Sunday, 2 October 2016

To colonise Mars, or not...

I just read an article in the Economist about this very subject, triggered by pioneer Elon Musk's just-released plans (dreams?) for huge rockets that could take 100 people at a time to Mars. While I usually like this news mag, I took issue with the article because they use the name Stephen Hawking and the word 'claptrap' in dangerous proximity...

In my very first (and only) school debate, some years (okay, decades) ago, I tackled this subject, pointing out that humanity needed a Plan B in case we were unlucky or stupid enough to wipe ourselves out.

The Economist shoots down a couple of the basic arguments with sniper precision. Most pandemics and plagues, even of the most virulent kind, will not kill everyone. About 80% is the maximum conceivable, so there are still a lot of people left. And they point out that if aliens arrived, they could make quick work of Mars (probably before breakfast) before tackling more irksome Earth.

All true.

But they are missing something.

A massive, global pandemic would ravage the population. Let's take a worst case scenario, 80%. That's one in five who are left. Let's assume (and it's one hell of an assumption) that in the aftermath, those 20% decide to work together. Would they have the right skills? How long before infrastructure would fail at every level? We live in a world with very inter-connected and finely-tuned systems. How long would the internet keep running? Our phones? Power plants? The Grid? Aviation? Communications? Oil and gas? Many companies store their data and knowledge in the Cloud. Would it still be there? Would we even know what skill sets we required to get things back up and running?

We'd have to be fast, too. Because education would slip back quickly. Most people would end up having to run farms in order to survive (the film Interstellar is great on this) rather than learn engineering. And what of medicine, and MRI scanners and chemotherapy and and and...

Global nuclear war would be worse as infrastructure would be decimated. The social situation following such a catastrophe is simply unknowable, with science fiction writers the few who dare to tread there, and they are not painting a bright picture. Humanity would not be extinct, true, but we'd be set back at least decades, maybe centuries. But not so if people on Mars could come back and help fix things, help us re-boot our societies.

There is another reason to look to Mars, and the stars. It is to do so while we can. There is a belief that we can just keep going on getting better and smarter and tekkier. But we don't know what is around the corner. In my own SF book on this subject (the Eden Paradox), over the next few decades religious wars erupt and funding for space exploration is simply not available. Once again a valuable skill-set is lost, this time one to build a life-raft before climate change gets the better of us. So. Do it while you can. Because interplanetary travel is not something you can engineer in a year. It will take decades to get it right.

In July I visited Cape Canaveral and got to watch an Atlas V rocket launch. It was over fast, but it meant a lot to me. And that was just a spy satellite. I remember the hope and awe of the first landing on the moon, the inspiration it served for more than one generation. Imagine watching the launch of a rocket taking people to Mars. Imagine being able to point to a dim dot in the sky, and say, hey, there's people there, just like us.

Just imagine...


Saturday, 17 September 2016

From Interstellar to Underwater

An interview of Barry Kirwan by Dimitri Keramitas
Dr Barry Kirwan grew up watching the Apollo missions, goggling at Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon at a friend’s house, because his parents had color TV. He decided to become an astronaut. But he had childhood asthma, so when he tried later to get into the air force, he was rejected. Instead he became a psychologist working in aviation safety, and a writer. He also discovered the next best thing to space travel - scuba diving.

"When scuba diving, you are essentially weightless. You can drift with the current and soar over coral outcrops that look like alien cities festooned with myriad fish of all shapes, colors and sizes, more varied than any Star Wars bar. You can freefall through sheets of darkening blue in search of deep wrecks, just as ominous as finding the Prometheus on a faraway planet. And you can meet big sharks that are every inch the killing machine, scarier than Alien, because underwater, you can’t run."

He became an open water instructor with the British Sub Aqua Club (more or less equivalent to a PADI DiveMaster) and was an Advanced Training Officer at a BSAC club in the UK. Kirwan has dived all over the UK, Norway, Holland, Brest in France, Corsica, Malta, Bulgaria, the Red Sea, Kenya (Watamu - whaleshark territory), Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Mauritius, Seychelles, Monterey, Palau (in the Pacific, Jacques Cousteau's favorite place), and Truk Lagoon (also in the Pacific, a wreck-diver's haven). But his favorite site is Sipidan, Borneo.

