Elementary, my dear Watson

“The Earth,” as Carl Sagan once said, “is far too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.” I, for one, agree with his sentiment entirely. Indeed, I’ve always been the one to argue for space exploration. If nothing else, it seems entirely counterintuitive to me not to. The desire to explore and discover is, in my opinion, one of humanity’s greatest character traits. Sadly, it’s been proven to me on a number of occasions that not all of humanity shares this trait. Remarkably, I’ve even heard some astronomers tell me how they “don’t see the point in space exploration.” The point, as it happens, is that we’re starting to outgrow our planet. Perhaps dwindling resources might spur us towards space?

You see, the thing is that humanity is incredibly reliant on the natural resources buried inside our planet. Resources which are painfully finite. This afternoon, I found an article on New Scientist about the prospect that rare elements on Earth may be soon to become that bit rarer. While the term ‘element wars’ might be distastefully sensationalist,* they do have a valid point. Human society is using more and more of the rare metals in the Earth’s crust, and they simply won’t last forever.

Let me give you an example. Being as you’re reading this on the internet,** you obviously own a computer of some description. Maybe you have a shiny new laptop, or you’re reading this on your smartphone while you sit on the train. Do you honestly realise how many rare elements you’re using right now simply to sit and read this? The indium and gallium in LED screens. The lithium in laptop batteries. The tantalum and hafnium in your mobile phone. As for us scientists, well we’re even worse. Any astronomer, working with a telescope, will be relying on a host of rare and expensive elements, such as praesodymium, lanthanum, germanium and gallium. The mirrors in space telescopes like Spitzer are constructed chiefly from beryllium (actually one of the rarest elements in the Universe).

It’s a sad fact about modern society that it’s driven largely by capitalism and personal gain. And the trouble with that is that people aren’t willing to spend their precious money on things like research and space travel without asking what’s in it for them. If there’s no profit in it, then they won’t do it. Concepts like the “greater good” don’t seem to mean much to some of these people. But now there might finally be something to make it “economically viable” to engage in space travel.*** Particularly in light of recent news.

China is the largest producer of rare elements in the world. It’s also recently demonstrated that it may not always be willing to share its wealth. And by share, I mean sell. China is steadily restricting its exports of rare elements, and has recently been blocking shipments of such elements to Japan. There are currently some concerns that they may stop exporting such elements altogether by 2012. This is concerning, given the amount of technologies that depend on these elements.

I just hope that in all of this, it finally gives both governments and corporations the kick they need to start investing properly in space travel. If we could mine asteroids (and humanity is most certainly technologically capable of such a feat), perhaps we could finally lay such territorial bickerings to rest. The moon, too, has a wealth of minerals and resources. While I wouldn’t condone excessive mining, it has to be said that it would be foolish not to harvest something of the moon’s wealth. If nothing else, perhaps simply being on the moon would let people realise that Earth is far to small a place to be squabbling over.

*Sadly, this has become the norm for New Scientist.

**Unless for some reason you’ve printed my blog? Somehow that makes me feel a little uneasy, and I don’t quite know why…

*** For the record, I hate phrases like “economically viable.” Such phrases tend to be corporate euphemisms for “profitable.”

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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19 Responses to Elementary, my dear Watson

  1. If our numbers keep growing, sure. But even if we colonize other worlds, we’d still have to tackle the population *here*, as only a tiny number could ever emigrate, not enough to have a significant impact on the Earth’s population.

  2. Yeah, the moon has lots of Helium-3, but again, going there and sending it back would be prohibitively expensive. Traveling to the Moon is extremely expensive. And we’d need to send people back and forth, not to mention parts to maintain machines. You’d need a HUGE population to make the parts there! Not to mention, such a colony would be utterly dependent on the Earth’s economic well-being. A worldwide depression could literally kill such a colony, if they become unable to import needed parts to maintain the life-support systems.

