The illustrations you did throughout the book are hilarious and so much fun, and a big factor as to how you’re able to make this super-futuristic science approachable. How long did it take to complete the book?
The illustrations you did throughout the book are hilarious and so much fun, and a big factor as to how you’re able to make this super-futuristic science approachable. How long did it take to complete the book?
With the illustrations, if I recall correctly, we would write a draft of the chapter, and then use that to conduct interviews with people, then we’d roll in or correct things from the people we interviewed, and then afterwards we added humor and comic strips. We had notes on every comic - there are around 100 comics in the book - and for a week or two, I did nothing but draw comic panels nonstop. Imagine the worst hand cramps you’ve ever had, and multiply by 20! We were obsessive about the research, so we were working on it every second until they took it from our clammy nerd-hands. The drawings had to wait until we knew what made the cut. I took the kids and went to my parent’s house or Kelly’s parent’s house, so they could watch the kids while I went crazy at a tablet.
OK, on to the subject matter: SOONISH covers a wide variety of topics and ideas, from the universe to stuff to human health and biology. You kick things off in a big way with the Universe, namely that getting stuff to space is too darn expensive at $10,000 a pound, and then Kelly and you go through all the different hypothetical ways that we could try to get stuff to space more cheaply like reusable rockets, air-breathing rockets, enormous ‘superguns,’ laser ignition, starting at high altitude, the space elevator / tether, or my personal favorite, a super giant enormous pogo stick. Which is your personal favorite theory about how to get stuff to space cheaply and why?
Well, obviously the pogo stick method is the best, although probably will not be happening ever. But the space elevator is the most nice. The most plausible is one that’s partially happened like reusable rockets. So we dug into this field of why is it really expensive to put stuff in space - the rough metric we used was about $10,000 a pound, which means if you see an astronaut holding an apple seed in space, that’s a $10 apple seed. The reasons for the cost are counter-intuitive. If you get in an airplane, a 737 from NYC to LA, the major cost is maintenance and fuel, the staff, equipment and fuel. The plane is already made, it has a big upfront cost, but it’s reused. But with a rocket, that’s what you do - you burn up your fuel but you also burn the spaceship itself. It’s incredibly expensive - imagine if you had to explode a 737 every time you flew. I think they cost $400 million, and if it seats 400 people, that’s $1 million per passenger. Then with physics stuff, if you look at a rocket, only 3% of it is stuff going into space, it’s about 80% propellant, and 16.5% the ship - for the Apollo trips, it was only 1.5% stuff going into space. So it’s not just that you’re burning up your vehicle, you’re also not transporting much - most of it is machine and propellant. So that’s the basic deal. Between those two things, you end up with the enormous price you have. So there are a couple options to get around that. The reason the pogo stick method is interesting - if you could just increase your efficiency SLIGHTLY, that takes you from 3% to 4% with a just slight efficiency improvement, that’s 33% more stuff. If 80% of a rocket is propellant, if you can just get to 77% propellant, you’ve effectively doubled your cargo space. So for the pogo stick method, you lift up your ship, you drop it, it bounces and then it takes off - you get a little lift going upwards and then save 1% of your fuel. It’s like having a skyscraper you have to drop so it bounces.
But the general issue in all the cases we describe is you can get better results by making the system more complicated and dangerous. One method that’s really obvious, everyone probably thinks of it, is that propellant is 2 things: fuel and oxidizer. Just like a campfire, you have to have wood and oxygen, the same with spaceships. Very roughly speaking it’s half oxidizer, half fuel on a spaceship, but with this you're using lisquid oxygen as an oxidizer as the spaceship goes through an atmosphere of oxygen. So it’s another level of complexity that introduces another level of danger. You should read the book to understand why!
Another aspect of SOONISH which I really enjoyed was uncovering history that was stranger-than-fiction. If TV channels ever wants to replace marathons of shows like ANCIENT ALIENS, they should be doing specials on stories that you share in the book like Gerard Bull, Cosmos 954, Lake Chagan, or even real people who are alive now like Richard Hull and his Fusor.net community. You mention in the appendix that there were many more stories that you wanted to include but couldn’t make it fit - would you ever do a SOONISH sequel or stranger-than-fiction TV show?
We’d love to! We’re working on another project now. The amount of under-reported space stories is just incredible. There’s a wonderful book called AMAZING STORIES FROM THE SPACE AGE by Rod Pyle, and it's just a collection of little gems. Apparently the Soviet kit for space used to include a pistol?! What’s funny is there’s actually a reason for it - you’re thinking were they going to go Wild West in Space? But the Soviet system didn’t land over the ocean, theirs landed in the woods of Russia. So this literally happened, where Cosmonauts had to face off with wolves. So they had to pack heat in case of wolf attacks. There’s some story where another person landed in a remote area, and villagers were trying to help him by throwing axes - they were trying to give him axes because the wolves were coming.
