June 23, 2015
Last Friday, Fast Horse had a guest speaker from the University of Minnesota’s Design School (heyo, alum!), Barry Kudrowitz. While his talk was about creativity, innovation, and the various forms innovation can take, I came away from it with one thing in mind: Star Trek.
The talk included a lot of references to science fiction and speculation about how science fiction (and the futuristic technologies and abilities therein) have affected or influenced the technology we have today. Our own smartphones have already outpaced Star Trek’s data pads, and 3D printers are getting crazy close to the capabilities of a replicator. We can even make food with them.
The public gets pretty excited about the gadgets and trinkets of science fiction, but I can’t help but think we can do better. What about entire methods of sustaining life and advancement? Theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson speculated that as a sentient species (not limited to humanity) survives long enough, eventually its advancement will be hindered only by the amount of energy it can harvest. To solve this problem and harvest unlimited energy, the Dyson sphere or similar structure would be one of the most effective (though heavily resource-consuming) solutions.
The Dyson sphere, as well as its many physical variations like Dyson rings or a Dyson swarm, would consist of artificial structures that orbit a star. In some cases they could even be constructed to be directly habitable. They would absorb that star’s electromagnetic radiation from the inner surface, and from the outside the structure would emit infrared radiation as it expels waste heat. Dyson posits that if the light occlusion and disruption in the star’s natural radiation was significant enough, it could be detected at interstellar distances. He suggests that if humanity were to search for more advanced life-forms in the universe, searching for this infrared signature would be a great way to do it. In short, it’s a pretty sure-fire way of finding highly advanced and intelligent extra-terrestrial life. I’m on board.
Depictions of Dyson structures are everywhere in science fiction: Star Trek, Andromeda, the Ringworld series, Halo — even Futurama. The number of technologies first present in science fiction that are now widely available is rapidly mounting, and those who say “not in my lifetime” have eaten their words again and again. If the world could look to science fiction as aspirational and instructive rather than simply escapist fantasy, technologies like Dyson structures could be somewhere in our future. They are probably already someone’s status quo.
We just haven’t met them yet.