Category Archives: Science

Artificial Intelligence – Thoughts and News

My science fiction books – Far from the Spaceports and Timing, plus two more titles in preparation – are heavily built around exploring relationships between people and artificial intelligences, which I call personas. So as well as a bit of news about one of our present-day AIs – Alexa – I thought I’d talk today about how I see the trajectory leading from where we are today, to personas such as Slate.

Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon
Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon

Before that, though, some news about a couple of new Alexa skills I have published recently. The first is Martian Weather, providing a summary of recent weather from Elysium Planitia, Mars, courtesy of a public NASA data feed from the Mars Insight Lander. So you can listen to reports of about a week of temperature, wind, and air pressure reports. At the moment the temperature varies through a Martian day between about -95 and -15° Celsius, so it’s not very hospitable. Martian Weather is free to enable on your Alexa device from numerous Alexa skills stores, including UK, US, CA, AU, and IN. The second is Peak District Weather, a companion to my earlier Cumbria Weather skill but – rather obviously – focusing on mountain weather conditions in England’s Peak District rather than Lake District. Find out about weather conditions that matter to walkers, climbers and cyclists. This one is (so far) only available on the UK store, but other international markets will be added in a few days.

Who remembers Clippy?

Current AI research tends to go in one of several directions. We have single-purpose devices which aim to do one thing really well, but have no pretensions outside that. They are basically algorithms rather than intelligences per se – they might be good or bad at their allotted task, but they aren’t going to do well at anything else. We have loads of these around these days – predictive text and autocorrect plugins, autopilots, weather forecasts, and so on. From a coding point of view, it is now comparatively easy to include some intelligence in your application, using modular components, and all you have to do is select some suitable training data to set the system up (actually, that little phrase “suitable training data” conceals a multitude of difficulties, but let’s not go into that today).

Boston Dynamics ‘Atlas’ (Boston Dynamics web site)

Then you get a whole bunch of robots intended to master particular physical tasks, such as car assembly or investigation of burning buildings. Some of these are pretty cute looking, some are seriously impressive in their capabilities, and some have been fashioned to look reasonably humanoid. These – especially the latter group – probably best fit people’s idea of what advanced AI ought to look like. They are also the ones closest to mankind’s long historical enthusiasm for mechanical assistants, dating back at least to Hephaestus, who had a number of automata helping him in his workshop. A contemporary equivalent is Boston Dynamics (originally a spin-off from MIT, later taken over by Google) which has designed and built a number of very impressive robots in this category, and has attracted interest from the US military, while also pursing civilian programmes.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then there’s another area entirely, which aims to provide two things: a generalised intelligence rather than one targeted on a specific task, and one which does not come attached to any particular physical trappings. This is the arena of the current crop of digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and so on. It’s also the area that I am both interested in and involved in coding for, and provides a direct ancestry for my fictional personas. Slate and the others are, basically, the offspring – several generations removed – of these digital assistants, but with far more autonomy and general cleverness. Right now, digital assistants are tied to cloud-based sources of information to carry out speech recognition. They give the semblance of being self-contained, but actually are not. So as things stand you couldn’t take an Alexa device out to the asteroid belt and hope to have a decent conversation – there would be a minimum of about half an hour between each line of chat, while communication signals made their way back to Earth, were processed, and then returned to Ceres. So quite apart from things like Alexa needing a much better understanding of human emotions and the subtleties of language, we need a whole lot of technical innovations to do with memory and processing.

As ever, though, I am optimistic about these things. I’ve assumed that we will have personas or their equivalent within about 70 or 80 years from now – far enough away that I probably won’t get to chat with them, but my children might, and my grandchildren will. I don’t subscribe to the theory that says that advanced AIs will be inimical to humankind (in the way popularised by Skynet in the Terminator films, and picked up much more recently in the current Star Trek Discovery series). But that’s a whole big subject, and one to be tackled another day.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy my latest couple of Alexa skills and find out about the weather on Mars or England’s Peak District, while I finish some more skills that are in progress, and also continue to write about their future.

Mars Insight Lander, Artist’s impression (NASA/JPL)

Emotions

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

In my science fiction stories, I write about artificial intelligences called personas. They are not androids, nor robots in the sense that most people recognise – they have no specialised body hardware, are not able to move around by themselves, and don’t look like imitation humans. They are basically – in today’s terminology – computers, but with a level of artificial intelligence substantially beyond what we are used to. Our current crop of virtual assistants, such as Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Bixby, and so on, are a good analogy – it’s the software running on them that matters, not the particular hardware form. They have a certain amount of built-in capability, and can also have custom talents (like Alexa skills) added on to customise them in an individual way. “My” Alexa is broadly the same as “yours”, in that both tap into the same data store for understanding language, but differs in detail because of the particular combination of extra skills you and I have enabled (in my case, there’s also a lot of trial development code installed). So there is a level of individuality, albeit at a very basic level. They are a step towards personas, but are several generations away from them.