There are also so many crazy stories of things the military wanted to do but never executed on, things like moon bases. There was one story we originally included in the book but had to cut for space reasons (space in the sense of room - this is a real problem with Google, where you have to distinguish this) - there’s a story about something called Project Orion. We just posted a lost chapter from it about nuclear fission power. They wanted to use nuclear bombs to explode our way to space. Totally cool, right? It’s a lot of late 1950’s projects where you have the intersection between space and nuclear. Freeman Dyson, who I think is still alive, worked on it. Apparently Werner Von Braun liked the proposal.
You can make what’s called a “shaped charge,” a nuclear bomb that’s kind of small, and basically if you explode a bomb, the energy goes in every direction, but if you put a reflector on one side, and optimal energy scattering stuff on the other side, if you’re trying to go up in a spaceship, you want the explosion to point up so you’re not wasting the energy. The spaceship is described by George Dyson in Project Orion - imaging a giant syringe, and the syringe out the back shoots out nuclear explosives, and they hit the back plate, and the reason it’s shaped like a syringe is the plate absorbs the energy and acts as a shock plate and delivers the energy to the vehicle. What’s crazy is for physics reasons I don’t completely understand, essentially the bigger you make the vehicle, the more stable it is being blasted into space. But the really crazy part is, because of that, you might as well build the biggest ship possible, and one was proposed called the “Super Orion” that would have been bigger than the Titanic.
Probably would have been more research done in a year with that than what's been done since! But it turns out there are reasons you don’t want to use however many bombs to get a Titanic into space. For obvious reasons it was stopped, but what a crazy idea. And there’s many other projects that were just as crazy. There were many interesting ideas in the late 1950s about what you could do in space.
Did you get to visit the National Ignition Facility? I loved the factoid about filming Star Trek in there.
If you’ve ever seen pictures, it looks like you’re in Star Trek. You’re splitting a beam into 192 pieces to then shoot back at a tiny piece of gold. We didn’t get to visit it. With the time we had, we thought it was better to read more technical stuff and talk to people, but we’re hoping for the next book we get to travel more. We mostly sat around libraries doing our research.
The book tackles fusion power: a basic overview of how it works, and then where we’re at in terms of this clean, low-impact energy. On page 92, there’s the sentence of “it took about seventy years for solar photovoltaic cells to go from a lab creation to a practical way to build a power plant.” Do you hope that more people read SOONISH to understand the promise and potential of fusion power?
I hope so. I mean, to be honest, what we were going for in the book is we want to be optimistic but with proper skepticism. So in my mind, the appropriate posture about fusion is it will almost certainly be an important part of the power blend, but it will be a while.
There’s a company called Commonwealth Fusion, I think they started after we wrote our book, and they’re one of the heterodox small scale fusion projects everyone hopes will work. But the deal is, there’s a project called ITER, and it’s an ENORMOUS project, very costly, I think will be more costly than the Large Hadron Collider. We nerd out about this stuff and hope it will achieve ignition, the fusion equivalent of lighting a candle, so it can generate enough energy to keep the burn going. But supposing it does that, it still costs $30 billion dollars. Versus solar arrays going up now, which cost $1 billion to put up the equivalent solar setup. So even tomorrow if we had a perfect working fusion reactor, it still wouldn’t be a good choice for someone running a power company. It’s not just enough to say we can do it. It’s like a moon base, all the technology is out there to build one and has been since the 1960s, but there’s a big WHY. At least based on my research, it’s not obvious why any rational CEO would build a moon base, even if they had the money to do so. Similar for fusion: scientists could go to a power company executive tomorrow and say “I’ve done it! But it will be $20 billion dollar to build a power plant.”
There are competing technologies out there. I still want people to be optimistic, because it is the ultimate energy source, it requires very little fuel, it can be put anywhere. If fusion worked, it will work everywhere. So I’m optimistic but skeptical, and hopefully one of the weird little companies will work out a solution.
Some of the more science fiction sounding chapters include “Programmable Matter,” with things that exist now like the HygroScope or Origami Robots. When do you think we’ll see more of these kinds of technologies in people’s day-to-day lives?
That’s a really good question! So programmable matter is one of the more exotic ideas we got into. It's actually fairly hard to research, as it’s a small group of people who don’t agree on all the technical terms. So we called it “programmable matter.” One of the really useful books we found was a book by Springer Publishing (something that will mean something to a small group of people) called MORPHOGENETIC ENGINEERING. I don’t even remember how we found it! Sometimes it’s called Morphogenetic Engineering, sometimes it’s called “self-assembly,” there’s fields like swarm robotics that are deeply related.
