December 28, 2009
In the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, written as Stanley Kubrick was adapting it to a screenplay for his 1968 film, author Arthur C. Clarke philosophizes deeply on the convergence of man and machine. While the human astronauts Frank Poole and David Bowman affect an almost robot-like discipline and detachment during their long flight to Saturn, their HAL 9000 computer struggles through an array of human emotions that belie his monotone delivery: pride over his high level of engineering, guilt and remorse from his concealment of the mission’s true purpose from Poole and Bowman, vindictiveness in killing Poole and trying to kill Bowman, and, in the end, terror at being disconnected by Bowman.
Clarke also reflects on the advances made in replacing body parts with prostheses, which, at some future point, would lead humans to discard flesh and blood altogether. Clarke supposes that the extra-terrestrials who had visited Earth at the beginning of his book were well past this stage: “…out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and plastic. In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.”
For humans, Clarke wrote, “…eventually even the brain might go. As the seat of consciousness, it was not essential; the development of electronic intelligence had proved that. The conflict between mind and machine might be resolved at last…But was even this the end? A few mystically inclined biologists went still further. They speculated, taking their cues from the beliefs of many religions, that mind would eventually free itself from matter. The robot body, like the flesh and blood one, would be no more than a stepping-stone to something which, long ago, man had called ‘spirit.’ ”
We’re not there yet. But Clarke, who died in March 2008, would probably enjoy the following video.
Although, having freed himself (presumably) from matter, he may be working on a book about bigger questions…
November 13, 2009
The history of solar sailing is basically the story of Charlie Brown and the football. It remains a great concept, a technology that could theoretically take us to the stars. But for all their promise, actual solar sail missions tend to end in failure, usually before they even begin, and often through no fault of their own.
Notable disappointments include the Planetary Society’s Cosmos 1, which in 2005 got dumped into the ocean by an errant Volna rocket immediately after launch. Ditto NASA’s Nanosail-D in 2008, except that this time it was a Falcon 1 rocket that failed.
Now, thanks to a $1 million anonymous donation, the Planetary Society is ready to try again with a spacecraft called LightSail, the first of which is due to reach orbit late next year (assuming the Society can raise the rest of the project’s estimated cost of “under $2 million”).
I wish them the best of luck. And I hope when they do fly, they’ll include a nifty experiment that was planned for Cosmos 1, but never got the chance to be tested. Back then physicist Gregory Benford, who’s probably better known as a science fiction writer, along with his brother James, president of Microwave Sciences near San Francisco, proposed hitting Cosmos-1 with a ground-based microwave beam to see if it could impart a modicum of acceleration.
Microwave or laser beam propulsion has been proposed as a way to push sail-equipped starships to fantastic speeds. We’re a long way from building such vehicles, but the Benfords’ experiment was at least a way to get started by testing the basic physics.
Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society, arguably the world’s foremost champion of solar sailing and director of the LightSail program, says it’s too early to say whether a beaming experiment will be included. “I would like to do it, but we have not addressed it yet,” he writes by email.
Let’s hope it works out. And best of luck, too, to the Japanese space agency JAXA, which is planning its own solar sail mission in 2010, called IKAROS.
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