Now, one of the main features that distinguishes personas from today’s AI software is an ability to recognise and appropriately respond to emotion – to empathise. (There’s a whole different topic to do with feeling emotion, which I’ll get back to another day). Machine understanding of emotion (often called Sentiment Analysis) is a subject of intense research at the moment, with possible applications ranging from monitoring drivers to alert about emotional states that would compromise road safety, through to medical contexts to provide early warning regarding patients who are in discomfort or pain. Perhaps more disturbingly, it is coming into use during recruitment, and to assess employees’ mood – and in both cases this could be without the subject knowing or consenting to the study. But correctly recognising emotion is a hard problem… and not just for machine learning.

From the article ‘Emotion Science Keeps Getting More Complicated. Can AI Keep Up? ‘ by Dr Rich Firth-Godbehere

Humans also often have problems recognising emotional context. Some people – by nature or training – can get pretty good at it, most people are kind of average, and some people have enormous difficulty understanding and responding to emotions – their own, often, as well as those of other people. There are certain stereotypes we have of this -the cold scientist, the bullish sportsman, the loud bore who dominates a conversation – and we probably all know people whose facility to handle emotions is at best weak. The adjacent picture is taken from an excellent article questioning whether machines will ever be able to detect and respond to emotion – is this man, at the wheel of his car, experiencing road rage, or is he pumped that the sports team he supports has just scored? It’s almost impossible to tell from a still picture.

From a human perspective, we need context – the few seconds running up to that specific image in which we can listen to the person’s words, and observe their various bodily clues to do with posture and so on. If instead of a still picture, I gave you a five second video, I suspect you could give a fairly accurate guess what the person was experiencing. Machine learning is following the same route. One article concerning modern research reads in part, “Automatic emotion recognition is a challenging task… it’s natural to simultaneously utilize audio and visual information“. Basically, the inputs to their system consist of a digitised version of the speech being heard, and four different video feeds focusing on different parts of the person’s face. All five inputs are then combined, and tuned in proprietary ways to focus on details which are sensitive to emotional content. At present, this model is said to do well with “obvious” feelings such as anger or happiness, and struggles with more weakly signalled feelings such as surprise, disgust and so on. But then, much the same is true of many people…

A schematic learning network (from www.neuroelectrics.com)

A fascinating – and unresolved – problem is whether emotions, and especially the physical signs of emotions, are universal human constants, or alternatively can only be defined in a cultural and historical context. Back in the 1970s, psychological work had concluded that emotions were shared in common across the world, but since then this has been called into question. The range of subjects used for the study was – it has been argued – been far too narrow. And when we look into past or future, the questions become more difficult and less answerable. Can we ever know whether people in, say, the Late Bronze Age experienced the same range of emotions as us? And expressed them with the same bodily features and movements? We can see that they used words like love, anger, fear, and so on, but was their inward experience the same as ours today? Personally I lean towards the camp that emotions are indeed universal, but the counter-arguments are persuasive. And if human emotions are mutable over space and time, what does that say about machine recognition of emotions, or even machine experience of emotions?

One way of exploring these issues is via games, and as I was writing this I came across a very early version of such a game. It is called The Vault, and is being prepared by Queen Mary University, London. In its current form it is hard to get the full picture, but it clearly involves a series of scenes from past, present and future. Some of the descriptive blurb reads “The Vault game is a journey into history, an immersion into the experiences and emotions of those whose lives were very different from our own. There, we discover unfamiliar feelings, uncanny characters who are like us and yet unlike.” There is a demo trailer at the above link, which looks interesting but unfinished… I tried giving a direct link to Vimeo of this, but the token appears to expire after a while and the link fails. You can still get to the video via the link above.

Meanwhile, my personas will continue to respond to – and experience – emotions, while I wait for software developments to catch up with them! And, of course, continue to develop my own Alexa skills as a kind of remote ancestor to personas.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Future life in space

Two quick bits of space news this week that – all being well – could make their way into a story one day.

Prototype of steam-propelled space probe (University of Central Florida, via Independent.co.uk)

The first was an idea of powering space probes by steam. Now, at first read this sounds very retro, but it deserves some thought. In space, you can’t move along by means of steam pressure turning wheels – there is nothing against which to gain traction. Steam-propelled rockets work like any other rocket – something gets ejected at great speed in one direction, so as to accelerate the rocket in the opposite direction. The steam engine part of the probe is a means of converting the fuel supply into something that can be directed out of the thruster nozzle. The steam, heated as hot as possible to give a high nozzle exit temperature, is the propellant.

The cool thing about pushing steam out of the back, is that it comes from water, and in particular ice. And, as we have been discovering over the last few decades, water ice is extremely common throughout the solar system, and more widely through the universe. So as and when the steam-powered spaceship starts to run low on fuel, it can land on some promising object and collect some more ice. The fuel supply, while not strictly unlimited, is vastly common wherever we’re likely to go. As and when needed, solar panels or (further from the sun) a standard radioactive decay engine can give a boost, but the steam engine would do the grunt work of getting from one refueling station to the next.

Is there wine on Mars? (JPL/Caltech via livescience.com)

Secondly, pursuing my occasional theme of alcohol in space, I read about a firm from Georgia (the country, not the US state) that wants to develop grape varieties that would survive on Mars and, in due course, be convertible into decent wine. This would be a serious challenge, given the low air pressure, high carbon monoxide levels, and wide temperature swings of said planet. As a rough rule of thumb, the air at the Martian surface is about the same as at 20,000′ here on Earth. Apparently, white varieties are reckoned to be more adaptable than red, but I suspect that we are a little way away from resounding success here.

