Dyson sphere thermodynamics and a cure for cavities
by Jason Crawford
October 12, 2023
11 min read
I’ve been traveling for a while, so this is a long one, covering the last ~month. I tried to cut it down, but there have been so many amazing announcements, opportunities, etc.! Feel free to skim and jump around:
“The Knowledge Machine delves deep into the interplay between systems thinking and human nature, starting with a thought-provoking idea: most people lack the inherent drive to pursue knowledge.” Science Despite the Fragility of Scientists
“There exists a fundamental mismatch in scale that means no one really represents the interests of the overall Bay Area, nor has the power to govern it coherently. This is causing a fundamental breakdown.” It’s Time for Greater San Francisco
“We’re looking for someone to help us at @fiftyyears with a research project on the history of technological progress, its future, and the potential contribution to a thriving future” (via @sethbannon)
“I’m working on charting technological progress in different mediums (electrons, atoms, bits, …) over time. Know anyone who might want to work with me on a short term (1-2 weeks) data gathering and analytics project?” (@fuelfive)
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has succeeded in collecting a sample from an asteroid: “the extraterrestrial regolith sample has safely landed in Utah” (@AJamesMcCarthy). “Humankind has successfully returned a primordial piece of the Solar System that’s billions of years old” (@ThePlanetaryGuy). Also the PI on the project had an excellent out-of-office message
“GELLO is an intuitive and low cost teleoperation device for robot arms that costs less than $300” (@philippswu, cool videos, paper on Arxiv)
A new paper assesses “if AI will accelerate economic growth by as much as growth accelerated during the industrial revolution, digging into growth theory, bottlenecks, feasibility of regulation, AI reliability/alignment, etc. Takeaway: acceleration looks plausible” (@tamaybes)
“With many 🧩 dropping recently, a more complete picture is emerging of LLMs not as a chatbot, but the kernel process of a new Operating System,” says @karpathy
“A lot of interesting things in a study that mapped 1,313 ancient human remains for pathogens. Here is the rate of zoonotic diseases over time, showing that the spread of animal husbandry out of the mid-east coincided with the spread of zoonotic diseases” (and more in this thread from @lefineder)
A call for a “media temperance movement”, for a public who is drunk on media. Targeting: social media use, especially among young people; solitary media consumption; the decline in reading the printed page; and political infotainment. I support both alcohol and media usage, but both must be consumed in moderation—and if you can’t handle yourself, maybe you should be a teetotaler.
“Cavities were cured in 1985, and no one knows it yet. It is possible to genetically engineer Streptococcus mutans, the dominant human mouth bacteria, to produce ethanol instead of cavity-causing lactic acid. Further modifications cause it to outcompete native mouth bacteria, without spreading outside of the mouth. All research suggests that a one-time brushing of this GMO strain onto the teeth will dramatically reduce, or entirely eliminate, dental caries” (Lantern Bioworks). This is a pet idea of mine, but see the replies here for some potential problems
“A 2000 ton spaceship that’s 900 tons antihydrogen, 900 tons hydrogen and 200 tons engines, structure and payload” could “accelerate to 0.92C with 2.55x time dilation, enough to reach the closest star in 21.4 months subjective time” (@ToughSf)
“Eternal problem of progress: if you fix a problem (or diminish it enough), your descendants will forget that the conditions in which they live are privileged ones, and will (in their ignorance and arrogance) destroy the foundations of that progress” (@SarahTheHaider). This is why the history of progress needs to be part of the curriculum for every student—so we never forget.
“Ideas ‘cast shadows’ into the future. It would be interesting to examine ideas that flourished for a time, then completely died out” (@ID_AA_Carmack)
“Another good progress studies project to fund would be a really thorough study of environmental review laws (NEPA, CEQA, etc.) We know shockingly little about their impacts considering how ubiquitous they are” (@_brianpotter)
Being queen in the 17th century: “Anne had seventeen pregnancies, of which five were live births. None of her children survived to adulthood” (via @StefanFSchubert)
“When Fat’h Ali became the Shah of Persia in 1797, he was given a set of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s 3rd edition, which he read completely; after this feat, he extended his royal title to include ‘Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica’.” (@curiouswavefn)
“How did fighter planes in the 1950s perform calculations before compact digital computers were available? With the Bendix Central Air Data Computer! This electromechanical analog computer used gears and cams to compute ‘air data’ for fighter planes such as the F-101” (thread by @kenshirriff)
As I became acquainted with the manufacture of iron I was greatly surprised to find that the cost of each of the various processes was unknown. Inquiries made of the leading manufacturers of Pittsburgh proved this. It was a lump business, and until stock was taken and the books balanced at the end of the year, the manufacturers were in total ignorance of results. I heard of men who thought their business at the end of the year would show a loss and had found a profit, and vice-versa. I felt as if we were moles burrowing in the dark, and this to me was intolerable.