"As you walk in," says Kirwan, "the reef plunges 2000 feet. It is full of large turtles and reef sharks, and if you want to see bigger sharks, you just swim away from the reef. The South China seas have the most varied fish in the world."

Several years ago, Kirwan wrote a short story called Trouble in Eden, which grew into a novel, which grew into a series called The Eden Paradox. Many of the ideas, whether for aliens or cities or spaceships, came from his scuba diving. Even the modern diver's gear, with its plethora of electronic and computerized equipment, resembles that of an astronaut.

"While obviously an astronaut's equipment is far more complex, you do kind of feel like an astronaut, especially with the Darth Vader sound effects when you breathe. And you need to know your equipment well, as you can't always see what you're doing, and your life literally depends on it. Water is almost as unforgiving as a vacuum." In creating a multitudinous cast of alien creatures he relied on his encounters with undersea species, including some veritable "monsters".

"Octopus always seem fun until they start entwining themselves around your arm, sucking your mask off your face and drenching you in a cloud of ink. I don't mind sharks, but have dived with large ones, e. g. 5-metre sharks out in Borneo. Those I swim away from fast, back to the safety of the reef. Stonefish are scary because they are so well camouflaged, and to touch one can be fatal. I loosely based the Q'Roth, humanity's nemesis in the Eden novels, on the mantis shrimp, which is 4-6 inches long, and sits in crevices and waits until a fish goes by. Then it lashes out with its claws, incredibly fast, and shreds the passing fish, then eats it. If it was 10 feet long and walked on land, you'd probably run away, screaming your head off, which in this instance would be entirely forgivable.

Kirwan travels a lot for his work, and if it’s anywhere near water, he takes some extra days to go diving. In 2012 he had a back operation, and was unable to dive for 18 months. To say he missed it is an understatement. He began writing a story with a strong scuba diving context, which was a kind of therapy, as he could immerse himself in the writing of the underwater scenes.

When Kirwan showed his latest science fiction manuscript to an agent she wasn't interested, but asked him what else he was writing. He told her about the diving story, thinking she’d dismiss it. "Send it to me when it’s done," she said. What started out as a bit of fun grew more serious. He honed the adventure story into a cold-blooded thriller called 66 Metres, about the hunt for a top-secret device called the Rose, able to divert nuclear submarine codes, which has found its way into a sunken wreck.

Its heroine is Nadia, a young Russian woman forced into a heist that goes wrong, leaving five dead. She ends up with the Rose, but has to ditch it in deep water. If she doesn’t retrieve it her sister will be killed. Three other unsavory characters are after the device, more than happy to kill anyone who gets in their way. This work also made use of Kirwan's rich diving experience: "I've explored many wrecks over the years. Some of the top ten: the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea, the Talumben wreck off Bali, the SS Yongala off Townsville in Austra- lia. Also many of the wrecks in Scapa Flow in Scotland, and the San Francisco Maru in Truk Lagoon. All of them stunning!"

He's also been in dangerous situations as a diver and had to be rescued on one occasion (he also carried out five rescues of other divers). He blacked out once during a very deep dive in Norway (this is the basis of one of the chapters in 66 Metres), and got pinned down in Sipidan by a school of 4-metre hammerheads, at 76 metres. One time he even got lost inside a large wreck, and was running out of air. Concerning the Rose, Kirwan said that it was invented - but not a mere figment of his imagination. "The Rose is maybe not so fantastic, as cyber-terrorism is continually gaining new ground, and the algorithms used in Big Data are very powerful. The basic idea was developed by the best cryptologist since Alan Turing."

Even after many years Kirwan can still feel like he's in an extraterrestrial world: "The undersea world can always surprise you. Fish are never pets or friends, despite cartoon films suggesting
otherwise. When you're surrounded by sharks in strong current, you're acutely aware that if they decided to attack, you'd stand no chance. A potentially tasty tourist. But it is such a wondrous place, and you are cut off from the surface world, no phones, no email, no talk. Just you, the fish, and the sharks. So, I'll keep diving as long as I can."

66 Metres was launched by Harper Collins in August 2016, as the first in a 3-book deal, under a slight pseudonym (JF Kirwan). For details see here
© Barry Kirwan |
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