Ring Around A Star

RingworldThe Earth orbits our star, Sol, at a distance of roughly 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) — a distance we call an Astronomical Unit (AU). Our little rock is just under 8,000 miles wide (a bit over 12,000 km) and has a surface area (including oceans) of just under 200 million sq miles (510 million sq km). Depending on how you look at it, the Earth seems very large or very small.

What if, instead of a rock spinning around its star, it was a ring encircling it? Suppose the ring spun fast enough (770 miles per second) to create “gravity” on its inner surface? And suppose the ring was one-million miles wide and had walls 1000 miles high long both rims to keep air inside? Such a ring would have a surface area equal to about three-million Earths.

And what you’d have is Larry Niven’s Ringworld!

New Year’s Day I enjoyed two well-known, much beloved old favorite baseball movies. Today I sat down (stretched out on the couch, actually) to re-read another old and beloved friend: Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven. When I finish, I’ll follow it up with the sequel: The Ringworld Engineers (1980).

Ringworld 2

A section of Ringworld seen from high above the inner surface.

Today, for Science Fiction Saturday, I’m just commemorating the start of a journey back to a place known to any fan of hard SF. Ringworld is as well-known (and much beloved) as either of the works known as “The Trilogy” (by Tolkien or Asimov, take your pick).

It is a true classic of science fiction!

ElysiumThe space wheel in the recent Elysium (which was a pretty decent movie I thought) invokes the Ringworld, albeit on a much (much!) smaller scale. But the open architecture — no “roof” with air trapped by the spin and walls — is exactly how the Ringworld works.

It’s not unlike how you can keep water in a bucket held horizontally if you spin around fast enough. You can even swing the bucket over your head, and the water will stay in it — so long as you keep the bucket moving in circles.

I wrote recently about John Varley’s Titan trilogy, and the wheel of Gaea also owes some passing allegiance to Niven even though Gaea was a closed, flattened tube (like a tire) — it was considerably bigger than any space station, though!

Ringworld 3

A view from the surface of Ringworld.

Or not. The idea of a spinning wheel in space is a fairly obvious one. Kubrick had one in 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 (and it was a well-known idea then).

Niven combined the idea of habitable, spinning ring with a Dyson Sphere — an idea usually credited to Freeman Dyson in 1960, but which is actually based on a 1937 SF novel, Star Maker (other authors had similar ideas). The idea of a Sphere is that it completely surrounds its star, thus capturing the total output of that star.

Picard and Scotty (note the Aldebaran whiskey)Star Trek fans saw a Dyson Sphere is the Next Generation episode Relics, which also features the return of Engineer Scott and a reappearance of the old Enterprise bridge (and “it’s green”). It’s one of my favorites!

Niven’s Ringworld is similar to a Dyson Ring, which is just a band around the star. While that lets most of the star’s energy escape into space, it does considerably expand the habitable zone for those living in the system.

 One of the very clever parts of Ringworld is the idea of the “shadow squares. Rotating about a third of the distance from the star to the ring (that is, at about 0.3 AU) is another ring. This one has 20 shadow squares wired in a circle. There is a gap between each that is over twice the length.

shadow squares

[click for big]

The squares cast shadows — the Ringworld equivalent of night — onto the main ring. The size of the squares, the gaps, and the combined rotation speeds, all combine to create “nights” of nine hours and “days” of 21. Note that, during the “day” the sun is always directly overhead!

Ringworld, with a width of one-million miles, is so vast that one of its giant oceans contains islands that turn out to be scale-size replicas of Earth, Mars, and several alien planets inhabited by sapient species in Niven’s “Known Space” books. And these islands are small compared to the size of the “Great Ocean.”

One of the novel’s more intriguing characters is Teela Brown. She is the end result of a long, secret breeding program (by aliens manipulating events). The idea is that the aliens, for many human generations, have been breeding for luck.

Ringworld shadows

You can see the shadows cast by the squares on what the natives of Ringworld refer to as “the Arch of Heaven.”

Teela Brown is the luckiest being in all of Known Space. Nothing bad can ever happen to her (although her luck doesn’t always extend to her companions, plus it turns out that having bad things happen to you builds character)!

In any event, I’m eager to get back to the couch and the first novel. I’d just read the first line of the first chapter when I thought to myself, “Say, self… it’s Sci-Fi Saturday, and this beloved book would be nice to talk about! We could look for some artwork to share and connect it all to some other things. Might make a decent post, eh?”

Self quickly agreed that it sounded like a good idea, but wasn’t sure actually getting off the couch to do it was all that attractive. “Couch comfy! Book good!!” exclaimed self (who can often be terse).

