RE: BOOKS: Pournelle's *A Step Farther Out*

Billy Brown (
Tue, 16 Feb 1999 16:21:19 -0600

Jean-Francois Virey wrote:
> Jerry Pournelle A Step Farther Out (Ace Books, 1979)
> [February 12 1999]
> **
> The message of the book is very similar to Julian Simon's, except Simon
> focuses on the Earth's resources, while Pournelle extends the range of
> available resources to the whole solar system.

An interesting observation. I think, however, that there is a significant difference in attitude. A central theme in Julian Simon's work is the idea that 'natural resources' are not a fixed entity, but rather the result of applying human effort and intellect to the environment in an attempt to produce some desired good. This transforms the very nature of the resource depletion argument, which normally assumes that resources are static quantities of particular physical materials.

Pournelle , in contrast, simply argues that the supply of those fixed material resources is much larger than has been assumed. We can stave of resource depletion by mining extraterrestrial resources, which are so abundant that they could supply our current civilization for far longer spans of time than anyone is seriously worried about.

> In its defense of nuclear energy, the book
> echoes the message of Pournelle and Niven's " Lucifer's Hammer ", where
> mankind found its post-cataclysmic salvation by maintaining a nuclear
> plant in activity.

I also found it interesting. They carried a similar theme into "Footfall", in which the world is saved from alien invasion by liberal use of nuclear technology (for power, spacecraft propulsion and weapons). If there are any SF authors more pro-nuclear than these guys, I can't think of them.

> At times, Pournelle is extremely nave, as when he assumes that one day,
> the acquisition of knowledge will be automated (" the computer can squirt
> the book's contents directly into your mind " p86) or rendered obsolete
> instant hook up with world databases. He doesn't seem to realize the
> importance of the integration and automatization of knowledge (not to
> mention the filtering !), which cannot be done without extended periods
> intense " chewing " of the material.

Yes, he definitely oversimplifies matters here. AI devices can do this sort of thing, but organic minds can't. Really advanced nanotech could deal with that limitation (by rewriting neural connections at much higher speeds than they are normally capable of), but its going to be a long time before we reach that point.

> Pournelle also gratuitously assumes
> there is a " central processing unit " in the brain (p86) - the myth of
> the homonculus debunked by Gerald Edelman and others - and that the "
> basis of consciousness " is either "matter or structure" (p308)

I'm not sure why you would consider this idea either gratuitous or naive. It is simply a less developed formulation of the current idea that the mind is nothing more or less than the product of physical processes in the brain. There is considerable evidence in support of this view, and a considerable number of prominent thinkers have adopted it. Even if you happen to fall in the opposing camp, I would suggest that it is a mistake to reject it out of hand.

> I think this book was included in the reading list more for its enthusiasm
> and anti-defeatism than for any factual information it contains.

I suspect the practical discussion of space colonization / industrialization was a factor as well. Of course, Pournelle obviously didn't pay enough attention to the economic aspects of the project, but his treatment of the engineering involved is better than any of the current work I am familiar with.

> The most disgusting part of the book is certainly the speculations
> concerning black holes, which seem to offer elbow room for the
> scientists' irrationality. " Time running backward " is a meaningless
> phrase if you accept the Aristotelian conception of time as a measurement
> of change and of the present as "all there is"; and Hawking's idea that
> " anything " can come out of a black hole is simple nonsense.

If there is anything we should have learned from quantum mechanics, it is that the universe is not obliged to conform to human notions of logic. That's why science is based on experiments, not on philosophy. Just because something seems to be illogical, self-contradictory, or otherwise impossible does not mean that it can't happen.

Modern physical contains all sorts of odd nooks and crannies that seem to imply that time travel can take place under certain conditions. Since the conditions required can not be duplicated in the lab, they will remain hypothetical for some time to come. If you prefer to assume that these predictions will prove false, you are certainly free to do so.

However, it is also perfectly reasonable to expect that these theories are accurate. After all, they give accurate predictions for everything we have been able to observe. Certainly, they have proven far more reliable than any human concept of what does or does not make sense.

About Hawking's theory: I would suggest that anyone who wants to argue with Stephen Hawking about physics has an obligation to provide a more complete criticism than saying "that's obviously nonsense". However, I believe that Pournelle interpretation of his theory is flawed. What Hawking actually said would translate into layman's terms as something like this:

  1. An evaporating black hole radiates mass/energy in random configurations.
  2. There are no constraints on how the radiated mass/energy is organized.


3) Any combination of matter and energy that is allowed by physical law, and has a total mass less than that of the black hole, could in principle be produced by black hole evaporation.

The point Pournelle missed is that all results are not equally likely. Low-mass elementary particles will form almost all of the matter actually produced in this fashion. More massive structures rapidly become vanishingly unlikely, and a particular complex structure is even more improbable. Thus, saying that macroscopic objects can be produced in this fashion is like saying that all the air molecules in the room could suddenly rush out the window - true in principle, but it will never actually happen.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I