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Notes & Queries 7/3/09

Night Flight to Italy

I’m off tomorrow night to Italy, specifically to the Sixth IAA Symposium on Realistic Near-Term Advanced Scientific Space Missions. I’ll be delivering a talk at the conference and a public lecture in the town of Aosta and, assuming a robust Internet connection, I’ll also be sending along news of the conference as it unfolds. I’m looking forward particularly to catching up with Giancarlo Genta, Greg Matloff and wife C Bangs, and Claudio Maccone, and it will be great to touch base again with Les Johnson, whom I haven’t seen since we talked at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2003.

Superluminal Radio Waves and their Uses

An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican discusses the work of John Singleton, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who has created a ‘polarization synchrotron,’ which according to the report pushes radio waves faster than the speed of light. In a paper on this work, Singleton explains that:

…though no superluminal source of electromagnetic fields can be point-like, there are no physical principles preventing extended faster-than-light sources. The coordinated motion of aggregates of subluminally-moving charged particles can give rise to macroscopic polarization currents whose distribution patterns move superluminally. Further relevant progress occurred with the theoretical prediction that extended sources that move faster than their own waves could be responsible for the extreme properties of both the electromagnetic emission from pulsars (rapidly spinning, magnetized neutron stars) and the acoustic emission by supersonic rotors and propellers.

Singleton’s polarization synchrotron combines radio waves with a rapidly spinning magnetic field. He notes the significance of the pulsar reference in the Santa Fe New Mexican article:

“Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit radio waves in pulses, but what we don’t know is why these pulses are so bright or why they travel such long distances,” Singleton said. “What we think is these are transmitting the same way our machine does.”


In the article, Singleton speculates on cell phones using the technology to communicate directly to satellites rather than using today’s relay tower system, and also sees applications in targeted chemotherapy, with radio waves activating anti-cancer drugs in tightly controlled areas around a tumor. The superluminal transmissions are, the scientist says, “…the light version of a sonic boom.” In other words, “When something travels faster than its own wave speed you get a very large disturbance. And these powerful signals that result, well, this would be how E.T., if he were out there, would likely try to communicate with us.”

Image: The polarization synchrotron, whose combination of radio waves and spinning magnetic field is said to force radio waves to travel superluminally. I can’t imagine how this effect could be used to transmit information, but we’ll certainly keep an eye on it. Credit: Santa Fe New Mexican.

The work comes out of a presentation by Singleton and colleague Mario Perez at the American Astronomical Society conference in Austin, Texas. The paper is Ardavan, Singleton et al., “Experimental demonstration of a new radiation mechanism: emission by an oscillating, accelerated, superluminal polarization current,” available online.

Future Frontiers, Biochemical and Otherwise

Interviewed in Crossed Genres, biochemist and author Athena Andreadis gives her take on various themes that have surfaced in fantasy and science fiction, including eugenics, radical metamorphosis (think werewolves) and the creation of life in the laboratory. It’s a wide-ranging, absorbing interview that swiftly swings into Centauri Dreams space when Athena discusses matters of genetic diversity on a generation ship to the stars. It’s an old science fiction trope, and one whose issues may be resolved not before but after launch:

In terms of long-generation starships, I think the answer to that depends on what level of technology they have when they launch. If they have ways of tinkering with germ line and somatic cells, the genetic diversity they launch with would become irrelevant. They could introduce as much diversity as they want on the way, both for children to be born and to existing crew members.

More than a few science fiction scenarios grow out of those thoughts! Be sure to read the entire interview, noting especially Athena’s answer to the question of whether or not we should go into space when we have so many problems here at home. 16th Century China made the choice of abandoning exploration in order to clean house, with results including the Opium Wars and the eventual colonization of China by the European powers [but see Doug M.’s refutation of this in the comments below]. Not one to argue against fixing pressing societal issues, Athena nonetheless sees the benefits that accrue from continuing interstellar research:

The next 40 years will not be the past 40 years. We’ve reached the breaking point and, depending on what we do, it will make us or break us as a species. As a global organism. And frankly, if we mess it up, we deserve to fail. Why should we go to the stars if we cannot take care of our own home?

But any solutions that would allow the creation of long-generation starships would also apply to maintaining Earth. So they’re not mutually exclusive, in fact they will reinforce each other, including physical adaptation. Including the possibility of living in the oceans, which would be like living in space, with just some reversals.

The case for deep space exploration can be made on several fronts, from the seemingly innate human urge to explore to the need to ensure survival — and let’s not forget the hope of finding new forms of life to study — but it’s important to keep pointing out that such research isn’t exclusionary. Benefits accrue from these studies that can be put to work here on Earth, a reminder that we can hope to improve our planet even as we study how to get off it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Athena Andreadis July 3, 2009, 15:18

    Many thanks for the careful reading and showcasing of the essay, Paul! I hope the Aosta meeting (and sightseeing) goes swimmingly.

  • andy July 3, 2009, 15:46

    So, yet another way to get apparent superluminal effects without making anything actually travel faster than c. (Like ye olde laser on the moon gedankenexperiment). Not transmitting information or matter faster than light.

  • NS July 3, 2009, 16:19

    Re the IAA Symposium, I hope the Innovative Interstellar Explorer or a similar mission is discussed:


    I say this even though I’d be 88 (or dead) by the time the proposed IIE mission reached its goal.

