Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Scientist at the Heart of SF

Published by Gregory Benford on June 19th, 2014

Report on an unusual panel at Aussiecon Three, 1999
by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1999 Evelyn C. Leeper

John Foyster, interviewer: A paper discussing Gregory Benford and hard science fiction.

Foyster began by saying that he wanted to do this paper because “most people have forgotten about this; and because our Guest of Honour is one such person.”

He went on to say that Clute and Nicholls’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an entry for “Science Fiction,” but it is only for the magazine of that name. You need to look at “Definitions of SF” or “SF” for real information. There is also no entry for “science” (or for “fiction”). There are entries for “biology” and some other specific fields, but none for “chemistry” or “biochemistry.” (Foyster added parenthetically, “Sorry about that, Ike.” Asimov hated the nickname, but probably would have appreciated the aside.)

There is an entry for “scientist.” Foyster summed it up, and added, “There are a lot of mad scientists in there, but not all are mad or even eccentric.”

Foyster said that Wells’s Cavor is eccentric and obsessive, but that the novel (First Men in the Moon) at least is slightly scientific and focuses on the scientist as scientist, while The War of the Worlds is an adventure novel. “The Time Machine is about how a scientist would behave and only peripherally about time travel.” And the reaction to The Time Machine was extremely supportive, particularly by authors such as Henry James.

Working up to Timescape, Foyster referred to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, where a character sings, “You see, my son, time becomes space.” (He said to see the 1982 film of Parsifal to see this visualized.)

This was all working up to Timescape by noting that “some SF is about scientists and the way they behave and some of it is in adventure settings.” The lumping of these two together is “erroneous and not helpful,” according to Foyster. When science fiction readers identify what they think is the best, they tend to choose the latter, those in the minority about scientists. Examples he gave were Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” and the “Foundation” series, which he said is “the story of Hari Seldon struggling with the problem of history.”

Foyster continued, “One man is largely responsible for distorting the role of scientists in science and SF–Hugo Gernsback.” Gernsback, he said, had the sugar-coated pill theory of science fiction: one could attract young minds to science through science fiction. And this is how he promoted science fiction. Though Gernsback claimed his stories were based on science, the example Foyster read (Chapter 8 from Ralph 124C 41+, “The Menace of the Invisible Cloak”) belied this.

Foyster then went on to say that in the sense that Benford’s Timescape is about time travel, it is in a special way. For one thing, Benford had actually researched time travel through tachyons as part of his work. Also, Timescape is an early novel, and in writing an early novel, “a writer is most likely to think freshly about all those problems that might arise in the writing of the novel.”

Also, Benford included real people, people who changed over time, including three alter egos of himself. The Benford in 1998 is trying to warn the Benford of the 1960s of the coming ecological crisis. (Naturally, in this 1973 novel, the 1960s period is more accurate than the 1998 one.) There is therefore “a close and pressing reason for this scientific endeavor.” He added, “The whole of the book is about scientists trying to do science”: not just trying to learn, but also trying to obtain permission and funding for their activities.

Timescape is a realist novel, Foyster claimed, because we see our world, we see flaws in the characters, and we are surprised by some of their failings. “Benford recognizes the fact that if you are successful in constructing a time machine, so will others be later in your own timeline,” though the 1998 alter ego of him takes longer in the book to come to this realization. (Foyster parenthetically asked why UFO enthusiasts do not think UFOs might be time machines.)

Timescape is considered hard science fiction, Foyster said. In fact, Timescape might be considered real hard science fiction (requiring knowing science, not just reading about it). But Timescape is not science fiction as the term is generally used, according to Foyster; Timescape is category-shattering.

Benford’s “Galactic Center” cycle is not, however. This series is about the “final stages of the evolution of mankind, but it is harder to agree that the theme was successful or the series worthwhile.” It has a man from our time as the central character, but Foyster feels he “is less than satisfactory in this role because there is nothing that ties him to me.” The science is “Van Vogtian and Campbellian.” It has less or no scientific endeavor at all, and reverts to the 1930s Campbellian device of expository lumps. Foyster claimed that this showed the “insidiousness of the Gernsback meme” because we know Benford is “someone we know can write a superb novel.” He gave a sample “expository lump” from the end of Sailing Bright Eternity (and the series) about the thermodynamics of information (which however sounded more Stapledonian to me).

I thought this unusual, not only in that Foyster was criticizing the Guest of Honour, but that he was doing this while the Guest of Honour was sitting right next to him! And in fact, Foyster turned to Benford at this point and asked, “Are you sure this is not recycled from Gernsback?” “No, this is Godspeak,” replied Benford, to which Foyster said, “Many find it difficult to make that distinction.”

Foyster now asked Benford if he would like to respond, and Benford said he would. Benford started by saying that it is certainly true that Timescape was an unusual kind of science fiction novel. But he has written several atypical science fiction novels, and they all have one-word titles: Artifact, Cosm, and the upcoming Eater, as well as Timescape.

He noted that Timescape was never reviewed by the New York Times–a review had been written but had apparently been not been used because it was too favorable. “The conventional literary world does not want to read books about scientists,” he said (though I wonder where Michael Crichton fits into all this). So he decided to write books that might get outside the genre.

Benford said, “SF will be like jazz in that when it’s gone, people will give it more tribute.” The problem with our culture, he added, is that it is getting sliced up and there is very little communication between the parts of it: “Life is big and varied.” And while Henry James liked The Time Machine, he turned against Wells later, and in the literary world, James won.

Regarding the “expository lump,” Benford said that it was the voice of a higher intelligence [i.e., it really was God], and he was trying to demonstrate memes as our only sign of a higher intelligence. This was “having God walk on stage and say, “This is what it’s all been about. Okay, a little clunky, but it worked for Wagner, so …'”

In response to a question about the problem of divisions within the culture, Benford said that the current situation is unfixable, the conventional short story will probably die, except for academic enclaves and the New Yorker, within a couple of decades (surviving well only in the genres, though), and “outlasting the bastards is probably the best strategy.”


Published by Gregory Benford on May 6th, 2013

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




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:

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:

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:

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.


Published by Gregory Benford on January 23rd, 2013

Earth My answer to the 2013 Edge Question:


         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.

