XIX: The Dyson Sun
By Anders Sandberg
Kepler struggled for many years with his model of the solar system. Since there were six planets orbiting the sun, and five platonic polyhedra, should their distances not be related? He attempted inscribing the polyhedra in spheres marking the circular orbits, placing the solar system in perfect mathematical harmony. It made wonderful hermetic sense – and it never worked.
When Kepler finally discarded his cherished model and looked at what the data had been truly saying, he discovered something else entirely. Three simple laws:
The orbits of the planets are ellipses, with the Sun at one focus of the ellipse.
The line joining the planet to the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times as the planet travels around the ellipse.
The ratio of the squares of the revolutionary periods for two planets is equal to the ratio of the cubes of their semimajor axes.
Suddenly the data made sense. The solar system did contain harmonies, but new harmonies never expected by any Greek philosophers. The way towards gravitation, central forces and space was open.
Will our descendants make Kepler’s dream true? Most of the solar system is a waste of matter, just lying there and dissipating the sacred rays of sunlight into the void. But what if that matter was rearranged to collect the light, to make it available for life, work, thought and growth?
Freeman Dyson‘s idea (based on a similar concept in Stapledon’s Starmaker) was to englobe the sun in a shell of orbiting habitats and solar collectors: a Dyson sphere. It would have 600 million times the surface area of the Earth. He suggested it as the logical result of current exponential growth in energy and resource use.
Robert Bradbury went further in suggesting the Matrioshka Brain: making use of all available matter to process information – thinking, feeling, being – in a nested structure where each kind of material available would be used for energy collection and dissipation, information processing and storage. Planets would be disassembled by self-replicating machines in a matter of years, the stellar atmosphere tamed and the entire system turned into something not unlike the Kepler vision of interlocking spheres and polyhedra. Optimization and forethought would shape this structure, by necessity introducing mathematical and physical harmonies.
We recoil at the idea of disassembling planets (especially the Earth). But maybe we should burn our cradle to light the library of mind.
Abandoning outmoded ways of thinking. Central forces. Energy. The birth of something new through creative destruction. Maximum productiveness. Perfect unity aesthetics and efficiency.
Anders Sandberg (born 11 July 1972) is a researcher, science debater, futurist, transhumanist and author. He holds a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience from Stockholm University, and is currently a James Martin Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.