Space Elevators, Project Hieroglyph, and Borges’ Libraries

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August 21, 2014 by libroshombre

It takes big dreams to make big things happen. Take spaceFeatured imageelevators, for example. “Space Elevators Are Totally Possible,” an online article last February by Meghan Neal describes a “long, strong tether is anchored at the equator and extends into geosynchronous orbit some 62,000 miles above the Earth. At the other end is a counterweight far enough away to keep the center of the mass in orbit with the Earth so the cable stays over the same point above the equator as the planet rotates. The rotation keeps the cable taut, to counter the gravitational pull as robotic, electric ‘climbers’ ride the line up into space carrying the payload.”

The idea of using elevators rather than rockets to get people and cargo into space was first proposed in 1979 in Arthur C. Clark’s science fiction novel, “The Fountain of Paradise.” It remained fiction until incredibly strong and flexible carbFeatured imageon nanotubes were developed in the 1990’s. Earlier this year the International Academy of Astronautics issued a 300-page report endorsing its feasibility and usefulness.

Another sci-fi writer, the enormously popular Neal Stephenson, who founded the sci-fi genre called cyber-punk, has proposed a twelve-mile-high tower that would provide a similar sort of space-dock that would have huge ramifications for space and Earth travel, as well as being capable of beaming power to China, India, theFeatured image Amazon and other power-starved regions. His tower is much less feasible than the space elevator, but it’s a product of another Stephenson idea: bringing science fiction writers and scientists together to think big. The NY Times described how the president of Arizona State University, Michael Crow, attended a Stephenson lecture wherein he called America “innovation-starved” and “complained that the ambitious science and technology endeavors of the 1960s had become a thing of the past, and argued that American society had lost the vision to make great leaps into the future.”

Crow responded by creating the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU, whose goals include serving “as a network hub for audacious moonshot ideas,” and providing “space for productive collaboration between the humanities and the sciences.” CSI includes Project Hieroglyph, named after a similarly-titled Stephenson novel, where sci-fi writers and scientists and technologists gather to spark ideas for technical innovations and “supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives.”

Reading about Stephenson’s tower reminded me of one conceived by another prominent author of fantastic tales. Jorge Luis Borges, born in 1899, won numerous writing awards for his fiction, andFeatured image was an outspoken opponent of fascism, communism, and racism in his native Argentina. He was also a devoted librarian and the director of Argentina’s National Library from 1955 until 1973. “In my life I have received many merited honors,” Borges recalled, “but there is one that has made me happier than all others: the directorship of the National Library.”

I met him when he dropped in during my introductory reference strategies class at the University of Texas Library School to visit the professor. Everyone was immensely impressed by the large, gentle, and entirely blind Borges, especially those who’d read his 1941 short story, “The Library of Babel,” about an enormous library filled with every permutation of 22 letters, and periods, commas, and spaces packed into identical 410-page books. As Wikipedia describes it, Borges’ imagined library was composed of “an enormous expanse of adjacenFeatured imaget hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival and four walls of bookshelves … though the vast majority of the books are pure gibberish, the library also must also contain all useful information.” Somewhere in all the dross was “every coherent book ever written, or might be written,” including the “perfect index of all the library’s contents” and even the one that answers the meaning of life.

Wikipedia says the average large library has several million volumes, or 10 to the 6th power. Borges’ library contained 10 to the 10th to the 33,013,740th power. That’s even bigger than the World Wide Web, which is also contains much gibberish. Public libraries provide information navigation assistance to all, because, as Milton said, many of us “have some naked thoughts that rove about and loudly knock to have their passage out.”

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