ORBITFALL — #1 of the SETI Library Series

Published by Gregory Benford on October 5th, 2012

That first step’s gotta be a doozy…
Felix Baumgartner steps out tomorrow at 120,000 ft, to fall and break the sound barrier for the first time without an airplane.,0,2788286.story
I published a story years ago about doing this from orbit, the obvious next step…except this time it’s a woman, accompanied by an alien who wants the thrill:


Ruth liked the view, at least.
In the frame chair atop an open deck she had a commanding perspective on the grand curve of Earth, from 110 kilometers up. High enough to boil your blood in seconds, if the visor before her eyes should pop.
And suit pressure loss was just one of the possibilities ahead.
The thought made her press back from the drop. Her hardened suit made movement slow, but she found that rugged heft reassuring. There were manifolds and buffers, shock absorbers and thermal dispersers galore – and she sensed the mass of them as a slowing-down of every movement. Weightless, yes, but swimming in molasses.
What is a librarian doing here? Why did I agree to this stunt?
It might be good for her career, but that wasn’t the reason. Call it a sense of adventure.
The vanes down her back sank into the spongy chair. In the chair next to her the alien stared down at the serene blue-white curve. The upper atmosphere glowed in its afternoon shimmer. Clouds lurked far below like icing on a spherical cake. Behind them the Star Tower was a thin line pointing from its ocean base south of Sri Lanka and on out to the counter-weight beyond view.
To her right sat the alien, blocking her view to the north. It was large, humanoid and sat in an odd way. Slowly it turned to take it all in and then stared at her again. Its name was Akralan and until this moment she had not thought about what the word might mean. A librarian should think of such things. What else had she ignored?
She let the view enchant her a bit more. No way out of this, so be calm.
With Akralan and a support team of everything from engineers to diplomats, they had lifted from the SETI Library on Luna. She had enjoyed the electromagnetic sling, its soaring views of crisp craters flashing by. They had then coasted into rendezvous with the top of the orbital tower. There had been enough time in the downward elevator ride to practice and prepare, including exercises and tech briefings, fitting her suit, mastering its controls.
They rode down to the first Tower station, 100 kilometers above its floating ocean base. Now she and Akralan were jetting up and away, to more amazing views. In moments they would reach their drop position above Tamil Nadu in India, the green splotch spreading below. Cloudy knots of purpling anger fought along the coast.
Too late to back out…
She wondered if their fall would avoid the developing weather.
A long way down, indeed. What had her mother used to say? Adventure means opportunity. Sure, Mom.
They were hovering now. Not orbiting, moving at speeds of tens of kilometers a second. This would have been impossible as a true reentry. All they had to worry about was gravity.
Suit check. White ribs over elbows, shoulders and knees, secured. Red accents of reinforced joints, vanes along her forearms. Heat shield for rigidity and thermal screen. The signature Orbital Outfitters logo on her chest, which carried the smart parachute controls. All up and running.
Her comm rang in her left ear. It was the Prefect, the tone said. Probably calling with some phony last-minute encouragement. She ignored it. I’m out of my mind, but feel free to leave a message.
Akralan turned to look at her, its diamond eyes glittering. The cone nose on the forehead flared wide and red. Excitement? Reading hominid-like alien expressions was a typical error, she knew. But hard to resist.
Breathe easily, they had said. She tried.
It reached over and clasped her arm. Did it want to go now? No way to tell, but the countdown meter available in her left eye said no, there were – with a shock she saw it ticking down, 13 seconds to go.
Somehow the Earth’s luminous beauty had stolen away her time. Automatically she raced through the drill. Just jump out. Legs together. Arms out straight for torque control. No need to pitch down. Just let gravity happen.
She ritually gave her parachute straps a tug. Drogue, yes. Main, snug. No reason to abort there, none at all…
Ding. Time.
She thought about the Library and how safe it was, just her own comfortable office …. and unbuckled her harness.
Akralan did the same, eyes glittering as it followed her every move. Has it done this before? Is it feeling fear?
The eyes told her nothing.
She stood up. For the human species. Damned if she would let it go first.
She took a deep breath and leaped.
No sensation of movement. Weightless. She had already trained to suppress her falling reflexes so she could simply watch as the world hung there, ignoring her. Only after ten breaths – she refused to look at the timer – did she see any slight movement. The world was edging toward her.
And Akralan–? She turned her head slightly to find it and the drag of rushing air tugged at her. A soft whoosh told her she was moving even if her eyes did not.
There was Akralan. Behind her and to her right. She relaxed. This was not a race but it didn’t hurt that she was ahead. Slightly.
She banked her arms a bit and felt a slight spin. Corrected it by moving her arms oppositely. In control, just as her training said. No spins, if she reacted fast enough.
She kept her head looking down and peered to both sides. She felt prickly heat building in the suit and saw rippling air to the sides. Shock refraction. Rattling built along her legs and arms, humming into her body. The atmosphere was playing her like an instrument.
A wave of fear swept through her. But then it tickled. She barked out a laugh. Laughter is just a slowed down scream of terror. Where had she read that…?
The sky brightened and she stole a glance at her other meters in her right eye. Speed nearly a thousand kilometers an hour and climbing fast. A burr of sound coursed through her body. Wind resistance plucking at her. Whispers sang past her head.
The horizon flattened, losing its silky curve. Stars glimmered, bright and true, then faded. Blue fog gathered around her and the puffy clouds fled sideways. She hung in a vast space that whipped by her. Below was…purple.
Something shot by her. Akralan.
It described a helix wrapping around her, zooming past, and then It made a complicated move with its arms outstretched. It slowed, hovered so she could overtake. It waved its arms in darting moves and arced away, spinning the body. She dared not imitate that. Abruptly it banked back toward her and zipped across ahead of her. She could swear she saw the eyes glitter, the mouth pucker.
If we hit, what—
Akralan abruptly shot across her again and hovered, eyes glaring. Some kind of challenge?
It’s snout-nose flared red. It fanned its legs. Hanging only a meter away, it reached over and touched her shoulder. Fear flooded through her.
It had all started so simply. A simple call to the Prefect’s office.
The Prefect scowled, itself an unusual event. Normally he kept a blank face turned to his underlings, apparently feeling that it was up to them to yield information, while giving away none himself. But plainly today he was worried.
Ruth decided to tease, widening her eyes. “An alien? Here? The one who came through the Maze last month?”
“The first in four years, yes. It arrived without announcement, other than the braking flare of its ship – quite a small vessel, too.”
While the Prefect went on to describe the ship smaller than a house, Ruth made herself relax. She was a Librarian now, just promoted. Behind her lay the Trainee competition that sometimes made her quick to mock and to take offense with the other Trainees. Now she had to put away the need to prove oneself better than any Prefect twit who had not struggled with the ancient SETI texts for decades. Gone, she hoped, were the restlessness, angst and the nagging ache of the striver.
She cut into the Prefect’s engineering description. “What does that suggest about the nearest wormhole mouth?”
The Prefect eyed her as if she was asking for a state secret. Perhaps she was, at that. “The wormhole must lie within a light-month, the scientists say. The astronomers picked up his deceleration flare and worked backward from that. The engineers think that, given its apparent available reaction mass, it must have come from deep in the Oort cloud.”
“Um,” Ruth said. To get to Earth from the Oort cloud of icesteroids that hung far beyond Pluto, in that little time, implied enormous speeds. She calculated it meant tens of astronomical units in a day. “Impressive.”
“We would like to know more, and perhaps we shall. Thus far it acknowledges that it comes from a society that went through a SETI transmitting era, though not which one.”
“Odd,” Ruth said. “So we may have their signals, but we won’t know how to link them to…”
“Exactly. Mysterious. Further, it will not confirm that it transmits now.” The Prefect sighed. “Frustrating.”
“Maybe this mystery is … part of its ritual?”
“I suspect so. The speech translator who works with it says that after proper introductions – whatever that means – it will help us identify which of our SETI messages are theirs.”
Ruth bit her lip in thought. “Afraid to disclose their location?”
“Probably. It would not be the first hint that a SETI broadcast came from a site quite distant from the host society.”
The galactic Byzantium, Ruth thought. Intrigues within mysteries buried in shadowy plots. “So you and I can work with this alien now?”
“Nothing so hasty,” the Prefect said sourly. “It will only work with those who can translate directly from the SETI files, however.” He eyed her significantly. “Therefore, I cannot serve.”
