The Most Important Thing You Know About Wealth in the 20th Century Is Wrong

dollar symbolWhatever you believe about how profits should be shared, capitalism is the undisputed best way to create wealth. But nothing exists in a social vacuum, and capitalism may have had a big boost from unexpected trends.

Global wealth surged starting in the 19th century. What is less publicized is that the explosion was accompanied by similar breakout in population, and economists connect the two — when population grows, GDP has tended to rise with it.

World Population Growth ProjectionsWe may not deserve as much self-congratulations as we think. Advances in manufacturing, technology, and finance made possible a new economy. I recall reading a book by a South American economist that said, America’s ability to turn everything including the family home into capital allowed its people to surge ahead of traditional cultures.

But advances also occured in public health, understanding of disease, vaccines, and food production and safety. Human lifespans increased and infant mortality plummetted in the “First World.”

It’s easier for any economic system to grow when the population grows, and when workers become healthier and more plentiful. Now populations are shrinking in many wealthy countries, or growing only where immigration is embraced (with whatever mixed emotions) and in the poorer areas of the world.

Our “western” economic miracle assumes constant growth. What about when growth slows and reverses? What ya gonna do now, capitalism?

Oh, the world will coast along for a while, but success seems to breed – or rather, not breed… Hmm, you see the issue? Endless increases in the number of humans might doom the planet, so I’m not complaining, but our falling numbers means something has to change.

I’m not worried. I may not be able to imagine an economy with falling GDP, but GDP isn’t the only measure of success. People with new ideas will come forward. Humans are a resourceful species. A hundred years from now, people will pity us backwards sods. But someone is in for an interesting ride.

I usually post about science, and economics is called “the dismal science.” That’s a term from the 19th century when we were beginning our climb. Don’t spend a lot of time looking into the author who coined the term – he wanted to bring back slavery to increase sugar production. Eek!

Any of you with fresh new ideas, with visions of a society that I, a flat-footed engineeer, can’t imagine… get to work. The future needs you.

Astonishing Plan to Reduce Plastic Trash – Stop Making It – Ultimate Challenge is a Cardboard Soda Bottle #recycle #packaging #environment

Swan in nest incorporating plastics

Most wildlife can’t recycle plastic this easily

Believe in the power of cardboard. Plastics seemed like a dream when they burst onto the packaging scene, but lately disposing of the trash has become a nightmare. For years, people have tried different ways to recycle plastic, but China’s recent suspension of accepting European and American waste brings recycling to a crisis point. (Really?! We shipped our plastic trash to China? Do we even know what they actually did with it?).

Scientists say the world is dumping 8 million tons of plastic into the oceans every year, and it never really goes away. It’s choking fish, filling the bellies of seabirds and turtles, and even showing up in our drinking water.

Yuck. What’s the answer?

How about this: don’t make it. Use something sustainable and biodegradable instead.

Cardboard can be cut and folded, and the shapes used to replace Styrofoam and other plastic packaging. Some uses for plastic are harder to replace. The “moon shot” for cardboard aficionados is a soda bottle…

But he doubts a leak-proof bottle can be made purely out of paper. Even paper cups, he says, generally include plastic to keep the liquid from leaking.

Plastic is so ubiquitous, controlling it may seem impossible. So it’s good news to see companies finding ways to replace plastics and make a profit doing it.

Maybe plastic will never go away, but I hope we can save it for applications where there truly is no alternative. And perhaps we can use less packaging of all kinds. I’ve read that Amazon is asking some suppliers to prepare special packaging for them so your order won’t arrive double-boxed. That sounds smart for the environment and the bottom line. When we can do something smarter and cheaper, it’s going to happen.

Thanks to for their news story.

Space Elevators are a Scifi Standard – Now There’s a Real One! Promise of Technology for Cheap Space Flight #space #technology #Japan #satellite

concept of space elevator

Concept for an ocean based space elevator

A space elevator is a “planet-to-space transportation system.” Vehicles climb a cable attached to the surface and counterweighted in orbit above geostationary level. I’ve used a space elevator in my own scifi writing. Sadly, we don’t have  materials to construct one yet. Well, not a full sized one.

A miniature is now in orbit. Congratulations to Japan for their September 22 launch.

Built by engineers at Shizuoka University in Japan, comprised of two 10-centimeter cubic satellites connected by a 10-meter-long tether. A small robot representing an elevator car, about 3 centimeters across and 6 centimeters tall, will move up and down the cable using a motor as the experiment floats in space.

The Japanese hope to build a real, full sized space elevator sometime around 2050 and use an ocean-based surface tether. That allows time to solve the many practical problems that have kept this idea on the drawing boards since the 1800s. Good luck!

Science and Engineering at Your Fingertips #innovation #tech #science #engineering

“Isn’t science all about stars and black-holes type stuff?”

Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA

Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA

There’s so much more, and we encounter it every day in so many ways. Take, for example, a ball point pen. It’s a fairly recent invention. You’ve seen the iconic pocket protector worn by Dilbert and engineers everywhere. Do you remember them? They were needed before ball point pens because fountain pens leak.

The first patent was filed in 1888, but it took years and a lot of failure before our familiar pen emerged. Different pen designs and different inks were tried. In 1941, a fleeing German and his associates (the Western Hemisphere didn’t just get nuclear physicists from Germany because of the Nazi!)

Early ball point pens had problems – the ink would hang up and the pen become unusable. This happened all the time. There was also a safety issue – people like to chew on the ends of pens and a swallowed cap could choke someone. Such an accident might be rare, but consumers don’t expect their pens to kill anyone.

A brilliant engineering solution came across the creative mind of scientists, and a newly innovated cap was introduced into the market which enables the nib to breathe in air, helps in regulation of air pressure [inside the pen] to match the air pressure outside, and to avoid death in people who accidentally swallow the cap. Yes, the innovation in design was just a hole being placed on top of the caps.”

Competition was fierce but it wasn’t until well into the 1950s that pens “boasting additional features and technological advances which also included the use of tungsten-carbide textured ball-bearings in their pens” [wikipedia] began to sell in the millions each year – and familiar names such as Parker and Bic emerged. Today ball point pens are so cheap we tend to walk off with them without thinking, and loads of businesses hand them out for free as advertising.

How cool.

Thanks for pointing out this miracle of modern science, and for the quotes above.

4 Books on Mars white background (500x500)Our world is full of amazements we take for granted. Consider the fantastic logistics behind the pencil. I found inspiration there for my science fiction novel Glory on Mars. What fantastic technologies will the first colonists haul to Mars? And what common conveniences will they leave behind?

All my books, including the On Mars series, are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and other major online retailers, including Smashwords and Create Space for paperbacks. On Mars books 1 and 2 are available now, with books 3 and 4 due out this fall. Read one today.