Astronomers of the Future Club - August 2019 Meeting Report by Duncan Lunan
by Duncan Lunan - 16:18 on 12 September 2019
Astronomers of the Future Club - August 2019 Meeting Report
by Duncan Lunan
Photo Credit: Linda Lunan
At the meeting of the Astronomers of the Future Club in Troon on Thursday August 29th, the speaker was Gerald D. Nordley, astronautical engineer and science fiction writer, whose story ‘Empress of the Stars’ was shortlisted for the Hugo Award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscar) at this year’s World SF Convention in Dublin, and has been reprinted in his new book Around Alien Stars (Brief Candle Press, 2019).
In his talk he emphasised that his stories involve no violation of the laws of nature – if the underlying ideas are wrong, it will take a lot of research to prove it. The starship in his story, for instance, is based on 1995 discussions with such experts as the late Jordin Kare and Dr. Robert Forward – optimised for travel at 86 % of the speed of light, but involving no Warp Drive or other apparently impossible devices.
Its destination is a radically new version of the ‘Dyson Sphere’, Prof. Freeman Dyson’s proposal to break up the planets and build a shell around the Sun, or any other star, to make use of all the planetary system’s available materials and energy. A stationary shell would be unstable, and a rotating one would shear apart unless it was built of impossibly strong materials. But in Gerry Nordley’s view, the mistake is to assume that all the material of the planets has to be used up. A much thinner shell could be built of materials from asteroids or comets, and if it was built of hexagrams 600 atoms thick, made and stitched together using nanotechnology, it could be held up and kept stable by interior light pressure alone.
The possible uses for such a structure are astonishing. As a phased optical array, like the weapon system of the starship Lexx in the German-Canadian TV series of 1997-2002, it could provide telescopic images of planets up to 500 light-years away with a resolution of 11 metres, far better than most of the spacecraft we have orbiting our own planets today. But used as a weapon, harnessing all the power of a star, it could raise objects of that size to temperatures of 20 million degrees K at a distance of 150 light-years – putting the Lexx weapon, which destroyed Pluto while orbiting Earth, completely in the shade.
Who could be trusted with such power is a very serious question – the asocial if not antisocial heroine of ‘Empress of the Stars’ is far from the best candidate. Her warning shot, destroying a small ‘kuiperoid’ in the outer Solar System, is more than reminiscent of Kingsley’s threat to destroy the world in Sir Fred Hoyle’s debut novel, The Black Cloud – a scene which appalled Richard Dawkins in his Afterword to the 2010 Penguin edition.
It turns out that the purpose of the ‘Red Rubber Ball’ Dyson sphere in ‘Empress of the Stars’ is to build new stars of antimatter, presumably as generators of much greater power, though there’s nothing to indicate how the original builders intended to use it. As in all the Dyson construct stories, from Larry Niven’s Ringworld and my own near-simultaneous ‘Moon of Thin Reality’ in 1970, the makers of the constructs have left the scene – maybe advanced further, perhaps collapsed, but none of them still around. In my Man and the Planets (1983), the discussion group which formulated the final chapter concluded that building them was a bad idea, and maybe we were right.
The next meeting of the Astronomers of the Future Club will be on Thursday September 26th, from 19:15 to 21:00 hrs at the RSAS Barassie Works Club, 4 Shore Road, Troon, KA10 6AG. For more information, contact Alan Martin on 07947 331632.