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Inside every reader of current science lurks a teenager who once savored science fiction. Here are three books that will appeal to both those readers' inner teenage imaginations and their more mature taste for projection, speculation, and conjecture.
THE VIEW FROM 2050
In The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century, (Vintage, 320 pages, $14.00, paperback May 2002),
editor John Brockman has assembled a fascinating collection of never-before-published essays by 25 visionary and outspoken scientists in a wide variety of fields.
Organized into two sections, "The Future, in Theory" and "The Future, in Practice," the book offers a comprehensive look at cutting edge work in the biological and physical sciences, psychology, and technology. Predictions range from conservative extrapolations ("By mid-century we may or may not have directly observed dark matter and dark energy and learned enough about them to confirm or refute the various theories...," theoretical physicist Lee Smolin) to near-outrageous leaps ("[W]e may all be able to have a wireless Internet connection installed directly in our brains...," roboticist Rodney Brooks, author of Flesh and Machines, also reviewed on this site).
Readers will want to have a pen in hand to jot challenges, questions, and pointers to other essays in the margins. From the brief author biographies, they will be able to compile a reading list for the rest of the year. No matter what their taste in style, approach, or subject matter -- the Big Bang, extraterrestrial life; brain physiology, emotions, intelligence, developmental psychology; chemistry and materials science; DNA, cell biology, pharmacology, medical technology; mathematics, computation and information -- at least a few essays are bound to send the readers off to the library or book store for more.
Perhaps the most valuable essays in the collection are those that reflect on the nature of prediction itself. Particularly insightful is Jaron Lanier's "The Complexity Ceiling," which explains why scientists are often so far off the mark when predicting the range of possibilities of their work, with the repeated overestimation of the capabilities of artificial intelligence as a prime example.
SEX IS NOT ENOUGH
The essayists might have included Gregory Stock of the UCLA medical school, but did not. His new book, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitible Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $24.00, April, 2002),
also looks ahead to mid-century. By then, Dr. Stock argues, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), embryo screening, the use of genetic engineering techniques to cure human diseases, and cloning of animals, among other advances in biology and technology, will inevitably lead to manipulation of humans at the pre-implantation stage of development.
Couples will, he contends, prefer to implant IVF embryos with added pairs of artificial chromosomes carrying engineered genetic traits to those produced the old-fashioned way. He asserts that germinal choice technology (GCT) will be so clearly advantageous and inexpensive enough that most prospective parents will choose it over sex -- for conceiving their children, that is.
His arguments make for compelling reading, fascinating and frightening at the same time. But is a future of redesigned humans, evolving into specialized breeds with superhuman traits, really possible? Or will Dr. Stock's brash prediction of inevitability bump into Dr. Lanier's complexity ceiling?
TIME IN YOUR HANDS
If only we had a time machine, we could answer that question right now. Templeton Prize-winner Paul Davies doesn't claim that we will have such a device by mid-century, but he thinks we have learned enough about the structure of space-time to lay out a general design.
Without a single equation beyond the obligatory E=mc^2, he manages to convey the physics that will make the machine work.
But will it?
Most physicists, Dr. Davies writes, find "positively scary ... the plethora of paradoxes that travel into the past would unleash," noting that "Stephen Hawking ... has proposed a 'chronology protection conjecture' which, in simplified terms, says that nature always comes up with an obstacle to prevent travel backward in time." (See, for example, The Universe in a Nutshell, also reviewed on this site.
IS HAWKING SQUAWKING?
If Prof. Hawking's conjecture is correct, any author looking to build a time machine as a shortcut to writing the mid-century version of "The Next Fifty Years" should consider the consequences that may await:
"I've heard all your stories before,"
Hawking scoffed, as he rolled through the door.
"Though a wormhole's sublime,
You won't travel in time.
For you, there's a black hole in store."