Why are Rockets like Amphorae? Pt 1.

Short answer: They’re both technological local maxima.

“whoo hoo, I’m a local maxima!”

Long answer:

If asked “what container do you use to ship large volumes of wine?” the answer is  pretty clearly “the barrel, duh.” But if you asked that question two thousand years ago, it would be “amphorae, duh. Barrels are expensive, tiny, shoddy containers made by barbarians.”

(ASIDE) Amphorae were the dominant vessel for liquid transport in the mediterranean world for centuries. You probably think of amphorae as little urns that look something like this:

Achilles (left) is a metaphor for barrels in a historical context

But that will be like someone a thousand years from now thinking of a custom Porsche when someone says “car”: they’re both high-end luxury goods. Instead of being painted with Greek men killing each other, most amphorae were several feet long and looked something like this:

Transport Amphora

Today, it’s clear that barrels have many advantages over amphorae: they’re lighter, less fragile, and don’t need special racks to hold them during transport. So why were they ever chosen over barrels? Historical momentum and initial conditions.

Amphorae were developed in tandem with Mediterranean trade – amphorae enabled trade in valuable liquids and in turn, increased trade incentivized innovations in amphora technology. All of this occurred around the Southeastern Mediterranean (present-day Egypt, Greece, Lebanon etc.) Here, wood was relatively scarce and expensive. What was cheap and plentiful? Rich river mud. What’s made out of mud? Amphorae. As trade expanded from this region into the rest of Europe, so too did the practice of using amphorae to transport liquids. Archeologists have found amphorae in Britain and Northern France, where wood is far more plentiful, so it would have been easy to use barrels instead.

So why didn’t barrels begin to dominate trade as soon as heavily wooded regions connected to the trade routes? The same reason we’re still using rockets to transport everything to space: Historical momentum. What did it take to shift the balance from amphorae to barrels? Something that hasn’t happened yet to space technology: a massive shock.

To come, in no particular order: Werner Von Braun, Muslim Invasions, and space cannons.


Why EM is Especially Useful in Space

Space: the final frontier. Every new frontier has a new set of rules – things that don’t work the way they did back home.

The stars are different in the southern Hemisphere, the most deadly animal in the tropics is the mosquito, and dogs are more useful than mules in the Antarctic.  But physical rules of thumb generally stay valid anywhere on earth, from merry old england all the way to the East Indies.  Engines work by turning some kind of shaft, spinning wheels that push against the ground, hot air rises, and if you don’t keep pushing, friction will eventually stop anything that’s moving.

We’re not in Kansas anymore… Courtesy of Nasa

The fundamental physics aren’t any different in space either, but those rules of thumb? Forget about them. Between the vacuum, temperature fluctuations, orbital mechanics, microgravity, and low friction many customary assumptions on earth go out the airlock. The last two conditions in space: microgravity and extremely low friction open up doors that are closed on the ground. The goal of spacecraft actuators is to take advantages of these unique environmental effects.

It’s only fair, because those same effects inject difficulty into many things that are easy on Earth. Gravity and friction overwhelm most electromagnetic interactions because they are small to begin with and weaken rapidly with distance. However, electromagnetic forces are relatively unaffected by the conditions in orbit, making them prime candidates for spacecraft actuators.

Never Say Never

The deluge of end-of-year related media seems to take two forms: recaps of the past year and predictions for the future. (Interestingly, there aren’t a lot of year-end reports along the lines of ‘and here’s what I’m doing RIGHT NOW’) Many predictions involve technology: will 2014 be the year of the 3-D printed, cloud-neural network quantum-computing autonomous cars?!?!?! (Answer: No.)

For everybody who thinks fusion powered utopia is just around the corner, it seems there are at least ten naysayers who think technological optimists are just indulging sci-fi daydreams. Although anecdotes aren’t proof, many very smart people, through their own pessimism, have inadvertently offered up counter-evidence for a pessimistic viewpoint. Check it out:

  • “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — The New York Times , 1920.
  • “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan , winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in physics, 1928.
  • “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”  — Scottish mathematician and creator of the Kelvin temperature scale William Thomson, Lord Kelvin , 1895.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olsen , founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977 .

(Quotes from this long article on the Motley Fool) 

The anecdote usually mentioned in this context – the patent officer claiming in 1902 that everything useful had already been invented – is apocryphal.

You should be skeptical of any tech prediction more than five years down the road, and ‘never’ is about the most far-off prediction there is.

