Wednesday, 27 February 2013

An index of possibilities: is science prognostication today worthwhile or just foolish?

A few evenings ago I saw the International Space Station. It was dusk, and walking home with the family we were looking at Jupiter when a moving bright light almost directly overhead got our attention. Too high for an aircraft, too large for a satellite, a quick check on the Web when we got home confirmed it was the ISS. 370 kilometres above our heads, a one hundred metre long, permanently crewed construction confirmed everything I read in my childhood: we had become a space-borne species. But if so few of the other scientific and technological advances I was supposed to be enjoying in adulthood have come true, has the literature of science prediction in these areas also changed markedly?

It is common to hear nowadays that science is viewed as just one of many equally valid methods of describing reality. So whilst on the one hand most homes in the developed world contain a myriad of up-to-date high technology, many of the users of these items haven't got the faintest idea how they work. Sadly, neither do they particularly have any interest in finding out. It's a scary thought that more and more of the key devices we rely on every day are designed and manufactured by a tiny percentage of specialists in the know; we are forever increasing the ease with which our civilisation could be knocked back to the steam age - if not the stone age.

Since products of such advanced technology are now familiar in the domestic environment and not just in the laboratory, why are there seemingly fewer examples of popular literature praising the ever-improving levels of knowledge and application compared to Arthur C. Clarke's 1962 prophetic classic Profiles of the Future and its less critical imitators that so caught my attention as a child? Is it that the level of familiarity has led to the non-scientist failing to find much interest or inspiration in what is now such an integrated aspect of our lives? With scientific advance today frequently just equated with cutting-edge consumerism we are committing an enormous error, downplaying far more interesting and important aspects of the discipline whilst cutting ourselves off from the very processes by which we can gain genuine knowledge.

Therefore it looks as if there's somewhat of an irony: non-scientists either disregard scientific prognostication as non-practical idealism ("just give me the new iPad, please") and/or consider themselves much more tech savvy than the previous generation (not an unfair observations, if for obvious reasons - my pre-teen children can work with our 4Gb laptop whilst my first computer had a 48Kb RAM). Of course it's not all doom and gloom. Although such as landmark experiments as the New Horizons mission to Pluto has gone largely unnoticed, at least by anyone I know, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Mars Curiosity rover receive regular attention in popular media.

Perhaps the most regularly-occurring theme in science news articles over the past decade or so has been climate change, but with the various factions and exposé stories confusing the public on an already extremely complex issue, could it be that many people are turning their back on reading postulated technological advances as (a) technology may have greatly contributed to global warming; and (b) they don't want to consider a future that could be extremely bleak unless we ameliorate or solve the problem? The Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society Martin Rees is one of many authors to offer a profoundly pessimistic view of mankind's future. His 2003 book Our Final Hour suggests that either by accident or design, at some point before AD2100 we are likely to initiate a technological catastrophe here on the Earth, and the only way to guarantee our species' survival is to establish colonies elsewhere as soon as possible.

But there are plenty of futurists with the opposite viewpoint to Rees and like-minded authors, including the grandly-titled World Future Society, whose annual Outlook reports are written with the aim of inspiring action towards improving our prospects. Most importantly, by including socio-economic aspects they may fare better than Arthur C. Clarke and his generation, whose space cadet optimism now seems hopelessly naïve.

One way near-future extrapolation may increase accuracy is for specialists to concentrate in their area of expertise. To this end, many scientists and popularisers have concentrated on trendy topics such as nanotechnology, with Ray Kurzweil perhaps the best known example. This isn't to say that there aren't still some generalist techno-prophets still around, but Michio Kaku's work along these lines has proved very mixed as to quality whilst the BBC Futures website is curiously old school, with plenty of articles on macho projects (e.g. military and transport hardware) that are mostly still in the CAD program and will probably remain that way for many years to come.

With so many factors influencing which science and technology projects get pursued, it seems worthwhile to consider whether even a little knowledge of current states and developments might be as useful as in-depth scientific knowledge when it comes to accurate prognostication, with luck instead playing the primary role. One of my favourite examples of art-inspired science is the iPad, released to an eager public in 2010 some twenty-three years after the fictional PADD was first shown on Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) - although ironically the latter is closer in size to non-Apple tablets. In an equally interesting reverse of this, there is now a US$10 million prize on offer for the development of a hand-held Wi-Fi health monitoring and diagnosis device along the lines of the Star Trek tricorder. No doubt Gene Roddenberry would have been pleased that his optimistic ideas are being implemented so rapidly; but then even NASA have at times hired his TNG graphic designer!

I'll admit that even I have made my own modest if inadvertent contribution to science prediction. In an April Fools' post in 2010 I light-heartedly suggested that perhaps sauropod dinosaurs could have used methane emissions as a form of self-defence. Well, not quite, but a British study in the May 2012 edition of Current Biology hypothesises that the climate of the period could have been significantly affected by dino-farts. As they say, truth is always stranger than fiction…