  3. havoc_theory says:

    Speaking on the lunar water, some tell the Moon is almost devoid of hydrogen (I’d rather wait for a good confirmation because I can’t easily imagine a process making the body of nearly Earth origin that volatile-poor).
    Magma crystallization is very good point. But we should give up all sedimentation and metamorphosis.
    Another problem with would-be Moon industry is energy. The only readily available source is unavailable 2 weeks out of 4, a few technological processes tolerate it. Solar mirrors etc. are planetary-scale investment and do not scale well down to the initial stage.
    So, given the abundance of readily-available raw materials, Mars could be, ironically, better choice for the self-sustained off-world economy.

  4. invaderxan says:

    You seem to be under the impression that the Moon is composed of homogeneous “barren rock,” but that’s really quite an oversimplification. Assuming the Moon never had any water (which it probably did for at least a few million years), there are still non-hydrological ways for ores to form. Even assuming it never had any geothermal activity for metamorphic action to occur (which is unlikely, as it would have taken several million years to cool), there’s still the process of fractional crystallisation to create ore; essentially, chemically different solids condense at different temperatures.
    I’ll agree that many ores and minerals require water to form, but many more do not. Lunar ores wouldn’t be the same as terrestrial ores, but it’s a leap of faith to claim that they don’t exist at all!

  5. havoc_theory says:

    Ever seen anyone mining barren rock for iron? There’s a plenty of it. But for some reasons people mine iron ore. This ore is a product of erosion, dissolving iron in water and (mostly) bacteria-controlled sedimentation in the oceans of the primordial Earth. It’s how oxidized iron became distilled enough to allow cost-effective extraction. Again, there’s a plenty of aluminum in barren rock. But for some reasons people mine bauxite. There are measurable amounts of uranium in granites, but people mine pitchblende for uranium.
    The interesting fact is that Moon had no place for iron ore, bauxite or pitchblende to form.
    Mine barren lunar rock, then.
    But with technology available to extract the elements from barren rock I see no point in using in on the rocks of the Moon rather than the Earth.

  6. sandalfon says:

    I am very grateful that those who have been in space have spiritual awakenings and I truly stand on great hope for the future.
    I’ve always lived in an apartment but if I ever had the chance to have a house built it would be with limited tree removal and built in the clearing. But there are never enough clearings. So it’s a mind twisting challenge, isn’t it?

  7. invaderxan says:

    Oh, indeed. You see… most elements are created by stellar fusion. That’s the reason why carbon and oxygen, amongst others, are so abundant in the Universe. The handful of elements between Helium and Carbon, though are destroyed in stellar fusion instead. Stars can’t create them. The only way elements like Beryllium can be created in large quantities is by slow processes like cosmic ray spallation… and judging by a few of the responses to this post, I kinda think I should write a bit about that. :)

  8. invaderxan says:

    Nor me. We’d run out of space!

  9. invaderxan says:

    Actually, the Moon is created from exactly the same material as Earth, and while it may be geologically inactive now, it certainly hasn’t always been that way. And those processes don’t create the resources, they simply alter them chemically. Earth has exactly the same amount of iron now as it did when it was born. Actually, if you consider all the meteors that fall, it has more.
    Plus, there are processes on the moon which don’t happen on Earth. The Moon’s crust is constantly being bombarded by solar wind, and has been for about 4 billion years…

  10. invaderxan says:

    It’s true that people have a tendancy to be greedy and to exploit their resources… On the other hand, the majority of all astronauts (sent to the moon or otherwise) have said that the very act of leaving the planet briefly gave them the overwhelming realisation about how futile that greed is.
    Change doesn’t necessarily equate to destruction, either. All of us live in houses that were built on top of something else…

  11. invaderxan says:

