From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, June 1992
F&SF, Box 56, Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr; outside USA $31/yr
F&SF Science Column #1
Dreaming of space-flight, and predicting its future, have
always been favorite pastimes of science fiction. In my first science
column for F&SF, I can't resist the urge to contribute a bit to this
A science-fiction writer in 1991 has a profound advantage over
the genre's pioneers. Nowadays, space-exploration has a past as
well as a future. "The conquest of space" can be judged today, not
just by dreams, but by a real-life track record.
Some people sincerely believe that humanity's destiny lies in the
stars, and that humankind evolved from the primordial slime in order
to people the galaxy. These are interesting notions: mystical and
powerful ideas with an almost religious appeal. They also smack a
little of Marxist historical determinism, which is one reason why the
Soviets found them particularly attractive.
Americans can appreciate mystical blue-sky rhetoric as well as
anybody, but the philosophical glamor of "storming the cosmos"
wasn't enough to motivate an American space program all by itself.
Instead, the Space Race was a creation of the Cold War -- its course
was firmly set in the late '50s and early '60s. Americans went into
space *because* the Soviets had gone into space, and because the
Soviets were using Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin to make a case that
their way of life was superior to capitalism.
The Space Race was a symbolic tournament for the newfangled
intercontinental rockets whose primary purpose (up to that point) had
been as instruments of war. The Space Race was the harmless,
symbolic, touch-football version of World War III. For this reason
alone: that it did no harm, and helped avert a worse clash -- in my
opinion, the Space Race was worth every cent. But the fact that it was
a political competition had certain strange implications.
Because of this political aspect, NASA's primary product was
never actual "space exploration." Instead, NASA produced public-
relations spectaculars. The Apollo project was the premiere example.
The astonishing feat of landing men on the moon was a tremendous
public-relations achievement, and it pretty much crushed the Soviet
opposition, at least as far as "space-racing" went.
On the other hand, like most "spectaculars," Apollo delivered
rather little in the way of permanent achievement. There was flag-
waving, speeches, and plaque-laying; a lot of wonderful TV coverage;
and then the works went into mothballs. We no longer have the
capacity to fly human beings to the moon. No one else seems
particularly interested in repeating this feat, either; even though the
Europeans, Indians, Chinese and Japanese all have their own space
programs today. (Even the Arabs, Canadians, Australians and
Indonesians have their own satellites now.)
In 1991, NASA remains firmly in the grip of the "Apollo
Paradigm." The assumption was (and is) that only large, spectacular
missions with human crews aboard can secure political support for
NASA, and deliver the necessary funding to support its eleven-billion-
dollar-a-year bureaucracy. "No Buck Rogers, no bucks."
The march of science -- the urge to actually find things out
about our solar system and our universe -- has never been the driving
force for NASA. NASA has been a very political animal; the space-
science community has fed on its scraps.
Unfortunately for NASA, a few historical home truths are
catching up with the high-tech white-knights.
First and foremost, the Space Race is over. There is no more
need for this particular tournament in 1992, because the Soviet
opposition is in abject ruins. The Americans won the Cold War. In
1992, everyone in the world knows this. And yet NASA is still running
space-race victory laps.
What's worse, the Space Shuttle, one of which blew up in 1986,
is clearly a white elephant. The Shuttle is overly complex, over-
designed, the creature of bureaucratic decision-making which tried to
provide all things for all constituents, and ended-up with an
unworkable monster. The Shuttle was grotesquely over-promoted,
and it will never fulfill the outrageous promises made for it in the '70s.
It's not and never will be a "space truck." It's rather more like a Ming
Space Station Freedom has very similar difficulties. It costs far
too much, and is destroying other and more useful possibilities for
space activity. Since the Shuttle takes up half NASA's current budget,
the Shuttle and the Space Station together will devour most *all* of
NASA's budget for *years to come* -- barring unlikely large-scale
increases in funding.
Even as a political stage-show, the Space Station is a bad bet,
because the Space Station cannot capture the public imagination.
Very few people are honestly excited about this prospect. The Soviets
*already have* a space station. They've had a space station for years
now. Nobody cares about it. It never gets headlines. It inspires not
awe but tepid public indifference. Rumor has it that the Soviets (or
rather, the *former* Soviets) are willing to sell their "Space Station
Peace" to any bidder for eight hundred million dollars, about one
fortieth of what "Space Station Freedom" will cost -- and nobody can
be bothered to buy it!
Manned space exploration itself has been oversold. Space-
flight is simply not like other forms of "exploring." "Exploring"
generally implies that you're going to venture out someplace, and
tangle hand-to-hand with wonderful stuff you know nothing about.
Manned space flight, on the other hand, is one of the most closely
regimented of human activities. Most everything that is to happen on
a manned space flight is already known far in advance. (Anything not
predicted, not carefully calculated beforehand, is very likely to be a
Reading the personal accounts of astronauts does not reveal
much in the way of "adventure" as that idea has been generally
understood. On the contrary, the historical and personal record
reveals that astronauts are highly trained technicians whose primary
motivation is not to "boldly go where no one has gone before," but
rather to do *exactly what is necessary* and above all *not to mess up
Astronauts are not like Lewis and Clark. Astronauts are the
tiny peak of a vast human pyramid of earth-bound technicians and
mission micro-managers. They are kept on a very tight
(*necessarily* tight) electronic leash by Ground Control. And they
are separated from the environments they explore by a thick chrysalis
of space-suits and space vehicles. They don't tackle the challenges of
alien environments, hand-to-hand -- instead, they mostly tackle the
challenges of their own complex and expensive life-support
The years of manned space-flight have provided us with the
interesting discovery that life in free-fall is not very good for people.
People in free-fall lose calcium from their bones -- about half a percent
of it per month. Having calcium leach out of one's bones is the same
grim phenomenon that causes osteoporosis in the elderly --
"dowager's hump." It makes one's bones brittle. No one knows quite
how bad this syndrome can get, since no one has been in orbit much
longer than a year; but after a year, the loss of calcium shows no
particular sign of slowing down. The human heart shrinks in free-
fall, along with a general loss of muscle tone and muscle mass. This
loss of muscle, over a period of months in orbit, causes astronauts and
cosmonauts to feel generally run-down and feeble.
There are other syndromes as well. Lack of gravity causes
blood to pool in the head and upper chest, producing the pumpkin-
faced look familiar from Shuttle videos. Eventually, the body reacts
to this congestion by reducing the volume of blood. The long-term
effects of this are poorly understood. About this time, red blood cell
production falls off in the bone marrow. Those red blood cells which
are produced in free-fall tend to be interestingly malformed.
And then, of course, there's the radiation hazard. No one in
space has been severely nuked yet, but if a solar flare caught a crew in
deep space, the results could be lethal.
These are not insurmountable medical challenges, but they
*are* real problems in real-life space experience. Actually, it's rather
surprising that an organism that evolved for billions of years in
gravity can survive *at all* in free-fall. It's a tribute to human
strength and plasticity that we can survive and thrive for quite a
while without any gravity. However, we now know what it would be
like to settle in space for long periods. It's neither easy nor pleasant.
And yet, NASA is still committed to putting people in space.
They're not quite sure why people should go there, nor what people
will do in space once they're there, but they are bound and determined
to do this despite all obstacles.
If there were big money to be made from settling people in
space, that would be a different prospect. A commercial career in
free-fall would probably be safer, happier, and more rewarding than,
say, bomb-disposal, or test-pilot work, or maybe even coal-mining.
But the only real moneymaker in space commerce (to date, at least) is
the communications satellite industry. The comsat industry wants
nothing to do with people in orbit.
Consider this: it costs $200 million to make one shuttle flight.
For $200 million you can start your own communications satellite
business, just like GE, AT&T, GTE and Hughes Aircraft. You can join
the global Intelsat consortium and make a hefty 14% regulated profit
in the telecommunications business, year after year. You can do quite
well by "space commerce," thank you very much, and thousands of
people thrive today by commercializing space. But the Space Shuttle,
with humans aboard, costs $30 million a day! There's nothing you can
make or do on the Shuttle that will remotely repay that investment.
After years of Shuttle flights, there is still not one single serious
commercial industry anywhere whose business it is to rent workspace
or make products or services on the Shuttle.
The era of manned spectaculars is visibly dying by inches. It's
interesting to note that a quarter of the top and middle management
of NASA, the heroes of Apollo and its stalwarts of tradition, are
currently eligible for retirement. By the turn of the century, more than
three-quarters of the old guard will be gone.
This grim and rather cynical recital may seem a dismal prospect
for space enthusiasts, but the situation's not actually all that dismal at
all. In the meantime, unmanned space development has quietly
continued apace. It's a little known fact that America's *military*
space budget today is *twice the size* of NASA's entire budget! This
is the poorly publicized, hush-hush, national security budget for
militarily vital technologies like America's "national technical means
of verification," i.e. spy satellites. And then there are military
navigational aids like Navstar, a relatively obscure but very
impressive national asset. The much-promoted Strategic Defence
Initiative is a Cold War boondoggle, and SDI is almost surely not long
for this world, in either budgets or rhetoric -- but both Navstar and
spy satellites have very promising futures, in and/or out of the
military. They promise and deliver solid and useful achievements,
and are in no danger of being abandoned.
And communications satellites have come a very long way since
Telstar; the Intelsat 6 model, for instance, can carry thirty thousand
simultaneous phone calls plus three channels of cable television.
There is enormous room for technical improvement in comsat
technologies; they have a well-established market, much pent-up
demand, and are likely to improve drastically in the future. (The
satellite launch business is no longer a superpower monopoly; comsats
are being launched by Chinese and Europeans. Newly independent
Kazakhstan, home of the Soviet launching facilities at Baikonur, is
anxious to enter the business.)
Weather satellites have proven vital to public safety and
commercial prosperity. NASA or no NASA, money will be found to
keep weather satellites in orbit and improve them technically -- not
for reasons of national prestige or flag-waving status, but because it
makes a lot of common sense and it really pays.
But a look at the budget decisions for 1992 shows that the
Apollo Paradigm still rules at NASA. NASA is still utterly determined
to put human beings in space, and actual space science gravely suffers
for this decision. Planetary exploration, life science missions, and
astronomical surveys (all unmanned) have been cancelled, or
curtailed, or delayed in the1992 budget. All this, in the hope of
continuing the big-ticket manned 50-billion-dollar Space Shuttle, and
of building the manned 30-billion-dollar Space Station Freedom.
The dire list of NASA's sacrifices for 1992 includes an asteroid
probe; an advanced x-ray astronomy facility; a space infrared
telescope; and an orbital unmanned solar laboratory. We would have
learned a very great deal from these projects (assuming that they
would have actually worked). The Shuttle and the Station, in stark
contrast, will show us very little that we haven't already seen.
There is nothing inevitable about these decisions, about this
strategy. With imagination, with a change of emphasis, the
exploration of space could take a very different course.
In 1951, when writing his seminal non-fiction work THE
EXPLORATION OF SPACE, Arthur C. Clarke created a fine
imaginative scenario of unmanned spaceflight.
"Let us imagine that such a vehicle is circling Mars," Clarke
speculated. "Under the guidance of a tiny yet extremely complex
electronic brain, the missile is now surveying the planet at close
quarters. A camera is photographing the landscape below, and the
resulting pictures are being transmitted to the distant Earth along a
narrow radio beam. It is unlikely that true television will be possible,
with an apparatus as small as this, over such ranges. The best that
could be expected is that still pictures could be transmitted at intervals
of a few minutes, which would be quite adequate for most purposes."
This is probably as close as a science fiction writer can come to
true prescience. It's astonishingly close to the true-life facts of the
early Mars probes. Mr. Clarke well understood the principles and
possibilities of interplanetary rocketry, but like the rest of mankind in
1951, he somewhat underestimated the long-term potentials of that
"tiny but extremely complex electronic brain" -- as well as that of
"true television." In the 1990s, the technologies of rocketry have
effectively stalled; but the technologies of "electronic brains" and
electronic media are exploding exponentially.
Advances in computers and communications now make it
possible to speculate on the future of "space exploration" along
entirely novel lines. Let us now imagine that Mars is under thorough
exploration, sometime in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
However, there is no "Martian colony." There are no three-stage
rockets, no pressure-domes, no tractor-trailers, no human settlers.
