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It’s beautiful

If you go out on a dark moonless night, you will immediately know what I mean. The Milky Way, stretching its jagged course across the heavens, is quite a sight to behold. The constellations, particularly the winter constellations, have an elegance and familiarity to them. The Moon is also an appealing object, with its ever changing phases and frequent conjunctions with other planets in the sky. Through a small telescope, planetary disks, galaxies, nebulae and open clusters come into view, often startling in their majesty.

Of course, the beauty of the universe is not limited to what is immediately visible to our eyes. Deep space objects, seen through the largest of telescopes, are candidates for some of the most beautiful things ever seen by human eyes. Who could not fail to be impressed by the wonderful Hubble photos of the Crab and Eagle nebulas, or the views of the outer planets and moons from space probes such as Voyager and Cassini? To see for yourself, each day NASA publishes it’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Few images ever fail to impress.

It’s extreme.

Nothing can be taken for granted about space. Most of it is unimaginably cold, interspersed occasionally by blisteringly hot stars with coronal temperatures of millions of degrees. Almost everything is racing around at breakneck speed: barreling through space at velocities of hundreds or thousands of kilometers a second relative to us. That’s enough to cause quite an impact if we were to get in their way. All around us catastrophic convulsions are taking place, with vast explosions and unconscionably high energies. This is a Universe of supernovas, neutron stars, magnetars, pulsars and Gamma Ray Bursts – beams of high energy radiation that would eliminate all life on our planet in an instant were our Earth unfortunate enough to stray too close. Black holes exist that can compress the mass of whole stars into volumes a few kilometers wide, creating gravitational fields that nothing, not even light itself, can escape from.

This is the stuff of childhood fantasies. Superpowers. Forcefields. Instantaneous death. The destruction of worlds. It is no wonder that space features so prominently in the minds of the young.

It ignites our curiosity.

Astronomy confronts us with some of the biggest and most challenging problems about the nature of ourselves and the fabric of reality. As a science, it has lead the way in overturning ancient notions of how nature should behave. At one time we believed ourselves to be at the centre of the Universe, with all objects, including the Sun, revolving around the Earth. Astronomers through the ages slowly revealed a different truth. Our star and our home planet are among countless billions in a very ancient Universe. Everything we do ultimately only affects an infinitesimally small piece of real-estate in the cosmos. This discovery, while deeply humbling, is enlightening. It tells us that we will never know everything. Our quest for knowledge is unlimited. We are ants in a cathedral, and what a cathedral it is.

The study of the stars and planets has pushed out the frontiers of knowledge in every direction. It’s contribution to science and mathematics cannot be underestimated. Without astronomy, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Astronomy continues to confound us and guide us right to this day. Gigantic accelerators are busy smashing sub-atomic particles into smithereens to gain greater insights into the nature of matter because objects in space do not always behave the way our current scientific models expect them to. Astronomy has revolutionised our understanding of nature and it will continue to do so.

It tells us about our past.

When you look into space, at any star you care to mention, you are looking into history. You are not seeing the star as it is now, but as it was when the photons of light left its photosphere many years ago. If you can find the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky, you are getting a picture of how it looked two million years ago, long before humans ever roamed our planet. The largest telescopes can see back billions of years ago, to galaxies in their infancy, still in the process of being formed.

History is about ourselves, how we got here, why things are how they are. Astronomy opens history even further by explaining the origins of our planet, our sun, our galaxy – even providing insights into our Universe and how it all started some 13 odd billion years ago.

Astronomy is fascinating even when applied to our own modest human story. We have had an intense relationship with the stars and planets for thousands of years. It guided the ancient cycles of sowing and harvesting. It provided the raw material for belief systems, rituals and religions. It contributed to our language. It assisted with navigation and discovery. In living memory, we have witnessed men walking on the Moon and robot probes being flung out of the solar system – events likely to be celebrated for millennia to come. Our relationship with the stars has shaped the culture of today.

It’s our future.