    Well, discussing interstellar travel may be jumping the gun a bit here. I was only talking about the moon, don’t forget. For such a feat, Van Neuman machines may be a bit overkill (even if that would be really cool).
    And as for there being nowhere in the solar system we could have a sustainable colony,well… that’s a trifle pessimistic, wouldn’t you say? We do, after all, have a space station in orbit, proving that with some maintenance from Earth, we’re capable of setting up a long term habitat in vacuum conditions. We have colonies in Antarctica, proving that we can set up communities in places which are periodically starved of any outside contact for months at a time. It’s not a huge step to consider how such colonies may be made autonomous. Having a ready supply of raw materials on hand would be a boon. The only issue with colonies elsewhere, then, would be things like radiation shielding. And that’s entirely technologically feasible.
    As for economics… Earth’s post-industrial economy is driven largely by energy. It always has been. That’s why the oil companies are so rich now, and the coal mines before them. If we consider that nuclear fusion may soon come into play as a viable energy source and that the best fuel for it is helium-3, then the best nearby source for that helium-3 is the Moon!

  12. invaderxan says:

    I know what you mean! Personally, I prefer to deride the things that really do take money away from science. Like excessive military expenditure, for instance. But I’d better not get into that again, lest I be hailed as a tree hugging hippy. :P

  13. Had no idea Be was so rare! In worries me, since I use a lot of ITO in the course of solar cell research.

  14. cosmorama says:

    I can’t imagine the human race staying on Earth forever.

  15. havoc_theory says:

    P.S. Worse yet, Moon is not only dead, it’s stillborn. I’d rather go to Mars looking for the ore deposits. But given the costs of the travel I’d question the economical viability of mining e.g. fist-sized diamonds on Mars.

  16. havoc_theory says:

    What Moon resources? Earth mineral resources are mostly the product of the long geological process of erosion, sedimentation, volcanism etc. what result in separation of the elements to the economically feasible concentrations. Moon is mostly geologically dead in these respects. Moreover, many ore deposits have biological nature (iron springs to mind).

  17. sandalfon says:

    I totally agree with you in that we are using too much of the earth. I do worry, that with all those greedy people, any other place that can be mined won’t be governed in order to keep it from being over-mined. What new and great elements could send big corps scrambling to find a landing space on one tiny planet or moon or asteroid and would begin the destruction and changes in the universes instead of the one small earth?
    I believe in space exploration but it MUST be tightly controlled by an earthly panel put together from all of our coutries combined for the safeness of our worlds. Trying to get our leaders to come together and agree on anything must come first and yet we cannot even reach that stage in our own development right here. How could we even deal with other life forms? We are at war with our own different people? It all worries me. I’d rather see the end of human existance on earth and a renewal of human life that would totally change everything here long before humans choose to utilize anything beyond this planet. But I truly hope that the explorers with great intentions be the ones who will help re-build this planet and move on into the outer worlds with true heart.

  18. I’m skeptical that it would be economically feasible. The sheer expense of getting out there in the first place would, I think, make it too expensive to be worthwhile. If we could figure out how to make autonomous Van Neuman type machines, then, *maybe*, that might work. Only an initial investment in getting the first machines out there, and then they can reproduce freely and send us their products.
    I personally think we’ll have to figure out how to make do here on Earth before we do any real serious space exploration. We’ll either figure out how to live sustainably on Earth, and then be able to do serious space exploration, or we’ll crash and burn. There’s nowhere in our solar system that we could have a sustainable colony.
    I also don’t think we’ll ever colonize any other planets. Even if there’s an Earthlike world around Alpha Centauri, that’s still 4.3 light-years away. What motivation would there be to colonize such a distant world? Colonization in Earth history generally consisted of either impoverished people fleeing poverty (when it was possible to immigrate cheaply) or commercial endeavors. Neither of those would work for space colonization. Interstellar travel would be extremely expensive (not to mention taking an extremely long time!), preventing the “fleeing poverty” motive from working! And the distances would make commercial links impossible. How could there be any trade between Earth and a planet around another star? What profit could an Earth-based financier make?

  19. Oh, I’ve been saying for quite a while that certain other countries are going to eventually find away to hold the U.S. by the short hairs, so to speak, and then the U.S. decline will REALLY accelerate. Why do so few other people seem to see this?
    Also, thanks for being an astronomer who also likes space exploration. When I was in grad school, I found that most of my astronomy classmates hated human space exploration with a passion, because it took money away from “real science.” *sigh*

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