Instead, there are hundreds of insect-sized robots, every one of
them equipped not merely with "true television," but something much
more advanced. They are equipped for *telepresence.* A human
operator can see what they see, hear what they hear, even guide them
about at will (granted, of course, that there is a steep transmission
lag). These micro-rovers, crammed with cheap microchips and laser
photo-optics, are so exquisitely monitored that one can actually *feel*
the Martian grit beneath their little scuttling claws. Piloting one of
these babies down the Valles Marineris, or perhaps some unknown
cranny of the Moon -- now *that* really feels like "exploration." If
they were cheap enough, you could dune-buggy them.
No one lives in space stations, in this scenario. Instead, our
entire solar system is saturated with cheap monitoring devices. There
are no "rockets" any more. Most of these robot surrogates weigh less
than a kilogram. They are fired into orbit by small rail-guns mounted
on high-flying aircraft. Or perhaps they're launched by laser-ignition:
ground-based heat-beams that focus on small reaction-chambers and
provide their thrust. They might even be literally shot into orbit by
Jules Vernian "space guns" that use the intriguing, dirt-cheap
technology of Gerald Bull's Iraqi "super-cannon." This wacky but
promising technique would be utterly impractical for launching human
beings, since the acceleration g-load would shatter every bone in their
bodies; but these little machines are *tough.*
And small robots have many other advantages. Unlike manned
craft, robots can go into harm's way: into Jupiter's radiation belts, or
into the shrapnel-heavy rings of Saturn, or onto the acid-bitten
smoldering surface of Venus. They stay on their missions,
operational, not for mere days or weeks, but for decades. They are
extensions, not of human population, but of human senses.
And because they are small and numerous, they should be
cheap. The entire point of this scenario is to create a new kind of
space-probe that is cheap, small, disposable, and numerous: as cheap
and disposable as their parent technologies, microchips and video,
while taking advantage of new materials like carbon-fiber, fiber-
optics, ceramic, and artificial diamond.
The core idea of this particular vision is "fast, cheap, and out of
control." Instead of gigantic, costly, ultra-high-tech, one-shot efforts
like NASA's Hubble Telescope (crippled by bad optics) or NASA's
Galileo (currently crippled by a flaw in its communications antenna)
these micro-rovers are cheap, and legion, and everywhere. They get
crippled every day; but it doesn't matter much; there are hundreds
more, and no one's life is at stake. People, even quite ordinary people,
*rent time on them* in much the same way that you would pay for
satellite cable-TV service. If you want to know what Neptune looks
like today, you just call up a data center and *have a look for
This is a concept that would truly involve "the public" in space
exploration, rather than the necessarily tiny elite of astronauts. This
is a potential benefit that we might derive from abandoning the
expensive practice of launching actual human bodies into space. We
might find a useful analogy in the computer revolution: "mainframe"
space exploration, run by a NASA elite in labcoats, is replaced by a
"personal" space exploration run by grad students and even hobbyists.
In this scenario, "space exploration" becomes similar to other
digitized, computer-assisted media environments: scientific
visualization, computer graphics, virtual reality, telepresence. The
solar system is saturated, not by people, but by *media coverage.
Outer space becomes *outer cyberspace.*
Whether this scenario is "realistic" isn't clear as yet. It's just a
science-fictional dream, a vision for the exploration of space:
*circumsolar telepresence.* As always, much depends on
circumstance, lucky accidents, and imponderables like political will.
What does seem clear, however, is that NASA's own current plans are
terribly far-fetched: they have outlived all contact with the political,
economic, social and even technical realities of the 1990s. There is no
longer any real point in shipping human beings into space in order to
"Exploring space" is not an "unrealistic" idea. That much, at
least, has already been proven. The struggle now is over why and
how and to what end. True, "exploring space" is not as "important"
as was the life-and-death Space Race struggle for Cold War pre-
eminence. Space science cannot realistically expect to command the
huge sums that NASA commanded in the service of American political
prestige. That era is simply gone; it's history now.
However: astronomy does count. There is a very deep and
genuine interest in these topics. An interest in the stars and planets is
not a fluke, it's not freakish. Astronomy is the most ancient of human
sciences. It's deeply rooted in the human psyche, has great historical
continuity, and is spread all over the world. It has its own
constituency, and if its plans were modest and workable, and played
to visible strengths, they might well succeed brilliantly.
The world doesn't actually need NASA's billions to learn about
our solar system. Real, honest-to-goodness "space exploration"
never got more than a fraction of NASA's budget in the first place.
Projects of this sort would no longer be created by gigantic
federal military-industrial bureaucracies. Micro-rover projects could
be carried out by universities, astronomy departments, and small-
scale research consortia. It would play from the impressive strengths
of the thriving communications and computer tech of the nineties,
rather than the dying, centralized, militarized, politicized rocket-tech
of the sixties.
The task at hand is to create a change in the climate of opinion
about the true potentials of "space exploration." Space exploration,
like the rest of us, grew up in the Cold War; like the rest of us, it must
now find a new way to live. And, as history has proven, science fiction
has a very real and influential role in space exploration. History
shows that true space exploration is not about budgets. It's about
vision. At its heart it has always been about vision.
Let's create the vision.
Literary Freeware: Not For Commercial Use
From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, July 1992
F&SF Box 56 Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr; outside USA $31/yr
F&SF Column #2
Carbon, like every other element on this planet, came to us from
outer space. Carbon and its compounds are well-known in galactic
gas-clouds, and in the atmosphere and core of stars, which burn
helium to produce carbon. Carbon is the sixth element in the periodic
table, and forms about two-tenths of one percent of Earth's crust.
Earth's biosphere (most everything that grows, moves, breathes,
photosynthesizes, or reads F&SF) is constructed mostly of
waterlogged carbon, with a little nitrogen, phosphorus and such for
There are over a million known and catalogued compounds of
carbon: the study of these compounds, and their profuse and intricate
behavior, forms the major field of science known as organic
Since prehistory, "pure" carbon has been known to humankind
in three basic flavors. First, there's smut (lampblack or "amorphous
carbon"). Then there's graphite: soft, grayish-black, shiny stuff --
(pencil "lead" and lubricant). And third is that surpassing anomaly,
"diamond," which comes in extremely hard translucent crystals.
Smut is carbon atoms that are poorly linked. Graphite is carbon
atoms neatly linked in flat sheets. Diamond is carbon linked in strong,
regular, three-dimensional lattices: tetrahedra, that form ultrasolid
little carbon pyramids.
Today, however, humanity rejoices in possession of a fourth
and historically unprecedented form of carbon. Researchers have
created an entire class of these simon-pure carbon molecules, now
collectively known as the "fullerenes." They were named in August
1985, in Houston, Texas, in honor of the American engineer, inventor,
and delphically visionary philosopher, R. Buckminster Fuller.
"Buckminsterfullerene," or C60, is the best-known fullerene.
It's very round, the roundest molecule known to science. Sporting
what is technically known as "truncated icosahedral structure," C60 is
the most symmetric molecule possible in three-dimensional Euclidean
space. Each and every molecule of "Buckminsterfullerene" is a
hollow, geodesic sphere of sixty carbon atoms, all identically linked in
a spherical framework of twelve pentagons and twenty hexagons.
This molecule looks exactly like a common soccerball, and was
therefore nicknamed a "buckyball" by delighted chemists.
A free buckyball rotates merrily through space at one hundred
million revolutions per second. It's just over one nanometer across.
Buckminsterfullerene by the gross forms a solid crystal, is stable at
room temperature, and is an attractive mustard-yellow color. A heap
of crystallized buckyballs stack very much like pool balls, and are as
soft as graphite. It's thought that buckyballs will make good
lubricants -- something like molecular ball bearings.
When compressed, crystallized buckyballs squash and flatten
readily, down to about seventy percent of their volume. They then
refused to move any further and become extremely hard. Just *how*
hard is not yet established, but according to chemical theory,
compressed buckyballs may be considerably harder than diamond.
They may make good shock absorbers, or good armor.
But this is only the beginning of carbon's multifarious oddities in
the playful buckyball field. Because buckyballs are hollow, their
carbon framework can be wrapped around other, entirely different
atoms, forming neat molecular cages. This has already been
successfully done with certain metals, creating the intriguing new
class of "metallofullerites." Then there are buckyballs with a carbon or
two knocked out of the framework, and replaced with metal atoms.
This "doping" process yields a galaxy of so-called "dopeyballs." Some
of these dopeyballs show great promise as superconductors. Other
altered buckyballs seem to be organic ferromagnets.
A thin film of buckyballs can double the frequency of laser light
passing through it. Twisted or deformed buckyballs might act as
optical switches for future fiber-optic networks. Buckyballs with
dangling branches of nickel, palladium, or platinum may serve as new
The electrical properties of buckyballs and their associated
compounds are very unusual, and therefore very promising. Pure C60
is an insulator. Add three potassium atoms, and it becomes a low-
temperature superconductor. Add three more potassium atoms, and it
becomes an insulator again! There's already excited talk in industry of
making electrical batteries out of buckyballs.
Then there are the "buckybabies:" C28, C32, C44, and C52. The
lumpy, angular buckybabies have received very little study to date,
and heaven only knows what they're capable of, especially when
doped, bleached, twisted, frozen or magnetized. And then there are
the *big* buckyballs: C240, C540, C960. Molecular models of these
monster buckyballs look like giant chickenwire beachballs.
There doesn't seem to be any limit to the upper size of a
buckyball. If wrapped around one another for internal support,
buckyballs can (at least theoretically) accrete like pearls. A truly
titanic buckyball might be big enough to see with the naked eye.
Conceivably, it might even be big enough to kick around on a playing
field, if you didn't mind kicking an anomalous entity with unknown
Carbon-fiber is a high-tech construction material which has
been seeing a lot of use lately in tennis rackets, bicycles, and high-
performance aircraft. It's already the strongest fiber known. This
makes the discovery of "buckytubes" even more striking. A buckytube
is carbon-fiber with a difference: it's a buckyball extruded into a long
continuous cylinder comprised of one single superstrong molecule.
C70, a buckyball cousin shaped like a rugby ball, seems to be
useful in producing high-tech films of artificial diamond. Then there
are "fuzzyballs" with sixty strands of hydrogen hair, "bunnyballs"
with twin ears of butylpyridine, flourinated "teflonballs" that may be
the slipperiest molecules ever produced.
This sudden wealth of new high-tech slang indicates the
potential riches of this new and multidisciplinary field of study, where
physics, electronics, chemistry and materials-science are all
overlapping, right now, in an exhilirating microsoccerball
Today there are more than fifty different teams of scientists
investigating buckyballs and their relations, including industrial
heavy-hitters from AT&T, IBM and Exxon. SCIENCE magazine
voted buckminsterfullerene "Molecule of the Year" in 1991. Buckyball
papers have also appeared in NATURE, NEW SCIENTIST,
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, even FORTUNE and BUSINESS WEEK.
Buckyball breakthroughs are coming well-nigh every week, while the
fax machines sizzle in labs around the world. Buckyballs are strange,
elegant, beautiful, very intellectually sexy, and will soon be
In chemical terms, the discovery of buckminsterfullerene -- a
carbon sphere -- may well rank with the discovery of the benzene ring
-- a carbon ring -- in the 19th century. The benzene ring (C6H6)
brought the huge field of aromatic chemistry into being, and with it a
enormous number of industrial applications.
But what was this "discovery," and how did it come about?
In a sense, like carbon itself, buckyballs also came to us from
outer space. Donald Huffman and Wolfgang Kratschmer were
astrophysicists studying interstellar soot. Huffman worked for the
University of Arizona in Tucson, Kratschmer for the Max Planck
Institute in Heidelberg. In 1982, these two gentlemen were
superheating graphite rods in a low-pressure helium atmosphere,
trying to replicate possible soot-making conditions in the atmosphere
of red-giant stars. Their experiment was run in a modest bell-jar
zapping apparatus about the size and shape of a washing-machine.
Among a great deal of black gunk, they actually manufactured
miniscule traces of buckminsterfullerene, which behaved oddly in their
spectrometer. At the time, however, they didn't realize what they
In 1985, buckministerfullerene surfaced again, this time in a
high-tech laser-vaporization cluster-beam apparatus. Robert Curl
and Richard Smalley, two professors of chemistry at Rice University
in Houston, knew that a round carbon molecule was theoretically
possible. They even knew that it was likely to be yellow in color. And
in August 1985, they made a few nanograms of it, detected it with
mass spectrometers, and had the honor of naming it, along with their
colleagues Harry Kroto, Jim Heath and Sean O'Brien.
In 1985, however, there wasn't enough buckminsterfullerene
around to do much more than theorize about. It was "discovered,"
and named, and argued about in scientific journals, and was an
intriguing intellectual curiosity. But this exotic substance remained
little more than a lab freak.