Astronomy is important to our future, from the short term to the distant long term. Over the coming decades, private companies will take over much of the heavy lifting formerly associated with government agencies such as NASA and ESA. This will create new jobs and new wealth. Bigger telescopes and better equipment will provide insights into reality that will stretch our technological capabilities. Over the coming centuries perhaps we will explore and colonise deep space for ourselves, using technologies yet undreamt of. In the end, billions of years from now, our sun will expand, frying everything on this planet before diminishing in size itself, its fuel spent, its job done.

Perhaps there is a large asteroid or comet out there in space with our name on it. Perhaps our planet will eventually turn against us, forcing us to find a new home. Perhaps we will find a way to cross the enormous gulfs separating us from other stars in our galaxy. All of these possibilities lead us to the conclusion that the stars will feature prominently in the future of the human race.

Astronomy is available to all, from the small child with his toy rocketship, to the octogenarian peering through her telescope at a crater on the Moon. Few endeavours are so wide in scope, so rich in detail, or so marvelous in implication. I invite you to join in.

Friday 10, 2020. Many people will wake up to the alarm clock, listen to the latest news as they get their breakfast ready, drive to work and put in a good 8 to 10 hours in either front of their computer, serving customers or in long, drawn out meetings. They will then drive home to their families, have dinner, get their kids ready for bed, surf the Net, and relax in front of the TV. Later on, a few brave souls may head down to the pub for a drink before they finally call it a day.

This is likely to be the most accurate prediction you can make about life ten years from now. In other words, 2020 will be pretty much the same as it is today*. If we look back to the turn of the Millennium, many of us had mobile phones, Internet access, TV dinners, recycling bins and telephone conferencing. The world is as it was then, with the addition of a few new gadgets, a better Internet experience, text messaging and wireless broadband. The world today is 2000 with more toys, in other words. Most change, when it comes to the inexorable rise of technology in our lifestyles, comes along slowly. When making predictions about everyday life in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we keep this glacially slow pace of technology adoption in mind. Many of the changes that will made the difference in ten year time are probably already around us in one form or another, but it will take most of the decade to make them widespread.

But life will not stay still, so here are my guesses as to the big changes over the next ten years.

-:-

Internet everywhere.

By 2020 most gadgets you will buy – TV’s, radios, music centres, cars, cameras, domestic appliances and many children’s toys – will be Internet enabled in one form or another. Bandwidth will have improved greatly and most content will be in the “cloud”, i.e. stored and managed remotely.  Connectivity will be wireless and largely invisible to the user. Most of the stuff we watch and listen to: videos, music, TV programmes, etc. will be downloaded digitally and instantaneously.

It’s likely that the Internet will also have changed. While it will more ubiquitous, it will also be more subtle. The central access point to the Internet – the web browser – will still be there, but there will be multiple other ways of interacting with the Net. The Internet will be centrally involved in feeding multiple different applications and devices, presenting information relevant to the experience expected from those technologies. Doing business on the Internet will not be as simple as getting a web-page together, as customers will expect information in a variety of different ways.

A new way to shop.

I think RFID – Radio Frequency ID tags – will come into their own in the next decade. Bar codes will disappear, to be replaced by tags that will identify themselves wirelessly at the checkout. With this, supermarkets will change dramatically. You simply pick what you want, put it into a trolley, pass a radio scanner and instantly collect the receipt. No more checkouts, no more queues. Just pick, pay and pack. This technology has been around for ages, but it remains expensive for widespread retail use. We should expect this barrier to be overcome in the next few years, resulting in a transformation of the shopping experience.

The rise and rise of Touch

One of the coolest technologies to gain prominence in the last decade has been touch sensitive surfaces. So far, the smartphone is the greatest beneficiary of this technology but we should expect it to expand rapidly beyond these bounds before the decade is out. The real benefit of touch technology is that it makes more use of limited or wasted “real estate” within any hardware product. With Touch, the keyboard becomes a writing or drawing pad, while enclosures begin to resemble skin (think of the applications for kids toys).