The most plausible case I think we saw with the idea of programmable matter, stuff that can re-shape itself, was one: in the book we talked about a proposal out of Daniela Rus’ lab out of MIT. Apparently something like 3,000 Americans a year get a watch battery lodged in their guts. I assume it is mostly children...but if you have enough people, things happen. And so the problem is most of the time you pass it through, but your body is not designed to deal with metals like that, it can lodge in your gut, irritate the skin, and is obviously dangerous. It would be nice to not have to do surgery to get it out.
The basic idea would be to have a little bot, that folds up nicely into a little pill made of ice. It makes its way to your gut, and the little robot (made of sausage casing) unfolds itself, with a magnet that lodges onto the battery, the idea being that it swims its little origami fins and makes its way out through conventional means. And the robot isn’t too dangerous since its made of sausage casing. It’s solving a narrow problem. But imagine all these origami nanobots to do different tasks inside the body - to receive signals, to grab onto something, to have a compartment with medicine that could be delivered to targeted areas.
So potentially , this is futuristic stuff, but imagine - if you have medicine and it flushes through your body, you might not want to receive it that way, versus if you had nanobots that delivered it to a targeted area to cut down on side effects. For things like cancer therapy, you could limit where it goes to help provide more benefits. There’s a contingent nature to technology - you never know what’s going to provide the breakthrough. It could be something unexpected in software or material science that makes this more feasible tomorrow. Google used to do statistical research methods to do translation, and then in 2010 they added machine learning stuff, and it got better overnight. So predicting is dangerous.
The other thing to think about is: is there a market for improvements? For example, in the beginning of the book we talk about space elevators, a cable which goes to space hanging from an object suspended in space and you climb up the elevator, which would make space travel a whole lot cheaper if it works. The problem is the cable has to be made from really exotic material.
The current top recommendation is carbon nanotubes - think of them as Superman’s hair. Smaller than superman’s hair, but extremely strong. They are both strong and lightweight (weight is another factor with a cable that long). So part of the reason is you’d want one perfect tube of carbon nanotube 100,000 km long - well, several perfect tubes. And part of the problem is economic. The longest carbon nanotube as of 2018 was about 1.5 feet, half a meter, long. Well-shy of 100,000 km. But you can imagine a world where there’s an economic motivator for better carbon nanotube development, and what you might see if that happens would be like what happened with personal computers - starting in the 1940s as ultra-primitive machines, but there’s an exponential growth rate of them getting better year after year.
And so if you have that for nanotubes, without caring about space or space elevators, you can arrive at the right technology. We read a textbook about space elevators from 2013, and they had a graph showing “how good are we at growing good carbon nanotubes over time” and based on that graph’s rate of improvement, by maybe 2040 or so we’ll be able to have ultra-long carbon nanotubes? But so far we haven’t got any additional data points. So if you want to see a space elevator, find a use for ever-longer carbon nanotubes and maybe we’ll get it!
So going back to your question about when we’ll have tiny nanobots, we don’t know the contingent nature of technology - obviously there’s a great market for slight improvements on it, but it looks like an “all or nothing” thing. What you have to find is a market for small improvements. If you’re looking at 2 phones, and one phone has a 5% battery life or a 5% better screen, you’ll buy it. You’ll pay an extra $20 for it. Similar to electric cars. People are willing to pay a LOT of money for a little range. So if you look at battery cost and range, they’ve both gone down drastically in the last 10 years. So for any given technology, you have to identify what the iterative improvement that makes money for a developer is.
It was legitimately unnerving to read about the Promobot IR77, or the Gaia Robot findings. How long until we’re living in the movie CHOPPING MALL?
Oh gosh, I haven’t seen it? Is it about mall robots that went crazy? That sounds like high quality. My friend said “The thing to be afraid of is not artificial intelligence, but natural stupidity.”
AI can do pretty unnerving stuff, like generating people’s faces from a composite data set. But on the other hand, if you try to talk to a chatbot and ask it the right questions, it will sound really smart - or you can trick it by asking it the wrong questions. So I’m skeptical of the robot revolution problem.
Maybe I’ll be surprised? Maybe we all will be?
But it’s funny you mention this section - if you remember the Terminator movies, I guess they’re still making them - the Terminator bots are all working REALLY hard to kill us. They have to build a time machine, they have programmable matter, and even the T-1000 (which isn’t even the best robot?) is liquid metal that can think.
But then you find out there’s experiments that shows that humans will trust a trash can robot with cookies.
So my view is that it’s human narcissism that robots have to work hard to kill us. The trashcan shaped robot with a box of cookies will fool humans into letting it in the building 3/4 of the time.
When GPS was a thing in my early 20’s, I remember thinking “the robot is not always right with these directions” - and every time I tried to find directions on my own it was wrong. There’s a lady named Janelle Shane, she has a book that’s coming out soon, and she was describing an incident where people were directed by their GPS to drive into fire. So there’s actually a valuable lesson in this.
