The top cartoon is, of course, from Randall Munroe’s xkcd series.
Randall Munroe shows the surface area of the planets and asteroids in the Solar System that are hard enough to walk on. Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus don’t count because they don’t have solid surfaces. If they did, their surfaces would be many times bigger than that whole map.
Randall Munroe, creator of the web comic xkcd, is a great creator of infographics. The chart above is a section of his new poster about money and its distribution. The list of billionaires is from last year’s Forbes. A lot of the names were unfamiliar to me, so I looked them up on Wikipedia.
Carlos Slim made his billions by buying the Mexican government telephone system at a bargain rate and jacking up phone rates.
Bill Gates, as almost everyone knows, is a founder of Microsoft.
Warren Buffett is an extremely successful investor/speculator in the stock market.
Bernard Arnault is a Frenchman who owns Louis Vuittron and other luxury goods companies.
Larry Ellison is founder of the Oracle software company.
Laksimi Mittai is CEO of the world’s largest steel company, which is based in India.
Amancio Ortega is a Spanish merchandiser of luxury clothing.
Eike Batista is a Brazilian mining and oil-and-gas magnate.
Mukesh Ambani is CEO of India’s Reliance Industries, who expanded the family textile business back into polyester fibers and then into the oil and gas industry.
Christy Walton is one of the heirs of Sam Walton, founder of the Wal-mart store chain.
I’m continually surprised at the number of people who know little and care less about events before they were born. Since I was 30 or so, I’ve been muttering to myself, “Kids these days! They think history began with the Kennedy assassination.” “…with Watergate.” “with the Reagan administration.” “…with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” “…with the 9/11 attacks.”
Historical knowledge gives you a frame of reference for understanding the present, as well as providing a reminder that things weren’t always the way they were today. Without knowledge of history and culture, I would be at the mercy of the advertising, propaganda and the mass media. If I didn’t remember the Joe McCarthy era, or have knowledge of the internment of the Japanese during World War Two, Big Red Scare of the 1920s or the Alien and Sedition laws in the early days of the American republic, I might regard our present Homeland Security state as normal
My earliest historical memory is of World War Two. I don’t remember Pearl Harbor, but I remember patriotically collecting scrap paper and metal, and I do remember how my third grade class was given the day off in honor of V-E Day. My earliest memory of a political argument was from when I was in the sixth grade, and I argued for re-election of President Harry Truman against the challenger Thomas E. Dewey.
But World War Two didn’t occur merely because Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were evil people. It had its roots in World War One and the blood-and-soil nationalism of the 19th century. Truman and Dewey didn’t come out of nowhere. They were the political heirs of Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, of the Great Depression and New Deal, and of the conflicts of the Populist and Progressive eras around the turn of the previous century.
It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone to be as fascinated with history as I am. But I continually find people who consider themselves to be highly educated who are ignorant of basic historical facts. I wonder whether this historical amnesia is distinctively American or whether it is universal in the modern world.
Click on xkcd for cartoons and occasional infographics like the one above.
Randall Munroe, who draws the xkcd cartoons, is great at presenting information in visual form. Here is his presentation of the 786 newly-discovered worlds in the vicinity of our own solar system. I wish I could live long enough to know whether it is possible for human beings to journey to these new worlds, and, if so, what they will find there. Either there are living beings on these worlds, which would be a wondrous thing to learn about, or there are not, in which case it would be humanity’s mission to spread life through the universe.
Many intelligent people — Wendell Berry, James Howard Kunstler, Dimitri Orlov — think that our high-technology civilization is unsustainable, and that space exploration is a diversion from what we truly need to do, which is to learn homesteading skills and husband the earth’s remaining resources. They have good arguments. There are many things that could bring down our high technology civilization—radical global climate change, peaking of oil supplies, a dysfunctional global economy based on debt—even the threat of nuclear war has only been mitigated, not eliminated. Once there is a collapse, it will be difficult to rebuild, because humanity will have used up our easy-to-get fossil fuels and our easy-to-process metal ores.
I persist in hoping that this will not come true, although the only real basis for my hope is that I’ve lived a long time and worried about global catastrophes the whole time, and none of the things I feared came about. The population bomb has been defused, at least for a while; population growth is leveling off in many countries, and the world produces enough food to feed everyone, if it were properly distributed. The atomic war between the USA and USSR didn’t happen. Totalitarian governments did not triumph. None of these dangers has completely gone away, but none of them is an immediate danger.
Human beings are biased toward optimism, experimental psychologists have found. We believe, as the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides put it, in “the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.” So maybe humanity is not living in a brief interval between barbarism and barbarism. Maybe we’re on the threshold of a real human history, in which people look back on us as we look back on the Sumerians. In some moods, I think this is an illusion arising from having read too much science fiction in my youth. In other moods, I think my pessimism is an illusion arising from old age and knowledge of mortality. This is still a great time to be alive.
Click on xkcd for Randall Munroe’s cartoons.
Project Orion was a proposal to propel spaceships by means of pulsed nuclear explosions. It had the support of Freeman Dyson, Werner von Braun, Stanislaw Ulam and other physicists and rocket scientists, but was abandoned by the Air Force in 1959 and rendered illegal by the Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
Click on Project Orion: Its Birth, Death and Possible Rebirth for details.
Asteroid mining would be a means of making space exploration economically self-sustaining. Click on Space Future: The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids for the argument that this is practical.
Click on PlanetQuest: The Search for Another Earth for NASA’s report on the discovery of planets in other solar systems.
Click on Nomad planets: stepping stones to interstellar space? for one possible way interstellar travel could be feasible.
When I was a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I took it for granted that by 2012, there would be human colonies on the Moon and Mars. I thought Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History was a plausible scenario for what would happen. I’m no longer sure colonization of the Solar System is feasible, let alone sending starships to other solar systems. All I can say is that I would like to think it is possible for humankind can venture out into the rest of the universe, and I think the possibility is worth exploring.
Newt Gingrich is regarded as a crackpot for advocating a mission to Mars, but not for advocating an attack on Iran. The latter would be at best a monstrous crime, the former at worst a glorious folly.
Click on xkcd for more cartoons.