Happy 75th Birthday Greg Benford!

Young Greg (left) and Jim (right) Benford war with the descendants of dinosaurs, er, chickens.

Young Greg (left) and Jim (right) Benford war with descendants of dinosaurs, er, chickens.

Best wishes to Greg and Jim Benford, twin brothers born this day in 1941, renowned scientists, sf fans, and authors.

They discovered fandom in the 1950s while their father was in the Army and stationed in Germany. There, jokes Greg, he and his brother both had to learn a foreign language: “I had to learn English – because I’m from Alabama.” The two began Void, one of the zines most closely identified with the iconoclastic spirit many remember as the best thing about fandom in those days. Also, Greg attended his first convention in 1956.

Greg and Jim in Germany in 1956.

Greg became a Professor of Plasma Physics and Astrophysics at the University of California, as well as one of the most accomplished hard sf writers. He’s a two-time Nebula winner, and has been nominated for the Hugo 13 times. A new collection of his short fiction, The Best of Gregory Benford, edited by David G. Hartwell, was published last July.

Greg Benford and David G. Hartwell sitting in President Taft's chair.

Greg Benford and David G. Hartwell sitting in President Taft’s chair.

Jim and Greg have worked on a number of things together, such as the concept of “Benford beacons”, theorizing that an alien civilization striving to optimize costs and make its signaling technology more efficient, would prefer signals that are pulsed, narrowly directed and broadband in the 1-to-10-gigahertz range.

In 2013, they helped organize the Starship Century Symposium where participants asked, “Is this the century we begin to build starships? Can we? Should we?”

The brothers Benford hope “Yes” is the answer to all three questions.

Jim and Greg at Tri Alpha Energy, a company doing advanced work in magnetic field-reversed containment methods, with the goal of developing fusion power.

Greg and Jim at Tri Alpha Energy, a company doing advanced work in magnetic field-reversed containment methods, with the goal of developing fusion power.

Worden Steps Down as Ames Research Center Director

Simon “Pete” Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, has announced he is retiring.

Worden funded Gregory and Jim Benfords’ Starship Century book and conference, together with UCSD.

He spent the last nine years at Ames and during that time, he told Space News –

We have launched dozens of small, low-cost satellites – and helped ignite a major new industry in this area. Ames people have revitalized space biology and begun to apply the new field of synthetic biology…. Ames has provided entry technology for the emerging commercial space launch sector. We have helped launch small satellites working with a number of nations. And we’ve hosted and inspired thousands of students.

He said he plans to ““to pursue some long-held dreams in the private sector.”

Set the Controls for Alpha Centauri

Traveling to our nearest stellar neighbor becomes an increasingly tangible vision. Not just for sf readers, or the countless thousands of Civilization gameplayers who built and launched the starship to Alpha Centauri, but the general public.

Witness the latest installment of NPR’s Studio 360 podcast, “How To Fly To Alpha Centauri”, in which the Benford brothers, former astronaut Mae Jemison of 100 Year Starship, and Marc Millis of the Tau Zero Foundation, set the vision.

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison is the Principal of the 100 Year Starship Trust:

“That time frame is reasonable, why?” she asks rhetorically. “If you said ten years — ‘Nah, we know that’s not long enough.’ If you said 500 years, people would say, ‘I can kick back for another two to three hundred years because I don’t have to worry about it.’ One hundred years is close enough.”

Nor can the idea be dismissed as unattainable:

Gregory Benford likes to remind us of how greatly we underestimate the pace of change. “Thomas Jefferson said in 1812 that it will take 1,000 years for the republic to reach the Pacific. He never envisioned that 57 years later, a train would run all the way to San Francisco.”

Especially when people are already at work on technological concepts that might provide the key:

James Benford is president of a company that does microwave research; his identical twin brother Gregory is an astrophysicist at the University of California, Irvine. The Benfords make a strong case for a technology right out of a science fiction novel. The technology is the beam sail, and the book is Rocheworld, written by Robert Forward in 1982. “[It’s] a very solid scientific concept for a starship,” James says.

A beam sail is like a regular sail — “envision it as a giant umbrella, maybe 100 meters across,” says Gregory — pushed with microwave beams, instead of wind, to extremely high speeds.

Twin Pair o’ Docs

By Bill Higgins: Spotted something unusual: In the April 2014 issue of Physics Today, two letters were published from two physicists, who are brothers, both commenting on the same article.

I doubt that has happened before.

James Benford and Gregory Benford were responding to an article on Cold War history by Frank von Hippel in the September 2013 issue. (Physics Today has always had a rather leisurely turnaround time in publishing letters.)