Posts Tagged ‘science’


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.


Published by Gregory Benford on December 16th, 2012

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


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
Santa Monica, CA
Barnes & Noble store 2575–1201 3rd Street Promenade 90401
Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy–2810 Artesia Blvd. 90278
Long Beach, CA
SCIBA Trade Show Author Feast
Half Moon Bay, CA
Bay Book Company–80-F N. Cabrillo Hwy 94019
San Francisco, CA
Borderlands–866 Valencia St. 94110
Seattle, WA
University Bookstore–4326 University Way 98105
Beaverton, OR
Powell’s–3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd. 97225
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.

Down the River Road — the Introduction

Published by Gregory Benford on August 21st, 2012

Science does not know its debt to imagination.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Back in southern Alabama in the 1940s, Down the River Road by Mabel O’Donnell was the title of my first grade reading book. It was the Peterson Company hardcover 1949 edition with illustrations by Florence and Margaret Hoopes. Alice and Jerry and Jip went on a trip with a donkey cart, and… I don’t remember any more plot, if there was much of one. But I remember the pictures. I remember being excited about the concept of reading, but bored to death by Jip & Co.

Evidently I stored the memory of the book’s smell and heft back in the locker of the hippocampus. When Marty Greenberg asked me, a hard science fiction writer, to contribute to After the King: Stories In Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, I recalled that time when the lush banks of moist rivers around Fairhope, Alabama were my fantasy lands.

Tolkien had written his antiquity-steeped fantasy in lands much like England. For me, heartland America as revealed by science seemed a natural ground. I recalled Arthur Clarke’s famous Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Back in the 1990s I toyed with this as a rule about tech: “Any technology indistinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” Arthur’s loud laugh at this, when I visited him in 1995, pleased me enormously.)

Would a work be fantasy, though, if I wrote from my larger experience as a scientist?

To me the scientists and engineers of the last few centuries have been the unheralded elite emerging from the culture that has driven modern times. These folk somehow get left out of the equation of contemporary literature. The great modernist innovators – Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Stein, Eliot — saw the novel and poetry principally as an area of technical and formal innovation. They all spoke of the cultures they knew—Paris, Dublin, Yoknapatawpha. Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha  as a fictional county inspired by Lafayette County, Mississippi and its county seat of Oxford, Mississippi. He often referred to it as “my apocryphal county.”

But they wrote about fantastic matters of the past, not the future. Science fiction is a form of writing but it’s also a way of looking at things – a mode of thought. It requires mental landscapes more demanding and inventive than modernism.

So, I thought, why not create a far future landscape of fantastic, sufficiently advanced technology? To those who live in that place, it’s natural, unremarkable, yet mystery sleeps beneath. Their advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to them–yes.

Yet a young writer would be a fool to follow such theory, I thought when I began writing this piece. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn mostly by error. Or at least I did, mostly—plus the authors named above, and Hemingway and Heinlein. I came from the backwoods, so I thought of a fantasy that just might be about a riverland derived from mysterious science indistinguishable from magic. A place that reeked atmosphere.

We remember smells more acutely than the other senses because we evolved from a tiny rodent scuttling in the underbrush, avoiding the dominant dinosaurs, living by smell rather than sight. Our big brains cantilevered on long spines evolved from that rat’s smeller, so we can’t ignore smells. We remember them, can be snapped back into our past by their fragrant power.

The South is a smelly place. Southern settings seem, in the mind’s eye, to have an almost automatic, fantastic glaze, with strong scents. We readily call up images of brooding purple ruins, green corpses, melancholy figures shrouding a dread secret that reeks of musty shadows. Edgar Allan Poe, the first great Southern writer, started it all–along with the detective story and, indeed, the short story itself. Reading him, you meet a lot of scents.

The South has played a strong role in American fantasy, but little in science fiction.

I came out of the South a striver. I moved from the succulent South to live and do physics in dry, crisp southern California. So when I think of fantasy, I see the South. California is science fiction territory.

Here’s a 1974 photo of me with my grandmother in the yard of her farm, a few hundred meters from the Fish River where my brother and I explored swampy reaches in search of imagined buried pirate gold.

