Kit will save us!


Back in the 1960’s, when skirts were short and architecture was Lego-like, Freeman Dyson, a physicist and engineer, came up with the idea of a Dyson Sphere. The idea was straightforward; a sun gives out lots of energy but planets only get a fraction of it. What if you built a sphere entirely around the sun and made the inside surface of that sphere like a planet? That way, you’d have an enormous area of land to use which would all be getting sunshine. You could house a squidgillion number of people that way. Sorted! The idea was intriguing, memorable and cropped up in a slightly altered way in Larry Niven’s very successful science fiction novel ‘Ringworld’.

The idea also cropped up more recently in a
New Scientist magazine article. The article’s author reported attempts underway by scientists to find Dyson Spheres out there in the Milky Way. The logic of the article was as follows: By the laws of probability, there should be many advanced civilisations out there in our galaxy. If there are, some of them should have built Dyson Spheres (or similar enormous engineering constructions) in order to house their expanding populations and help their expansion through the Galaxy. There should therefore be Dyson Spheres out there, encasing stars; it’s just a case of spotting their heat signature, shape, E/M emissions etc.

This belief, that greater advancement equals bigger kit, seems to be very popular among engineers and scientists. It keeps cropping up when people discuss Climate Change. ‘Don’t worry’, say some engineers, ‘it’s true that the entire planet’s climate is overheating and will cause massive environmental damage, humanitarian disasters, floods, fires, droughts, wars, locusts and confident-looking hoodie skeletons on horseback wielding farm implements… but that’s okay because we’re going to build huge kit and save the day! We’ll start with cloud-seeding ships and then scale up to orbiting sunshades and finally, if all goes well, a nuclear-powered air-conditioner the size of Kentucky! Job done!’

The prospect of enormous space engineering projects does sound exciting but perhaps the ‘kit will save us’ brigade need to take on board a few relevant, crucial issues. Firstly, the environmental impact of construction; if such kit is built, more of the environment will have been eaten up making it and more heat will have been pumped out in its construction. Secondly, human psychology; saying to humanity ‘you don’t have to worry about cutting back your energy use, I’ve made an umbrella the size of Australia to keep us cool’ will only result in humanity
increasing its energy use, confident that the whole CO2 problem isn’t an issue for a while. Thirdly, reliability; how long does the kit last? Not very long usually. What happens when it breaks down? ‘Er, well, we’ll need to build more kit and expend more power fixing it. Meanwhile, we’d have to tell everyone that they should reduce their energy output to a level a lot lower than it was before we built the kit since, we’ve had to add the energy use of building the kit on to the excess energy problem, plus the extra energy consumed by people because they thought the problem had been solved, which means… oh crap’.

With this in mind, I sent a letter to New Scientist pointing out a possible flaw in the logic of the astronomical Dyson Sphere searchers:

“Reading your 'Alien Megaprojects' article in Issue 2911, I was filled with the warm glow of nostalgia at your mention of Dyson spheres. I wondered though at the article's logic. Since 1960, when Dyson came up with his solar spheres, it's become increasingly obvious that a race's inability to control its own population and respect its natural environment will kill it long before it leaves its own solar system. Therefore, any advanced interstellar race that could build such artefacts would have long abandoned such mindsets as 'keep growing and expanding', along with others like 'open cast mining' and 'ooh, look at the size of your kit!'. Therefore, the one thing we can be sure of when we explore the universe is a total and complete lack of Dyson spheres.”

They’ve published an edited version in this week’s issue. Overall then, I think there
is an absolutely necessary requirement for us to become a more advanced species and survive for another thousand years or more; it’s simple; reduce our population and consumption. You want a sophisticated atmosphere-cleaning device with advanced, reliable, resilient features and astonishingly complex inner workings? No problem, here’s one, it’s called a tree.