  • george scaglione July 3, 2009, 16:23

    thank you very much for this information! i wish you the very best and alot of fun there too!!! i would love to recieve that news you speak of and i therefore hope that you will have a robust internet connection!!! very respectfully your friend george

  • Administrator July 3, 2009, 16:30

    NS writes:

    Re the IIA Symposium, I hope the Innovative Interstellar Explorer or a similar mission is discussed

    I’ll take note if IIE gets into the mix at Aosta. Interesting mission, though I haven’t heard much from the JHU/APL team on it lately.

  • Doug M. July 3, 2009, 18:04

    Can we please, please, please drop the whole “China turned inward and stopped exploring and so FAIL” thing? I know it’s been a beloved trope of space advocates for lo, these many years but it’s Just Plain Wrong.

    To simplify a really complicated story, China was roughly equal to Europe in technological development and wealth until 1600 or so. It then fell behind, slowly at first and then with increasing speed, until by the mid-1800s it was seriously vulnerable to European imperialism.

    The reasons for this are complex, but most historians would agree on the following:

    — The Ming-Manchu transition hammered China really hard, setting them back half a century or more. By way of comparison, imagine if the Ottoman Turks had conquered Europe all the way to the English Channel.)

    — China sat at the center of the world trade network until well into the 1700s. This was, in a premodern trading system, not necessarily a good thing; China suffered from (for instance) the explosion of New World silver into the system, much as Spain did.

    — For social and cultural reasons, China was slow to pick up on the Scientific Revolution. (Note that “slow to pick up” is not the same as “reject”.)

    — China had a lot of trouble picking up the Industrial Revolution. One major problem: unlike Europe, China had no easy-to-reach coal deposits. China has plenty of coal, yes, but the best beds are either in deserts, or far inland out of reach of water transport, or on the wrong side of inconvenient mountain ranges, or deep underground. Basically, China had a chicken-and-egg problem: they couldn’t get their coal out without railroads, which they couldn’t build without coal.

    — 18th century China was to some extent a victim of its success: the peace and prosperity of the middle Manchu years led to rapid population growth, which meant that by 1800 much of China’s population was perilously close to Malthusian disaster. This in turn made industrialization harder, because (1) it was hard to find large masses of surplus capital for investment, and (2) why mechanize when labor was so cheap?

    Notice that none of these things have anything to do with the Ming withdrawal from the high seas back in the 1400s.

    Again: no modern historian of China takes this theory seriously any more. (Not many ever did, either, but that’s another story.) What the Ming did in the 1430s had very little to do with the successes and failures of the Manchu/Qing, a completely different dynasty with very different attitudes and policies, three or four hundred years later.

    Please don’t take my word for it! If you want a good, interesting read on this topic, let me recommend Kenneth Pomeranz’s _The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World_. It’s not the last word by any means, but it presents most of the major arguments in a very clear and accessible way.

    Sorry to go on, but it’s a bit of a pet peeve. There may be good arguments for space exploration; the Ming China comparison is definitely not one of them. It’s a hoary old chestnut that should have been retired many years ago.


    Doug M.

  • Adam July 3, 2009, 19:40

    Now I’m really envious… Paul you get to meet all the gurus in person! Have fun and keep us posted!

  • Administrator July 3, 2009, 19:59

    Doug M. writes:

    no modern historian of China takes this theory seriously any more. (Not many ever did, either, but that’s another story.) What the Ming did in the 1430s had very little to do with the successes and failures of the Manchu/Qing, a completely different dynasty with very different attitudes and policies, three or four hundred years later.

    Doug, this is good stuff. Thanks for the correction — I appreciate it when I get my eyes opened re a complex issue vs. the modern interpretation of it. The Pomeranz book sounds like a good source. My work in medieval studies made me realize how many modern misconceptions there are of events in that period and some of its leading historical figures, but my focus was solidly European and my knowledge of the Chinese situation minimal. Good to learn more, especially given how often China is cited in these contexts.

  • John Hunt July 3, 2009, 21:16

    Very interesting. Voyager is about 25% of the way to that distance. Clearly, if we were in such a binary system, pressure to fund the launch of a probe to that system would be strong and consistent. Also, because the star would be 630 times closer than Alpha Centauri, instead of the interstellar mission community being a sub-set of the BIS, an informal community centered around a blog, and a foundation, it would probably be a vigorous, near-term, practical-oriented organization. But with such distances and time, definite plans for human colonization of that other system would probably be restricted to sleeper ships at best (i.e. hibernation would receive greater research) and maybe also the frozen embryo approach.

    How I wish it were true!

  • Ron S July 3, 2009, 21:57

    I know I’ve made similar errors in the past regarding China so I was very happy to read Doug’s summary. I suppose what it comes down to is, every society has its advantages and disadvantages, all mixed together with unpredictable events. Yet according to any one measure (in this case, industrialization and technology) somebody has to get there first. This does not mean that everyone else made any particularly important mistakes. It doesn’t even mean that the “race” has been won; it may yet be written in future history books that the first society to reach the stars will be one of today’s many “losers”.

    Paul, enjoy your stay in Aosta. I haven’t been there but I cycle-toured in the Swiss and Italian Alps a little further to the east. It’s a spectacular area, in its scenery, architecture, history, and, yes, the food and wine.