So how do you strike a balance between deluded optimism and stick-in-the-mud pessimism? Don’t just predict a future, choose the one you want the most.  Work backwards to the actionable item for the next year to make your future a reality starting in 2014.


And now for something completely different!

The world has seen a long and illustrious legacy in which two outstanding things are combined to make a third, even more outstanding thing: Han Solo and Chewbacca. Computers and Motors (robots). Rum and Coke. The Avengers. Space and anything. And of course, sword-chucks.

I recently learned from my advisor that (in kind of old news) we can add Greek Myths and Dinosaurs to that list. If that doesn’t make your heart rate go up, you should just stop reading.  Since I’ve been kind of enamored of both those subjects since before I could read (dinosaurs) and just after I could read (Greek myths) the news certainly made my heart skip a beat.

In short, the theory is that fossils unearthed by the tectonically active landscape of Greece itself inspired many creatures of Greek mythology. There’s apparently been a book about it for more than a decade that I’m embarrassed to have never heard about.

There are oodles of fun fossil-based explanations: Gold-guarding griffons? Pterodactyls found in gold mines. Cyclopses? Mastadon Skulls. Titans? Enormous Thigh bones.  Just my speculation, but I bet you could make an argument for fossils inspiring hippocamps, dragons, chimeras and all sorts of other beasties as well.

The idea of fossil inspired myths makes a great story. Perhaps too great. Historical explanations that come in such neat baskets set off my historian-hat warning-clarions. Perhaps fossils seeded some myths. Perhaps the Greeks made fossils fit in with existing myths. Perhaps some paleontologists and historians met in a dark room and plotted to make me excited for no reason.

It’s important to keep in mind that we are all suckers for a good story that seems to fit the facts.  But regardless of how complete the story is, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy them as long as we keep in mind that they are in fact, stories.

Science, Stories, and Humans

The opening statement of this NPR blog really struck a chord with me. The rest of the article does a nice job explaining the exciting science behind the recent voyager news, but doesn’t pursue the opening idea as far as I wanted.

“Science at its most fundamental level is not made of experiments or math, copper tubing or silicon chips. Science, at its most fundamental level, is made up of stories because that’s how human beings understand themselves and their place in the cosmos.”

This story-telling aspect of human nature is everywhere and can’t be ignored. I used to think that there was a stark difference between ‘facts’ and ‘stories.’ Many (most?) people still do. But really there are just stories that do better or worse jobs of describing the world, or just describe certain aspects of it. In this way, history and engineering are more similar it may appear on the surface (though they are still quite different.)

What is a theory but a story that explains observations well enough to predict future ones? They aren’t immutable – only standing until a story (theory) that explains the world even better comes along.

This may seem really touchy feely, perhaps it is if you dwell on it too long. But, like any aspect of human nature (thanks Kahneman) I think it’s a crucial concept to always have in the back of our minds. The inseparability of storytelling and human nature is relevant because everything we experience goes through at least one human brain (our own) but more often hundreds of others too (the guy taking the data, the guy modeling the data, the guy who writes the article about the model, the editor of the article, etc.) Each person perceives and transmits the story slightly differently in a giant game of telephone.

Much more information could be transmitted if debates were framed as “I think my story is better than yours” rather than “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

Links of the Week 9-7

Saturday Space Stories!


Bipolar Technology

Sunday’s post has me thinking about other ways my outlook on technology has changed as I’ve been exposed to more of its underbelly. In particular, how I’ve softened my derision towards technology that doesn’t actually allow us to do anything new.

From what I can tell, there are two main ‘modes’ in which technology moves forward:

  1. By reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ (energy, material, manpower) necessary to do the same things we could before.
  2. By giving us the ability to do something we couldn’t do before.

 Examples of the first mode are everywhere, but one of my favorites is the fact that it used to be a feat of strength to crush a soda can with a single hand while now people do it instinctively. It’s not that we have all become stronger through secret infusions of super-soldier serum, but because functional cans can now be made with far less aluminum.

 I would argue that the majority of innovations fall into this category, a fact that I used to find depressing. Sure, increasing efficiency saved money, resources and time, but it just felt so … boring and uninspired (this is arrogant past-me thinking.) It was like putting a little bit more mud on the mud castle that someone had built before you. 

 The key that I missed was that without the first type of advance, the second would never happen. It is exactly the extra time, energy, and money saved by increases in efficiency that allows us to develop brand-new capabilities. It’s another way of seeing continuous changes leading to tipping points and discrete changes.