You might be thinking OMG ROBOTS DIRECT PEOPLE TO DRIVE INTO FIRE! But what actually happened was there was no traffic in the fire! So the robot was trying to help by directing people to drive into the fire. The robots were trying to help!
Interestingly, SOONISH discusses robotic construction like Contour Crafting’s products pretty robustly. I had a stupid question though: how do 3D printed houses or structures incorporate pipework and electrical wiring?
They basically don’t? Contour Crafting is in proof-of-concept phase, but the idea is, imagine a 3D printer bigger than a house. It has 2 things it can do: it has an extruder, like a plastic 3D printer, with a substance designed to be extrudable but which will behave like concrete when it’s laid down. And there’s a little gripper. So ideally what happens is the machine lays down an outer structure, the same way humans would lay an outside structure of a house - laying down part of a wall, then sticks in a window, then lays down the rest of the wall. So it won’t 3D print a window, because it’s almost certainly not worth it to 3D print that onsite. The structure of the house responds to the environment. For example, the foundation of our new house is bespoke to that hill, but windows are always windows. You can have the extruder fire up, the gripper put pieces in place, and the fantasy is you’ll have a house in a few days without expensive humans to do the labor.
Oh gosh! I don’t think we did. Now I’m sad about it. We interviewed a guy for the book named Jordan Miller. Jordan’s big deal is 3D printing organs, and part of that was developing a machine that 3D prints sugar. Sugar’s a great substance to allow you to interior print veins, and then be able to overlay on that. If you have an organ without vascular structure, it’s like a city without roads.
But I wish we had tried some 3D printed food.
One of the problems is that we got a sense about 3D printed food that it almost always tastes terrible. There’s a tradeoff where if you make a cookie, and if you ship them, they have to be shelf-stable, which is why a bakery cookie tastes better. And with 3D printing, it has to be made of material that can be extruded as glop, it can’t have anything that would clog the extruder like chocolate chips, and nothing that separates in that extruder, so once you’ve adjusted to all these constraints that have nothing to do with the taste, by the time you’re done the cookie doesn’t taste right.
So we’re probably lucky we didn’t taste anything! We were intrigued by 3D printed frosting, the 3D printing “frostruder” frosting extruder attachment. But we’ll probably get around to it at some point.
Augmented Reality is here (not SOONISH, but actually here) and I was fascinated to learn thanks to the book was Morton Heilig’s 1962 “Sensorama” was the first-ever AR - it made me think of Smell-O-Rama from 3 years earlier in 1959!
The book shares an overview of how AR works: how AR is doing, and that “A few scientists and engineers are working on audio, smell, and touch technologies.” Did you get to test out any AR technologies while working on the book firsthand like Magic Leap?
I got to fiddle with some systems after the book was out, but our general deal was we tried to just read dorky stuff versus going out in the field so much.
And also with AR or VR, doing it is a very good description of how it feels, and then describing it doesn’t work very well. A lot of our friends have taken their kids to play Pokemon Go! But we’re mostly noses in books, I’m afraid.
Thank you for sharing with us, Zach, your learnings about the “Nasal Cycle.” How would you summarize this for unsuspecting readers who haven’t had the chance to check out the book yet?
Sure! So I honestly can’t remember how we got into it. When you’re researching AR, a lot of it is about to trick human senses. And somehow we got into research about smell in general. You have an idea of how your senses work, but it’s oftentimes different, which is how optical illusions work.
There have been a lot of people doing research on how smell works: your body takes in air, extracts chemicals from it to analyze, and to facilitate that, you have mucus that’s constantly elevator-ing around your body. There’s all this research we bumped into - and I won’t make any claims as to how true or not it is, or whether it will hold up in the future - BUT there were all these experiments where, like any good psychology experiment, you offer undergraduates course credit to get them to do stuff.
And so these experiments are showing that there’s a “dominant nostril” at any given point. I you’ve ever had a bad cold, you’re lucky to have one nostril you can breathe through. And so that’s your nasal cycle.
And so in these experiments, these undergraduates were compelled to breathe through their non-dominant nostril while doing tests, and apparently there’s a negative impact from that. What in the world that means for anything, I don’t know, but just knowing that the level of abuse was heaped on psych students for course credit was kind of gratifying.
In the “Synthetic Biology” section, it blew my mind to learn (thanks to SOONISH) that Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and collard greens are all descended from the SAME SPECIES. They’re all Brassica oleracea! How did you react when you found that out?
Brassica! I forget why I knew it for some reasons, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I told Kelly, I don’t think she believed me. But what’s funny is, for the mega-dorks in your audience, there’s an etymology in these words - colus, which is the latin word for cabbage. And a lot of these species still have that in their name. Bro-COL-li, COL-iflower, even the “Cole” in “coleslaw.” So if that helps convince the skeptical.
What is a single use monocle?