Reading _Soonish_, part 1

SoonishToday we start our reading of Soonish, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith.  In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 1-3.  So far the book is a riot of big science, comedy, and good teaching.

Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, or wherever else you like. Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag /soonish/.  That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.

I reached out to the authors on Twitter, and Kelly Weinersmith wrote back expressing interest in our reading, which is awesome.


1: Introduction

“[S]o why write this book?  Because there are amazing things happening all over the place every day, all the time, and most people aren’t aware of them.”(7)

The authors begin by issuing caveats.  The title means the Weinersmiths won’t attach time frames to their forecasts.  They warn us to expect surprise developments, “[t]he big discontinuous leaps, like the laser and computer” (2).

A larger caveat involves the sheer complexity of technological development.  Most of the introduction concerns the history of superconducting quantum interference device technology (SQUID) as an example of many, many odd contingencies combining.  Which strikes me as excellent futuring advice.

The Weinersmiths announce that they will cite a great deal of research, and also interview scientists, “a lot of mildly crazy people”.  We will see some of them in the next chapter, working from NASA’s NIAC, a/k/a “a sort of asylum for people with really crazy space ideas that just might work”.

2: Cheap Access to Space

The first tech the book explores involves  wide range of ways to get people and machines from the Earth’s surface and into space, in less expensive ways than we’ve done so far.  These include: reusable rockets, like the SpaceX Falcon 9; spaceplanes, like ramjets and scramjets; superguns, including the wild and tragic Gerald Bull story (45ff); rocket sleds; the awesomely named Slingatron; firing lasers at rockets; the space elevator.

Overall, it’s a very skeptical chapter.  The authors don’t see a clear way forward on any of these.  “It will not be easy to make any of these technologies work…” (45)

3: Asteroid Mining

This chapter builds on the previous one, imagining ways that we could use space travel to harvest materials from asteroids.  The authors break this down into key components, from how to get to asteroids, how to bring them back to earth, economic and geopolitical impacts, and so on.  More technological concepts appear, from WRANGLER to rock harpooning and giant nets.

Overall, this struck me as a more optimistic chapter than its predecessor.

Thoughts and questions

I found these chapters delightful so far, both for the sense of humor and the clear pedagogical approach in explaining complex topics.  I was sobered by the many obstacles to space, as an old space exploration fan.  I find the historical digressions to be very useful. And I enjoy the voices of scientists sampled here.

  1. What do you see as the role of universities in contributing to these technologies?
  2. How do the authors balance the problems with the benefits of the technologies examined so far?
  3. What do you think of cheap access to space and asteroid mining?
  4. What do you make of the pedagogy here, in explaining difficult concepts?

Next week we’ll tackle three more chapters, 4 (Fusion Power), 5 (Programmable Matter), and 6 (Robotic Construction).

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17 Responses to Reading _Soonish_, part 1

  1. Anthony Ortolani says:

    Bryan, I was thrilled when you selected this book. Because of its pedagogy, I gave it to my two HS aged children. Ben loved it. I enjoyed how well the Weinersmiths explain complex principles and wished they were my instructors in some early EE classes 🙂 . e.g. Electrical resistance and conductance was masterfully explained.

    Many times in section one, I was thinking I could be reading the plot summaries for new Sci-fi books or comic book villains. It’s fun.
    I pulled out my copy and look forward to re -reading some of it with your group.

  2. Vanessa Vaile says:

    I shared a reminder from here to my Facebook timeline because the post hadn’t shown up on FB but wondered whether you have any traffic/stats based preference on blog to FB vs FB to FB sharing. Not sharing when I think of it leads to forgetting.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      See if it appeared on your Facebook feed, Vanessa.
      I’ve taken to doing that manually now, as automatic posts tend to vanish.

  3. Harry Baya says:

    A lot of articles about current science and technology seem to be dealing with what the author has learned (or discovered, or created) and where this is likely to take us.

    This book is different.

    Even though I believe it is based on thorough research and successfully gives most intelligent lay readers as much insight as they can absorb, it leaves the reader (or at least me) drifting in a sea or possibilities.

    More than that, it suggests that the area covered, such as “Cheap Access to Space”, has the potential to change the human experience as much as things like electricity, or computer technology.

    Finally there is, for me, the sense that though the authors don’t see how that change could happen, it may happen anyway. It feels like science fiction with a chilling sense of “something like this is going to happen – and maybe soon.”

    • Hi Harry!

      While writing the book we did some research on the accuracy of long-term predictions (for example – we read “Superforecasting: The Art of Science and Prediction” by Philip Tetlock), and our sense from this reading was that we would almost certainly be wrong if we made a bunch of predictions in the book. Most predictions are wrong. Not always, of course, but often enough that writing a book filled with predictions seemed like a good way to write a book that would be embarrassing to look back on in a decade.