Decades had passed, she knew, since this Prefect had worked with the cryofiles. Ruth had taken years to fathom the labyrinth of those data-forests – the sum of all transmissions received from the Galactic Complex, that host of innumerable societies that had, largely, flourished long before humanity was born. Within those multidimensional databases, Ruth spent her days. Multi-coded, the files were a vast, largely impenetrable resource. The grandest possible intellectual scrap heap. But it could yield priceless ore.
She said carefully, “Why not?” The pyramid of power in the Library of Intelligences was rigid:
Below those ranks were the Trainees, from which Ruth had just graduated after years of hard work. Below her were Seekers of Script, who assisted librarians. Below then, and the real strength of the Library, were Hounds. The venerable term came from the “data dogs” or “miners” of ancient times, before the Library had moved to Luna. At least she did not have to deal with the sexless Noughts on this issue.
“I do not handle texts directly, and this alien thinks that matters.” A perplexed twist of the Prefect’s mouth lasted only a second. “I chose…you.”
“I’m honored.”
“You may not feel that way in a moment,” he said dryly.
“In a moment?”
“It’s here now. To meet you.”
Her eyes widened, this time in alarm. Librarians seldom saw aliens. Usually it was in a minor role, to ask for help in deciphering or explaining interactions between SETI sites. Beacon History was not one of Ruth’s areas.
“But I haven’t prepared—“
“The people at State Relations went through a month of ritual greetings just to get it to talk. We’ve been through a day of ceremonials to even sit down. It believes in a ‘cusp interval’ when it can properly meet others. We learned this only an hour ago. It’s got to happen now.”
“How…do I dress?”
“Your uniform—“ He cast a gaze down it, nodded. Luckily she had just run it through the cleaner this morning. “—will mean little to it. I take it that these aliens’ manners resemble the ancient Japanese. It demands an hour minimum introduction, for any cultural interaction.”
“How do I—“
“State did the hard work. That’s what took a month. Plus training the computer aural translator. Its name, as rendered into something we can pronounce, and is acceptable to it, is Akralan.”
“Its star?”
“It will not reveal that, as yet. The astrobio types tell us it must come from a star similar to ours, a bit smaller mass. Its world has less surface water and more noble gases in the air.”
“What about its culture?”
“Akralan says it has come because we are humanoid, like itself. Their society saw pictures of us in one of our transmissions. Akralan says humanoids must stick together, in a way. As the newest humanoid species, we must come to know and respect certain set, ordered ways.”
Ruth had seen many formalized patterns of grammars, symbols and words in the SETI Library. Often they carried coded tricks to prevent unwelcome use. “Do these ceremonials have a purpose?”
The Prefect pursed his lips and momentary bewilderment flickered across his face. “It feels that non-humanoids cannot understand these social mannerisms. So the other shapes and sizes of aliens are somehow lesser. Why, it doesn’t say. That point alone took several days to extract, I gather.”
“Do you have any idea—“
A soft tone sounded on the Prefect’s desk. “The translator is ready.”
Ruth made herself stretch her own arm out toward the alien. It rotated its head in a slow circle.
What was that phrase the translator used? ‘Work Wife’ Was this the ritual to become a co-worker? The Prefect had thought so. But…wife? Impossibly, Akralan did a somersault, windmilling its arms. Then it plunged away from her, somehow picking up speed toward the distant clouds below.
So was it… showing off?
It’s playing with me.
She had no time to think. Her head snapped back. Pulses sounded through her—buffeting. She was moving faster than sound and shock waves raced along her, a thousand small hammers finding nooks to hurt.
Not relaxed any more. A warning clang jolted her ears.
Her thermal shedders were laboring, but she felt prickly heat seep into her skin. Breath was a labor. Another clang.
The drogue signal. About to deploy.
She turned to see if her backpack was clear and suddenly wrenched sideways.
Sky. Boots. Sky. Boots. She was tumbling. She forced her arms out the way Akralan had. Wind tore at her arms. They strained in their sockets.
If her drogue parachute popped out while she tumbled, the shrouds could tangle. The chute would not open right.
She forced her arms in the odd gestures Akralan had made. Wind howled around her. She opened her legs to get drag and that brought her around, facing down again. But she was at an angle, getting forced back into a rotation.
She windmilled her arms. That brought her right again, facing down. But she overshot. She reversed the windmill. Eased back into position, facing down.
Bang – the drogue chute peeled away and slammed her hard.
Air rushed from her lungs. She fought the huge hand trying to crush her chest and sucked in a little air. She was losing speed fast.
But the drogue was deployed right, pulling hard at her.
Below, all was blue-black.
An enormous cloud towered over the puffy white cumulus near it, stretching up from an anvil-shaped base to a massive head. And she was falling into it.
They were. She looked for Akralan. It was ahead of her now, drogue bright orange.
She closeupped the cloud base and saw lightning fork in quick raging stabs. Her inboards told her it was twice as high as Everest. Wispy ice clouds slipped by her. She looked toward her feet. She was white. Ice caked her now.
And here came the billowy head of the big cloud. Fronds of vapor enveloped her as she shot through layers of cloud decks, shocks slamming through her. Her teeth chattered. So much for thermal overload.
Her helmet had rims of ice crystals. But why she did not feel cold? Then she realized that the buffeting was resonating through her, playing her like a drum. Her teeth chattered in resonance with it.
The ice-white streamers around her thickened and darkness gathered in. Fat, dark boils below loomed and she plunged through them, into …night. It must be cold here, she thought, but she felt warm. The heat from the first, fast friction had protected her.
But…she felt queasy. In the dark she could feel herself begin to spin, arms trying to fly out. The parachute would get fouled if she went into a gyre.
But how to stop? She spread her arms, giving way to the centrifugal. Now she could navigate by the pressure against her, since that was down. She flexed her legs to steer and got slammed around by twisting winds. All in the dark.
Violent gusts rattled her. Gravity returned – which meant she was rising, punched upward by winds that fed the cloud core. Pang went her faceplate. Lesser hammer blows rang along her body. What?
In the dim glow she saw hailstones bouncing off her suit. Rocks of ice, some as big as her fist. They came at her from below, slamming up into her. But she still felt gravity, so she was rising toward the cloud summit. Some huge hurricane was hammering the hail upward.
A crisp, white burst of light seared her vision. She looked down a vast dark tunnel burrowing through the center of the cloud. A lightning bolt twisted across this tunnel, showing her feet apart, arms flapping. Whirling. Head over heels. Dark above. Tunnel below. Dark above again. Tunnel – then it snapped off, leaving her in complete black oblivion.
She looked at her helmet timer. 16.27 minutes elapsed.
It seemed like hours.
The Prefect stepped through into the translation room, but Ruth hesitated. Beyond that door was the first alien she would ever meet. She gulped, took a deep breath and followed.
Her first impression was of shadowy skin and eyes like rounded rectangles. Its nose was a single large protruding cone high on the forehead. It wore clothes of an amber hue and sat like a human, though considerably larger. The hands were four-fingered and multi-jointed in an odd way as the creature made rapid gestures, turned its head in elaborate arcs, and then sat absolutely still. It then could have passed as a large storefront dummy.
The Prefect gestured and she sat in a chair opposite the smooth–skinned being. She did not know what to do and looked at the translator, an aged woman. The translator held a flat device that converted acoustic signals, doing the hard work of bridging between languages utterly different. The woman explained that she had developed audio pickups that transduced human speech into its own sounds, but Akralan could not shape human words. She would aid in the halting exchange.
The next ten minutes passed slowly as it spoke, sounding like a bearing about to go. It made hand passes and some strange leg-thrusts from its molded chair. The translator responded in kind. Ruth gazed into the unreadable glittering black depths of its eyes – which swiveled to follow her. She realized that she was fidgeting and stilled herself. The alien’s eyes seemed to glaze.
With the translator Akralan used gestures, words sounding like a song sung by insects, then hand-clasps. The translator said at last, “We have performed the ceremony of greeting. Now it will follow its invocation of need.”
“Its… what?” Ruth found it hard to look away from the eyes.
“Since you will be working with it, there must be a firm introduction,” the translator explained carefully. “It seems to want to…take you as a collaborator.”
“To decipher SETI texts?”
“To…convey ‘necessary knowledge’ – that is the best way to phrase it.”
“To translate some of the holdings?”
“More, it implies. It refers to ‘ancient knowings beyond written’ – which may link through semiotics to the Maze.”
The Maze was a working name for the transport system that threaded the galaxy. Many SETI messages were scraps referring to it. Physicists inferred that the Maze might be an interlocking system of wormholes, and thus a way to move nearer to the civilizations that had sent the messages. But where was the nearest wormhole to Earth? Until they knew that, other knowledge was useless.
The alien made a long series of sounds like gravel sliding downhill. The translator worked the flat device and at last said, “We will observe the ‘reflections’.”