Electric cars

I expect that the next decade will be a big one for green technology generally and for electric cars in particular. There will be a noticeable transition from petrol to electricity, probably towards the end of the decade once the infrastructure becomes more commonplace. Some governments (Israel and Denmark, for example) have already committed funds to a suitable infrastructure, carbon credits already in force in many countries will make electric cars an increasingly attractive proposition and car manufacturers are beginning to roll out new electric cars. This could be the most noticeable achievement of the Teen decade.

Space travel

For some, this might be the lost decade for space travel. The Space Shuttles are to be moth-balled later this year and the world will need to wait five to seven years before NASA is ready to launch replacement craft. However more countries than the USA are capable of throwing large payloads into space, so progress will continue steadily throughout the next ten years with the Chinese and Indians joining the space race in earnest. An area to watch closely is private space travel. I don’t foresee mass transportation on private space vehicles this decade, but the 2020’s are a different story. It’s entirely feasible that people will routinely travel from London to Beijing in less than an hour aboard hypersonic jets skimming above the atmosphere. As for the Moon and Mars? We need a few decades more.

Geno and Nano

I’m going to stick my head well inside my shell and opine that the next decade will not be the decade where we see designer babies,  gray goo or a clone slave underclass appear. There will be progress – lots and lots of progress – but regulatory issues and public pressure might significantly delay mainstream adoption. Where I do see progress is in medicine. I think that there are going to be some big breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We should also see big advances in the growing and transplanting of replacement tissues from stem cells and some modest yet important improvements in cancer therapies.

The black swans

In 1960, few would have predicted that men would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In 1990, mention of the Internet would have been met with blank stares from most people. It’s likely that, sometime during the next ten years, new inventions that none of us are thinking about will capture our imagination and dominate public discourse. Like any new technology, the hype will greatly exceed any immediate benefits, but whatever the effect, it is likely that we will be much more concerned about these in 2020 in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are today.

-:-

So, these are a sample of my predictions for the next decade. Will they come true? Well, at the very least, it will be fun to open up my Internet reader on Friday 10th 2020 and guffaw at my naive speculations from ten years before. What do you think? Am I missing something obvious that you believe will be huge in the next decade?

* Apocalyptic predictions not withstanding..

(Photo by SanFranAnnie)

This is the last of my 2019 time capsule postings, where I look at how the stories of 2009 might pan out in the next decade. This entry looks at two successful companies, and asks if they will still be around in 10 years time.

Google

From out of nowhere, Google became one of the great corporate success stories of the noughties. Originating as the first search engine that actually worked properly, it went on to corner internet advertising and to deliver such gems as YouTube and GMail free of charge to the rest of us. In the process it became a very rich company indeed. The first of it’s kind to profit hugely from the new economics of the Internet. The word “google” is even a verb, for heaven’s sake! But will they be so powerful ten years from now? Will they end up fighting endless court battles over privacy or copyright or abuse of a dominant position like Microsoft? Or might new technology from left-field beat them at their own game? It’s really hard at this remove to see any threats to their reign, but monopolies (even the good ones) rarely live forever.

Ryanair

Ryanair is the airline we Europeans all love to hate, and yet despite it all, we keep flying with them. Originating in Ireland in the 1980’s it has since gone on to become one of the biggest airlines in the world by passenger numbers. The secret? An obsessive attention to low airfares resulting in full flights all the time. To their credit, they shook up a stagnant airline industry and brought huge efficiencies into air travel. More people than ever are flying routinely thanks to the likes of Ryanair. However the branding and advertising stinks of the brash Celtic Tiger “up yours” mentality, and customer service is a joke. And it’s not such a cheap way to travel anymore, with extra costs being charged for everything except breathing and going to the bathroom (no, wait)… So what is the prognosis? Will they go from strength to strength, or is there a possibility that passengers will abandon them en-masse should a half-decent alternative jump onto the stage? Well, it hasn’t happened yet despite numerous predictions to the contrary. One thing is for sure: Ryanair is lead by some very clever people and they will not give up their position readily.

This was meant to be the last entry in my 2019 time capsule series, looking at current world issues and how they might develop over the next 10 years, but I think I will add an extra posting tomorrow, and then I’m done. Today I look at some of the after-effects from the Bush era wars.

