Friday, February 27, 2009

Science Friday: Solar Power Tower/ Looking back at Robinson's MARS

1) Today's Science Friday on NPR will feature this super-cool thing: a solar power plant will be created in the California desert by setting up thousands of small mirrors which will aim sunlight at a "power tower" which will in turn generate steam to run the plant. It is estimated that this project can generate enough electricity to power 845,000 homes. I am glad that someone is actually getting to work on something like this--actually putting into action a real, bona fide solar energy concept. Because I am freaking sick of hearing nothing but political talking heads and fossil fuel company shills babbling about the future of "clean coal."  The very phrase makes me choke, and I'm sure it makes George Orwell spin in his grave every time someone says it.

2) My friend Pat has reached the end of reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, a project that I encouraged him to set upon some time ago. I read it a couple years ago, and I have enjoyed discussing it with him, and being reminded of a lot of the great ideas and story premises in it. I am also struck by how well Robinson's Mars science has held up as new things are learned about the Red Planet. He wrote these books during the 1990s, yet every time we get a new piece of  inf0
from the rovers or the orbiting observers, it always seems to confirm or lend more credibility to Robinson's speculations of over a decade ago. 

Of course, Robinson wasn't just "speculating," but rather making some reasonable extrapolations from a rigorous attention to what was known to science at the time he was writing and what the likely possibilities might be according to what was known. The Mars trilogy is hard, hard, hard science fiction, and is highly recommended, if not required, reading for enthusiasts of hard sf and for writers who want to write it. The text can get a little dense and be a bit more like going to school than reading a novel. Every single thing that was known about Mars or could reasonably be concluded makes it into these novels, often in minute detail. The reader learns everything about the geology and topography of the planet as it is now. Later as the terraforming commences, one learns everything there is to know about what happens to that topography, how the biosphere develops, what grows and what dies down to the last lichen. The reader also gets an education in sf tech things like how to build a space elevator using carbon nanotubes, how to use stem cell treatments to slow cellular degradation and reverse the effects of aging, how best to get to and from Mars, how to make an ocean and how the waves on that ocean behave in Martian gravity, and many many other things.

But over the top of all of this science is an amazing human story filled with epic strife, triumph, disaster, romance, social upheaval, and ultimately a profound optimism for the future of humanity.  I also love how scientists get to be the heroes of the story.

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Anonymous said...

Red Mars has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for over 8 years now. I keep telling myself that one of these days I'm going to read it...

Christopher Fletcher said...

I really recommend that you do. I will warn you, however, that it can be tough going during the first few fact, I was not really hooked into it until probably about 100 pages in. But the effort pays off. A fairly ponderous opening sets up some stunning events later on. The second book, Green Mars, is probably just as good if not better (and you will end up reading that one, too, if you read and like Red because you won't be able to resist it). Then the third one, Blue Mars, finishes the story in grand and epic fashion.


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