This meant minutes of silence. The alien stared straight at Ruth and made small gestures with its four-fingered hands. She had no idea what to do so sat still.
Silence was one of the ways to deal with aliens, she had been taught. This one said little, a useful weapon. It probably knew that this made talky humans edgy, as if to say, I have come a long way. Now it is up to you.
It occurred to her that staying silent herself might work as well. Use the same tricks. Akralan could never be quite sure that it is not being mocked. And mockery must surely be a universal. The SETI psychologists suspected that intelligence had to have humor as a release valve. Strange elements in the dense SETI messages seemed to be humor, in the sense that they posed odd congruences, or even outright ridicule – the essential elements in what humans thought was funny. But humor had a social use as well – mockery among them.
So she sat and stared straight back at it. Long moments ticked by. Behind her the Prefect did nothing. They were a frozen tableaux.
Then the alien seemed to bristle, the nostrils atop its head flaring crimson, as if taking affront.
“You have passed its inspection,” the translator said.
Ruth raised one eyebrow. The alien wrinkled its intricately lined face in a mimicking way. Then she ventured a smile. Akralan gave her a curve of its slit mouth, but turned down, not up. A deliberate mirroring? Time to take the initiative.
“What’s a ‘firm introduction’?”
“Not a ritual exchange, such as we do now, but a positive act.”
“What act?”
“It requires that to function with you – or any Librarian, though you seem closest in abilities to what it wants – there is a bonding ritual.”
“Ummm. What sort?”
“It wishes to make you its ‘Work Wife’ – a term in its association grammar.”
She blinked. “Wife?”
“This is social gender, not biology.”
”I…become this ‘work wife’ by doing…what?”
“Taking what it calls the Plunge. We know you have athletic abilitiy and –”
“This is some ritual?”
“Akralan says to know the Earth he must be ‘properly introduced’ – which implies he must enter it from space.”
She pondered the alien’s flat, unreadable gaze. Was it male or female? She had no clear way of judging. The eyes glinted as if in challenge. “And I—what? How do I introduce the Earth?
“By escorting Akralan.”
The cloud world flashed all around her, lit by tangles of lightning – thick, blue blades like liquid swords. Then they snapped off—and the thunder came.
She did not hear it. Instead she felt it, sounding like a deep note that her body hummed.
Winds poked and pried at her, whipping her arms around. She curled up; head toward what she thought was down – and found in the next blue-white lightning flash that she was looking up. Or thought she was.
A giant hand snatched her around. Her lungs wheezed out all they had. The hand had her by her back—and she then realized that her chute had opened. That settled the argument about which way was down.
She turned to check and lightning lit the parachute canvas. A beautiful domed cathedral over her. Almost enough to make her religious. Then the thunder hit her and she vibrated again. If there was a time to pray, this would be it.
Rain smeared her view. Clouds came rushing up at her. Sunlight broke through in slanting shafts that moisture diffused into halos. Cottony clouds glittered like mountains of spun sugar. The buffeting jerked her around and she felt dizzy with the speed. Will this never end? She plunged through laces of incandescence. The moisture gave rays of light a shimmering beauty and she felt it sweep away her mounting fear.
Then she shot through the brilliance. She turned to look down. The huge tunnel that was the cloud interior now ended in a rippled wall of dirty gray. Those must be rain-saturated clouds, she realized just as she plunged through it–
–into ordinary pattering rain.
Sheets of droplets wrapped around her. Thump – and a giant hand jerked her upward. The main chute popped out, twirling beyond her drogue.
Now she was the bob on a pendulum, swinging widely as gusts caressed her. Ordinary hot-white lightning flashed around her. Thunder boomed and she could hear it, a big door slamming somewhere.
A muddy brown smear told her there was land below. She came down toward a pine forest, looking for a clear spot. There—a bare stretch of rock. She recalled her drop training. Feet together, body bent at the waist, hands and elbows tight.
The rocky slope came at her fast. She hit, rolled. Her helmet cracked down.
Lie still she thought. Do nothing. It felt very good.
Her body ached at a thousand spots. Joints wailed. Rain pattered against her, a goodbye tapping.
She sat up. Nothing seemed to be broken but a lot of her wanted to complain. The parachute tugged at her and she groped for the release. It popped free. Ah! So good to be alive. Even though she could feel a hundred aches and bruises.
Something above– She turned to see Akralan swinging down. It landed effortlessly, remained erect.
Akralan abruptly broke into an odd dance, spinning and barking out sharp sounds like clashing gears. Its snout-nose was not red now.
She staggered over to it. It held out a hand, as if inviting her to dance with it. She did. It spun her around, tapped its large feet on the rock like a drumbeat. More ritual?
She felt like punching it in the chest. No, be the diplomat. Never mind that there are clear signs down below that you wet yourself.
Instead, she stabbed a finger at the audio recording the translator had made for her. Her prepared salute. To her ears it was like gravel churning in a blender. It meant Thus do I introduce you to my world. Now let us begin.
Akralan spread its arms and did a complicated two-step. By now she knew this meant Agreed. Begin.
A month later, her soreness was gone but not her smoldering emotions. The Plunge had changed her, Ruth knew, but not exactly how.
“What?” the Prefect demanded. “Akralan will only teach us rituals?”
Ruth shrugged. “That is all it’s delegated to do, apparently.”
“What good is that?”
“Akralan points out that without the protocols needed to pass through a wormhole mouth, the artificial systems that keep those gates open will not let us pass.”
“What does that mean—not let us pass?”
Ruth grimaced. “I don’t think we want to find out.”
“What are these rituals like?”
“Maneuvers in space, signals to send. Some tangled mathematical stuff I couldn’t follow. Think of it as an elaborate key.”
The Prefect returned his face to the familiar stony blank. “Akralan won’t give any hint of where the nearest wormhole mouth is?”
She eyed the Prefect, wondering if the man had any personal life. Or was it all about the Library? Better be the diplomat, then. “That may come, in time. It says it wants to ‘ken’ Earth. That’s an old word meaning to know in a profound way.”
The Prefect’s mouth twisted. “Some high-ranked people will be very irked.”
“Some low-ranked, too. But…” She paused, trying to express an intuition gained from many hours with Akralan. “I am gathering in some ways of thinking about this alien culture. They’re humanoid, but apparently didn’t develop along our lines.”
The Prefect leaned forward, his posture eager, but he kept the blank mask. “It told you some of their history?”
“They’re communal. Live in close quarters, apparently because their world is pretty hostile. So they’re very formal with each other, the way crowded cultures are on Earth – only much more so.”
“It told you this expressly?”
“I inferred from nuances in its speech. This is going to take time. Akralan doesn’t think the way we do, and it has a species history that began when we were small mammals staying out from underfoot.”
The Prefect’s tone turned sour. “So it gives us more ceremony, not substance.”
Come on, freezeface. But she said mildly, “It’s a first step.”
She was beginning to get the feel of this profession. At the very beginnings of the Alien Library, humanity found that it was coming in on an extended discourse, an ancient interstellar conversation. There were no handy notes or crib-sheet histories to guide them. Only slowly did the cyber-cryptographers fathom that most alien cultures were truly ancient, stable for longer than hominids had even been around.
Apparently many intelligent species had a brief technological phase, then relapsed. Most listened in or sent SETI messages for a century or two, then fell silent. Humanity was just beginning its trial period, then. They should not expect the Elders to take much notice of them, or lend much help.
Thanks to millennia of SETI exchanges, the Elders had grown far more complex than the sum of all human societies. This Byzantium among the stars was much stranger than anything humans had ever known.
She said carefully, “Akralan had made it very clear they are helping us out because we’re rubes. Less prosperous, wet behind the ears, younger, ignorant. And it’s right.”
The Prefect seldom reacted immediately to new information. Some computer behind his forehead had to grind away first.
A glaze came over his face as he thought and Ruth had a sudden image flash to mind. Ruth as Superwoman, bounding over vast obstacles Shrugging off pesky hindrances. Her trusty companion, Akralan, leading her into ever more dazzling feats. This connection to Akralan could be a career maker, played right.
But then a chill came into her, a foreboding. There’s something afoot here I don’t like. Librarian Ruth isn’t Superwoman. And shouldn’t be.
The Prefect picked up a datasheet and punched up a message.
“Akralan sent me a request, posed in formal language. It seems to want a companion while it ‘kens’ Earth.”
Ruth had not heard of this. She stayed silent.
The Prefect made a thin attempt at sounding upbeat. “This time Akralan points out that there is a way to ‘ascend’ as well. Apparently that would involve some rocket-assisted way to soar to the top of Everest.” He stopped and peered at her. “I assume you can exercise your same skills as before and—“
“Don’t finish that sentence.” She got up and stalked out. Which took a kind of courage Superwoman Ruth didn’t know.