My grandmother died soon after this photo, and this last visit with her stirs still in memory.


Southerners feel their difference from the beginning. Though I have written fiction about abstruse physics and the people who care about such abstractions, all quite urban delights, I have always been aware that I come from a far distant culture.

I grew up in the rural small towns of Robertsdale and Fairhope, across the bay from Mobile. From my birth as an identical twin in 1941 until my father took us to Japan in 1948, I lived a simple and probably idyllic life, amid a Huck Finn world of sluggish heat, muddy rivers, infinite pine forests, and abundant creatures. E. O. Wilson relates in his memoir Naturalist how the same land made him into a fervent biologist a decade before and only a dozen miles away from my home. Yet somehow, despite a lifelong fascination with the myriad complexities of the natural world, I became a physicist.

I also learned something of storytelling. My step-grandfather, universally called Mr. Fred, even by my grandmother, told tales beside a crackling fire in the tin-roofed house on stilts beside the Fish River. (The pictures in the story itself are from the Fish.) He smoked a fragrant pipe that blended in the air with the woodsmoke. I listened to the cadences and swerves of dense, Southern spinning, and found it marvelous.

Decades later I found a recording of Faulkner, one of my favorite authors, and heard my grandfather’s identical accent telling stories that seemed to flow from some unfathomed wellspring, and knew that I came from some roots that ran deep.

It was an idyllic time. My brother and I had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we wore no helmets. We rode in cars with no seat belts or air bags.

A ride in the back of a pick up truck on a warm day was great bouncy fun, not cause for parental alarm. Or even driving a tractor to clear away corn stalks, a great adventure at 9. We drank water from the garden hose and certainly not from a bottle. We ate real butter and drank soda pop with sugar in it, but stayed slim because we were always outside playing. There were no “play dates,” just play. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and nobody filed a lawsuit. We got BB guns for our birthdays and didn’t put out very many eyes at all. I even recall running through the house with scissors.

We were athletic. I tried out later for a basketball school team and didn’t make it. OK, not my sport. (Later, I learned to surf pretty well, and scuba.) We liked sports and had freedom, failure, success and responsibility; we learned.

As a boy I worked on farms, and remember both the pleasure

of physical labor and the clear idea that in the long run it might be better to work inside and sit down a bit, too. My relatives who stayed in farming got beaten down then fairly badly by age fifty, and not many lived long lives. (My grandfather died of lockjaw (!) before tetanus shots existed.) So I went first into engineering and then quickly realized I liked my physics pure and undiluted. Eventually I became a mathematical physicist, then went back to doing experiments and running labs—mostly because there’s nothing like hands-on work; labor, again. And experiment has the raw rub of reality. Nature bats last.

My brother and I quickly became Us against the pervasive Them of rural Alabama. Aware of a larger world out there, the narrow hardscrabble life did not appeal even to Huck and his buddy.

So now I dwell in a vastly different world. Here’s a photo from the 1980s of me on the left, the other sf writers arrayed in front of a Saturn V laid on its side in Houston: Fred Pohl, Jim Gunn, Brian Aldiss, Jack Williamson. All these sf writers write out of their own experience—all writers do—and yet we go a-roving into futures and places no one has ever seen. We imagine times determined by technology, often strange. It’s the trade.

So, considering how to use this background of mine, I went back to that reader, Down the River Road, stole the title entire, and wrote a story about a place that recalls the South …and yet it’s a place where time is an active flux, not a remorseless ticking reminder of our mortality.

This story is a blend of hard sf ideas and the fantastic. You can work out where these people live, and that it’s a tubular place where somehow space-time warps. Yet this place feels old: the rural setting, country mannerisms, odd technologies that recall our past.

I enjoyed writing this expedition into the territory of fantasy. Many readers have remarked on how this novella seems like both past and future. I think fantasy’s ability to convey familiar feelings and resonances, among quite different atmospheres, is much of its power. After the King is still in print; Tolkien stands the test of time, though his work is set in the distant past.

I’ve added photos to this new edition of the novella, and 600 new words. I wanted to convey the atmosphere of where my brother and I grew up—always a deeply felt place, lingering in the mind.

I hope this new form works for you.

