The Dim-Post

September 28, 2016

Kim Stanley Robinson has a lot to answer for

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:11 am

Via Vox:

Musk sketched out a vision of thousands of ships launching toward Mars, each carrying up to 100 or 200 people a flight. If we had, say, 10,000 flights, we could start building actual cities on Mars, although it’d take decades to actually get a self-sustaining civilization on Mars, Musk said.

Musk even hinted at the possibility of terraforming Mars — releasing huge amounts of carbon-dioxide to warm the planet and bring back liquid water, making it habitable for humans. “If we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and warm oceans,” he said.

You know what they never had in Robinson’s Martian colonies? A dentist. So what happened if one of his super-genius left-wing intellectual colonists needed their wisdom teeth out? The question isn’t as trivial as it sounds. If you’re going to build a self-sustaining colony you don’t just want scientists with radical political views, you want dentists, and dental equipment, and obstetricians, and all of their equipment, and engineers to service it all, and the infrastructure to support an education system all the way through to advanced degrees to train the next generation of all those specialists. I wonder what the minimum viable number of people is to support all that?


  1. Elon covered that. 1 million people. 10,000 flights of a ship that takes 100 people, 40-100 years. He’s talking about the guy who goes to mars to open the first pizza joint.

    Comment by PaulL — September 28, 2016 @ 9:17 am

  2. And wasn’t there a plotline in the book about some stolen dental equipment? Sure none of the first 100 were dentists, but some of the later ones must have been.

    Comment by smithmatt — September 28, 2016 @ 9:21 am

  3. The minimal number would be just enough to replicate all the problems being left behing.

    Comment by NeilM — September 28, 2016 @ 9:29 am

  4. Musk sketched out a vision of his share price increasing


    Comment by Antoine — September 28, 2016 @ 9:31 am

  5. Have you just had some nasty dental work done?

    Comment by Rob Hosking — September 28, 2016 @ 9:31 am

  6. @Antoine: Musk said “the only purpose I have in accumulating wealth is to spend it on this”, and “my worry is that if I get on a ship to Mars and then die, that the company is taken over by investors who are focused on profit and not on going to Mars.” I think it’s quite uncharitable to suggest he’s only interested in his share price.

    Comment by PaulL — September 28, 2016 @ 9:35 am

  7. Have you just had some nasty dental work done?


    Comment by danylmc — September 28, 2016 @ 9:41 am

  8. “super-genius left-wing intellectual colonists”

    I’m pretty sure the whole point of Elon’s Mars quest is to create a Randian Utopia, which would mean it would be populated by super-genius ultra right-wing intellectuals.

    Comment by James Green — September 28, 2016 @ 9:56 am

  9. Much as I loved the books, I did always wonder where the “B-Ark” was. The later colonists who arrived always struck me as stereotyped, rugged industrial workers rather than the ones who’d just hang out a shingle for hairdressing in the local tent.

    Time for some fan-fiction to extend the possibilities perhaps? The Real Housewives of Nicosia, which would also be delightfully grating against the vision of the books.

    Comment by Tom Hunter — September 28, 2016 @ 9:56 am

  10. I was thinking more of the Golgafrinchans

    Comment by MarkS — September 28, 2016 @ 10:18 am

  11. @MarkS the Golgafrinchans were the ones who sent the B Ark.

    Comment by Robert Singers (@glassfugue) — September 28, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

  12. Australia started with about 750, and look at them.

    I can’t see any way that we can fuck up this planet so it’s less hospitable than Mars. Even if you nuked every inch of the surface and evaporated all the water away, it’d still be somewhat warmer, with higher gravity and oxygen.

    Comment by Rich d'Rich — September 28, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

  13. Australia started with about 750, and look at them.

    Yeah, but they could make virtually everything they needed – even a boat home – from local resources with a hammer, nails, and a blacksmith’s forge. Whereas on Mars, the technology chain just to keep you alive is ridiculously long, and its a one-year wait on spare parts, or even replacement duct-tape. And if something vital breaks and can’t be fixed, then lots of people die.

    On the big question, Charles Stross estimated about a hundred million people:

    Comment by idiotsavant23 — September 28, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

  14. The difference between colonising different continents and Mars is mostly that you can step onto America or Australia or whatever without a spacesuit and not die.

    Comment by Trouble Man — September 28, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

  15. You know what they never had in Robinson’s Martian colonies? A dentist. So what happened if one of his super-genius left-wing intellectual colonists needed their wisdom teeth out?

    You saw Prometheus and the robot-abortion machine, right?