Published by Gregory Benford on June 24th, 2012




Many wonders are visible when flying over the Earth at night. A compilation of such visual spectacles was captured recently from the International Space Station (ISS) and set to rousing music. Passing below are white clouds, orange city lights, lightning flashes in thunderstorms, and dark blue seas.

On the horizon is the golden haze of Earth’s thin atmosphere, frequently decorated by dancing auroras as the video progresses. The green parts of auroras typically remain below the space station, but the station flies right through the red and purple auroral peaks. Solar panels of the ISS are seen around the frame edges. The ominous wave of approaching brightness at the end of each sequence is just the dawn of the sunlit half of Earth, a dawn that occurs every 90 minutes.


Published by Gregory Benford on December 20th, 2011

written in 2001; first published in Reason

Stephen Hawking seemed slightly worse, as always.

It is a miracle that he has clung to life for over twenty years with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Each time I see him I feel that this will be the last, that he cannot hold on to such a thin thread for much longer.

The enormous success of his A Brief History of Time has made Stephen a curious kind of cultural icon. Its huge success has made him a curious kind of world‑scale metaphor. He wonders himself how many of the starlets and rock stars who mentioned the book on talk shows actually read it.

With his latest book, The Universe in a Nutshell,  he aims to remedy the situation, with a plethora of friendly illustrations to help readers along. In it Hawking offers image-rich explanations for such complexities as superstring theory and the nature of time. The trick, of course, is translating equations to sentences, two very different languages. Pictures help enormously, though purists deplore them as oversimplified. I feel that any device is justified to span such an abyss of incomprehension.

As I entered, his office staff was wary of visitors, plainly suspecting I was a “civilian” harboring a crank theory of the universe. But I’d called beforehand, and then his secretary recognized me from years past. When I entered the familiar office his shrunken form lolled in his motorized chair, staring out, rendered goggle‑eyed by his thick glasses‑‑but a strong spirit animated all he said. You could sense the inner fire.

He had lost his vocal cords years ago to an emergency tracheotomy. His gnarled, feeble hands could not hold a pen. For a while after the operation he was completely cut off from the world‑‑an unsettling analogy with the fate of mathematical observers who plunge into black holes, their signals to the outside red‑shifted and slowed, by gravity’s grip, to dim, whispering oblivion.

A Silicon Valley firm had come to the rescue. Engineers devised tailored, user‑friendly software and a special keyboard for him. His frail hand now moved across it with crablike intent. The software is deft, and he could build sentences quickly. I watched him rapidly flit through the menu of often‑used words on his liquid crystal display, which hung before him in his wheelchair. The invention has been such a success that the Silicon Valley folk now supplied units to similarly afflicted people worldwide.

“Please excuse my American accent,” the speaker mounted behind the wheelchair said with a California inflection. He coded this entire remark with two keystrokes; his standard opening joke.

