18 Feb 2021

Book review: Dragon's Egg

I present you a script for an unfinished short animation about Robert L. Forward’s hard sci-fi novel Dragon’s Egg.

Some 50 million years ago a supergiant star collapsed. Its death roar gave birth to an extraordinary object - a neutron star. An anomaly set this neutron star on a course towards the Solar system where human astrophysicists would name it “Dragon’s Egg.”

Our brains are not capable of dealing with the extremities on this strange, 20km wide object. The gravitational pull is 70 billion times stronger than Earth’s. A poppy seed there would weigh over 20 tonnes. A cubic centimeter of Dragon’s Egg’s magnetic field contains the yearly energy output of a nuclear plant1. The whole star spins five times a second and has a few centimeters thick iron vapor atmosphere. Underneath the atmosphere is a thin layer of nuclei matter. The complex interactions in the matter are analogical to our chemistry and ultimately result in self-replicating sequences, opening the door for life.

This is the home of cheela, a tribal species that evolved from a plant-like ancestor. Because the interactions between nuclei tick a million times faster than the interactions between atoms, cheela live and die on much shorter time scales. Their day lasts a fifth of a second and an individual cheela lives about 40 minutes. They hatch from eggs and spend their childhood with other clan youngsters, never knowing the parents.

Soon after cheela master agriculture, a massive volcano disrupts their farms. Most clans try to escape by traveling along the magnetic lines. But one clan sends the fittest scouts across the magnetic lines. Traveling in this so-called “hard direction” feels like pushing against a strong wind. Over the equator, they discover a garden of Eden - rich land free of poisonous volcano debris. In a leap of abstract thinking, a genius cheela invents arithmetics. She calculates how much rations does the clan need for the journey and successfully leads the clan to the promised land.

A human expedition visits Dragon’s Egg in 2050 when it’s close to the Solar system. Scientists launch several objects into the star’s orbit, one of them being a small outpost observatory “Dragon Slayer.” From there they control a beam to study Dragon’s Egg’s surface. Meanwhile, cheela build a prosperous empire in the new land. They worship the observatory and consider the beam to be the kindness of God. An enormous monument is built to praise it.

The monument is an unmistakable proof of intelligence. The scientists transmit pulses down on the star, one pulse a second: one-two-three dot-dash number series; Dragon’s Egg and Dragon Slayer in a 53 by 71 dot-dash pattern; basic arithmetics. Cheela soon realise that the messages aren’t divine, and Dragon Slayer isn’t God. What God would spend a tenth of a cheela lifespan to say that 2 + 2 is 4? They call us “the Slow ones.” Cheela overcome tremendous obstacles to set up a basic reply device and only after receiving the first signals do the human scientists learn that the intelligence on Dragon’s Egg thinks a million times faster.

Humans transmit an entire encyclopedia to fast-forward their correspondents. Cheela learn about the “hard direction.” Machiavelli’s ideas transform politics. Cheela are named after famous humans they admire: there are Leonardos and Einsteins, Lovelaces and Cleopatras. They learn about neutron stars. Quickly, cheela surpass humans in knowledge. They correlate the supernova which laid Dragon’s Egg with large-scale changes in Earth’s biosphere around the time when Homo Sapiens differentiated from other great apes. An invention of space travel allows for a short meet-up of both species. Since the expedition must depart back home, they wish each other good luck. From now on, Dragon’s Egg and Earth will continue to drive further and further apart.

This book is a testament to our captivation by extraterrestrial intelligence. And although recent research suggests that the specific conditions which gave rise to the cheela civilization are unlikely to be present on the crust of a neutron star2, the message of the book rings strong nonetheless: The more different extraterrestrial life is, the more interesting will our encounter be.

And if we one day establish a communication link with an intelligent ET, are we going to be “the Slow ones” to each other?