Dragon Space – a dedicated web portal for all China-related space news. Pretty nifty, and it has all the latest happenings with their Shenzhou craft, the fourth of which is expected to take off within the next few days.


Seen on Usenet, about spacecraft yachts for the rich: “Larry Ellison would probably go for it — but even he isn’t rich enough. Here’s an idea, though: An orbital timeshare. Ellison can use it six months of the year; Bill Gates gets it the rest of the time.”

China in Space

My dad tells me, “According to Chinese media, China will send an astronaut to the orbit within the next 18 months. Before 2010, China is committed to moon landing. By the end of this century, there will be a ‘Chinese Moon City’.”

It’s interesting to hear what the Chinese media are saying – I imagine it’s all state-sanctioned, of course, but it’s still direct. Anyway, it’s entirely possible that China could send up its first ‘taikonaut’ next year – its Shenzhou spacecraft have fared well in recent tests.

As for a Moon landing, the question to ask is whether they mean a manned landing; if so, that’ll require a real industrial effort. Not quite on par with Apollo, since we have a lot of stuff now that they didn’t have back then, like fast computers, for example, but it’d still cost quite a lot. I think China could manage it if they really wanted to, not that I see the point of a manned Moon landing as opposed to, say, a manned asteroid landing (aside from politics, naturally).

An unmanned landing is comparatively easy, and certainly attainable in the next eight years. And considering that we can’t predict what the world will be like in 2050, let alone 2100, I think that a Chinese Moonbase is definitely within the realm of possibility within this century – as is a Chinese Marbase, a base on Europa, nuclear-powered spacecraft, etc etc.

An Evening with George Dyson

[This is an extended version of an email I sent to the Culture list, hence the slightly bizarre structure. I thought it was a bit long to put in ‘Middling’].

So I was walking through Trinity College Great Gate when I see none other than the overlord of all evil, Rich Baker, who was also coming to see the lecture that evening by George Dyson. Rich presented me with one of his new business cards after we’d had a glass of wine, whereupon I made some remark about American Psycho and the business card scene (I haven’t seen the movie but I’m informed that said scene is very amusing). Apparently I was the second person that day to make an American Psycho, which prompted me to ruminate on the likelihood of this (high, I ventured, because Rich’s circle of friends is very film-literate and I certainly don’t receive that many business cards from friends).

The talk was excellent; George Dyson is actually the son of Freeman Dyson, a fact which laudably was not stated on the (two) promotional posters in existence. Under the enormous pressure of having a world-famous physicist as a father and the director of the Royal College of Music as a grandfather, he went and lived in a tree for a few years, and then became a world-famous kayak builder. George wrote a book, then wrote another book about Project Orion. Project Orion was the codename for a US spaceship powered by nuclear bombs.

Some interesting factoids: One of the Project Orion plans specified an 8 megaton advanced spacecraft that would use 2500 nuclear bombs. As these things happen, it got shelved due to safety concerns and political reasons, although for a while the militar kept it knocking it about as a contingency plan ‘in case the Russians occupied Jupiter’.

Also, George Dyson seems to have the largest collection of Project Orion materials in the world. When NASA wanted to get a copy of the original ARPA contract to initiate multimillion dollar Project Orion (~20 pages long), he had to sign a NASA contract for the single figures dollar transaction (~30 pages long).

There were plans for a related ‘Doomsday’ weapon by the US military which would have several spacecraft outside the orbit of the Moon, 1 day away, with enough nukes to flatten the entire of Russia.

During almost every stage of Project Orion, the researchers were allowed to do essentially whatever they wanted as long as they were being supervised by a responsible physicist. George rather wisely pointed out the flaw in this, namely the ‘responsible physicist’ part, and then went on to tell us about how the Project Orion team used large amounts of C4 to launch a demonstration craft (blowing lots of other stuff up in the process).

He also showed us a diagram of how to make a shaped nuclear charge, which he told us was technically classified and illegal, but it didn’t matter since someone had sent it to him by mistake in the first place and he just put it in his book.

Before George finished, he remarked that it was well worth our time coming back next week to see Neal Stephenson, who he said was never seen in the US, so a public appearance by him in the UK was amazing. The Trinity don who’s organising the lectures said, well, it wasn’t quite public, was it, since Trinity is a private college. He then laughed heartily in a matter I found mildly unsettling, as if saying ‘Foolish mortals, only Trinity College members may gaze upon the visage of the slow-to-write one you call ‘Neal Stephenson’!’.

