TCS Daily


Letter From Paris - Science Fiction Meets Fact

By James Pinkerton - December 18, 2001 12:00 AM

PARIS -- Most Americans, thinking of, for example, the clunky and sputtery autos made by Renault and Peugeot, probably don't think much of French science and technology. To be sure, walking through the streets here, I have seen more evidence of Gallic pride in their patisseries and crperies than in their haute-technologie.

Indeed, this American in Paris is typing this column at Le Jardin de l'Internet, because I could not get the finicky French phone system to cooperate with the modem in my laptop. And from looking around at my fellow customers in this cybercaf-one of many that dot the streets here-it seems that ordinary Franais, too, have not yet been able to enjoy the benefits of at-home Net access.

So yes, the French are way behind. But in earlier times, they were at least even, and in some scientific areas, including the speculative realm where science fact and fiction blend, they were way ahead. And today, there's some evidence that the French are stirring, space-wise, yet again. To be sure, there's no reason for any American to think that the French are poised to win a trans-Atlantic space race, but in a country where buildings from a thousand years ago are still in everyday use, there's every reason to think that if the French got it in their heads to compete with us, they might do well. After all, it wouldn't take much, because we aren't trying very hard ourselves.

So it's worth looking back a bit, to see that the roots of French space aspiration run deep-far deeper than in America, or even England.

The first science fiction novel was French, and it was about space travel. Voltaire wrote Micromegas in 1752; the title character was eight leagues-120,000 feet-tall, and traipsed from planet to planet, from star to star. In modern terms, there's not much science in Voltaire's fiction, but in the 18th century, when various Inquisitions were still doing their benighted work, it was act of intellectual and even personal daring to imagine movement through a Copernican-Newtonian universe.

The first writer to specialize in science fiction was another Frenchman, Jules Verne. He's best remembered for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), but he also wrote From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Off on a Comet (1877).

The first moviemakers were French, and the first movie about space travel was French, too. The Lumire Brothers, Louis and Auguste, pioneered cinematography in 1895, and Georges Mlis created the first feature films with story-lines, one of which, "A Trip to the Moon," appeared in 1902.

Of course, France hasn't done much about space in the century since, but a few spaceward sprouts are shooting up-and with a French twist. On December 7-8, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, hosted a conference, "2001 LOdyssey de LEspace, organized by the Universit Interdisciplinaire de Paris. Interestingly, the Deputy Director General of UNESCO, Marcio Nogueira Barbosa, who kicked off the conference, is a former head of the Brazilian space program, and so the conference attracted a distinguished yet eclectic group from around the world. The European Space Agency, headquartered in Paris, was well-represented, as well as such prominent American spacers as Christopher MacKay and Robert Zubrin. And the legendary Arthur C. Clarke was beamed in, live from Sri Lanka.

Yet perhaps the most interesting presentation came from Jean-Pierre Luminet, director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. He's the sort of fellow that most Americans would never run across, but he took an over-the-top, beyond-the-event horizon approach that was refreshing, if not entirely persuasive. But it reminded me, at least, that science reality usually comes wrapped in some measure of science fiction. After all, it's the most relentless dreamers who are often the most resourceful doers.

"Our creativity takes place deep in our imagination," he told the 1000 or so attendees, "an imagination controlled deep within the laws of physics." Armed with 45 minutes' worth of charts and graphs, he took an almost Micromegasian tour of the universe. His basic argument, distilled from Einsteinian relativity, was that while time is "a straight line," it exists embedded in space. And space, of course, can be crumpled by gravity. Ergo, if space can be folded around, doubling back on itself, then so can time. In which case, it might be possible to identify "worm holes," in and around black holes, through which one might pass from one epoch to another. Do you buy that? I'm not sure I do, although of course that hasn't stopped Hollywood. But as Arthur Clarke said earlier, "the science of the future will always look like magic" to those who don't know it. And even Luminet emphasized the playfulness of his concepts, saying in closing, "time travel is a wonderful dream that may be permitted by tomorrow's physics."

Americans, of course, are happy to indulge in cine-speculations, but there's little popular or political discussion of such ideas. It's impossible to imagine an American politician, for example, talking about off-the-wall ideas. But France is different. Here intellectuals loom larger in the public consciousness, both contemporary and historical; here politicians are freer about ideas and thoughts of all kinds. Last year, for example, the cream of the cream turned up at the premier of the movie "Sade," showing solidarity not only with the French movie industry, but also, in effect, with an influential thinker/writer/social-experimenter of a couple centuries ago. This is, after all, a country where people will say with a straight face, "Yes, it works in practice. But does it work in theory?" So the French establishment, trained as it is in Cartesian abstractions, could conceivably sit still for discussions of "voyages dans le temps."

But in the hard here and now of the early 21st century, progress into space will be incremental, and perhaps politically problematic. Egged on by the French, the European Union, the emerging European superstate, is currently wrangling over the fate of Galileo, a satellite scheme to create a Euro-controlled Global Positioning System. Hey wait--hasn't America already established a fully functional GPS system, free to anyone anywhere? Of course we have. Which is why the French want to create their own. The problem they're having is getting the rest of the EU to go along and to pay for it. But if the French are as persistent as they are self-righteous, they'll get it funded eventually.

Should American nationalists feel a tiny bit threatened by these light jabs at Yankee hegemony? Perhaps. But American spacers, and spacers of all nations, should take delight in anyone's interest in space. After all, the U.S., which has had the lead in space since the 1960s, has chosen to sit on that lead. Maybe what's needed is some healthy competition, so that America can get its own nationalist-supremacist juices gushing once again.

Of course, many Americans today would argue that the private sector, not NASA and the public sector, should take the lead into space. There's nothing wrong with this theory, but the practice falls short. Aside from satellites, no individual or company has come anywhere close to putting people in space. Indeed, it's those communists-turned-capitalists, the Russians, who opened the door to entrepreneurial space tourism.

So maybe the French have a good approach. When they decide that something is needed for the exaltation of the state, they do it. And so a visit to the Panthon, near the Sorbonne, is instructive. Originated as a church by Louis XV, the Greek-templish structure was commandeered by the French Revolutionaries and converted into a monument to the greatness of la Rpublique. Today, the Panthon is a national shrine; in the crypts underground are the remains of the great men-and the occasional great woman-of France, from Voltaire to Victor Hugo to Marie Curie.

So it's possible to squint into the future and imagine three strains of French thinking coming together into a new upwardness and outwardness for the French nation. First, enthusiasm for abstract speculation; second, mostly friendly rivalry with the United States; and third, endless searching for new ways of piling the glory of the state.

Will the French do it? Will they provoke a new space race? Realistically, they'd have to bring the rest of the European Union along with them, including such powerhouses as Britain and Germany. And there's no real prospect of that right now. However, in a country where Roman ruins sit alongside skyscrapers, it's always possible to think in vast increments of time and imagine a different reality than that of today.
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