Posts Tagged ‘science’

Jurassic World

Ah, the Jurassic World trailer… where to begin?

I was just the right age, back in 1993, to be fascinated and addicted to dinosaurs sometime prior to seeing Jurassic Park for the first time. In truth, my eight-year-old self, knowing all there was to know about dinosaurs, was even somewhat skeptical that the movie could possibly live up to the hype.

Critics and audiences were, for instance, cowering in fear of a new bogey, a nightmare villain that most had never even heard of up until this point – the velociraptor.

“Pah!” I went. “I’ve known about velociraptors for ages. They’re not even accurately depicted. They’re way too big. Real velociraptors were the size of chickens. The dinosaurs everyone is afraid should have been called deinonychus, or even utahraptor. Don’t these people know anything?”

Then, for my birthday, my mother took me and my cousins to go see a movie. The only choice for the dino-obsessed birthday boy was naturally Jurassic Park, even if I would have to suffer through the gross inaccuracies.

Needless to say, mislabeled deinonychus aside, Mr Spielberg blew my eight year old mind. Jurassic Park would forever hold a special place in my heart.

The sequel, The Lost World, came along a few years later. While I was pumped for the movie and among those who saw it on its opening weekend, it left me a little cold. Something was missing and the T-Rex’s romp through a city was a bit silly. JP3 came out, starring Spinosaurus as a big bad, a dinosaur I was pretty certain the latest research revealed as a fish-eater. At this point, I was old enough to know to read reviews. As a movie, it was a stinker. Its science was worse still.

I still haven’t seen it to this day.

Fast forward to the other day, when I stumbled upon a link to the Jurassic World trailer. I clicked, thinking “Why not? Even if the dinosaurs don’t have feathers, it might be worth a look”. The sound of a soft, tinkly version of the Jurassic Park theme, the sight of the park operational and updated with modern technology, the sight of a mosasaur leaping out of the water and eating a shark… I’ll admit, it all got me pretty excited. I began to feel the exhilarating butterflies you only ever get when you’re in love or you’re a small child anticipating Christmas. Could this be the one that brings me back?

Then somebody mentioned the word “hybrid”.

Never had a movie trailer made me so happy and then so sad in such quick succession.

I have to wonder whether or not I’ve been watching a different movie to everybody else all this time. For me, Jurassic Park was never a monster movie. It was a movie about animals. Ancient, dead, magnificently large and fierce animals, but animals none the less. The original movie entranced me because it brought (most of) the science I loved to life on the screen and introduced to the world the idea of dinosaurs as agile, birdlike creatures. Its later iterations haven’t done that, preferring to retread the path Jurassic Park forged. From the moment the announcement came that the movie wouldn’t feature feathered dinosaurs, I knew the people making it weren’t interested in the dinosaurs themselves, but rather the fear those creatures represent.

At least I’ll always have the original.


A World without Saul


A while ago, I was part of a conversation on one of my favourite speculative topics – time travel. The question asked was, if you had access to a time machine, what would you do with it?

One respondent, presumably an ardent atheist, responded that he would go back in time and kill Saul of Tarsus.

For those of you who don’t know, Saul of Tarsus is otherwise known as St Paul, and he was a critical figure in the development and spread of early Christianity. He was central in taking the beliefs of a small pocket of Jesus followers centred on Jerusalem to the greater Graeco-Roman world. The history of the Roman Empire, and indeed of the world, would be extremely different were it not for his actions.

Now, the sentiment being expressed is a common one, especially on the Internet. There are a lot of people out there who genuinely feel that many of the world’s problems can be traced back to dogmatic religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. This is especially true of the New Atheists, the most famous of whom include Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. There are echoes of Enlightenment-era thinkers in their words and they are strident, unrelenting and unabashed in their criticism of religion and elevation of reason, science and skepticism as the ideal basis of any worldview.

