mashup: physics, architecture, fiction

Cocktailphysicsmoi_2Me again, Lee Kottner, Skeptic and Stylist to the virtual Jen-Luc Piquant, filling in for her meat counterpart (if I may use a crude cyber term) while she’s off blogging elsewhere in a more professional and less casual fashion (i.e., AIP is paying her to do it). I thought I’d use this opportunity to get back to you about the Space Elevator project over at LiftPort and pimp a couple of my new favorite blogs at the same time. At first glance, the space elevator, BLDGBLOG, and Pruned don’t seem to have much in common with each other. But you’d be surprised how often physics crops up on a couple of blogs ostensibly devoted to, on the one hand "architectural conjecture, urban speculation, [and] landscape futures" and "landscape architecture and related fields" on the other.

Take this post at Pruned, for instance, a pictorial tour of images from NASA’s heyday, when they were still dreaming big of colonies in space. The Pruned images are of cylindrical colony designs, but there are also toroidal designs similar to Larry Niven’s Ringworld that I wrote about here earlier. And there’s an interesting little link in this post to another called The Physics of Space Gardens which speculates on a new kind of "hanging garden" (perhaps for a new, space-borne Babylon?). Then over at BLDGBLOG, there’s Sun’s Project Blackbox, an extremely powerful, self-contained datacenter built in a shipping container. Geoff Manaugh speculates that these might be the seeds of Archigram‘s "computerized instant cities and other ‘plug-inscapes’." Shades of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, where the characters are engaged in (among other things) creating an offshore "data haven" similar in concept to what offshore banks provide.

I’m often intrigued by the kind of chicken-and-egg problem presented by science fiction, and the way in which the ideas and developments of science influence the rest of the culture in unexpected and sometimes completely off the wall (though not necessarily superficial or stupid) ways. You can see that influence in both of these blogs, which often talk about the development of new materials such as the pollution-eating tiles coated with titanium dioxide, or about cosmological phenomena, or the repurposing of already existing materials and structures, or various posts about geology, human reactions to it, and its tools. It’s the intersection (or sometimes the collision—known as a mashup in current parlance) of pure and applied research and wild speculation that makes for interesting developments in art and culture, as well as other research fields, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which came first.

This is especially true of projects like the space elevator that are so ambitious and daring as to be almost preposterous. Like going to the moon, building and operating space shuttles or even, at one time, insisting on sailing west from Europe to India, visionary ideas invite scorn (often deservedly). They require not just a leap of imagination, but a shift in perspective and focus and sometimes this transformation in thinking is eased a bit by being introduced as fiction, a medium where we’re already less reluctant to suspend our disbelief. Because the space elevator is still deep in R&D territory, it’s not a bad idea to mix in a little well-written and well-researched fiction to round out the picture.

And this is what the mashup, LiftPort: Opening Space To Everyone, does. It’s also what makes it interesting. Brian Dunbar over at LiftPort very kindly sent me a copy after my last post here and while I haven’t read it in depth, I’ve been thumbing (or scrolling in this case, since it’s a PDF) through it in a strictly unsystematic way. The anthology—edited by Michael J. Laine, Tom Nugent and Bill Fawcett of Liftport—is a mix of boosterism (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), technical discussion, and science fiction (and I don’t mean that in a bad way, either). The technical information is supplied by people like Dr. John LoSecco of Notre Dame, Dr. Arthur Smith of APS, who is also a vice president of the National Space Society, Dr. Jordin T. Kare, formerly of Lawrence Livermore National Lab and NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts.

The collection is a work of imagination of the best kind: taking scientific principles and imagining how they could be applied in a practical yet creative way and what that development might mean to humanity. The book attempts to cover all the bases, anticipating and answering questions about everything from finance and safety, design and construction, legal, military, environmental, and sociopolitical issues, to what the elevator might actually haul into space. Interspersed with expert essays that, although for a general reader, still sometimes read like business reports is some intriguing speculative fiction on the subject by Arthur C. Clarke (one of several originators of the elevator as a concept along with Charles Sheffield, whose fiction about it also appears here), Kevin J. Anderson, Jodi Lynn Nye, David Brin, and others. Reading Sheffield and Clarke, you get a clear picture of how the fiction inspired the research; reading the technical and economic reports you see how those ideas influenced the later fiction. This book is the kind of primary document a historian of science or cultural historian will eventually have a field day with.