      And importantly – we thought that laying out the possible good and bad futures for a technologies might get people active TODAY in figuring out how these technologies should be implemented in the future. Some of the possible downsides of the technologies are huge, and policy should be considered before these technologies are rolled out. By laying out the futures without saying which we think will be most likely, we hoped to get discussion started that could potentially ameliorate some of the more negative implications of these technologies.

      Finally – we thought that the more interesting thing about these technologies were the challenges that still needed to be overcome to make them happen. The problem of what we’re going to use to make a space elevator cable seems much more interesting than whatever (likely incorrect) timeframe the Weinersmiths put on the creation of a space elevator.

      tldr; uncertainty can be unsatisfying, but is a more honest representation of these technologies and hopefully motivates people to act to steer these technologies to brighter futures.

      Thanks for reading the book!

      <3, Kelly

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a great point about possibilities, Harry. This is good futures stuff, opening our minds to options without narrowly prescribing a single path.

    • Hi Harry,

      While working on this book we did a lot of research on prediction-making, and how often predictions turn out to be correct. The research suggested that predictions often end up being wrong. So we decided to hold off on making predictions about what the future holds, and instead lay out some possibilities.

      We liked this approach for some additional reasons:

      1) We think the unknowns (like what the heck will actually be able to one day hold up a space elevator?) are much more interesting than the Weinersmith’s (likely incorrect) prediction that a space elevator would take something like 50 years to become a reality. Plus – it’s hard to know if a technology is going to progress through small, incremental improvements, or if some major innovation in a different field will suddenly propel a technology to completion.

      2) Laying out potential future scenarios without highlighting which one we think is most likely may motivate people to push the technology towards the brightest horizon. The technologies we discussed have some pretty major potential downsides, and it’s important that people start thinking about those now so policy can be created to ameliorate these downsides.

      Thanks for reading, Harry!


      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Thank you for sharing your background in creating the book, Kelly. That helps frame many of the chapters.

        I keep returning to Tetlock’s work. It’s a quiet revolution in forecasting.

  4. Mark Ulett says:

    Generally I really appreciated the book, and look very forward to the next chapters.

    Concerning the pedagogy, I think that the overall approach is excellent! The idea of starting by using some of the hype and excitement over these renegade technologies and idealists working to build a sci-fi-like future is amazing. But the process of revealing the challenges to these visions for the future is a great mechanism for delving more deeply into the realities that often hold back projects like this. Using the future to explore the past is also a great mechanism to get readers and students to think critically about the relationship between past and future. I think the authors could go into a little bit more scientific detail about the challenges, but they are clearly working to capture a wide audience, so I understand the balance they struck, even if I would have liked a bit more detail.

    Similarly, the use of humor is, in my opinion, generally under-utilized in the sciences. It presumes that readers don’t have a sense of humor or can’t appreciate when an author switches from speaking about an issue seriously to making a joke. Specifically, though, these are both talented humor writers, so they are doing the work necessary to signal the changes from serious science to flippant remarks on why a particular idea is banannapants insane.

    Generally, though, the mechanism of using the future to explore the past and the sciences is magnificent, and has applications well beyond books like this. Educators can learn from authors like this in creating really engaging lectures and courses that mix the serious and the fun, the future and the past. Can’t wait for the next chapters!

  5. Joe Murphy says:

    I’m enjoying this very much.

    Cheap space flight seems to have interesting potential consequences for education. I think we’re seeing a parallel right now, as UAVs make air flight remarkably cheaper, enabling a host of interesting scientific and artistic methods. It’s fun to imagine a future where it’s no more strange for a school to own a satellite than a drone. What kind of data gathering or communications might become possible in the undergraduate curriculum?

    I’ve heard multiple people argue that we need to get poets and politicians up into space, so they can get a good look at the big blue marble. (I want to say Mike Massimino was one.) How cheap would space access have to get to make “J-term on the Space Elevator” into a reality? And what are the concerns other than money (the capacity needed in the space program just to find seats for students, the training and screening processes)?

    I’ve got to admit that I had never thought that the primary market for asteroid mined materials might not be down here on ol’ Terra. The connection to colonization was kind of mindblowing. (Folks interested in science fiction short stories might want to look for “Terminal” by Lavie Tidhar or “Her Scales Shine Like Music” by Rajnar Vajra – not a direct connection to asteroid mining, but some interesting thoughts which relate to the economics of space colonization.)

    Regarding the pedagogy… well, I’ll say it, I still don’t understand what the hell a ramjet is, besides something I can buy in video games to go fast. But I’ve tried to understand multiple sources on the idea over the years, and the common elements are the concept and me, so I think the Weinersmiths are off the hook for that one.

  6. I finished Chapter 3 last night, so held off reading this post until then. Like others, I am enjoying both the humor and the head-scratching this book invokes. I cut my teeth on Heinlein and having turned 67, I feel Buz Aldrin’s point that we were promised flying cars (and moon bases) and got Facebook. Yet, I found the difficulties raised in this book thought-provoking. Looking forward to the next series of chapters!

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