(Image provided by NASA.)
Who’s James Benford?
I’ve been in science fiction and its fandom for almost 70 years now, starting from reading science fiction in 1952. They were mainly Robert Heinlein juveniles. That was shortly after our family returned from the occupation of Japan, where my father worked for Gen. MacArthur, who he did not like, but did respect. With my twin brother Greg, who I’m sure you know of as an SF writer, we in 1954 discovered the Atlanta Science Fiction Organization, ASFO, and attended a few meetings before Dad was reassigned to Germany.
We published our 1st fanzine, Void 1, in early 1955 in Germany. Thirteen issues came out by 1959, when we were living in Dallas. I then moved on to studying physics. Greg and I both went to California for graduate school and contacted the very lively social fandom of California. I made many lasting friends, some of whom I still see today.
After grad school in La Jolla, my wife Hilary and I moved to Northern California where I still reside in the splendid San Francisco Bay Area. I worked for Physics International on very high power pulsed electrical devices, largely those producing intense electron beams, then specialized in developing powerful microwave sources using them. I’ve had a long career in applied physics research: countless projects, 150 scientific papers, 9 books.
I wrote and sold several short stories in the ’70s, but decided to concentrate on research, which paid better, for sure. (Research proposals are themselves a form of science fiction, and pay off better if you do it well.) I’ve had a low level of fannish activity over the decades since the ’70s, contributing articles to fanzines. I attend world cons about every five years, and know a lot of science fiction writers.
After 26 years, I left Physics International in 1996 to establish Microwave Sciences, my own company. That was a terrific decision: it was extremely successful and made my prosperity. I officially “retired” in 2008 (and am trying to retire again this year; I’m not good at retiring), but still work on active programs, primarily about starships.
Shooting for the Stars
Yes, starships. Starting about 25 years ago I have increasingly worked on space propulsion with beam-driven sails, which I now call “sailships.” In 2000, I led a team that demonstrated, for the first time, flight of sails with a microwave beam in the laboratory.
The big thing that’s happened for me is that in recent years I’m centrally involved in the Starshot Project. In case you don’t know what that is, we’re trying to figure out how to build probes to go to the nearby stars. Really. So it’s a real SF kind of thing to do and fits right into my previous history.
Forty years ago, I was fortunate to know Bob Forward and become intrigued by his ideas on beam-driven sails. After I left Physics International I started trying to do experiments on beam-driven sails and came upon the carbon-carbon microtruss, a then-new carbon fiber lattice that is incredibly lightweight, so much so that you can actually see right through it. I successfully proposed to NASA to try to lift and fly sails in the laboratory, which had never been done (or even attempted) before. After a lot of work, in 2000 my team at JPL (& brother Greg) succeeded in flying sails on a microwave beam in the laboratory. And we went on to look at using microwaves to spin sails and to study the question of whether a beam can write stably on the sail and not fall off. For a good account of our experiments you should read the excellent book on interstellar Centauri Dreams—Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration by Paul Gilster, Springer Science, 2004. You can find later developments in our Starship Century by me and Greg, Lucky Bat Books, 2013.
Since then I’ve been figuring out what an optimal beam-driven sail system would be like. Because of that history, when the Breakthrough Foundation, and in particular Pete Worden, an old friend of mine, came to be interested in figuring out how to reach the stars, they turned to me to talk about how to do it. The result was the announcement in 2016 of Starshot. The effort is divided into 3 parts: the sail, which I’m in charge of, the laser to drive it, and the overall system, which must figure out how it all works together as well as how to transmit data back from Alpha Centauri. The project has notional research budget of $100 million to be spent in the next 5 to 10 years. We’ve been requesting proposals for serious experiments and theory on the many issues that we face. If you’re interested in what those are, go to http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/Challenges/3 and there see quite a list of formidable issues. For the near-term we’re going to focus on the question of how to generate a coherent laser beam at ultrahigh power over a mile-scale aperture and how a sail can ride on a beam with very high powers incident on it. That means the sail must have be able to take high accelerations and have an extraordinarily high reflectivity.
So my interest in science and science fiction which started way back from reading Robert Heinlein juveniles is coming to fruition. Now that a rocky planet has been discovered in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, sending probes to the stars starts to feel more real. Note that we talk about “sailships,” “probes” or “chipsails”—the payload is electronics on a chip. But we don’t use the term “starships.” I guess that’s because it seems a bit audacious.
A photo of me as I am today.
About Seeing Alien Tech
The origin of our thoughts in this piece in the current Analog on sale now, was that studies have shown that leakage of TV and radio broadcast signals such as TV are essentially undetectable from one star to another. But the driving of sails by powerful beams of radiation is far more focused than isotropic communication signals, and of course far more powerful. Leakage of the beam around the sails could be far more easily detected. These are not SETI signals but inadvertent leakage. So the well-funded Breakthrough Listen Initiative has a new observable to look for. With enough observing time, the prospects for detection are now improved. If alien civilizations are using power beaming, as we ourselves will likely do in future centuries, we may observe the leakage of these more advanced societies.
For more on the use of power beams and how to build SETI Beacons, see my previous Analog pieces:
“The Power Beaming Route to Space”, James Benford, Analog, Vol. CXVI, No. 14,—Dec. 1996., pg. 34.
“Smart SETI”, Gregory and James Benford, Analog, vol. CXXXI, No. 4, April 2011, pg. 33.