Technological decline

Konkvistador has drawn my attention to the Pu238 shortage. We stopped making Pu238 in 1988 You need Pu238 for nuclear batteries. The 2006 New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt was launched without enough Pu238 to keep all its equipment live during the Pluto flyby, and without enough Pu238 to do its Kuiper belt mission, from which I conclude that since 2011 we have been totally completely flat out of Pu238, just as the Fed is totally completely flat out of gold. For the last few decades, the government has been acting as if we are very very short of Pu238. For example, no allotment for pacemaker batteries, so people with pacemakers have to have surgery every so often. The Europeans are using (dangerous and expensive) americium based nuclear batteries for their space program.

Supposedly we can simply make more Pu238, just as supposedly when the two towers fell, we could supposedly build buildings just as tall or taller, just as we can supposedly still build warplanes that can cruise at supersonic speeds, we just supposedly do not want to. Today’s businessmen are supposedly so secure in their masculinity that they do not want a higher corner office with a bigger view than the next businessman.


But I rather think if we could do that, we would not have run out in the first place. we would not have launched New Horizons with a half flat battery. We have been mighty short for at least a couple of decades, and since 2011 the cupboard has been just flat empty.

Tags: , ,

38 Responses to “Technological decline”

  1. Dan says:

    People keep saying,
    “We could do X, but for the cost”

    But if you are truly advanced, then X becomes cheaper. Technological advance means everything should be getting cheaper.

  2. R7_Rocket says:

    Weapons technology isn’t synonymous with political and cultural decline. There are more nuclear armed states today than in the 1950’s when the Cathedral was at its height.

    • jim says:

      In dark ages, art declines, great buildings decline, ordinary people’s living standards decline, people harrow the ground with stones tied to bits of wood instead of iron plows, but weapons technology usually goes right on improving.

      • Red says:

        In Europe weapon tech continued improving after the Romans, but in china it collapsed. There doesn’t appear to be one common sent of rules that govern decline.

        • spandrell says:

          It didn’t collapse. It didn’t advance very far, but their cannons got steadily better; they didn’t develop muskets because back in the day they weren’t better than crossbows or skilled archers. Once they lost the momentum of firearm development they couldn’t catch up with Europe.

          But no “collapse”. Most certainly not after the fall of Western Jin, which is the equivalent to the fall of Rome. The barbarian wars of the time gave us stirrups, which were a massive innovation.

          • jim says:

            Song dynasty had clocks, albeit building sized clocks. Later Chinese could not build clocks.

            Their cannons did get better, towards the end by copying imported western weapons.

          • Red says:

            Japan caught up to Europe quite quickly when it came to firearms in the 15th century. Neither China or India learned to kernel gun powder which was the key advancement required to make effective firearms. I don’t know why the Chinese declined in militarily tech, but it’s pretty clear that they did.

  3. Red says:

    What’s the mechanics behind technological decline? Political, genetic, cultural, religious, or a combination? Why did the Chinese & the Romans decline technologically?

    • bub says:

      Cause-effect relationships, so far as I can tell.

      Religion -> Political

      Political, Religion -> Cultural

      Political, Cultural -> Genetic

      Sola Scriptura (and possibly all scholastic rationalism) drives left-wing political movements, and destroys the religion from the inside out. Left-wing politics destroys property rights, maligns incentives, and thus destroys economic, genetic and cultural advancement.

      Why did the Chinese & the Romans decline technologically?

      I don’t know about the Chinese, but the Roman decline was caused by the collapse of the Roman State. Which had many causes, but most prominent was the low Roman birth-rate. Few Romans means a weak military, which means a vulnerable empire.

      • Baduin says:

        Rome didn’t decline in technology – it progressed technologically, even after it fell – ie in Byzantium.

        Roman empire was not based on technology (they considered it fit for slaves, not free men) and did not fall because of lack of technology.

      • red says:

        The roman birthrate had entirely recoved by the middle of the 4th century.

      • jim says:

        I would very much like to know about the Chinese decline. Even though they had printing, they tended to lose books. A lot of books were preserved by westerners looting them. When you have printing, hard to lose knowledge, but the Chinese managed to do so.

        • spandrell says:

          You needed a government license to run a print shop. It’s no wonder they didn’t print much.

          • Alrenous says:

            Also, economic to mass produce and use 60 or so characters of movable type. Not so much two or three thousand. This gap has only conclusively closed with electronic keyboards.

            Which period of decline are we talking here?

            • jim says:

              Decline from Song dynasty to late twentieth century – about nine hundred years.

              Three thousand characters is a fifty by sixty array – not that hard. A bit larger than a page, a few pages, because you need multiple copies of each character.

