Sunday, March 10, 2002

GET YOUR GIANT ROBO ON: Mark Bowden in today's Inquirer is on the flying-under-the-radar cold fusion in a bottle of acetone story. Says he:

We can no more easily imagine a world of limitless low-cost energy today than a 19th-century person could imagine the Concorde. But cheap fusion would have a much more fundamental and far-reaching effect on civilization than the invention of the airplane and jet engine. It would shatter one basic, seemingly immutable law of economics - that energy is rare and, hence, valuable. Energy could become more plentiful than rain. Think of all the worldwide disaster scenarios that would ruin!

Right now, oil helps define the world's politics and economy. One deep cause of our current troubles in the Middle East is our need for an uninterrupted, low-cost supply of it. It's a finite source, so someday it is going to run out. As it dwindles, we can expect the price of oil to go up and up (both in monetary and political terms). Among other things, this would be likely to aggravate the existing, alarming, and growing gap between "have" and "have-not" nations. One might foresee more dark days ahead.

I will leave the question of what free limitless energy would mean to those better versed in economics, but Bowden does make a Romeresque point:

Just a hundred years ago, the primary means of transportation worldwide was the horse. An ambitious pessimist, charting the steady increase in horse ownership, might have projected a future horse overpopulation crisis and foreseen problems, say, in breeding that many healthy animals, or disposing of that much horse manure.

That is a silly example, but my point is that a vision of the future based on existing trends is almost always wrong. There are things we cannot foresee, both bad and good. And throughout human history one of the most consistent positive variables has been technology.

Science fiction has come up with the free limitless energy thing before; the two I'm most familiar with are the anime series Giant Robo and the Nancy Kress Beggars novels. In Giant Robo --well, it was more of a stylistic throwback to old Japanese adventure cartoons that happened to use limitless free energy as a plot mover. The Beggars novels depicted a world where, yes, everybody lived without want but there were class divisions between the vast unwashed masses and those who maintained the free energy. Both are worth your time and effort to seek out.

And speaking of the predictive value of science fiction, Blogatelle reports that puzzling X-rays are coming from Jupiter every 45 minutes and not from where X-ray pulses should be coming from. Get Your Space Odyssey On indeed.

No comments: