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Robert L. Forward, 70; Physicist Wrote 11 Science Fiction Novels

September 24, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert L. Forward, the physicist who studied the matter-antimatter propulsion system visualized in "Star Trek" and added imagination to solid science to write 11 science fiction novels, has died. He was 70.

Forward died Saturday in Seattle, his son-in-law, Ben Mattlin of Los Angeles, said.

Forward had lived in Washington state since 1994, when he co-founded Tethers Unlimited, creator of space tethers used by NASA and the Air Force.

Forward held bachelor's and doctoral degrees in gravitational physics from the University of Maryland and a master's from UCLA. He worked for more than 30 years at Hughes Aircraft Co. research laboratory in Malibu and held 20 patents.

The author of 157 scientific papers, Forward was nearing 50 when he published his first novel, "Dragon's Egg," in 1980.

"He said he'd advised so many other science fiction writers on the technical details of space flight and other futuristic esoterica," Mattlin said, "that he decided to give it a try himself."

Neither Forward's science nor his fiction was simple.

"I try to find things that other people think are impossible and see if there isn't some way I can find to make them come true," he said in an article in The Times in 1987, when he was still with Hughes. "Twenty years ago I set myself to find, one, a way to go to the stars; two, a way to control gravity, specifically to make an anti-gravity machine; and three, find a time warp or time machine."

Known from his 20s for his shock of white hair, white bow ties, gray suits and brightly colored vests, Forward earned his first patent for the invention he built for his doctoral thesis in 1965. That was the world's first antenna that could detect gravitational radiation--or what we know as gravity. The plans and prototype are in the Smithsonian Institution.

"Right now," he said in 1987, "I'm working on antimatter propulsion [used by the starship Enterprise in "Star Trek" sagas]. In fact, we have shown it is not only probably physically feasible, but it is something we can do in the next 30 years."

At one meeting of the American Astronautical Society, he outlined 27 theoretical propulsion systems, each more efficient than current chemical rockets and each supported by a scientific study.

Forward was also interested in "solar sailing," involving light craft equipped with thin sails 600 miles wide and powered by "wind" created by photons from the sun or by laser energy focused by a lens also 600 miles wide, as another means of traveling into deep space.

The physicist in recent years operated Forward Unlimited, a consulting company "specializing in exotic physics and advanced space propulsion."

In addition to his scientific articles, Forward wrote or co-wrote books of science fact, including "Future Magic" and, with Joel Davis, "Mirror Matter: Pioneering Antimatter Physics," both published in 1988.

With his science fiction--and there were a dozen or so published short stories as well as the 11 novels--Forward also chose the challenging route. Rather than merely conjuring a futuristic Earth, he invented the stars or planets to which his propulsion systems could transport man, and then created societies and intelligent life forms in those imaginary worlds. He would spend a year with his calculator designing his fictional site and its inhabitants before beginning to write.

"I write science articles and science fiction stories as accurately as I can so that the reader will learn some science while enjoying a story," he once told the anthology Contemporary Authors. "However, I follow the rule: 'Don't let the facts stand in the way of a good story.' "

"Dragon's Egg," the first novel, and its sequel "Starquake," were set on a neutron star where the force of gravity is 67 billion times stronger than on Earth. Forward peoples the star with beings called "cheela" whose lifespan is about 45 minutes and whose evolution is equally rapid.

For "The Flight of the Dragonfly," retitled "Rocheworld," and its four sequels, Forward created twin planets, one wet and one dry, bound gravitationally like bar-bells with no connecting bar. He populated them with amoeba-like creatures called "flouwen" who had brains but no other physical organs and spent their time in abstract mathematical speculation, surfing the wild waves of their odd world--and in sex.

In his last novel, "Saturn Rukh" in 1997, Forward set his story in the Saturn atmosphere and made his aliens "rukhs," or giant two-headed flying creatures named for the "rocs" encountered by Sinbad the Sailor in "The Thousand and One Nights."

Sci-fi fans quickly made Forward a cult favorite. Critics, however, offered mixed reviews, always praising the science and the imagined aliens in his novels, but often calling the plots thin and the humans shallow or even "humdrum."

Born in Geneva, N.Y., Forward served in the Air Force in the mid-1950s, rising to the rank of captain.

He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Martha Dodson Forward, and daughter, Julie Forward Fuller, both of whom helped write some of his novels; and three other children--Robert of Chatsworth, Mary Lois Mattlin of Los Angeles and Eve Forward-Rollins of Mill Creek, Wash.; and seven grandchildren.

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