Posts Tagged ‘The Fountains of Paradise’

Did Irish Scientist J.D. Bernal Invent Star Trek’s Borg Back in the ’30s

December 27, 2022

Here’s another question about writers inventing or predicting later scientific concepts. In my last such post, I wondered whether Poul Anderson had predicted James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis back in 1952 in a story about alien plants growing on an asteroid, which had become symbiotically linked so they acted as a superorganism. This time the writer. who predicted later SF trends, is J.D. Bernal, a scientist from Ireland, who was also a Communist. In the 1930s Bernal wrote a pamphlet, The World, The Flesh and The Devil, discussing future trends in technology, the colonisation of space and human evolution. Although it’s something like 90 years, it’s still immensely influential and many of its predictions are scientifically plausible. It’s one of only two scientific works included in Mike Ashley history of British SF in 100 stories. This notes that, among other inventions, it suggested that people would live on the inside of spherical space colonies containing up to 10,000 people. These have been named Bernal spheres after Bernal. He also proposed space elevators carrying spacecraft to orbit, which have since become associated with Arthur C. Clarke through his book The Fountains of Paradise. Clarke said on reading Bernal’s book that he was amazed how many of the ideas he thought were his were actually Bernal’s, though the idea of space elevators was actually first invented by a Russian.

Bernal also suggested that humanity would merge with machines, and so predicted cyborgs, although he doesn’t use that term for them. This was invented by NASA scientists in the ’60s. He also suggests that robots could be networked together and linked to a human operator to form a kind of hive mind, although he doesn’t call it that either. Hm. Cyborgs linked together so that they form a collective intelligence? That sounds very much like the Borg, one of the villains from Star Trek. These are a race of cyborgs, who have done exactly that, crushing all individuality in the process. They consider themselves superior to all other races, whom they forcibly assimilate, uttering the chilling words: ‘We are Borg. Resistance is futile. Your biological and technological distinctiveness is at end. You will service us.’ It struck me that the Borg is partly a metaphor for Communism, its extreme levelling and the reduction of the individual under its mass society to drones, apart from the more obvious fear of an alien threat coming to destroy and enslave us. I don’t know whether the writers of Star Trek ever read Bernal’s book. I doubt it, and it seems to me that they created them independently. But Bernal does seem to have got there first with the concept of a group of robots or cyborgs with a single, collective mind.

The Borg, Star Trek’s cyborg villains. From Michael Westmore and Joe Nazzaro, Starlog Presents The Official Magazine Star Trek The Next Generation Makeup FX Journal (New York: Starlog 1992).

Brave New World Comes Closer as Company Launches Concept of Artificial Womb Facility

December 13, 2022

This is really chilling. Interesting Engineering, a YouTube channel devoted to news about cutting edge science and technology, put up a piece today about a company, EctoLife, launching the concept of a mass artificial womb facility, that could produce 30,000 births a year. The channel said that the use of the term ‘produce’ was deliberate, as the company also intends to have tools that would allow parents to customise their children.

For more information, go to https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEuiOszNd6msGgqsD0f9YAQ/community?lb=Ugkxv37SPqDJAmrUqHasXxF3p0NVguxZewuj.

This is really chilling, as it seems some moron has read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and thought it was a good idea. Huxley’s SF classic is set in a community 200 years after the Fordist Revolution. The family has been abolished and children are born from hatcheries, genetically manipulated and conditioned for their predetermined roles in society. Sex is purely recreational, and parental terms like ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are considered obscenities and unspeakable insults if directed at people. Drugs are used recreationally, and it’s a hedonistic culture directed towards pleasure in which genuine cultural progress has ceased, and art, literature and so on aren’t valued. I think it’s been filmed at least twice. There was a miniseries in the 1980s/90s, if I remember correctly, and another TV version at the beginning of this century.

People have been predicting the development of artificial wombs for a long time. Way back around 1984/5 the Observer ran a piece about them and what they would mean for the people born from them. They were also included in one of the articles speculating about future scientific discoveries and how they would impact humans in a 1990s issue of Scientific American. This included a photo of goat embryos being grown in a lab.

