HERE COMES THE STARSHIP CENTURY… May 21-22, UCSD

Published by Gregory Benford on May 6th, 2013

Starship Century, edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford, back cover

NOW THE SYMPOSIUM IS PAST, TO ORDER THE BOOK IN THE SPECIAL EDITION, SEE:

https://www.createspace.com/4240458

 

 

The Starship Century Symposium is the inaugural event at the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego, Tuesday Wednesday, May 21–22, 2013 The program is located here: http://imagination.ucsd.edu/starship/

The symposium celebrates the publication of the Benfords’ anthology, Starship Century. Jon Lomberg, the artist who collaborated extensively with Carl Sagan, has read the book and has this comment:

Starship Century is the definitive document of this moment in humanity’s long climb to the stars. Here you can find the physics, the astronomy, the engineering, and the vision that provides the surest guideposts to our future and destiny.

A number of luminaries will discuss a wide variety of starship–related topics derived from the book. The gathering features thinkers from a variety of disciplines including scientists, futurists, space advocates and science fiction writers. The program includes Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Robert Zubrin, Peter Schwartz, Geoffrey Landis, Ian Crawford, James Benford and John Cramer. Science fiction writers included are Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, Allen Steele, Joe Haldeman and David Brin. Other writers attending are Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and Vernor Vinge.

The book will be available for sale for the first time on Tuesday the 21st at a book signing immediately following the first day of the Symposium. Many of the authors in the anthology will be available for signing. Following the first day of the Symposium there will be a reception featuring an exhibition of Arthur C. Clarke artifacts in the Giesel Library of UCSD.

In addition to the speakers, there are panels. One, about the development of the Solar System, is ‘The Future of New Space’. Another is ‘Getting to the Target Stars,’ moderated by SETI celebrity Jill Tarter. The conclusion is a science fiction writers panel, ‘Envisioning the Starship Era,’ moderated by Gregory Benford and featuring Joe Haldeman, David Brin, Vernor Vinge and Jon Lomberg. At the conclusion of the Symposium there will be a book signing for other books of the authors present. There will also be a later book signing at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore a few miles from the University. It will feature Starship Century and the works of the other writers present.

The Symposium will be webcast and then archived. The webcast, which activates at the time of the event, is here: http://calit2.net/webcasting/jwplayer/indexp.php

The Benfords will donate the profits from sale of the book to interstellar research activities. They are currently working to establish a research committee that will award research contracts. The edition available at the symposium will be unique, a collectors item. The book will then go into general distribution in the summer. The Benfords recommend purchasing through a link that will soon appear on the Starship Century website: http://www.starshipcentury.com/

This route is optimal because it maximizes the percentage profit, thus maximizing the money available for research. As we all know, research dollars have been greatly lacking in the interstellar area, which is one reason why the interstellar organizations such as Icarus Interstellar, Tau Zero and the Institute for Interstellar Studies are volunteer organizations. The Benfords are planning a second symposium to be held in London in the fall.


IT’S HARD TO PREDICT, ESPECIALLY THE FUTURE

Published by Gregory Benford on February 2nd, 2013

IT’S HARD TO PREDICT, ESPECIALLY THE FUTURE

by Dale L. Skran, Jr.

with Benford comments in italics

The title is a quotation from Niels Bohr.

“Writers of the Future” had created a time capsule of predictions by SF writers made in 1987, and now, twenty-five years later, have posted them on the web.  I briefly discuss some of the set of predictions, with an emphasis on analyzing why they went wrong–or right.  I won’t address all of them since, frankly, some are just plain silly or are obviously intended as a joke or parody.

The first set of predictions is from Gregory Benford, a well-known hard SF writer that I generally like.  Benford has provided a neat and easy to follow list, so here goes:

* World population is nearly 8 billion:  It turns out to be a mere 7 billion; the reason for the shortfall is that in the olden days of 1987 the extent to which increasing global wealth would depress birth rates was not well understood.  Benford’s prediction was a very reasonable one–it just turned out to be wrong.

Mea culpa!

* Benford next throws out a snide little line about how “Most Americans are barely literate … just like today.”  Although this statement is clearly intended to be witty, it turns out to be true. There seems little doubt that the increasing usage of computers and the playing of video games has decreased the general level of literacy, but, as Benford reminds us, it was never that high anyway!

Sad to be somewhat right on this one.

* As far as I know, Berkeley does not have a theme park dedicated to the 1960s as Benford predicted. This does not seem like it was a seriously intended prediction.

