Skip to content

Three Questions For: Gregory Benford

May 3, 2010
Gregory Benford

Art by Marc Librescu.

Gregory Benford is a Nebula Award winning science fiction author who has published over twenty books. He’s a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine.

1. Science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke assumed that the pace of scientific and technological developments of the first half of the 20th century would continue accelerating to the point where today’s world would include humanoid robots, flying cars, and interplanetary (if not interstellar) space travel.

It’s been over 37 years since we last set foot on the moon. Impending budget cuts to NASA has put the future of manned space flight in doubt. I don’t want to downplay the advances made in communications, but many of today’s technological developments are simply refinements of older technologies—smaller and more powerful computers, cell phones that play video, and high definition TV are some examples. Even today’s 3D movies are a refinement of technology that has been around since the 1950s.

What transformative advancements will shape the next 100 years?

Most important, a huge advance in human lifespan. After all, in the advanced nations, the average longevity has increased 50% in both the 19th century and the last century. A similar improvement would take us to a curve that terminates somewhere between 100 and 110—a cotton-topped future. But technology changes, and the advances from augmentation plausibly can keep making inroads on the many causes of our mortality.

Large longevity extensions will change our views of the human condition.

We already see that young people are delaying education, marriage and other social goals beyond those typical of people in the first half of the 20th century. This may come from their sense that they have plenty of time, since they see their parents leading vigorous lives into their 70s and even 80s, a phenomenon nearly unknown only a century ago. Such subtle changes go unremarked because they are intuitive.

How far can this go? We have no true idea of an upper limit on lifespan. If we eliminated all aging, so that we faced no “fragility wall,” eliminated diseases, and could avoid all causes of death except accident (including suicide), how long could we live? When asked, most people guess at ages like 120, or 150. The answer, gathered from studying the causes of death in actuarial rate tables, is astonishing: close to 1500 years! This seems more plausible when one reflects upon how many friends die of accident. Typically, one knows only a few who die in accidents before age 50, from a total of, say, 1000 friends. This translates to a death rate from accident of about 1/1000 per year, or an average expected lifespan of about 1000 years.

With only a century or less of life, humans have developed many social forms to deal with this span, and nearly none that look beyond it. Take just a small step into that immensity: Imagine living to 150. How would you plan a career? Could you keep interested, if the job (like most) had a fair level of routine? And what about marriage?

We will learn to treat longer life as a resource, not just a goal. We can then exploit its benefits, like wisdom and equanimity, while focusing medicine and lifestyle changes on extending health and productivity, rather than dragging out the last bedridden months.

I doubt that many human pursuits of modern times—archaeology, environmentalism, SETI—would occur in even a technologically advanced society, if people lived to, say, only 40 or 50. Certainly our concerns for our eroding natural world and the climate change now accelerating would mean much to such people.

2. In your novel, Timescape, scientists use tachyons to send messages into the past. Do you believe it will ever be possible to communicate with the past, and if so, would it be be a wise thing to do?

To make a reasonable time machine with a rotating black hole would take just about the mass of a small galaxy. Or with wormholes, exotic matter with negative energy (not antimatter, though). So we now have several ideas of how to make such a machine, though we can’t afford one right now.

Generally, time travel seemed to require vast public works projects.

But why should this matter? If a time machine is ever built, in principle we should be receiving visitors now. Yet we haven’t seen any. Why?

Imagine that people keep using such a time machine until an equilibrium sets in between past changes and future reactions. The simplest steady-state in which no changes occur is one in which no time machine exists any longer. Events conspire—say, science falls forever into disfavor, or humanity dies out—to make the time machine erase itself.

I think making a time machine is more risk than one should undertake without more knowledge.

3. You served as the scientific consultant for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show presented Gene Roddenberry’s view of a hopeful, idealistic future where humankind has solved all of its social problems. In contrast, some science fiction writers presented post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney. Other writers warned us of dystopian futures, notably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day. Do you share Roddenberry’s vision or do you think we’re headed toward a darker future?

The show pivoted around a desire to please everyone, with a token Russian, Asian and black woman in the crew. This apparently forgave its air of earnest moralizing, a trait we still see today in the frequent oracular pronouncements delivered ex cathedra from the Enterprise bridge. The films continued this; even in the perhaps-best, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the most adventurous position taken is “Save The Whales.”

Of course the 21st century looks gloomy. We have environmental, resource, and crowding problems galore. But it’s always easier to see problems than solutions. We have more means to confront them now, and greater talents. I think we could have a bonanza future, if we rely on reason and science to solve the problems we’ve largely made for ourselves.

In Trek’s future everyone cheerfully wears spandex and looks great, a remarkable prospect for a nation which, over the last three decades, has seen the average adult add a pound of weight in each passing year. Could this be the secret heart of our love for the show?

For More Information:

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: