The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

Synopsis

In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity's expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, turned his attention to the molecular world as the place where society's future needs could be met using self-replicating nanoscale machines. These modern utopians predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds, undertook atomic-scale engineering, and, if truly successful, overcame their own biological limits. The Visioneers tells the story of how these scientists and the communities they fostered imagined, designed, and popularized speculative technologies such as space colonies and nanotechnologies.


Patrick McCray traces how these visioneers blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future. He shows how they built networks that communicated their ideas to writers, politicians, and corporate leaders. But the visioneers were not immune to failure--or to the lures of profit, celebrity, and hype. O'Neill and Drexler faced difficulty funding their work and overcoming colleagues' skepticism, and saw their ideas co-opted and transformed by Timothy Leary, the scriptwriters of Star Trek, and many others. Ultimately, both men struggled to overcome stigma and ostracism as they tried to unshackle their visioneering from pejorative labels like "fringe" and "pseudoscience."



The Visioneers provides a balanced look at the successes and pitfalls they encountered. The book exposes the dangers of promotion--oversimplification, misuse, and misunderstanding--that can plague exploratory science. But above all, it highlights the importance of radical new ideas that inspire us to support cutting-edge research into tomorrow's technologies.

Excerpt

I am vitally interested in the future, because I am going to spend the
rest of my life there.

—Charles F. Kettering, inventor and head of General Motors’ corporate
research, quoted in advertising campaign for Omni magazine, 1978

On August 11,1977, some 1,100 invited guests trekked to the old Museum of Science and Industry in downtown Los Angeles and celebrated California’s first Space Day. Space exploration was big news that summer. At theaters all across the United States, Star Wars was raking in millions of dollars as fans queued to see the epic space opera over and over. The upsurge of excitement about space wasn’t limited to just the silver screen. Out in California’s Mojave Desert, engineers were readying the space shuttle Enterprise for its first solo atmospheric flight. NASA had high hopes that America’s human spaceflight program, stagnant since the end of the Apollo era, would be revived by its new “space truck.”

Buttoned-down aerospace executives, anxious NASA managers, and cynical políticos mingled with celebrity scientists like astronomer Carl Sagan and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau in the museum’s elegant rose-festooned garden. Sprinkled among the guests were real astronauts who had been to space and Star Trek fans who yearned to go. Counterculture icons like LSD guru Timothy Leary and Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand enlivened the crowd, which swelled even more when California governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown and his entourage arrived.

Accompanied by a phalanx of journalists, the invitees moved into the museum’s Progress Hall and took seats beneath suspended satellites and rockets left over from the triumphant days of the space race. But the audience had little interest in revisiting what . . .

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