Right—I meant it as a marker for a nostalgia for the 60s, which we certainly had. Indeed, most divisions are at base disagreements about whether the 60s and early 70s were a peak or a pit.

* Benford walks off the deep end, holding hands with just about every futurist who wrote anything about space in the 1980s, predicting a base on the moon and an expedition to Mars, along with vague evidence of intelligent life off the Earth.   None of these things have come to pass.  Generally predictions of progress in space made before about 1940 tend to be very pessimistic compared to what actually happened between 1940 and 1970, while predictions written from 1960-1990 tend to be wildly optimistic about space exploration.  Perhaps the simplistic way to understand this phenomenon is that the earlier group of writers failed to grasp how the Cold War would drive the space race, and the later futurists failed to grasp that the Cold War would end, and with it, the space race.

Alas, yes. But now entrepreneurs are changing that quickly. In a few months I’ll have a long story about this in a new anthology, STARSHIP CENTURY.

  • “I will be old, but not dead”–Benford won on this one all around!
  • And glad to be here!

 


VARIATIONS ON CLARKE’S THIRD LAW

Published by Gregory Benford on January 30th, 2013

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Clarke’s 3rd law)
………3A.) Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. (Gregory Benford’s variation)
………3B.) Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. (Clarke’s third law, addendum.)
………3C.) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a completely ad-hoc plot device. (Aka ‘Langfords law’)
……….3D.) Any technology, regardless of how advanced, will seem like magic to those who do not understand it. (Mark Stanley, Freefall)

 

Here’s me and Arthur in London, 1988


RATS IN A SPHERICAL BOX

Published by Gregory Benford on January 23rd, 2013

Earth My answer to the 2013 Edge Question:

WHAT SHOULD WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

         One iconic image expresses our existential condition: the pale blue dot. That photograph of Earth the Voyager 1 spacecraft took in 1990 from 6 billion kilometers away told us how small we are. What worries me is that dot may be all we ever have, all we can command, for the indefinite future. Humanity could become like rats stuck on the skin of our spherical world, which would look more and more like a trap.

         Imagine: we’ve had our burgeoning history here and used up many resources…so what happens when they run out? Valuable things like metals, rare earths, fertilizers and the like are already running low.        

         Voyager has been operating for 35 years, 4 months and 4 days as of today (9 January 2013)—a huge return on the taxpayers’ investment. It is the first probe to leave the solar system and is the farthest man-made object from Earth. Voyager is now exploring the boundary between our little solar system and interstellar space.

         It can instruct us still, about our more pressing problems, as Sagan pointed out: “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

         They fought over resources we could exhaust within the next century or two. Voyager’s perspective also suggests an answer: there’s a whole solar system out there. Sagan pondered that aspect, too: “There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet.”

         That is still true, but the vast solar system can help us. I worry that we will miss this opportunity.

         This century will doubtless see our population rise from its current 7 billion souls to 9 or 10 billion. Climate change will wrack economies and nations. The bulk of humanity has large economic ambitions that will strain our world to satisfy. With the USA imitating Europe in its evolution into an entitlement state, it will have less energy to maintain world order. Amid constant demands for more metals, energy, food and all the rest, it seems clear we can expect conflicts among those who would become “momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

         There are resources that can aid the bulk of humanity. With entrepreneurs now pulsing with energy, we have plausible horizons and solutions visible. SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), founded by former PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, now delivers cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from orbit on 8 December 2010, and Musk remarked on his larger agenda, the economic opening of space, “We need to figure out how to have the things we love, and not destroy the world.”

         The black expanses over our heads promise places where our industries can use resource extraction, zero-gravity manufacturing, better communications, perhaps even energy harvested in great solar farms and sent down to Earth.  Companies are already planning to do so–

Bigelow Aerospace (orbital hotels), Virgin Galactic (low Earth orbit tourism), Orbital Technologies (a commercial space station), and

Planetary Resource, whose goal is to develop a robotic asteroid mining industry.

         Barely visible now is an agenda we can carry out this century to avoid calamity, those rivers of blood, and anguished need. We know from history how to open new territory.

         Historically, coal and the railroad train enabled much of the industrial revolution. Both came from the underlying innovation of steam engines. Coal was the new wonder fuel, far better than wood though harder to extract, and it made continental scale economies possible. Synergistically, coal drove trains that in turn carried crops, crowds and much else.

