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Les Johnson: Big Projects and Deep Time

Not long ago I pulled a wonderful 1950 film out of my collection for a long-overdue viewing. I remember 711 Ocean Drive from late night television airings, and when it popped up a few years back on a local cable channel, I made a recording. Edmund O’Brien and Joanne Dru are the key players in this gritty tale about an electronics expert who gets drawn into big-time crime, and the ending, which takes place at the Hoover Dam straddling the Nevada/Arizona border, is simply terrific, with O’Brien taking the fall after his shady dealings have been exposed.

711 ocean drive - 1950

Image: On the run at the Hoover Dam in Joseph Newman’s 711 Ocean Drive.

Titanic forces, vast engineering, gunplay in the desert, all artfully directed by Joseph M. Newman — what more could you want? And now, thanks to Les Johnson, I connect Hoover Dam not only with a film noir classic but with long-term thinking and starflight. Johnson, speaking in his role as a science writer with deep connections to science fiction, told the recent Eve Online conference in Las Vegas that we as a species need to think big and think long if we are to realize our interstellar dreams. Hoover Dam was the example he used to remind us what it will take to reach the stars.

Deep Time and Future Engineering

I’m always looking for examples of long-term thinking in our history, because as a species, we actually do this pretty well. The Egyptian pyramids are an obvious example, and so are many European cathedrals, some of which were generational in their construction. Some cathedrals went up relatively quickly, to be sure — the main structure at Chartres took a mere 25 years. Others, like Lincoln or Notre-Dame in Paris, were a century or more in the making. The foundation stone at Cologne was laid in 1248 and by the time of the Reformation, the structure remained unfinished, to be completed only in 1880, having become a national project.

Johnson’s invocation of the Hoover Dam is a reminder that not all the great projects were undertaken by civilizations long gone. As a culture, we often seem to think in short time-frames, but we do have the engineering skills to do much better. This Discovery News story quotes Johnson as saying “this dam was built in the 1930s, but the design life of the dam itself (not the power systems) is 2,000 years … that’s foresight! That’s engineering planning. That’s something we shouldn’t be afraid of today when planning for our (species’) future.”

Johnson is well known in these pages not only because of his work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, but also for his non-NASA activities, which include writing and editing as well as frequent public appearances. Going Interstellar (Baen, 2012), which he edited with science fiction author Jack McDevitt, is a collection of fiction and non-fiction that belongs on your shelf if you share my passion for interstellar flight. And Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel (Copernicus, 2007), which he wrote with Greg Matloff and Giovanni Vulpetti, is a wise introduction to the possibilities and the problems of building sails in space.

Methods like nuclear pulse (think Orion) and antimatter have their advantages, but all require us to carry fuel onboard, and in the case of antimatter, creating enough of that fuel — not to mention storing it — is a major problem. But Johnson can point to sail successes that tell us we’re moving into the era of space applications. The IKAROS sail put Japan into space first with a functioning sail, and NASA’s NanoSail-D deployed a smaller sail in 2011, a year after IKAROS. We now look forward to NASA’s 1200 square meter Sunjammer mission in 2015, even as the Planetary Society continues to develop its Lightsail 1. They’re a long way from interstellar applications, but these missions show us that sails are swiftly climbing the ladder of technological readiness.

Thinking long and thinking big work together. Building the kind of sail that could be laser-boosted into interstellar speeds would mean creating a sail as big as Nevada itself, and Johnson pointed out that the energy output needed for it would equal the energy output of the entire human race today. The point is that the much smaller sail experiments we run today can build toward a future where such structures become possible because of the technologies we’ll create in coming centuries. And if we continue our work with that long-term perspective in mind, we can speak of starflight in ways that do not violate known physics even if they demand huge engineering.

An Icelandic Perspective

The world of gaming seems a good place to stretch our concepts, and in the case of Eve Online, the setting is itself enormous. We’re talking about an MMORPG, which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, and this one has a community of half a million, with a canvas that stretches across the galaxy and is stuffed with star systems ready to be explored.