Though I had been here before, again I was struck that this man who had suffered such an agonizing physical decline had on his walls several large posters of a person very nearly his opposite: Marilyn Monroe. I mentioned her and he responded instantly, tapping one‑handed on his keyboard, so that soon his transduced voice replied, “Yes, she’s wonderful. Cosmological.“I wanted to put a picture of her in my latest book, as a celestial object.” I remarked that to me the book was like a French impressionist painting of a cow, meant to give a glancing essence, not the real, smelly animal. Few would care to savor the details. Stephen took off from this to discuss some ideas currently booting around the physics community about the origin of the universe, the moment just after the Big Bang.

Hawking’s great politeness paradoxically put me ill at ease; I was acutely aware of the many demands on his time, and after all, I had just stopped by to talk shop. I am an astrophysicist and have known Stephen since the 1970s.

“For years my early work with Roger Penrose seemed to be a disaster for science,” Stephen said. “It showed that the universe must have begun with a singularity, if Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct. That appeared to indicate that science could not predict how the universe would begin. The laws would break down at the point of singularity, of infinite density.”

I recalled that I had spoken to him about mathematical methods of getting around this, one evening at a party in King’s College. There were analogies to methods in elementary quantum mechanics, methods he was trying to carry over into this surrealistic terrain.

“It now appears that the way the universe began can indeed be determined, using imaginary time.” We discussed this a bit. Stephen had been using a mathematical device in which time is replaced by imaginary time, as a notational convenience. This changes the nature of the equations, so he could use some ideas from the tiny quantum world. In the new equations, a kind of tunneling occurs, in which the universe, before the Big Bang, has many different ways to pass through the singularity. With imaginary time, one can calculate the chances for a given tunneling path into our early universe, after the beginning of time as we know it.

“Sure, the equations can be interpreted that way,” I argued, “but it’s really a trick, isn’t it?”

Stephen said, “Yes, but perhaps an insightful trick.”

“We don’t have a truly deep understanding of time, so replacing real time with imaginary time doesn’t mean much to us.”

“Imaginary time is a new dimension, at right angles to ordinary, real time. Along this axis, if the universe satisfies the ‘no boundary’ condition, we can do our calculations. This condition says that the universe has no singularities or boundaries, in the imaginary direction of time. With the ‘no boundary’ condition, there will be no beginning or end, to imaginary time, just as there is no beginning or end to a path on the surface of the Earth.”

“If the path goes all the way around the Earth,” I said. “But of course, we don’t know that in imaginary time, there won’t be a boundary.”

“My intuition says there will be no blocking in that special coordinate, so our calculations make sense.”

“Sense is just the problem, isn’t it? Imaginary time is just a mathematical convenience.” I shrugged in exasperation at the span between cool mathematical spaces and the immediacy of the raw world; this is a common tension in doing physics. “It’s unrelated to how we feel time. The seconds sliding by. Birth and death.”

“True. Our minds work in real time, which begins at the Big Bang, and will end, if there is a Big Crunch—which seems unlikely, now, from the latest data showing accelerating expansion. Consciousness would come to an end at a singularity.”

“Not a great consolation,” I said.

He grins. “No, but I rather like the ‘no boundary’ condition. It seems to imply that the universe will be in a state of high order at one end of real time, but will be disordered at the other end of time, so that disorder increases in one direction of time. We define this to be the direction of increasing time. When we record something in our memory, the disorder of the universe will increase. This explains why we remember events only in what we call the past, and not in the future.”

“Remember what you predicted in 1980 about final theories, like this?” I chided him.

“I suggested we might find a complete unified theory, by the end of the century.” Stephen made the transponder laugh dryly. “Okay, I was wrong. At that time, the best candidate seemed to be N=8 supergravity. Now it appears that this theory may be an approximation to a more fundamental theory, of superstrings. I was a bit optimistic, to hope that we would have solved the problem by the end of the century. But I still think there’s a fifty‑fifty chance that we will find a complete unified theory in the next twenty years.”

“I’ve always suspected that the structure never ends, as we look to smaller and smaller scales‑‑and neither will the theories.”

“It is possible that there is no ultimate theory of physics at all. Instead, we will keep on discovering new layers of structure. But it seems that physics gets simpler, and more unified, the smaller the scale on which we look. There is an ultimate length scale, the Planck length, below which spacetime may just not be defined. So I think there will be a limit to the number of layers of structure, and there will be some ultimate theory, which we will discover if we are smart enough.”

“Does it seem likely we are smart enough?”

Another grin. “You will have to get your faith elsewhere.”

“I can’t keep up with the torrent of work on superstrings.”

Mathematical physics is like music, which a young and zesty spirit can best seize and use, as did Mozart.

“I try,” he said modestly.

We began discussing recent work on “baby universes”‑‑bubbles in space time. To us, space‑time is like the sea seen from an ocean liner, smooth and serene. Up close, though, it’s waves and bubbles. At extremely fine scales, pockets and bubbles of spacetime can form at random, sputtering into being, then dissolving. Arcane details of particle physics suggest that sometimes‑rarely, but inevitably‑‑these bubbles could grow.

This might have happened a lot at the instant just immediately after the Big Bang. Indeed, some properties of our universe may have been created by the space‑time foam that roiled through those infinitesimally split seconds. Studying this possibility uses the “wormhole calculus” which samples the myriad possible frothing bubbles (and their connections, called wormholes).

Averaging over this foam in a mathematical sense, Stephen and others have tried to find out whether a final, rather benign universe like ours was an inevitable outcome of that early turbulence. The jury isn’t in on this point, and may be out forever‑‑the calculations are tough, guided by intuition rather than facts. Deciding whether they really meaningfully predict anything is a matter of taste. This recalls Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, that in matters of great import, style is always more important than substance.

If this picture of the first split‑second is remotely right, much depends on the energy content of the foam. The energy to blow up these bubbles would be compensated by an opposite, negative energy, which comes from the gravitational attraction of all the matter in the bubble. If the outward pressure just balances the inward attraction (a pressure, really) of the mass, then you could get a universe much like ours‑‑rather mild, with space‑time flat on such relatively tiny scales as our solar system, and even flat on the size range of our galaxy.

It turns out that such bubbles could even form right now. An entirely separate space‑time could pop into existence in your living room, say. It would start unimaginably small, then balloon to the size of a cantaloupe‑‑but not before your very eyes, because for quite fundamental reasons, you can’t see it.

“They don’t form in space, of course,” Stephen said. “It doesn’t mean anything to ask where in space these things occur.”

“They’re cut off from us, after we made them,” I said. “No relics, no fossil?”

“I do not think there could be.”

“Like an ungrateful child who doesn’t write home.” When talking about immensities, I sometimes grasp for something human.

“It would not form in our space, but rather as another space‑time.”

