Does the New Shape of the Solar System Prove Vernor Vinge is Right About the Galaxy?

Illustration for article titled Does the New Shape of the Solar System Prove Vernor Vinge is Right About the Galaxy?

By now you've probably heard the news about our solar system not quite being the shape that everybody thought. A study in Nature today shows results gathered from the two Voyager space probes launched in the 1970s, which are both nearing the edge of the heliosphere, the region where the solar winds end and deep space begins. Based on data the probes beamed back, it would appear that the heliosphere isn't a sphere - it's more of an egg shape (pictured). And the boundary between heliosphere and deep space is shifting all the time. It sounds very similar to the way scifi author Vernor Vinge describes the Milky Way's galactic sphere in A Fire Upon the Deep. If Vinge is right about what happens when you leave a gravitational sphere for deep space, the Voyager probes are in for an interesting ride.


Vinge describes the galaxy in terms of "zones of thought." Near the center of the galactic core are "the unthinking depths," where spaceships must use analog technologies and travel is very slow. In the "slow zone," which includes Earth and most of the galactic disk, FTL doesn't work, nanotech is crude, and mind-machine interfaces are impossible. Then there is the Beyond, an egg-shaped volume perpendicular to the galactic disk that functions like the galaxy's heliosphere. There, FTL is possible (though expensive), AI and nanotech work, and human-machine interfaces are everyday technology. Most creatures live in the Beyond, because the tech is so much better there. Yet another region, basically the deep space beyond the galactic sphere, is called the Transcend. There FTL is cheap, and tech works even better.

Obviously Vinge was partly creating a kind of sociological landscape with his imagining of these galactic spheres - each corresponds to a stage or potential stage in human development. But I have always wondered whether there might be a grain of truth in there. Could it be that when the Voyager probes finally travel beyond the heliosphere (in about 10 years), scientists will get data back showing that Voyager is suddenly able to travel faster using the same amount of energy? Or perhaps other physical constants will shift?

Solar System is Shaped Like an Egg [Daily Telegraph]


Annalee Newitz

@Grey_Area: People have lawn gnomes in San Francisco?