"Tell me what happened!"
"The tree came apart.
"Maybe the fire set it off, but it was ready. Clave, everythiiing in the Smoke Ring has some way of getting around. Some way to stay near the median... middle, where there's warater and air. Where do you think jet pods come from?" The hanand relaxed a little, and the Grad kept talking. "It's a plant's way of gettmg around. If a plant wanders out of the median, t too far into the gas torus region--"
Alfin asked, "What on Earth is going on?"
'Clave wants to know what happened. Alfin, can you steer this thing and pick up some more of us? Here—" He passed across his store of jet pods.
Alfin took them. He took his time deciding what to do with them, and the Grad ignored him while he lectured. "The Smoke Ring runs down the median of a much bigger region. That's the gas torus, where the molecules... the bits of air have long meanfree-paths. The air is very thin in the gas torus, but there's some. It gets thicker along the median. That's where you find all the water and the soil and the plants. That's what the Smoke Ring IS living thing wants to stay."
"Where it can breathe. All right, go on."
"Everything in the Smoke Ring can maneuver somehow. An¬ imals mostly have wings. Plants, well, some plants grow jet pods. They spit seeds back toward the median where they can grow and breed, or they spit sterile seeds farther into the gas torus, and the reaction pushes the plant back toward the median. Then there are plants that send out a long root to grab anything that's passing. There are kites—"
"What about the jungles?"
"I... I don't know. The Scientist never—"
"Skip it. What about the trees?"
"Now, that's really interesting. The Scientist came up with this, but he couldn't prove it—"
The hand tightened. The Grad babbled, "If an integral tree falls too far out of the median, it starts to die. It dies in the center. The insects eat it out. They're symbiotes, not parasites. When the center rots, the tree comes apart. See, half of it falls further away, and half of it drops back toward the median. Half lives, half dies, and it's better than nothing."
You are part of a scientifc techno-progressive movement that seeks to solve transhumanity’s injustices and inequalities with technology. You support universal access to technology and healthcare, open source models of production, morphological freedom, and democratization. You try to avoid factionalism and divisive politics, seeing transhumanity’s splintering as a hindrance to its perpetuation.
'Well, then, supposing there were other suns in the universe.' He broke off a little bashfully. 'I mean suns that are so far away that they're too dim to see. It sounds as if I've been reading some of that fantastic fiction, I suppose.'
'Not necessarily. Still, isn't that possibility eliminated by the fact that, according to the Law of Gravitation, they would make themselves evident by their attractive forces?'
'Not if they were far enough off,' rejoined Beenay, 'really far off -- maybe as much as four light years, or even more. We'd never be able to detect perturbations then, because they'd be too small. Say that there were a lot of suns that far off; a dozen or two, maybe.'
Theremon whistled melodiously. 'What an idea for a good Sunday supplement article. Two dozen suns in a universe eight light years across. Wow! That would shrink our world into insignificance. The readers would eat it up.'
'Only an idea,' said Beenay with a grin, 'but you see the point. During an eclipse, these dozen suns would become visible because there'd be no real sunlight to drown them out. Since they're so far off, they'd appear small, like so many little marbles. Of course the Cultists talk of millions of Stars, but that's probably exaggeration. There just isn't any place in the universe you could put a million suns -- unless they touch one another.'
Sheerin had listened with gradually increasing interest. 'You've hit something there, Beenay. And exaggeration is just exactly what would happen. Our minds, as you probably know, can't grasp directly any number higher than five; above that there is only the concept of "many". A dozen would become a million just like that. A damn good idea!'
'And I've got another cute little notion,' Beenay said. 'Have you ever thought what a simple problem gravitation would be if only you had a sufficiently simple system? Supposing you had a universe in which there was a planet with only one sun. The planet would travel in a perfect ellipse and the exact nature of the gravitational force would be so evident it could be accepted as an axiom. Astronomers on such a world would start off with gravity probably before they even invented the telescope. Naked-eye observation would be enough.'
'But would such a system be dynamically stable?' questioned Sheerin doubtfully.
'Sure! They call it the "one-and-one" case. It's been worked out mathematically, but it's the philosophical implications that interest me.'
'It's nice to think about,' admitted Sheerin, 'as a pretty abstraction -- like a perfect gas, or absolute zero.'
'Of course,' continued Beenay, 'there's the catch that life would be impossible on such a planet. It wouldn't get enough heat and light, and if it rotated there would be total Darkness half of each day. You couldn't expect life -- which is fundamentally dependent upon light -- to develop under those conditions. Besides -- '
Now science fiction movies are mostly just shoot-‘em-ups, but back in the day sci-fi was a medium to explore social issues. SF allowed us to examine the core elements of controversial issues without all the emotional baggage that went along with them. It’s easy to dismiss the genre when you have grown-up fans walking around in costumes and silver make-up, but SF employs disarming tools to tease core arguments from their tired rhetoric. Here pundits, smoke screens, and slogans are stripped away and we see a subject as though for the first time. We get to test whether the rules we create to guide our lives work in any world or are just arbitrary constructs. And back in the late 1960s, no science fiction did this better then Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, TOS (that’s “the original series” for those who actually dated in high school.)
Take the issue of Vietnam. It’s an understatement to say that back then it was hard for people to look at the Vietnam war objectively; on one side you had Jane Fonda, on the other Richard Nixon. (I don’t know about you but when I was a young boy, images of both of them used to get my blood pumping, albeit in completely different ways.) Put the issue on an alien planet and set up the plot so the Klingons are arming one side, the Federation the other, and an innocent, naïve alien species is in the middle. It becomes easy to see that simply arming both sides to the teeth is not the answer.