A swift kick in the mental pants ended the discussion, and here we are.

And now, here we go.

Ring around a star

Ring Around A Star!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

24 responses to “Ring Around A Star

  • Doobster418

    I loved Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, so I would probably enjoy Niven’s Ringworld. I’ll have to see if it’s available at Kindle. I also just checked to see if Elysium (the movie) is available on Netflix. It’s not. (I’m getting more and more disappointed with Netflix. It seems that few of the movies I want to see are available for streaming. Elysium is available on On Demand, but only if I subscribe to Starz, which I don’t wish to. And it’s available on Amazon Prime TV for streaming, but it costs $9.99 to watch in HD, and I’m not sure I want to spend ten bucks to watch it.

    Oh well. In any event, I enjoyed your post, Wyrd. Enjoy the rest of your SciFi Saturday.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, for $9.99 you could probably pick up the DVD of Elysium, watch it (with much better quality plus DVD extras) and then give it to someone as a gift (or donate it to your local library — they love stuff like that).

      I think it’s probably true that anyone who likes Asimov will like Niven. Both are in the “hard” SF genre, and Niven is a somewhat better storyteller than Asimov was — or more accurately, does better dialog. (Did you know they are supposedly making a Foundation mini-series for HBO? That… could be good… or awful. Given how wordy Asimov is, I suspect it’ll take liberties and focus on the more action-y parts (like The Mule). They did do a very good job with Pillars of the Earth, and while Game of Thrones isn’t to my tastes, it’s apparently fairly faithful to the books. So there is hope!)

  • dianasschwenk

    I’ve never heard of that book Smitty. Did they ever make it into a movie?
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Not so far, m’Lady, but it’s one of many SF books that would make an awesome movie (if done right). It’s absolutely a rousing adventure story filled with excitement, danger, and aliens (and the backdrop of Ringworld would be incredible). It would definitely require modern CGI effects, but we’re finally at the point where these great stories could be brought to the screen in all their glory.

      It did start being developed into a mini-series by the (then) Sci-Fi Channel back in 2004, but it didn’t happen. The SyFy Channel (never really liked that name change) announced in 2013 they were developing a four-hour mini-series in 2013, so we’ll see!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Just finished Ringworld; now on to The Ringworld Engineers!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Ah, and it’s safe to come out and play! No more blog snow! 😀

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I’m going to have to read Asimov first. So many people have mentioned him. But who knows, this might have to go on my list as well.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      If you read Asimov, then you have to read Clarke and Heinlein, and we’ll never hear from you again! 🙂

      Niven is part of the wave of writers that comes after them. All four, but especially Asimov and Niven, are in the genre of “hard” SF — the technology tends to be, if not always exactly possible, not off-the-charts preposterous (and no magic). As an über-geek, that’s always been my favorite flavor of SF.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I’m not worried about the possibility or preposterousness of the technology. As I understand it, a lot of people who like Sci-Fi get into that technological aspect of it, but that’s never been my game really. I guess I’m not an uber-geek, I’m more of an ordinary dork. (Don’t ask me what the difference is, but I suspect dorks are just as socially awkward, but less intelligent and therefore less justified in their awkwardness.)

        In fact, those aspects of Sci-Fi really turned me off. Same with Fantasy…I just didn’t get it. I’m finding I do like those aspects now, but only because I see they represent something deep about the character or story. I like to focus on the symbolism of it, and Sci-Fi of course opens up a whole world of possibility beyond the usual stuff. I can’t wait to talk about Dune and Solaris in regards to the personification of nature—desert and ocean, and what that represents.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, it’s generally those of us with a background in engineering, science, or technology, that flock to hard SF. And in some cases, that SF technology is all there is — the story is just a vehicle for the author’s ideas about it. Great SF always puts story and character first, which is why Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, are the masters they are.

        Niven’s Ringworld is a good example. The idea of a ringworld is really cool, but it’s just the background for a great adventure story with some interesting insights about people. The Teela Brown character, for example, bred over generations for luck. Nothing bad happens to her, so she’s never learned certain key life lessons.

        I’m really looking forward to your Dune and Solaris posts! All the great SF is about the human condition, and — as you say — SF opens up incredibly possibilities for storytelling.

        (For the record: A “geek” is an expert in some arcane or unusual field. The term comes from circus sideshows where the “geek” bit the head off chickens. A “nerd” is a social misfit who may, or may not, have any expertise in some area. I’ve never really thought about “dork,” but off the cuff I’d take it to mean a nerd who somehow offends the sensibilities (a constant nose-picker, for example). I suggest, therefore, you are neither nerd nor dork, but you may be a philosophy geek.)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I guess that’s why I’ve never been into hard SF…I’ve never been much of a science or computer person. But I’m open to it for its other merits for sure. Anathem is one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time, but it’s for the philosophers for sure.

