Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

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

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

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

Article excerpt

The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. By W. Patrick McCray. Princeton University Press. 366pp, Pounds 19.95. ISBN 9780691139838 and 9781400844685 (e-book). Published 9 January 2013

Peak oil, peak water, peak everything: human life on Earth faces imminent limits, many now believe. The essential Malthusian idea was formalised at the end of the 18th century. Populations will grow exponentially, but resources cannot. Its most influential modern incarnation appeared in 1972, when a Massachusetts Institute of Technology group published a study titled The Limits to Growth. Armed with what seemed at the time to be sophisticated computer models, it predicted ecological and economic collapse by the middle of the 21st century.

Then, as now, responses varied widely. Accept the conclusion, and activism or fatalism beckon. Critique it, and you must find a way of negating the "other things being equal" clause in the Malthusian argument. In the 20th century, two options seemed possible: leave the planet, or deploy radically new technology on Earth. Patrick McCray's study reviews the work of two men who pursued those options. Gerard O'Neill was a tireless advocate of orbiting space colonies as a new habitat for humanity. Eric Drexler was first drawn to O'Neill's project, but went on to develop a vision of nanotechnology that would revolutionise all manufacturing by giving us fine control over matter at the atomic and molecular scale.

Both men worked up a technological prospectus that they believed refuted The Limits to Growth's thesis. For McCray, they were "visioneers": visionaries who went beyond speculating about new technologies to develop disciplined design studies and some projects aimed at expediting their larger goals.

O'Neill, a Princeton University academic, began elaborating his ideas in a seminar for physics students in 1969. He had made important contributions to improving particle accelerators, but now wanted to apply his engineering nous to an idea that had long fascinated him - space colonies. Could we build on the technology that had sent Americans to the Moon to construct orbital homes for thousands of people? He thought so, and backed his conviction with detailed calculations about payloads, life support and the time it would take for the first colonists to build next-generation habitats using materials mined from the Moon or the asteroid belt.

His plans attracted supporters ranging from Timothy Leary to Omni magazine, but the typical enthusiast was a libertarian technophile with an environmentalist streak (such as the agile ideas broker and intellectual impresario Stewart Brand). …

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