    Comment by Phil — September 28, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

  16. Use it as a prison colony! You know, the ultimate right wing fantasy that was Australia – I sentence you to life without hope of parole or… 30 years terraforming Mars with a 10% chance of returning to Earth a free man/woman! MWhahahahahaha!!!!!

    Just don’t send Arnie, that never ends well for the authorities.

    Comment by Sanctuary — September 28, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

  17. His Mars series was good but I don’t recall being impressed by any grasp of the basic science around terraforming the planet. To start with, there’s good reasons neither the yanks or russkies built a moon base. First you need a rapid detection/plug system for sealing any breach of the envelop (atmospheric pressure leaks air into a vacuum real fast, and we know how well a similar design to deal with methane worked in the Pike River mine).

    Presuming that problem gets solved and initial colonies become viable, then the first terraforming problem is to figure out whether the gravity of Mars will retain atmosphere long enough to cover multiple human lifetimes (we know it won’t for geologic periods). So Musk has to move beyond pipedreams into feasibility study…

    Comment by Dennis Frank — September 28, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

  18. He has, but I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about terraforming immediately. Humans would live in habitats. His logic is pretty simple though – it’s possible that humans are the only intelligent/conscious life in the universe, and if we’re not the only ones, it’s possible that intelligent life is very very rare. As a single planet species there’s a chance that an event (meteorite, nuclear war, any of the number of things) could wipe out all of us, thereby ending intelligent life in the universe. That seems to be a pity, and his point is that by having a second planet that we live on, however inhospitable, a disaster on earth isn’t the end of intelligent life.

    It’s a pretty big concept, and not the kind of thing we usually think about. But it does kinda make sense.

    In that context, the question isn’t whether Mars is more hospitable than Earth (it’s clearly not), but whether you can get to a point where you had a self sufficient civilisation on Mars that could continue to survive if the Earth became uninhabited. And he’s positing both that the answer is yes, and more to the point, he’s putting his own money into doing it. That’s pretty visionary stuff.

    Comment by PaulL — September 28, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

  19. Charles Stross estimated about a hundred million people:

    That guy is SO much more interesting as an essayist than he is as a fiction writer.

    Comment by danylmc — September 28, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

  20. This also reminds me of Seveneves, in which Stephenson invented a machine that automagically made eyeglasses, when he figured out that all his characters were nerds who’d die pretty quickly without glasses, but he didn’t want a bunch of optometrists and lens technicians hanging around in his spaceship.

    Comment by danylmc — September 28, 2016 @ 2:34 pm

  21. I remember reading Zubrin’s book on the case for Mars, and he addressed issues like oxygen leaks and radiation. His solution was to use Martian materials to build huge unreinforced (Mars is tectonically dead) double bricked masonry vaults over entire valleys. Bricks are excellent at keeping out harmful radiation and if you allow a water layer for protection as well then the water does double duty as a self sealing system for holes (the water would freeze on contact with the Martian atmosphere, sealing any hole).

    Zubrin sees Mars as the answer for what he thinks is an important requirement for group human psychology – the need for new frontiers, new places to explore, and new things places to settle.

    And here is an interesting piece on the, *ahem*, small matter of the bill.

    Comment by Sanctuary — September 28, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

  22. MarkS & Robert Singers: I had the exact same thing in mind about Golgafrincham.

    Comment by Kumara Republic (@kumararepublic) — September 28, 2016 @ 2:53 pm

  23. @Sanctuary: interesting piece on funding. It’s also interesting that whilst government funded agencies have similar goals to SpaceX, they appear to be inching towards them very slowly and in a very expensive way. The nature of politics appears to mean that the current space plans of NASA are largely built around which congressional districts get funding, with quite little interest in the actual utility of the thing. Hence the derogatory backronym for the SLS program as “Senate Launch System.”

    The private enterprise model seems to be largely to do this work as a charity – which is what Elon Musk seems to be doing. And I note that whilst he’s the guy driving it, he’s getting quite a lot of funding from other like minded investors, none of whom seem particularly interested in getting a return (in fact, I think some have outright donated to the program).

    If the consequence of public funding is disfunction, decisions made for reasons other than technical necessity, and reduction in ambition, then I’d say public funding is a less good way to do this. That’s leaving aside whether public funding is really a good thing in this case – so is it really ethical to tax the population (presumably including some quite poor people) in order to pay for what are somewhat hubristic projects? I’m much happier to see rich people wasting their money on it than I am to see poor people taxed for it.

