Saturday, 26 May 2012

Science Shapes Tomorrow

Some time in the late sixties or early seventies I received a book by Gerald Leach as a school prize. A venerable gent presented it to me on the stage in a marquee on the school lawn to a round of parental applause. It was called  Science Shapes Tomorrow. The said gent glanced at the title as he shook my hand and proffered the book. "Don't let it," he whispered. (As it happens Leach, the author, probably shared some of the implied misgivings as he went on to be an early champion of environmentalism).

Anyway: fast forward. I've not lost my taste for "pop" science. I'd like to understand the real "classical" stuff but the Bachs and Shostakoviches of science usually go right over my head or, at best, in one ear and out of the other. I have often enthused about things scientific to my children with the result that they sometimes buy me pretty daunting looking tomes for Christmases and birthdays. I'm making my way through a couple right now.

These arrived simultaneously: Cox and Forshaw's The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen and Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel. The first is a lucid explanation of quantum theory for the layperson who is prepared at least to try and think about it. I've got half way through and I think I know a little bit more than I did about how things may or may not be in two places at once. I made the mistake of putting it down for a couple of days which means I'll have to start it again - which I will, as the authors' explanation is compelling and I think people should have a rough grasp of what they're going on about. I hope it's where I left it.

Kaku's book, on the other hand is eminently readable. It borders on being the kind of romp which, if they're not careful, tends to get respectable scientists into trouble. However, it never quite crosses the line, as far as I can see. It does use the carrot of sensationalism to lure the reader into some pretty serious sounding scientific speculation. It ranges from asking if telepathy is possible to wondering if will we ever be able to travel to distant galaxies. The first, no: but we can increasingly interface with the brain electronically and crudely control the brain from the outside with electrical devices. The second, yes if we can build unmanned starships the size of coke-cans or even "nano-starships" the size  grains of sand, or learn to build bigger ships actually in space. The Andromeda Galaxy in 2.6 million light years away - but if we travelled at 99% the speed of light, it would only seem like 23 years to the astronauts on board (I think I've remembered that right). Performing such feats is a long, long way off - but even just thinking about it makes me think we should place more emphasis on developing manned space travel. We Earthlings scaled down our ambitions after the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, during which three of us got to spend a long weekend on the moon (moon dust smells like burnt caps from a cap gun apparently - a rather pleasant smell I've always thought). Had we carried on we'd have established a moon base and visited Mars by now. We would be contemplating voyages to places farther afield. As it is, we've developed robot missions to the planets and beyond while restricting ourselves to working in near-earth orbit. The robot missions have been fantastic -who, for example, could forget the footage of the Titan landscape sent back by the Huygens probe?





However, as I was recently watching archive footage of the Apollo 17 astronauts on the moon, it struck me how machines just can't rival the inquiring mind of a human. If the technology breaks, a human will try to fix it. If a human sees something unusual, it'll investigate it (see the "orange soil" video, below). Unmanned missions might be cheaper: but how many unmanned missions (and expensive launches) does it take to gather the information that might be gathered in one manned mission? I ask this question because I've no idea what the answer to it is.




There are those who argue that in a world where there is poverty it's impossible to justify the cost of space travel. I don't hold with this - we need to combat poverty and go into space. For all our sakes we need innovation and space travel now -as much as flint tools in the distant past- is innovation. Then there's the rather more wooly notion that to understand our place in the universe we need to explore it. In a distant future we might find we need to be up to speed on what lies out there - even if we've evolved into something else by then.

13 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

I loved your post because I've found myself slowly gravitating towards a type of literature that eluded when I was younger. It's the one where music is analysed through science: why do we like the particular sounds or specific notes? Why is it that of all the arts is music the one that appeals to everyone (unless we're talking pathology in which case musical appreciation is missing)? I haven't had the privilege of being presented with tomes of "pop" science but I do catch myself reading about the process of art-making. Just yesterday I read Jonathan Franzen's beautiful essay in The Guardian on the art of writing.