Iraq

iraq-warIn 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair marched into Iraq on a wing and a prayer. It was arguably one of the greatest and most avoidable foreign policy blunders in decades. Iraq was a tinder box under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and the first year of occupation was an object lesson in how not to invade a country. By 2005, the “coalition of the willing” were stuck in the middle of a vicious civil war between Sunnis and Shias. Now in 2009, the US is starting to think about pulling its troops out and leaving the region for good. The big question is whether Iraq will manage on its own once the Americans have left, or whether the warring tribes will pick up where they left off. My bet is that it will do just fine. Ten years should tell a lot.

Afghanistan.

talibanIn 2009, Afghanistan is as close as you will get to witnessing hell on Earth. Afghanistan is the archetypal failed state. Divided up by tribal leaders, it resembles the world as it was back in the 14th Century. It took a bunch of religious madmen – the Taliban – to create a semblance of order in the place until they backed the wrong horse and got ousted by NATO after the 9/11 attacks. Now they are on the resurgence, fed by hordes of uneducated boys crossing over from Pakistan, and whole areas are now back under Taliban control. It is likely that a very large troop increase will be required to establish any sort of security in the country. My guess is that Afghanistan, like Somalia and the Sudan, is a generational problem, and that the militaries of many nations will be based there for decades to come. Reinvigorating failed states could well be one of the most important political and economic challenges of the century.

Over the last few days I have been blogging on what life might look like in 2019. The bottom line, of course, is that nobody knows. For sure, there will be wild-cards in the next ten years that nobody could have predicted. Even so, it’s interesting to speculate about how the events and trends of today will play out over the coming decade. Today it’s the turn of the dismal sciences. 

The Great Recession

unemploymentThe world has never seen anything quite like it. During the last six months of 2008, every country in the world caught an economic ‘flu precipitated by years of care-free lending across the globe. Stock markets crashed and some of the biggest names in banking were forced into government ownership. Unemployment soared. Breadlines and tent cities have began to appear. The USA was caught out very badly, and it’s likely that its standing in the world may never again be the same in the face of growing competition from China and India. As I write we are still unsure how deep this recession will cut or how long its effects will be. The Economist, in a recent article, declared that the recovery is going to be prolonged and painful, with double-digit unemployment rates and horrendous levels of public debt. Such crises have massive after-effects: history has shown us that revolutions and wars are common outcomes. Will this time be any different?

The European Union

eu-flagIn 2004, the European Union grew in size to 25 states: a new political entity at the heart of Europe based on the free movement of people and capital, the promotion of democratic values, and a pooling of resources when it comes to foreign relations, humanitarian aid, financial policies, agriculture and lots of other areas that impinge on everyday life. That said, the political structures required to govern such a large and diverse group of nations are not quite up to it. Two attempts have been made so far to resolve this problem, but the first foray failed outright and the second attempt – the Lisbon Treaty – has been driven into the mud primarily as a result of an unsuccessful referendum in Ireland. What is clear is that the EU is comparatively toothless if it doesn’t resolve these issues quickly. Its long term future is far from certain, despite evidence that it has lead to a greatly improved quality of life for many people within its borders. There are several groups within the EU who desire to see it fall under it’s own weight and while a legislative vacuum remains, these groups have been gaining in confidence. No-one knows what a post-EU Europe might look like, but my guess is that it would not be pretty. Nationalism, once you get beyond the flag waving and the late-night singing, is often an ugly spectacle to behold. So where will it be in ten years time? Dead? Broken? Stagnant? Or, perhaps, reinvigorated? Thriving? We can hope.

Last installment tomorrow: The 9/11 Wars.

This is the fourth posting in my 2019 Time Capsule series, looking at how the issues of today might be seen ten years from now. This entry is a topical one, particularly given the influenza scare over the weekend.