And there the situation languished. But in 1988, Huffman and
Kratschmer, the astrophysicists, suddenly caught on: this "C60" from
the chemists in Houston, was probably the very same stuff they'd
made by a different process, back in 1982. Harry Kroto, who had
moved to the University of Sussex in the meantime, replicated their
results in his own machine in England, and was soon producing
enough buckminsterfullerene to actually weigh on a scale, and
measure, and purify!
The Huffman/Kratschmer process made buckminsterfullerene
by whole milligrams. Wow! Now the entire arsenal of modern
chemistry could be brought to bear: X-ray diffraction,
crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance, chromatography. And
results came swiftly, and were published. Not only were buckyballs
real, they were weird and wonderful.
In 1990, the Rice team discovered a yet simpler method to make
buckyballs, the so-called "fullerene factory." In a thin helium
atmosphere inside a metal tank, a graphite rod is placed near a
graphite disk. Enough simple, brute electrical power is blasted
through the graphite to generate an electrical arc between the disk
and the tip of the rod. When the end of the rod boils off, you just crank
the stub a little closer and turn up the juice. The resultant exotic soot,
which collects on the metal walls of the chamber, is up to 45 percent
In 1990, the buckyball field flung open its stadium doors for
anybody with a few gas-valves and enough credit for a big electric
bill. These buckyball "factories" sprang up all over the world in 1990
and '91. The "discovery" of buckminsterfullerene was not the big kick-
off in this particular endeavour. What really counted was the budget,
the simplicity of manufacturing. It wasn't the intellectual
breakthrough that made buckyballs a sport -- it was the cheap ticket in
through the gates. With cheap and easy buckyballs available, the
research scene exploded.
Sometimes Science, like other overglamorized forms of human
endeavor, marches on its stomach.
As I write this, pure buckyballs are sold commercially for about
$2000 a gram, but the market price is in free-fall. Chemists suggest
that buckmisterfullerene will be as cheap as aluminum some day soon
-- a few bucks a pound. Buckyballs will be a bulk commodity, like
oatmeal. You may even *eat* them some day -- they're not
poisonous, and they seem to offer a handy way to package certain
Buckminsterfullerene may have been "born" in an interstellar
star-lab, but it'll become a part of everyday life, your life and my life,
like nylon, or latex, or polyester. It may become more famous, and
will almost certainly have far more social impact, than Buckminster
Fuller's own geodesic domes, those glamorously high-tech structures
of the 60s that were the prophetic vision for their molecule-size
This whole exciting buckyball scrimmage will almost certainly
bring us amazing products yet undreamt-of, everything from grease
to superhard steels. And, inevitably, it will bring a concomitant set of
new problems -- buckyball junk, perhaps, or bizarre new forms of
pollution, or sinister military applications. This is the way of the
But maybe the most remarkable thing about this peculiar and
elaborate process of scientific development is that buckyballs never
were really "exotic" in the first place. Now that sustained attention
has been brought to bear on the phenomenon, it appears that
buckyballs are naturally present -- in tiny amounts, that is -- in almost
any sooty, smoky flame. Buckyballs fly when you light a candle, they
flew when Bogie lit a cigarette in "Casablanca," they flew when
Neanderthals roasted mammoth fat over the cave fire. Soot we knew
about, diamonds we prized -- but all this time, carbon, good ol'
Element Six, has had a shocking clandestine existence. The "secret"
was always there, right in the air, all around all of us.
But when you come right down to it, it doesn't really matter
how we found out about buckyballs. Accidents are not only fun, but
crucial to the so-called march of science, a march that often moves
fastest when it's stumbling down some strange gully that no one knew
existed. Scientists are human beings, and human beings are flexible:
not a hard, rigidly locked crystal like diamond, but a resilient network.
It's a legitimate and vital part of science to recognize the truth -- not
merely when looking for it with brows furrowed and teeth clenched,
but when tripping over it headlong.
Thanks to science, we did find out the truth. And now it's all
different. Because now we know!
Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use
From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, Sept 1992.
F&SF, Box 56, Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr; outside US $31/yr
F&SF Science Column #3
THINK OF THE PRESTIGE
The science of rocketry, and the science of weaponry, are sister
sciences. It's been cynically said of German rocket scientist Wernher
von Braun that "he aimed at the stars, and hit London."
After 1945, Wernher von Braun made a successful transition to
American patronage and, eventually, to civilian space exploration.
But another ambitious space pioneer -- an American citizen -- was
not so lucky as von Braun, though his equal in scientific talent. His
story, by comparison, is little known.
Gerald Vincent Bull was born in March 9, 1928, in Ontario,
Canada. He died in 1990. Dr. Bull was the most brilliant artillery
scientist of the twentieth century. Bull was a prodigiously gifted
student, and earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering at the age of 24.
Bull spent the 1950s researching supersonic aerodynamics in
Canada, personally handcrafting some of the most advanced wind-
tunnels in the world.
Bull's work, like that of his predecessor von Braun, had military
applications. Bull found patronage with the Canadian Armament
Research and Development Establishment (CARDE) and the
Canadian Defence Research Board.
However, Canada's military-industrial complex lacked the
panache, and the funding, of that of the United States. Bull, a
visionary and energetic man, grew impatient with what he considered
the pedestrian pace and limited imagination of the Canadians. As an
aerodynamics scientist for CARDE, Bull's salary in 1959 was only
$17,000. In comparison, in 1961 Bull earned $100,000 by consulting for
the Pentagon on nose-cone research. It was small wonder that by the
early 1960s, Bull had established lively professional relationships with
the US Army's Ballistics Research Laboratory (as well as the Army's
Redstone Arsenal, Wernher von Braun's own postwar stomping
It was the great dream of Bull's life to fire cannon projectiles
from the earth's surface directly into outer space. Amazingly, Dr.
Bull enjoyed considerable success in this endeavor. In 1961, Bull
established Project HARP (High Altitude Research Project). HARP
was an academic, nonmilitary research program, funded by McGill
University in Montreal, where Bull had become a professor in the
mechanical engineering department. The US Army's Ballistic
Research Lab was a quiet but very useful co-sponsor of HARP; the US
Army was especially generous in supplying Bull with obsolete military
equipment, including cannon barrels and radar.
Project HARP found a home on the island of Barbados,
downrange of its much better-known (and vastly better-financed)
rival, Cape Canaveral. In Barbados, Bull's gigantic space-cannon
fired its projectiles out to an ocean splashdown, with little risk of
public harm. Its terrific boom was audible all over Barbados, but the
locals were much pleased at their glamorous link to the dawning
Bull designed a series of new supersonic shells known as the
"Martlets." The Mark II Martlets were cylindrical finned projectiles,
about eight inches wide and five feet six inches long. They weighed
475 pounds. Inside the barrel of the space-cannon, a Martlet was
surrounded by a precisely machined wooden casing known as a
"sabot." The sabot soaked up combustive energy as the projectile
flew up the space-cannon's sixteen-inch, 118-ft long barrel. As it
cleared the barrel, the sabot split and the precisely streamlined
Martlet was off at over a mile per second. Each shot produced a huge
explosion and a plume of fire gushing hundreds of feet into the sky.
The Martlets were scientific research craft. They were
designed to carry payloads of metallic chaff, chemical smoke, or
meteorological balloons. They sported telemetry antennas for tracing
By the end of 1965, the HARP project had fired over a hundred
such missiles over fifty miles high, into the ionosphere -- the airless
fringes of space. In November 19, 1966, the US Army's Ballistics
Research Lab, using a HARP gun designed by Bull, fired a 185-lb
Martlet missile one hundred and eleven miles high. This was, and
remains, a world altitude record for any fired projectile. Bull now
entertained ambitious plans for a Martlet Mark IV, a rocket-assisted
projectile that would ignite in flight and drive itself into actual orbit.
Ballistically speaking, space cannon offer distinct advantages
over rockets. Rockets must lift, not only their own weight, but the
weight of their fuel and oxidizer. Cannon "fuel," which is contained
within the gunbarrel, offers far more explosive bang for the buck than
rocket fuel. Cannon projectiles are very accurate, thanks to the fixed
geometry of the gun-barrel. And cannon are far simpler and cheaper
There are grave disadvantages, of course. First, the payload
must be slender enough to fit into a gun-barrel. The most severe
drawback is the huge acceleration force of a cannon blast, which in the
case of Bull's exotic arsenal could top 10,000 Gs. This rules out
manned flights from the mouth of space-cannon. Jules Verne
overlooked this unpoetic detail when he wrote his prescient tale of
space artillery, FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1865). (Dr Bull
was fascinated by Verne, and often spoke of Verne's science fiction as
one of the foremost inspirations of his youth.)
Bull was determined to put a cannon-round into orbit. This
burning desire of his was something greater than any merely
pragmatic or rational motive. The collapse of the HARP project in
1967 left Bull in command of his own fortunes. He reassembled the
wreckage of his odd academic/military career, and started a
commercial operation, "Space Research Corporation." In the years
to follow, Bull would try hard to sell his space-cannon vision to a
number of sponsors, including NATO, the Pentagon, Canada, China,
Israel, and finally, Iraq.
In the meantime, the Vietnam War was raging. Bull's
researches on projectile aerodynamics had made him, and his
company Space Reseach Corporation, into a hot military-industrial
property. In pursuit of space research, Bull had invented techniques
that lent much greater range and accuracy to conventional artillery
rounds. With Bull's ammunition, for instance, US Naval destroyers
would be able to cruise miles off the shore of North Vietnam,
destroying the best Russian-made shore batteries without any fear of
artillery retaliation. Bull's Space Research Corporation was
manufacturing the necessary long-range shells in Canada, but his lack
of American citizenship was a hindrance in the Pentagon arms trade.
Such was Dr. Bull's perceived strategic importance that this
hindrance was neatly avoided; with the sponsorship of Senator Barry
Goldwater, Bull became an American citizen by act of Congress. This
procedure was a rare honor, previously reserved only for Winston
Churchill and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Despite this Senatorial fiat, however, the Navy arms deal
eventually fell through. But although the US Navy scorned Dr. Bull's
wares, others were not so short-sighted. Bull's extended-range
ammunition, and the murderously brilliant cannon that he designed to
fire it, found ready markets in Egypt, Israel, Holland, Italy, Britain,
Canada, Venezuela, Chile, Thailand, Iran, South Africa, Austria and
Dr. Bull created a strange private reserve on the Canadian-
American border; a private arms manufactury with its own US and
Canadian customs units. This arrangement was very useful, since the
arms-export laws of the two countries differed, and SRC's military
products could be shipped-out over either national border at will. In
this distant enclave on the rural northern border of Vermont, the
arms genius built his own artillery range, his own telemetry towers
and launch-control buildings, his own radar tracking station,
workshops, and machine shops. At its height, the Space Research
Corporation employed over three hundred people at this site, and
boasted some $15 million worth of advanced equipment.
The downfall of HARP had left Bull disgusted with the
government-supported military-scientific establishment. He referred
to government researchers as "clowns" and "cocktail scientists," and
decided that his own future must lay in the vigorous world of free
enterprise. Instead of exploring the upper atmosphere, Bull
dedicated his ready intelligence to the refining of lethal munitions.
Bull would not sell to the Soviets or their client states, whom he
loathed; but he would sell to most anyone else. Bull's cannon are
credited with being of great help to Jonas Savimbi's UNITA war in
Angola; they were also extensively used by both sides in the Iran-Iraq
Dr. Gerald V. Bull, Space Researcher, had become a
professional arms dealer. Dr. Bull was not a stellar success as an
arms dealer, because by all accounts he had no real head for business.
Like many engineers, Bull was obsessed not by entrepreneurial drive,
but by the exhilirating lure of technical achievement. The
atmosphere at Space Research Corporation was, by all accounts, very
collegial; Bull as professor, employees as cherished grad-students.
Bull's employees were fiercely loyal to him and felt that he was
brilliantly gifted and could accomplish anything.
SRC was never as great a commercial success as Bull's
technical genius merited. Bull stumbled badly in 1980. The Carter
Administration, annoyed by Bull's extensive deals with the South
African military, put Bull in prison for customs violation. This
punishment, rather than bringing Bull "to his senses," affected him
traumatically. He felt strongly that he had been singled out as a
political scapegoat to satisfy the hypocritical, left-leaning, anti-
apartheid bureaucrats in Washington. Bull spent seven months in an
American prison, reading extensively, and, incidentally, successfully
re-designing the prison's heating-plant. Nevertheless, the prison
experience left Bull embittered and cynical. While still in prison, Bull
was already accepting commercial approaches from the Communist
Chinese, who proved to be among his most avid customers.