As for why atheists tend to be so vocal on the Internet, I can only speculate. My guess is that many of the more pugnacious atheists are so because they grew up or live in a religious environment or surrounded by believers. Some natural reactions to ubiquitous attitudes that are contrary to one’s own are anger or withdrawal, sometimes both. So, people withdraw to the Internet and vent their rage online.

It certainly doesn’t help that a common belief among religious people is that because an atheist does not draw their morality from an ultimate authority, that they are therefore lacking in a moral centre.

To this young man (I am guessing his age and gender), I told him that I doubted very much that he would like the result.

Northern and Eastern Germany and Scandinavia would still be mainly rural backwaters filled with rapey, bearded, violent raiders. England would likely be the same. Eastern Europe would have no real cities and the rest of Europe and the Levant would cower in fear of Hunnic/Slavic/Mongol/Turkic/Avar horsemen from the Steppe.

Mediterranean civilisation, if it weren’t overrun by invading barbarian hordes, would be much the same as it is now in terms of social mores… only with slightly looser attitudes on things like slavery, which lost favour in Europe very slowly, first with a distaste for the idea of Christians being slaves of non-Christians, then for Christians being slaves at all and finally for slavery entirely. The process took nearly two millennia.

You have to remember that Christianity, by the time it became the religion of the Empire, had essentially absorbed Graeco-Roman morality almost in its entirety and appended some conservative ideas governing sexuality and a few ideals surrounding charity, suffering and pacifism. None of Christianity’s moral attitudes were entirely alien to Graeco-Roman culture, but Christianity did do a lot to standardise them across the board.

Of Graeco-Roman attitudes adopted by early Christianity, one of the more interesting ones is the attitude toward women. The restrictions on a woman’s role in the church by the author of the Timothy letters (attributed to Paul but likely a 2nd century author), for instance, were the result of one Christian community’s attempt at fitting in to the greater Graeco-Roman society around them.

They tried to do this by combatting some of the competing attitudes prevalent in Christian communities at the time, exemplified in popular writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which included the notion that a woman could do significant things and was in many ways the equal to any man. The idea that a woman could do more than simply get married and pump out babies was so radical that a common pagan criticism of early Christianity was that it was anti-family-values.

Bear in mind that this dissenting attitude would not be endorsed by many modern feminists. It held that chastity was the greatest virtue and that complete and utter submission to God was the ideal life. It did, however, provide a vision for a woman to have a far greater role in controlling her own life and in her faith.

People seem to misunderstand (and mischaracterise) just how Greek early Christianity was after Paul. From its Platonic conceptions on the nature of God, the immortality of the soul (hotly contested in Jewish circles but not questioned in Christianity), the afterlife, the organisation of its hierarchy, to the morals its adherents lived by and the analytical and argumentative nature of its theological scholarship, it all derived from or was guided by existing Greek philosophical tradition. Far from being an alien implant that swept away or poisoned existing Graeco-Roman culture, it was existing Graeco-Roman culture that happened to import and then digest a bunch of Jewish/Eastern ideas.

This became truer as time went on and Christianity became unmoored from its Jewish roots. When Graeco-Roman Gentiles became the majority of Jesus followers, it was all over. Graeco-Roman Christians depicted God in mosaic and statuary artwork, ate pork, failed to circumcise their sons and generally kept their own ways almost from the beginning.

Even setting aside all that, you have the various crises that beset Europe in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th centuries (invasions and plagues, mostly) and the state’s inability to respond to them effectively, and you have the entire thing breaking apart or being absorbed by foreign powers without some pan-European organisation holding it all together, which is what the Medieval Church provided. Indeed, for a long time, with the breakdown of civil administration in Western Europe, the withering of the educational system and the advent of an illiterate warrior nobility, the Medieval Church was the only institution that had anyone who knew how to hold a pen in some areas, let alone how to do sums, build in stone or preserve history.

