The Ringworld

I’m an amateur astronomer and member of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, which 10 years ago was asked to send a speaker to a primary school in a mid-Victorian town. Foolishly I volunteered, and on the day I was treated to lunch in the town’s only cafe, a guided tour of the area, tea and cakes after I’d spoken to the kids, and a BBQ in the evening. Here’s me waffling to the kids:

The whole school had been doing a 3-week Space Project about anything space-related. They had been reading about the planets and stars and galaxies and deep space. And they’d done poster projects on spacey themes:

Why am I telling you this? Because something hit me that I want to share with you. You’ve just seen it, actually.

Most amateur astronomers have other science-y interests and the older ones have generally read a lot of science fiction books (the middle-aged ones tend to follow Star Dreck). Devotees of “hard” science fiction – which seemed to end in about 1980, when sci-fi all went over to fantasy – will know of the books by Larry Niven, prominent among which is the Ringworld series.

The Ringworld is a concept related to the Dyson Sphere – Freeman Dyson, who I see is still going at 92, pointed out that a sufficently advanced civilisation on some distant planet would have a lot of apparatus in orbit to take energy from their star, and eventually might have enclosed their star completely, in which case we wouldn’t see it. (Actually, we would – the shell around the star would eventually have to heat up, and we’d see it as a sort of large dull-red star, like Betelgeuse). Freeman Dyson wrote some great books about his time in WW2 and since, notably about Project Orion – a spacecraft having a metre-thick beryllium plate at the back, to be propelled by shooting atomic bombs from Earth at it. In 1957 this was a serious proposition, and the project was highly classified.

The Ringworld was a much lesser but more realisable idea, a wide band of tough material (yet to be invented) all around the star, in the orbit of what had been a planet. An inner set of whopping great metal plates would cast shadows on it, to make day and night. In the Ringworld books, the band is about 100,000 miles across and 250 million miles around – giving it a surface area of about 100,000 times what we have now.

These sketches give you the idea; I read the book 40 years ago. And then, 10 years ago there I was, standing in front of these poor kids in this poor school, shamefully deprived of resources and funding as are all country schools, waffling on about planets and eclipses and what it would be like to land on the various planets (… unpleasant, or extremely unpleasant) and my gaze wandered over to the wall of poster projects. And I saw this. I stopped in mid sentence and stared.

Out there in this bush town, some kid, some unvarnished kid of 8 years old, had drawn the Ringworld. A concept parallel to the thinking of Freeman Dyson, but independently invented in a bush town, with only rudimentary education and help. This was ten years ago … so what other ideas has that kid, who’d now be 18, what might he (or she) have thought up? What genius lies out there? What untapped resources of intellect?

But I am reminded of a depressing quote, possibly by Barack Obama, that for every Shakespeare, Mozart, or Einstein there are probably 30 or 50 equally gifted people who are stuck working in menial jobs, not visible at all, their talent lost to us.

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