Global Warming

Global WarmingThe scientists are largely agreed: our world is warming up, and the long term effects on the environment are likely to be very substantial indeed. The principal cause is a massive increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to “anthropogenic factors”. In other words: us folk is wot have done it, m’lud. Guilty as charged. Over the last two centuries, we have been busy burning away Earth’s fossil fuel reserves – coal, natural gas and oil. All around the world, average temperatures are on the increase, while glaciers and ice shelves are on the retreat. Weather effects such as bushfires, droughts and stronger hurricanes provide us with hints of a coming crisis. Although climate change deniers still exist, the main scientific debate now rages about the depth of the crisis seemingly awaiting us. Will the effects be as bad as scientists are predicting? Ten or twenty years is probably too short a time to say for certain. However what should have changed by then is the extent to which we will we have started to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. Will nascent technologies such as wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, nuclear power and solar power be much more in evidence? Will a new source of energy be discovered? How will these technologies affect how we live our lives? How will they affect world politics? Interesting times.

Killer pandemics

pandemicOne of the big wildcards, when it comes to speculating about the future, is the possibility of a nasty virus originating in somewhere like South East Asia or the jungles of the Congo, and devastating the world’s population within a matter of months. It has happened before and many people will tell you that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. Influenza is regarded as one of the most probable culprits due to the ease by which it infects new hosts and how amenable it is to air travel. While there is always a worry that such a scourge might rear its head at any time, a more interesting question is whether scientists might have it beaten. A recent breakthrough in Australia indicates that a weak spot might indeed have been found, and that we might be able to immunise people from all deadly ‘flu viruses in the near future. We hope so. Viruses, owing to their vast numbers and their propensity to mutate quickly, are never beaten for very long.

Next in line: The economy.

This is the third entry in my 2019 Time Capsule series, where I discuss questions that may well have answers within the next decade. Today I take a brief look at technology. 

The Internet Copyright Wars

Internet mapWe are currently living through a period of time when many big industries are under threat. The industries in question are publishing, music recording, telephony and movie-making, and the threat is the Internet. For the first time in history, the expression of human thought in pictures, words and sound can be sent around the world in the blink of an eye, and for free. It is the ultimate vision of Gutenberg, and the vested interests who wish to make scarce this infinitely available commodity are fighting a losing battle, mainly resorting to courts and politicians. But like Gutenberg, such wars cannot last forever and the world will some day settle into a new economic relationship with the Internet. What will it look like? How will we enjoy music and art and films 10 or 20 years from now? Will the battles continue to rage in the courts or will relatively new players such as Google eventually render the incumbents powerless? What will the business models look like? What scarcities will these businesses exploit? Who will be the winners? 

The Human / Computer Interface

HALI have a feeling that the next decade will be a time of big changes in how we interact with computers. For years we have communicated mainly through the use of keyboards, and although I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon, I suspect that very different forms of computer interaction are going rising to prominence. Take Multitouch for instance: the technology popularised by the movie “Minority Report“. The iPhone has given us an example of how natural and engaging this technology is – a small child can understand it intuitively. Another technology that seems to be whispering it’s way towards us is Recognition. Voice Recognition – the ability of a compute to recognise and respond correctly to voice commands – is probably the best known. It’s been around for a while and results can still be somewhat patchy. But it’s improving and other forms of recognition are also appearing: face recognition (e.g. iPhoto) and music recognition (e.g. Shazam). Given that, I don’t see why we would not be communicating in very different ways with computers in just ten years time. 

Stem Cell Research

Stem cellsWe are being told that we are on the brink of a revolution in medical care. Diseased and damaged organs can be replaced, not via anonymous donors, but grown instead from cells found in the patient’s own body. These miracle cells are known as stem-cells: generalist cells that can be conditioned to transform into specialised cells: heart muscle, kidneys, skin – anything you like. From there they can be grown in laboratories into complete organs – thus allowing people to gain to have transplants with no concerns about rejection. I have already seen footage showing replacement teeth and bladders being developed. It is possible that this breakthrough will transform medicine in the next ten years. It will be interesting to see to what extent it will have developed.

Up next: Global Threats.

