Anchorage 2/20/17 – The price of crude oil has begun creeping upwards again and the oil patch is coming out of its latest crisis with a change of technical trajectory involving increased use of artificial intelligence and remote monitoring. These rigs are beginning to decide for themselves how best to burrow into the hydrocarbon pay zones and what sort of fracking to perform. Smaller crews are stationed on site as remote control rooms come into play. Hard piping is replacing delivery trucks. The old technocratic science fiction dream of mining machines roaming planets by themselves is manifesting in reality.
A private company aims to reach the moon this year to begin an effort to mine it. It plans to use the Cape Canaveral launch infrastructure, revived yesterday with a successful SpaceX launch resupplying the International Space Station. As often happens, something John Allen said a few years ago comes to mind. “Destroying our own planet with mining? Why not just get it from an asteroid? We already have the technology.”
All this comes in my morning newspaper as I re-read Vernadsky’s 1926 “The Biosphere,” re-published in 1986 by John’s Synergetic Press a few years before they sealed a crew inside Biosphere2 in Arizona, replicating the planet’s diverse ecosystems for two years. Vernadsky’s insight that the crust of the earth is the product not so much of the planet but of its interaction with external forces in the cosmos is stunning to me. Of course in some ways we all know this. Our planet’s albedo is indeed modulated by biological processes, and there is even a scientific discipline (arguably invented by Vernadsky) known as biogeochemistry. But the insight that this living system – including the works of man – forms a sphere still resonates from 90 years ago. The tools of science have found life deep in the Earth’s crust and high in the stratosphere. Even the understanding of how this life evolves is undergoing a huge paradigm shift as we learn how genetic segments jump around between organisms and how acquired traits actually do get encoded and passed to new generations.
And all the new insights about microbes. I attended a packed workshop this month in which they talked about ways of engineering trees to encourage the dramatic proliferation of rhizome microbes that decontaminate ground water.
Vernadsky’s insights are many. He theorized the Van Allen Belts, for instance, finally discovered in 1957. But some things he simply could not have known about – such as the existence of a subsea ecosystem drawing its energy from hydrothermal vents. Or how these same sulphur-based organisms also inhabit and decompose sunken whale carcasses hundred of miles away from any volcanic activity. Or the amazing proliferation of insects and other life forms that ride the wind. But I think he would have welcomed all those realities into his theoretical framework. And he did have important things to say about humans and our role in the biosphere. He viewed us as means of expanding it – as one of the biosphere’s tools for doing so. Transported to this future, I doubt the International Space Station would have surprised him, but I would love to know how it might have inspired him.
Especially I would love to know what he would make of communications satellites, the “cloud” of packet switched information storage, and the ability of humans to select their own sources of information. His last paper was published in 1944, during the nastiest part of World War II. In it, he theorized about a noosphere – a spherical shell of the earth composed of knowledge. I have thought about this a great deal, naming our website after it, but also trying to probe the nature of such a sphere. I have come to believe that even with all our scientific and technical advancement, the greater part of human knowledge still channels through cultures, that these cultures by necessity reflect their particular ecosystems, and hence that cross cultural communication is the foremost challenge in forming this noosphere. It is for this reason that you will continue to see storytelling, folklore, multilingual education and oral history reflected along with hard science on this website.