Other attempts to ensure that future space travellers will not have to go without booze include Budweiser sending barley seeds into space to identify the effect of microgravity on germination, steeping and kilning – three steps in the production of malt. See this link. Allegedly, also, a bottle of Scotch Whisky spent three years on the ISS before returning to Earth for analysis… the resulting taste was said to be disappointing. I hope the ISS crew got a few measures out of the bottle before sending it back down again.

That’s it for today, except to wonder again how each of these ideas could be storified. My own near-future science fiction books assume an advanced version of today’s ion drives for propelling spacecraft, but there’s no reason why steam propulsion might not appear as a previous experiment. As to wine in space, well I have already assumed that the problems of fermenting beer in microgravity have been resolved, so again this would have to be a retrospective view of historical developments. Basically, both of these innovations are set between today and my own future world. So I’m looking forward to seeing how they get sorted out in the next decade or two…

Living on Someone else’s land

The finished item…

Many of you know that last week I was heavily involved in getting some refurbishment work done to a bar in Grasmere, Cumbria. It really did get finished on time, albeit needing a couple of long days and late nights. But I’m not going to blog about that. Nor – though I did consider it – an I going to blog about how pretty much every project pushes the envelope on its expected finishing time (even Gandalf apparently suffered from this, judging by his complaint in the film version of Lord of the Rings, “Three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time”).

One of the jackdaws…

Instead, I’m going to talk about something that occupied my mind during several journeys from the bar back to our storage area in some former barns late at night. It is pretty dark in that part of Grasmere, and I didn’t bother with a torch or anything until I was actually poking around trying to find some small-but-essential gizmo to take back. And as I walked down the cul de sac which is Lake View Drive, across the lawn, and down the rough track to the barns, with empty fields on one side going down to the lake, the night was alive with all kinds of animal and bird noises. Of course we have herons and jackdaws as regular visitors – uninvited, but normally welcome – along with a bunch of regular garden birds. Buzzards drift overhead every so often. At this time of year the lake shore is full of geese, swelling the regular swan and duck population. And so on. These are all familiar.

Three badgers playing…

But as well as these, there are the nocturnal creatures that we share the land with, but don’t interact with very much. I’ve mentioned the badgers before, and right now we often get what look to me to be a group of juveniles playing – this night-camera picture shows them beside one of the apple trees, complete with protective fence. A few minutes later they all headed off in a group towards the barns. Maybe they wanted to sample the batch of lager we had just started off?

Why protect the apple trees? Well, that has to do with another of our nocturnal visitors – a small herd of deer. These are very much less welcome. On the night camera I have seen up to half a dozen at a time, led by a rather splendid looking stag. They have been steadily decimating a row of laurel bushes, which we don’t mind so much as they will bounce back, but also various bulbs and small plants which we want for the spring. According to local rumour, several of the local farmers are suffering rather more serious commercial loss from this little bunch.

One of the deer…

Anyway, all this set me thinking that we are only one of the occupants of this piece of the British landscape, and that deer, badgers, rabbits, herons and whatnot have in all likelihood been wandering around the area much longer than we humans have. And this has been true for most of human history. As we spread out, ages ago, from Africa and the Near East, we were perpetually coming into contact with the existing occupants of land which, to us, was unknown. We met predators and prey, and reacted accordingly. We met other hominids – Neanderthals , Denisovans, and others. Sometimes we settled peacefully and mated with them, other times we met in war. But until very recently, we knew that the land we moved across and settled in was not really our own – we were simply a recent arrival, joining others who had lived there for many years already. A lot of that sense of shared occupancy seems to me to have evaporated. We frequently assume these days that we are the sole – or at least the single most important – residents in any particular patch of the planet. That’s a big subject, and one for another day.

Turning now to writing, most novels set in the past should have this as part of the background. Different cultures at different times might express that idea differently – birds and beasts , angels and demons, selkies and spirits – but it should always be there. And it’s kind of regular stock in trade for fantasy literature.

Mars (NASA/JPL)

But, as usually happens, this propelled my thoughts forward into science fiction. How can this sense of shared living be captured in that medium? As and when we move out from this planet into the other worlds of the solar system, and potentially beyond, will we recover that sense of having to share the environment with others? This might, of course, be in the most overt and incontrovertible way – an unequivocal meeting with intelligent aliens. But it might also be something much less obvious, such as microbes living in the sub-surface oceans of some of the larger moons circling the outer planets – Titan, Europa and Enceladus for sure, Ganymede and Callisto possibly. Or maybe forms of bacterial life in underground salty lakes on Mars. Or some manifestation of life that as yet we don’t know how to recognise.

How will it be, I wonder, to recover an everyday sense that we are shared occupants of the universe, not solitary ones?

Preparing to build

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about aluminium smelting. Today’s topic is a little more prosaic, but historically has been a much more frequent part of building projects.