We discussed for a while some speculations about this I had put into two novels, Cosm and Timescape. I had used Cambridge and the British scientific style in Timescape, published in 1980, before these ideas became current. I had arrived at them in part from some wide‑ranging talks I had enjoyed with Stephen‑‑all suitably disguised, of course. Such enclosed space‑times I had termed “onion universes,” since in principle they could have further locked‑away space‑times inside them, too, and so on. It is an odd sensation when a guess turns out to have some substance‑‑as much as anything as gossamer as these ideas can be said to be substantial. Again, the image of mathematical physics as French impressionism.

“So they form and go,” I mused. “Vanish. Between us and these other universes lies absolute nothingness, in the exact sense‑‑no space or time, no matter, no energy.”

“There can be no way to reach them,” his flat voice said. “The gulf between us and them is unbridgable. It is beyond physics because it is truly nothing, not physical at all.”

The mechanical laugh resounded. Stephen likes the tug of the philosophical, and seemed amused by the notion that universes are simply one of those things that happen from time to time.

His nurse appeared for a bit of physical cleanup, and I left him. Inert confinement to a wheelchair exacts a demeaning toll on dignity, but he showed no reaction to the daily round of being cared for by another in the most intimate way. Perhaps for him, it even helps the mind to slip free of the world’s rub.

I sat in the common room outside his office, having tea and talking to some of his post‑doctoral students. They were working on similarly wild ideas and were quick, witty, keenly observant as they sipped their strong, dark Ceylonese tea. A sharp crew, perhaps a bit jelous of Stephen’s time. They were no doubt wondering who this guy was, nobody they had ever heard of, a Californian with an accent tainted by southern nuances, somebody who worked in astrophysics and plasma physics‑‑which was, in our age of remorseless specialization, quite a remote province from theirs. I didn’t explain; after all, I really had no formal reason to be here, except that we were friends.

Stephen’s secretary quietly came out and asked if I would join Stephen for dinner at Caius College. I had intended to eat in my favorite Indian restaurant, where the chicken vindaloo is a purging experience, and then simply rove the walks of Cambridge alone, for I love the atmosphere‑‑but I instantly assented. Dinner at college high table was one of the legendary experiences of England. I could remember keenly each one I had attended; the repartee is sharper than the cutlery.

We made our way through through the cool, atmospheric turns of the colleges, the worn wood and gray stones reflecting the piping of voices and squeaks of rusty bicycles. In misty twilight, student shouts echoing, his wheelchair jouncing over cobbled streets. He insisted on steering it himself, though his nurse hovered rather nervously. It had never occurred to me just how much of a strain on everyone there can be in round‑the‑clock care. A few people drifted along behind us, just watching him. “Take no notice,” his mechanical voice said flatly, “many of them come here just to stare at me.”

We wound among the ancient stone and manicured gardens, into Caius College. Students entering the dining hall made an eager rumpus. Stephen took the elevator and I ascended the creaking stairs. The faculty entered after the students, me following with the nurse.

The high table is literally so. They carefully placed Stephen with his back to the long, broad tables of undergraduates. I soon realized that this is because watching him eat, with virtually no lip control, is not appetizing. He follows a set diet that requires no chewing. His nurse must chop up his food and spoon feed him.

The dinner was noisy, with the year’s new undergraduates staring at the famous Hawking’s back. Stephen carried on a matter‑of-fact, steady flow of conversation through his keyboard.

He had concerns about physicists’ Holy Grail, a unified theory of everything. Even if we could thrash our way through a thicket of mathematics to glimpse its outlines, it might not be specific enough‑‑that is, we would still have a range of choices. Physics could end up dithering over arcane points, undecided, perhaps far from our particular primate experience. Here is where aesthetics might enter.

“If such a theory is not unique, one would have to appeal to some outside principle, which one might call God.”

I frowned. “Not as the Creator, but as a referee?”

“He would decide which theory was more than just a set of equations, but described a universe that actually exists.”

“This one.”

“Or maybe all possible theories describe universes that exist!” he said with glee. “It is unclear what it means to say that something exists‑‑in questions like, does there exist a man with two left feet in Cambridge. One can answer this by examining every man in Cambridge. But there is no way that one can decide if a universeexists, if one is not inside it.”

“The space‑time Catch‑22.”

“So it is not easy to see what meaning can be given to the question, why does the universe exist. But it is a question that one can’t help asking.”

As usual, the ability to pose a question simply and clearly in no way implied a similar answer‑‑or than an answer even existed.

After the dining hall, high table moved to the senior common room upstairs. We relaxed among long, polished table, comfortable padded chairs, the traditional crisp walnuts and ancient aromatic port, Cuban cigars. And somewhat arch conversation, occasionally skewered by a witty interjection from Stephen.

Someone mentioned Stephen Weinberg’s statement, in The First Three Minutes, that the more we comprehend the universe, the more meaningless it seems. Stephen doesn’t agree, and neither do I, but he has a better reason. “I think it is not meaningful in the first place to say that the universe is pointless, or that it is designed for some purpose.”

I asked, “No meaning, then, to the pursuit of meaning?”

“To do that would require one to stand outside the universe, which is not possible.”

Again the image of the separation between the observer and the object of study. The gulf. “Still,” I persisted, “there is amazing structure we can see from inside.”

“The overwhelming impression is of order. The more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it is governed by rational laws. If one liked, one could say that this order was the work of God. Einstein thought so.”

One of the college fellows asked, “Rational faith?”

Stephen tapped quickly. “We shouldn’t be surprised that conditions in the universe are suitable for life, but this is not evidence that the universe was designed to allow for life. We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There’s not much personal about the laws of physics.”

Walnuts eaten, port drunk, cigars smoked, it was time to go. When we left Stephen guided his wheelchair through the shadowy reaches of the college, indulging my curiosity about a time‑honored undergraduate sport: climbing Cambridge.

At night young men sometimes scrambled among the upper reaches of the steeply steepled old buildings, scaling the most difficult points. They risked their necks, for the glory of it. Quite out of bounds, of course. Part of the thrill is eluding the proctors who scan the rooftops late at night, listening for the scrape of heels. There is even a booklet about roof-climbing describing the triumphs and centuries‑long history.

Stephen took me to a passageway I had been through many times, a short cut toward the Cam river between high, peaked buildings of undergraduate rooms. He said that it was one of the tough events, jumping across that, and then scaling a steep, often slick roof beyond.

The passage looked to be about three meters across. I couldn’t imagine leaping that abyss from the slate‑dark roofs. And in the dark, too. “All that distance?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Anybody ever miss?”





His eyes twinkled and he gave us a broad smile. “Yes.” These Cambridge sorts had the real stuff, all right.

In the cool night he recalled some of his favorite science fiction stories. How much stranger the universe was turning out than even those writers had imagined. Even when they discussed the next billion years, they could not guess the odd theories that would spring up within the next generation of physicists.

A week after this evening, I got from Stephen’s secretary a transcript of all his remarks. I have used it here to reproduce his style of conversation. Printed out on his wheelchair‑computer, his sole link with us, the lines seem to come from a great distance. Across an abyss.