Consider too how complicated the subject of race relations was four decades ago. Star Trek simplified it for me. When a conflict between black-and-white striped aliens erupts onto the bridge of the Enterprise the absurdity of racism is dramatically illustrated. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the only reason these two “races” so vehemently hate each other is because one of them is black on the right side and the other black on the left. Sure it’s silly, but in a time when laws were still on the books in the United States preventing interracial couples from marrying, you couldn’t blame the writers of Star Trek for being heavy handed.
On the subject of faith, Trek had a very clear position. Of everything in my past, it is this one show that I most credit for being able to identify myself as an atheist. There was a recurring plotline in so many episodes that it almost became a running theme—some all-powerful being would set itself up as God but would eventually turn out to be nothing more than an advanced alien or megalomaniacal computer. As a little kid watching episodes like “Return of the Archons” and “The Apple,” I learned that it wasn’t enough to have faith in something just because everyone else around you did. I learned there might be truths outside one’s own society—heavy stuff for a seven-year-old.
In an episode called “The Squire of Gothos,” actor William Campbell played one of these all-powerful beings. Even though his powers were limitless he was the bad guy. In other words, all-powerful did not automatically equal all good. Captain Kirk decides to oppose this being, even though the alien seems unstoppable. In the end this superbeing turns out to be nothing more than a child, and his parents show up just in time to put an end to his antics. Now consider the message: it doesn’t matter if you are all powerful. If you’re doing something wrong, you’re doing something wrong, and should be opposed. No matter what the consequence. Wow. This wasn’t what I was being taught in my catechism classes.
And so as a boy I found it increasingly hard to understand why Christians weren’t acting the way Kirk and Spock were. If there was a God, some being causing earthquakes and hurling hurricanes, why wouldn’t Christians (or Jews or Muslims for that matter) fight against such a being? What I was learning on Star Trek seemed more moral to me than what I was learning in church. As I got older and learned more about suffering around the world, the more I wondered why religious people didn’t oppose such a cruel God. These holy men should be up in arms, I thought. If they were faithful Star Trek watchers, they would be trying to build some sort of giant phaser to take him out.
And even at seven I was smart enough to know that God doesn’t get a pass by saying he didn’t cause the terrible things that were happening in the world. If you can stop something from happening and you choose not to, it’s as bad as causing it. (I learned that from my mom when I sat watching my dog eat an entire pan of lasagna off the kitchen counter while my family was all in the other room.) Why were priests and rabbis afraid, I’d wonder, just because this “God” of theirs was powerful? Didn’t religious people think someplace out in the vastness of the universe there might be a mommy and daddy god having a much needed night on the town, destined to return at the last minute to whisk away this naughty child calling himself god with a capital G and return the world to its normal conditions?
Not only is science fiction an idea of tremendous import, but it is to be an important factor in making the world a better place to live in, through educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life which, even today, are not appreciated byu the man on the street. ... If every man, woman, boy and girl, could be induced to read science fiction right along, there would certainly be a great resulting benefit to the community, in that the educational standards of its people would be raised tremendously. Science fiction would make people happier, give them a broader understanding of the world, make tham more tolerant.
I always rejoice to hear of your being still employed in experimental researches into nature, and of the success you meet with. The rapid progress true science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon: it is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter; we may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity for the sake of easy transport. Agriculture may diminish its labour and double its produce; all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured (not excepting even that of old age), and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard. Oh! that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement; that men would cease to be wolves to one another; and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity!
Science fiction like Star Trek is not only good fun but it also serves a serious purpose, that of expanding the human imagination. We may not yet be able to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before, but at least we can do it in the mind. We can explore how the human spirit might respond to future developments in science and we can speculate on what those developments might be. There is a two-way trade between science fiction and science. Science fiction suggests ideas that scientists incorporate into their theories, but sometimes science turns up notions that are stranger than any science fiction. Black holes are an example, greatly assisted by the inspired name that the physicist John Archibald Wheeler gave them. Had they continued with their original names of “frozen stars” or “gravitationally completely collapsed objects,” there wouldn't have been half so much written about them.
...today's science fiction is often tomorrow's science fact. The physics that underlies Star Trek is surely worth investigating. To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.
In fact, a physics colleague, Mark Srednicki of U.C. Santa Barbara, brought to my attention a much greater gaffe in one episode, in which sound waves are used as a weapon against an orbiting ship. As if that weren't bad enough, the sound waves are said to reach “18 to the 12th power decibels.” What makes this particularly grate on the ear of a physicist is that the decibel scale is a logarithmic scale, like the Richter scale. This means that the number of decibels already represents a power of 10, and they are normalized so that 20 decibels is 10 times louder than 10 decibels, and 30 decibels is 10 times louder again. Thus, 18 to the 12th power decibels would be 10 (18)^12 , or 1 followed by 11,568,313,814,300 zeroes times louder than a jet plane!
"Restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation ... whenever possible.... The colony is integrated as though it were in fact one organism ruled by a genome that constrains behavior as it also enables it.... The physical superorganism acts to adjust the demographic mix so as to optimize its energy economy.... The austere rules allow of no play, no art, no empathy."
The Borg are among the most frightening, and intriguing, species of alien creature ever portrayed on the television screen. What makes them so fascinating, from my point of view, is that some organism like them seems plausible on the basis of natural selection. Indeed, although the paragraph quoted above provides an apt description of the Borg, it is not taken from a Star Trek episode. Rather it appears in a review of Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson's Journey to the Ants, and it is a description not of the Borg but of our own terrestrial insect friends. 1 Ants have been remarkably successful on an evolutionary scale, and it is not hard to see why. Is it impossible to imagine a cognizant society developing into a similar communal superorgan-ism? Would intellectual refinements such as empathy be necessary to such a society? Or would they be a hindrance?