On another note, your recent comment on my blog made me chuckle. I, too, got taken for an artist on a few occasions on account of my attire. I can't draw for toffee, let alone paint. :-)

Greetings from London.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I do agree with your view that poverty and space travel should be treated equally when the money is doled out - but then I am not poor and I'm not sure whether I would feel like that if my children were starving.

Gwil W said...

Pat, the fact is if we stopped making wars here on Earth there'd be enough money to go round, to combat poverty in all its guises and also explore the universe. The amount money that is wasted on killing each other is beyond belief. In America alone it runs into the trillions.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

Cuban: Interesting, the science of music. Have you come across Iannis Xenakis?

WG: I go back to my analogy with flint tools. You never know where things will lead.

Gwil W: Quite.

Rachel Fenton said...

I'm interested in the quantum book for sure - I've penned a couple of stories inspired by quantum physics - I know my grasp of it thus far is well below anything like understanding but it is intriguing, and inspiring.

Governments can always make more money but they'd rather create a soap opera. I'd rather eradicate poverty than fly tot he moon - and educate all the formerly poor kids to look after this planet.
Some poeple want to go to Space, some just want to eat.

Rachel Fenton said...

Forgot to add, I read an interview with Armstrong - everyone was going, yay, he's a hero - no he wasn't - he was a pilot who before he went to space was flying planes over Korea as part of an effore to bomb the people there. Space and war- space war - spot the difference.

Jenny Woolf said...

Thank you particularly for the Gresham College link. It also reminds me that I have been meaning to go to some of their lectures, which are on such a wonderful variety of subjects.

Dominic Rivron said...

Space and war... I had the same thought when I was reading about antimatter. An antimatter bomb would be many times more powerful than a nuclear bomb. Whatismore, antimatter is the most expensive substance on the planet. Fractions of a gram cost trillions of dollars. Some are talking about it fuelling the spaceships of the future.

If it was just about wanting to go to space, I'd agree with you. (As for it being soap opera - it can be. I often think that if ET landed and we established regular 2-way contact, then within a month aliens would be commonplace and within two people would be complaining about them). However, I think we have to keep discovering what we can about the nature of the universe we live in.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Dominic, I too am a fan of the more 'popular' science books, especially in physics, and my shelves are full of all sorts of explorations, including some that would be frowned upon by strictly rationalist scientists. I enjoy my position sitting on the fence between the so-called rational and the so-called irrational.

But I really wanted to apologise for not replying to the many kind comments you left on my Blogger blog. The reason was that I didn't know they were there! I've just posted an apology on the blog too. If you can connect to my main Blaugustine site, that's probably the best bet. Thanks again.

GOAT said...

Great post, Dominic. I used to love "pop science" books as a kid (if they had good pictures); as an adult, unfortunately, quantum physics, Steven Hawking etc hurt my brain.

I have always been intrigued by that notion in the Cox and Forshaw book you describe, though. If everything we can conceive of DOES happen/is happening/will happen...that means that somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, STAR WARS IS HAPPENING.

I find that immensely pleasant to contemplate.

hyperCRYPTICal said...

I exist on the peripheries of knowledge of all things scientific - not always understanding what I read initially and often after further research...

I do agree that manned space exploration is necessary for as we are - we will eventually destroy our planet in that it will be incapable of sustaining life or need more room for those who dwell on it...

Anna :o]

A Cuban In London said...

No, I haven't heard of Iannis Xenakis but I will google him/her up as soon as I'm done with... my ironing! :-) I usually do it on Sundays so that I can catch up with the all the programmes on telly I've missed out on during the week.

Greetings from London.

Murr Brewster said...

Don't bother looking for your quantum physics book. It won't be where you're looking for it. If you do find it you won't know how fast it's going, and if you do chuck it you won't know where it is, precisely.