observed in the last decade or so), they jumped in a spacecraft straight away and headed towards us, even assuming a speed of say 0.5 LS (and of course we’re assuming that its possible to travel that fast, this again is probably more the point Fermi was actually trying to make) they’d not arrive until the latter half of this century. Of course if they are further away, or can’t travel anything like that fast, these time scales lengthen considerably.

So does this mean that anyone involved with SETI is wasting their time? Well no. Everything I’ve said is speculative, as is everything that is said by SETI’s critics. And as noted they have constantly changed tactics, so just because the first few attempts failed doesn’t mean further efforts will also fail. Without some concrete evidence either way we can’t be sure. Frankly if we’re going to spend hundreds of billions a year for a bunch of guys to sit in a bunker waiting for orders from the president to start world war III (then when Trump calls, point out to him that no we can’t nuke the New York Times just because they said you’re a tax cheating Russian spy), then we can spare a few million for SETI activity.

And one has to look at the bigger picture. One thing I liked about the old computer game civilisation was how if you built the SETI institute it doubled the output of all of your science labs. Big science projects often lead to developments in related fields with all sorts of unexpected benefits. If it weren’t for projects like SETI or CERN, you won’t be reading this blog post.

Playing the long game is key. As noted these FRB’s, or the Wow signal (or the mystery of Tabby’s star), don’t add up to much, unless all natural phenomenon can be ruled out (and they can’t). But if say, in a decade’s time, similar signals were to be received and we still can’t come up with a convincing explanation as to what natural phenomenon could be behind them, well that’s a different story.

Of course this also suggests we may never get a definitive answer to this question. Short of aliens landing on the Reichstag lawn (post-Trump and brexit Germany is now leader of the free world), we’ll never be 100% sure. We might get to the stage where scientists are all but certain that one of the Trappist-1 planets has an oxygen rich atmosphere with signs of advanced life, or we’ve yet to come up with a conclusive answer to FRB’s despite decades of trying. All of this would be a lot of smoke, but we won’t be able to call it a fire.

So all in all the answer to the Fermi paradox can perhaps be summed up as “like Duh!”. Weighting up all the different factors it would be more likely than not, even in a galaxy with millions of other civilisations that we won’t have heard from any of them.

And for the record, while I don’t discount the possibility of advanced alien life, I would personally guess that there aren’t nearly that many and if there are any out there, they are probably some considerable distance away. They might be aware of our presence, or they might not (given the hundreds of millions of stars, that our planet was simply overlooked isn’t that unlikely). They might simply not care. Such contact might be forbidden under the terms of some sort of intergalactic treaty. Or the invasion fleet might well be on its way (what’s the bet if aliens ever did show up that the Daily Mail will say they are only here to claim benefits). Or its possible that having witnessed us polluting our atmosphere and testing nuclear weapons, they’ve concluded we’re doomed and plan to wait till after the inevitable apocalypse before moving in.

The point is that there are several perfect rational explanations without us having to torture statistics to get the answer we want.

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The trouble with trade: Walmart

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One has to worry about the consequences of a US/UK trade deal. As I’ve said before, getting a trade deal isn’t the problem, its the concession the UK will inevitably be forced to accept as part of that deal.

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This week Liam Fox tried to argue that on the one hand they’d ban chlorinated chicken from the UK and in the same sentence so what if we do allow it. Well if you adopt the first position, banning US food products and cars (many of the larger SUV’s will fail current UK/EU environmental standards) the Americans will respond in kind and what exactly will we be trading with the US? On the other hand, if you allow Chlorinated chicken or steroids in beef, you’ll be cutting yourself off from the EU market.

A case in point of everything that is wrong with the US is Walmart. For…

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