After his American prison sentence ended, Bull abandoned his
strange enclave in the US-Canadian border to work full-time in
Brussels, Belgium. Space Research Corporation was welcomed there,
in Europe's foremost nexus of the global arms trade, a city where
almost anything goes in the way of merchandising war.
In November 1987, Bull was politely contacted in Brussels by the
Iraqi Embassy, and offered an all-expenses paid trip to Bagdad.
From 1980 to 1989, during their prolonged, lethal, and highly
inconclusive war with Iran, Saddam Hussein's regime had spent some
eighty billion dollars on weapons and weapons systems. Saddam
Hussein was especially fond of his Soviet-supplied "Scud" missiles,
which had shaken Iranian morale severely when fired into civilian
centers during the so-called "War of the Cities." To Saddam's mind,
the major trouble with his Scuds was their limited range and accuracy,
and he had invested great effort in gathering the tools and manpower
to improve the Iraqi art of rocketry.
The Iraqis had already bought many of Bull's 155-millimeter
cannon from the South Africans and the Austrians, and they were
most impressed. Thanks to Bull's design genius, the Iraqis actually
owned better, more accurate, and longer-range artillery than the
United States Army did.
Bull did not want to go to jail again, and was reluctant to break
the official embargo on arms shipments to Iraq. He told his would-be
sponsors so, in Bagdad, and the Iraqis were considerate of their
guest's qualms. To Bull's great joy, they took his idea of a peaceful
space cannon very seriously. "Think of the prestige," Bull suggested to
the Iraqi Minister of Industry, and the thought clearly intrigued the
The Israelis, in September 1988, had successfully launched their
own Shavit rocket into orbit, an event that had much impressed, and
depressed, the Arab League. Bull promised the Iraqis a launch system
that could place dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Arab satellites into
orbit. *Small* satellites, granted, and unmanned ones; but their
launches would cost as little as five thousand dollars each. Iraq
would become a genuine space power; a minor one by superpower
standards, but the only Arab space power.
And even small satellites were not just for show. Even a minor
space satellite could successfully perform certain surveillance
activities. The American military had proved the usefulness of spy
satellites to Saddam Hussein by passing him spysat intelligence during
worst heat of the Iran-Iraq war.
The Iraqis felt they would gain a great deal of widely
applicable, widely useful scientific knowledge from their association
with Bull, whether his work was "peaceful" or not. After all, it was
through peaceful research on Project HARP that Bull himself had
learned techniques that he had later sold for profit on the arms
market. The design of a civilian nose-cone, aiming for the stars, is
very little different from that of one descending with a supersonic
screech upon sleeping civilians in London.
For the first time in his life, Bull found himself the respected
client of a generous patron with vast resources -- and with an
imagination of a grandeur to match his own. By 1989, the Iraqis were
paying Bull and his company five million dollars a year to redesign
their field artillery, with much greater sums in the wings for "Project
Babylon" -- the Iraqi space-cannon. Bull had the run of ominous
weapons bunkers like the "Saad 16" missile-testing complex in north
Iraq, built under contract by Germans, and stuffed with gray-market
high-tech equipment from Tektronix, Scientific Atlanta and Hewlett-
Project Babylon was Bull's grandest vision, now almost within
his grasp. The Iraqi space-launcher was to have a barrel five hundred
feet long, and would weigh 2,100 tons. It would be supported by a
gigantic concrete tower with four recoil mechanisms, these shock-
absorbers weighing sixty tons each. The vast, segmented cannon
would fire rocket-assisted projectiles the size of a phone booth, into
orbit around the Earth.
In August 1989, a smaller prototype, the so-called "Baby
Babylon," was constructed at a secret site in Jabal Hamrayn, in central
Iraq. "Baby Babylon" could not have put payloads into orbit, but it
would have had an international, perhaps intercontinental range.
The prototype blew up on its first test-firing.
The Iraqis continued undaunted on another prototype super-
gun, but their smuggling attempts were clumsy. Bull himself had little
luck in maintaining the proper discretion for a professional arms
dealer, as his own jailing had proved. When flattered, Bull talked;
and when he talked, he boasted.
Word began to leak out within the so-called "intelligence
community" that Bull was involved in something big; something to do
with Iraq and with missiles. Word also reached the Israelis, who were
very aware of Bull's scientific gifts, having dealt with him themselves,
The Iraqi space cannon would have been nearly useless as a
conventional weapon. Five hundred feet long and completely
immobile, it would have been easy prey for any Israeli F-15. It would
have been impossible to hide, for any launch would thrown a column
of flame hundreds of feet into the air, a blazing signal for any spy
satellite or surveillance aircraft. The Babylon space cannon, faced
with determined enemies, could have been destroyed after a single
However, that single launch might well have served to dump a
load of nerve gas, or a nuclear bomb, onto any capital in the world.
Bull wanted Project Babylon to be entirely peaceful; despite his
rationalizations, he was never entirely at ease with military projects.
What Bull truly wanted from his Project Babylon was *prestige.* He
wanted the entire world to know that he, Jerry Bull, had created a
working space program, more or less all by himself. He had never
forgotten what it meant to world opinion to hear the Sputnik beeping
For Saddam Hussein, Project Babylon was more than any
merely military weapon: it was a *political* weapon. The prestige
Iraq might gain from the success of such a visionary leap was worth
any number of mere cannon-fodder batallions. It was Hussein's
ambition to lead the Arab world; Bull's cannon was to be a symbol of
Iraqi national potency, a symbol that the long war with the Shi'ite
mullahs had not destroyed Saddam's ambitions for transcendant
The Israelis, however, had already proven their willingness to
thwart Saddam Hussein's ambitions by whatever means necessary.
In 1981, they had bombed his Osirak nuclear reactor into rubble. In
1980, a Mossad hit-team had cut the throat of Iraqi nuclear scientist
Yayha El Meshad, in a Paris hotel room.
On March 22, 1990, Dr. Bull was surprised at the door of his
Brussels apartment. He was shot five times, in the neck and in the
back of the head, with a silenced 7.65 millimeter automatic pistol.
His assassin has never been found.
FOR FURTHER READING:
ARMS AND THE MAN: Dr. Gerald Bull, Iraq, and the Supergun by
William Lowther (McClelland- Bantam, Inc., Toronto, 1991)
BULL'S EYE: The Assassination and Life of Supergun Inventor
Gerald Bull by James Adams (Times Books, New York, 1992)
Literary Freeware: Not For Commercial Use
From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, Dec 1992.
F&SF, Box 56 Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr; outside US $31/yr
F&SF Science column #4
The new scientific field of study called "Artificial Life" can be
defined as "the attempt to abstract the logical form of life from its
So far, so good. But what is life?
The basic thesis of "Artificial Life" is that "life" is best
understood as a complex systematic process. "Life" consists of
relationships and rules and interactions. "Life" as a property is
potentially separate from actual living creatures.
Living creatures (as we know them today, that is) are basically
made of wet organic substances: blood and bone, sap and cellulose,
chitin and ichor. A living creature -- a kitten, for instance -- is a
physical object that is made of molecules and occupies space and has
A kitten is indisputably "alive" -- but not because it has the
"breath of life" or the "vital impulse" somehow lodged inside its body.
We may think and talk and act as if the kitten "lives" because it has a
mysterious "cat spirit" animating its physical cat flesh. If we were
superstitious, we might even imagine that a healthy young cat had
*nine* lives. People have talked and acted just this way for millennia.
But from the point-of-view of Artificial Life studies, this is a
very halting and primitive way of conceptualizing what's actually
going on with a living cat. A kitten's "life" is a *process, * with
properties like reproduction, genetic variation, heredity, behavior,
learning, the possession of a genetic program, the expression of that
program through a physical body. "Life" is a thing that *does,* not a
thing that *is* -- life extracts energy from the environment, grows,
repairs damage, reproduces.
And this network of processes called "Life" can be picked apart,
and studied, and mathematically modelled, and simulated with
computers, and experimented upon -- outside of any creature's living
"Artificial Life" is a very young field of study. The use of this
term dates back only to 1987, when it was used to describe a
conference in Los Alamos New Mexico on "the synthesis and
simulation of living systems." Artificial Life as a discipline is
saturated by computer-modelling, computer-science, and cybernetics.
It's conceptually similar to the earlier field of study called "Artificial
Intelligence." Artificial Intelligence hoped to extract the basic logical
structure of intelligence, to make computers "think." Artificial Life, by
contrast, hopes to make computers only about as "smart" as an ant --
but as "alive" as a swarming anthill.
Artificial Life as a discipline uses the computer as its primary
scientific instrument. Like telescopes and microscopes before them,
computers are making previously invisible aspects of the world
apparent to the human eye. Computers today are shedding light on
the activity of complex systems, on new physical principles such as
"emergent behavior," "chaos," and "self-organization."
For millennia, "Life" has been one of the greatest of
metaphysical and scientific mysteries, but now a few novel and
tentative computerized probes have been stuck into the fog. The
results have already proved highly intriguing.
Can a computer or a robot be alive? Can an entity which only
exists as a digital simulation be "alive"? If it looks like a duck, quacks
like a duck, waddles like a duck, but it in fact takes the form of pixels
on a supercomputer screen -- is it a duck? And if it's not a duck, then
what on earth is it? What exactly does a thing have to do and be
before we say it's "alive"?
It's surprisingly difficult to decide when something is "alive."
There's never been a definition of "life," whether scientific,
metaphysical, or theological, that has ever really worked. Life is not
a clean either/or proposition. Life comes on a kind of scale,
apparently, a kind of continuum -- maybe even, potentially, *several
different kinds of continuum.*
One might take a pragmatic, laundry-list approach to defining
life. To be "living," a thing must grow. Move. Reproduce. React to
its environment. Take in energy, excrete waste. Nourish itself, die,
and decay. Have a genetic code, perhaps, or be the result of a process
of evolution. But there are grave problems with all of these concepts.
All these things can be done today by machines or programs. And the
concepts themselves are weak and subject to contradiction and
Are viruses "alive"? Viruses can thrive and reproduce, but not
by themselves -- they have to use a victim cell in order to manufacture
copies of themselves. Some dormant viruses can crystallize into a
kind of organic slag that's dead for all practical purposes, and can stay
that way indefinitely -- until the virus gets another chance at
infection, and then the virus comes seething back.
How about a frozen human embryo? It can be just as dormant
as a dormant virus, and certainly can't survive without a host, but it
can become a living human being. Some people who were once
frozen embryos may be reading this magazine right now! Is a frozen
embryo "alive" -- or is it just the *potential* for life, a genetic life-
program halted in mid-execution?
Bacteria are simple, as living things go. Most people however
would agree that germs are "alive." But there are many other entities
in our world today that act in lifelike fashion and are easily as
complex as germs, and yet we don't call them "alive" -- except
"metaphorically" (whatever *that* means).
How about a national government, for instance? A
government can grow and adapt and evolve. It's certainly a very
powerful entity that consumes resources and affects its environment
and uses enormous amounts of information. When people say "Long
Live France," what do they mean by that? Is the Soviet Union now
Amoebas aren't "mortal" and don't age -- they just go right on
splitting in half indefinitely. Does that mean that all amoebas are
actually pieces of one super-amoeba that's three billion years old?
And where's the "life" in an ant-swarm? Most ants in a swarm
never reproduce; they're sterile workers -- tools, peripherals,
hardware. All the individual ants in a nest, even the queen, can die
off one by one, but as long as new ants and new queens take their
place, the swarm itself can go on "living" for years without a hitch or a
Questioning "life" in this way may seem so much nit-picking
and verbal sophistry. After all, one may think, people can easily tell
the difference between something living and dead just by having a
good long look at it. And in point of fact, this seems to be the single
strongest suit of "Artificial Life." It is very hard to look at a good
Artificial Life program in action without perceiving it as, somehow,
Only living creatures perform the behavior known as
"flocking." A gigantic wheeling flock of cranes or flamingos is one of
the most impressive sights that the living world has to offer.
But the "logical form" of flocking can be abstracted from its
"material manifestation" in a flocking group of actual living birds.
