Web edition: February 21, 2013
Print edition: March 9, 2013; Vol.183 #5 (p. 30)
In the wake of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program, almost anything seemed possible. And some scientists of the late 20th century went beyond the fanciful notions of futurists and science fiction writers to seriously explore where technology might take humans, society and culture.
McCray chronicles the main players in two trends that captured imaginations at the time, focusing on notable techno-evangelists Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton physicist who advocated colonizing space, and MIT-trained engineer Eric Drexler, who championed nanotechnology.
Dubbed “visioneers” — the author’s blending of “visionary” and “engineer” — these researchers and fellow enthusiasts didn’t stop at back-of-the-envelope calculations. They used scientific principles to offer bold yet careful extrapolations of existing technological trends, and in doing so helped put pie-in-the-sky ideas on firmer ground.
Both nanotechnology and space colonization are based on the notion that the material world can be mastered and controlled, says McCray. But merely demonstrating that something is technologically feasible is no guarantee of success. Expansive visions of a technological future are of little use without equally innovative visions of social and economic futures, he suggests.
With little if any government funding devoted to space colonization, humans are unlikely to escape an increasingly crowded, polluted and energy-hungry planet in the next few decades. And it’s even less likely during that time that space will become a no-holds-barred utopia where social experimentation becomes the norm. But a person can always dream.
Princeton Univ., 2013, 351 p., $29.95