  • len July 4, 2009, 2:01

    To simplify a really complicated story, China was roughly equal to Europe in technological development and wealth until 1600 or so.

    Well that’s an interesting coincidence. Isn’t that the beginning of what people have called the Age of Exploration?

  • Administrator July 4, 2009, 8:18

    Ron S. wrote:

    Paul, enjoy your stay in Aosta. I haven’t been there but I cycle-toured in the Swiss and Italian Alps a little further to the east. It’s a spectacular area, in its scenery, architecture, history, and, yes, the food and wine.

    Thanks, Ron. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been just across the border from Italy and love the south of France, but Aosta will be a new experience for me. And I already know I love northern Italian wines…

  • T_U_T July 4, 2009, 9:29

    “What the Ming did in the 1430s had very little to do with the successes and failures of the Manchu/Qing”

    I would disagree. Someone could also say, that what portugal ans spain did in early 1500s had very little to do with successes and failures of great britain. But I don’t think you can separate events like that.

  • Athena Andreadis July 4, 2009, 11:09

    To Doug M:

    Jared Diamond spent several pages in his bestseller Guns, Germs and Steel expounding the exact same theory about China that you are so peeved about. Perhaps you could enlighten him? Since he is much more famous than I am, a recantation from him would benefit many who took him and the research he quotes at his word. On a more general note, I’m surprised that the brief mention of China (a few lines) is all you noticed from the 6-page interview.

  • James M. Essig July 4, 2009, 18:45

    Hi Folks;

    The research of Singleton is very interesting.

    Note however, that there are may ways to define the velocity of an electromagnetic wave pattern. For example, a beat wave pattern in EM radiation can appear to travel faster than C although the speed of a signal and/or energy associated with the fields of the system does not.

    I wonder if Singleton’s research actually involves superluminal transmisstion of information and/or energy.

    Regardless, his work has advanced the state of the art knowledge of Classical Electromagnetic Theory, a field I have been fascinated with for a very long time.

  • BillK July 5, 2009, 15:49

    The Santa Fe superluminal article is badly misquoted and sensationalized.

    I believe that is where the superluminal confusion comes in. This polarization pattern can move faster than light without anything physical doing it. Imagine a series of light bulbs being lit one after the other in super-rapid succession. If you do it fast enough, they can be turned on in a pattern that moves faster than light.
    In the words of the researchers themselves:
    “The use of polarization charge, which is massless, also enables the device to be used to investigate superluminal sources”
    That is the key. We’re talking about superluminal sources of light… not superluminal photons.

  • BillK July 5, 2009, 15:56
  • Doug M. July 5, 2009, 17:25

    “Isn’t that the beginning of what people have called the Age of Exploration?”

    Er, no. The AoE began in the 15th century, around 150 years earlier.

    @ Ron S., good point. Who knows? Perhaps a thousand years from now all the nearby stars will have been colonized by China, and 31st century scholars will look back on the period of Western dominance as an odd but passing aberration.

    Doug M.

  • Gregory Benford July 5, 2009, 22:16

    Interesting views on China. The Pomeranz book is not the final word by any means, principally because it does not adequately account for what didn’t happen in China, because of their destruction of their fleet and shutting down of trade. They didn’t find the Americas, didn’t reach new technologies, and for example, never took up mathematics in the rigor of Euclid, et al — though they knew of Euclid. They avoided abstraction in science and so did not grasp the importance of Newton etc afterward. All this arises from profound cultural differences — the area conspicuously avoided in GUNS, GERMS & STEEL, for example. (See Needham.) Historians don’t know how to include cultural predispositions, a notable lack.

  • ljk July 6, 2009, 9:44

    Doug M. said:

    “Perhaps a thousand years from now all the nearby stars will have been colonized by China, and 31st century scholars will look back on the period of Western dominance as an odd but passing aberration.”

    By the time we seriously start colonizing the galaxy, I am willing to bet that national,
    cultural, and even racial and gender distinctions we make such a big deal out of now will be virtually irrelevant by then.

  • James M. Essig July 6, 2009, 13:45

    Hi Paul;

    I had the opportuinity to read more on the polarization synchrotron and the superluminal polarization patterns produced therein, and just now I finished reading an article on negative electromagnetic refraction index materials. Such meterials display a phase velocity that is greater than C, although the phase velocity is not the same thing as the signal propagation velocity, nor the energy transmission velocity.

    I will also note experiments wherein the tunneling of photons at an appearent velocity of about 1.7 C over microscopic distances, which although a statistical behavioral probability, nonetheless permitted the tunneling photons to out race the normally propagating photons , both sets of which were produced simultaneously at the same located by a micron scale beam splitter apparatus.

    The point is that if we have not yet witnessed true superluminal transmission of energy or signals, we seem to be getting suprisingly close. With all of the reports of various aspects of superluminal pattern propagation, perhaps we will converge on a form of truely superluminal propagation that will be indistinguishable from superluminal signal and superluminal energy propagation over macroscopic distances.

    One could put it this way,

    Lim SLP = TSLSET
    Differences between SLP and TSLSET ——-> Zero

    Where SLP and TSLSET are the relavent Superluminal Patterns that are or will be observed in the future amd TSLSET are the True Superluminal Signal and Energy Transport phenomenon.