"Flocking" can be turned into rules implemented on a computer. The
rules look like this:
1. Stay with the flock -- try to move toward where it seems
2. Try to move at the same speed as the other local birds.
3. Don't bump into things, especially the ground or other birds.
In 1987, Craig Reynolds, who works for a computer-graphics
company called Symbolics, implemented these rules for abstract
graphic entities called "bird-oids" or "boids." After a bit of fine-
tuning, the result was, and is, uncannily realistic. The darn things
They meander around in an unmistakeably lifelike, lively,
organic fashion. There's nothing "mechanical" or "programmed-
looking" about their actions. They bumble and swarm. The boids in
the middle shimmy along contentedly, and the ones on the fringes tag
along anxiously jockeying for position, and the whole squadron hangs
together, and wheels and swoops and maneuvers, with amazing
grace. (Actually they're neither "anxious" nor "contented," but when
you see the boids behaving in this lifelike fashion, you can scarcely help
but project lifelike motives and intentions onto them.)
You might say that the boids simulate flocking perfectly -- but
according to the hard-dogma position of A-Life enthusiasts, it's not
"simulation" at all. This is real "flocking" pure and simple -- this is
exactly what birds actually do. Flocking is flocking -- it doesn't
matter if it's done by a whooping crane or a little computer-sprite.
Clearly the birdoids themselves aren't "alive" -- but it can be
argued, and is argued, that they're actually doing something that is a
genuine piece of the life process. In the words of scientist Christopher
Langton, perhaps the premier guru of A-Life: "The most important
thing to remember about A-Life is that the part that is artificial is not
the life, but the materials. Real things happen. We observe real
phenomena. It is real life in an artificial medium."
The great thing about studying flocking with boids, as opposed
to say whooping cranes, is that the Artificial Life version can be
experimented upon, in controlled and repeatable conditions. Instead
of just *observing* flocking, a life-scientist can now *do* flocking.
And not just flocks -- with a change in the parameters, you can study
"schooling" and "herding" as well.
The great hope of Artificial Life studies is that Artificial Life will
reveal previously unknown principles that directly govern life itself --
the principles that give life its mysterious complexity and power, its
seeming ability to defy probability and entropy. Some of these
principles, while still tentative, are hotly discussed in the field.
For instance: the principle of *bottom-up* initiative rather
than *top-down* orders. Flocking demonstrates this principle well.
Flamingos do not have blueprints. There is no squadron-leader
flamingo barking orders to all the other flamingos. Each flamingo
makes up its own mind. The extremely complex motion of a flock of
flamingos arises naturally from the interactions of hundreds of
independent birds. "Flocking" consists of many thousands of simple
actions and simple decisions, all repeated again and again, each
action and decision affecting the next in sequence, in an endless
This involves a second A-Life principle: *local* control rather
than *global* control. Each flamingo has only a vague notion of the
behavior of the flock as a whole. A flamingo simply isn't smart
enough to keep track of the entire "big picture," and in fact this isn't
even necessary. It's only necessary to avoid bumping the guys right
at your wingtips; you can safely ignore the rest.
Another principle: *simple* rules rather than *complex* ones.
The complexity of flocking, while real, takes place entirely outside of
the flamingo's brain. The individual flamingo has no mental
conception of the vast impressive aerial ballet in which it happens to
be taking part. The flamingo makes only simple decisions; it is never
required to make complex decisions requiring a lot of memory or
planning. *Simple* rules allow creatures as downright stupid as fish
to get on with the job at hand -- not only successfully, but swiftly and
And then there is the most important A-Life principle, also
perhaps the foggiest and most scientifically controversial:
*emergent* rather than *prespecified* behavior. Flamingos fly
from their roosts to their feeding grounds, day after day, year in year
out. But they will never fly there exactly the same way twice. They'll
get there all right, predictable as gravity; but the actual shape and
structure of the flock will be whipped up from scratch every time.
Their flying order is not memorized, they don't have numbered places
in line, or appointed posts, or maneuver orders. Their orderly
behavior simply *emerges,* different each time, in a ceaselessly
Ants don't have blueprints either. Ants have become the totem
animals of Artificial Life. Ants are so 'smart' that they have vastly
complex societies with actual *institutions* like slavery and and
agriculture and aphid husbandry. But an individual ant is a
profoundly stupid creature. Entomologists estimate that individual
ants have only fifteen to forty things that they can actually "do." But
if they do these things at the right time, to the right stimulus, and
change from doing one thing to another when the proper trigger
comes along, then ants as a group can work wonders.
There are anthills all over the world. They all work, but they're
all different; no two anthills are identical. That's because they're built
bottom-up and emergently. Anthills are built without any spark of
planning or intelligence. An ant may feel the vague instinctive need to
wall out the sunlight. It begins picking up bits of dirt and laying them
down at random. Other ants see the first ant at work and join in; this
is the A-Life principle known as "allelomimesis," imitating the others
(or rather not so much "imitating" them as falling mechanically into
the same instinctive pattern of behavior).
Sooner or later, a few bits of dirt happen to pile up together.
Now there's a wall. The ant wall-building sub-program kicks into
action. When the wall gets high enough, it's roofed over with dirt and
spit. Now there's a tunnel. Do it again and again and again, and the
structure can grow seven feet high, and be of such fantastic
complexity that to draw it on an architect's table would take years.
This emergent structure, "order out of chaos," "something out of
nothing" -- appears to be one of the basic "secrets of life."
These principles crop up again and again in the practice of life-
simulation. Predator-prey interactions. The effects of parasites and
viruses. Dynamics of population and evolution. These principles even
seem to apply to internal living processes, like plant growth and the
way a bug learns to walk. The list of applications for these principles
has gone on and on.
It's not hard to understand that many simple creatures, doing
simple actions that affect one another, can easily create a really big
mess. The thing that's *hard* to understand is that those same,
bottom-up, unplanned, "chaotic" actions can and do create living,
working, functional order and system and pattern. The process really
must be seen to be believed. And computers are the instruments that
have made us see it.
Most any computer will do. Oxford zoologist Richard
Dawkins has created a simple, popular Artificial Life program for
personal computers. It's called "The Blind Watchmaker," and
demonstrates the inherent power of Darwinian evolution to create
elaborate pattern and structure. The program accompanies Dr.
Dawkins' 1986 book of the same title (quite an interesting book, by the
way), but it's also available independently.
The Blind Watchmaker program creates patterns from little
black-and-white branching sticks, which develop according to very
simple rules. The first time you see them, the little branching sticks
seem anything but impressive. They look like this:
Fig 1. Ancestral A-Life Stick-Creature
After a pleasant hour with Blind Watchmaker, I myself produced
these very complex forms -- what Dawkins calls "Biomorphs."
Fig. 2 -- Six Dawkins Biomorphs
It's very difficult to look at such biomorphs without interpreting
them as critters -- *something* alive-ish, anyway. It seems that the
human eye is *trained by nature* to interpret the output of such a
process as "life-like." That doesn't mean it *is* life, but there's
definitely something *going on there.*
*What* is going on is the subject of much dispute. Is a
computer-simulation actually an abstracted part of life? Or is it
technological mimicry, or mechanical metaphor, or clever illusion?
We can model thermodynamic equations very well also, but an
equation isn't hot, it can't warm us or burn us. A perfect model of
heat isn't heat. We know how to model the flow of air on an
airplane's wings, but no matter how perfect our simulations are, they
don't actually make us fly. A model of motion isn't motion. Maybe
"Life" doesn't exist either, without that real-world carbon-and-water
incarnation. A-Life people have a term for these carbon-and-water
chauvinists. They call them "carbaquists."
Artificial Life maven Rodney Brooks designs insect-like robots
at MIT. Using A-Life bottom-up principles -- "fast, cheap, and out of
control" -- he is trying to make small multi-legged robots that can
behave as deftly as an ant. He and his busy crew of graduate students
are having quite a bit of success at it. And Brooks finds the struggle
over definitions beside the real point. He envisions a world in which
robots as dumb as insects are everywhere; dumb, yes, but agile and
successful and pragmatically useful. Brooks says: "If you want to
argue if it's living or not, fine. But if it's sitting there existing twenty-
four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days of the year, doing
stuff which is tricky to do and doing it well, then I'm going to be
happy. And who cares what you call it, right?"
Ontological and epistemological arguments are never easily
settled. However, "Artificial Life," whether it fully deserves that term
or not, is at least easy to see, and rather easy to get your hands on.
"Blind Watchmaker" is the A-Life equivalent of using one's computer
as a home microscope and examining pondwater. Best of all, the
program costs only twelve bucks! It's cheap and easy to become an
amateur A-Life naturalist.
Because of the ubiquity of powerful computers, A-Life is
"garage-band science." The technology's out there for almost anyone
interested -- it's hacker-science. Much of A-Life practice basically
consists of picking up computers, pointing them at something
promising, and twiddling with the focus knobs until you see something
really gnarly. *Figuring out what you've seen* is the tough part, the
"real science"; this is where actual science, reproducible, falsifiable,
formal, and rigorous, parts company from the intoxicating glamor of
the intellectually sexy. But in the meantime, you have the contagious
joy and wonder of just *gazing at the unknown* the primal thrill of
discovery and exploration.
A lot has been written already on the subject of Artificial Life.
The best and most complete journalistic summary to date is Steven
Levy's brand-new book, ARTIFICIAL LIFE: THE QUEST FOR A NEW
CREATION (Pantheon Books 1992).
The easiest way for an interested outsider to keep up with this
fast-breaking field is to order books, videos, and software from an
invaluable catalog: "Computers In Science and Art," from Media
Magic. Here you can find the Proceedings of the first and second
Artificial Life Conferences, where the field's most influential papers,
discussions, speculations and manifestos have seen print.
But learned papers are only part of the A-Life experience. If
you can see Artificial Life actually demonstrated, you should seize the
opportunity. Computer simulation of such power and sophistication
is a truly remarkable historical advent. No previous generation had
the opportunity to see such a thing, much less ponder its significance.
Media Magic offers videos about cellular automata, virtual ants,
flocking, and other A-Life constructs, as well as personal software
"pocket worlds" like CA Lab, Sim Ant, and Sim Earth. This very
striking catalog is available free from Media Magic, P.O Box 507,
Nicasio CA 94946.
Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use
From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, Feb 1993.
F&SF, Box 56, Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr USA $31/yr other
F&SF Science Column #5
Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, America's
foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem. How
could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear
Postnuclear America would need a command-and-control
network, linked from city to city, state to state, base to base. But no
matter how thoroughly that network was armored or protected, its
switches and wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact of
atomic bombs. A nuclear attack would reduce any
conceivable network to tatters.
And how would the network itself be commanded and
controlled? Any central authority, any network central citadel, would
be an obvious and immediate target for an enemy missile. The
center of the network would be the very first place to go.
RAND mulled over this grim puzzle in deep military secrecy,
and arrived at a daring solution. The RAND proposal (the brainchild
of RAND staffer Paul Baran) was made public in 1964. In the first
place, the network would *have no central authority.* Furthermore,
it would be *designed from the beginning to operate while
The principles were simple. The network itself would be
assumed to be unreliable at all times. It would be designed from the
get-go to transcend its own unreliability. All the nodes in the network
would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its own
authority to originate, pass, and receive messages. The
messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet
separately addressed. Each packet would begin at some specified
source node, and end at some other specified destination node. Each
packet would wind its way through the network on an individual
The particular route that the packet took would be unimportant.
Only final results would count. Basically, the packet would be tossed
like a hot potato from node to node to node, more or less in the
direction of its destination, until it ended up in the proper place. If
big pieces of the network had been blown away, that simply
wouldn't matter; the packets would still stay airborne, lateralled
wildly across the field by whatever nodes happened to survive. This
rather haphazard delivery system might be "inefficient" in the usual
sense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system) -- but it
would be extremely rugged.
During the 60s, this intriguing concept of a decentralized,
blastproof, packet-switching network was kicked around by RAND,
MIT and UCLA. The National Physical Laboratory in Great Britain set
up the first test network on these principles in 1968. Shortly
afterward, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency decided
to fund a larger, more ambitious project in the USA. The nodes of the
network were to be high-speed supercomputers (or what passed for
supercomputers at the time). These were rare and valuable machines
which were in real need of good solid networking, for the sake of
national research-and-development projects.
In fall 1969, the first such node was installed in UCLA. By
December 1969, there were four nodes on the infant network, which
was named ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor.
The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-
speed transmission lines. They could even be programmed remotely
from the other nodes. Thanks to ARPANET, scientists and researchers
could share one another's computer facilities by long-distance. This
was a very handy service, for computer-time was precious in the
early '70s. In 1971 there were fifteen nodes in ARPANET; by 1972,
thirty-seven nodes. And it was good.
By the second year of operation, however, an odd fact became
clear. ARPANET's users had warped the computer-sharing network
into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post-
office. The main traffic on ARPANET was not long-distance computing.
