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Jon Lomberg

Report from the Starship Century Conference: Monday

Posted by Jon Lomberg

21-05-2013 10:42 CDT

Topics: about science writing, Future Mission Concepts, future technology

The Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination is a new facility of the University of California San Diego. It is named after Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the inventor of the geosynchronous communication satellite, author of many science and science fiction books, and the co-creator, with director Stanley Kubrick, of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke, who died in 2008, had an enormous impact on generations of people who became fascinated by space and the future. Unlike so many of today’s forecasters, he did not predict dystopia. Instead he saw humanity developing a saner civilization that would ultimately travel out to the stars, perhaps to find companions.

Equally, Sir Arthur had a lifelong love of the oceans and the creatures they contain. No mere armchair explorer, he was a pioneering archaeological scuba diver who portrayed the oceans as places as alien, wonderful, and beautiful as the planets, and also places deeply sensitive to disruption by human activity. He founded and led a marine science facility in Sri Lanka, where he lived most of his life as one of the island nation’s most respected citizens.

The new Clarke Center at UCSD is associated with Calit2. That’s California IT squared, which has incredible projection and animation resources at UCSD. It hopes to carry on Clarke’s spirit of combining accurate and cutting-edge science and engineering with a deeply humane worldview. It uses Information Technology’s niftiest new tools to tackle topics as diverse and difficult as brain imaging and art restoration. The Clarke Center Director Sheldon Brown is a master digital animator. Digital animation today is often an orchestration of many talents, and Director Brown has been assembling and orchestrating a team and resources to boldly go where no Mixed Discipline department has gone before.

Among the first of their activities is to host a conference called Starship Century. Details about the Center, the conference, and a link to a live webcast are all found here. The conference was initiated by Greg and Jim Benford, twin brothers who both became plasma physicists, one in academia, one in industry. Greg is also an acclaimed science fiction writer with many plaudits. Jim has pioneered work in the use of beamed microwaves. Together they have explored how this technology could be used to propel a sail through space over great distances, possibly even interstellar distances.

And traveling to the stars is the theme of the Benfords’ new book Starship Century, a collection of original essays and stories about the theory and practice of star travel. It’s as good a summary of where we are on this visionary idea as you will find anywhere. (And I can’t resist saying that the brothers themselves were predicted by science fiction. Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Time for the Stars, written in 1956 when the brothers were both still boys, depicted twin brothers, both physicists, who are involved in the first interstellar mission—and one of them is even named Gregory!)

Scientists have written essays about the nuts and bolts of making starships that work and what destinations they might attempt to reach. Using fiction as a kind of laboratory, science fiction writers try to imagine ways to do it so that people on very long voyages can stay sane, companionable and a motivated to achieve a goal that might take at a minimum many years, and possibly many centuries. It’s as if Columbus set sail and was arriving in Florida right now. It’s a long time to be between planets. Crew morale could be a problem.

The conference at the Clarke Center brings together contributors to that book and other scientists, engineers, fiction writers and people in space-related industry to exchange ideas and continue the thought experiment—all it really is at this stage--- and push the idea forward toward the time when we actually design our first interstellar probes, which could be sooner than you think if anybody is willing to pay for it.

Among the attendees are science fiction writers David Brin, Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, Joe Haldeman, Alan Steele, and Geoffrey Landis. And imaginative scientists Freeman Dyson, going strong at 90, author of the concept of Dyson Spheres, infrared SETI searches, and so much more; astronomer Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, reigning radioastronomer in the SETI world, still undeterred and optimistic about the ongoing, patient search for artificial signals in space; and physicist Paul Davies, whose perceptive intellect has produced a number of original ideas and insights in SETI and bioastronomy circles, not to mention the Templeton Award for writing about science and religion.

Also in attendance is science writer Nalaka Gunawardene, Clarke’s long-time collaborator in Sri Lanka, who carries on Clarke’s work in that country.

I also met a man who said Arthur C. Clarke had called him "the most famous unknown actor in the world.” His name is Daniel Richter. A professional mime and experimental theater artist, he played the ape who throws the bone (so to speak) in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also choreographed all the ape sequences in that classic piece of futuristic cinema. He and Clarke became good friends. I like to think of him representing Sir Arthur and all the rest of us visionary apes, listening on his behalf.

In his post-grad years, Jim Benford lived in La Jolla, and after lunch yesterday we took a walk along the spectacular rocky coast, admiring the wave sets rolling in and the seals piled up on each other, basking in the warm May sun. Jim recalled that in 1966 in the very area where we stood, there had been a hippie Be-In, a gathering of counterculture tribes that symbolized the utopian face of the counterculture, gently asserting a different perspective and agenda. The Starship Century book and conference is a similar kind of event, not for flower children, but for dreamers nevertheless who are optimistic enough about the long-term future of our species that getting out to the stars seems in the long run inevitable. And that our species is, if not perfectible, it is at least improvable.