         A similar synergy may operate to open the coming interplanetary economy, this time wedding nuclear rockets and robotics. These could operate together, robot teams carried by nuclear rockets to far places, and usually without humans, who would compromise efficiency. Mining and transport have enormously expanded the raw materials available to humanity, and the rocket/robot synergy could do so again.  As such fundamentals develop in space, other businesses can arise on this base, including robotic satellite repair/maintenance in high orbits, mining of helium 3 on the moon, and metal mining of asteroids. Finally, perhaps snagging comets for volatiles in the outer solar system will enable human habitats to emerge within hollowed-out asteroids, and on Mars and beyond.

         Nothing has slowed space development more than the high price of moving mass around the solar system. Using two stages to get into Low Earth Orbit may make substantial improvements, and beyond that the right answer may lie in nuclear rockets. These have been developed since the 1960s and could be improved still further. Lofting them into orbit “cold”—that is, before turning on the nuclear portion–may well erase the environmental issues. Fuel fluids can be flown up separately, for attachment to the actual rocket drive. Then the nuclear segment can heat the fuel to very high temperatures. Economically this seems the most promising way to develop interplanetary economics for the benefit of humanity.

         Such ideas have been tried out in the imaginative lab of science fiction, exploring how new technologies could work out in a future human context. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 visionary novel, 2312, portrays such a solar system economy. Another 2013 anthology, Starship Century, has more chapter and verse on this.

          Sagan spoke often of how the view from space gave us perspective on our place in the cosmos. That started with Apollo 8’s 1968 swing around our moon and its backward look at the Earth. Many felt, looking at those photos, that future exploration of space should focus on ways to protect Earth and to extend human habitation beyond it. Sagan had the idea of turning Voyager to look back at ourselves, and tried to tell us to take the larger perspective in his Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

         That first flowering into space set a tone we should embrace. In the end, history may resemble a zero-sum game ruled by resources. We can only win such a game by breaking out of its assumptions. A thousand years ago, societies were largely religious, and prayed to the skies for their salvation. We can seek our futures there now as well.


Beautiful, Unreasonable Mathematics

Published by Gregory Benford on January 12th, 2013

I find most beautiful not a particular equation or explanation, but the astounding fact that we have beauty and precision in science at all. That exactness comes from using mathematics to measure, check and even predict events. The deepest question is, why does this splendor work?

Beauty is everywhere in science. Physics abounds in symmetries and lovely curves, like the parabola we see in the path of a thrown ball. Equations like e+ 1 =0 show that there is exquisite order in mathematics, too.

Why does such beauty exist? That, too, has a beautiful explanation. This may be the most beautiful fact in science.

In 1960, Eugene Wigner published a classic article on the philosophy of physics and mathematics, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” Wigner asked, why does mathematics work so well in describing our world? He was unsure.

We use Hilbert spaces in quantum mechanics, differential geometry in general relativity, and in biology difference equations and complex statistics. The role mathematics plays in these theories is also varied. Math both helps with empirical predictions and gives us elegant, economical statements of theories. I can’t imagine how we could ever invent quantum mechanics or general relativity without it.

But why is this true? For beautiful reasons? I think so.

Darwin stated his theory of natural selection without mathematics at all, but it can explain why math works for us. It has always seemed to me that evolutionary mechanisms should select for living forms that respond to nature’s underlying simplicities. Of course, it is difficult to know in general just what simple patterns the universe has. In a sense they may be like Plato’s perfect forms, the geometric constructions such as the circle and polygons. Supposedly we see their abstract perfection with our mind’s eye, but the actual world only approximately realizes them. Thinking further in like fashion, we can sense simple, elegant ways to viewing dynamical systems. Here’s why that matters.

Imagine a primate ancestor who saw the flight of a stone, thrown after fleeing prey, as a complicated matter, hard to predict. It could try a hunting strategy using stones or even spears, but with limited success, because complicated curves are hard to understand. A cousin who saw in the stone’s flight a simple and graceful parabola would have a better chance of predicting where it would fall. The cousin would eat more often and presumably reproduce more as well. Neural wiring could reinforce this behavior by instilling a sense of genuine pleasure at the sight of an artful parabola.

There’s a further selection at work, too. To hit running prey, it’s no good to ponder the problem for long. Speed drove selection: that primate had to see the beauty fast. This drove cognitive capacities all the harder. Plus, the pleasure of a full belly.

We descend from that appreciative cousin. Baseball outfielders learn to sense a ball’s deviations from its parabolic descent, due to air friction and wind, because they are building on mental processing machinery finely tuned to the parabola problem. Other appreciations of natural geometric ordering could emerge from hunting maneuvers on flat plains, from the clever design of simple tools, and the like. We all share an appreciation for the beauty of simplicity, a sense emerging from our origins. Simplicity is evolution’s way of saying, this works.

