Today 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.
“[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.
- What do you see as the role of universities in contributing to these technologies?
- How do the authors balance the problems with the benefits of the technologies examined so far?
- What do you think of cheap access to space and asteroid mining?
- 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).