    But before we actually observe, truely controllable superluminal signal and energy transport over technologically useful macroscopic distances, we will not doubt have fun with improvements in Classical Electrodynamics. Part of the fun at arriving at a destination is actually getting there. I hope that we are well along the road to eventually one day discovering true superluminal signal transport over macroscopic distances.

  • andy July 6, 2009, 16:14

    By the time we seriously start colonizing the galaxy, I am willing to bet that national,
    cultural, and even racial and gender distinctions we make such a big deal out of now will be virtually irrelevant by then.

    …because by then we will have newer and better ways to discriminate against various sections of society…

  • Doug M. July 6, 2009, 20:15

    [not clear if this posted on the first try — apologies if a double post.]

    @ Gregory — I’m sorry, but that’s just plain wrong.

    — China never “shut down trade”. Quite the opposite — from the 1400s to about 1700, China was the *center* of the world trading system.

    Even before the Europeans showed up, there were colonies of Chinese merchants all over Southeast Asia, regular trade with Japan and India, and firm trade links (i.e., letters of credit would be accepted) as far as Persia. Then, once the Portuguese and Dutch arrived, China developed whole new industries to feed the Western (and Indian, and Islamic) appetites for the high-end luxury goods that China could make. The vast majority of the silver mined from the New World? Ended up in China, traded for silks and porcelains and such.

    — China didn’t “reach new technologies”? WTF? China invented gunpowder, the printing press, the rudder (independently of Europe, and a bit earlier) and the compass. Even if you’re only talking about the period after 1400, China was still far ahead of Europe in any number of key technologies — including coke refining and the production of cast iron in massive quantities. (Europeans wouldn’t figure that one out until the 19th century.)

    Up until around 1700, China’s applied science — architecture, metallurgy, agriculture, medicine, mining and refining — was pretty much equal to Europe’s. The West was ahead in some areas (optics, blue-water ship design); China was ahead in others (cast iron, ceramics, high-productivity agriculture, public health). It was about a wash. Then Europe started pulling ahead, faster and faster… but this was because of Europe’s sudden explosion into the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, not because the Chinese “didn’t reach new technologies”.

    — “Never took up mathematics in the rigor of Euclid”? Argh. By the Ming dynasty, the Chinese had seriously advanced algebra — complex polynomials, infinite series, you name it. To generalize, they were far behind Europe in geometry, but equally far ahead in algebra; the Ming were intimately familiar with algebraic methods that the West wouldn’t develop until generations after Newton.

    They never did like proofs, it’s true. And the development of Chinese mathematics did slow down after the Manchu conquest (1644) — right about the time that Europe was taking off. Nevertheless, when the Jesuits gave them Western mathematics — including advanced geometry, spherical trigonometry, and logarithms — they grabbed it with both hands.

    So, really, no.

    As for historians not knowing how to include cultural predispositions… that’s wrong too, but it’s beyond the scope of this comment. (But note that Diamond is not a historian.)

    Doug M.

  • ljk July 7, 2009, 10:01

    And do not forget the other invention made by China that is very relevant to
    Centauri Dreams and interstellar flight in general – the rocket:


    This includes the first manned space flight attempt by one Wan-Hoo:


    Andy, you may be very right about our prejudices (and others) just transferring to
    new areas and beings rather than going away.

    If I may use Orion’s Arm as an example (and why not, it’s no less plausible than any
    other scenario and probably more on target than many pre-nanotech and pre-Singularity views), there are many levels of galactic society based on technological

    Baseline humans (us) are among the lowest levels of the cultural ladder due
    to our lack of genetic and technological enhancements. They are often viewed with
    sympathy, pity, disgust, and even as pets by the higher and much more sophisticated
    life forms.

    The really advanced beings are practically gods in terms of abilities and are treated as
    such by various lower races.


    In our so-called reality, if Dyson Brains and such really do exist, their very natures
    will be so different from us that discrimination of a sort will happen from our
    inability to relate to each other.

  • T_U_T July 7, 2009, 11:36

    “Then Europe started pulling ahead, faster and faster… but this was because of Europe’s sudden explosion into the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, not because the Chinese “didn’t reach new technologies”.”

    True, but the question still lingers on. Why the scientific and industrial revolution did not happen in china too ?

  • Doug M. July 8, 2009, 4:48

    @ ljk, sadly, it appears that the Wan Hoo story is probably a myth:


    Let’s put it this way: if Wan Hoo was real, and really tried this, he would have been very briefly very sorry.

    @T_U_T, sure — that’s a reasonable question. I mentioned some of the theories on my comment of July 3, above.

    But while we’re not sure what’s the /right/ explanation yet, we’re sure that some explanations are wrong. And “It’s because the Ming gave up world exploration 300 years earlier” is just wrong.

    Doug M.

  • Doug M. July 8, 2009, 5:14

    Not to beat this dead horse, but:

    There was a hermit society in East Asia that rejected trade and turned its back on the world. But it wasn’t China. It was Japan. From about 1600 until 1853, Tokugawa Japan slammed its doors shut, prohibiting travel or entry by foreigners and trade beyond a single tiny port. While China continued to trade with the world, allowing missionaries and explorers and tourists and traders to come and go, Japan spent 250 years resolutely ignoring the rest of the planet.

