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.
6 months ago