Jon LombergMay 21, 2013

Report from the Starship Century Conference: Monday

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.

Let’s Go Beyond The Horizon

Every success in space exploration is the result of the community of space enthusiasts, like you, who believe it is important. You can help usher in the next great era of space exploration with your gift today.

Donate Today