    So, did Japan stagnate and fall behind technologically? No. They didn’t industrialize, but they continued to advance. By the early 1800s, Tokugawa Japan had math just barely short of calculus and economics at the level of Adam Smith. They had telescopes and basic chemistry; they knew about the moons of Jupiter and the circulation of the blood. As for shipbuilding, in the early 1600s they built several European-style ships, and even sailed one across the Pacific to Mexico as a proof-of-concept. (The Spanish viceroy there was quite nonplussed.)

    — You’ll hear people describe Tokugawa Japan as “medieval”. That’s very wrong. Technologically and administratively, Japan before Perry was much more like early 18th century Europe. Not Richard the Lionhearted and Robin Hood; more like Louis XIV and Jonathan Swift.

    Anyway: here’s the kicker. When Perry forced their doors open in 1853, the Japanese were the ones who grabbed modernity with both hands and industrialized more or less overnight. While China flailed and fell into near-collapse, the hermit kingdom transformed itself into a technologically advanced First World society in just a couple of generations. They did this so well that even after being bombed into rubble, they were able to rebuild and do it all over again. 150 years later, Modern China is starting to catch up, but it won’t close the gap for generations if ever.

    If burning your fleets and turning inward is a recipe for disaster, then Japan should be a miserable Third World hellhole today. They rejected exploration and trade much, much more firmly than China ever did. But Japan, and not China, was the first to successfully adopt the Industrial and Scientific revolutions. The 250 years of hiding in a cave… made no difference.

    — I don’t know why the damn “China turned inward” thing has such traction. My best guess is that it got picked up by libertarians as a parable on the evils of government — see, if China’s mandarins hadn’t shut the fleet down, they could have conquered the woooooorld! Of course, this ignores the fact that the fleet was a massive government boondoggle in the first place, but if you’re shopping for consistency and historical accuracy you don’t go to the libertarian store anyhow.

    Doug M.

  • Athena Andreadis July 8, 2009, 8:41

    There is a balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces in a nation/culture/society. Too much fragmentation, and you end up unable to undertake or complete large projects. Too much centralization and a policy can paralyze progress or wreak disproprortionate havoc. The ills of feudal Europe tend to fall in the former category; those of China in the latter.

    Also, nations/cultures have peaks of achievement, whether scientific, technological, political or literary. The peaks aren’t necessarily coeval, although technology peaks tend to occur at the time when cultures are in an expansionist phase.

    And before anyone starts nitpicking, these are broad generalizations — you (and I) can cite exceptions to each statement in this post.

  • ljk July 9, 2009, 16:18

    While I have no doubt that Wan Hoo would not have gotten very far with his
    chosen propulsion method, it would not surprise me if there were a real person
    or persons who actually tried this.

    There are more than a few reports from the European Middle Ages of people
    attempting to fly with homemade wings and such by jumping from tall buildings.
    The usual results were a nearly vertical flight path with a sudden deceleration
    when Earth got in the way.

    Even da Vinci didn’t realize that humans were just too heavy to fly with wings
    as birds can with their hollowish bone structure.

  • ljk July 9, 2009, 16:22

    I must clarify for the record that Leonardo da Vinci’s design for a parachute
    DID work and was successfully test five centuries later:


  • Karl Hallowell July 11, 2009, 8:38

    I don’t know why the damn “China turned inward” thing has such traction.

    I was forwarded to the Doug M posts from another site. One thing that puzzles me after reading this series is where’s the real argument. Let’s just go through the first post. Here, Doug makes a number of observations, most of which are not only consistent with the claim that “China turned inward”, but also consequences of that claim. Namely, that China remained center of trade until 1700’s (the observation that it is “not necessarily a good thing” doesn’t seem useful or relevant), “social and cultural reasons” for claiming China was slow to pick up on the scientific and industrial revolutions of Europe (the observations that coal is a bit more difficult to mine in China than in England or that China had some degree of overpopulation isn’t that useful since Europe had similar problems both with access to coal and high population, but kept ahead of their problems with technological advances and a population outlet via emigration to the New World and elsewhere). Why wasn’t China actively acquiring these new advances as soon as they occured? They turned inward.

    Then you list a bunch of technologies that China developed. Nice but what did they do when the outside world started to develop technologies instead? They either didn’t know about them or ignored them. They turned inward.

    Then you give the rival example of Japan, even worse off than China. But what you ignore is that in 1853, when they were forced to open their country to the outside, they changed their mind. Within a generation, their brightest sons were sent to Europe to learn Western knowledge and they rapidly built an industrial civilization. They turned outward with surprising speed.

    My point here is that your arguments fail because you don’t actually argue the point. I don’t really believe that we can lay the blame for China’s failings on stopping some expensive naval expeditions with limited ambition (the primary purpose was raising tribute) in the 1400’s. The ban on ocean travel seems far more damaging, but even that ceased after a time (and according to the highly reliable source, Wikipedia, they never lasted more than a few decades, the two times the bans were implemented). Instead, I think the key source for China’s woes and backwardness is simply that Europe hit on a much better approach for developing a high technology, industrialized society. If Europe had remained backward, China would be the most technologically advanced country with significant industrialization.

  • Doug M. July 11, 2009, 18:23

    @ Karl, you seem to be using a definition of “turned inward” that I don’t really understand.

    Did China trade with the outside world? Yes, and without ever stopping or slowing down. Europe passed China around 1700, but that was because European trade exploded.

    Did China continue to develop science and technology? Yes — I pointed to a number of these advances upthread. They were slower than Europe after the 1600s, but they never stopped. Again, the difference is that Europe sped up.

