Real Good You Guys: Soonish

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Let’s face it, we’re in the future. And it’s kind of cool, but has a lot of stuff in it that sucks. We wanted Star Trek/Back to the Future Part II, but instead got Metal Gear Solid/Max Headroom. No significant space travel, no personal flying or teleportation, no fusion reactors, nothing really worth looking at and saying we’re in the future (except for whatever device you’re reading this on). There are reasons the cool stuff hasn’t gotten here, though, and a cartoonist who makes a lot of jokes about economists and boners wrote a book about it.

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies The Will Improve And/Or Ruin Everything is the newest book by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, the latter of which draws Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. It was a crowdfunded project (full disclosure: I backed it, just like I backed their single-use monocle two years ago) that’s been successfully funded, written, edited, and produced. That means it’s a book you can buy like a normal book, not just back it as a project that will hopefully pay off later.

It’s a meticulously researched, dryly humorous dive into ten technologies that have a lot of potential that’s absurdly far off and might be impossible. Fusion power, space elevators, and smart matter could change the world, but only after a few more decades of science nerds beating their heads against them and failing repeatedly.

If you’re a fan of SMBC, you’ll recognize the book’s humor. Lots of speculation, lots of prodding at nerds and the economics of science, and lots of oddly cheery fatalism. It’s also sprinkled with some fresh SMBC-style comic panels to drive points home, so every few pages you can expect to see some scientists connected by their braces or some robot despairing its purpose.

It’s also, really informative. Remarkably so. For all the weird jokes and tangents, Soonish is heavily researched with extensive citations for the dozens of scientists the Weinersmiths talked to and the dozens more books and papers they read about the different technologies.  You will actually learn something reading this, even if what you learn is about some very experimental projects and why they won’t work.

For instance, one of the first subjects Soonish covers is space travel and why it’s so hard to do it. The magnitudes of cost needed to get anything out of Earth’s orbit is breathtaking, and every way to reduce that cost has lots of problems attached. Spaceplanes? You gotta get it up there. Space cannons? Would probably kill any living organism that tries to travel in it. Giant ramp? Construction scale that dwarfs the Great Wall of China.

A space elevator is one of the most promising potential technologies for space travel, and it’s fundamentally ridiculous. The idea is to run a tether between a point on earth and a geosynchronous satellite or platform in orbit. Once you do that, actually getting anything up into space is just a matter of climbing the rope. It would be slower than a rocket, but much more reliable and much, much cheaper to do. The problem is what you actually use to make that tether, and how you would keep it from breaking. My first guess would be nanotubes, but Soonish explains exactly why that isn’t very likely (we can’t really produce them long enough to work). It also explains why other materials are a bad idea, and all the ways the space elevator could fail.

And, because it also explains how the other methods of getting objects into space could fail too, a space elevator still sounds like the most likely idea. Welcome to the land of cheery fatalism. The future might be coming, but we have a lot of reasons why it won’t work. That’s Soonish in a nutshell, and it’s really interesting.

Soonish is a real book you can get in a store or online, including in ebook or audiobook forms. It’s $18 and full of really interesting explanations of some of science’s best bad ideas being explored.

It’s real good you guys.

 

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