Without Christianity, there would likely be no Islam either, which would mean that there would be no sudden papyrus shortage in the 7th century (due to the Roman Empire’s loss of Egypt to the armies of Islam) that precipitated a lot of the knowledge loss and paper-reuse in Medieval Europe (people would scrape existing words off a page to reuse the paper). But then again, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that papyrus eventually rots and parchment doesn’t if you look after it properly. The great library in Constantinople had huge issues with thousand-year-old manuscripts rotting away before they could be preserved. With so many books and copying having to be done by hand, it was inevitable.

The bottom line, however, is that without Christianity and especially the Medieval Church, Western Europe would have eventually been overrun and broken up by barbarians and the whole region would have splintered into regional powers with no real commonalities or transmission of ideas or technology between them at all. There would be whole swaths of the continent today where the whole society wouldn’t even know how to read, let alone know what the Romans did or who Aristotle was.

The upshot to all this is that you’ve got a world where European civilisation, mostly centred around the Mediterranean, has a half-remembered, glorious past but where anything too far inland in the north is barbarian land where ruined cities and forts stand in silent testimony to what could have been. In this scenario, China is the world’s leading power and the scientific revolution may never have happened.

With Paul out of the picture, Christianity remains a tiny splinter group within Judaism and may have in fact died with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Without Christianity, what hope could there have been for a pan-European common identity or a pan-European common language after the collapse of the Western Empire? In the chaos that followed, what other forces could have spread ideas as far afield as Dublin, Oslo, Palermo and Constantinople?

I would argue none.

Trying to Understand the Country Vote

This post is adapted from one of my comments to a thread about Australian politics. It was inspired by an interactive map that plotted the majority political opinions in the various federal districts around Australia. One thing that really stuck out was the polarisation of opinions between urban and rural areas, especially in the states of Queensland and Western Australia.

One big hot-button issue these past few years has been the matter of taxation reform for the mining industry. Now, what you need to understand about this topic is that land ownership in Australia works a lot differently to that of other parts of the world, most notably the US.

The main difference is that under right of capture, land ownership in the US also includes ownership of any minerals or natural resources buried in that land. This is easy to understand and what most people naturally assume is the case. After all, Jed Clampett became a millionaire after striking oil on his otherwise worthless swamp.

However, in Australia, things are more complicated. It turns out that if you own land, you technically have a freehold, which means you can use that land for most normal purposes (farming, building etc.) but the minerals underneath it don’t belong to you – they belong to the people collectively.

If you want to extract wealth from the ground, be oil, gas, metals etc., you need a special permit allowing you to do so. Sometimes, these permits allow you to extract the resources that sit under land held by other people in freehold or leasehold. More often than not these people are farmers and none too happy being forced by the government to give you access to their land.

In return for the right to mine resources, the system up until a few years ago had you pay a set fee for every tonne of stuff you dug out of the ground. This was a great policy in the early part of the 20th century, when mineral prices were low and mining labour-intensive. It gave the government a stable source of revenue. In recent years, with the high mineral prices and extensive automation of the industry, you had a situation wherein a smaller and smaller proportion of the profits generated by mines were being recirculated in either the communities that serviced them or by the Australian people at large.

Cue the Mining Profits Super Tax, a policy designed to redress this failing and reform the system. Unfortunately for proponents of the measure, it was introduced poorly and politically mishandled, prompting a very loud and very public campaign against this “Mining Tax” by the mining lobby. The government then, fresh off the narrowest reelection margins in living memory, thanks in large part to this campaign, de-fanged the proposal and pushed it through in a watered down form.

People in the cities were broadly supportive of the proposal. It meant that mining companies, Australia’s biggest and wealthiest, would finally pay their fair share. People in rural areas, however, were broadly against the proposal, as it represented a threat to their own pockets.

The economic policies favoured by the country then, are basically the result of people voting to preserve their livelihoods and develop their own communities economically. Queensland and Western Australia both have vast swathes of land where people living there have very few options when it comes to earning a living.