    Did China acquire European science and technology? Yes, they did. I mentioned math already — logarithms and advanced geometry, which they got in the 1600s via the Jesuits.

    Did they engage in overseas conquest? No they didn’t — but that’s a rather strange definition of “turning inward”, and one that a fair chunk of Europe — pretty much everything east of the Rhine, really — would fail.

    Coal and overpopulation: it’s really quite difficult to start an Industrial Revolution without coal. Saying “Europe had similar problems” is just wrong; Europe was blessed with some of the best, most accessible deposits of coal on the planet. In particular, Britain was overflowing with the stuff, much of it easily accessible by water. If this had not been the case, it’s very hard to see how Britain would have managed an Industrial Revolution.

    As to China vs. Japan, China tried to modernize at the same time Japan did: google the “Self-Strengthening Movement” for details. China “sent their sons to Europe” just like Japan. They built railroads and factories and started aggressively studying Western technologies. But Japan’s modernization succeeded, and China’s didn’t.

    N.B., this wasn’t unique to China. By the late 1800s, almost every advanced non-Western society that hadn’t already been overrun by Europeans was desperately trying to copy Western ways. The Ottomans, the Thais… even the Ethiopians. (Really. The first wave of Ethiopian students went abroad around 1890, they built their first railroad five years later, and in 1896 they became the first non-European state to defeat a European colonial army.) Everyone was trying; the alternative was to be conquered, or at the very least exploited and reduced to a dependent status.

    But everyone failed… except the ex-hermit, the one country that had unquestionably, by any standard, “turned inward”. And saying “oh, they changed their mind very quickly and started copying the West” misses the point, because so did everyone else.

    Doug M.

  • Karl Hallowell July 11, 2009, 20:55

    Just because China traded with the world doesn’t mean they had a clue what was going on outside their own borders. After all, the rulers tried to ban ocean going ships a couple of times in complete ignorance of economics and what those ships were bringing home. And that was when the empire was going pretty well.

    Second, I just don’t buy that China couldn’t access coal for an industrial revolution. Even if things were as you say (and that’s something I find hard to believe for a large country such as China), a simple approach would simply be to move a bunch of people to a coal seam, build a steel foundry and lay some rail to the nearest convenient waterway even if that waterway happens to be a few hundred miles off. Now they have coal.

    Second, Japan wasn’t the only such country to succeed. So did Russia and Paraguay. Russia is still a near superpower while Paraguay chose to fight a war with three bigger neighbors and destroyed its promising future utterly. Paraguay incidentally is the better example than Japan of the hermit which did good. South Africa has done pretty well. As did the United States, which was the first country to grab the discoveries of the Industrial Revolution from England even before most European countries did. It’s worth noting that the US didn’t really participate seriously in the scientific revolution until nearly the 20th Century. Science prior to that was haphazard and isolated, with most real scientists being educated in Europe rather than the US.

    Finally, yes, Japan tried much harder than any other country did. As I see it, it was an complete effort from top to bottom to westernize the country. Perhaps you should read the history of the Zaibatsu to see the importance that Japanese government, business, and families placed on industrialization, westernization, and global trade. The country fifty years later was completely alien to the hermits of 1853.

    In fact, the most successful countries at industrial development are following the Japanese path (the variant explored after the Second World War).

    As I mention, Paraguay is really the better example of the hermit kingdom that industrialized itself. I don’t know many details, just the Wikipedia highlights. But they started as a moderately backwards despotism in the early 19th century after Spain was kicked out. The ruler of the time, supposedly a somewhat crazy ex-priest, planned an isolated kingdom of sorts, but with a strong emphasis on industrialization. By about 1860 under his successor, they had the best equipped and most professional army in South America. I get the impression they’d probably have been comparable to the early unblooded armies of the US Civil War with similar equipment and better training.

    When the old ruler died, the next one had grandiose ambitions and built that wonderful army. His son succeeded him and picked a fight in 1864 with their three neighbors, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay all at the same time. I don’t really understand the politics well enough to comment on the pretext for the war. The end result was near complete destruction of Paraguay and a loss of life that neared (and perhaps exceeded) that of the more well known Civil War in the States. If the rulers of the time had been a lot more practical and canny, Paraguay might well be a superpower these days.

    But let’s consider the country from the point of view of the “turning inward is bad” theory. Paraguay prior to its spectacular immolation was a sophisticated yet very isolated little empire. They appear to me to be among the hardcore isolationists like Japan and Tibet. The weird part is that this extreme isolationism actually appeared to be key to their industrialization policy (the Japanese had a similar protectionist approach though they did trade extensively with the outside world). The idea was that by closing off the country to most outside trade, they would spur local industry to pick up the slack. The wonder is that it appears to have worked very well. If “turning inwards” is truly so bad that China paid for centuries for abandoning a stilted form of exploration, then this shouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

  • Doug M. July 12, 2009, 3:39

    If we agree that turning inwards does no harm — and it seems we do — then the argument about whether China turned inwards or not seems somewhat moot, no?

    Not having a clue: the first Chinese world globe dates to the 1600s. By 1700, Chinese scholars were familiar with the shapes of the continents and had a pretty good idea of what sorts of people and societies occupied them, even in distant Europe and America. You can argue that they should have done more with that knowledge (though… what, exactly?) but it’s just wrong to say that they didn’t have a clue.