Eve Online comes out of one of my favorite places, Iceland, and reminds me of travel experiences there over the past thirty years. Back in the 1970s, working on medieval linguistics in grad school, I went to Iceland under the urging of a wonderful professor named George Lane, who was himself fluent in Icelandic and had inspired my own interest in the language. Strolling through the numerous bookshops of Reykjavik, I found that modern editions of the great medieval works, from the sagas to the poetic Eddas, were readily available. The language itself retained much of the medieval structure in ways that most modern tongues do not.


And maybe it was walking around at the site called Thingvellir (Þingvellir) on a foggy late afternoon in August that started teaching me about perspective. It was here that Iceland’s general assembly, the Alþing, first met in about 930 AD, on land that is situated at the boundaries of tectonic plates, a fissure zone that runs through Iceland itself. I walked about a mile from the small hotel and looked back across the valley as a bit of Sun emerged and a rainbow arced across the landscape. It was as if a Viking past reached all the way into the present day, and that day was itself the outgrowth of physical processes that came up out of the Earth’s deep core.

We carry the past with us wherever we walk but the sense of ‘deep time’ that overcame me that day is sometimes lost in the rush to complete day-to-day tasks. I think Les is right that we need to recover it as we look toward a human destiny among the stars. “Thingvellir is a place of echoes,” said a friend when I got back to Reykjavik. She was an English writer who had travelled often there and she knew what she was talking about. We must look back, far back, and then forward into a deep future, building our bridges as if our ancestors were crossing them.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Erik Landahl November 1, 2013, 10:33

    Hello Paul, I read your site religiously – it’s my home page – but I never comment. This article is so movingly written that it belongs as the preface to a deep time book.

    You yourself are a wonderful writer; you make me FEEL about space travel. Quite possibly you’re the greatest space advocate in our nation at this time, though I sense your humility will prevent you from considering such an honor for yourself.

    Nothing performed by a human lasts forever, as we all become overwhelmed by the tasks in our lives and we slowly fall victim to age. For the sake of my son’s generation, age 10, I hope you will continue to produce Centauri Dreams and write your own works for as long as humanly possible. Thank you Paul.

  • Paul Gilster November 1, 2013, 12:22

    You’re very kind, Erik, and I deeply appreciate this comment. I do have the next book gradually evolving in my thinking and yes, it will include deep time issues. Where I’m fortunate is that there are a number of wonderful writers covering this scene, and because the interstellar groups are so much in the news right now, there is much to write about for all of us. I’ll keep Centauri Dreams going as long as possible — you can probably see it’s a labor of love for me.

  • David Cummings November 1, 2013, 12:45

    I agree with Erik Landahl’s sentiments completely.

    Regarding Notre Dame and the other “generational” European Cathedrals… such projects were of course facilitated by the fact that the institution responsible for them hand not only been around for over half a millennium but felt itself to be eternal and absolutely immune to any change short of the End of Time.

    There is no similar institution today, which is good for many reasons but is a hindrance in creating large multi-generational projects.

  • Etienne November 2, 2013, 2:32

    Magnifique petit essai poétique sur la profondeur temporelle de l’humanité. Merci !

  • Sean M. Brooks November 2, 2013, 3:27

    Paul Gilster’s comments about “deep time” reminded me of how I had some what similar feelings as I wandered among the massive, brooding ruins of the Imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill in Rome. In fact, the entire City is saturated with that feeling of deep time, from the Republican, Imperial, Medieval, and Papal States eras down to contemporary Italy.

    And I think there is still at least one “generational” cathedral being built. The cathedral of the Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain.