A firm structured like Sears, Roebuck in 1916, with thousands of employees, pensioners, and shareholders, did not exist in 1840—not even in the wild imaginings of some futuristic visionary. Back then, the bulk of economic activity was conducted through single-unit businesses, run and owned by independent traders, who would have been more familiar with the Merchant of Prato’s business methods than Henry Ford’s.
One Wyoming ranch woman called the day when electricity arrived “my Day of Days because lights shone where lights had never been, the electric stove radiated heat, the washer turned, and an electric pump freed me from hauling water. The old hand pump is buried under six feet of snow, let it stay there! Good bye Old Toilet on the Hill! With the advent of the REA, that old book that was my life is closed and Book II is begun.”
A world of high transport costs is described by an economic model of monopolistic competition. One of the characteristics of such a model is that innovator and laggard can coexist side by side. In the region served by the innovator, lower production costs due to technological change meant a combination of higher profits for producers and lower prices for consumers. Nothing could force the laggards to follow suit, however, and the “survival of the cheapest” model so beloved by economists is short-circuited.
Theodore Roosevelt warned of an impending “timber famine,” driven by the railroads’ insatiable demand for wood. The problem was solved not by the technocratic Forest Service but by the development of creosote to preserve cross-ties and by the railroads’ own natural limits. The story repeated itself with metals in the 1970s and 1980s, as various authorities foresaw shortages or outright exhaustion. Instead, consumers bought fewer refrigerators and automobiles, and more services and electronic gadgets. More efficient techniques and substitute materials reduced the amount of metal needed to make everything from cars to telephone wire. And the predicted shortages never appeared.
The first powerful shock came in 1914 when the “civilized” nations of Europe—most of them boasting the advances of science and technology, education, and self-government—went to war with one another and quickly brought even non-European nations into the vortex of a global conflict. The world had scarcely recovered from the conflagration when other traumas followed: the Russian Revolution, fought, like the French Revolution, in the name of heroic ideals but demanding from its inception to the present unconscionable human sacrifices; fascism in its Italian and in its generic form; the Great Depression; Nazism, reaching its climax of bestiality in the scientifically organized wartime extermination camps of the Third Reich; the carnage of the Second World War; the war’s aftermath of spreading dictatorship and new armed conflicts; and the aborted hopes for democracy and economic advance in the emergent Third World countries.
The French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps organized efforts to dig a canal across the Suez isthmus in 1859. Ten years later, a few months after the completion of America’s transcontinental railroad, Empress Eugenie sailed from Port Said to Suez for the formal opening of the canal. Among the other dignitaries who attended were the Prince and Princess of Wales, Emperor Franz Joseph, and an envoy from the Pope. Verdi, commissioned to write an opera for the event, failed to complete it in time: Aïda premiered in Cairo in 1871.
We own 70 per cent of the world’s automobiles and trucks, 50 per cent of the world’s telephones. We listen to 45 per cent of the world’s radios. We operate 35 per cent of the world’s railroads. We consume 59 per cent of the world’s petrolum, and 50 per cent of its rubber.
“Once, America found beauty in the blend of industry and nature—a train against the fiery dance at a steel mill. The smoke told tales of prosperity, each puff a testament to our relentless spirit. We embraced the aesthetic of ambition, and we were better for it” (@Itsjoeco)
“What happened around the year 2000 that dramatically altered youth culture?” (@jayvanbavel)
“Neither covid nor WW2 had any lasting effect on US GDP growth trends… our strong prior should be ‘unless this is literally more disruptive than WW2, things will revert to trend’” (@RichardMCNgo)