Physicist Freeman Dyson's alien megastructure legacy

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The notion of a “solid,” habitable Dyson Sphere likely comes from an essay that Larry Niven wrote for an SF magazine in the late 60s / early 70s, when he was working on his novel Ringworld. This is set on a solid ring-shaped habitat orbiting a star. One of those notions that makes SF fans go “whoahhhh,” but is really, really a bad and unworkable idea.

I actually read Star Maker BEFORE I’d heard of Dyson Spheres. Olaf Stapledon describes “gauzy light traps” that surround stars in a far-future scenario. The civilizations of the time inhabit deep-space habitats that orbit stars by the thousands; more developed SF concepts call these “Dyson Swarms.” A much more workable concept.

(In Disturbing the Universe, Dyson recounts finding a used copy of Star Maker in a used book stall in the “Tube.” You can see the influence in a lot of Dyson’s work:)


How does a Dyson sphere deal with the continual cascade of comets and meteroids orbiting the star and punching holes in the sphere? Or does a sufficiently advanced civilization first “clean out” the star system of all errant objects?


lasers buddy. the answer is always lasers.

…great question!


How do you think they get the necessary material to build the dyson sphere in the first place?


Not to mention, there’s no reason units of the sphere couldn’t be changed positionally in response to other objects. But I would tend to agree, you would capture those objects and turn them into computronium or whatever.

But if an advanced civilization could pull all of this off – I feel like maybe there’s a chance they would have also figured out how to pull energy out of the “vacuum,” which compared to the output of a star is theoretically much greater, and can be done anywhere. Then you wouldn’t need to bother building a solar/thermal Dyson sphere at all. I mean, except maybe for fun, as an art project maybe? :slight_smile:


The many number of ideas that scientists have come up with after reading science fiction makes me think science fiction writers’ income should be subsidized by the government.


I’m still trying to wrap my head around how you assemble this thing, even if you have ample supply. Eg, while under construction, does the sphere rotate? Probably yes. That will help with the creation of the equatorial rings. But as soon as construction moves toward the poles, even if you’re still attached to the equatorial rings, that material is going to rotate more and more slowly until there is no centripetal force at the poles: it has to resist the full force of the sun’s gravity. So, perhaps when the sphere is finished, to prevent deformation, you want to have it stationary so that all those forces are evenly distributed. Anyway, I hope scientists work all these issues out before they start construction on one.

EDIT: Or, perhaps you build a ring on the equator, tilt it (so its now rotating like a spinning coin thats about to flatten out), build new equatorial ring, tilt the structure again, and keep doing this. All ring-building construction is done at the equator. Once you have a self-supported superstructure of rings, you can start filling in.

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Who’s doing mysterious megastructure fiction these days? I need to move to a new generation of hard sf writers…

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What about bank’s culture series? Certainly some megastructures in there but not necessarily mysterious. Not very current either but they’re new to me as i’ve only recently started working my through them.

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Peter Watts possibly. Not really Larry Niven style megastructures but pretty interesting all the same.

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Darpa does this periodically. I’m not sure that the authors are changed for the better-- Greg Bear’s later technofiction … doesn’t quite hit the same notes.



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Not sure if you’re a fan of manga at all, but the series Blame! by Tsutomu Nihei is pretty cool, and takes place entirely within a mysterious technological megastructure at some undetermined/undeterminable point in the future, when it’s reached a state of decay and decrepitude. Very cool, gorgeous art.

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A different issue with regard to creating a megastructure is that the culture needs the sociological knowledge to create workable systems that allow billions of people to work collectively. We don’t have that yet. We can barely manage millions - the largest organizations in the world (armies, multinational corporations, etc.) have at most 1-2 million members. They are able to thrive not because of their managerial abilities but because of their sheer size. In many cases marginal productivity reaches a limit where additional inputs actually decrease output. But despite that inefficiency, their size insulates them from effective competition.

It’s not just the physical limitations that are problematic. Asimov’s Foundation trilogy kind of addressed this.

Alistair Reynolds, especially House Of Suns.


If you start to dabble in vacuum energy ahead of schedule, the guys who send the black monoliths will obliterate you.
At least according to Arthur C Clarke.

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My favourite Reynolds book. He’s lost his way a bit recently though. Top of the pack for Banksian-grade SF (in fact, upping the game) is definitely Yoon Ha Lee. Gareth Powell’s Embers of war series deserves an honourable mention also. And Neal Asher for your more hyper-violent pew pew space battles.

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