The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy by Tom Easton

Today’s post is by Tom Easton, author of The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy (April 2011) and Firefight (August 2011).

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The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy began as a back-of-the-envelope calculation in the middle of an evening anthropology class.

I was trying to tell my students that our forebears were not as dumb as people often make them out to be.  Go back a couple of million years and, sure, they had small brains and brow ridges and looked like the second cousins to chimps that they were.  But nobody was setting them any examples when it came to inventing new technologies.  Whatever they came up with, they came up with entirely on their own.  And there weren’t very many of them to do it.

People today have absolutely no clue what a stroke of genius the first chipped stone represented, or the first basket, or even the first leaf folded to make a drinking cup.  Today we think of such things as rather primitive, suitable perhaps for a “Survivor” episode.  We’re way beyond them, and new ideas are so common that we yawn a bit even at a Moon rocket, a computer, or an iPhone.  New ideas are also rather to be expected, for they just keep coming.  Every inventor has thousands of years of predecessors–example setters if you will–leaning over his or her shoulder and saying, “Of course you can do it!  You’re human!  It’s what we do!”

At any rate, that night I suddenly paused, thought for a moment, and said, “Y’know…”  I then turned to the board and started making a list of great ideas–ideas without predecessors, ideas that later folks could modify into thousands of important inventions.  Chipping stone was one.  So was the wheel, fermentation (bread, beer, penicillin…), and so on.  The list quickly grew to about 50 items.  I then added rough estimates for the dates of these inventions, and then of the approximate world population at those dates.  After a bit of arithmetic, I turned back to the class with an awed tone in my voice.  It appeared that for the last 2.5 million years, we had been coming up with great ideas at a roughly constant rate: one idea per million people per 20,000 years.

Later I refined the list, the dates, and the population estimates.  The constant changed a bit–instead of “every 20,000 years,” I had to say “every 20-100,000 years”–but it was still pretty steady.  I also noticed the rather surprising feature that over the last 130 years, the rate of great-idea innovation had declined.  The, without saying much about that apparent decline, I turned it all into an article for the online science fiction magazine, Tomorrowsf (January-February 1998 issue), and moved on.   You can read the article at .

A little while later, I began to think about the way the rate of great-idea innovation had dropped off.  I began to wonder why such a thing should happen, and I came up with a the kind of possible answer it’s really hard to take seriously.  Certainly if I had tried to make a magazine article out of it, it would have branded me forever as a crackpot. But as fiction, it could work.

Want to know what my answer was?  You can wait and read the novel, or you can make your own guesses.  Post them here, and we’ll blow fanfares for the best ones.



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5 responses to “The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy by Tom Easton

  1. Pam Uphoff

    Clearly the Illuminati have been selectively eliminating the truly inventive. 😉 I’m looking forward to seeing what you’re going to do the little green men.

  2. Thomas Wicklund

    An interesting idea — I’m including your article in this comment.

    You are right about just needing to know something is possible. I’ve frequently noticed in my own field that after reading about some new development I end up saying “gee, that was obvious, why didn’t I think of it?” And you are correct that the number of really breakthrough inventions is relatively small.

    I would make a small change to one of your recent breakthroughs. You rightly mention the transistor but do not mention the vacuum tube. In many ways this was the true breakthrough, transistors are pretty much solid state vacuum tubes (but not exactly, as true audiophiles will tell you). There are several ways one might treat the vacuum tube, transistor, and integrated circuit.

    Your inclusion of the internet should perhaps be phrased a bit differently and moved up 20 years. I worked with early versions of email, instant messaging, discussion groups, and static web pages in the lat 1970s and early 1980s. The Internet adapted those concepts along with the high speed, common networks into a new concept. Hard to decide on the breakthrough (then again, one can argue about what constitutes writing and when it appeared, etc).

    An interesting example related to this can be seen in some of Robert Heinlein’s books. One of his characters invents an automated drafting machine. Heinlein had obviously invented computer aided design (CAD), but at the time and in his environment it had to be in terms of machine to automate drawing rather than using a computer display, printer, and later various modeling and simulation. Old Science Fiction is filled with futuristic ideas which have come to pass, but in rather different forms which (in hindsight) should have been obvious.

    Thanks for a thought provoking concept and list of truly “breakthrough” inventions.

  3. Tom Easton

    Radio tubes are a good idea, Tom, but they are modifications of the cathode ray tube, which is on the list.

  4. Thomas Wicklund

    I think I’d consider vacuum tubes the primary invention and the CRT as a variant, but we could spend years quibbling about details like that.

  5. Pingback: The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy — Preview « The Naked Truth

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