The various bits of wood – house beams in front, oak timbers behind

One part of remodelling the bar at The Good Sport is to replace the bar worktop. The old one was a hybrid affair with some chipboard and some stone – the new one is made of wood taken from various sources. There are former house timbers dating from some time in the mid 19th century. They’re very cool, not least for the history they have witnessed. Then there are frame support pieces made just from builders’ merchants supplies, probably pine or something similarly quick growing. But the best sections are two large pieces of oak, rescued by a local craftsman when the tree was felled. These are cut top to bottom along the trunk, so you cannot count the rings and find out how old they are – but my guess is that they considerably outdate the rest of the installation. (The top-to-bottom orientation means that the grain runs along the counter top).

But the thing I want to talk about today is not the age of the wood, but the preparation that has gone into it. The two pieces had been supplied to us reasonably smooth – but “reasonably smooth” menas “not smooth enough” when it’s a thing that people will be leaning on. So one of my jobs these last few days has been to turn “reasonably smooth” into “really smooth”.

One of the pieces of wood, together with the belt sander

Now, since this is 2019, I used a selection of power tools to effect this change, mostly a belt sander with a number of different grades of sandpaper. Even with that, it took a decent time to go over the top surface multiple times, working from coarser to finer passes. I was extremely happy with the result, but it also led me to consider how things might have been in the many ages of our world before power tools were invented. After all, sanding wood is an activity which lends itself to thinking about other things while you’re working away. How long, I mused, would this have taken me if I was doing it all by hand? And would the final result have been anything like so pleasing? After all, wood-smoothing is not something that I have done much of in my life to date, and I wouldn’t call myself especially skilled at it.

Swimming reindeer, c.13,000 years old (BBC)

Human history is full of exquisitely crafted objects, meeting needs somewhere between religion, art, and practical necessity. This swimming reindeer figure was made around 13,000 years ago – I don’t know how long it took the original artist to fashion it, but I’m guessing that it was rather longer than the time I put into smoothing two essentially flat pieces of wood. Not to mention the huge number of practice hours he or she had put in since childhood.

Now, I only smoothed one side of the wood – the pragmatic nature of today’s world means that I wasn’t motivated to do much to the hidden side except to make sure it was proof against various kinds of wood pests. But back in the day, if the kings or the priests felt it important to take just as much care on the hidden side as the visible one, then you would just have got on with it.

Which brings me to the future. There’s a developmental principle in some games – those in which the time frame of the game is spread out over many years – that items which are available only to the wealthy in one era get diffused more and more widely through the population as a whole as you go forward in time. I guess the standard example is computing power – back in the 1950s and 60s, computers could only be owned by large institutions or extremely wealthy individuals. Now we all have much more powerful machines we carry around in our pockets. Similarly for smooth bits of wood – once upon a time it took real skill and craft to create something smooth and shapely from a rough-hewn piece of timber. Nowadays anyone who wants can go out and buy power tools and achieve something similar by themselves (not necessarily with artistic flair, but certainly with polish).

The world’s first 3d-printed house (BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-44709534)

Now, as and when we get to build colonies and habitats in various places around the solar system, my bet is that we will use 3d printing as our construction technique. After all, it’s way simpler and cheaper to ship out a large printer to wherever you’re going, and use that to construct tools, equipment, and habitat sections – much cheaper than paying for the fuel to send actual construction materials. That’s very cool, but unless the technology advances in aesthetic ways as well as practical ones, I can’t see 3d-printed building materials having a wood grain that can be sanded and then picked out with oil. On one level it doesn’t really matter – you’d prefer that your house on, say, the asteroid Ceres was airtight and warm, even if that meant not having a wood grain to look at. Or maybe we’ll have a printer add-on that will simulate the grain in whatever direction you want.

After preparation…

Ultima Thule

A very quick blog today, as I have been occupied all day in wood preparation (of which, more another day).

So this is to celebrate the safe passage of the New Horizons space probe past Ultima Thule, a small rock out beyond Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt. The flyby – at some 44 kilometres per hour – happened around 5:30 am UK time on January 1st, when I suspect most of us were still in bed after the New Year’s Eve celebrations!

The journey from Earth (Johns Hopkins University)

So far all we have had back are a few low-resolution images on the final stages of approach, and a post-flyby signal confirming that the probe had survived. This survival was by no means guaranteed – nobody knew if Ultima Thule was accompanied by clouds of dust or smaller rocks, and hitting them at 44kph would have been fatal.

However, there is something like 7GB of data waiting to be sent home, all to be sent by a transmitter much less powered than the average light bulb, with each signal taking over 6 hours to get home. It’s rather extraordinary that we can pick up the data download at all, and at such a low data rate it will take the better part of two years to get the whole lot back safely.

New Horizons – until now – has been best known for the remarkable pictures of Pluto and Charon, which we enjoyed back in 2015. These have radically reshaped our views of these bodies, and vastly enriched our understanding of them. Not only that, but they inspired large parts of the setting of The Liminal Zone, which could not have existed in its present form without this additional knowledge.

Charon, from New Horizons (NASA/JPL)

So here by way of celebration is a short extract from The Liminal Zone, using geography that would have been pure guesswork before 2015.

