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 http://www.sff.net/people/teaston/front7.htp .
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.