    Japan tried much harder: the failure of China (and others) was not for lack of trying.

    A bit OT, but: the US was not “the first country to grab the discoveries of the Industrial Revolution from Britain, even before most European countries did”. The US was quick to import European technology, but strangely slow to utilize it. American businesses were far behind Western Europe in exploiting coal power — we didn’t start taking coal seriously until the 1820s, and coal didn’t overtake wind and water power until the Civil War era. The US did develop a lot of water mills, but the vast majority of these were in New England, which necessarily limited their scale. We’re used to thinking of the US as a land of huge industrial works, but up until the 1850s US industry was small-scale; the largest American factories would have disappeared in Lancashire, Wallonia or the Ruhr.

    This is why the US was not self-sufficient in manufactured goods until well past the Civil War. That was the root of the sectional dispute over tariffs — the North wanted high tariffs to protect their young manufacturing industries, the South wanted to import cheaper manufactured goods from Europe. US manufacturing wasn’t competitive with Britain’s until after 1877.

    As to the US not participating in the Scientific Revolution until “almost the 20th century”… well, we’re getting far OT. I disagree, but there’s one grain of truth in that statement: the US was punching below its weight, scientifically speaking, until 1875 or so. The subsequent explosion of American science and technology is largely thanks to two politicians: Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, and President Abraham Lincoln. If there’d been no Civil War, we’d remember Lincoln mostly for the Land Grant Colleges Act! But that’s a story for another time.

    Doug M.

  • T_U_T July 12, 2009, 9:32

    Dough, you keep ignoring the fact that japan is even more resource poor than china. So your lack of accessible coal hypothesis fails. Also, you dismiss hypotheses bout never actually say why it was Europe which both reached America and then had scientific and industrial revolution, and all the others just tried to copy at best.
    I agree that one prohibition of ocean travel was not the sole cause, but you provide no reason why it could not be one of several causes that combined together to prevent china from accelerating its development like europe did. ( and also likely, all of those may have a yet more fundamental common cause )
    You fail altogether to explore the relationship between discovery of America and subsequent scientific and industrial revolution in Europe.
    You ignore the tremendous boost European science and industry received from demands on navigation, ship manufacture, etc … Take for example the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longitude_prize
    You keep pointing to events further down the road that hurt china’s advance in more direct ways, but fail to account for the possibility that history of china would take completely different route if they started to colonize America from the west side.

  • Doug M. July 13, 2009, 17:14

    Um. I’m sorry, but that’s just incorrect. Japan had nearly as much easily accessible coal as Britain. Kyushu is practically made of the stuff. By the early 1800s the major fields there were already being mined, though not for industrial purposes — the Tokugawa only used coal for domestic heating. Still, the big deposits had been mapped, and Kyushu coal was being exported all over the island. (You may recall that access to coaling stations was one of Perry’s “requests”.) This gave the Japanese a nice head start; to build coal-powered steam engines and factories all over the islands, they just had to expand the mines and shipping links that already existed.

    Japan’s first wave of industrialization was fired off the Chikuho fields in lower Kyushu, which sit conveniently near a river that leads to a port (Fukuoka). Though low-quality, these fields were incredibly productive, and were providing much of Japan’s energy up until the 1980s. Later industrial expansion used the harder to access (but higher quality) fields in northern Kyushu, Honshu and Hokkaido.

    As to Japan being “resource poor”, that very much depends on what resources we’re talking about. Japan conspicuously lacks oil, of course, and also natural gas and phosphates. And it completely lacks a number of useful metal ores including nickel, bauxite and tin. Japan has iron deposits, but they were hard to reach and mine with Tokugawa-level technology — the best ores were buried deep beneath the chilly mountains of western Honshu. So iron was scarce until well into modern times. (This is why premodern Japanese soldiers wore lacquer armor instead of western-style steel plate. It’s also why premodern Japanese steel was such high quality: iron was too expensive to waste on bad steel.)

    On the other hand, Meiji Japan was rich in plenty of other metals, including copper — a major export far into the 20th century — lead, and zinc. As noted above, Japan had plenty of coal. And they were also abundantly supplied with wood, limestone, cement, sulfur and fish. So, I don’t think “resource poor” really fits; like everyone else, the Japanese were poor in some things, rich in others.

    Anyway. I don’t mean to be rude, but a fair amount of this thread seems to consist of me saying “no, that’s wrong”. This is fun for a while, but it’s starting to pall. So, I do believe I’ll bow out now. Thanks for a lively discussion, and I’m sure I’ll see you all in threads to come.


    Doug M.

  • Karl Hallowell July 15, 2009, 10:09

    You can argue that they should have done more with that knowledge (though… what, exactly?) but it’s just wrong to say that they didn’t have a clue.

    Sure, I can do this. Let’s start with the obvious: know your trading partners. There was vast trade with Europe yet China knew little about them (aside from what travelers would bring). They had the resources to set up embassies in select countries along the Silk Road. A long term goal here is simply to reduce banditry, tolls, and other costs of business along these trade routes. Support the places that allow your trade goods to flow and undermine the places that don’t.

    Second, China had fallen behind in military technology once when it was conquered by the Mongolians. Keeping tabs on your neighbors, especially the distant ones that seem to have such an inexplicably voracious appetite for your goods, is a good idea. As we can surmise, they had no espionage presence in Europe and so were completely surprised by the technological advances that region made.

