‘Spaceships of the Mind’ by Nigel Calder, 1978

Exhibit / July 26, 2017

Object Name: Spaceships of the Mind
Maker and Year: Nigel Calder, author, Penguin Books, 1978
Object Type: Book
Image Source: Exhibit author
Description: (Michael Grasso)

Spaceships of the Mind was a book tie-in to a BBC series first broadcast in the summer of 1978 and hosted by pop science writer and television host Nigel Calder (1931 – 2014), who was part of the founding masthead of the influential pop science journal New Scientist (founded in 1956). The series consisted of three episodes, each focusing on a different aspect of space colonization, exploration, and survival as the field stood at the time. Calder was able to call upon some of the biggest names in Cold War-era space science to talk about their ideas concerning prolonged human survival off-planet. Luminaries such as Gerard O’Neill, Freeman Dyson, and E.O. Wilson all contributed to the series and to Calder’s extensive write-ups in the book adaptation.

The book presents a number of artist renderings and models of the kinds of habitats the contributors thought would nurture humanity in its coming colonization of space, and the kinds of spacecraft that might take them to the neighboring bodies of our solar system—even to distant star systems. Both the nuclear detonation-propulsion drive vehicle from Dyson’s Project Orion, first posited in the 1950s, and the more contemporary Project Daedalus, designed by the British Interplanetary Society’s Alan Bond, were featured. Both would later be discussed on Carl Sagan’s series Cosmos (1980), specifically in the eighth episode titled “Travels In Space and Time,” which touched on interstellar sublight travel.

The rising ecology movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s gets a healthy write-up, as Calder speaks of the need to learn how human beings can survive in enclosed systems that provide all the food and necessities required. Projects such as The Ark, pioneered by the New Alchemy Institute and James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia Hypothesis, are discussed in great detail. And these discussions inevitably lead into questions about the sustainability of human settlement of outer space. In terms of the physical aspect of settlement, O’Neill’s design for rotating cylindrical space habitats, only recently introduced in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, is given much emphasis in the book, and is displayed on the cover. But there is also discussion of the psychology of human society and how humanity would be impacted by prolonged time away from mother Earth. Calder discusses how societal design and other far future social technologies like artificial intelligence might help humans survive under duress, not just physically but emotionally. The politics of the language of colonization are not elided; most of these scientists, engineers, and theorists still adhere to Western conceptions of a frontier to be tamed and conquered, especially when discussing the material wealth that could be obtained from mining other planets or corralling asteroids.

Calder moved to television in the late ’60s and produced and presented a plethora of popular BBC science specials and associated books throughout the 1970s. In his later years, he maintained a blog where he kept up with issues of the day. Always a scientific gadfly, in his later years he dabbled in anthropogenic climate change denialism, offering alternate theories for climate change that included attributing variance to fluctuations in solar activity.

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