Another big issue on which city and country were divided was on the issue of refugees, and, more broadly, the topic of multiculturalism itself, with its various sub-controversies, such as the recognition of Indigenous/Aboriginal Australians in the constitution and recognition of their rights in general. Opinions on all these topics seem to be broadly aligned. That is, if you hold one opinion, you’re more likely than not to hold others. That is to say that someone who is against Australia accepting new refugees that arrive in the country by boat is far less likely to agree that Aboriginal Australians should be singled out for special recognition in the constitution.

Needless to say, the latter views are far more prevalent in rural areas and these correlate strongly with conservative economic attitudes.

The anti asylum seeker and anti Aboriginal attitudes of rural voters are, I believe, borne out of the isolation and homogeneity of their communities, as well as the fact that the general population in these areas have less education than the cities. We’re talking about the whitest, least educated areas in Australia, which narrows people’s worldviews somewhat, to the point where their preferred solutions to policy problems don’t involve abstractions like social justice or depend so much on stuff like statistical analysis, but are pragmatic and concrete, here-and-now fixes.

A farmer or grazier sees him or herself as a steward of their own land. After all, the farmer who fails to look after their own land exhausts it quickly and bankrupts their business, failing to pass it on to their own kids. This is why they resent these big city greenies (i.e. environmentalists) who come in and tell them that because of aggregate overuse of the fresh water supply, everyone suffers and desertification and salination are taking place.

The farmer resents this because to them, it’s as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face that the fastest way to get desertification and salination happening on their own land is to stop using water on it. What does this greenie know about farming?

It’s the same attitudes that shape views, among white rural Australians, of the welfare state and the services it provides. As far as they’re concerned, welfare is for the lazy and services are for the cities. In the here and the now, they don’t see the intangible benefits of having a healthy welfare state, not in their own lives nor in those of their friends. As far as they’re concerned, their hard earned tax dollars are being unfairly siphoned out of their own pockets and being given to the undeserving or to the cities.

This leads into the prevalence of anti Aboriginal attitudes. In the cities, Aboriginal people have more educational and employment opportunities, more support and more hope, so urban exposure to the social problems facing their communities is somewhat lessened. In the country, and especially in more isolated places, these factors don’t come into play, so a white country person’s exposure to Aboriginal people can often be far less positive.

Perhaps on account of the isolation intrinsic to life as a farmer, people in rural areas tend to rate self-reliance as much higher on the list of virtues than a city person would. This attitude leads people to see one’s success or failure in the face of adversity to be a reflection on one’s own moral character. This means that they’re a hardy and tenaceous lot out there. The trap here, however, is the inability to see the historical and systemic forces that perpetuate the problems in Aboriginal communities and instead see these problems as the culmination of a thousand individual moral failures of the affected Aboriginal people themselves.

Why should we give any special rights or even recognition, they reason, to a bunch of drunken, violent layabouts? They have every chance, they think, to lift themselves out of their situation, clean themselves up and get a job, but they fail to do so consistently. Nope, the thinking goes, they haven’t earned the right to even be treated like equals.

Asylum seekers get it even worse, because not only are they coming and taking up tax dollars, but they’re also foreign, which means they could be bringing problems into the country that haven’t even been dreamed of yet.

I, as a city dweller and big believer in Keynesian economics, the value of using the latest science to inform policy-making and in progressive social policy, am almost the polar opposite of the rural electorate. I am also far removed from their problems and concerns. This does not, however, mean that I shouldn’t make an effort to understand them.

Too often, I see dismissal, mocking and outright contempt for these voters from others whose opinions skew to the left side of Australian politics. The thing is, they’re part of this country too, and their opinions, regardless of how heinous you may find them, matter.

How Many Nappies Do I Need to Buy?

Baby Love

So, you’ve found out the news that you’re going to be a first time parent!  Congratulations! Apart from being completely intimidating and more than a little bit terrifying a prospect, this is a joyous time, but if you’re anything like me, you want to do a little bit of planning ahead of time.