Portraying the flinty faces of science‑‑daunting complexity twinned with numbing wonder‑‑demands both craft and art. Some of us paint with fiction. Stephen paints with his impressionistic views of vast, cool mathematical landscapes. To knit together our fraying times, to span the cultural abyss, demands all these approaches‑-and more, if we can but invent them.

Stephen had faced daunting physical constrictions with a renewed attack on the large issues, on great sweeps of space and time. Daily he struggled without much fuss against the narrowing that is perhaps the worst element of infirmity. I recalled him rapt with Marilyn, still deeply engaged with life, holding firmly against tides of entropy.

I had learned a good deal from these few days, I realized, and most of it not at all about cosmology.


Published by Gregory Benford on September 18th, 2011

I envisioned computer viruses and wrote the first one, in 1969—but failed to see that they would become widespread.  Then, decades later, came Stuxnet.


Technologies don’t always evolve as we’d like. I learned this in 1969, and failed to catch the train I’d predicted would soon leave.

Further, I failed to see the levels of distrust that would arise in computer culture from malware generally. Certainly I did not think that seeds of mistrust could be blown by the winds of national rivalry through an internet that infiltrated every aspect of our lives. But then, it was 1968… ages ago.

At the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory I used ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Administration) to send brief messages to colleagues in other labs, running over the big, central computers we all worshipped then. ARPANet’s emails had a pernicious problem: “bad code” that arose when researchers included (maybe accidentally) pieces of programming that threw things awry. Mostly I sent technical discussions to those at other labs. I worked on theoretical physics: solid state theory, plasma confinement for the fusion program, and some weapons work.

One day as I worked on a computation using the main computer, an idea struck: I could do so intentionally, making a program that deliberately copied itself. The biological analogy was obvious; evolution would favor such code, especially if it was designed to use clever methods of hiding itself and using others’ energy (computing time) to further its own genetic ends.

So… I wrote some simple code and sent it along in my next transmission on ARPANet. Just a few lines in Fortran told the computer to attach these lines to programs being transmitted to a certain terminal. Soon the code popped up in other programs, and started propagating. By the next day it was in a lot of otherwise unrelated code, and I called a halt to matters by sending a message alerting people to the offending lines.

Then I wrote a memo and made a point with the mavens of the Main Computer: this could be done with considerably more malevolent motivations. Viruses could move. Their reply: “Why would anyone do it, though?”

I recalled the Dylan song: The pump don’t work, ‘cause the vandals took the handles…

I thought it inevitable that such ideas work themselves out in the larger world. I wrote a story, “The Scarred Man” to trace this out, choosing to think commercially: could someone make a buck out of this? I devised a “virus” that could be cured with a program called VACCINE. The story appeared in the May, 1970 issue of Venture magazine and mercifully dropped from sight.

I avoided “credit” for this idea for a long time, but gradually realized that it was inevitable, in fact fairly obvious. In the early 1970s it surfaced again at Livermore when a self-replicating program named Creeper infected ARPANET. It just printed on a user’s video screen, “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” Users quickly wrote the first antivirus program, Reaper, to erase Creeper. Various people reinvented this idea  into the 1980s,  when a virus named Elk Cloner infected early Apple computers. That got fixed quickly, but Microsoft software proved more vulnerable, and in 1986 a virus named Brain started booting up with the disk operating system, spread through floppy disks and stimulated the antivirus industry I had anticipated in 1970.

It is some solace, I suppose, that last year’s #2 seller software in virus protection was a neat little program named Vaccine. The basic idea came into different currency at the hands of the renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins, who invented the term “memes” to describe cultural notions that catch on and propagate through human cultural mechanisms. Ranging from pop songs you can’t get out of your head all the way up to the Catholic Church, memes express how cultural evolution can occur so quickly, as old memes give way to voracious new ones.

There was some money to be made from this virus idea, if remorselessly pursued, even back in the early 1970s. I thought about these, though my heart was not in it. Computer viruses are antisocial behavior I did not want to encourage.

Nowadays there are nasty scrub-everything viruses of robust ability and myriad malware variations: Trojan horses, chameleons (acts friendly, turns nasty), software bombs (self-detonating agents, destroying without cloning themselves), logic bombs (go off given specific cues), time bombs (keyed by clock time), replicators (“rabbits” clone until they fill all memory), worms (traveling through network computer systems, laying eggs). Some companies in the anti-viral business claim over 100 million dollars lost each year in the just USA due to viruses.

Viruses were not a legacy I wanted to claim. Inevitably somebody was going to invent computer viruses; the idea requires only a simple biological analogy. Once it escaped into the general culture, there was no way back. I didn’t want to make my life about that. The manufacturers of spray-paint cans probably feel the same way…

For example, our cities will get smart. They will be able to track us with cameras or with microwaves that read chips in our phones, computers or even embedded beneath our skin. The first commercial use of this will be to feed advertising to us. We’ll inevitably live in an arms race against intrusive eyes, much as we guard against computer viruses now.

Stuxnet, the software virus that invaded Iran’s nuclear facilities, apparently is the first virus that disrupts industrial processes. It mutates on a schedule to avoid erasure, interrogates computers it invades, and sends back data to its inventors. Stuxnet can reprogram the PLCs and hide its changes. This smart cyber-weapon has a worm’s ability to reprogram external programmable logic controllers, making it a refined malware, aimed at critical infrastructure. Commands in Stuxnet code increase the frequency of rotors in centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant so they fly apart. Yet much Stuxnet code is unremarkable, standard stuff without advanced cloaking techniques.

Still, this is a wholly new thing—smart viruses with a grudge. These are evolving, self-aware, self-educating, craftily doing their mission. Expect more to come. Countries hostile to the United States may launch malware attacks against U.S. facilities, using Stuxnet-like code to take down national power grids or other critical infrastructure.

Though seldom remarked upon, USA policy traditionally has been to lead in technology, while selling the last generation tech to others. Thus we can defeat our prior inventions, and sometimes we even deliberately installed defects we could exploit later.

Stuxnet looks like a kluge with inventive parts. It does not hide its payload well or cover its tracks. It will not take great effort to greatly improve such methods (say, with virtual machine-based obfuscation, novel techniques for anti-debugging, etc), whatever their targets. Once major players use such techniques in nation-state rivalries, surely these will leak into commerce, where the stakes are immense for all of us. If Stux-type, untraceable malware becomes a weapon of commerce, our increasingly global commerce will take on a nasty edge.

If living in space becomes common, such systems will demand levels of maintenance and control seldom used on Earth. The International Space Station, for example, spends most crew time keeping the place running. These can be corrupted with malware.

So can many systems to come, as our environment becomes “smart” and interacts with us. Increasing interconnections of all systems will make smart sabotage a compelling temptation. So will malware that elicits data from your life, or corrupts systems you already have, in hopes you’ll replace them.

Now think beyond these first stages. What secondary changes emerge from those? Seeds of mistrust and suspicion can travel far.

That’s the world we’ll live in, with fresh problems we can attack if we’ve thought them through.

How  should you prepare and respond? You can’t possibly anticipate all outcomes. The time to think about this is now, before the future arrives like an angry freight train.