    Third, China should never have impaired its trade. The bans on ocean traveling ships are particularly short-sighted, but they had long running tariffs as well.

    Anyway, I agree with the general premise. The ending of the “treasure fleets” was not the cause of the decline of China relative to the West. I disagree on the argument used by Doug M., but it is absurd to claim that the exploration program with its tremendous expense could have gone on indefinitely with great cost and little benefit.

    I also disagree with the claim that the difficulty of accessing coal resources was a major problem for China. As already noted, China had developed coking before the Europeans. While one can make coke from lumber, it’s far more likely that lumber-poor China was using those coal resources which supposedly were too difficult to use. I can’t imagine where I’d find the information, but China’s a big country (even in the 1400’s) with a lot of coal. It’s dubious that all of the coal is similarly inaccessible. Even if that were so, once China realized the importance of coal, they could have set up mines quickly with the available manpower they had. I think the discussion of resources really is misdirected here. A lot of places including China are very rich in resources that an industrial civilization needs. Some of them formed the dominant industrial civilizations of the recent past and others didn’t. Resources don’t explain the difference.

    Finally, it’s a well known effect that isolation benefits a growing industrial power (by protecting its manufacture industries until they can be competitive) which is in the midst of a competitive global market. Japan and Paraguay both used isolation (Japan did it twice) and the current Japanese model has been successfully repeated in a number of countries including China. “Turning inward” can result in a strong exporter a few decades later.

  • Doug M. July 15, 2009, 17:02

    “I also disagree with the claim that the difficulty of accessing coal resources was a major problem for China.”

    No offense, but as far as I can tell, you’re basing this disagreement on “gosh, China just seems way too big to not have easy access to coal!”

    Well: it’s just a sad fact that natural resources are not distributed fairly and evenly across the globe. Japan has coal but not almost no oil. Saudi Arabia has oil but almost no coal. Australia has kangaroos but not a single volcano. It’s not fair, but there it is.

    “As already noted, China had developed coking before the Europeans.”

    Song China had coke-burning blast furnaces back in the 12th century, yes. They were making high-quality cast iron in industrial lots.

    But they were eventually abandoned because they were too expensive. They were too expensive because it was a huge PITA to get enough fuel for them. The Song were running out of cheap wood, and coal… well, see below.

    “While one can make coke from lumber, it’s far more likely that lumber-poor China was using those coal resources which supposedly were too difficult to use. I can’t imagine where I’d find the information,”

    There is this thing called a “search engine”; you may have heard of it?

    It took me just under three minutes to find a map of Qing-era coal mines online. It helped that I knew some relevant search terms, but I suspect anyone with an interest in the subject and a decent connection could do it in less than ten.

    You could also read a book. Here’s one that’s right on point: _Unmaking the West_, by Philip Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow, and Geoffrey Parker (2004). Crack it open to page… hang on a moment… 253; that’s the section on Qing China’s access to fossil fuels.

    I won’t spoil it for you, but here are some of the high points.

    — Modern China’s largest deposits were all firmly out of reach of the Qing. About 3/4 of China’s coal is in Inner Mongolia, the arid northwest, or in the very far west. All of these are infertile, inaccessible and backward regions where Qing control was often weak, and from which coal cannot be extracted commercially without either railroads or IC engines.

    — Qing China had no — repeat, no — major deposits with easy access to water.

    — It did have some minor deposits near water. The best of these were in northern Jiangsu, near the Grand Canal. These provided the Song with their coal. However, the Mongols wiped out the entire population of the region in the 13th century, and it reverted to half-barbaric obscurity for centuries thereafter. (The Mongols didn’t kill them. Goodness, no! They marched them several hundred miles north, to resettle areas where they /had/ killed everyone a bit earlier.) The Jiangsu coal mines didn’t reopen until the 18th century.

    — There was also a bit of coal south and west of Beijing. It wasn’t near water, but could be hauled out by ox wagons. The later Qing brought this coal into Beijing, where it provided heating and cooking power for middle-class and wealthy homes. However, these mines had serious problems with combustion — the coal was very flammable, and the region is very dry. (Despite modern mining technology, it’s still a problem today.) So mining was particularly dangerous and difficult, and getting the coal to market was quite expensive.

    So, no offense, but you’re wrong. When it came to coal, premodern China was just screwed.

    This doesn’t mean that coal was the only reason they didn’t industrialize — it wasn’t — nor that they would have industrialized if only they’d had a Wales or two. But coal matters, and they just didn’t have it.

    Oh, and: your earlier counterfactual about, well, why didn’t they just move a few thousand people to the badlands, and then build backwards? That gets discussed too — page 254.

    N.B., this isn’t the only book that discusses energy use in premodern China. The subject has received a fair amount of study in the last 15 years. There’s a huge body of recent Chinese-language scholarship on it. The English corpus is much smaller, but you could still fill a modest-sized shelf. I know of at least three books that discuss it in some detail, and a dozen or more articles. It’s a little specialized, but I wouldn’t call it obscure; it’s not stuff you’re going to find on Wikipedia, but there’s plenty of information if you care to go look.

    — Okay. This has been fun, sort of, but I mean it this time: I’m out of here. Thanks for your kind attention. Good bye.

    Doug M.

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