It takes real scientific commitment to keep an experiment going for nearly 70 years. Especially when it's essentially long decades of boredom punctuated by brief moments of crushing sorrow. Physicists at Trinity College in ...
Need 400 trillion trillion watts of solar energy? No problem! Wrap the sun inside a Dyson Sphere.
The world’s exponential population growth will soon need to flatten out otherwise within a few hundred years every square foot of the Earth’s surface will be taken up by a human. With this population growth, mankind’s hunger for energy has also increased exponentially. And if this continues, we will soon consume more energy than the Earth receives from the sun. Should they exist, this could be a common problem faced by burgeoning civilizations across the galaxy.
A solution to this energy demand is to become an extra-terrestrial civilization and harvest the resources of a planetary system to colonize space. A daunting yet logical step is to build solar energy-collecting structures in space and live on them.
This concept was taken to its logical extreme by British physicist Freeman Dyson who proposed in 1959 that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations might encase their stars in an artificially constructed sphere, the radius of Earth’s orbit.
This so-called Dyson Sphere would provide a virtually infinite living space 600 million times larger than the surface area of the Earth. It would also trap almost all of the sun’s energy output — 400 trillion trillion watts!
Dyson was inspired by descriptions of such mega structures in two science fiction stories: “The Star Maker” by Olaf Stapledon, written in 1937, and “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” written by scientist John Desmond Bernal in 1929. The later story describes a “Bernal Sphere” space habitat.
A rigid shell of the Dyson sphere might have a thickness of a few feet, depending on the strength of the material fabricated. It would also have to rotate to make artificial gravity. To maintain habitable temperatures the sphere would need to be bigger than Earth’s orbit.
To avoid the dynamical stress a solid shell might undergo, a Dyson Sphere might be a constellation of many small independently orbiting structures — like squares of mirrored glass on a disco ball. The energy-collecting elements would likely be very thin, while habitat segments would be thicker. Their orbital paths would be adjusted by using solar sails or ion engines.
The classic science fiction story “Ringworld” By Larry Niven, meticulously describes a spinning Hula-Hoop type structure, rather than a sphere as imagined by Dyson.
At least a partial Dyson Sphere — or Niven’s ring — around the sun could be built from dismantling the planet Mercury and reassembling it into shell segments. The problem is that the energy required for destroying a planet is 100 billion times the U.S. annual energy consumption.
So where would that energy come from? The sphere would have to be built piecemeal with the energy collected from the first segments being use to fuel further planetary disassembly.
An army of robots would have to do the task. They would need to use resources to build more robots — like the enchanted brooms in Walt Disney animation of Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Even with this bootstrapping approach, the construction would take centuries because orbiting solar collectors can only capture so much energy over time.
There have already been astronomical database searches for Dyson spheres. The spheres would absorb and re-radiate the star’s energy as infrared light. As seen from Earth, a shell or partial shell would glow at a comparatively cool few hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
Galactic archeology is now being done by scouring infrared all-sky databases for sources in this temperature range. An artificial structure would need some other clues, perhaps an unusual spectral signature not found in a dust-shrouded young stellar object, or a complex, repeating fluctuation in brightness that is hard to explain by normal circumstellar dynamics.
Finding unequivocal evidence for a Dyson Sphere would tell us that there are no practical limits to the capabilities of an intelligent species, given time, perseverance, and a godlike mastery over matter and energy.
The ability to store light while keeping its quantum coherence properties (e.g., entanglement) plays an important role in quantum information science. It makes it possible to build quantum memories for light, which could become crucial elements in many quantum information processing schemes based on the use of photons, from quantum communication networks to quantum computing protocols. A critical parameter for applications is the duration over which light can be stored. For example, the distribution of quantum bits over complex quantum information networks, and their storage for further manipulation, might require quantum memories with storage time from a few seconds to a few minutes. Writing inPhysical Review Letters, Georg Heinze at the University of Darmstadt, Germany, and colleagues report an important step towards this goal by demonstrating a solid-state coherent optical memory capable of storing a classical light pulse, and even a full image, for a duration of more than one minute—the longest light-storage time reported in any system to date.
To stop and retrieve light pulses without destroying their quantum coherence, light coherence needs to be converted into atomic coherences. This can be achieved with electromagnetically induced transparency (EIT), a quantum interference effect that makes an opaque medium transparent over a narrow spectral range. In EIT, a control laser beam excites atomic systems with two ground spin states connected to an excited state by optically allowed transitions. Through destructive interference, the transition probability between one of the ground states and the excited state (hence the absorption at the corresponding frequency) vanishes. The change of absorption results in a very steep change of refractive index that reduces the group velocity of an incoming light pulse. Light can be slowed down to the point that it comes to a halt: by switching off the control beam when the light is within the sample, the photons can be converted into collective atomic spin excitations (so called spin waves). The spin waves can be stored in the atoms for as long as the coherence between the two spin levels survives, before being converted back into light by turning on the control pulse again. The scheme thus allows the coherent storage and retrieval of light.
With all the attention being given to Virgin Galactic's impressive list of future celebritynauts (Ashton! Branson! Beiber!), its spaceship's impressive capabilities for microgravity research have been largely overlooked.
The private space plane, called SpaceShipTwo, is set to begin carrying passengers to the edge of space on suborbital rides in 2014. Already, 600 people have signed up for flights, including actors Ashton Kutcher and Angelina Jolie, singers Justin Beiber and Katy Perry, and Virgin Galactic's celebrity founder himself, Sir Richard Branson.
SpaceShipTwo has 500 cubic feet (14 cubic meters) of interior space available for experiments, the most of any of the crewed suborbital vehicles now under development. The passenger cabin can fit the equivalent of 20 space shuttle mid-deck locker equivalents as well as a flight test engineer who will run experiments.
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