Instead, it was news and personal messages. Researchers were using
ARPANET to collaborate on projects, to trade notes on work,
and eventually, to downright gossip and schmooze. People had their
own personal user accounts on the ARPANET computers, and their
own personal addresses for electronic mail. Not only were they using
ARPANET for person-to-person communication, but they were very
enthusiastic about this particular service -- far more enthusiastic than
they were about long-distance computation.
It wasn't long before the invention of the mailing-list, an
ARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message could
be sent automatically to large numbers of network subscribers.
Interestingly, one of the first really big mailing-lists was "SF-
LOVERS," for science fiction fans. Discussing science fiction on
the network was not work-related and was frowned upon by many
ARPANET computer administrators, but this didn't stop it from
Throughout the '70s, ARPA's network grew. Its decentralized
structure made expansion easy. Unlike standard corporate computer
networks, the ARPA network could accommodate many different
kinds of machine. As long as individual machines could speak the
packet-switching lingua franca of the new, anarchic network, their
brand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, were
The ARPA's original standard for communication was known as
NCP, "Network Control Protocol," but as time passed and the technique
advanced, NCP was superceded by a higher-level, more sophisticated
standard known as TCP/IP. TCP, or "Transmission Control Protocol,"
converts messages into streams of packets at the source, then
reassembles them back into messages at the destination. IP, or
"Internet Protocol," handles the addressing, seeing to it that packets
are routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networks
with multiple standards -- not only ARPA's pioneering NCP standard,
but others like Ethernet, FDDI, and X.25.
As early as 1977, TCP/IP was being used by other networks to
link to ARPANET. ARPANET itself remained fairly tightly controlled,
at least until 1983, when its military segment broke off and became
MILNET. But TCP/IP linked them all. And ARPANET itself, though it
was growing, became a smaller and smaller neighborhood amid the
vastly growing galaxy of other linked machines.
As the '70s and '80s advanced, many very different social
groups found themselves in possession of powerful computers. It was
fairly easy to link these computers to the growing network-of-
networks. As the use of TCP/IP became more common, entire other
networks fell into the digital embrace of the Internet, and
messily adhered. Since the software called TCP/IP was public-domain,
and the basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by its
very nature, it was difficult to stop people from barging in and
linking up somewhere-or-other. In point of fact, nobody *wanted* to
stop them from joining this branching complex of networks, which
came to be known as the "Internet."
Connecting to the Internet cost the taxpayer little or nothing,
since each node was independent, and had to handle its own financing
and its own technical requirements. The more, the merrier. Like the
phone network, the computer network became steadily more valuable
as it embraced larger and larger territories of people and resources.
A fax machine is only valuable if *everybody else* has a fax
machine. Until they do, a fax machine is just a curiosity. ARPANET,
too, was a curiosity for a while. Then computer-networking became
an utter necessity.
In 1984 the National Science Foundation got into the act,
through its Office of Advanced Scientific Computing. The new NSFNET
set a blistering pace for technical advancement, linking newer, faster,
shinier supercomputers, through thicker, faster links, upgraded and
expanded, again and again, in 1986, 1988, 1990. And other
government agencies leapt in: NASA, the National Institutes of Health,
the Department of Energy, each of them maintaining a digital satrapy
in the Internet confederation.
The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divvied
up into basic varieties. Foreign computers, and a few American ones,
chose to be denoted by their geographical locations. The others were
grouped by the six basic Internet "domains": gov, mil, edu, com, org
and net. (Graceless abbreviations such as this are a standard
feature of the TCP/IP protocols.) Gov, Mil, and Edu denoted
governmental, military and educational institutions, which were, of
course, the pioneers, since ARPANET had begun as a high-tech
research exercise in national security. Com, however, stood
for "commercial" institutions, which were soon bursting into the
network like rodeo bulls, surrounded by a dust-cloud of eager
nonprofit "orgs." (The "net" computers served as gateways between
ARPANET itself formally expired in 1989, a happy victim of its
own overwhelming success. Its users scarcely noticed, for ARPANET's
functions not only continued but steadily improved. The use of
TCP/IP standards for computer networking is now global. In 1971, a
mere twenty-one years ago, there were only four nodes in the
ARPANET network. Today there are tens of thousands of nodes in
the Internet, scattered over forty-two countries, with more coming
on-line every day. Three million, possibly four million people use
this gigantic mother-of-all-computer-networks.
The Internet is especially popular among scientists, and is
probably the most important scientific instrument of the late
twentieth century. The powerful, sophisticated access that it
provides to specialized data and personal communication
has sped up the pace of scientific research enormously.
The Internet's pace of growth in the early 1990s is spectacular,
almost ferocious. It is spreading faster than cellular phones, faster
than fax machines. Last year the Internet was growing at a rate of
twenty percent a *month.* The number of "host" machines with direct
connection to TCP/IP has been doubling every year since
1988. The Internet is moving out of its original base in military and
research institutions, into elementary and high schools, as well as into
public libraries and the commercial sector.
Why do people want to be "on the Internet?" One of the main
reasons is simple freedom. The Internet is a rare example of a true,
modern, functional anarchy. There is no "Internet Inc." There are
no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders.
In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long
as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly
technical, not social or political. (There has been some struggle over
commercial use of the Internet, but that situation is changing as
businesses supply their own links).
The Internet is also a bargain. The Internet as a whole, unlike
the phone system, doesn't charge for long-distance service. And
unlike most commercial computer networks, it doesn't charge for
access time, either. In fact the "Internet" itself, which doesn't even
officially exist as an entity, never "charges" for anything. Each group
of people accessing the Internet is responsible for their own machine
and their own section of line.
The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural,
but it makes a certain deep and basic sense. It's rather like the
"anarchy" of the English language. Nobody rents English, and nobody
owns English. As an English-speaking person, it's up to you to learn
how to speak English properly and make whatever use you please
of it (though the government provides certain subsidies to help you
learn to read and write a bit). Otherwise, everybody just sort of
pitches in, and somehow the thing evolves on its own, and somehow
turns out workable. And interesting. Fascinating, even. Though a lot
of people earn their living from using and exploiting and teaching
English, "English" as an institution is public property, a public good.
Much the same goes for the Internet. Would English be improved if
the "The English Language, Inc." had a board of directors and a chief
executive officer, or a President and a Congress? There'd probably be
a lot fewer new words in English, and a lot fewer new ideas.
People on the Internet feel much the same way about their own
institution. It's an institution that resists institutionalization. The
Internet belongs to everyone and no one.
Still, its various interest groups all have a claim. Business
people want the Internet put on a sounder financial footing.
Government people want the Internet more fully regulated.
Academics want it dedicated exclusively to scholarly research.
Military people want it spy-proof and secure. And so on and so on.
All these sources of conflict remain in a stumbling balance
today, and the Internet, so far, remains in a thrivingly anarchical
condition. Once upon a time, the NSFnet's high-speed, high-capacity
lines were known as the "Internet Backbone," and their owners could
rather lord it over the rest of the Internet; but today there are
"backbones" in Canada, Japan, and Europe, and even privately owned
commercial Internet backbones specially created for carrying business
traffic. Today, even privately owned desktop computers can become
Internet nodes. You can carry one under your arm. Soon, perhaps, on
But what does one *do* with the Internet? Four things,
basically: mail, discussion groups, long-distance computing, and file
Internet mail is "e-mail," electronic mail, faster by several
orders of magnitude than the US Mail, which is scornfully known by
Internet regulars as "snailmail." Internet mail is somewhat like fax.
It's electronic text. But you don't have to pay for it (at least not
directly), and it's global in scope. E-mail can also send software and
certain forms of compressed digital imagery. New forms of mail are in
The discussion groups, or "newsgroups," are a world of their
own. This world of news, debate and argument is generally known as
"USENET. " USENET is, in point of fact, quite different from the
Internet. USENET is rather like an enormous billowing crowd of
gossipy, news-hungry people, wandering in and through the
Internet on their way to various private backyard barbecues.
USENET is not so much a physical network as a set of social
conventions. In any case, at the moment there are some 2,500
separate newsgroups on USENET, and their discussions generate about
7 million words of typed commentary every single day. Naturally
there is a vast amount of talk about computers on USENET, but the
variety of subjects discussed is enormous, and it's growing larger all
the time. USENET also distributes various free electronic journals and
Both netnews and e-mail are very widely available, even
outside the high-speed core of the Internet itself. News and e-mail
are easily available over common phone-lines, from Internet fringe-
realms like BITnet, UUCP and Fidonet. The last two Internet services,
long-distance computing and file transfer, require what is known as
"direct Internet access" -- using TCP/IP.
Long-distance computing was an original inspiration for
ARPANET and is still a very useful service, at least for some.
Programmers can maintain accounts on distant, powerful computers,
run programs there or write their own. Scientists can make use of
powerful supercomputers a continent away. Libraries offer their
electronic card catalogs for free search. Enormous CD-ROM catalogs
are increasingly available through this service. And there are
fantastic amounts of free software available.
File transfers allow Internet users to access remote machines
and retrieve programs or text. Many Internet computers -- some
two thousand of them, so far -- allow any person to access them
anonymously, and to simply copy their public files, free of charge.
This is no small deal, since entire books can be transferred through
direct Internet access in a matter of minutes. Today, in 1992, there
are over a million such public files available to anyone who asks for
them (and many more millions of files are available to people with
accounts). Internet file-transfers are becoming a new form of
publishing, in which the reader simply electronically copies the work
on demand, in any quantity he or she wants, for free. New Internet
programs, such as "archie," "gopher," and "WAIS," have been
developed to catalog and explore these enormous archives of
The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading like
bread-mold. Any computer of sufficient power is a potential spore
for the Internet, and today such computers sell for less than $2,000
and are in the hands of people all over the world. ARPA's network,
designed to assure control of a ravaged society after a nuclear
holocaust, has been superceded by its mutant child the Internet,
which is thoroughly out of control, and spreading exponentially
through the post-Cold War electronic global village. The spread of
the Internet in the 90s resembles the spread of personal
computing in the 1970s, though it is even faster and perhaps more
important. More important, perhaps, because it may give those
personal computers a means of cheap, easy storage and access that is
truly planetary in scale.
The future of the Internet bids fair to be bigger and
exponentially faster. Commercialization of the Internet is a very hot
topic today, with every manner of wild new commercial information-
service promised. The federal government, pleased with an unsought
success, is also still very much in the act. NREN, the National Research
and Education Network, was approved by the US Congress in fall
1991, as a five-year, $2 billion project to upgrade the Internet
"backbone." NREN will be some fifty times faster than the fastest
network available today, allowing the electronic transfer of the entire
Encyclopedia Britannica in one hot second. Computer networks
worldwide will feature 3-D animated graphics, radio and cellular
phone-links to portable computers, as well as fax, voice, and high-
definition television. A multimedia global circus!
Or so it's hoped -- and planned. The real Internet of the
future may bear very little resemblance to today's plans. Planning
has never seemed to have much to do with the seething, fungal
development of the Internet. After all, today's Internet bears
little resemblance to those original grim plans for RAND's post-
holocaust command grid. It's a fine and happy irony.
How does one get access to the Internet? Well -- if you don't
have a computer and a modem, get one. Your computer can act as a
terminal, and you can use an ordinary telephone line to connect to an
Internet-linked machine. These slower and simpler adjuncts to the
Internet can provide you with the netnews discussion groups and
your own e-mail address. These are services worth having -- though
if you only have mail and news, you're not actually "on the Internet"
If you're on a campus, your university may have direct
"dedicated access" to high-speed Internet TCP/IP lines. Apply for an
Internet account on a dedicated campus machine, and you may be
able to get those hot-dog long-distance computing and file-transfer
functions. Some cities, such as Cleveland, supply "freenet"
community access. Businesses increasingly have Internet access, and
are willing to sell it to subscribers. The standard fee is about $40 a
month -- about the same as TV cable service.
As the Nineties proceed, finding a link to the Internet will
become much cheaper and easier. Its ease of use will also improve,
which is fine news, for the savage UNIX interface of TCP/IP leaves
plenty of room for advancements in user-friendliness. Learning the
Internet now, or at least learning about it, is wise. By the
turn of the century, "network literacy," like "computer literacy"
before it, will be forcing itself into the very texture of your life.
For Further Reading:
The Whole Internet Catalog & User's Guide by Ed Krol. (1992) O'Reilly
and Associates, Inc. A clear, non-jargonized introduction to the
intimidating business of network literacy. Many computer-
documentation manuals attempt to be funny. Mr. Krol's book is
The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide.
by John Quarterman. Digital Press: Bedford, MA. (1990) Massive and
highly technical compendium detailing the mind-boggling scope and
complexity of our newly networked planet.