One of the pieces of advice that often gets bandied about is the tip that you should stock up on nappies early and to purchase them while they are on special at your local supermarket.  This is all well and good, but the next thing that will happen is that you will go to the store and again be completely overwhelmed.  There are at least six different sizes of disposable nappy available from a variety of companies, all offering different gimmicks in order to entice you to buy them over their competitors. Not only that, but they also come in different quantities, so you’re left wondering which packs to stock up on, and how much is enough.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the different varieties are divided up by weight rather than something more intuitive like height or length and they overlap a bit so your little one is always covered.  Again though, there is no real guidance as to which ones to buy and how many to get. Searching online seems to only yield forum posts and thumb-in-the-air estimations from parents, which is a little bit imprecise for my tastes.

So I decided to do a few quick calculations.

First, I downloaded the World Health Organisation’s statistics on child growth from birth to five years old. These are divided up between data for boys and data for girls, which the Victorian state government in Australia helpfully put into a graphical form that you can print out and refer to.  The next thing I did was to look up the Huggies website and looked up their range of nappies.  I chose Huggies not because I particularly trust the brand (My wife and I are still just expectant parents ourselves, so I have no opinion one way or the other), but because they’re reasonably popular here in Australia, have the full range of sizes and are a bit more expensive than most other brands, which for a worst-case-scenario calculation like this one, is perfect. I’ve also assumed you’re paying retail prices and buying in their biggest bulk size ($35/box), which as we know, is very often not the case.

The WHO data is divided up into fifteen percentile categories with the 0.1st percentile meaning that 99.9% of babies are bigger, the tenth percentile meaning 90% of babies are bigger and so forth until you get to the 99.9th percentile, wherein only o.1% of babies are bigger than this set of figures.  For the vast majority (i.e. 80%) of babies, weights between the 10th and 90th percentiles is expected, so don’t panic if your baby is a bit bigger or a bit smaller than the average.

I also assumed that a newborn baby will need a nappy change once every sleep / waking cycle, which for most babies is between two and three hours (which works out to be about 9.6 nappies used a day) and that a month is 30.4167 days long.  The assumption is also that this rate will never change. Remember though that this is a worst-case-scenario calculation and many babies will use fewer nappies, especially after they start on solid food.

Here below then, are the tabulated results for girls with the average sized baby highlighted in red:

Percentiles P10% P15% P25% P50% P75% P85% P90%
Girls Months spent at various weights (up to 36 months)
Mths Newborn 3 2 2 2 1 1 1
Mths Infant 6 6 5 4 3 3 3
Mths Crawler 19 18 17 14 12 10 8
Mths Toddler 9 11 13 17 15 14 14
Mths Walker 0 0 0 0 6 9 9
Mths Junior 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Girls Number of nappies required @ 292 nappies / month
Newborn 876 584 584 584 292 292 292
Infant 1752 1752 1460 1168 876 876 876
Crawler 5548 5256 4964 4088 3504 2920 2336
Toddler 2628 3212 3796 4964 4380 4088 4088
Walker 0 0 0 0 1752 2628 2628
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 0 584
Number of boxes required
Newborn 8.2 5.5 5.5 5.5 2.8 2.8 2.8
Infant 18.3 18.3 15.3 12.2 9.2 9.2 9.2
Crawler 61.7 58.4 55.2 45.5 39 32.5 26
Toddler 36.5 44.7 52.8 69 60.9 56.8 56.8
Walker 0 0 0 0 27.4 41.1 41.1
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 0 9.8
Total Boxes 124.7 126.9 128.8 132.2 139.3 142.4 145.7
Total Cost $4364.5 $4441.5 $4508 $4627 $4875.5 $4984 $5099.5

And the same results for boys:

