Communion Of Dreams

Farewell, Commander.

I didn’t watch it when it was originally broadcast, but I came to really enjoy and respect the science fiction series Babylon 5. It was intelligently written, well produced, and generally well acted. It’s now my ‘default’ evening viewing — we’ll watch an episode or two with dinner whenever we’re not in the middle of watching something else. As a result, I’ve watched the entire series through (as well as all the various movies and the short-lived spin-off ‘Crusade’) probably a score of times. And I still find things to appreciate which I hadn’t caught on previous viewing — there’s a reason it won two Hugo Awards while it ran.

One of those things is an increased appreciation of the performance of Michael O’Hare as Commander Sinclair. He was mostly involved with the series in the first season, but played an important part later as well. And of all of the episodes he was in, this little bit is probably my favorite:

Michael O’Hare passed away last night. He will be missed.

Jim Downey


Totally tubular!

Via various news outlets over the last couple of days comes word of a new application of carbon nanotube tech: the creation of a new, much more efficient light-absorbing material, creating a “blacker black”. From the Reuters article:

Made from tiny tubes of carbon standing on end, this material is almost 30 times darker than a carbon substance used by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology as the current benchmark of blackness.

And the material is close to the long-sought ideal black, which could absorb all colors of light and reflect none.

“All the light that goes in is basically absorbed,” Pulickel Ajayan, who led the research team at Rice University in Houston, said in a telephone interview. “It is almost pushing the limit of how much light can be absorbed into one material.”

This is the kind of tech that I envisioned for the light-absorbing material used in the holo-theatre on the Hawking in Communion of Dreams. My notion there was that the tech would allow for a ‘cleaner’ presentation environment, more suitable to the artistic application of the holographic technology in use. I also figured that the ‘stealth suit’ tech in use by the military (referenced in that scene, and used later in the book) would be a similar application of the same basic tech.

Whenever you write SF, you have to make certain assumptions about how future technology will develop, and how it will be applied. Some authors are perfectly happy to just use a technobable approach, others keep true to a given tech but not go into a lot of detail. I tried to stipulate a certain base of technology, then develop it and use it in a consistent fashion, and explain it where it seemed appropriate.

One thing I would have liked to use, but just couldn’t quite make ‘fit’ in Communion was the kind of space elevator technology perhaps best explored by Arthur C. Clarke in his Hugo Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise. Well, maybe I’m just most familiar with that book – certainly the technology has long been used by other authors, and the basic concept has been around for over a century.

Anyway, one of the reasons that this development of a “blacker black” is so interesting is that it is one more step in the process of learning how to create and manipulate carbon nanotubes. To make the super-efficient light-absorbing material, the scientists had to get all the nanotubes to line up almost perfectly side-by side. This is not an easy thing to do when you are dealing with materials which are about one millionth of the thickness of a human hair.

See, the biggest technological problem currently faced by anyone interested in making a space elevator is the development of a sufficiently-strong tensile material to use as a cable or ribbon anchoring the elevator to the Earth. The folks at the LiftPort Group have a lot of good information on this. Carbon nanotubes are frequently considered the best bet for this material, yet the production of sufficiently strong nanotube ribbon in enough quantity to be cost effective has proven to be very problematic. Clarke knew this back in 1979 when he wrote The Fountains of Paradise, and he put considerable effort into explaining the problem and showing how the technological breakthrough of his ‘mono-dimensional diamond hyperfilament’ was essential to the development of the first space elevator.

This is how I see this kind of technology (really, most kinds of technology) being developed. First, the basic discovery is made. Then people start to figure out how to make and manipulate it in rather crude ways. Engineering problems are overcome, bit by bit, and new applications of the material are found and cost-effective production facilities built. Over time, more breakthroughs are made in engineering and economics, and more applications are found. Eventually the technological and industrial base is so well developed that something like a space elevator becomes not just feasible, but practical from an economic point of view.

So, rejoice – that “blacker black” announced this week isn’t just some quirky geek toy – it another (very important) step to a wonderful future.

Jim Downey

“Have you seen the stars tonight?”

This weekend the annual Perseid meteor shower is at its height, I think Sunday night predicted for the best viewing. It’s enough of a big deal that news of it penetrates even into the mainstream press, one of the few times each year that most people may actually be inclined to look up in the sky.

I don’t talk about music much here. That’s mostly because I don’t get to listen to music very much these days – it interfers with listening to a monitor to see if my mother-in-law needs attending. But that hasn’t always been the case, and I actually have a fairly extensive collection of (mostly) rock music, going back to The Beatles, on LP, tape, and CD.

And it’s funny – for some reason whenever I think of the Persieds, I tend to think of the Jefferson Starship song “Have you seen the stars tonight?”, from their first album (as ‘Starship’) Blows Against The Empire. Here are the lyrics:

Have you seen the stars tonight?
Would you like to go up on A-deck and look at them with me?
Have you seen the stars tonight?
Would you like to go up for a stroll and keep me company?

Did you know
We could go
We are free
Any place
You can think of
We can be

Have you seen the stars tonight?
Have you looked at all of the galaxy of stars?

Simple (though the actual song is fairly lush in the way that only free-wheeling rock circa 1970 can be). And few people know it, but the whole concept album owes a lot to Robert Heinlein’s novel Methuselah’s Children, and was actually nominated for a Hugo Award.

Anyway, if you get a chance, look at the stars, and the Persieds, tonight.

Jim Downey