The conceptual integration is by no means seamless. No single picture of what the space elevator should do (apart from go up and down safely) emerges from the volume, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The space elevator is a primary sort of tool, a bit like the wheel. Once we make one and see how handy it is, no telling how many other uses we’ll find for it. Its development embraces many disciplines—engineering, socioeconomics, geopolitics, materials science, even architecture, and many of those areas are going to overlap or conflict or both as development goes on.

The biggest service this collection performs, and it does so with the help of the fiction it includes, is to make the whole project seem plausible and even realistic. In fact, it seems far less freaky than the anti-global warming sun umbrellas over at BLDGBLOG, a project that, come to think of it, would probably benefit from the development of the space elevator. So would Pruned’s extraterrestrial cemetery, which seems a little weird to me, too. But 50 years from now, when the space elevator is a quarter of a century old, maybe none of this will seem so bizarre.

5 thoughts on “mashup: physics, architecture, fiction”

  1. Good science fiction is only a step away from science fact. The authors that you mention research their topics and incorporate good science into their fiction.

  2. The nice thing about R&D for space elevator technology is that the carbon nanotubes or whatever other super-strong material they come up with to use as the elevator’s “cable” will have tons of applications on Earth, too.

  3. Hey Lee, I was going to ask if you were related to kevin (as in Kostner), but guess you’ve heard that one a million times this week.
    Great post, thanks to Pruned for the great pictorial tour & toroidal designs. The only thing missing, if anything was of “Yes” album covers fame, Topographic Oceans et al
    Great read, fun, entertaining Science meets fiction, and Science catches up with fiction … yep those latest mobile phones just got me itching to give my co-ordinates, but the mobile phone company already has them to localize (track) me. lol!
    And what about Sat-Nav? ok so they send everybody to the same short cuts or side strrets in rush hour, and some times they send you up dirt tracks which a goat might consider twice before climbing, but hey this is in Real Time,right? as long as you remember that the map might be 18 months out of date – dodgy if you are attempting to drive thru Baghdad during US air strikes.
    Oh, but hold on I’m getting lost here, where was I leading to – oh yeah, you know the only problem with teleporting – is that you need co-ordinates in space time and if somebody moved the office furniture or the cactus while you were out, well it could get prickly when you teleport back. lol!
    Imagine teleporting to the 50th floor in the Twin Towers and they are no longer there, whoooa it’s a long way down bro.
    But hey, I guess a lift up to the top taipei 101 with the brakes off would give you a feel of what teleporting might feel like – or how about Mach 6 in the aurora jetfighter, without a pressure suit. Doesn’t really matter if the pilot blacks-out, after all we have (use) fly by wire – computerised fly-by-wire. The human mind is too limited, and just cannot cope once you are steering at Mach 5-6 so you need computers at the speed of light to take over – Welcome to the holographic universe, Welcome to the Matrix, or if you are into Tina Turner and/or frankie goes to hollywood, “Welcome to The Pleasure Dome”

  4. I was under the impression that the whole space elevator idea came about decades earlier, from Tsiolkovsky.
    I read The Web Between the Worlds (by Sheffield) back in high school, and sometime thereafter became a bit of a Sheffield junkie.

  5. Thank you for your kinds words, Lee.
    “The space elevator is a primary sort of tool, a bit like the wheel. Once we make one and see how handy it is, no telling how many other uses we’ll find for it.”
    Indeed. Another analogous technologies would be submarine cables – originally intended for data in the form of telegraphy, then hacked to carry voice and now (coming full-circle) carrying data again as we use them to browse the internet.
    When you get down to it a space elevator is an economic hack – a way to reduce the transaction cost of transportation.
    Doing that has always paid off in the past, and not just for the company that built the infrastructure; the Erie Canal fueled the growth of New York City (and the Ohio territory at the other end) enabling it to become the leading city in at least the Western Hemisphere. Of course the firms involved don’t always survive but such is life.
    “The biggest service this collection performs, and it does so with the help of the fiction it includes, is to make the whole project seem plausible and even realistic.”
    You have no idea how the existence of a book makes life a great deal easier when we pitch. Not going the self-publishing route helped, I think, as did the invaluable editorial skills of Mr. Fawcett, plus the cred having him aboard generates.
    Still – being able to hand a copy to Newt Gingrich (or rather one of his assistants with the promise he’ll put in in his ‘to read’ stack) or the director of NRL makes a huge difference.
    “I was under the impression that the whole space elevator idea came about decades earlier, from Tsiolkovsky.”
    Turn of the 20th century, actually. Tsiolkovsky was looking at the then new Eiffel Tower and started speculating about a tower to space. It was thought up independently in the 60s by an American – one or both of those guys influenced Clarke and Sheffield.

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