              You draw each character, of three thousand characters, with a hot subtractive pen on a little cube of bee wax, you pack suitable clay around a mass of such cubes, dry it, and fire it. And then you have a mold that can make any number of characters in bronze, small cubes of bronze with a character on one side. Not a huge task. Use oil based ink so that the bronze does not corrode. Pine tree oil (turpentine), with a little bit of boiled linseed oil, containing very finely dispersed graphite.

          • Alrenous says:

            I’m not saying it’s infeasible. I’m saying it’s expensive enough.

            “Lastly, one scrapes and files off the irregularities, and piles them up to be arranged.” Which reminds me, pre-lathe movable type has to be substantially bigger because you have to fit your hand rasp in there. Intricate hanzi aren’t a problem for information density, but are a problem for cheap type.

            It has to be cheap enough to sell to peasants, so the process can go supercritical. Though arbitrary, the line is rock-hard.

            Since China was getting poorer for unrelated reasons, even if books started out cheap enough, they would have quickly gotten too expensive.



            Going by the available data, they wouldn’t even have been able to afford Roman-alphabet-cheap books by 1200.

      • R7_Rocket says:

        The Empire of Rome was multicultural, no state, no more Roman Empire. China on the other hand knew the importance of having a mono cultural state that is then forged into a mono ethnic state. China is still here.

        • Dan Kurt says:

          re: “China on the other hand knew the importance of having a mono cultural state that is then forged into a mono ethnic state. China is still here.” R7_Rocket

          True in part as Han Chinese mainly made up mono racial state but instability also built in as vocal language DIFFERENT in each provence. State tied together by rulers who spoke same language, Mandarin, and only the rulers were able to read (in any detail) their non-phonetic writing. Provinces thus were not united with other provinces as far as the subjects were concerned, loyalty was mainly to the provence with only a nodding interest toward the Country as a whole under the emperor. The pressure cooker effect of the brilliant not being a part of the ruling elite was short circuited by having a difficult but open system of entrance to the mandarin system for families who could produce children who could pass the tests for “the best of the best.”

          Dan Kurt

  4. peppermint says:

    It is very expensive to make Pu-238 if it isn’t the byproduct of a process which Carter ruled illegal in the US.

    NASA is starting to do the expensive thing.

    Reprocessing is also not done because mining fuel and holding onto nuclear waste is so cheap, which is ironic for the anti-nuclear cheerleaders.

    • jim says:

      It is not at all clear we are able to do the expensive thing.

      Greenies have forbidden the effective and cheap way of making Pu238. It is far from clear we are able to do it in any greeny approved way.

      It is not only nuclear that is being screwed over by greenies. When I was at Gasonics, the boss would not let us use hydrofluoric acid for fear that EPA bureaucrats thinly disguised in moon suits would swarm us.

      But I also get the feeling than greenism is in part an excuse. That people revert to more primitive methods due to inability to perform sophisticated methods, and say “Ah, we are being green”.

  5. bub says:

    Apparently, NASA and the Department of Energy have asked for funding to make more ($75 – $90 Million), and has been denied.

    It seems we’re just not willing to pay the cost. I don’t know if that indicates technological decline. Maybe our priorities shifted. I don’t see the utility in most space research.

    • R7_Rocket says:

      I don’t see the utility in most space research.

      If you’re not interested in enhancing species survival by spreading to new habitats and are not interested in exit over voice, then I can see why you don’t see the utility.

      • bub says:

        I have doubts that most of the stuff NASA researches will significantly increase our ability to colonize the stars. No doubt many of their research programs are exceptions.

        The Hubble telescope was one of the most important projects NASA has done. How did it enable us to build a Martian colony? (or whatever colony in this solar system you prefer)

        Grandiose research projects without much applicability in the next 200 years are silly. It would be like having the Pilgrims send out Lewis and Clark.

  6. Thrasymachus says:

    There was an interesting article at the Atlantic a few days ago about the DARPA augmented reality, and how it works better than the Google glass.

    It immediately occurred to me that DARPA is whiter than Google, so of course they can do things Google can’t. It’s probably not entirely white, I don’t know the breakdown, and Google is majority white, but still the whiter, the better.

    It’s not that we can’t build things, it’s that the presence of non-whites- even really smart Asians- and the vast bureaucracy of affirmative action and social control make it too much of a pain. If the system *really* wants or needs something- apparently they think AR for soldiers is really important- they have people who can do it for them.

  7. R. says:

    >lost Soviet Technology

    You guys must be from Oklahoma.

    Plutonium production is not ‘lost’ technology. It’s a well known process, but it’s mostly used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

    As no major country is currently expanding their stocks of bombs, there’s no reason for them to keep producing it.


    About the only ‘lost’ technology I know of is say, Saturn V rocket. Which is good, as the thing was crap, and the Apollo program pre-empted real space exploration that could have been possible using the Orion drive.

    And these days, there are way more advanced rockets than Nasa ever built. SpaceX is doing fine, and one of their plans is making a heavy lift booster of similar capacity to Saturn V but way lower cost.

