Black Hole Sun, redux: are supercivs sucking at the event horizon?

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

Via Sentient Developments, here’s some brainfood for them as likes their high-concept cosmological hard SF. Y’know how SETI has yet to locate any alien civilisational traces by looking for large-scale exploitation of stellar energy sources? Well, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong cupboard; a new paper from Clement Vidal of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel posits that black holes are the ideal energy source for an ultra-advanced civilisation, and that our own universe might actually be “a science fair project of an entity from an exo-universe”:

Energy-hungry galactic empires might skip tapping stellar energy and simply go to extracting energy from black holes. These collapsed islands of space-time are the universe’s ultimate Energizer Bunnies. They are far more efficient at converting mass to energy than are the fusion engines of stars.

But more than that, says Vidal, is the ability to control the microcosm as well. Today we can manipulate individual atoms via nanotechnology. But advanced alien physicists would tinker with elementary particles and the very structure of space-time itself.

Having mastered control over space-time, a super-civilization might want to fabricate their own black holes for a variety of tasks: waste disposal, starship propulsion, hyper-computing, maybe even time travel.

On the macro-scale, super-civilizations might re-engineer stars using black holes. The quest for immortality beyond a star’s lifetime would be a big motivation.

Suppose extraterrestrials manufacture a black hole to accrete material from a burned-out star, a white dwarf. This would provide abundant energy beyond the star’s fusion-burning stage.

It may be impossible to define sensawunda, but I can sure as hell point it out when I see it. *points*

Black hole sun: is there life beyond the event horizon?

Paul Raven @ 11-04-2011

A bit of light reading for the hard sf and cosmology geeks in the audience; via Next Big Future, arXiv has a paper which argues that life – indeed, even complex civilisations – may “inhabit the interiors of supermassive black holes, being invisible from the outside and basking in the light of the central singularity and orbital photons”. Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, eat your hearts out. 🙂

A little closer to home (and also via Next Big Future), there’s a new start-up kicking around in Silicon Valley. Which isn’t news in itself, of course, but rather than designing the latest portable device or niche-focussed social network, MoonEx has scored a NASA contract that could be worth US$10m with a business model based on building autonomous robotic rovers designed to mine the Moon’s regolith for the increasingly rare metallic elements that our electronic systems depend upon. No doubt they’ll be keeping a close eye on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

[ Any Monday in which you can squeeze a Soundgarden song into a post title is, by definition, a good day. ]

Science fiction as a civilisational survival tool

Paul Raven @ 25-01-2010

Wow – it seems like everyone and their dog is talking about science fiction and its purposes beyond pure entertainment at the moment..

Via SlashDot comes a post at the Netflow Developments blog, where one Ryan Wiancko (who seems to be coming from more of a media/movies angle) stumbles across the term “speculative fiction” for the first time, and hypothesises that stories designed to make the reader (or viewer) think more deeply about some social or civilisational issue have the potential to save us from wandering into metaphorical minefields of our own making.

Speculative fiction however, if widely adopted makes it almost instinctive that we think about these situations and possible outcomes before they even arise.  It puts our brains into a future simulator of sorts where we are running through countless of possible outcomes for our society every week, culminating to subconscious database of sorts of ‘what if’ scenarios that we carry around with us.  Without this database in our heads we blindly charge forward through the jungle of our progress without any regard of potential cliffs that lay ahead until it is too late.  With a mind that is constantly being challenged with deep thought-provoking what if scenarios we will hopefully be able to recognize some of the signs of these impending cliffs before we are spinning our tires in mid air about to drop 1000 meters to our doom.

Something about Wiancko’s post seems charmingly naive to me, and it’s not just the lumpy grammar… it’s because I went through a similar revelation myself, followed by a brief period of militancy wherein I attempted to spread the idea around (only to find that many other fans and writers had already reached the same conclusion, often decades before I had, much to my chagrine).

While I’m long past the point of believing that some sort of crusade is needed to assert sf’s potential power as prophetic thought-experiment and sociopolitical early-warning system, I’m still supportive of the idea (which is why I consider myself a fellow-traveller with the Mundanes and the Optimistics), and I’m impressed by the regularity with which it surfaces in the opinions of readers and viewers outside of what I would call “core fandom” (for want of a better, less pretentious and more rigidly definitive term).

But where does that notion come from – is it a meme that evolves inevitably from science fiction’s aesthetic, or is it a deeper human need that gets projected onto an artform that happens to embody some of the same forward-looking attitudes? A bit of a chicken-and-egg question, I’ll grant you, but hey – it’s Monday morning, and my mind is wandering. At the moment, I’m siding with science fiction being an outgrowth of the urge to speculate, but I’d be interested to hear defences of either opinion.

You think the Earth is rare? I got a dozen just like it out back…

Paul Raven @ 04-03-2009

Planet EarthOne of the better known responses to the Fermi Paradox is the Rare Earth hypothesis – the supposition that our planet is rare or unique in its ability to harbour life, and that hence we are unlikely to encounter life-forms elsewhere beyond our own biosphere. [image by Aaron Escobar]

Well, George Dvorsky isn’t having any of it.

I’ve always thought, however, that given cosmologically large numbers that this sort of thinking is symptomatic of our small minds and limited imaginations. It’s easy for us to throw up our hands and sheepishly declare that we’re somehow special. Such a conclusion, however, needs to be qualified against the data involved, and by the mounting evidence in support of the notion that ours appears to be a life-friendly universe.

Dvorsky goes on to attack the assumptions of Rare Earthers methodically.

It’s a myth, for example, that it took life a long time to get going on Earth. In reality it was quite the oppoite. Our planet formed over 4.6 billion years ago and rocks began to appear many millions of years later. Life emerged relatively quickly thereafter some 600 million years after the formation of rocks. It’s almost as if life couldn’t wait to get going once the conditions were right.

This isn’t to say that Dvorsky thinks that we’re being visited by little green men on a regular basis, though; he has a more worrying idea about why we’ve not heard from our neighbours yet.

My feeling is that the Rare Earth hypothesis is a passing scientific fad. There’s simply too much evidence growing against it.

In fact, the only thing going for it is the Fermi Paradox. It’s comforting to think that the Great Silence can be answered by the claim that we’re exceptionally special. Rare Earth steers us away from other, more disturbing solutions –namely the Great Filter hypothesis.

Of course, only evidence of alien civilisation will ever answer Fermi’s famous question; it’s always struck me as a kind of science fictional restatement of the argument for the existence of god. Maybe that’s why it’s such a fascinating subject for debate? A bit of teleology never fails to get people thinking…