The Internet Companion by Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C. Ryer (1992)
Addison Wesley. Evangelical etiquette guide to the Internet featuring
anecdotal tales of life-changing Internet experiences. Foreword by
Senator Al Gore.
Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide by Brendan P.
Kehoe (1992) Prentice Hall. Brief but useful Internet guide with
plenty of good advice on useful machines to paw over for data. Mr
Kehoe's guide bears the singularly wonderful distinction of being
available in electronic form free of charge. I'm doing the same
with all my F&SF Science articles, including, of course, this one. My
own Internet address is email@example.com.
Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use
From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, April 1993.
F&SF, Box 56, Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr USA $31/yr other
F&SF Science Column #6:
Here on my desk I have something that can only be described as
miraculous. It's a big cardboard envelope with nine thick sheets of
black plastic inside, and on these sheets are pictures of my own brain.
These images are "MRI scans" -- magnetic resonance imagery from
a medical scanner.
These are magnetic windows into the lightless realm inside my
skull. The meat, bone, and various gristles within my head glow gently
in crisp black-and-white detail. There's little of the foggy ghostliness
one sees with, say, dental x-rays. Held up against a bright light, or
placed on a diagnostic light table, the dark plastic sheets reveal veins,
arteries, various odd fluid-stuffed ventricles, and the spongey wrinkles
of my cerebellum. In various shots, I can see the pulp within my own
teeth, the roots of my tongue, the boney caverns of my sinuses, and the
nicely spherical jellies that are my two eyeballs. I can see that the
human brain really does come in two lobes and in three sections, and
that it has gray matter and white matter. The brain is a big whopping
gland, basically, and it fills my skull just like the meat of a walnut.
It's an odd experience to look long and hard at one's own brain.
Though it's quite a privilege to witness this, it's also a form of
narcissism without much historical parallel. Frankly, I don't think I
ever really believed in my own brain until I saw these images. At least,
I never truly comprehended my brain as a tangible physical organ, like
a knuckle or a kneecap. And yet here is the evidence, laid out
irrefutably before me, pixel by monochrome pixel, in a large variety of
angles and in exquisite detail. And I'm told that my brain is quite
healthy and perfectly normal -- anatomically at least. (For a science
fiction writer this news is something of a letdown.)
The discovery of X-rays in 1895, by Wilhelm Roentgen, led to the
first technology that made human flesh transparent. Nowadays, X-rays
can pierce the body through many different angles to produce a
graphic three-dimensional image. This 3-D technique, "Computerized
Axial Tomography" or the CAT-scan, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 for its
originators, Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack.
Sonography uses ultrasound to study human tissue through its
reflection of high-frequency vibration: sonography is a sonic window.
Magnetic resonance imaging, however, is a more sophisticated
window yet. It is rivalled only by the lesser-known and still rather
experimental PET-scan, or Positron Emission Tomography. PET-
scanning requires an injection of radioactive isotopes into the body so
that their decay can be tracked within human tissues. Magnetic
resonance, though it is sometimes known as Nuclear Magnetic
Resonance, does not involve radioactivity.
The phenomenon of "nuclear magnetic resonance" was
discovered in 1946 by Edward Purcell of Harvard, and Felix Block of
Stanford. Purcell and Block were working separately, but published
their findings within a month of one another. In 1952, Purcell and
Block won a joint Nobel Prize for their discovery.
If an atom has an odd number of protons and neutrons, it will
have what is known as a "magnetic moment:" it will spin, and its axis
will tilt in a certain direction. When that tilted nucleus is put into a
magnetic field, the axis of the tilt will change, and the nucleus will also
wobble at a certain speed. If radio waves are then beamed at the
wobbling nucleus at just the proper wavelength, they will cause the
wobbling to intensify -- this is the "magnetic resonance" phenomenon.
The resonant frequency is known as the Larmor frequency, and the
Larmor frequencies vary for different atoms.
Hydrogen, for instance, has a Larmor frequency of 42.58
megahertz. Hydrogen, which is a major constituent of water and of
carbohydrates such as fat, is very common in the human body. If radio
waves at this Larmor frequency are beamed into magnetized hydrogen
atoms, the hydrogen nuclei will absorb the resonant energy until they
reach a state of excitation. When the beam goes off, the hydrogen
nuclei will relax again, each nucleus emitting a tiny burst of radio
energy as it returns to its original state. The nuclei will also relax at
slightly different rates, depending on the chemical circumstances
around the hydrogen atom. Hydrogen behaves differently in different
kinds of human tissue. Those relaxation bursts can be detected, and
timed, and mapped.
The enormously powerful magnetic field within an MRI machine
can permeate the human body; but the resonant Larmor frequency is
beamed through the body in thin, precise slices. The resulting images
are neat cross-sections through the body. Unlike X-rays, magnetic
resonance doesn't ionize and possibly damage human cells. Instead, it
gently coaxes information from many different types of tissue, causing
them to emit tell-tale signals about their chemical makeup. Blood, fat,
bones, tendons, all emit their own characteristics, which a computer
then reassembles as a graphic image on a computer screen, or prints
out on emulsion-coated plastic sheets.
An X-ray is a marvelous technology, and a CAT-scan more
marvelous yet. But an X-ray does have limits. Bones cast shadows in X-
radiation, making certain body areas opaque or difficult to read. And X-
ray images are rather stark and anatomical; an X-ray image cannot
even show if the patient is alive or dead. An MRI scan, on the other
hand, will reveal a great deal about the composition and the health of
living tissue. For instance, tumor cells handle their fluids differently
than normal tissue, giving rise to a slightly different set of signals. The
MRI machine itself was originally invented as a cancer detector.
After the 1946 discovery of magnetic resonance, MRI techniques
were used for thirty years to study small chemical samples. However, a
cancer researcher, Dr. Raymond Damadian, was the first to build an MRI
machine large enough and sophisticated enough to scan an entire
human body, and then produce images from that scan. Many scientists,
most of them even, believed and said that such a technology was decades
away, or even technically impossible. Damadian had a tough,
prolonged struggle to find funding for for his visionary technique, and
he was often dismissed as a zealot, a crackpot, or worse. Damadian's
struggle and eventual triumph is entertainingly detailed in his 1985
biography, A MACHINE CALLED INDOMITABLE.
Damadian was not much helped by his bitter and public rivalry
with his foremost competitor in the field, Paul Lauterbur. Lauterbur,
an industrial chemist, was the first to produce an actual magnetic-
resonance image, in 1973. But Damadian was the more technologically
ambitious of the two. His machine, "Indomitable," (now in the
Smithsonian Museum) produced the first scan of a human torso, in 1977.
(As it happens, it was Damadian's own torso.) Once this proof-of-
concept had been thrust before a doubting world, Damadian founded a
production company, and became the father of the MRI scanner
By the end of the 1980s, medical MRI scanning had become a
major enterprise, and Damadian had won the National Medal of
Technology, along with many other honors. As MRI machines spread
worldwide, the market for CAT-scanning began to slump in comparison.
Today, MRI is a two-billion dollar industry, and Dr Damadian and his
company, Fonar Corporation, have reaped the fruits of success. (Some
of those fruits are less sweet than others: today Damadian and Fonar
Corp. are suing Hitachi and General Electric in federal court, for
alleged infringement of Damadian's patents.)
MRIs are marvelous machines -- perhaps, according to critics, a
little too marvelous. The magnetic fields emitted by MRIs are extremely
strong, strong enough to tug wheelchairs across the hospital floor, to
wipe the data off the magnetic strips in credit cards, and to whip a
wrench or screwdriver out of one's grip and send it hurtling across the
room. If the patient has any metal imbedded in his skin -- welders and
machinists, in particular, often do have tiny painless particles of
shrapnel in them -- then these bits of metal will be wrenched out of the
patient's flesh, producing a sharp bee-sting sensation. And in the
invisible grip of giant magnets, heart pacemakers can simply stop.
MRI machines can weigh ten, twenty, even one hundred tons.
And they're big -- the scanning cavity, in which the patient is inserted,
is about the size and shape of a sewer pipe, but the huge plastic hull
surrounding that cavity is taller than a man and longer than a plush
limo. A machine of that enormous size and weight cannot be moved
through hospital doors; instead, it has to be delivered by crane, and its
shelter constructed around it. That shelter must not have any iron
construction rods in it or beneath its floor, for obvious reasons. And yet
that floor had better be very solid indeed.
Superconductive MRIs present their own unique hazards. The
superconductive coils are supercooled with liquid helium.
Unfortunately there's an odd phenomenon known as "quenching," in
which a superconductive magnet, for reasons rather poorly understood,
will suddenly become merely-conductive. When a "quench" occurs, an
enormous amount of electrical energy suddenly flashes into heat,
which makes the liquid helium boil violently. The MRI's technicians
might be smothered or frozen by boiling helium, so it has to be vented
out the roof, requiring the installation of specialized vent-stacks.
Helium leaks, too, so it must be resupplied frequently, at considerable
The MRI complex also requires expensive graphic-processing
computers, CRT screens, and photographic hard-copy devices. Some
scanners feature elaborate telecommunications equipment. Like the
giant scanners themselves, all these associated machines require
power-surge protectors, line conditioners, and backup power supplies.
Fluorescent lights, which produce radio-frequency noise pollution, are
forbidden around MRIs. MRIs are also very bothered by passing CB
radios, paging systems, and ambulance transmissions. It is generally
considered a good idea to sheathe the entire MRI cubicle (especially the
doors, windows, electrical wiring, and plumbing) in expensive, well-
Despite all these drawbacks, the United States today rejoices in
possession of some two thousand MRI machines. (There are hundreds in
other countries as well.) The cheaper models cost a solid million dollars
each; the top-of-the-line models, two million. Five million MRI scans
were performed in the United States last year, at prices ranging from
six hundred dollars, to twice that price and more.
In other words, in 1991 alone, Americans sank some five billion
dollars in health care costs into the miraculous MRI technology.
Today America's hospitals and diagnostic clinics are in an MRI
arms race. Manufacturers constantly push new and improved machines
into the market, and other hospitals feel a dire need to stay with the
state-of-the-art. They have little choice in any case, for the balky,
temperamental MRI scanners wear out in six years or less, even when
treated with the best of care.
Patients have little reason to refuse an MRI test, since insurance
will generally cover the cost. MRIs are especially good for testing for
neurological conditions, and since a lot of complaints, even quite minor
ones, might conceivably be neurological, a great many MRI scans are
performed. The tests aren't painful, and they're not considered risky.
Having one's tissues briefly magnetized is considered far less risky than
the fairly gross ionization damage caused by X-rays. The most common
form of MRI discomfort is simple claustrophobia. MRIs are as narrow as
the grave, and also very loud, with sharp mechanical clacking and
But the results are marvels to behold, and MRIs have clearly
saved many lives. And the tests will eliminate some potential risks to
the patient, and put the physician on surer ground with his diagnosis.
So why not just go ahead and take the test?
MRIs have gone ahead boldly. Unfortunately, miracles rarely
come cheap. Today the United States spends thirteen percent of its Gross
National Product on health care, and health insurance costs are
drastically outstripping the rate of inflation.
High-tech, high-cost resources such as MRIs generally go to to
the well-to-do and the well-insured. This practice has sad
repercussions. While some lives are saved by technological miracles --
and this is a fine thing -- other lives are lost, that might have been
rescued by fairly cheap and common public-health measures, such as
better nutrition, better sanitation, or better prenatal care. As advanced
nations go, the United States a rather low general life expectancy, and a
quite bad infant-death rate; conspicuously worse, for instance, than
Italy, Japan, Germany, France, and Canada.
MRI may be a true example of a technology genuinely ahead of
its time. It may be that the genius, grit, and determination of Raymond
Damadian brought into the 1980s a machine that might have been better
suited to the technical milieu of the 2010s. What MRI really requires for
everyday workability is some cheap, simple, durable, powerful
superconductors. Those are simply not available today, though they
would seem to be just over the technological horizon. In the meantime,
we have built thousands of magnetic windows into the body that will do
more or less what CAT-scan x-rays can do already. And though they do
it better, more safely, and more gently than x-rays can, they also do it
at a vastly higher price.