        Whew, “philosophy geek” sounds way better than nose picker. Although I must admit that I offend the sensibilities pretty frequently. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, of course! “Offends the sensibilities” is a property with a very wide application! 😀

        (Given the large number of people whose sensibilities I seem to deeply offend, I’m an expert in the field! Just recently I had a guy practically foaming at the mouth and calling me ugly names. (The best was “Liar For Jesus” which is so off-the-mark in so many ways! 🐱 ) I haven’t had so much fun in weeks! 😈 )

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Liar for Jesus? I don’t even know what that means. At least you get creative insults!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Long as they don’t start shooting! That’s a bit too creative for my taste!

  • reocochran

    I tend to not really follow science fiction but the art work looks amazing, W.S. I liked the Turing story in the movie, “The Imitation Game,” about the man who figured out how to ‘beat’ the Germans’ “Enigma” coding system. The actors and story were so fascinating. I will be seeing, “Unknown” next. I already shared that we saw, “The Theory of Everything.” I could see that again, but mainly it taught me how Stephen Hawking persevered and really had to face ALS extremely early in life. Turing has to handle homosexuality and the British were known to throw them in prison. The numbers at the end of the film were really sad…. Take it easy, friend!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, the persecution of people for no good reason… not one of the human race’s more endearing traits.

      Science fiction does result in some amazing art work. One of the things I liked most about going to science fiction conventions was the art room where local SF artists displayed (and sold!) their work. All the SF in movies and TV kind of makes that more commonplace, but actually seeing some of the really imaginative worlds of SF is really wonderful.

      I definitely want to see The Imitation Game (and there’s another one… Codebreaker?), but I’ll give the Hawking one a miss most likely. I’m not really a fan of the man, and I’m much more impressed by ALS suffers who aren’t famous and fawned over by everybody.

  • E.D.

    you are quite the reader – i find it hard to concentrate nowadays, i am still on the first chapters of the Stand by steven king, yet i have been told it is a thrilling book, so why am i finding so boring? Truly i envy your ability to read as you do, and enjoy. fondly Eve x

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Maybe those books just aren’t your thing. Historical fiction, for one example, really isn’t mine. Actually, for that matter, neither, really, are Mr. King’s! Were you ever big into books like King’s?

      (Sorry for the delay responding; I’ve been off on a bender.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I have many fond memories of Ringworld. I hadn’t read any of Niven’s Known Space series before, so all of the concepts were new to me, including the Kzinti, the Puppeteers, and everything else. He built a fun universe. I found the Puppeteers to be one of the most interesting aliens I’d ever read about, notably in how far their admitted cowardice turned them into a frighteningly powerful civilization.

    I think I read Ringworld Engineers, but I must have done it in a single night or something because I can’t remember much from it. I do remember that he addresses many of the criticisms that were raised about the ringworld concept (notably that it wouldn’t be stable in its orbit), as well as a pretty interesting idea of what humans supposedly are.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The Puppeteers are quite interesting! Getting all of Niven’s Known Space in one book would be quite a load! I discovered Niven fairly early — he came after the Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Pohl wave along with Zelazney, Chalker, Foster, and Anthony. I’ve always loved hard SF best, and Niven is right up there on the hardness scale.

      Supposedly the SyFy channel has a Ringworld TV mini-series in development (since 2012)…. It would be cool to even just see it visualized, but even cooler if they do a good job.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I have to say that SyFy’s renewed interested in science fiction was a nice surprise. They have a lot of projects in the queue. If even a portion of them eventually see the light of day, it will quickly become one of my favorite channels again.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m afraid I’ve never paid them much attention (so many channels, so few viewing hours). Did they lose interest in science fiction at some point?

        (They wouldn’t be the first. Discover Channel, The Learning Channel, the Science Channel, and the History Channel, all seem to have lost focus on what was supposedly their primary mission. It’s hard, sometimes, living in a world that doesn’t value science, math, philosophy, or history.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        SyFy programming had gradually degenerated into Wrestling, ghost hunting, psychic reading, and similar junk. (Very similar, as you noted, to Discover and History.) SyFy seem to be gradually shifting back to actual sci-fi with new series coming online and others in the works based on The Expanse, Old Man’s War, and even Ancillary Justice.

        On a similar hopeful note, the Discovery Channel’s new president appears to be sending signals that they’ll start pulling away from pseudoscience. Apparently the man eating snake thing was the final straw.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It really is revolting what science and education channels have sunk to. But then I really loath “reality TV” — it offends me on so many levels.

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