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An interview with Greg Benford
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Greg Benford
Greg Benford
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 afterwards.

Joel McKinnon: How difficult was it in your student days to be writing creatively at the same time you were pursuing your PhD.?

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 public.

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 novel.

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 outreach project?

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 missions happening...

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 get discouraged.

Cover of The Martian Race
JM: 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 forever.

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 Heinlein?

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 close.

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 forgotten.

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, actually.

JM: Whatís your favorite Mars novel other than the one you wrote?

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 childhood.

Posted in Interviews at 09:51 PM on 13/06/02

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