    Comment by PaulL — September 28, 2016 @ 3:38 pm

  24. Vladimir Taneev was the character in charge of medical treatment from the first 100. I guess he was also proficient in dentistry.

    Also they had space elevators.

    Comment by Conor Roberts — September 28, 2016 @ 3:42 pm

  25. Watch the movie “Prometheus”. There’s a robotic surgery table doctor thing. That’s all you need.

    Comment by truthseekernz — September 28, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

  26. There’s a reason Asimov’s vision of space colonization involved robots. There’s already robots on Mars, and none of them have ever needed a dentist. Or air or water or food or higher gravity. OK, they haven’t done much beyond looking around, but what the heck is a human going to do? Dig a well? Build a log cabin? Looking around, exploring and analyzing are going to be the only things worth doing there for an awfully long time. If there’s any building to be done, again there is no reason that remote controlled robots could not do this at a fraction of the cost of sending a meat machine.

    But I don’t really see the point. If we want humans off the planet in some kind of ecosystem, a space station (or very large spaceship) seems like a better bet. Something that can actually be moved towards useful raw materials (or have them moved towards it). Something that can make use of the Interplanetary Transport Network to put itself wherever would actually be best to go. If for some reason we still wanted that to be Mars, it would be perfect thing to orbit around Mars while humans controlled ground based devices where the AI couldn’t cope by itself, terraforming before going down.

    But by the time you had made such a station/ship, any reason for going to the ground might be well lost until the ground was at a similar level of development to the station. Which could be an indefinite amount of time, since there would probably not be any reason not to just keep developing the station/ship, or building other station/ships. By the time you’ve built a self sustaining industrial complex and livable ecosystem in space, is there any reason to be planet bound at all? They could just float around the ITN hoovering up asteroids and growing larger and more complex, and steadily working towards interstellar travel, if such a thing is really viable.

    Terraforming Mars might come as an afterthought, but it seems like a much bigger job with a lot smaller payoff than the development of all the infrastructure needed to make it possible. We love Earth now, it’s what we’re used to. But by the time we’ve built the space infrastructure required to keep humans going for many years, we’d have already solved most of what is undesirable about living in space, and we’d have mastered in-space fabrication.

    But getting even more meta, I see control of our own bodies and mental systems coming well before any of this stuff. Meat may have served its purpose well before we are ever really in a position to transport it to another planet and make it meat-ready. This space race stuff is an enormously long process. Hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We may well actually be robots well before any of it gets much further.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — September 28, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

  27. Australia was a dumb idea of the Georgian British. They could have just loaded the convicts on the transportation ships, sailed a few hundred miles into the Atlantic, dumped them over the side and sailed back for more. It would have been much cheaper, and we wouldn’t have Australians today.

    Comment by Rich d'Rich — September 28, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

  28. @PaulL – probably the US has made the entirely rational decision that manned space exploration is a bloody expensive way to buy votes.

    Comment by Rich d'Rich — September 28, 2016 @ 4:27 pm

  29. @Rich d’Rich: I think they have, and they appear to have also made the decision that it’s only taxpayer money, so what the hell, let’s do it anyway.

    Comment by PaulL — September 28, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

  30. Rich ‘d rich – the trouble is you need a reliable supply of indentured servants to shine your boots if you are spending the rest of your time productively shooting the pesky natives.

    Division of Labour and all that.

    Comment by Gregor W — September 28, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

  31. “They could have just loaded the convicts on the transportation ships, sailed a few hundred miles into the Atlantic, dumped them over the side and sailed back for more”

    While a very undemocratic state in many ways, Georgian Britain would have flinched at executing people for selling meat pies unlicensed.

    It’s important to remember that the people sent to Australia were overwhelmingly petty, non-violent criminals.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — September 28, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

  32. It makes me think of Billy Bragg’s terrific song The Space Race Is Over.

    Comment by Ross — September 29, 2016 @ 6:53 am

  33. @Ortvin: Yep. Governments before the 18th century didn’t balk at executing pie thieves, but they had less criminals, weren’t as good as catching them, and hadn’t got religion as much (all that thou shalt not kill nonsense).

    Comment by Rich d'Rich — September 29, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

  34. A Darien scheme for the modern era?

    Comment by 3ccles — October 2, 2016 @ 9:59 pm

  35. Robinson’s Mars novels do actually mention dentists.

    Musk strikes me as a nutty right winger. Like that old guy from Jurassic Park who kowtow’s so firmly to science, he doesn’t notice it biting it firmly on his butt.

    Comment by Trent — October 7, 2016 @ 10:06 am

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