  • william f collins November 2, 2013, 7:17

    Paul ,
    I enjoyed your article. What is most interesting for me to contemplate is the fact that the Egyptian Pyramids and the European Cathedrals were project were built by people who were mobilized and committed to these projects on a large scale / society-wide scale. by free men and women . The future voyages to the stars will be , I suspect , connected to the utilization of resources on an interplanetary scale. The society of my grandchildren’s children, et al, will be very fascinating indeed if humans keep on the spacefaring trajectory.

  • Eniac November 2, 2013, 11:12

    And I think there is still at least one “generational” cathedral being built. The cathedral of the Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain.

    Another is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

  • tesh November 2, 2013, 14:36

    Talking about multigenerational projects, I guess we have them nowadays as well, e.g.
    LHC, from inception to Higgs particle discovery must have been 30- 40yrs
    ITER, from inception to conception will take about 40 years
    Cure for cancer, ongoing since at least 100 years if not longer
    “Cure” for ageing, ongoing since time began I guess
    Biological research in general, on going since recorded history
    SETI, in one shape or another has been ongoing for at least 40 years

    Our cathedrals and pyramids will probably help far more people those built but the europeans in the middle ages or the egyptians from the time of the Pharos.

  • Craig Watkins November 2, 2013, 14:45

    Our current challenge with multi-generational projects is that we can’t anticipate future technology very well. I wouldn’t want to invest vast amounts of a societies’ resources in a particular technology that would be outdated by the time it was complete. If you can view R&D on multiple technologies and scientific research as a single project, then yes, I think we should commit to that and in some ways we already have. My hunch is that when we do reach another star, it will be because of a disruptive technology that changes how we view the cost and time frames of interstellar travel. I love solar sails, and it’s possible they develop into that kind of technology, but it may turn out that work at places like CERN turn out to be more important in the long run.

  • Frederik Ceyssens November 2, 2013, 18:54

    Dear Paul,

    really an inspiring article. I especially like the connection with Iceland, where you definitely feel ‘deep time’ in the land and the creatures that dwell on it. The connection with religion is also just right: when starships finally depart from our solar system they will not be driven by lowly, short term motives. The huge effort and timescales needed assure startravel will only be done for highest of reasons: safeguarding and spreading life, expanding consciousness throughout the cosmos, connecting with the universe, and so on. In fact, it can be imagined (or we could strive to achieve) that interstellar expansion becomes a part of the dominant philosophical and religious systems of the 3rd millennium.
    Best regards,

  • David Cummings November 3, 2013, 13:28

    Craig Watkins, I agree with you that a “disruptive technology” will end up changing the game, not only for star travel but for solar system travel and for life here on earth as well.

    My own personal hunch is that — despite the disappointing results so far — the big game changer is going to be a breakthrough in nuclear fusion power technology.

    I believe that sometime in the next 20 – 50 years humanity will achieve ignition and persistent burn using fusion power, and when we do not only will life on earth be drastically altered (for the better, in my view) but all sorts of space travel projects will receive a gigantic boost forward.

    I’m not saying that we should sit around and wait for fusion power before we work towards star travel, it’s just that you mentioned “disruptive technology” so I thought I’d jump in with a mention of fusion power.

  • Alberto November 4, 2013, 5:56

    Thanks for this post!

    I feel and believe in generational projects to expand our bounduaries in space and time. Many projects commented here are big projects but I believe in more “visibile” projects like a space elevator. Each era have a symbol and our era must have one, not for some but humanity itself.

    ISS is an example of what I mean!

    Could you in some next posts investigate on this projects also related to Centaury Dreams ?

    Thanks and by from italy!

  • Gregory Benford November 5, 2013, 5:30

    Actually, big buildings have some staying power if they’re not too complex. The pyramids are just dirt and stones, with small passages within. Many ancient monuments carry no written messages, like the pyramids, or they have worn away. The longest lived messages I grouped into two classes: brags and High Church art, in my book, Deep Time, published 14 years ago. I hope to bring out a new edition of it someday, though by nature the point of the book doesn’t change rapidly.