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The power of ten per cent

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘weight of popular opinion’ but how does this opinion gain its mass in the first place? Today, with the power of TV, radio and internet social networks, a new belief is a relatively easy seed to sow, but to propagate that belief so it grows to become a consensus seems an almost impossible task.

If a population contains 60million individuals, what percentage would you have to convince to tip the balance? If an idea were a tangible object that you could pick up and place on a set of scales, logic would suggest that they would only tip when you reach a figure of more than half the population. But it turns out that reality is a little stranger than that.

Scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York have found that, for a belief to conquer a population, you only need to convince ten per cent of the people. The researchers ran computer models that simulated the adoption of an idea and found that, as long as the number of people holding a minority opinion stays below ten per cent, it would take longer than the age of the universe for that group to become the majority. But, once the minority opinion passes that magical ten per cent take-up, it becomes an unstoppable train to consensus city.

Robots reach for the Moon

[Robotic hand: Shadow Robot Company (Montage: Ben Gilliland)]

No future history of humanity would be complete without robots. If the great prognosticators of science fiction are to be believed, robots will be with us every step of the way as we extend the reach of Homo sapiens across the galaxy.

Robots will be the mechanised equivalent of the slaves that helped the great empires of the past spread across the continents – even the word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning forced labour or drudgery. Small robots will carry out menial chores; humanoid robots will perform tasks too dangerous, or too tedious, for an advanced human race to bother itself with and, every so often, they will rise up and try to crush their weak, fleshy overlords.
In the real world, robots haven’t even come close to fulfilling their sci-fi duties. Sure, we have robots that will mow our lawns and entertain our children. They have been used in industry for decades, but where are the C3POs, Cylons and Metal Mickeys?

Skylon: A brilliantly British spaceplane

In the early imaginings of spaceflight, astronauts were carried into the cosmos by rockets that took off and landed and took of again. It wasn’t until we discovered just how much heft was required to toss a craft out of Earth’s gravity that the single-stage idea was abandoned.

The reality of spaceflight since then has been multistage rockets that, like giant eczematous centipedes, shed layer upon layer of rocket booster as they clamber labouriously skyward.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to build single-stage reusable spacecraft, but, plagued by technical and financial problems, they have always been abandoned. Now a British firm, Reaction Engines, believe they have the problem solved – and the solution is a brilliantly British spaceplane, called Skylon.

[Graphic: Science fiction made real – Meet the Skylon spaceplane. Click to launch]

Is the James Webb Telescope doomed?

Hubble's successor faces the chop

[Graphic: Meet the James Webb Space Telscope. Click to massificate)

Few could argue that Hubble is the ‘daddy’ of all space telescopes. In its twenty years of operation, it has pushed back the boundaries of astronomy and physics, sent back images that have captured the imagination of an entire planet and provided PC screen savers to a generation. But all good things come to an end and, although more powerful than ever, Hubble’s days are numbered but will its successor be given its chance to step into 'daddy's' shoes?

Close to Earth, space is a bit rubbish

The growing space junk problem

If indeed there is a god occupying the heavens, then he must be pretty fed up by now.

His heavenly sphere, once offered unobstructed panoramas of Earth’s blue vistas and (aside from the occasional fleeting visit by wandering comets) he could relax in its infinite isolation. However, since the arrival of the space age, the heavens have become a pretty crowded place and today any heavenly dwellers seeking to enjoy the view are likely to get a bullet-like shard of paint through the eye for their trouble.


[Graphic: Space junk facts and figures – click to make bigger]

In fact since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, mankind has lofted more than 6,500 satellites into god’s backyard. Add to that some spent rocket stages and other bits and bobs travelling at more than 28,000 kilometres per hour and (one or two collisions later) you have swarm of space debris more numerous than the locust visited upon Ancient Egypt (and far more dangerous).

Europe seeks lunar water

(and looks to Britain to help turn on the tap)

It has been almost four decades since mankind last set foot on the Moon and, with Nasa’s triumphant return cancelled, it could be some time before he does so again. But just because the Americans are out of the race, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is. India, China, Japan and Russia all have lunar conquest in their sights – the Russians even plan a bona fide Moon base by 2035 – and the European Space Agency isn’t going to be left out.

[Graphic: Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – getting to know the Moon]

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