This is the second posting in my 2019 time capsule series, where I consider how the questions of the present will be viewed in 10 years time or afterwards. Today, I’m going to focus on space, and some of the big questions that may well have convincing answers within the next decade.

Dark Matter

Dark matter in the observable UniverseWe look into the skies and we try to understand why the universe acts as it does. Unfortunately some of our biggest questions don’t have good answers. We resort to placeholders such as “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain why galaxies spin the way they do, why the universe seems to be expanding at an accelerating rate, and other conundrums that make little sense to us with our conventional models of the world. With the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, it it possible that answers may be found and that our understanding of the world will need to be rewritten within the next 10 to 20 years. What progress will we have made by 2019?

Extraterrestrial Life

ET DNAThe Earth is the only place we know of that contains life. Our planet is saturated with living organisms: from the deepest undersea valleys to the highest mountaintops; the rims of the hottest volcanoes to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Life came into being only a few hundred million years after the Earth itself formed and somehow managed to survive the hellishness of our world’s early existence. Life is pretty rugged. And yet, we know of no other place: no planet, no moon, no comet or asteroid, where life is present. But there are hints. Methane, water and microfossils on Mars, ice volcanos on Europa and Enceladus. Who knows what we may find? Probes are being developed as we speak. Will we discover, as some think, that life is not just confined to one small planet, but is virtually everywhere?

Tomorrow: Technology.

The following series of entries is a time-capsule of sorts. Today in 2009 I have many questions that may someday have answers, so  I’m writing these postings to anyone who might be bored enough to come across this blog in ten or twenty years time, i.e. 2019 or afterwards. The list of questions covers technology, economics, politics and space and war. I will lay out some open questions that may be resolved by the time we reach the third decade of the century – well, here’s hoping anyway.

First off: some international politics.

Zimbabwe
Robert MugabeIn 2000, Robert Mugabe began to show his true tyrannical colours when he seized white-owned farms, disrupted elections and intimidated opponents, with the aim of staying in power by whatever means necessary. His actions since then have resulted in an economic collapse of apocalyptic proportions. He won’t live forever, and the suffering that he and his cronies have inflicted will not go unpunished forever. So what will the eventual demise of his regime be like? Will the implosion follow quickly from his death, or will Mugabe and his entourage take flight to Morocco or Saudi Arabia like ruthless dictators of his ilk before him? Will his replacement be worse and more insane than himself? Time will tell.

North Korea

North KoreaThis tiny country, abutting some of the wealthiest and fast-developing countries in east Asia, has long been known as the last Stalinist dictatorship in the World. Ruled by the so-called “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, and then by his unstable (and possibly now dead) son, Kim Jong-il, this outpost of paranoia has proceeded to develop nuclear warheads and to threaten its neighbours regularly, acting more like a spoilt child than a mature state in its negotiations with other countries. Meanwhile its people starve. Human rights are non-existent, and it is believed that concentration camps are in operation within its borders. This abomination of a regime will some day come to an end. But how? Will it be fast and painless, slow and gangrenous, or could it possibly end amidst the white heat of a nuclear fireball?

Next up:  Space.

A long time from now, Ireland and the UK will be just beneath the Tropic of Cancer, hugging the coastline of Africa. Japan will be on the Equator and the Arctic Ocean will be the largest ocean in the world. A large shard of Africa (the area east of the Rift Valley) will have split off and hit western India, and a two-thousand mile gulf will separate North America from South America. Only two major continents will exist: North America / Greenland and a supercontinent comprising Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australasia.

This is what the world will look like in 120 million years time, according to the German Research Centre for Geosciences

Continents have always been on the move. During the Carboniferous Period (around 300 million years ago), most of Europe and eastern North America was lush tropical rainforest, as evidenced by the very extensive deposits of coal (dead trees) in this region today. Over a long period of time, the continents have steadily moved across the globe like big pieces in a toddler’s jigsaw. Continents can be thought of as large rafts plying the oceans, occasionally bumping into each other, flooding, and splitting up due to internal processes in the Earth’s interior. 

For some snapshots of Earth when it was a young ‘un, check out this site.

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