I had a few words with George after the lecture, asking him about other forms of nuclear propulsion (he isn’t so hot on them) and whether attitudes might change sufficiently in the future to allow nuclear propulsion in space (he thinks so). He also said that his father, Freeman, holds an interesting if politically-incorrect view about nuclear proliferation. Apparently Freeman thinks that if Hitler used a nuclear weapon in WW2, they would’ve been so stigmatised to have been abandoned by the world. Perhaps.

James Webb telescope

For several years I’ve been reading about the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor, the Next Generation Space Telescope (now renamed the James Webb Telescope). I’d always assumed that it’d simply be a bigger, more expensive version of the Hubble – hardly anything worth writing home about.

I was wrong; the people at NASA have been busy and came up with a truly astonishing plan. The Webb Telescope will have a primary mirror over twice the size of Hubble’s at six metres in diameter – this poses a problem because there is no rocket in existence or being planned that could take a solid mirror that size into space. Instead they’ll construct the mirror as 36 different segments and unfold them in space.

The telescope will also have a deployable sunshield the size of a tennis court. As a result, the Webb Telescope will be big, but it’ll only weigh half as much as the Hubble.

It’ll take three months for the Webb telescope to get to its destination, L2 orbit – 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth and way outside the orbit of the Moon. NASA claims it can do all of this for less than a third of the price of Hubble. I don’t think many people appreciate how ambitious the plan is – putting a telescope the size of the Webb into L2 orbit and deploying two large and delicate structures has never been done successfully before. I’m glad to see that at least someone at NASA still has the guts to be adventurous.

(The telescope’s homepage has an endearingly bad design; the FAQ is not endearing though – it’s a bit of a nightmare trying to find all the information).

Twisted words

One of the things that I despise the most in this world is when someone twists your words. Glenn Reynolds recently said in a column that Sir Martin Rees, by saying:

“If they were governmental or international (expeditions), Antarctic-style restraint might be feasible. On the other hand, if the explorers were privately funded adventurers of free-enterprise, even anarchic disposition, the Wild West model would be more likely to prevail.”

he is implying that the Wild West model is a bad thing. Reynolds then goes on to talk about the commercial utilisation of space and throws in a few cheap shots at Europeans (no surprise there) and Sir Martin Rees himself. Reynolds, of course, is a fan of the Wild West model. I’m personally model-agnostic.

I was at the presentation when Sir Martin said those words. Even taken out of context, the quote to me does not imply that he doesn’t like the Wild West model – he’s merely making a statement of fact. From what he said elsewhere in the talk, it didn’t seem to me like he was at all bothered about which model prevailed; he spent most of his time talking about posthumans roaming the galaxy and the speciation of humans.

Part of the problem is that the media decided to quote only a single paragraph of Sir Martin’s presentation (the one above) and left everything else out. That however does not excuse the twisting of his words and frankly the insults thrown at him.

The BA Festival of Science

Thanks to a generous grant from Trinity College at Cambridge University, I was able to attend the full week-long British Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Festival of Science in Leicester this year, from September 9th to 13th. Curiously enough, no-one uses the acronym BAAS while in America they do use AAAS – instead we simply call it the ‘British Association’ which no doubt causes some confusion.

Anyway, the BA Festival of Science is a week long event that can’t really be described as a conference as it doesn’t have a particularly focused nature aside from being about ‘science’ – and even that isn’t accurate, since there were plenty of lectures given outside the traditional remit of science, such as economics and philosophy. The lecture schedule consists of several parallel tracks that tend to last from half a day to a day covering distinct topics, for example, ‘Life and Space’ or ‘Radioactive waste – can we manage it?’ In addition to the lectures were debates and workshops.

This year there was quite a spread of topics such that on some days I had a very hard time trying to decide which to attend; in retrospect I think I managed a decent spread.

I originally intended to write up some of my notes made during the Festival as a series of pieces in the ‘Middling’ weblog, until I realised that I simply didn’t have the patience for that. So this article will attempt to string together my thoughts on some of the more interesting lectures I attended.

