Communion Of Dreams

Hawking’s Conundrum

From Chapter 3 (page 50 of the paperback edition) of Communion of Dreams:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-Flu, with all the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated.

In the news today:

Stephen Hawking’s ‘breathtaking’ final multiverse theory completed two weeks before he died

A final theory explaining how mankind might detect parallel universes was completed by Stephen Hawking shortly before he died, it has emerged.

Colleagues have revealed the renowned theoretical physicist’s final academic work was to set out the groundbreaking mathematics needed for a spacecraft to find traces of multiple big bangs.

Currently being reviewed by a leading scientific journal, the paper, named A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation, may turn out to be Hawking’s most important scientific legacy.

I frighten myself sometimes.


Farewell, Professor Hawking. Challenged in body, you challenged us with your mind.


Jim Downey

One reality or t’other.

From Chapter 3 of Communion of Dreams:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of
Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-flu, with the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated.

Of course, that is the reality of St. Cybi’s Well, not our own. In our reality, there’s been no fire-flu (at least yet), Stephen Hawking is still alive, and the laws of physics are still the same.

Well, maybe

Black holes are in crisis. Well, not them, but the people who think about them, theoretical physicists who try to understand the relationship between the two pillars of modern physics, general relativity and quantum physics. Judging from the current discussions, one of the two must go, at least in their present formulation. On January 22nd, Stephen Hawking posted a paper where he bluntly stated that black holes, in the sense of being objects that can trap light and everything else indefinitely, are no more. And that’s a big deal.

Sometimes I wonder what reality I am actually plugged into, since it seems that I keep getting leaks from the other one.


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

Power to the People!

I’m fairly sure the original seed of the idea for Communion of Dreams came to me back during my college days (some 30 years ago). It was after reading yet one more prediction that “within 20 years, fusion power should be a reality – and a home-sized fusion unit should be available shortly thereafter.” I grumbled to a friend that fusion power was likely to be discovered not by the big research institutions, but by some unknown genius, tinkering in his garage – and probably not even known to the world until after someone noticed that he hadn’t been paying any utility bills for power for ten years and went to investigate, only then discovering a functional fusion furnace supplying all his power needs.

How does that relate to Communion? Well, because with a few minor tweaks, that above scenario became the genesis of ‘Hawking’s Conundrum’, the basis for the revolution in tech that I stipulate for the book. In my alternate reality, Stephen Hawking comes up with a new model for physics which enables cheap and plentiful fusion power, but the results are so outlandish to conventional thinking that he doesn’t allow release the discovery until after his death some years later.

Cheap and plentiful nuclear power (whether fission or fusion) was a staple of SF going back to at least the 1930s. I think I likely first became aware of it through the writings of Robert Heinlein, though it is hard to say some 40 years later. Certainly, it was common – as were predictions of energy being “too cheap to meter” – and the availability of that energy allowed for all manner of technological innovation.

Well, we’re now one big step closer to that reality. Maybe.

No, fusion power is still elusive. But it seems that maybe the “home nuclear reactor” is a reality. (I say “maybe” because all I can find are variations of the same story circulating the web – no hard news outlets or official announcement from Toshiba.) The story:

Toshiba Builds 100x Smaller Micro Nuclear Reactor

Toshiba has developed a new class of micro size Nuclear Reactors that is designed to power individual apartment buildings or city blocks. The new reactor, which is only 20 feet by 6 feet, could change everything for small remote communities, small businesses or even a group of neighbors who are fed up with the power companies and want more control over their energy needs.

The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat. Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control rods to initiate the reaction. The new revolutionary technology uses reservoirs of liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing neutrons. The Lithium-6 reservoirs are connected to a vertical tube that fits into the reactor core. The whole whole process is self sustaining and can last for up to 40 years, producing electricity for only 5 cents per kilowatt hour, about half the cost of grid energy.

Fact? Fiction? A bit hard to say. Small nuclear reactors have been built and used for any number of military applications, though those are hardly self-contained or user-friendly. I know of no technical limitations to this sort of product, but then, I’m not a nuclear engineer. This other source has a lot more to say about the news, and how this application of known technology is more or less just an innovation.

I suppose we’ll see. The first such unit is supposed to be installed in Japan next year, and then brought to this country and Europe in 2009. You can be certain if this is actually attempted, it will generate some ‘real’ news attention, not to mention a lot of gnashing of teeth over whether or not the tech is safe.

Jim Downey

(Via  MeFi.)

The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be.

I should pay more attention to the latest trends in SF.

Via MetaFilter, I came across something which I hadn’t heard about previously: Mundane Science Fiction. It’s a movement which can basically be summed up as “keep it real, kid.” There’s a long talk by Geoff Ryman here, which outlines his thoughts on this sub-genre and why it is superior to the more fantastic or escapist Science Fiction as seen in Star Trek, Star Wars, et cetera. It’s a thought-provoking piece, and there is a long discussion of it at the MeFi link that has a lot of interesting perspective, in and amongst the usual randomness and repetition you’ll find on any open forum.