Evolution has primed humans to think mathematicallybecause they struggled to make sense of their world for selective advantage. Those who didn’t aren’t in our genome.

Many things in nature, inanimate and living, show bilateral, radial, concentric and other mathematically based symmetries. Our rectangular houses, football fields and books spring from engineering constraints, their beauty arising from necessity. We appreciate the curve of a suspension bridge, intuitively sensing the urgencies of gravity and tension.

Our cultures show this. Radial symmetry appears in the mandala patterns of almost every society, from Gothic stoneworks to Chinese rugs. Maybe they echo the sun’s glare flattened into two dimensions. In all cultures, small flaws in strict symmetries express artful creativity. So do symmetry breaking particle theories.

Philosophers have three views of the issue: mathematics is objective and real; it arises from our preconceptions; or it is social.

Physicist Max Tegmark argues the first view, that math so well describes the physical world because reality really is completely mathematical. This radical Platonism says that reality is isomorphic to a mathematical structure. We’re just uncovering this bit by bit. I hold the second view: we evolved mathematics because it describes the world and promotes survival. I differ from Tegmark because I don’t think mathematics somehow generated reality; as Hawking says, what gives fire to the equations, and makes them construct reality?

Social determinists, the third view, think math emerges by consensus. This is true in that we’re social animals, but this view also seems to ignore biology, which brought about humans themselves through evolution. Biology generates society, after all.

But how general were our adaptations to our world?

R. Lemarchand and Jon Lomberg have argued in detail that symmetries and other aesthetic principles should be truly universal, because they arise from fundamental physical properties. Aliens orbiting distant stars will still spring from evolutionary forces that reward a deep, automatic understanding of the laws of mechanics. The universe itself began with a Big Bang that can be envisioned as a four-dimensional symmetric expansion; yet without some flaws, so-called anisotropies, in the symmetry of the Big Bang, galaxies and stars would never happen.

Strategies for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, SETI, have assumed this since their beginnings in the early 1960s. Many supposed that interesting properties such as the prime numbers, which do not appear in nature, would figure in schemes to send messages by radio. Primes come from thinking about our mathematical constructions of the world, not directly from that world. So they’re evidence for a high culture based on studying mathematics.

A case for the universality of mathematics is in turn an argument for the universality of aesthetic principles: evolution should shape all of us to the general contours of physical reality. The specifics will differ enormously, of course, as a glance at the odd creatures in our fossil record shows.

Einstein once remarked, “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” But it isn’t independent—and that’s beautiful.


HOW TO PREDICT THE FUTURE, SORT OF…

Published by Gregory Benford on December 16th, 2012

My appearance on a panel at the New York Academy of Science

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/309656-1


OUR BOOK TALK AT GOOGLE

Published by Gregory Benford on November 7th, 2012


MYTHIC VOYAGES

Published by Gregory Benford on November 2nd, 2012

MYTHIC VOYAGES ARE ABOUT STORIES AMONG AN ETERNAL STRUCTURE

Check it out.


BOWL OF HEAVEN BOOK TOUR GOES NORTH

Published by Gregory Benford on October 20th, 2012

COME SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW!

Half Moon Bay, CA

Bay Book Company–80-F N. Cabrillo Hwy 94019

10/21/2012

4:30PM

San Francisco, CA

Borderlands–866 Valencia St. 94110

10/22/2012

7:00PM

Seattle, WA

University Bookstore–4326 University Way 98105

10/23/2012

7:00PM

Beaverton, OR

Powell’s–3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd. 97225

10/25/2012

7:00PM
+++++++


BOWL OF HEAVEN IS PUBLISHED

Published by Gregory Benford on October 15th, 2012

far bowlBOWL OF HEAVEN is out

My collaboration with Larry Niven hits the stores TUESDAY, OCT 16. It’s picked up great reviews by Locus, Analog, Library Journal, and we’ll be signing copies starting Tuesday, Oct 16:

San Diego, CA
Mysterious Galaxy–7051 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard 92111
10/16/2012
7:00PM
+++++++
10/17/2012
Santa Monica, CA
Barnes & Noble store 2575–1201 3rd Street Promenade 90401
7:00PM
++++++++
10/18/2012
Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy–2810 Artesia Blvd. 90278
7:30PM
++++++
10/20/2012
Long Beach, CA
SCIBA Trade Show Author Feast
10/20/2012
6:30PM
+++++++
10/21/2012
Half Moon Bay, CA
Bay Book Company–80-F N. Cabrillo Hwy 94019
4:30PM
+++++
10/22/2012
San Francisco, CA
Borderlands–866 Valencia St. 94110
7:00PM
+++++++
10/23/2012
Seattle, WA
University Bookstore–4326 University Way 98105
7:00PM
+++++
10/25/2012
Beaverton, OR
Powell’s–3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd. 97225
7:00PM
+++++++
Here are some thoughts on the general subgenre:

