A lion tries to catch a box at the Santa Fe zoo in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on January 10, 2015. Photo: Getty Images
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Who would win in a fight, a trillion lions or the Sun?

A trillion lions fired into space could make Mars into an oasis, plus other things you can do with a giant ball of cats.

Sometimes, it's possible to take a joke too far. This tweet has inspired just such an occasion:

The answer to this question is: the Sun. But! There are other things we can do with a trillion lions.

First, we need to work out exactly how much lion we'll have if we have a trillion lions. This paper found that the average adult male Panthera leo living in Kruger National Park in South Africa weighs 187.5kg, and so a trillion lions means we're talking about a sphere of lions with a total mass of 1.875 x 1014kg. To put it into context, that's about 20 times more massive than comet 67-P (which the Rosetta probe and Philae lander have been studying since late last year) - but it's nothing on the mass of the Sun: 1.98892 x 1030kg.

You might think that lions have advantages over the Sun (claws, for example) that level the playing field. It's not enough. A comet-sized object consisting of lions held together by gravity and floating in towards the Sun to attack it will not destroy it - the Sun will destroy them. The Sun is a trillion times more massive than the spacelionball. It's sad, but true.

But if we're going to go to the trouble of launching that number of lions into space, we should, I would argue, use them for something more productive. 

Working out the size of the spherical spacelionball isn't that difficult if we assume each lion ends up as its own little sphere of meat (and considering the effects of the vacuum of space on otherwise-unprotected lions, yeah, they'll be meat soon enough). We know the mass of each individual lion sphere, but we also need to know its likely volume if we're to explore the consequences of a spacelionball - and, funnily enough, a search through the scientific literature comes up empty-handed for studies where scientists have gone to the effort of dunking lions in water and measuring how much water was displaced.

However, there's one group of people who do need to know how dense meat is: farmers. This company makes buckets for agricultural elevators, and provides a handy engineering sheet with the average densities of the kinds of things farmers tend to stick in buckets. Their value for the density of "meat, scrap with bone" is 40 pounds per cubic foot, or 640.7kg per cubic metre - and again, bearing in mind what the radiation and cold of space does to exposed flesh, "meat, scrap with bone" is probably close to the final product.

And, assuming meat's similar enough from species to species that this density value doesn't change much, that means our meaty lion spheres are going to take up 0.29m3 each. Think of it this way: you'd need to put two lions through a wood chipper to fill up a typical bathtub. (Note: don't do that.)

That's all very grim, but it does mean that our spacelionball will be a sphere with a rather neat volume of 290km3 and a diameter of just over 8km. Its circumference is roughly 26km, which isn't too far off the length of the main loop of the Large Hadron Collider, and an astronaut standing on the surface would experience gravity that felt about a twentieth as strong as Earth's. Like other objects of a similar size, our spacelionball will be very loosely held together, and the escape velocity is extremely low - anything moving faster than the speed at which grass grows will be ejected into space. As meat in the interior decompose, the release of trapped gasses will mean some lions get gently pushed out into space.

The spacelionball's closest relative in the Solar System in size and mass is probably Jupiter's small, strange moon Themisto, about which we know very little, beyond the fact that it orbits apart from the other groups that Jupiter's moons tend to clump into. Astronomers found it in 1975, then lost it, then rediscovered it in 2000; we still don't have any photos of it, so it's fair to say that we can't definitively rule out the possibility that it is, in fact, composed of a trillion lions bound together by gravity. It probably isn't, but we can't be sure it isn't.

Leaving our spacelionball to coalesce and cool and congeal, to hang in the heavens without purpose, would be a waste. Like humans, lions are mostly water, and our ghastly cosmic creation would be be roughly two-thirds H2O, an amount the corresponds to about 254 times the daily discharge of the Nile - and if we crash our spacelionballcometthing into something we might, after the dust settles, be able to make use of it.

One of the more ambitious suggestions for making Mars habitable to Earth life is to commandeer and crash comets into it, thereby: a) thickening its thin atmosphere with necessary gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and b) warming up the polar regions, where more than enough water ice is currently stored that, once melted, would create oceans and river just like ours. Our spacelionball is far too small for this - we'd need several hundred of them at least, if not more - but we could try something else.

Without getting into too much detail (though it's here if you want it), Mars is short about 1019kg of atmosphere, and in the Kuiper belt contains a bunch of huge asteroids which weigh in at about that mass - and, crucially, they're rich in compounds like methane and ammonia, which we'll need to make Mars fertile. The force required to move one of these objects out of its orbit and in towards the Sun, and into a collision course with Mars, is huge, on the scale of dozens of nuclear warheads. But an easy way to halve your energy costs is to simply find a smaller asteroid travelling retrograde (ie, backwards relative to most other objects) around the Sun, and maneouvre that into colliding with the larger thing you're really hunting.

The resulting impact, as the combined lion-and-Kuiper object reached its target, would very rapidly reshape the Red Planet into something more similar to Earth, once the hydrological cycle settles in and the atmosphere is rebuilt to a surface pressure comparable to Earth's. There would be side effects, true, including the violent ejection of rocks and debris from the impact site back into space, and likely towards Earth - we have many meteors that we know used to be part of Mars, delivered to us by similar ancient collision events. Only for this one, some lions might make it home on the return journey.

In this way, the sacrifice of so many kings of the jungle may not be in vain.

With apologies to Randall Munroe.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.


This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times