Visualisation using sound
Professor Stephen Brewster, University of Glasgow

This was a fairly interesting lecture summarising the work Brewster’s group has been doing with the MultiVis project. What they’re trying to do is to give blind people access to data visualisations, such as tables, graphs, bar charts and so on. Current methods include screen readers, speech synthesis and braille; these have the (perhaps) obvious problems of presenting data in a serial manner that is consequently slow and can overload short term memory, thus preventing quick comparisions between different pieces of data.

A good example of this is how blind people would access a table.

10 10 10 10 10 10
10 10 10 10 10 10
10 10 10 10 20 20
10 10 10 10 20 30

To access the table, item by item speech browsing would probably be used, so you can imagine a computer voice reading from left to right, ‘Ten, ten, ten, ten, ten…’ etc. This has the serious problem of being extremely slow, and currently there is no way for a blind person to get an overview of this table and importantly, be told that the interesting information is in the bottom right hand corner.

The solution? Multimodal visualisation, and in this case, sonification – that is, the use of sound other than speech. Sonification offers fast and continuous access to data that can nicely complement speech. Prof. Brewster demonstrated a sound graph, on which the y-axis is pitch and the x-axis time, so for the line y=x you would hear a note rising in pitch linearly. This worked quite well for a sine wave as well.

Multiple graphs can be compared using stereo, and an interesting result is that the intersection between graphs can be identified when the pitch of the two lines is identical. So, imagining that you are trying to examine multiple graphs, you might use parallel sonification of all graphs in order to find intersections and overall trends, and serial sonification in order to find, say, the maximum and minimum for a particular graph.

3D sound also offers possibilities for the presentation of multiple graphs; different graphs could be presented from different angles through headphones. Continuing this further, soundscapes would allow users to control access to graphs simply by moving the orientation of their head. Access by multiple users is possible, so you could have one person guiding another through the soundscape.

Such sonification aids can also be used together with tactile stimuli such as raised line graphs; by placing sensors on a user’s fingertips and connecting them to a computer, users could naturally explore a physical graph while a ‘touch melody’ would indicate (for example) the horizontal or vertical distance between their two fingers. External memory aids could be built in by allowing users to place ‘beacons’ on graphs, perhaps by tapping their fingers – as the user moves away from the beacon, the beacon sound diminishes.

Of course, sonification can also be used for sighted people.

I don’t doubt that these concepts have been explored before, but this presentation was the first I’ve encountered that has dealt with them in such a comprehensive manner and also produced practical demonstrations.

Information foraging and the ecology of the World Wide Web
Dr. Will Reader, Cardiff University

This was perhaps the most interesting Internet related lecture at the Festival of Science; I was impressed by the way Dr. Reader drew upon previous research, which is something that I think many web pundits forget to do. My notes:

Some background: information foraging occurs because people have a limited time budget in which to find answers. According to a recent survey, 31.6% of people would use the Internet to find the answer to any given question – this is the largest percentage held by any single information resource on the survey. However, if you collect together all the people who would use other people as an information resource in order to answer their question (i.e. not only friends and family, but also teachers, librarians, etc) then the humans still win.

H. A. Simone once said something along the lines of ‘Information requires attention, hence a wealth of information results in a poverty of attention. What is then needed is a way to utilise attention in the most optimal manner.’

To use a traditional metaphor, you could call humans ‘informavores’ (eaters of information). When humans read in search of an answer, we are trying to maximise the value of information we receive over the cost of the interaction.

What is meant by the value of information? The value of a text relies principally on relevance, reliability and the difficulty of understanding. Examining the latter factor in detail, it’s theorised that the amount learned from a text (or any information resource) follows a bell curve when plotted against the overlap between the person’s own knowledge, and the information in the text. So – if there is a very small overlap (i.e. almost everything in the text is new) or a very large overlap (everything in the text is already known), little is learned. When the overlap is middling, the amount learned is high.

Dr. Reader carried out an experiment to test this theory in which subjects were given a limited amount of time to read four texts about the heart (something like 15 to 30 minutes). They then had to write a summary of what they’d learned. The texts varied in difficulty, from an encyclopaedia entry to a medical journal text.

The results of the experiment showed that people were indeed adaptive in choosing which texts to spend the most time reading according to their personal knowledge on the subject; in other words, they read the texts that contained a middling amount of information overlap the most. However, the subjects did act surprisingly in one way – they spent too long reading the easiest text.

Is this a maladaptive strategy? Maybe not – it could be sensible. Given the time pressure the subjects were under, they may have simply been trying to get the ‘easy marks’ by reading the easy text.