There are any number of ethical issues about this. The most immediate is the divorce of human reproduction from biology. I can see how the development of such techniques could help those women, who want children but are physically unable to carry a child. But this also raises the spectre of the mass industrial production of humans, the withering away or abolition of the traditional family and its replacement by the company or the state, as well as the genetic engineering of humans to suit the wishes of the parents. This is really dark, dystopian stuff, and recalls some of the fears that were discussed with the development of test-tube children back in the 1970s.

On the other hand, I do wonder if this is actually a serious proposition. A number of companies have announced very ambitious scientific schemes in the past. Back in the 90s once again, one American company declared it was seriously interested in developing a space elevator. That’s a giant lift that would take capsules up into space so they could be launched using far less energy than on Earth. That’s an idea made famous by Arthur C. Clarke in his book The Fountains of Paradise. It also needs far tougher materials than are available at present. In order to withstand the immense weight and stresses, the elevator would need to be made of a material 80 times stronger than steel. There have been interesting developments in the creation of tough carbon fibres, but at the present level of technology the construction of such an edifice is impossible. There was a piece in one of the popular science mags, I think it may have been New Scientist, in which the author predicted that we’d see space elevators in perhaps two or three decades’ time, given recent progress. Well, perhaps. But I’m still sceptical, just as I’m sceptical about this ever becoming a reality. Note that they’re talking about ‘concept’ rather than reality. That says to me that this may well be just hype, and they’re actually a long way away from creating it.

Fabio Pacucci on the Science of Space Elevators

December 11, 2021

This short video comes from the TedEd channel on YouTube, presumably connected to the TED talks in which leading intellectuals and academics explain their ideas. In this case, its about space elevators. These are long cables that would carry materials and passengers up to Earth orbit. The idea was first proposed by Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in 1895, after the deaf school teacher saw the tallest building in the world at the time. If one could be built, it would massively reduce the costs of transporting people and material to orbit. These would be taken aloft in special capsules called ‘Climbers’, which would have to be shielded against radiation to protect human passengers. At the moment, it costs SpaceX $7,600 per kilo. It’s estimated that space elevators, their immense power needs supplied either by solar energy or nuclear power, could reduce this by 95 per cent. The problem is that that at the moment there is no material strong enough to support such a building. It has been suggested that carbon monofilaments and nanotubes could provide the solution, but only tiny amounts of these have been manufactured at the moment. There is also the problem that the gravitational stresses and hence the thickness of the cable would vary with height. One solution to this problem would be to extend the cable to counterweight, either a satellite or captured asteroid in geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the Earth. The problem of keeping the tether rigid would be solved by using centrifugal force from the Earth’s spin. The station back on Terra would be best situated at the equator, and possibly a ship at sea. This would allow it mobility to avoid storms and terrible weather. It is immensely difficult to build such an elevator on Earth, but they could be built on the Moon and Mars using current technology and materials. But they’d be far more of an advantage built here on Earth. Another problem is that if the cable was cut, the effects as it fell to Earth would be catastrophic. Despite the difficulties of construction, there are companies in China and Japan planning to build them by 2050.

The idea of the space elevator has been around for some time. Arthur C. Clarke thought for a while that he had invented the idea in his book about the building of such a tower in his adopted home of Sri Lanka in his 1970s novel, The Fountains of Paradise. This lasted until he looked the idea up in the scientific literature, and found it went all the back to the Russians. It would truly be a giant leap in space exploitation and colonisation if we could build a space elevator, but I think building one by 2050 is extremely optimistic. Way back in the 1990s or the early part of this century I remember an American firm announcing they were going to develop the idea. Unfortunately one of the problems at the time is that, according to the techniques being proposed, the station back on Earth would have to be anchored by an entire mountain range. So, not really possible and that was the end anyone heard of the idea.

It’s great that research into space elevators is continuing, but I think it will be a long time before they become reality, whether built by Americans, Chinese, Japanese or whoever.