Dr. Gregory Benford is no
slouch as a scientist. In an impressive career researching plasma
turbulence and astrophysics, he has written over 150 research
papers, holds an Associate Professorship at University of
California, Irvine, has received the prestigious Lord Foundation
award for scientific achievement, and advises NASA on national space
policy. Benford was also recently elected to the Board of Directors
of the Mars Society.
Somehow, Benford has found time along the way to become one of
the most respected modern writers of hard science fiction, having
received the Campbell and two Nebula awards in an impressive career
spanning more than thirty years and including such works as
'Timescape' and his six-novel galactic center sequence including 'In
the Ocean of Night' and 'Great Sky River.' Mars Society president
Robert Zubrin calls his novel 'The Martian Race', "one of the finest
novels about human exploration of the Red Planet ever written."
Benford spoke recently at Foothill College in Los Altos,
California and I had a chance to ask him a few questions
Joel McKinnon: How difficult was it in your student days
to be writing creatively at the same time you were pursuing your
Gregory Benford: I never saw it as a contradiction. At the
same time I was also spending a lot of time surfing. I never felt
that there was anything inherently contradictory about it. In fact,
scientific creativity and artistic creativity have a lot in common.
They really do. They donít use the same parts of the brain, Iím
sure, but I donít think they are so separated as people think.
JM: But in terms of style of writing isnít there a big
difference in that scientists shouldnít explain all of their jargon
since theyíre speaking to a more specialized audience?
GB: Thatís true - thatís internal communication, but the
problem with scientists is that they donít communicate really well
to the outside world - though I think theyíre doing better. Most
scientists have never had anybody to interpret him or her to the
JM: When did you get involved with the Mars Society?
GB: At the initiation of it. Iím not one of the original
Mars underground people, because I was just unaware that there was
one. I became aware of it when Bob Zubrin came to a talk I gave and
Bob said - well youíre enthused, why donít you join in? I wrote 'The
Martian Race' because I thought it would be good to take Bobís ideas
and give them dramatic form. Of course, later Bob did the same thing
himself with his own novel (First Landing) and itís quite a good
JM: Iím involved with the Mars Analog Research Station
project, having been a crewman at the new desert station in Utah. We
had a journalist who writes for a couple of prominent European
weeklies come out and do an EVA with us and his report is a little
harsh on the science aspect of our mission - though he lauds the
public outreach aspect. We all thought we were doing good science
and that this was important. Is your view that there is value in the
scientific data that is being collected or is it just a public
GB: I have done a lot of physics experiments and I
understand deeply the difference between theory, which is ideas and
experiment, which is experience. Nothing replaces experience and to
be the first people whoíve had to live in the shelter in something
like those conditions, to do the job of walking out and doing a job
and coming back - the real lived experience - getting as close to
that as possible is imperative. You learn so much from that. Iím
sure that you guys will learn a lot of things that youíll eventually
use because thereís nothing like the lived experience. You cannot
figure everything out in advance.
JM: I would think another problem is how to make sure that
the data is used in 10 or 20 years when you get closer to actual
GB: The way to do it is to take a good log and to quantify
as much as you can. For example, how much did you sleep the next
night? Do the things that will give you an index of the stress and
the strain and so forth. You can do it with the log method and then
work on ways to extract the relevant data.
JM: Now I have a bit of a depressing question. I heard of
a poll of the Ďgeneral publicí shortly before I entered the hab a
month or so ago in which people were asked to rate the budget
priorities of the federal government. They overwhelmingly placed
NASA well below national security (of course) but even below tax
breaks for the wealthy. Going to Mars, in particular, was very low
on the list of priorities for most people. Considering this kind of
public attitude, what can we possibly do to get a groundswell for
humans in space and eventually to Mars?
GB: First, give it some time. This is a momentary
reaction. Look at it this way. History is non-linear. Right after
Pearl Harbor you couldnít get anybody to pay attention to going to
the Moon. But the events that followed Pearl Harbor led to our going
to the Moon. Rocketry... the cold war... the Moon - in less than 30
years. Stay with the dream and your chance will come around again.
Two years from now all of these events will have faded, but it will
still be the solid job of the visionaries to say, 'there are other
horizons.' In the short term, survival trumps every other suit - but
thatís the short term. The whole plan on Mars is long term. Donít
I have been curious
about the governmental approach; i.e., NASA vs the private sector
approach and which is more likely to get us to Mars and 'The Martian
Race' was an intriguing combination of the two. Is that the way you
really expect things to play out in the real world?