Gregory Benford

August 2012


The book appears for now only in e-editions.






Published by Gregory Benford on February 26th, 2012

my quick interview for a radio station, done while I was on a book tour for my novel, Timescape in 1981. This was after it had won the Nebula and Campbell and other awards. I even stayed in the Beverly Hills Hotel and did TV and radio. Swell times…
So when the interviewer sent me this link, I thought I’d give in to a bit of timebinding:


Published by Gregory Benford on February 10th, 2012

 This essay was written before Sid Coleman’s untimely death in 2007.

(First published in Trapdoor 25. Art by Dan Steffan.)

 Gregory Benford

In January 2007 Sid Coleman’s wife, Diana, sent a letter to their friends about his decline. It was troubling; Sid was one of those I most admired in fandom—indeed, in life. But now his particular sort of Parkinson’s had advanced until he could not live at home any more.

Diana had placed him in a living facility, where she visited him daily. He went long times now without speaking, she said, but at times a glint of the old Sydney would flicker. His roommate, a cook, remarked that Sid seemed to be a nice man. “Appearances are deceiving,” Sid said, with a sly smile.

The Fan

Her letter set me to remembering. Sid was so much—physicist, raconteur, world traveler—and he gave much to science fiction. His teenage toils for Advent Publishers supported a scrupulous, ambitious role for fans in holding the field to its standards.

In 1960 he said in Earl Kemp’s Who Killed SF?, “I am not in science fiction for money; I am in it for joy. Formally, I am a publisher (actually, 14% of a publisher). This is useful: it gets me on the mailing list of PITFCS; it is a handy topic of conversation at parties; it is a means whereby I meet some interesting people; it is a better hobby than stamp-collecting any day.  From an economic standpoint, it plays a lesser role in my life than returning Coke bottles for refunds.”

Earl Kemp, Ed Wood, Sid and some others created a fannish publishing house, Advent Publishers, in 1956. He was a teenager when he helped publish Advent’s first book, Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder. Week after week the fans gathered at Earl Kemp’s apartment in Chicago, catching typos in the photo offset text. Ed Wood, a very large fan with a very large voice, and Sid, maintained an unrelenting dialog about the purpose of science fiction fandom—Ed loudly proclaiming that fandom should “spread the science fiction faith,” while Sid insisted on a smaller purpose, like fun.

Earl Kemp recalled that Sid was at his very best when criticizing someone for what he thought was a shortcoming. Sid’s inimitable trick was to do it with charm and wit that left the target injured but somehow happy about the whole thing and anxious to tell others about it.

Fandom was for him a larger family, an audience for a swift, subtle sense of humor. At a Halloween party in Chicago, he appeared costumed as “Judas Iscariot as Sidney Coleman with thirty pieces of silver,” carrying three dollars in dimes.  In a letter of comment he remarked, “The interstate highway now passes through Indiana and Illinois, traversing some of the flattest territory in the nation. It has been said of this geography, ‘You could see a hundred miles in every direction, if only there was something worth looking at.’”

From a fanzine piece: “Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather, Stephen Rich, the stingiest man in Slonim? When the local stonecutter went out of business, he had him make up a tombstone for him, cheap, with everything on it but the date of great-grandfather’s death. He kept it in his front yard and tethered his goat to it. At least that’s what my mother has always told me, but she’s quite capable of having stolen the whole incident from an Erskine Caldwell novel.”

Jim Caughran recalled, “He could make a story of what he’d done today into a hilarious adventure. He could seize the moment, improvising.” A faculty couple at Caltech owned a gentle German shepherd. While he was a grad student Sid would occasionally do dog-sitting duties. The doorbell to the apartment rang. Sidney opened the door with the dog close behind. “Ha! A stranger!” Sidney said, “Kill, Fang!”

And he had an incredible repertory of Jewish jokes. Terry Carr once asked him, “How many jokes can you tell that start, ‘One day in the garment district…’?”  He was speechless, then said he couldn’t put a number to them.”

Martha Beck was at a science fiction function and got into a conversation with a man who was a physicist. She casually mentioned Sid, and the man said in awed tones, “You know Sidney Coleman!?”