It turns out that there are two different access strategies when reading multiple texts on a single subject (or accessing multiple information sources). There’s ‘sampling’ in which subjects choose the best text available. They do this by skim reading all of the texts quickly and then deciding on the best. It sounds easy enough, but it’s very demanding on memory if you have several texts to read. People spontaneously use the sampling strategy only 10% of the time.

The majority strategy is called ‘satisficing’ (yes, that’s the right spelling), the aim of which is to get a text that is ‘good enough’. Simply enough, a person will read the first text, and then move on if they aren’t learning enough.

All of this changes when people are presented with summaries of texts. Now, sampling is the majority strategy. These summaries, or outlines, are judged by people to be reliable clues to the content of the text – an information ‘scent’, if you will.

This begs the question, why don’t people use the first paragraph of a text as an impromptu outline? It’s because the first paragraph is not necessarily representative of the rest of the text; we all know how texts can change rapidly in difficulty, particularly in scientific journals.

Outlines can sometimes be misleading. In a study carried out by Salmoni and Payne (2002), when people use Google for searching, they can sometimes be more successful at saying whether a fact is on a given page if they do not read the two line summary/extract in each link in a search result page. This suggests that the Google extract is not as useful as we might believe.

Another experiment by Dr. Reader confirms what many of us anecdotally know. Subjects were asked to research a subject using the Internet through Google. They were given 30 minutes, and then had to write a summary afterwards. The results:

Mean unique pages viewed: 20.8
Mean page time visit: 47.6 seconds
Mean longest page time visit: 6.43 minutes

This shows that some pages were only visited for a matter of seconds, whereas others were visited by several minutes.

Dr. Reader concluded with a few suggestions for improvements to search engines. They could index the difficulty and the length (in words) of search results, and also the reliability of a page. This is already done in Google via Page Rank (essentially calculated by the number and type of pages linking to the page in question), but Dr. Reader also suggests using annotation software (like the ill-fated Third Voice) and interestingly, education. We should educate Internet users in how to quickly and accurately evaluate the reliability of a page.

All in all, an interesting lecture.

The march of the marketeers: invasive advertising and the Internet
Dr. Ian Brown, University College London

I didn’t learn much from this lecture, but that’s only because I’m very interested in the subject anyway and keep abreast of all the latest developments. However, it was a very comprehensive and up to date lecture, unlike some of the reporting you see in the mass media. One thing that I did find interesting was Dr. Brown’s claim that some digital TV channels have ‘unmeasureably small audiences’.

Since audiences are measured by sampling a few hundred or thousand people who have little monitors attached to their TVs, if no-one in the sample group watches a programme or channel, then as far as the survey company is concerned, no-one in the entire country watched it. Even for supposedly popular programmes such as the Nationwide League Football matches on ITV digital, there were zero viewers in the sample group. This is understandably causing problems with advertisers.

Dr. Brown went on to talk about Tivo and all the rest, but I’m not going to cover that.

And all the rest…

I’m giving a very skewed view of the Festival here because I only took notes on things that were completely new to me and that I felt would interest people here. Consequently, I didn’t take any notes in the space lectures I went to, even though some of them, such as ‘Living and working in space’ by Dr. Kevin Fong and the lecture given by Sir Martin Rees were excellent. The former was a very entertaining and information lecture about space medicine on long duration space missions, and the latter was all about posthumans and the Fermi Paradox.

I was actually stunned by Sir Martin’s lecture; not because of its content (I read lots of SF, thank you very much) but because it was coming from him – the Astronomer Royal, no less! In the past, such respectable people wouldn’t touch esoteric subjects like posthumans with a bargepole.

Then there was the talk on DNA nanomachines by Dr. Turberfield from Oxford University; I hadn’t quite grasped the possibilities of DNA assembly before that lecture, and neither did I truly understand how DNA computing could be used to solve a variant of the travelling salesman problem, but afterwards I did (in other words, it was a good lecture). Dr. Turberfield also showed a model of his current work in trying to construct a DNA nanomachine motor, which he confesses probably doesn’t have much immediate practical use but certainly is fun.

Most of the lectures I attended were pretty good; some were excellent, of which I’ve only mentioned a few above. If you ever find that the BA Festival is taking place nearby one year (next year it’s in Salford) then it’s probably worth getting hold of a programme and attending for a day or two. You’ll learn a lot.