Sarah Zhang

You are currently browsing articles tagged Sarah Zhang.


Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars in a handful of years is bold but probably misbegotten. He means well in wanting to safeguard the survival of the human species, but things may not end well. There’s no reason for humans to be out there just yet. It might work out best if Musk’s large-scale plans crater and his still-sizable contributions (e.g., reusable rockets) remain. We can explore space for the foreseeable future without the undue burdens of cost and loss of life if we utilize robots for reconnaissance and 3D printers to lay foundation.

In “The Low-Tech Way to Colonize Mars,” an Atlantic piece by Sarah Zhang, the writer examines a saner alternative to Musk’s vision, a slow build in space via bootstrapping with relatively simple tools. An excerpt:

NASA is all aboard the 3D-printing train. Last year, it unveiled winners of its first 3D-printed Mars habitat design challenge, and the architectural renders of the winning entries were all sleek and futuristic, as renders of unbuilt buildings always are (see above). In reality, the current state of the art for Martian 3D-printing looks more like the clay logs [planetary scientist Philip] Metzger has been documenting on Twitter.

If the technology looks low-tech, it’s deliberate. “We’re rethinking how to do space technology by taking cues from less developed parts of world,” says Metzger. The logic goes like this: If a valve breaks in a complex machine on Mars, an astronaut can’t go online to order a replacement with next day delivery. (It’s more like nine months, assuming Mars and Earth are in their most favorable alignment.) So the idea is to start simple and slowly build up technological capabilities: clay to metal to plastic to electronic equipment. Eventually, Mars will have the refineries and factories to make complicated machines itself. This is “bootstrapping,” and it’s Metzger’s vision for space exploration.•

Tags: ,

Every now and then something truly expeditious occurs in technology or science (e.g., the speed forward of driverless-car development in the aftermath of the 2004 “Debacle in the Desert“). But progress is generally maddeningly slow, at least when viewed from the perspective of our own lifespans. So when Transhumanists promise a-mortality in two decades or people smart enough to know better argue that Moore’s Law will magically make everything just great by 2030, feel free to look askance. 

Demonstrating this point: Sarah Zhang of Gizmodo scooped up an issue of Scientific American from a decade ago and measured the accuracy of the predictions on everything from stem cells to solar cells. It was not pretty. An excerpt:

I recently dig up the 2005 December issue of Scientific American and went entry by entry through the Scientific American 50, a list of the most important trends in science that year. I chose 2005 because 10 years seemed recent enough for continuity between scientific questions then and now but also long enough ago for actual progress. More importantly, I chose Scientific American because the magazine publishes sober assessments of science, often by scientists themselves. (Read: It can be a little boring, but it’s generally accurate.) But I also trusted it not to pick obviously frivolous and clickbaity things.

Number one on the list was a stem cell breakthrough that turned out to be one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud ever. (To be fair, it fooled everyone.) But the list held other unfulfilled promises, too: companies now defunct, an FBI raid, and many, many technologies simply still on the verge of finally making it a decade later. By my count, only two of its 16 medical discoveries of 2005 have resulted in a drug or hospital procedures so far. The rosy future is not yet here.

Science is not a linear march forward, as headlines seem to imply. Science is a long slow slog, and often a twisty one at that.•