19th Century Science Fiction writers were sometimes quite prescient

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By David Brin

ENCINITAS, California — It’s well known that in 1865, Jules Verne published his novel, De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), which includes the concept of human spaceflight. And yet, Verne never discussed the far more practical notion of of an artificial satellite orbiting Earth.

For that it took an American, Edward Everett Hale (author of the Man Without a Country).  The Brick Moon was published serially in Atlantic Monthly starting in 1869.  And it is absolutely amazing.  Almost every other paragraph you are either chortling over some bit of what we’d now call scientific naiveté… or else staring at the page in disbelief that some folks back then had such clear notions as geo-stationary navigation satellites.  The entire book is available on Project Gutenberg — where you can download for free much of our literary heritage.

The Brick Moon, 200 feet in diameter, was a polar-orbiting satellite (built from 12 million bricks) intended to establish a space meridian to assist with navigation—to help ships determine longitude. Hale called it “the blessing of all seamen.” And how was it launched? With two massive flywheels:

Then, before we began even to build the moon, before we even began to make the brick, we would build two gigantic fly-wheels, the diameter of each should be ever so great, the circumference heavy beyond all precedent, and thundering strong, so that no temptation might burst it. They should revolve, their edges nearly touching, in opposite directions, for years, if it were necessary, to accumulate power, driven by some waterfall now wasted to the world. One should be a little heavier than the other. When the Brick Moon was finished, and all was ready, IT should be gently rolled down a gigantic groove provided for it, till it lighted on the edge of both wheels at the same instant. Of course it would not rest there, not the ten-thousandth part of a second. It would be snapped upward, as a drop of water from a grindstone. Upward and upward; but the heavier wheel would have deflected it a little from the vertical. Upward and northward it would rise, therefore, till it had passed the axis of the world. It would, of course, feel the world’s attraction all the time, which would bend its flight gently, but still it would leave the world more and more behind. Upward still, but now southward, till it had traversed more than one hundred and eighty degrees of a circle. Little resistance, indeed, after it had cleared the forty or fifty miles of visible atmosphere. “Now let it fall,” said Q., inspired with the vision. “Let it fall, and the sooner the better! The curve it is now on will forever clear the world; and over the meridian of that lonely waterfall,—if only we have rightly adjusted the gigantic flies,—will forever revolve, in its obedient orbit, the—BRICK MOON, the blessing of all seamen,—as constant in all change as its older sister has been fickle.

One complication ensues:  the satellite is accidentally launched, with people aboard… and yet more mixtures of hilarity and awed respect proceed to unfold.

In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke published an article, Extra-Terrestrial Relays, in Wireless World magazine envisioning a global communications network, using satellites in geosynchronous orbit. This was twelve years before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, setting off the Space Race to the moon. A time of enthusiasm and innovation that is sorely lacking today. Twenty years later, Intelsat I Early Bird, the first commercial geostationary communication satellite was launched. Since then, satellites have become essential to our daily life, as we rely upon them for telecommunications, weather prediction, geolocation and defense imaging. See this interactive History of Satellites Timeline, ranging from Jules Verne to Telstar to DIRECTV and beyond.

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Miscellaneous Items

A collection of resources for using science fiction in the classroom to teach and illustrate science.

Humans have created a vast population of robotic workers to take on the tasks that they no longer want to carry out themselves, resulting in a disenchanted robot underclass that that takes over the Brixton area of South London. This is the premise of an incredible short film called ‘Robots of Brixton’ by Factory Fifteen, a collective of six animators based in London.

A cool, quasi-classical piece inspired by my characters and stories is available on iTunes.  “Tytlal Wave” has both beauty and whimsey – by Maestro Siderious.

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Fund science & explore the world with renowned researchers

So far, science has been funded by gracious-rich patrons, or by governments or universities… so how about crowd sourcing to help fund science research: Choose your own projects through Petridish: a crowdfunding site, where scientists  can showcase their research to the public. In exchange, you will receive updates, acknowledgement and/or various rewards (photographs, DVD, field samples, journal acknowledgment, or invitations to talks/dinner), plus the satisfaction of assisting scientists trying to understand our world. (Donations are not currently tax deductible.)  Way cool.

A cute and zealously enthusiastic (and much too blithe) essay on the coming singularity.

And a brief – but more broad and cautious – essay of mine (tangentially related to Existence) appeared on the site of the TechCast virtual think tank, tracking the techn revolution. “Is there such a thing as human destiny?”

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Brin is a scientist, acclaimed science fiction writer and son of the late poet and publisher of the Jewish Heritage newspapers Herb Brin. This column initially appeared on his personal blog, Contrary Brin, at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com

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