After all, Sid attended high school and university simultaneously, getting his bachelor’s degree when he graduated from high school, a feat I’ve never known to be equaled. Sid went to Caltech for his doctorate with Murray Gell-Mann in 1962, age 25. He attended LASFS meetings and swiftly became a major theoretical physicist.  Many fans never quite knew his prominence.

“I’m at the top of the second rank,” Carol Carr remembers him saying.

Sid the Physicist

I first met him in the 1960s, introduced by Terry Carr, who explained with a wry smile, “You’re both in physics and write for Innuendo [Terry’s fanzine], so you should probably know each other.” Sid was already both a better physicist and wit, of course. He was far more subtle and powerful in his mathematics than I.

In the late 1980s he caught the attention of the entire physics world with a calculation, using a “wormhole calculus” he invented for the purpose. It carried the characteristically witty title, “Why there is nothing rather than something: a theory of the cosmological constant.” [Nucl. Phys. B 310: 643 (1988)] In it he concluded that through complex dynamics in the first moments of the universe, it was later able to sustain life forms that could perhaps “know joy.”

He showed how the cosmological constant could be forced to be zero in the early universe. This fit the prevailing prejudice among theorists that the constant, first introduced by Einstein to make the universe static, neither expanding nor contracting. When Hubble found in the late 1920s that the universe is expanding, Einstein said imposing the constant was a blunder, not because it was a bad idea, but because Einstein didn’t see that the resulting equilibrium was unstable. Any minor jiggle would destroy the static state, starting motion. Even with the constant, he should have foreseen that Hubble would either see a universe growing or shrinking.

Sidney had no prejudice either way on the value of the constant, but he did see a pretty way to use quantum mechanical ideas to propose a sweet model—the sort of confection theorists hold dear. I was startled by the intricate audacity of his calculation, as were many others.

At the time I had been working on some wormhole calculations myself, much more prosaically trying to find a way to see if we had any wormholes nearby and if they could be found out through their refracting ability. Some wormholes might develop one end that looked as though it had negative mass, since its other end had funneled a lot of mass out through its mouth. These would yield a unique refracting signature, two peaks, if a star passed behind it, along our line of sight. Find the two peaks (rather than one for ordinary wormhole mouths, or any ordinary mass) and—presto, a gateway to the stars, maybe. It was a clear longshot.

Sid had no illusions about his model—it was a longshot, too, that just might be right. Worth a chance. I felt the same.

Everybody liked the “wormhole calculus” because they liked the result, a zero constant. That seemed clean, neat, a theorist’s delight. Sid basked in the attention, though he didn’t think this was his best work. My work, done with several others, got a lot of citation and wasn’t my best, either; wormholes just get good press. Sid quoted Einstein wryly that “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and the Swiss will declare that I am their citizen. If it fails, Switzerland will say I’m a German and the Germans will say I am a Jew.”

It turned out that the cosmological constant isn’t zero at all. In fact, it represents the highest energy density in the universe, far more important in dynamics than mere matter like us. In fact, it’s close to the value that will eventually give us the Big Rip that will tear everything apart at the End of Time, even atoms. When I mentioned in 1996 the recent discovery that the constant was large, not zero, Sid shrugged. “Win some, lose some in the old cosmology game.”

We haven’t found any refracting wormholes, either. That’s just how science goes.

The Sidneyfest

When Sid’s decline became evident, the Harvard physics department put on a Sidneyfest that ran over a weekend. Some reports on this event, with pictures, are at  HYPERLINK

Then-president of Harvard Larry Summers opened the Fest before a large crowd with, “There has not been so much talent gathered around the snack table since Einstein snacked alone.” Nobelist Steven Weinberg gave the next talk, discussing how to calculate Feynman diagrams for quantized general relativity. He talked about work in progress, and at the end said, “I don’t know what to do now.  Does anybody else?”  This was the place to ask! He added, “In happier times, I would have gone straight to Sidney Coleman.”

Though Weinberg is now at the University of Texas, he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Shelly Glashow and Abdus Salam for work done down the hall from Sid. “Sidney is a theorist’s theorist,” Weinberg said. “He has not been so much concerned with accounting for the latest data from experiments as with understanding deeply what our theories really mean. I can say I learned more about physics from Sidney than from anyone else. I also learned more good jokes from him than from anyone else.”