Big Smart Objects

Gregory Benford’s take—

In science fiction, a Big Dumb Object is any immense mysterious object that generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. They don’t have to be inert constructs, and perhaps the dumb aspect also expresses the sensation of being struck dumb by the scale of them. My favorite is the one I’m working on in a two-volume novel I’m writing with Larry Niven.
Larry said to me at a party, “Big dumb objects are so much easier. Collapsed civilizations are so much easier. Yeah, bring them up to speed.”
So we wrote Bowl of Heaven, first of two novels about a Big Smart Object. The Bowl has to be controlled, because it’s not neutrally stable. His Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object since it’s passively stable, as we are when we stand still. (Or the ringworld would be except for nudges that can make it fall into the sun. Those are fairly easy to catch in time. Larry put the stabilizers into the second Ringworld novel.)
A Smart Object is dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. We fall forward on one leg, then catch ourselves with the other. That takes a lot of fast signal processing and coordination. (We’re the only large animal without a tail that’s mastered this. Two legs are dangerous without a big brain.) There’ve been several Big Dumb Objects in sf, but as far as I know, no smart ones. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine.
Our Bowl is a shell several hundred millions of miles across, held to a star by gravity and some electrodynamic forces. The star produces a long jet of hot gas, which is magnetically confined so well it spears through a hole at the crown of the cup-shaped shell. This jet propels the entire system forward – literally, a star turned into the engine of a “ship” that is the shell, the Bowl. On the shell’s inner face, a sprawling civilization dwells. The novel’s structure resembles Larry’s Ringworld, based on the physics I worked out.
The virtue of any Big Object, whether Dumb or Smart, is energy and space. The collected solar energy is immense, and the living space lies beyond comprehension except in numerical terms. But…. this smart Bowl craft is also going somewhere, not just sitting around, waiting for visitors–and its builders live aboard. Where are they going, and why? That’s the fun of smart objects – they don’t just awe, they intrigue.
My grandfather used to say, as we headed out into the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimping run, A boat is just looking for a place to sink.
So heading out to design a new, shiny Big Smart Object, I say, An artificial world is just looking for a seam to pop.
You’re living meters or maybe just a kilometer away from a high vacuum that’s moving fast, because of the spin. That makes it easy to launch ships, since they have the rotational velocity with respect to the Bowl or Ringworld… but that also means high seam-popping stresses have to be compensated. Living creatures on the sunny side will want to tinker, try new things…
“Y’know Fred, I think I can fix this plumbing problem with just a drill-through right here. Uh—oops!”
The vacuum can suck you right through…and you’re moving off on a tangent at tens of kilometers a second. To live on a Big Smart Object, you’d better be pretty smart yourself.

Larry Niven’s take—
“The Enormous Big Thing” was my friend David Gerrold’s description of a plot line that flowered after the publication of Ringworld. Stories like Orbitsville and Rendezvous with Rama depend on the sense of wonder espoused by huge, ambitious endeavors. Ringworld wasn’t the first; there had been stories that built, and destroyed, whole universes. They had fallen out of favor.
And I wasn’t the first to notice that a fallen civilization is easier to describe than a working one. Your characters can sort through the artifacts without hindrance until they’ve built a picture of the whole vast structure. Conan the Barbarian, and countless barbarians to follow, found fallen civilizations everywhere. I took this route quite deliberately with Ringworld. I was young and untrained and I knew it.
A fully working civilization, doomed if they ever lose their grasp on their tools, is quite another thing. I wouldn’t have tried it alone. Jerry Pournelle and I have described working civilizations several times, in Footfall and Lucifer’s Hammer and The Burning City.
With Greg Benford I was willing to take a whack at a Dyson-level civilization.
Greg shaped the Bowl in its first design. It had a gaudy simplicity that grabbed me from the start. It was easy to work with: essentially a Ringworld with a lid, and a star for a motor. We got Don Davis involved in working some dynamite paintings.
Greg kept seeing implications. The Bowl’s history grew more and more elaborate. Ultimately I knew we’d need at least two volumes to cover everything we’d need to show.
Here’s the first, Bowl of Heaven.
We’re hard at work wrapping up story lines on the sequel, Shipstar.