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The Fountains of Paradise is a science fiction novel written by noted author Arthur C. Clarke. First published in 1979, the Fountains of Paradise follows ace engineer Vannevar Morgan as he constructs a space elevator. For those not familiar with the space elevator/cable/tower concept, think of it as a tower that goes up to a point outside of the Earth's atmosphere. Then, instead of mucking about with polluting, expensive and noisy rockets, you could simply take an elevator to orbit. In fact, it has been shown that, since the downward moving elevator cars could power the upward moving cars, one kilogram of mass could be taken into orbit for the equivalent of $10 worth of electricity!

The elevator is to be constructed on Sri Kanda, a mountain on the fictional island of Taprobane. Taprobane is basically Sri Lanka moved north so that it straddles the equator. However, there is one problem: the elevator site is a sacred mountain jealously guarded by Buddhist monks...

I found this book to be typical Arthur C. Clarke, well-written and with a good scientific basis. There are moments of genuine excitement and wonder, as well as suspense and tension. Unusually for Arthur C. Clarke, running concurrently with the main storyline is a subplot involving Kalidasa, an 11th Century king of Taprobane. It is also the inspiration for the title of the novel; Kalidasa's most famous accomplishment was the construction of acres of beautiful gardens with fountains a hundred feet high. This adds a lot of depth and character to the island kingdom, and gives an insight into why a group of monks wish to stop Mankind from reaching the stars...

One part of the novel which I did find interesting yet pointless were the 'conversations with Starglider'. The premise is that at some point during the next century, an alien robotic probe enters the Solar System and initiates conversation with Earth. This section has a tacked-on feel, and seems to be put in for the sake of saying, "Look, this novel also deals with events on a galactic scale!". I have the same feelings towards the epilogue of the story: epic yet pointless.

That said, this is a very good book. Anyone who even remotely enjoys Arthur C. Clarke's work should like this novel.

Addendum: Today (May 8, 2001), I received a New Scientist with an article on the viability of a space elevator. The cost per kilogram could be reduced to $1.48 (compared with $22,000 for current rockets). There was also an interesting final paragraph to the article...

So if all goes well, when can we expect such a structure to be built? Arthur C. Clarke was once asked this question and came up with the answer: "The space elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing." They just stopped.

Arthur C. Clarke has invented or popularized a number of futuristic inventions through his novels. I will try to briefly explore the realisticness of his dreams in this novel.

The invention that makes Clarke's space elevator possible is (as described in the book) a thin filament ("several microns thick") that he describes as "a continuous pseudo-one-dimensional diamond crystal--although not actually pure carbon ... several trace elements ... It can be mass-produced only in the orbiting factories where there's no gravity to interfere with the growth process." He claims that this would be able to support at least a couple hundred pounds.

This isn't too terribly far from the description of a carbon nanotube. Only time will tell exactly how close. It remains to be seen what size and configuration of nanotube will be able to hold that much and if zero gravity is actually required to manufacture it. Current experimental tests of 1.5nm single wall nanotubes show strength of 60GPa. Extrapolation to a 3 micron tube might allow 300g. Of course, this is not valid, as we can't construct a 3 micron nanotube yet, and even if we did, it would be multiwalled, not single walled. A thicker fiber will probably be necessary to carry enough weight.

Also, current research can construct nanotubes as long as 150 microns. For longer fibers, right now we would have to make a rope combining multiple tubes together. Clarke suggests making a flat "tape" that could be gripped. He suggests a tape four inches wide could support several hundred tons without noticing.

In the course of the book, nanotube fibers are used for the following purposes:

  • extremely light climbing rope for rock climbing
  • cutting device (able to cut a tree in a few minutes)
  • a researcher accidently slices his thumb off with a filament

In the book, he starts by dropping four tapes from geostationary orbit, and then from the top of the tower, builds the ground terminal from the bottom up in orbit, lowering towards the ground as it is completed. The ground tower is intended to be buried partially underground, and acts as both passenger terminal and weather protection for the bottom of the completed tower.

To be fair, Clarke gives Yuri N. Artsutanov credit for inventing the space elevator in 1957. Artsutanov built his ideas on those of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and three others independently came up with the same idea in the succeeding decade. In 1966, John D. Issacs published a paper on skyhooks using diamond cables. In 1975, Jerome Pearson wrote a technical paper that inspired this this book. In 1999, NASA held a workshop seriously considering this possibility. NASA estimates that the estimated strength needed for a nanotube fiber in a rope would be around 60Gpa. Experimental results with carbon nanotubes so far seem to match or exceed this.

Other technology devices described in this book include limb regeneration (working on it) and a talking cardiovascular monitor (exists, sort of), large scale white lasers, and weather control using orbiting lasers.

Finally, as a partial rebuttal to jobby's excellent writeup, the conversations with Starglider follow two common themes that run through several other of Clarke's books. Starglider gives him the opportunity to both explore our far distant future and briefly consider the impact of a passing visit by aliens on our society. Also, this section is not merely an add-on that can be ripped away without loss. Starglider is well tied into the plot in a handful of places, and is even a major motovator of several of the minor characters.



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