The noted particle theorist Howard Georgi said, “In his prime, which lasted for a very long time, from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘80s, Sidney was such a towering figure in theoretical physics that even his close colleagues (Nobel prize winners, etc.) were somewhat in awe of him. In fact, we had to be careful about talking to Sidney too soon about new ideas, because he was so smart and had such encyclopedic knowledge that he could kill nascent ideas before they really got started.”

Sidney was a beloved teacher of graduate students, and many of them attended the Sidneyfest. Sid referred to the community as i fratelli fisici, by which he meant the brotherhood of physicists. (Most physicists speak at least a bit of broken Italian, a legacy of the grand and highly influential summer schools organized by Nino Zichichi in Erice, Sicily.) In a physics career one often arrives by train or plane, anywhere in the world, on the way to a conference or academic visit. One of the fondest reflections of being a scientist is to then be greeted by a total stranger, who immediately treated one like an old friend. Erice was like that; the brotherhood of science. With good food.

The town likes the NATO-backed workshops because they bring an elevated form of tourism to the ancient town on a granite spire, perched a kilometer above a beautiful beach. One year a noted German physicist drove down in his brand new Mercedes and parked it outside the workshop buildings, which were once a convent. He emerged an hour later to find the Mercedes stolen along with his luggage and all his lecture notes. The German panicked, and Director Zichichi led him back inside to give him a glass or two of good Sicilian wine. Emerging an hour later, there sat the Mercedes. Zichichi had ties everywhere. The local Mafia had found the thieves. Then they kindly returned the car, washed, waxed and fully fueled—an impressively offhand way to show real power. Sid always loved telling this tale.

I had given a lecture series there in astrophysics, suspecting that the true appeal of Erice was the meal chits they gave out for attendees. Good in many of the best restaurants, these allowed for wine with the meal, no questions asked. This single gesture made the afternoon sessions either lively or dead, depending on the quality and quantity of the wine. But Sidney avoided the wine, focusing on clarifying his own lectures right up to the last minute. His careful, insightful summaries of the state of knowledge in field theory became famous and appeared as a book devoted solely to them.

One of the Sidneyfest attendees who got his doctorate at Harvard remarked, “How do you do physics at Harvard? You go to Witten to give you a problem to work on. You go to Coleman to tell you how to solve it. Then you go to Weinberg to write you a reference letter.” Ed Witten is the Einstein figure of string theory and much else. Weinberg won the Nobel for what we now call the Standard Model.

Though I’ve never met Weinberg, I learned a lot of physics just working through a Weinberg calculation he did as a toss-off for a classified project I worked on in the late 1960s, given the problem by Edward Teller, who had hired me in 1967. Weinberg’s footprint in the calculations was impressive. He came a decade ahead of me in the profession and I rather regretted showing that the method he studied would not work in reality. But physics isn’t just about getting everything to work; it’s about the truth. Weinberg was no sharper than Sid, but he happened upon an insight that proved out true quite swiftly. There is a lot of luck in science; many of the brilliant just don’t hit quite the right problem. Sid won prizes, several Sidneyfest attendees remarked, but not the big ones.

There were many Sid stories. One was about being at a physics meeting where Stephen Hawking spoke up from his wheelchair. This was around 1976, when Stephen could barely control his throat, and struggled to make his points in his semi-unintelligible way. His comment contained a detailed, abstruse mathematical argument and went on for minutes. Sid said that he was tempted to reply, “That’s easy for you to say,” but held his tongue.

Another Sid story: A mathematician and an engineer are sitting in on a string theory lecture. The engineer is struggling, while the mathematician is swimming along with no problem. Finally the engineer asks, “How do you do it? How do you visualize these 11-dimensional spaces?” The mathematician says, “It’s easy: first I visualize an n-dimensional space, then I set n equal to 11.”

At the fest Sidney could not deal with the crowd, so he watched the proceedings on TV in a small room off to the side. At the end he appeared before the crowd but declined to comment, saying later, “At my age you tend to emit a lot of gas, and I’d rather not.”


