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Why I decided to work on the space elevator


My real life designs for Arthur C Clarke's space elevator
Marvin Minsky Scientist
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One of the things I was interested in was Arthur Clarke’s idea of this space elevator and so I must have spent about six months working with some scientists at Livermore who were thinking about designing such things. Because it’s possible, in principle, to build a kind of pulley – a belt – made of carbon fiber, some incredibly strong piece of wire and have this go up from earth to something higher than a synchronous satellite and down again. So you could have a pulley that would haul things into space, and Arthur Clarke had worked out the theory of that. I forget… he called it a fountain.

And then I worked out a form of it that might actually be practical. The trouble with the fountain is that if a meteorite hits the wire then the entire structure will be destroyed in minutes. And so... I figured out a system that involved a stream of separate gadgets; each were hooked by a flexible cable to the next one, but the whole system, in principle, could withstand an accident. And the scientists at Livermore worked on that – Lowell Wood was the... my principal collaborator – he was quite an imaginative, and still is... scientist engineer. And nothing came of it in the long run because... if you built such a thing it would be thousands of tons of equipment, well... going rapidly up into space and down. And if anything did go wrong, which it surely would eventually, the…

Arthur Clarke had imagined all this and... and in fact, he figured out that the thing would have to be somewhere on, a little bit east of India so that if the thing broke it would fall into the Pacific Ocean and not destroy any cities but... I don’t think any… it’s like the Orion Project which is a space vehicle powered by nuclear explosions and again, to build the space fountain would be wonderful because you could hoist things into space for just a few dollars a pound or less instead of tens of thousands of dollars a pound. But... but the risks in building it are probably too high for that to ever be made.

Anyway, the world of science fiction and the world of real engineering does sort of come together in the exploration of the solar system and things like that.

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was one of the pioneers of the field of Artificial Intelligence, founding the MIT AI lab in 1970. He also made many contributions to the fields of mathematics, cognitive psychology, robotics, optics and computational linguistics. Since the 1950s, he had been attempting to define and explain human cognition, the ideas of which can be found in his two books, The Emotion Machine and The Society of Mind. His many inventions include the first confocal scanning microscope, the first neural network simulator (SNARC) and the first LOGO 'turtle'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Arthur C Clarke, Lowell Wood

Duration: 3 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: 29-31 Jan 2011

Date story went live: 12 May 2011