20 August 2006

A bit on Ringworld, the stasis field, and the rate of change

I have been an avid SF reader since around age 9 or so, and have hit perhaps not an over-wide swath of the field, but in-depth for those writers and themes I do enjoy. Basically I am a hard-tech SF fan, that expects to see the underpinnings in some form of science or at least 'plausible extrapolations'. That said the hoary old 'plot devices' of the fantastical are perfectly acceptable *if* they are backgrounding to just let the story happen.

The hardest of hard tech SF has been that of Larry Niven, in particular is Ringworld books which take place in his Known Space universe, so the Ringworld stories are a sub-set of the larger set of stories of Known Space. Ringworld, itself, was a massive concept that was derived from the Dyson sphere, but had its own inertial force of pseudo-gravity by taking a thin cylindrical cut from the median of a Dyson sphere and rotating that around the star. This class of structures are known as Megascale Engineering. A learning expedition for the mechanics of Ringworld is available here, fully interactive to demonstrate how it works. The actual physical parameters of the materials, speeds and such necessary to achieve Ringworld in an engineering sense are available here. And a quick review of some of the other neat technology and gadgetry seen in the Ringworld story are given here, along with cursory review of a few of them. Ringworld itself serves as a jumping off point for *real* teaching of engineering and physics (and even get tested on it!), and multiple individuals have led lecture series on Ringworld and other hard tech SF concepts. And the entirety of Known Space serves as a great 'icebreaker' for physics and engineering students and instructors as figuring out just what this stuff *is* and how to *make* it is challenging. So much so that after Ringworld was released it became an instant SF classic and engineers and phsicists stormed the 1971 World SF Convention to point out all the FLAWS in Ringworld... which, of course, has required follow-on novels and stories to address them.

But, Known Space holds other interesting items, beyond this big, dumb structure (which, actually, has to be pretty smart to stay stable). Of all the technologies cited by Larry Niven that are society transforming, including such things as teleportation, magnetic monopoles, monofilaments, single crystal materials, and the such, the one that would absolutely transform everything is the stasis field. Larry Niven has described this as a field which allows a time differential to happen between the interior and exterior of the field. A simple 1,000:1 ration lets 1,000 time units pass outside the stasis field for every 1 unit of internal experienced time and stasis fields seem to come in time quantums so that there are higher ratio fields that can be found, but not intermediary ones.

A stasis field, once on, is an absolutely reflective surface: all light gets reflected from it and it is a perfect mirror. The entire field and what it encloses, however, retains its properties of mass and momentum, but the field by being impervious to damage, protects the contents of it. The final *other* property of a stasis field is that they may *not* enclose each other: the outer field governs and the internal one is negated. The field itself is bounded by a mesh or wire cage that delineates its exterior surface and the field is set up between the planar elements of that mesh or cage and to everything it contains. He uses this as a final form of space suit survival mechanism, a starship survival mechanism and even one for military outposts. Further it serves as the *perfect* way to store something or someone for long periods of time, totally unharmed by the outside world.

Which brings us to the era of modern-day convenience... imagine that you could put into a stasis box the remains of that wonderful meal that you had, and then take it out days, weeks, months, years, decades or centuries later still just as you left it! Have a fatal disease? Go into stasis storage and await for the exterior world to figure out a cure! Why live through all of those decades of research or have to put up with messy cryogenic storage when you can have it in a blink of an eye? That is if the rest of the worlds *wants* you back... if not, it is a very short wait to the end of time! Install one in your house and it makes the perfect *safe room*... or around your house to protect it while you go on vacation! Interstellar travel a bore? Put yourself in stasis and you are *there*... well, everyone you left behind is millions or more years dead... but for you it was in an instant. Put a thermonuclear device in one, detonate it and turn the field on a billionth of a second after it starts.... pre-contained explosion, tamper with it and it goes *boom*, but keep it around a relatively low ratio and you have a nuclear heat radiation device that slowly emits energy of a long, long time... until the internal mesh or cage gives way... then it goes *boom*. The entire restaurant industry *instantly* goes global with hot food to your doorstep from anywhere! Not microwaved junk, but real hot food prepared by real restaurants and then stored *perfectly* with a shelf-life measured in eons. And do you have a *true criminal* beyond the hope of reform? Put them into a stasis field.... forever.

Unfortunately, unlike building the megastructure Ringworld, there appears to be no easy path to the stasis field. Or it might just be a leap of insight and be everywhere in a decade...

The General Products Hull as described is an impervious form of matter that is a single crystal or molecule. The paint job on any modern car bought from the factory has single molecules of paint, one per panel. So your everyday automobile has single, long chain molecules, already, but making them impervious to everything except anti-matter, yet still allowing gravity and electromagnetic radiation pass through would be a bit of a challenge. Yet, with carbon nanotube and other more strange forms of nanotechnology, this may be something to look forward to.

In point of fact, much of the absolute hard tech SF technology has a problem: it is either immediately invalidated due to physics... or it becomes something that falls within the realm of possibility if only we put some work at it. Technology is, actually, outrunning hard tech SF at a blistering rate for social change and for technological advancement. The idea, as an example, of organlegging or stealing organs for transplanting into other people, was pure SF in 1967 and was a result of longevity drugs and non-rejection medications to allow the human body to accept *any* donor source transplants without needs of typing and cross-matching, etc. Put those two together and Niven speculated that the death penalty would be used to harvest organs for the public... and that the death penalty would be pushed *down* in the scale of crime so as to get more organs for a population that got older, but did not *age*. And those who kidnapped individuals to harvest their organs: organleggers. And by all reports, there are a few regimes in the world practicing this at a State scale. Poster-TV? SF of 1976, and with thin film displays that are flexible now being produced for smaller things, something we can all look forward to having... roll up your screen and computer and take it with you. Flexible armor that stiffens on impact? SF of 1968, shear thickening fluid armor of today aka Dragonskin.

Paraphrasing Jerry Pournelle: the problem with writing SF is that it is coming true too fast.

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