GB: I donít think The Martian Race is likely. We worked on
this as hard as possible to make it as sensible as we could. It all
depends upon that prize method. You give them the prize method and I
bet youíll get a race. And the prize method isnít a bad idea
because, after all, a politician can announce a grandiose goal and
not pay for it! After all it doesnít get paid for until itís
actually done, right? You donít spend a dime until the work is
finished - and that has a great angle for the government. But I
still think itís more likely that this government will do it.
Unfortunately, I donít think itís 100% obvious that weíll ever do
it. Thereís a chance weíll never go to Mars and thatís what
terrifies me. Thatís why I introduced the Chinese analogy. Itís a
well-known thing - or at least itís getting to be well known cause
itís a glaring example.
Thereís another one, which I didnít bring up. The Muslims were
the leading scientific and intellectual culture for about two
centuries. And then, after theyíd invented Algebra and done a lot of
other great stuff - invented zero - the Mullahs cut it off. They
said these were too divisive, the same reason the Chinese
conservatives gave. This is too divisive - too many things to take
us away from the Koran - all knowledge is in the Koran - letís chop
this off, and they were able to destroy the entire Arabic university
system in less than half a century. It was gone - they never made
another advance. Itís not crazy to think of it happening to this
culture. So seize your opportunities when you can. I argue on one
hand to think long term on this, but on the other hand donít think
JM: It seems there is a tendency of people to think that
things will get bigger and better as we go into the future and
thatís not what history shows.
GB: No, ask the Carthaginians (laughs).
JM: OK, a couple of quick oddball questions and then Iíll
let you go. Your bio mentioned you enjoyed the writings of Robert
GB: He was a very impressive person.
JM: I was just talking with one of my crewmates from the
research station about Heinlein and we spoke of the different phases
of his career and which we preferred. She leaned toward the early
juveniles while I loved the later, more philosophical works like
'Time Enough for Love.' Iím wondering which you like best?
GB: Iím an early stage person too. Well, I like books all
the way through his career. I liked 'Beyond This Horizon,' his first
one and 'Have Spacesuit will Travel,' a great juvenile. My favorite
is probably 'Moon is a Harsh Mistress.' Iím just part way through
reading - again - 'Number of the Beast,' so I like some things from
all of the years. You know, writers have their ups and downs and
Heinleinís best period was not his last 20 years or so.
JM: Not the last 10 at least...
GB: Well, maybe the last 10, yeah. Still, some of his most
effective stuff was done in the late middle era. You know 'Stranger
in a Strange Land' was no small achievement. Do you belong to a
Heinlein Society by any chance?
JM: No I donít, though I practically worshipped him as a
kid and while I was in high school. He was sort of a second father
figure for me and when he died it felt Iíd lost someone very
GB: Yes, a lot of us felt that way. He was a great guy in
person. Courtly manners - a graduate of Annapolis...
JM: You feel that you know him very well after youíve read
so much of him.
GB: And you do. He really is like many of his literary
figures. On a grumpy day heís like Jubal Harshaw. On a good day heís
like the diplomat in Star Beast (laughs) - whoís name Iíve
JM: Canít remember. When was that written?
GB: í57 I think.
JM: Iíll have to dig that one out again.
GB: Oh, itís good- itís really good. One of his best,
JM: Whatís your favorite Mars novel other than the one you
GB: (Big laugh) Wow! 'Mars Crossing' stands out. Somehow
it really sang to me- it was a very good job. Geoff Landis didnít
win the Nebula for it - but I didnít think he would. It is a very
good book. Except for a couple of miracle inventions - which are
quite plausible - it was based on very good science.
One of the earliest Mars stories I read was Weinbaughís 'A
Martian Oddysey,' Itís collected in many places - a famous short
story - published in the thirties. Itís got some very interesting
Martians in it. Itís really a noveletta.
JM: Well, I wonít hold you up further. Itís been great
talking to you.
GB: Good to see you too. On to Mars!
Joel McKinnon currently works as
a User Interface Engineer for a software company in Half Moon Bay,
California. In 2001, he helped to organize a fundraiser for the Mars
Society which attracted filmmaker James Cameron, Robert Zubrin,
Pascal Lee, and Chris McKay and raised well over $100,000. Joel has
had a deep fascination with the planet Mars since