In the approach vid, Charon was rapidly changing from a remote celestial body into a diversely coloured and textured terrain. From a bright point of light, to a disk which filled the sky. From a name, to a home, however temporary. She gazed intently at it, trying to fix the setting in her mind. The habitat was situated on the interface between the largely flat expanse of Vulcan Planum on one side, and rugged folds of hills alongside Serenity Chasma on the other. She had briefly skimmed the original surveyors’ reports; so far as she remembered, the location was a compromise between stability and ease of construction.

As yet, I have no plans to set a book out in the Kuiper Belt, but who knows what might happen when the full data set comes back?

Metal Working

Civilisation Box Art (Wiki)

Since I first discovered it – many years ago – I have loved the game of Civilisation. I was introduced to version 1 of the computer game by a work colleague, and since then have played various variants of both the computer and the board game. Of course there are all kinds of opinions about which is best, which I don’t propose to go into. But one of the key features was the technology tree – the very very long series of inventions and ideas you pursued in order to build new stuff and so develop your culture.

Now, one of the very early developments was Bronze Working (which allowed specific kinds of military units and civic wonders). This was a prerequisite for Iron Working and – after a very long time – Metallurgy.

The smelting fire
The smelting fire

So, what has this to do with today’s blog? Well, yesterday, as a small part of a sizeable remodel of The Good Sport bar, we had cause to do some invention ourselves. We weren’t working with Bronze or Iron, but rather Aluminium. Now, a purist will perhaps object that Aluminium is not on the Civ tech tree – at least, not any of the variants I have played – which is true. And also that we were not starting from bauxite or any other naturally occurring raw material, but rather from some handy spare aluminium sheets that were lying around. All that is true: nevertheless we did have to melt said stuff and refashion it for our own purposes.

Now, aluminium melts at just over 660° C, which is well above the temperature of a domestic oven, or camp fire. So our solution was an old beer keg, lined with cement to retain heat and equipped with an air inlet to one side. Inside was a charcoal fire, and a handy air compressor pushed air in through the tube to keep the charcoal burning fiercely. Aluminium was cut into small strips and put in a steel jug – steel having a much higher melting point. And then we waited, entirely unsure whether the whole thing was doomed to failure.

About to pour the liquid aluminium
About to pour the liquid aluminium

But as you can see, it all worked! Slowly but surely the aluminium melted into the rather fine puddle that you see in this picture. It would be nice to say that we had been totally confident in all this, but not so – we were as amazed as anyone when this happened. We felt, just for a few moments, like real discoverers. Yes, all the technical data about melting points is easy to obtain these days, and yes we had those handy aluminium sheets as starting point, but even so the sense of triumph when it turned into liquid was extraordinary!

Pouring the liquid aluminium
Pouring the liquid aluminium

So what did we do with our liquid aluminium? Well, here it is being poured into a surface hole in a piece of wood. Why that destination? Well, that will all become clear – hopefully – over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, this all set me thinking about metallurgy in general, and how it has affected human society. Of course Civilisation focuses on just a few things – military units that can now be built, particular buildings that facilitate further development, and “wonders” which enhance your prowess (ie score) and make your people happier. But in reality, metal working permeates every aspect of life.

We take it for granted now that a household object is made of whatever material is most suitable – metal, ceramic, fabric or whatever. We have whole fields of study concerning the various properties of these materials, such as their hardness, ability to transmit or suppress noise, colour, safety, electrical conductivity, and so on. But starting way back in the mists of time, and carrying on through all of our history until now, people have had to find these things out by trial and error. What were the properties of those shiny veins in rock layers? Why could I shape one metal easily and not another? Would my camp fire soften them? How must I change my camp fire so I can work with the more intransigent metals? How can my sword edge be sharper, or my armour tougher, or the wheels on my vehicle stronger? In a very small way, we felt something of the same exhilaration that our hugely distant ancestors must have felt, seeing copper melt for the first time, and be shaped into something new – something distinctly human.

Spacehounds of IPC cover (Wiki)

Looking ahead into the future, we generally assume that we will carry the ability to fashion metals (and other useful substances) with us wherever we go. But every so often you get stories where someone is stranded and has to build it up again. This was an especially popular theme in the 1930s and thereabouts – Spacehounds of IPC being a classic example. Our Hero, forced by circumstance onto an uninhabited moon (with breathable atmosphere) has to start from next to nothing except a small tool pack, and build his way up through small camp fires to blast furnaces and ultimately the ability to recharge the power banks on his derelict lifeboat. Until yesterday, I was totally sceptical about this storyline… but having turned an old keg, some charcoal, and a handy air compressor into something that could melt aluminium, I became slightly more convinced!

More of this another time: for now here is a final picture of the “forge” as it died down in the late evening. You can easily imagine us around it, feeling foolishly triumphant…

Around the camp fire
Around the camp fire

Fermentation

Last week’s blog post, all about alcohol and law, triggered a number of interesting discussions, and one of them (from a Goodreads friend) has inspired this post. It all started with my brief comment about the prospects of brewing on the ISS, up in the microgravity of low earth orbit. But before we get into space, let’s think about what happens during fermentation. (I’m going to mostly focus on beer in this post but similar comments could probably be made about wine).

