On Episode 24 of this, our Singularity Bros Podcast, we chatted with George Dvorsky about topics as diverse as World of Warcraft addictions and multiplex parenting—topics on the mind of most of the Singularity Bros out there. What stuck with me for days after, however, was not the normal futurist and transhumanist stuff, but strangely it was the idea of a Dyson Sphere.
A Dyson Sphere is a theoretical megastructure. There are a few different varieties of Dyson Sphere including Dyson Swarms and Dyson Bubbles. The most interesting version, and the one I’m concerned with here, is the hollow sphere variety called a Dyson Shell—the variety I’m referring to any time I mention Dyson Spheres. These hollow spheres are enormous and truly deserving of the term “megastructure”.
To blatantly steal from the late, great Douglas Adams I’ll put it like this: Dyson Spheres are big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big they are. I mean, you may think it’s a long walk around the Tesla Gigafactory, but that’s just peanuts to Dyson Spheres. Listen!
And so on…
Possible copyright infringement aside, what’s important to know is that a Dyson Sphere is a hollow sphere made from some type of as-yet undiscovered super strong metamaterial, which acts as both structure and solar panel. The completed sphere has a diameter of 1 Astronomical Unit (1AU). 1 AU is rather egotistically the distance from the Earth to the Sun. About 93 million miles. A Dyson Sphere completely surrounds the Sun capturing nearly all solar energy and putting it to work.
A Dyson Sphere also has the added benefit of increasing the potentially livable surface area of the solar system from 1.96 x108 square miles to 2.72×1016 or so square miles. I have a degree in literature which means that, by law, any math I attempt is to be considered witchcraft. By even venturing a guess I’ll probably be burned at the stake, but my quick, table top, napkin math shows an increase in habitable living space of about a Bazrillion times. The increase is so great that we could have a trillion people on the thing, each living comfortably on estates thousands of square miles in area.
While all you math-bros out there are getting the pitchforks ready, let me just say this. It’s not the size of the thing that I find most interesting. In fact, pound for pound, and due to years of indoctrination by Larry Niven, I find Ringworlds far more compelling and romantic. What I find interesting about Dyson Spheres is this: the people who decide to turn their solar system’s matter into a Dyson Sphere face a many millennia long housing limbo.
Have you ever moved out of an apartment or sold a house and didn’t have a new place to move in to right away? There’s a oh-shit-I’m-homeless-now-terror that washes over you as you weigh your options during this housing purgatory. My experience in this state was spent living in my friend’s parent’s basement, both uninvited and unwelcome, for nearly three months until I was able to find an apartment. During this time, interestingly, was when I found my friend’s dad’s copy of “Ringworld” by Larry Niven and my love affair with Sci-Fi and futurism began. It was a period of deep identity upheaval and restlessness, but one that I will be eternally grateful for.
It should be obvious that the one thing I had going for me in this “homeless” scenario was a house. This house had people living in it already so there wasn’t a lot of guess work about whether or not the house was prone to sudden hull breaches that would quickly spill all of the house’s breathable air into the vacuum of space. I was briefly sort of homeless, but there were plenty of homes, comfortably located in oxygen-stable environments, to go around. My wait time of three months before finding the perfect apartment is also completely adorable in the grand scheme of things.
But what if when I found myself homeless so did my friend’s parents? And their friends? And everyone’s parents? What if also the whole Earth was gone? That’s the situation during the construction phase of a Dyson Sphere.
If we build a sphere (we the Singularity Bros of 3016 ACE), and its diameter is 1AU, something should be immediately clear: the Earth is getting kersploded. The Earth can’t occupy the same space as something in its orbit without one or the other having a really bad time. Since we are intentionally building this megastructure for our no-good, transhumanist, over-populatin’, never visitin’, ultra-grand borgs, we have made our decision about the Earth’s final fate. Don’t want it, don’t need it.
While the Earth is being dismantled in the most gentle atomization process possible, all the people who used to have somewhere to live either have to get really good at holding their breath for a couple millennia, or have a friend’s parent’s basement on Mars where they can crash.
Oh yeah, except Mars is fucked, too. As are the inner planets. In case you think we could maybe all temporarily relocate to some moon of Jupiter or another, guess again, smarty-pants. That’s gone, too. Every atom of matter in our solar system will be re-purposed to build the Dyson Sphere. So where do we go?
A Dyson Sphere, or a Ringworld for that matter, is a beautiful idea. The galaxy could be teeming with both. Some weirdos think we may have found one already. My intuition tells me, because of the Crashable Basement Conundrum, that if such an inconceivable engineering feat were to take place, it wouldn’t happen in the “home” solar system. Any species constructing the megastructure would have to do it somewhere else and only move in after the paint dried.
If we decide for some reason that we simply must build a Dyson Sphere in the solar system where we grew up, maybe we’ll find other habitable planets out there where we can rest for a while during the construction phase. We can certainly keep exploring while the nano-replicators strip a lifeless (hopefully!) solar system around a suitable star and put together humanity’s new home base.
It’s possible that there are aliens out there right now doing this very thing. If they ever come-a-calling here on Earth they will probably have the technology to send out automated probes to begin the construction phase in some other star system while they crash on humanity’s collective couch. Maybe if they didn’t plan ahead, those crop circles are all just alien Craigslist adds looking for emergency sublets while their new home is being built by self-replicating constructo-bots. Maybe that’ll be us one day. Let’s hope that rest of the galaxy has tons of couches.