Saturday, 19 December 2009

Warp engines offline, Captain: has science fiction become confused with science fact?

The current bickering in Copenhagen seemingly ignores a rather pertinent issue: our skills and experience in reversing climate change are almost exactly zero. Of course we can drastically cut back on fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency and possibly even slow down population growth, but there is little on the technological horizon that can profoundly alter the climate in favour of our species. Yet the implicit view seems to be that if a political solution is found then a practical solution will follow in due course.

So why is it assumed that given enough Government funding, the people in white lab coats can perform miracles of climate engineering? This attitude is symptomatic of an ever-widening gap between the scientific forefront and public perception. Many strands of contemporary science are so detached from everyday life that they inhibit straightforward public assimilation, whilst the ubiquity of electronic consumer goods may be lulling us into a false sense of security regarding our abilities. We are surrounded by 'space age' gadgets and technology from Wii to Wi-Fi that only a generation ago were strictly for James Bond. And with Virgin Galactic seemingly about to usher in a new age of space tourism, becoming an astronaut will be akin to a very expensive form of air travel, though a sub-orbital hop hardly counts as boldly going anywhere.

Another possible cause that doesn't seem to have gained much notice is the influence of science fiction films and television series. With their largely computer-generated visual effects, most Hollywood product effortlessly outshines any real life counterpart. For example, doesn't the International Space Station (ISS) resemble nothing so much as a bunch of tin cans linked by Meccano struts? Yet the ISS is about as good as ultra-expensive high-technology gets, being by far the largest man-made structure ever assembled in orbit. Given a choice between watching ISS crew videos (Thanksgiving dinner with dehydrated turkey, anyone?) and the likes of Bruce Willis saving mankind from doomsday asteroids, most people unmistakably opt for the latter.

Now that the majority of humans live in crowded conurbations far removed from our ancestral peripatetic existence, the desperation for new horizons is obvious. Yet our exploratory avatars such as the Mars rovers hardly qualify as charismatic heroes, hence the great appeal of fictional final frontiers. The complex interplay between reality and fiction is further confused by the new genre of "the science behind…" book. Frequently written by practicing scientists for the likes of Star Trek, The X-Files, Dr Who, etal, the blurring of boundaries can be exemplified by one buyer of The Physics of Star Trek who compared it to A Brief History of Time (although admittedly Stephen Hawking did write the foreword to the former).

Furthermore, the designers of such disparate items as medical monitoring equipment, flip top phones and military aircraft instrumentation have been inspired by Hollywood originals to such an extent that feedback loops now exist, with arcade simulators inspiring real hardware which in turn inspire new games. Articles discussing quantum entanglement experiments seem obliged to draw a comparison with the Star Trek matter transporter, though the transportees are as yet only photons. Theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre has even spent time exploring the fundamentals for a faster-than-light 'warp' drive, although it's unlikely to get beyond calculations for some little while. Blue-sky thinking is all very well, but there are plenty of more pressing issues that our finest minds could be working on...

Closer to home, it appears that a lot of the hype surrounding sustainable development is just that. Are we simply in thrall to companies hoping to make a fast buck out of fear, flogging us technologies about as useful as a chocolate teapot? A recent report suggested that the typical British home would gain only minute amounts of electricity from installing solar panels and wind turbines, although the development of spray-on solar cells may drastically improve efficiency in the next few years. But where does this leave us now? Although our species has endured sudden, severe climate changes such as the end of the last glaciation ten thousand years ago, current population density and infrastructure forbid anything as simple as packing our things and moving to higher ground. Cutting back on fossil fuel consumption is clearly necessary, but isn't it equally as important to instigate long-term research programmes in case some of the triggers are due to natural causes such as the Milankovitch cycles? If global temperature increase is inevitable, never mind potential cooling in Western Europe due to a diverted Gulf Stream, then reducing greenhouse gas emissions is merely the tip of the iceberg (sorry, couldn't resist that one).

Anyone who looks back at the grandiose pipe dreams of the 1960's can see that our technological ambitions have profoundly reduced in scope since their idealistic heyday; what we have gained in the micro-scale technologies, we have lost in the giant engineering projects envisaged by likes of Gerard O'Neill, Freeman Dyson, and Arthur C. Clarke. Yet Thunderbirds-style macho engineering is presumably the type we will need to develop if we are heading for a chain reaction of environmental change.

Restructuring an ailing climate will take more than a few decades of recycling and installation of low-voltage light bulbs - we will have to mobilise people and funds on a unique scale if we are not to prove powerless against the mighty engine of Planet Earth. To this end we need to spread the message of our own insignificance, mitigated by research into alleviating the worst-case scenarios: there can be no Hollywood-style quick-fixes to the immense forces ranged against us. No-one could argue that even short-term weather forecasting is an exact science, so discovering whatever trouble the Quantum Weather Butterfly has in store for us will keep earth scientists engaged for many years to come (and there I go again, confusing fiction with reality, doh!)