Beer making in the Egyptian 6th dynasty (British Museum)
Beer making in the Egyptian 6th dynasty (British Museum)

People have been brewing beer for many thousands of years – in Egypt the process was well-organised long before 2000BC, and the earliest confirmed evidence for beer-making that I am aware of is from the 5th millennium BC, at Godan Tepe in modern Iran. I strongly suspect the history is much longer, and that more evidence will turn up in time.

Pottery beer jar, Egypt, c. 1600BC (British Museum)
Pottery beer jar, Egypt, c. 1600BC (British Museum)

Beer making has been credited with all kinds of benefits to humanity, including driving an early wave of technological development. Quite apart from the enjoyment factor. Back then, and for a great many years subsequently, beer was made in open fermentation vessels – basically very large pottery containers, semi-porous and so holding on to residues of yeast and the like. It was often a spin-off of the bread-making industry, seeing as how you needed yeasts and grains for both. Both bread- and beer-making have had, at times, vaguely magical or alchemical associations – these very ordinary foodstuffs are hidden away in a very ordinary vessel, and over the course of a few days they transform into something quite extraordinary. In early times, hops were not added (this seems to have been introduced in the middle ages), but people did sometimes add other flavourings such as fruit or spice extracts.

A 16th century brewery (Wiki)
A 16th century brewery (Wiki)

Now, during fermentation the yeasts work with the various sugars in the raw mixture, together with oxygen in the air at the top surface, and convert these into alcohol and CO2. The process is self-limiting – yeasts eventually kill themselves in too high a proportion of alcohol, so fermentation slows and stops. A brewer can choose whether to let the process go on to completion, or stop it early. An early finish means lower abv (alcohol by volume… the strength of the brew) and a sweeter drink. In olden days, I suspect brewers had conventions about how many days to leave the mixture – nowadays brewers have a more mathematical set of targets to do with final abv balanced against taste. Also, large breweries are very interested in keeping consecutive batches consistent about strength and flavour, whereas a domestic brewer, or someone in pre-industrial days, was less bothered about this.

Finally, carbonation. If you are brewing in an open-top vessel, all the CO2 generated simply goes out into the air. And if you are brewing at room temperature, especially in a hot climate like Egypt, not much gas is held in the liquid anyway. Nowadays we brew and store beer at specific temperatures in order to achieve a target level of carbonation. The colder the beer, the more gas it can retain, and then release as the drinker opens it up at room temperature. You brew for the preferences of your target market – lots of fizz (as in many lagers) or hardly any (as in many real ales).

Fermentation vessels - Grasmere
Fermentation vessels – Grasmere

That brings us onto the specific issue that triggered these fine discussions. What happens in low gravity? Not a problem in ancient Egypt, but looking ahead it’s an issue we will want to solve. Consider a modern fermentation vessel – a cylinder, usually with a cone at the base, and considerably taller than a person. As yeast ferments here on earth, different groups of yeasts arrange themselves at different levels in the vessel – some near the top and others near the bottom. This reflects slightly different ways in which they turn the sugars into alcohol… the sugar level varies in a gradient as you go up and down the vessel. As the yeast becomes exhausted, and starts to die because of the alcohol percentage, the yeast particles sink into the cone, taking with them some of the other residues like hops, grain particles and so on. The beer slowly clarifies by itself, though most brewers also use specific methods to end up with a clear rather than cloudy beer.

The ISS in low earth orbit (NASA/JPL)
The ISS in low earth orbit (NASA/JPL)

That’s fine here on Earth… but in orbit several problems arise. First, there is no real sense of up and down. So a yeast that is used to being near the top of a vessel, with its preferred environment of sugars and whatever, does not know where to go. Likewise, as they finish their job and die from overindulgence in alcohol, there is no “down” direction into which they can settle. Finally, there’s no particular reason why the liquid would stay in one clump – you could easily end up with several disjoint blobs of liquid, with varying proportions of the yeast you had added, each fermenting to different extents.

Centrifugal Fermenter (speculative!)
Centrifugal Fermenter (speculative!)

So this was the point I got to in my Goodreads discussion, which triggered several follow-up chats here in Grasmere. Not that we’re (yet) planing on an orbital version of our various beers and ales, but it is good to be ready for the future! The best answer we could come up with was to artificially introduce a sense of up and down by means of a kind of slow-speed centrifuge. Not so fast as to drive all the solid matter to the outside too quickly, seeing as you need it spread through the liquid at first, but fast enough that the liquid stays in one body, and the yeast can tell which tell which way is up and down. (As a side issue, you’d probably want two of these, rotating in opposite directions, so as not to off-balance the space station itself).

The fermentation will generate CO2, and you don’t want to just dump that into the cabin air supply, so you capture that with a safety valve coming out along the spindle (the “top” of the vessel). That can then either be kept for later use – as many breweries fixed here on Earth do, so as to reuse a resource which costs real money – or fed slowly back into whatever air-purification system takes your fancy. When the time comes to clarify your beer, you just spin the centrifuge faster and let the solid particles accumulate in the “bottom”, taking the splendidly clear beverage out of the “top”.