Damadian himself envisioned MRIs as a cheap mass-produced
technology. "In ten to fifteen years," he is quoted as saying in 1985,
"we'll be able to step into a booth -- they'll be in shopping malls or
department stores -- put a quarter in it, and in a minute it'll say you
need some Vitamin A, you have some bone disease over here, your blood
pressure is a touch high, and keep a watch on that cholesterol." A
thorough medical checkup for twenty-five cents in 1995! If one needed
proof that Raymond Damadian was a true visionary, one could find it
Damadian even envisioned a truly advanced MRI machine
capable of not only detecting cancer, but of killing cancerous cells
outright. These machines would excite not hydrogen atoms, but
phosphorus atoms, common in cancer-damaged DNA. Damadian
speculated that certain Larmor frequencies in phosphorus might be
specific to cancerous tissue; if that were the case, then it might be
possible to pump enough energy into those phosphorus nuclei so that
they actually shivered loose from the cancer cell's DNA, destroying the
cancer cell's ability to function, and eventually killing it.
That's an amazing thought -- a science-fictional vision right out
of the Gernsback Continuum. Step inside the booth -- drop a quarter --
and have your incipient cancer not only diagnosed, but painlessly
obliterated by invisible Magnetic Healing Rays.
Who the heck could believe a visionary scenario like that?
Some things are unbelievable until you see them with your own
eyes. Until the vision is sitting right there in front of you. Where it
can no longer be denied that they're possible.
A vision like the inside of your own brain, for instance.
LITERARY FREEWARE: NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE
From THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, June 1993.
F&SF, Box 56, Cornwall CT 06753 $26/yr USA $31/yr other
F&SF Science Column #7:
This is the Golden Age of Glue.
For thousands of years, humanity got by with natural glues like
pitch, resin, wax, and blood; products of hoof and hide and treesap
and tar. But during the past century, and especially during the past
thirty years, there has been a silent revolution in adhesion.
This stealthy yet steady technological improvement has been
difficult to fully comprehend, for glue is a humble stuff, and the
better it works, the harder it is to notice. Nevertheless, much of the
basic character of our everyday environment is now due to advanced
Many popular artifacts from the pre-glue epoch look clunky
and almost Victorian today. These creations relied on bolts, nuts,
rivets, pins, staples, nails, screws, stitches, straps, bevels, knobs, and
bent flaps of tin. No more. The popular demand for consumer
objects ever lighter, smaller, cheaper, faster and sleeker has led to
great changes in the design of everyday things.
Glue determines much of the difference between our
grandparent's shoes, with their sturdy leather soles, elaborate
stitching, and cobbler's nails, and the eerie-looking modern jogging-
shoe with its laminated plastic soles, fabric uppers and sleek foam
inlays. Glue also makes much of the difference between the big
family radio cabinet of the 1940s and the sleek black hand-sized
clamshell of a modern Sony Walkman.
Glue holds this very magazine together. And if you happen to
be reading this article off a computer (as you well may), then you
are even more indebted to glue; modern microelectronic assembly
would be impossible without it.
Glue dominates the modern packaging industry. Glue also has
a strong presence in automobiles, aerospace, electronics, dentistry,
medicine, and household appliances of all kinds. Glue infiltrates
grocery bags, envelopes, books, magazines, labels, paper cups, and
cardboard boxes; there are five different kinds of glue in a common
filtered cigarette. Glue lurks invisibly in the structure of our
shelters, in ceramic tiling, carpets, counter tops, gutters, wall siding,
ceiling panels and floor linoleum. It's in furniture, cooking utensils,
and cosmetics. This galaxy of applications doesn't even count the
vast modern spooling mileage of adhesive tapes: package tape,
industrial tape, surgical tape, masking tape, electrical tape, duct tape,
plumbing tape, and much, much more.
Glue is a major industrial industry and has been growing at
twice the rate of GNP for many years, as adhesives leak and stick
into areas formerly dominated by other fasteners. Glues also create
new markets all their own, such as Post-it Notes (first premiered in
April 1980, and now omnipresent in over 350 varieties).
The global glue industry is estimated to produce about twelve
billion pounds of adhesives every year. Adhesion is a $13 billion
market in which every major national economy has a stake. The
adhesives industry has its own specialty magazines, such as
Adhesives Age andSAMPE Journal; its own trade groups, like the
Adhesives Manufacturers Association, The Adhesion Society, and the
Adhesives and Sealant Council; and its own seminars, workshops and
technical conferences. Adhesives corporations like 3M, National
Starch, Eastman Kodak, Sumitomo, and Henkel are among the world's
most potent technical industries.
Given all this, it's amazing how little is definitively known
about how glue actually works -- the actual science of adhesion.
There are quite good industrial rules-of-thumb for creating glues;
industrial technicians can now combine all kinds of arcane
ingredients to design glues with well-defined specifications:
qualities such as shear strength, green strength, tack, electrical
conductivity, transparency, and impact resistance. But when it
comes to actually describing why glue is sticky, it's a different
matter, and a far from simple one.
A good glue has low surface tension; it spreads rapidly and
thoroughly, so that it will wet the entire surface of the substrate.
Good wetting is a key to strong adhesive bonds; bad wetting leads
to problems like "starved joints," and crannies full of trapped air,
moisture, or other atmospheric contaminants, which can weaken the
But it is not enough just to wet a surface thoroughly; if that
were the case, then water would be a glue. Liquid glue changes
form; it cures, creating a solid interface between surfaces that
becomes a permanent bond.
The exact nature of that bond is pretty much anybody's guess.
There are no less than four major physico-chemical theories about
what makes things stick: mechanical theory, adsorption theory,
electrostatic theory and diffusion theory. Perhaps molecular strands
of glue become physically tangled and hooked around irregularities
in the surface, seeping into microscopic pores and cracks. Or, glue
molecules may be attracted by covalent bonds, or acid-base
interactions, or exotic van der Waals forces and London dispersion
forces, which have to do with arcane dipolar resonances between
magnetically imbalanced molecules. Diffusion theorists favor the
idea that glue actually blends into the top few hundred molecules of
the contact surface.
Different glues and different substrates have very different
chemical constituents. It's likely that all of these processes may have
something to do with the nature of what we call "stickiness" -- that
everybody's right, only in different ways and under different
In 1989 the National Science Foundation formally established
the Center for Polymeric Adhesives and Composites. This Center's
charter is to establish "a coherent philosophy and systematic
methodology for the creation of new and advanced polymeric
adhesives" -- in other words, to bring genuine detailed scientific
understanding to a process hitherto dominated by industrial rules of
thumb. The Center has been inventing new adhesion test methods
involving vacuum ovens, interferometers, and infrared microscopes,
and is establishing computer models of the adhesion process. The
Center's corporate sponsors -- Amoco, Boeing, DuPont, Exxon,
Hoechst Celanese, IBM, Monsanto, Philips, and Shell, to name a few of
them -- are wishing them all the best.
We can study the basics of glue through examining one typical
candidate. Let's examine one well-known superstar of modern
adhesion: that wondrous and well-nigh legendary substance known
as "superglue." Superglue, which also travels under the aliases of
SuperBonder, Permabond, Pronto, Black Max, Alpha Ace, Krazy Glue
and (in Mexico) Kola Loka, is known to chemists as cyanoacrylate
Cyanoacrylate was first discovered in 1942 in a search for
materials to make clear plastic gunsights for the second world war.
The American researchers quickly rejected cyanoacrylate because
the wretched stuff stuck to everything and made a horrible mess. In
1951, cyanoacrylate was rediscovered by Eastman Kodak researchers
Harry Coover and Fred Joyner, who ruined a perfectly useful
refractometer with it -- and then recognized its true potential.
Cyanoacrylate became known as Eastman compound #910. Eastman
910 first captured the popular imagination in 1958, when Dr Coover
appeared on the "I've Got a Secret" TV game show and lifted host
Gary Moore off the floor with a single drop of the stuff.
This stunt still makes very good television and cyanoacrylate
now has a yearly commercial market of $325 million.
Cyanoacrylate is an especially lovely and appealing glue,
because it is (relatively) nontoxic, very fast-acting, extremely strong,
needs no other mixer or catalyst, sticks with a gentle touch, and does
not require any fancy industrial gizmos such as ovens, presses, vices,
clamps, or autoclaves. Actually, cyanoacrylate does require a
chemical trigger to cause it to set, but with amazing convenience, that
trigger is the hydroxyl ions in common water. And under natural
atmospheric conditions, a thin layer of water is naturally present on
almost any surface one might want to glue.
Cyanoacrylate is a "thermosetting adhesive," which means that
(unlike sealing wax, pitch, and other "hot melt" adhesives) it cannot
be heated and softened repeatedly. As it cures and sets,
cyanoacrylate becomes permanently crosslinked, forming a tough
and permanent polymer plastic.
In its natural state in its native Superglue tube from the
convenience store, a molecule of cyanoacrylate looks something like
The R is a variable (an "alkyl group") which slightly changes
the character of the molecule; cyanoacrylate is commercially
available in ethyl, methyl, isopropyl, allyl, butyl, isobutyl,
methoxyethyl, and ethoxyethyl cyanoacrylate esters. These
chemical variants have slightly different setting properties and
degrees of gooiness.
After setting or "ionic polymerization," however, Superglue
looks something like this:
The single cyanoacrylate "monomer" joins up like a series of
plastic popper-beads, becoming a long chain. Within the thickening
liquid glue, these growing chains whip about through Brownian
motion, a process technically known as "reptation," named after the
crawling of snakes. As the reptating molecules thrash, then wriggle,
then finally merely twitch, the once- thin and viscous liquid becomes
a tough mass of fossilized, interpenetrating plastic molecular
And it is strong. Even pure cyanoacrylate can lift a ton with a
single square-inch bond, and one advanced elastomer-modified '80s
mix, "Black Max" from Loctite Corporation, can go up to 3,100 pounds.
This is enough strength to rip the surface right off most substrates.
Unless it's made of chrome steel, the object you're gluing will likely
give up the ghost well before a properly anchored layer of Superglue
Superglue quickly found industrial uses in automotive trim,
phonograph needle cartridges, video cassettes, transformer
laminations, circuit boards, and sporting goods. But early superglues
had definite drawbacks. The stuff dispersed so easily that it
sometimes precipitated as vapor, forming a white film on surfaces
where it wasn't needed; this is known as "blooming." Though
extremely strong under tension, superglue was not very good at
sudden lateral shocks or "shear forces," which could cause the glue-
bond to snap. Moisture weakened it, especially on metal-to-metal
bonds, and prolonged exposure to heat would cook all the strength
out of it.
The stuff also coagulated inside the tube with annoying speed,
turning into a useless and frustrating plastic lump that no amount of
squeezing of pinpoking could budge -- until the tube burst and and
the thin slippery gush cemented one's fingers, hair, and desk in a
mummified membrane that only acetone could cut.
Today, however, through a quiet process of incremental
improvement, superglue has become more potent and more useful
than ever. Modern superglues are packaged with stabilizers and
thickeners and catalysts and gels, improving heat capacity, reducing
brittleness, improving resistance to damp and acids and alkalis.
Today the wicked stuff is basically getting into everything.
Including people. In Europe, superglue is routinely used in
surgery, actually gluing human flesh and viscera to replace sutures
and hemostats. And Superglue is quite an old hand at attaching fake
fingernails -- a practice that has sometimes had grisly consequences
when the tiny clear superglue bottle is mistaken for a bottle of
eyedrops. (I haven't the heart to detail the consequences of this
mishap, but if you're not squeamish you might try consulting The
Journal of the American Medical Association, May 2, 1990 v263 n17
Superglue is potent and almost magical stuff, the champion of
popular glues and, in its own quiet way, something of an historical
advent. There is something pleasantly marvelous, almost Arabian
Nights-like, about a drop of liquid that can lift a ton; and yet one can
buy the stuff anywhere today, and it's cheap. There are many urban
legends about terrible things done with superglue; car-doors locked
forever, parking meters welded into useless lumps, and various tales
of sexual vengeance that are little better than elaborate dirty jokes.
There are also persistent rumors of real-life superglue muggings, in
which victims are attached spreadeagled to cars or plate-glass
windows, while their glue-wielding assailants rifle their pockets at
leisure and then stroll off, leaving the victim helplessly immobilized.
While superglue crime is hard to document, there is no
question about its real-life use for law enforcement. The detection
of fingerprints has been revolutionized with special kits of fuming
ethyl-gel cyanoacrylate. The fumes from a ripped-open foil packet of
chemically smoking superglue will settle and cure on the skin oils
left in human fingerprints, turning the smear into a visible solid
object. Thanks to superglue, the lightest touch on a weapon can
become a lump of plastic guilt, cementing the perpetrator to his
crime in a permanent bond.
And surely it would be simple justice if the world's first
convicted superglue mugger were apprehended in just this way.