Tag Archives: science

Human, All Too Human

Megastructures Revisited

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As metaphor, megastructures have the potential to be powerful: as explanations for real phenomena, they are petty, motivated by the same impulse which makes journalists always refer to Star Wars when writing a story about a planet with two suns, or crack feeble Doctor Who jokes when writing about the theory of time travel.

Tabby’s Star is a genuinely exciting mystery, and to read articles which rush through the halting attempts by scientists to provide an astrophysical explanation in order to get to the part where they can write about megastructures is to watch the scientific be eclipsed by the merely science-fictional.

The objects supposed to be eclipsing Tabby’s Star are always referred to as “alien megastructures”, an adjective which on first glance is redundant – the star is thousands of light years away, and humans don’t know how to build megastructures. As I argued in my megastructure post from last year, in science fiction we project the ability to construct artefacts on the scale of solar systems onto aliens or our own machine descendants to avoid the uncomfortable fact that even if we had the technology to build such monstrosities, we lack, or believe that we lack, the ability to muster the social and economic resources which they require. All megastructures are alien.

Considered in the light of what we actually know, however, the opposite is true. We don’t know if aliens exist, and we don’t know anything about what their societies and psychologies might be like. And the ability to imagine megastructures is not even a human universal: it arises from a very specific time and place, from the triumph and downfall of the dream of an ever-expanding rationalist civilisation. The megastructure is born in the communist galactic epics of Olaf Stapledon and the manic space operas of E E Doc Smith, takes flight on the dreams of Cold War theorists like Dyson and Kardashev, and begins to collapse under its own ironic weight in the middle of Larry Niven’s Ringworld series in the seventies and eighties.

When we start speculating about Dyson spheres as the explanation for astrophysical effects, rather that using them as metaphors in fiction, it’s worth listing the assumptions which underly them:

  • once a civilisation becomes industrial, it will remain in a state when energy capture and expansion are its absolute priorities;
  • the most plentiful source of energy in a typical solar system is the radiation from its star;
  • somehow, the economic and technical means to build a Dyson sphere or swarm are achievable;
  • our current knowledge of stellar astrophysics is total: in other words, there are no factors, unknown to us today, which would make building a Dyson sphere or swarm harmful or impossible

The shakiest of these assumptions seems to me to be the first. We can’t imagine alien psychology, by definition: in general, the aliens in sf are projections of racial stereotypes, whether they are warlike Hun/Klingons or austere, contemplative Vulcans. Even contemporary efforts to imagine truly inhuman aliens – the eusocial galaxy-spanning civilisation of Charles Stross’ novella “Missile Gap”, or the terrifying and asentient “scramblers” in Peter Watts’ Blindsight – are specific to the culture which created them: arising from a very early-twenty-first-century pessimism about human consciousness and society as fallible and weak, at the mercy of creatures who are better equipped to follow a biological imperative which is simply another version of the grow-expand-maximise-capture drumbeat.

The common failure in all of these dreams is the idea that we can know what aliens would do, what a civilisation with better technology or organisational skills or more ruthlessness could accomplish: this line of speculation leads to aliens who are insane caricatures or nightmarish parodies of the worst excesses of the industrial civilisation that gave birth to them.

The star AR Scorpii appears to be a binary pair of a red and white dwarf: the latter is blasting beams of electrons travelling very close to the speed of light, which, when they impact upon its companion’s surface on the side visible to Earth, cause its brightness to fluctuate violently. This explanation is only an hypothesis, like all of our ideas about the stars. I think that it’s better to contemplate the strangeness of what might be out there than to merely use these remote and strange lights as projector bulbs for the shadows cast by our human, all-too-human megastructures.

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Castles in the Sky

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Kepler satellite, tasked with the meticulous examination of thousands of stars to detect the minute dips in intensity which are caused by the transits of their planets, has detected something odd about the light curve of KIC 8462852. (It’s customary in popular journalistic accounts of this sort of thing to make a sarcastic crack at the fact that the star is known by a catalogue number rather than a name, to which I want to respond, ok, you think up names for the 2.5 million or so stars now known to science, if you’re so smart.) The objects orbiting KIC 8462852 are more numerous than is expected of planets, but inconsistent with the star’s observed age: young stars are surrounded by swarms of dust and rubble, but this star’s spectrum indicates that it’s mature. The objects might be debris from a planetary collision which we are just lucky enough to observe before all the fragments have dispersed, or they might be a large family of comets – the hypothesis favoured by the scientists who, with the help of amateur observers, brought the phenomenon to the press’s attention. But the idea that’s got the article retweeted is far more engaging: alien megastructures.

In a fictional setting, I like a megastructure as much as the next guy: the Death Star, the Other, Larger, Death Star, that big cloud or whatever in the Star Trek film that started out as a space probe. Not to mention the even more grandiose offerings of science fiction novels: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and its descendants in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, Arthur C Clarke’s Rama, down to the drastic reconfigurations of the Solar System undertaken in Charles Stross’ Accelerando and Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy.

Megastructures, however, straddle that strange territory between science fiction and, if not exactly science fact, then at least science I’ve-got-tenure-so-let’s-see-how-big-these-brain-farts-can-get. The theoretical musings of physicists such as Freeman Dyson, whose eponymous Sphere is a shell constructed in order to capture the entire energy output of a star. Or the Anderson Disk: a circular plate the size of the orbit of Mars, with a hole conveniently placed in the centre in which a sun suffers the indignity of bobbing up and down to provide a day-night cycle. The epitome of this mindset is the Kardashev Scale, formulated by a Russian astronomer in 1964, which rates civilisations on their ability to marshal the energy output of their entire planet (I), their star (II) and their home galaxy (III).