Not a bad dream to have.

Read Lomberg's report from the second day at the conference here.

See other posts from May 2013


Or read more blog entries about: about science writing, Future Mission Concepts, future technology


Bob Ware: 05/21/2013 12:15 CDT

Can we go? Yes. Should we go? Yes. 1st contact will not be easy. It could be volatile. It could be benevolent. It will be interesting either way. 1st communication probably will need to be simple visual with an image and 1 word text and verbal with it. EX: image of: APPLE, below lettering A P P L E then spoken APPLE. Whether we can mimic each others speech sounds won't be known until tried. Remember a starship crew has to be able to manufacture and reproduce consumables as well as items for repair. A starship cannot possibly carry all we need to survive and return to collect more supplies for the colonists and bring out more colonists. A starship as a freighter has the same criteria to meet. If you loose the freighter, well ... Starship flight as all other spaceflight is an acceptable risk or we would not take the flight. Those who say it is to dangerous need to remain behind and let those of us who see this as an acceptable risk take the trek.

Max: 05/21/2013 03:30 CDT

I think we need to wait until some grownups build a starship and then hijack it. That's what Gracie and Paul would have done...

Zorbonian : 05/22/2013 02:57 CDT

We are even assuming that alien life is even remotely like us. What if they are completely different, intelligent in a vastly different way? Think along the lines of Tin Man from Star Trek TNG, for example. Or they could be like the Sheliak - the species that considered humanity to be a plague that would be better off eradicated (they may not be too far off the mark :-) ). And those examples are still within the realm of human understanding... Something that was recently posted on one of the main Internet portals about the possibility and economic feasibility of a Star Trek type of future was pretty interesting.

Bob Ware: 05/22/2013 09:08 CDT

Hey Z -- long time no hear... Good points you made ref'ing ST-TNG, Star Trek is a concept and a good one at that. It all started back in Sep't '66.

Zorbonian : 05/24/2013 02:34 CDT

BWARE! - how goes it? I have been reading the blogs every so often. Yep, good ol' Star Trek. There is a group (at least one) that advocates us (humanity? the U.S.? - not sure) building a star ship like the Enterprise (building it in space). Of course, the group realizes that it would not be able to be exactly like the ones in the series. The propulsion system would be different (probably an advanced system that would be able to get us to Mars in 90 days or less), and they feel that the saucer section should rotate, creating artificial gravity. The thing is, if we don't start somewhere, we will never do it. Necessity is the mother of invention - a lot of things get invented this way (the phillips head screwdriver and screws, for example).

Bob Ware: 05/26/2013 01:05 CDT

Hey Z, I did not know about that starship group. Who are they?They do have the right idea. Sure something like that has to be built in space as well as have its own manufacturing ability and a large enough crew and living space for mental health issues. Remember the old blog days when I pushed the rotation saucer section also in my design? Glad you're are still around. I wish we still had the old blog section. Star Trek designs (Heavy Cruiser class, exceeds our ability in the structural loads limits, engine mount right angles by example) so we have to have a slightly different design. I had a needed design in the '60's which ended up with Star Trek coming up with it. They called her Voyager...30 years later.

Zorbonian : 05/26/2013 11:19 CDT

Here you go - the link: Don't you just hate it when someone else gets credit for your idea just because they have the funding or means to get the idea out there?

Zorbonian : 05/26/2013 11:34 CDT

On the "Enterprise" website on the left you will see between 20 - 25 links. If you click on the first link and read - "Our Space Problem" - it echoes my sentiments exactly.

Bob Ware: 05/29/2013 11:04 CDT

Hey Z -- Thanks. yeah I hate my ideas being stolen just as much as the next victim when funding is the sole issue. As we say in radio, plagerism is the highest form of flattery! LOL!! I'll check the links tomorrow. I spent most of the night doing Martian meteorology.

Bob Ware: 06/01/2013 11:42 CDT

Hey Z - Sorry, I forgot to enter comments. That is one hefty R&D idea hey have. The general idea and approach is a great idea. I'm not to thrilled with the overall propulsion structural design. The radiation issue is now recorded by MSL as a serious issue. They need to figure that out real fast. See: Meteoroid shielding and repairs is the least of their worries, A triple hull is not necessary unless it figures into shielding but the material to shield is the key.

Zorbonian : 06/04/2013 03:41 CDT

Yeah - I think there will be a lot of things that would have to be re-worked, but we have to start somewhere. I can see people getting really excited about building a Star Trek type of Enterprise. What I am thinking about the radiation shielding is some sort of active electrical type of shield. More things need to be tested to see what keeps out the radiation the best. I agree with what you said about this new website. What bothers me about it is that the blogs that have had the most current responses are not at the top, so you have to go looking for them...

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