In Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar Larry Niven and Gregory Benford introduce the Bowl a ringworld-like structure (although slightly smaller, about the radius of Mercury's orbit if I remember correctly).

In Shipstar there are several mentions of seeing geographical formations on the other side of the Bowl. I found this to be counter-intuitive that such things could be visible in such distances.

Later in Shipstar the Sil are communicating across the bowl by using cities as writing.

My intuition is that in order to be far enough away from objects this size to be able to read them as a whole would make you too far away to see any significant detail (due to haze etc.) especially since it's stated that the atmosphere in the Bowl is much thicker than on Earth. Is this correct or am I missing something?


1 Answer 1


There's an extensive (and I mean extensive) essay by Gregory Benford on the Centauri Dreams website regarding the physical mechanics of The Bowl in his novels 'Bowl of Heaven' and 'Shipstar'.

In short, like a classic Ring world, the atmosphere is relatively thin (albeit thicker than our own) and is held in place by centrifugal action.

The atmosphere is quite deep, more than 200 km. This soaks up solar wind and cosmic rays and makes the Bowl toasty through greenhouse effect. Also, the pressure is higher than Earth normal by about 50%, depending on location in the Bowl. It is also a reservoir to absorb the occasional big, unintended hit to the ecology. Compress Earth’s entire atmosphere down to the density of water and it would only be 30 feet deep. Everything we’re dumping into our air goes into just 30 feet of compressed nitrogen and oxygen, then. The Bowl has much more, over a hundred yards deep in equivalent water. Too much carbon dioxide? It gets more diluted.

Since the plan is to view something approximately the size of a mountain range through 400KM of atmosphere, at a distance of

one hundred million miles

(roughly twice the distance from Earth to Mars) you would need a truly vast telescope unless the cities were positively pouring out waste light. The best Earth-based telescopes can distinguish large surface masses on Mars and easily distinguish the icy poles but that's about it. You need to be in space to get the kind of hubble-clear images that we enjoy.

Also, it's worth mentioning that if you're trying to view something directly through the plume (e.g. right on the other side of the bowl) , it would be that much harder, probably impossible due to the light haze.

In short, it's feasible to view megastructures on the other side of The Bowl (with a large enough telescope and enough technical know-how to counter the atmospheric interference) but it's a very inelegant way of doing so and would require the people on the other side to have advanced well beyond the technology needed for what is essentially a very big semaphore tower.

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  • Thanks for the link, I'm towards the end of reading Shipstar, would you recommend reading this article before or after I finish the book? (does it contain spoilers?).
    – Motti
    Commented Mar 1, 2015 at 7:29
  • 2
    @Motti - There's nothing spoilerish in the article. It's mostly talking about the mechanics (and mentality) involved in the building of The Bowl. I'd recommend it as reading before you start the novels, frankly.
    – Valorum
    Commented Mar 1, 2015 at 10:06
  • Too late for that now :)
    – Motti
    Commented Mar 1, 2015 at 10:09
  • A point of correction with regard to your mention of Hubble: With newer corrective optics that compensate for atmospheric fluctuation, ground-based telescopes can far exceed Hubble's resolving power. It is estimated that the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope would have "156 times the light-gathering power and 13 times the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope". There still are reasons for space-based telescopes (e.g. minimizing infrared interference in the case of the planned JWST), but Hubble does not exceed ground-based resolving limits.
    – Jacob C.
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 21:16

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