Time passages 

Pondering what future science will have to offer us

Admit it: If you were born in 1960 or earlier, someone probably told you that that you could be riding to work on a “Jetsons”-style antigravity scooter by now. If, that is, you had to go to work at all. Or eat anything bigger than a nutrient pill unless you really felt like celebrating. If you’re not too young to be reading these words, certainly you grew up hearing all kinds of grandiose pronouncements and predictions, some of them wondrous and some of them dismal, about all the things that were going to happen “by the year 2000...” It was by turns the solemn, jubilant, impatient, hesitant, wistful and baleful invocation of the future. The Population Bomb. The shortage of veterinarians. Glaciers, even, scouring southward to reclaim the upper Midwest in the name of a new Ice Age.

Malthusian certainty, quantum uncertainty. Nothing will be free! Everything will be free! We’re all going to die! Millions now living will never die! Somewhere in my stacks of useless ephemera I have, or at least used to have, a glorious color pamphlet from the late 1950s or early 1960s whose cover, complete with now winningly retro-futuristic sci-fi art, proclaims “We’re Building a Giant City in Space!” No, you didn’t miss any big aerospace developments—it’s some kind of religious tract, an example of how the pamphleteering arm of whatever group it’s for seized on the national space-craze zeitgeist to advance its agenda. At least, I think that’s what it is. You know, how to get to that city in space.

But small wonder that so many of us are scared to peer into the future. We’re now speeding away from a chronological prime meridian that we’d always been told to anticipate. Less than a month into the year 2000, a friend of mine confided that she already felt the first gnawing of a new emptiness now that the year that she’d been conditioned to await with hushed awe had finally arrived—looking more or less like the previous one. I can see her point; it strikes me as culturally significant in some equally vague and shapeless way that by the calendar year we’re now closer to the 2019 of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner than we are to the year the film was released. And how about those end-of-the-world predictions? A quick survey of apocalyptic history reveals that no less than 50 different groups and individuals out there were predicting the Second Coming and/or end of the world in 2000. That list includes Nostradamus scholars, Native American prophets, Jerusalem doomsday cultists, various Mormon sects and a Vietnamese cult whose members committed mass suicide in 1993 rather than stick around to be washed away by catastrophic floods they were sure would scour the planet.

Everybody loves to make predictions, though, and scientists are no exception. It should go without saying that they aren’t right all the time either, and that’s why portions of The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century will read as hoary and hopeful as a lot of the science fiction that came out in the postwar Atomic Age boom of the 1940s and ’50s. The astonishing way in which these things obsolesce themselves every few years or decades, I posit, is such that it can hardly be otherwise.

Author, editor and agent John Brockman enlists 25 of his writers for The Next Fifty Years. He asks them to write essays on subjects germane to their research and how scientific advances will change what “we” know, or think we know, what we don’t know or don’t even know we know, and probably add a lot to all four categories. More than just a primer for the general reader, the book was conceived for reasons every bit as practical as the essays in it are wild and unpredictable. From the introduction:

“One of the reasons for the remarkable increase over the last 10 years in readership of books by scientists (including those who are contributing to this volume) is that they are compelled to write in language that their colleagues in other disciplines can understand. The generally educated reader thus benefits, because he or she can now join in and look over the shoulders of members of this group as they take on the big questions of the day. In this culture, and in the present book, scientists are not writing popularizations meant only to entertain the public; they are writing for, and engaging, their peers in other disciplines in the debates of our times. The goal is not the popularization of science but the attempt to make the latest scientific research understandable within science itself as well as to a wide audience.”

The 25 essays here are divided into two sections: the future “in theory,” covering advances in cosmology, new applications of mathematics in things like “virtual unreality systems” and theoretical physics; and the future “in practice,” with intriguing discussions of DNA sequencing and genome research, space exploration, artificial intelligence and new understandings of human behavior. To make it even more accessible, a number of the writers have written other books or currently occupy university posts having something to do with interpreting science for the broader public. So the “generally educated reader,” as Brockman calls him, is in pretty good hands. Not surprisingly, considering how quickly “the debates of our times” end up looking like yesterday’s news or pulp science fiction, the first essay in the “theory” section addresses this very issue. “It seems that there is a horizon,” writes physicist Lee Smolin, somewhere between 50 and 100 years into the future, beyond which it may be useless to speculate in any detail about the progress of science.”

Fifty? I wonder if he’s just saying that because of what he was asked to write about. It seems like 25 years from now is speculative enough. But then, the essays probably wouldn’t read half as wild and hopeful.

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