Artwork, astronaut drinking on the moon (WallpapersByte)
Artwork, astronaut drinking on the moon (WallpapersByte)

Bottling would be an interesting task, since yet again it is something that here on Earth relies on gravity as well as some back-pressure to get the liquid where you want it to go. But if you’ve successfully got this far, I’m sure that the final stage of getting your finished beer into some kind of container would not be an insuperable problem. In orbit you want low carbonation anyway – the last thing you want is for some rogue container to fob frothy mix all around the interior of your capsule. So you keep the whole thing chilled, to hold the gas in suspension in the liquid, and in any case you aim for a quiet liquid rather than a lively one! And voila – you have Orbital Beer, and happy astronauts…

As mentioned very briefly in Far from the Spaceports, concerning the legendary Frag Rockers bar,

“You’ll need to go to Frag Rockers to get anything decent. Regular fermentation goes weird in low gravity. But Glyndwr has got some method for doing it right. He won’t tell anyone what.”

For the curious, here is a British Museum video of recreating an ancient beer-making process based on what we know of ancient Egypt…

 

Laws, qualifications, and the drinking of alcohol

University of Cumbria at Barrow - where I took the course
University of Cumbria at Barrow – where I took the course

I heard today that I had passed the study element of a Personal Alcohol Licence, which (after I have gone through a police background check and a few other formalities) allows me to authorise the sale of alcohol in England and Wales. Not in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or indeed anywhere else in the world, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

Now, this is far from my most advanced academic qualification, but the intriguing thing about this one is that it legally entitles me to supervise – and therefore take legal responsibility for – the public sale of what is undoubtedly a kind of drug. Without the licence, I can work under someone else’s supervision, but cannot just set up and flog booze on my own account. With it, and subject to a bunch of other constraints, I can do just that.

You can imagine that a fair proportion of the material, and the final test, focused around UK law relating to drink. There are obvious things to do with the age of the drinker, but I also learned that it is a specific legal offence to sell alcohol to someone who (in the considered opinion of the seller) is already drunk. Too much like shooting fish in a barrel, I suppose. Most of the laws fit around common sense, though as with any body of legal material you are left a little perplexed as to why specific conditions were imposed.

Russian troops and Finnish smugglers, 1853 (Vasily Hudiakov, WIki)
Russian troops and Finnish smugglers, 1853 (Vasily Hudiakov, WIki)

Anyway, all this set me thinking about law and qualification. The government of the day, however it was decided, has for a very long time indeed decided that it is entitled to a certain proportion of the profits from various kind of sales – and alcohol has typically been way up the list. And of course where rulers try to enforce a ruler, some subjects will concoct cunning schemes to get around the additional expense – excise duty spawns groups of smugglers almost by definition. But you only risk smuggling goods where the financial equation makes sense – small, easily concealed items where the tax duty is high enough that you can pocket a decent cut for yourself, while still leaving the buyer feeling they have done very well out of the deal.

So customs duties, and the body of regulations which underpin them, have been around for millennia. And – typically – part of those regulations consists of ways to appoint specific individuals as those few who are allowed to make transactions. In days of old, one suspects that many of these appointments were based on nepotism or bribery… if you had the right connections, or could stump up enough starting cash, you could find yourself in a comfortable position and set up for life. Nowadays the process is rather more transparent, and the barriers to entry are very much lower.

The Jolly Sailor, Bursledon (www.jollysailoroldbursledon.co.uk)
The Jolly Sailor, Bursledon (www.jollysailoroldbursledon.co.uk)

But equally, things have been tightened up in other ways. A couple of hundred years ago, it was fairly common for ex servicemen to use their prize money, or sign-off pay, or whatever they had saved up, to buy a little inn somewhere, and make a tidy living brewing or distilling booze of widely varying quality, and plying locals with the results. (Any pub you find called the Marquis of Granby recalls charitable donations by this 18th century gentleman who donated money to wounded servicemen). Provided you could afford a small building and a few bits and pieces to do the fermentation, you could set yourself up, no questions asked. These days, you have to go through hoops like planning permission, health and safety, police, plus of course getting a premises licence. There are all kinds of reasons why an apparently sound business plan might be rejected by officialdom.

The ISS (NASA/JPL)
The ISS (NASA/JPL)

So that is looking back… but what about forwards? Right now the only human outpost we have away from the Earth is the ISS. It’s not very far away – about 400km above the surface of the Earth, less than the distance from one end of England to the other. And I don’t suppose that the occupants have much privacy or opportunity to set up fermentation or a distillery up there. Though I did hear today that Budweiser has funded one of the science experiments on board, seeking to improve strains of barley with increased resistance to environmental stress. So maybe next year someone wil fund a experiment to make beer up there and see how yeasts behave in microgravity!

Alexa Far from the Spaceports logo
Alexa Far from the Spaceports logo

But let’s assume that within the next couple of decades we have an outpost or two somewhere else – the Moon, say, or Mars, or even a privately operated space station. How likely is it that nobody will attempt to ferment fruit or vegetable juices? And whose laws will be applied to regulate such an operation? Now run the scenario on a few more years, into the solar system I imagine for Far from the Spaceports and its sequels. There are a decent number of scattered habitats, each separated from the others by at least days, often weeks, and sometimes months of travel time. It will, I suspect, become impossible to try to enforce some kind of uniform system of laws.