This mode of speculative cosmic architecture is usually recounted with a poker-faced seriousness which goes beyond the fun of science fiction into something stranger and more touching: a deep and unrequited nostalgia for that Heroic Age of Insane Infrastructure, the twentieth century. In a world where both sides of the Cold War contemplated using fission bombs as the world’s least environmentally-friendly earthmoving technology, reprocessing the planet Mercury as the raw material for a sun cosy is just the logical next step. It’s also a displacement of the colonial engineer’s ambitions, thwarted by environmentalism on this world, set free to rend asunder the rest of the Solar System without restraint.

Leaving aside the fact that no known or even hypothetical material has the strength to throw hoops around stars or build artificial moons, none of the scientists, and very few of the science-fiction writers, ever address the social or economic transformations which would be needed to organise any of this. The further we get from the fever of the Cold War, the more the prospect of industrial societies organising any project larger than a cluster of skyscrapers seems to dwindle; on a planet where the nation with the largest economy seems to be forgetting how to maintain its road bridges, it’s hard to imagine, even if we were given the technology and an unlimited budget, how we could sustain the focussed attention required to build even a modest space elevator before we got bored and switched over to Netflix.

Which is why, of course, megastructures are almost always built by aliens (or, in the admirable works of Finnish sf author Hannu Rajaniemi, a particularly brutal and industrious clade of post-humans). Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International stands as the minatory architectural ghost of utopian communism, and it could be that the space-entrepreneurial plans of Elon Musk and Richard Branson will serve future generations as a virtual memorial of capitalism. But aliens—who, like robots, are a sort of dumping-ground of wistful but incorrect ideas about our own capacities—never faced these disappointments; their Tatlin’s Towers reach all the way to the stars.

In fiction, megastructures are usually abandoned, enigmatic and perilous, and when we read pop-sci articles which treat them as a serious possibility, we should remember their true nature as aesthetic objects: the grandest incarnation of the statue of Ozymandias that our culture has yet produced. In his novel The Pastel City, M John Harrison wrote of the empires that preceded his beautiful and melancholy city of Viriconium:

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but noone who came later could read it.

Markov papers

A belated tribute to the unmasking of @horse_ebooks: as a distraction during the ERA 2012 round, I added a module to the reporting scripts which tokenised all of the journal article titles and ran them through a Markov algorithm. Here are some of the best. 

Structured coprime factor model phytoplankton of switched reluctance motors based on lower-extremity muscle strength and power in excess sludge of engagement

Performance analysis of the curious

Forced marriage as a pedestrian detection system in the water, everywhere.

Performance and user’s perspectives of fingermarks using infrared hyperspectral spectrometer data using magnetorheological elastomers for solving open complex giant systems

But wait, there’s more…: a user in a caring role of particulate selenium in frocks

Do loyalty of economic contributions from a temperate pine plantation in molluscan assemblages from the stem water in two-dimensional photonic crystal microcavity

Deterministic initialization of robotic formations using discrete choice experiments are not far enough?

Simultaneous localisation and mapping microscale and sexuality in Sydney

Hot summers and shopper loyalty in transitional markets: an inert atmosphere

The role of urban decay in professional Australian women

Eruptions that Shook the World

Clive Oppenheimer, Cambridge University Press, 2011

Not as pulpy as its title or dust jacket promise, and much more readable and entertaining than most scholarly books. The author is a volcanologist who draws on historical, archaeological and climatological research to examine the effects that large volcanic eruptions such as Laki, Krakatau and Tambora have had on global climate and society. If you like exploding mountains, you have to read this.

The chapter about geoengineering proposals to mitigate global warming by pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere made me feel that this would be like someone standing on a railroad track in the path of a freight train who says “Walk away? Unthinkable! I’ll simply invent and construct a jetpack!”

Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime

Elizabeth A Kessler

Puts famous HST images like the “Pillars of Creation” in the context of the Romantic sublime in general, and the exploration and depiction of the American West in particular. There are plenty of interesting details along the way: the ambivalent attitude of academic astronomers towards images aimed at public consumption (“pretty pictures”), the history of the space telescope and how it was promoted, and the convergence of the Western and astronomical sublime which took place when great American observatories were established in beautiful and (at the time) remote mountaintop locations.

The Pillars of Creation
The heart of the book is the account of how aesthetically-pleasing HST images are generated from raw data. The colour scheme of “Pillars of Creation” came from assigning red, green and blue to particular sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen ionization states and doesn’t correspond to what the Eagle Nebula would look like if you were close to it: but this image was so popular that its palette has become part of the standard vocabulary for other pictures of nebulae. Imaging artifacts such as the diffraction spikes around bright stars are now so familiar that they’re not removed, or even enhanced.

The style is a little plodding at times, reflecting the book’s origin as a dissertation, but it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the intersection of art and science, and the reproductions of HST images are beautiful.

The Stepwise Palace

I’ve started posting a new sequence of things on @FSVO, not as easily summarised as the periodic table or star catalogue. They have something to do with Erasmus Darwin and a few of my other obsessions — permutations, outdated terminology and formal verse — and they don’t really fit into tweets, but that’s OK. You may like them.

Catalogus Stellarum

I have started a new series of obsessive science tweets at @FSVO. This time it’s stars. All stellar names and designations are real; almost all facts are transparent lies. Go, follow!

(Many science fiction and fantasy texts have a linguistic other: even in the less oppressively upholstered worlds without an invented langue such as Elvish or Klingon or Dothraki, there are neutrinos and quarks and haploids and all the strange jargon of science itself. One of the great strokes of genius of Dune is that its second language is Arabic, bypassing the hybrid Greek and Latin tags attached to the stars by the first modern astronomers and setting up resonances with the ancient and beautiful stellar names which are more evocative of wandering tribes and magicians than of rockets or telescopes.)