Percentiles P10% P15% P25% P50% P75% P85% P90%
Boys Months spent at various weights (up to 36 months)
Mths Newborn 2 2 2 1 1 1 1
Mths Infant 5 4 3 3 3 2 2
Mths Crawler 17 16 15 12 9 8 7
Mths Toddler 13 15 17 18 15 15 14
Mths Walker 0 0 0 3 9 9 9
Mths Junior 0 0 0 0 0 2 4
Boys Number of nappies required @ 292 nappies / month
Newborn 584 584 584 292 292 292 292
Infant 1460 1168 876 876 876 584 584
Crawler 4964 4672 4380 3504 2628 2336 2044
Toddler 3796 4380 4964 5256 4380 4380 4088
Walker 0 0 0 876 2628 2628 2628
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 584 1168
Number of boxes required
Newborn 5.5 5.5 5.5 2.8 2.8 2.8 2.8
Infant 15.3 12.2 9.2 9.2 9.2 6.1 6.1
Crawler 55.2 52 48.7 39 29.2 26 22.8
Toddler 52.8 60.9 69 73 60.9 60.9 56.8
Walker 0 0 0 13.7 41.1 41.1 41.1
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 9.8 19.5
Total Boxes 128.8 130.6 132.4 137.7 143.2 146.7 149.1
Total Cost $4508 $4571 $4634 $4819.5 $5012 $5134.5 $5218.5

The thing that jumped out at me was how little difference it makes if you have a little boy or a little girl. It adds up to maybe a few hundred dollars over three years. I’m sure other things factor in, but for nappies at least, boys and girls are evenly matched.

If you wanted to do your own calculation and modify it to suit how many nappies your baby uses after they are on solids (which I unfortunately couldn’t find reliable data on), I think the important takeaway here is the part of each table that shows how many months your baby is likely to be in each weight category.  If your baby cuts down to (say) five nappies per day after starting solids, then you might only need half the boxes I calculated here from there on in. Every kid is different, however, so if you use this information as the basis for your own calculation, remember that the WHO statistics are just a rough guide, not the be all and end all.

I hope this helps you first time parents out there.  I know I felt a little bit better myself once I worked out what to expect.

Life on a Generation Ship

I like the idea of adorable robot caretakers

A lot of science fiction is predicated on the idea that that humanity has at some point in the distant past gotten on spaceships from their homeworld (usually Earth, sometimes not) and colonised the stars, terraforming and populating hundreds of worlds and thousands of moons along the way. This is the backdrop of landmark science fiction such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Star Wars, Alien and a whole raft of others. The common theme here is that in order to have epic adventure across the stars, the problems of interstellar space travel need to have already been solved.

Unfortunately, the problems of interstellar travel are substantial ones, the most insurmountable of which is the issue of sheer distance. To quote Douglas Adams, space is big. How big, you might ask? Big enough that if you tried to visit our nearest neighbouring star (Proxima Centauri – 4.24 light years) and somehow contrived to travel at light speed, it would still take you four years to get there. Big enough that if you tried to get to Proxima Centauri as quickly as the fastest man made object ever built (the Helios II probe), you would take some 18,000 years to arrive.

Of course, most science fiction stories of the type I mentioned get around this problem by invoking theoretical concepts such as faster-than-light travel, wormholes and hyperspace. While these concepts may have some basis in real physics, their depictions in science fiction tend to gloss over some vast technical problems it might be impossible or impractical to overcome. Like with the development of powered flight, it might take thousands of years for these concepts to go from the level of our current speculation to physical reality. We may, in fact, never solve these problems.

If the speed of light really is the cosmic speed limit, we will at some point need to leave our solar system in order to ensure our species’ survival. It might not be for a few billion years, but our sun will eventually become a red giant and engulf the Earth. If humanity is still around at that time, colonising the stars will no longer be a far off dream, but a practical necessity.