Alexa Timing logo
Alexa Timing logo

My guess is that each habitat will have its own local set of laws and customs – no doubt broadly consistent with each other, but differing in detail. Sure, you can send a message anywhere in the solar system within a day at most, but if you get a tip-off that the habitat on Charon is bootlegging some kind of moonshine drink that is not allowed on the Moon, it’s going to take your police three or four months to trek out there and investigate. Will they bother? In that kind of situation, I don’t think it is feasible to try to maintain a single unified system of laws and regulations. So now suppose I have trained for my personal alcohol licence here on Earth (which in fact I did), and then decide on a whim to travel out to Charon. Will a publican out there recognise my licence? Or will he or she make me study for a duplicate one, ending up with a signature of someone on Charon rather than Earth? Right now, in the present day, it is extraordinarily hard to transfer qualifications between countries in professions like teaching, nursing, psychotherapy, and so on – will things be any different when we’re scattered across a few dozen habitats? I suspect not, especially as my own new licence doesn’t even allow me to do stuff in Scotland!

All of which is why I like writing about that near-future band of time, when there is no Federation, no Galactic Empire, or whatever – only local enforcement of issues according to moral and social principles which makes sense to the occupants. I suspect the chief coordinating factor would be economic – if you felt that some particular habitat was doing things the wrong way, you wouldn’t trade with them. They would become isolated, and there’s nowhere in the solar system away from Earth that can actually be self-sufficient. Hence I write about economic and financial crime, as these are the things that seriously threaten lives and livelihoods.

Compost

Mars from about 1000 miles, as seen by CubeSat MarCO-B (NASA/JPL)
Mars from about 1000 miles, as seen by CubeSat MarCO-B (NASA/JPL)

Before I start on compost, here’s a remarkable picture of Mars taken with a fairly ordinary camera, from a spaceship about the size of an average briefcase. Called a CubeSat, two of these were launched alongside the Mars Insight probe, and whistled past Mars while said probe made its way to a safe landing. More about Mars later…

It’s the time of year when – at least in the northern hemisphere – you put compost on your garden as part of bedding it down for the winter. These days that’s generally easy – you trot along to your local garden centre and get 3 bags for £12, or whatever the deal is, and you spend a suitable amount of time distributing it around your little patch. Someone else has done most of the hard work of transforming original plant and animal matter into an easy-to-use commodity.

But in a big garden you can do things a bit differently (and if you’re a farmer, you’ll be up into another league altogether, which I am not going to presume to write about). You can gather up said plant and animal matter yourself, stow it away somewhere dark and warm, add whatever extra bits and pieces you want, wait the better part of a year… and there you have your own compost. Which is what has been happening up here in Grasmere – last year’s rotted stuff, including pig manure, was ready for distribution. Not only that, but all those leaves which have been building up in the garden got put into the compost bins, waiting for their turn next year!

Now, this process has been going on pretty much ever since people discovered how to cultivate crops. Last year’s plant waste, together with stuff from whatever animals you had, and most likely human waste as well, got stashed away and spread on the fields when ready. The process has got steadily more scientific over the years, with additives to ensure that the ratios of chemicals are appropriate for the crops in question, but fundamentally nothing has changed.

Plants about to be harvested on the ISS (NASA/JPL)
Plants about to be harvested on the ISS (NASA/JPL)

But now think about what happens when you go out into space. You can grow some crops hydroponically, but this needs water which has been prepared with suitable levels of nutrients… which needs those nutrients to be available. We’ve done it up on the ISS, where the astronauts have prepared bits and pieces of salad to accompany their regular rations. But most of what is eaten in orbit has had to be carried there in a cargo supply ship. Suppose we add a couple of large modules on to the ISS and start growing things on a bigger scale. Then maybe we just need to ship the nutrients up there. That helps.

Now go a bit further. You have built a moonbase, or are living in a dome on Mars, and you want to grow your own stuff. In one sense you are surrounded by soil, but it is totally lifeless soil. It probably has a number of the basic chemicals you need, but none of the complex organic substances that your plants need. So you’re back to shipped-in nutrients… until you have either built up some human waste (and allowed it to decompose in some suitable way), or waited a year for the spare bits and pieces from one year’s harvest to rot down into compost.

Cover - The Martian (Goodreads)
Cover – The Martian (Goodreads)

This is probably reminding you of The Martian – Mark Watney manages to grow potatoes using the left-behind waste of his fellow crew-members. It goes pretty well until an accident exposes all his carefully prepared plants and compost to sub-zero temperatures and an air pressure less than that on Everest… which kills the lot and causes him to revert to Plan B (or probably, Plan F by that stage in the book). All necessary stuff, and emphasising the point that to grow Earth plants, you have to have built up a stock of Earth compost to encourage their growth.

So as I was piling leaves into the compost houses to being their long process of rotting down for this time next year, I suddenly wondered about our future. Out of all the unlikely cargos to be shipped out to our future colonies out on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and wherever else, wouldn’t it be supremely funny if most of them were shipping out the raw ingredients to make compost? Not an eventuality that makes its way into fiction very much… but how else are you going to grow your food?

The Compost Houses sitting waiting for next year
The Compost Houses sitting waiting for next year