    • andy says:

      Oh, yeah? Well what about the baby making stuff then?

    • jim says:

      Pu238 is harder to make than Pu239. Not a lot harder, but Pu239 is not all that easy either.

      • R. says:

        I think it’s not being made because it’s expensive, not because they can’t make it.

        Running a plutonium breeder reactor isn’t exactly cheap.

        • jim says:

          I hear this a lot. It might be true of any one area of technology. But there are a lot of technological areas going the same way.

          Do we really not need warplanes that can cruise at supersonic? (afterburners do not count, because you run out of fuel in minutes) Do executives no longer lust to have a corner office higher than the other executive’s corner office?

          Is really OK to go under major surgery every couple of years?

          • R7_Rocket says:

            When it comes to weapons, shiny and big =/= better.

          • bub says:

            Do we really not need warplanes that can cruise at supersonic?

            The cold war ended. I’d say a decrease in military spending was warranted.

            Do executives no longer lust to have a corner office higher than the other executive’s corner office?

            I don’t think many executives will build a skyscraper primarily for status. With the telephone, faxes, and especially the internet, everybody being in the same building is less important to a typical business model.

            Is really OK to go under major surgery every couple of years?

            Are you actually claiming medical technology has regressed? Obviously the cost of standard procedures have risen faster than inflation, but more and more advanced equipment and techniques appear every year.

            I’m not saying your overall point is wrong. But you need a much more objective way to measure technological progress/regress. What you want, is the central goal of that area of technology, especially if achieving it correlates with a lot of smaller goals.

            Height is not the central goal of skyscraper building. Putting humans on far-away celestial bodies is not the central goal of NASA, that was JFK’s goal.

            1.Average lifespan would be a good way to measure advancement or decline in health care. Everybody wants to live long, and live healthy while young. Lifespan correlates with both quite well.
            2.Vocabulary would be a good way to measure education level. It almost always increases with education, and the increases in vocabulary are usually through some kind of education.
            3.IQ might be a good way to measure genetic advancement/decline.
            4.Square footage (per person, obviously) would be a good way to measure housing advancement/decline. House size is a central part of buying houses.
            5.Car technology should be measured by a combination of horsepower, fuel economy, and safety.

            I can’t think of a good way to measure food or clothing.

            Number 1 has been increasing, but much, much slower than it was 30 or 50 or 70 years ago. I don’t know about Number 2. Number 3 is in substantial decline. Number 4 has been growing modestly. Number 5 is mixed.

          • B says:

            I can speak about two mil-tech areas with some expertise-tactical trauma care and military communications (and their inverse). Both have seen great advances since 1970. When you look at the tech available then and now to the typical user, there’s no comparison. A lot of the advances have happened over the last 15 years.

            I do not know enough about aerial warfare to have an opinion, but can say that the ability of the Air Force of the typical 1st and 2nd world country to perform tasks like staying over a target for many hours providing high-res intelligence, or deliver however many pounds of ordnance are needed to destroy a target is much better now than it was in 1970.

            Another area about which I know something is digital fabrication. Again, compared to 1970, the ability of the typical Joe to design and make (or have made) a piece of wood, plastic or metal to have whatever dimensions is much higher.

    • Sam says:

      “…About the only ‘lost’ technology I know of is say, Saturn V rocket…”

      100% wrong. NASA took spare F1 rockets and rebuilt them using more advanced technology and fewer parts. We could easily make a Saturn rocket if someone would pay for it.

  8. Konkvistador says:

    RTGs using Pu238 where what made Voyager possible and the particular design used for the New Horizons was over 16 years old, used on New Horizons was used on Ulysses (1990), Galileo (1995), Cassini-Huygens (1997). Note that of these only Ulysses was produced with Pu238 made in the US:

    “”since 1993, all of the plutonium-238 used in American spacecraft has been purchased from Russia. In total, 16.5 kilograms have been purchased but Russia is no longer producing plutonium-238 and their own supply is reportedly running low”””

    Officially there is supposedly enough of the stuff to last until 2022:

    “”Jim Adams, deputy director of planetary science at NASA, said that there is enough of the fuel for NASA missions until around 2022. He says if NASA does not get more after that, “then we won’t go beyond Mars anymore. We won’t be exploring the solar system beyond Mars and the asteroid belt””

    In other words America has been visting the outer solar system by the grace of the bounty produced by lost Soviet Technology they plundered in the chaotic 90s. Voyager 1 & 2 launched in 1977 were the only time American infrastructure was independently capable of this feat.

    Curiosity was powered by the MMRTG which is basically a slightly updated SNAP-19, those use Pu-238 dioxide. So Curiosity was running on the stuff, but also running on the a design that was inferior to the technology of Voyager. We are back to Viking and Pioneer currently.

    For how long, before that is lost as well I wonder…

  9. Orthodox says:

    These guys can’t make babies either.

Leave a Reply