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Andrew Love

Ringworld 40th Anniversary: “To Arrive Where We Started and Know The Place for The First Time”

In “The Eye of The Storm,” Chapter 17 of Larry Niven’s Ringworld Nessus prompts Louis to think about what he’d find if he landed anywhere on Ringworld and dug. After Louis replies “Ringworld floor material,” Louis has a revelation:

And as he said these words, the landscape seemed to alter…now the landscape showed as the shell it was. The difference between an honest planet and this was the difference between a human face and an empty rubber mask.

In Chapter 23, “The God Gambit,” Louis compares Teela to a mask in the shape of a girl, using much the same words and images that he previously used in describing the Ring. The similarity is striking, and it highlights a major theme in Ringworld—the idea of seeing the familiar in a new light, and learning that it is not what it first appeared to be (hence the title of this post, taken from T. S. Elliot’s poem “Little Gidding”).

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Series: Ringworld 40th Anniversary

Ringworld 40th Anniversary: Learning Physics with Ringworld

Less than a year after the first time I read Ringworld, I was studying it, as a part of a between-semester mini-course on science fiction and philosophy (a very interesting course, by the way). Since then I’ve used Ringworld as an object of study many times, but I have been teaching (and learning) physics instead. Here’s why:

Science fiction is often used as a playground for idealized physics. A science fiction story can take place naturally in an environment where there’s no friction or air resistance, which gives readers who have lived all their lives with those forces the chance to develop intuitions about the laws of physics which exist without them. Heinlein provides one excellent example in the The Rolling Stones when Castor and Pollux are instructed to start their freight on its return to their ship with one gentle heave on the cable holding the freight—because the constant pulling that is required on Earth to continually overcome friction/air resistance would result in a disaster if attempted in space. Ringworld, however, is better than that—by postulating one perfect element (the incredibly strong material that makes up the Ringworld floor (called “scrith” in the sequels to Ringworld)) Niven has created an object that anyone armed with basic physics can analyze surprisingly deeply, for fun and edification.

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Series: Ringworld 40th Anniversary

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