This is where the notion of the Generation Ship comes in – a huge spacecraft designed to be continuously inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people for literally generations while the craft makes its way to its intended destination. The idea is that it would be a floating environment people would be happy to grow up, raise families and die in without ever seeing the outside of. While that might sound awful to you, remember that this is basically what Earth is (albeit on a much larger scale) and that for most of human history, the majority of people never ventured more than a few kilometres from the place they were born. Make the environment big, pleasant and/or interesting enough and the people on board may never want to leave (think of The Axiom from Wall-E)

Of course, this isn’t without its own problems. First of all, much to NASA and every other space agency’s chagrin, keeping a human being alive in space is difficult, expensive, time consuming and usually requires a lot of training, effort and vigilance on the part of the human. This isn’t something you can trust most people with, let alone generations of varying quality and it means that you will have a real problem keeping the lights on and the air going. No building has ever been continuously maintained and used on Earth for more than 2000 years, so you can have no hope that generations of human maintainers can do it to a vessel hundreds of times more complicated for at least ten times as long. That will mean that shipboard maintenance will need to be taken up by autonomous, self-repairing robots if you have any hope of getting the ship to its destination with its cargo intact.

Additionally, for every cubic metre of living space you provide, the ship will probably require several times that amount of room for all the resources and systems required to keep that living space going, let alone the rockets and other things you’ll need to land on a likely planet for colonisation when you get there. Remember that even if you can build a lot of the tools you need, you will never get a chance to stock up on more stuff like oxygen, metals, fuel or water in the thousands of years between star systems, so you will need to take it all with you when you go. If you get on a Generation Ship the size of (say) New York, you will be relegated to living in a tiny portion of it about the size of Central Park.

Moreover, all the food you eat, all the air you breathe, all the water you drink would be recycled. Again, this is something the Earth does for you all the time that a Generation Ship would need to provide a facsimile for in the emptiness of space.

None of this even considers other issues you might encounter living in space. Low gravity, for instance, might be the cause of a lot of health problems for Generation Ship inhabitants, like muscular atrophy and brittle bones. Cosmic radiation might be difficult or impossible to effectively shield against and this could lead to elevated rates of cancer and other health conditions. As of yet, nobody was ever conceived, born or raised in space, so there might be a slew of issues that haven’t even been identified.

Let’s say that these problems are mitigated by genetic engineering, new unimaginable technology and clever construction of the ship. The builder of the ship still has not addressed the social issues that hundreds of generations of humans living in the worldlet the builder has created for them would encounter. How do you keep them “on mission” and stop them from turning around or abandoning the colonisation scheme? How do you keep them from killing each other or destroying the ship?

One answer would be to feed, clothe and educate the inhabitants generation after generation through the use of sentient robots. This way any change in language and culture or societal breakdown can be adjusted for and people wouldn’t forget the mission, where they came from, where they’re going or what they need to do once they get there. Unfortunately, any measures you take to ensure the successful colonisation of the stars also means curtailing individual freedom and stagnating culture for hundreds of generations of people. Even convincing them of the idea that a planet is a good place to live after countless generations on board a ship might be a huge challenge, regardless of how automated the process of terraformation is.

You might get around all these issues by not sending people at all, but rather thousands of vials of frozen DNA (or DNA sequences in the form of data) and factories for the production of humans to kick into gear only when the destination is reached a la Rendezvous with Rama. Combine this with robot nannies to rear the first generation of colonists and you ensure mission success, but risk a discontinuity of human culture if these robots cannot properly emulate human interaction. Whether this is a problem or not depends on your point of view and the quality of your robots.

If human interaction, and especially continuity of interaction, is considered to be of paramount importance, or if there is no way of building a human from scratch, another alternative is to simply grow human brains in jars, hooked up to a computer simulation of a planetary environment (like The Matrix) and mating is taken care of by the ship according to choices made by humans in the simulation. This will reduce the amount of living space and resources a Generation Ship builder needs to provide, limits the damage to the ships human conflict can cause and will mean that the first generation of colonists is raised by actual humans. Of course, this assumes the process of transferring brains into new bodies is firmly established by that point.

Regardless of what form it takes, building a Generation Ship is not as simple as simply constructing a floating resort and calling it a day. You need to think about human nature and how to get the passengers to go along with your original plan millennia in advance. It requires building a world and setting rules for the inhabitants and their descendants to live by – the duties in fact, of a creator deity.

Perhaps it’s a good thing we’re not quite at that stage yet. Something in me doubts that we are mature enough yet as a society to set those limits responsibly.