Now, there’s a long tradition of SF writers who did more or less “hard science,” using the best scientific knowledge available and extrapolating out. Some of them were dark and moody, painting dystopian futures which nonetheless carried moral messages and interesting characters. Philip K. Dick did a lot of this, brilliantly. But even such stalwarts as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke dealt with these limitations and futures upon occasion, though they are perhaps better known for works which might well not be included in a “Mundane” canon.

Recently, there was a review of Communion of Dreams in which I was taken somewhat to task over an unrealistic time-frame for the book. My response:

…but it isn’t what I was doing with CoD. I specify early on that the novel is set in an alternate future for us, which branches off starting in 2000. And I wanted to write about what we could really accomplish if things went . . . differently. Somewhat how I see this is by looking back 50 years, to the hopes and dreams at the very start of the space age, and how things have actually turned out to be both more amazing and yet more pedestrian than the people of that time expected. We’ve got tech that those people never dreamed of . . . and yet we don’t have flying cars, or real space colonies, et cetera.

So, yeah, CoD isn’t realistic in the sense you say – but it was meant to be a glimpse into what might be possible, just maybe, if things were to be tweaked just so.

I’ve mentioned previously that I am a fan of the Paleo-Future blog, because I think that it is insightful to look at how people see the future before them. As with almost any other kind of literature or art, it reflects current expectations and values of the culture which produced it (to a greater or lesser degree – there will always be some variation due to the individual author or artist who created that piece). With Communion, I wanted to capture something of the early optimism of the 1950’s . . . balanced with something of the grim futurism I grew up with in the 70’s (think Soylent Green or Blade Runner).

I will be the first to admit that it is an odd mix. Why? Because I think that eventually, we will triumph over the adversity we face, that we will progress and evolve though that will come at a price. This isn’t just the basis for the setting of the book, it is also the narrative structure.

And to that end, I tried with Communion to keep the science solid, insofar as possible, while sticking with the SF trope of “how does a new invention change or challenge the characters in the story?” [mild spoiler alert] The operative element in Communion isn’t the alien artifact – the operative element is the new understanding of physics attributed to Stephen Hawking, which makes it *possible* for the discovery of the artifact as well as the revelations of what it means. That’s why I named the experimental ship after Hawking – it is a point back to the real prime mover of the whole plot: knowledge. It may not be obvious to the reader at first, but I think that if you consider it, you will see that the whole book revolves around this simple idea: knowledge changes our understanding of who we are.

Curiously, someone might well place Communion within the Mundane SF school, if the definitions were allowed to be a bit expansive. For me, I see it both literally and figuratively as a bridge between that school and the more ‘escapist’ or ‘outlandish’ or ‘unrealistic’ Science Fiction of Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. I start with about as grim and mundane a future as you might imagine, then open up the possibilities once again to include aliens and psychic abilities, starships and ansibles, and leaving the reader (hopefully) hopeful.

Jim Downey

Fun with quantum weirdness.

Scientific American has a great piece about making a quantum eraser at home, with complete explanations of the science behind the experiment. Even if you don’t want to try the experiment yourself, read the article and be sure to go through the slide show of the experiment. Wonderful stuff, and explained very well.

I love physics, and when I was young (up into junior-senior high school) wanted to go into some branch of physics as a career. Alas, I discovered that my aptitude for math wasn’t sufficient, and followed other interests. But I have continued to read and keep up with the advance of physics on a ‘popular science’ sort of level. And I have enough respect for the things that science has provided us that I tried to stay true to known science when writing Communion.

[Spoiler alert.] The single biggest leap in Communion is the bit in chapter three where I talk about Hawking’s Conundrum – the supposed break-through treatise that Stephen Hawking writes, but leaves to be published after his death. I only describe the revolution in physics that it creates, and the technology that it enables, I don’t actually try and explain how it works. Because I’m just not that smart, nor even knowledgeable enough to fake being that smart. Fortunately, the standards of science fiction writing are such that we don’t actually have to come up with complete explanations for everything.

Still, if you take the supposition that such a breakthrough in theory does occur, which somehow resolves some of the glitches in both quantum mechanics and string theory the same way that the theory of relativity resolved some of the problems with Newtonian physics, then add in sufficient time for the implications of the theory to be understood and applied, then most of what follows in the book should be accurate. No, really.

I am reminded of a half-remembered anecdote (and if anyone can remember it more completely, please drop me a note or leave a comment – I’d be much obliged). I believe that it was Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman, who once was challenged by a reader asking how Superman was able to do some particular thing. Siegel replied that he could say that it was due to this, or that, but that basically it was because he created the character and said so.

I’ve always loved that. Yeah, sure, you want to have enough plausibility to allow the reader to suspend their disbelief, but when fans get so wrapped up in all the insane details of some piece of fiction (whether it is Superman, Star Trek, or Harry Potter), then I can’t help but feel that they’ve lost a bit of perspective, and can no longer appreciate the forest for being focused on which particular lichen is growing on a rock at the foot of one of the trees. Don’t get me wrong – I would *love* to have the kind of fan base that would so get into my book that they would get sucked in to the minutia of my universe – but the larger story in each of those cases is more important, just as I like to think that the larger story of Communion is more important than the details of the tech used.

Jim Downey