Rather than his physics, I remember best Sid’s brilliant wit. He once remarked about dopey plot twists, “The one good thing about stupidity is that it leads to adventure.”  I’ve often thought that applies to life as a whole, too.

Bob Silverberg recalled in a fanzine, “While traveling in France in the early 1970s, Sidney unexpectedly contracted a case of what turned out to be crabs. ‘Unexpectedly’ because this is customarily a venereal disease, and he had been a model of chastity throughout his trip. The offending organisms must have been concealed in the bedding of his hotel room, he decided, and so he had suffered a case of punishment without the crime. But during the trip he had not, however, remained true to the dietary restrictions imposed by the religious doctrines of his forefathers; and, he said, after visiting a French doctor and having his ailment diagnosed for what it was, he was granted a vision of his Orthodox grandfather rising up in wrath before him and thundering, ‘Thou hast eaten crustaceans, child, and now thou shalt be devoured by crustaceans thyself!’”

Carol Carr remembers that Sid’s French was limited, and that a literal translation of what he told the doctor was, “Small animals are eating my penis.”

In the fevered height of the 1970s, when even theoretical physicists had gotten the hip message of the 1960s, Sid had a tailored purple suit. He wore it with stylish aplomb, smiling his owlish smiles below twinkling eyes, pretending to not notice the flagrant color. Once, walking across Harvard Yard, we encountered a student who had a question about a career in physics. I wondered how Sid would reply, since I usually gave a long, windy answer. Sid simply swept a hand grandly down his tailored flanks and said, “Study hard, have original ideas, and someday you, too, may wear a purple suit.”

Carol Carr also recalls:  “Sid made the expression ‘enjoying oneself’ a concrete, observable act, and he would sometimes be caught shamelessly indulging in it.  Once, at a party, he had just said something funny to a bunch of people.  After the punchline he walked out of the room, leaving them all in mid-grin.  Several minutes later I happened to notice him, alone in a corner, still chortling to himself.  What he’d said to those people had a long half-life, and Sid was a bonafide, dyed-in-the-wool appreciator.  If a good joke happened to be his own, he wasn’t about to apply the doctrine of false modesty and let it die before its time.”

When his physics department suddenly needed someone to fill in for an ill colleague, they asked Sid if he could teach a field theory class that the energetic colleague had scheduled for 8 a.m. Sid was a notorious night owl who often had to rouse his dinner guests to go home at a mere 3 a.m. He relished the pleasures of watching the sun come up while putting on pajamas and others stirred. Still, he considered. He felt that he did have an obligation to his department. “I’m sorry,” he finally said, “I just don’t think I could stay up that late.”

He wrote a great sendup of the space program:

“Once I gained access to Pioneer 10, it was the work of a moment to substitute for NASA’s plaque my own, which read, “Make ten exact copies of this plaque with your name at the bottom of the list and send them to ten intelligent races of your acquaintance. At the end of four billion years, your name will reach the top of the list and you will rule the galaxy.”

If only A. E. van Vogt had thought of this economical idea!

Of course, Sid had his oddities. He was the worst driver I ever knew, distracted by conversation with his passengers, oblivious to the screech and shouts of near-accidents. Marta Randall remarked on how when she was the lead car on the several-car trip to  a restaurant, she always saw Sid in her rear view mirror in profile, attentive to his passengers.

But then, Feynman considered dental hygiene to be a superstition, despite his rotten teeth. Einstein hated socks.  We have our foibles.

Sid did indeed look a lot like Einstein, but he loved SF whereas Einstein deplored it. Lest SF distort pure science and give people the false illusion of scientific understanding, Einstein recommended complete abstinence from any type of science fiction. “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough,” he said.

Now, though, Sid can’t concentrate enough to read SF. For decades he took SF seriously but not solemnly, and his insights led to his role as a book reviewer for F&SF—the only non-literary person ever to serve. His F&SF book reviews skewered the second rate and revealed the excellences of the able. In a review of a novel that did not make the grade in a nonetheless ambitious area, he simply remarked, “This book fills a much needed vacancy in our field.”

Sid is just the opposite. As he fades from us, his departure from our midst leaves a vacancy that echoes, unfillable.

—Greg Benford