The Next 500 Years, Adrian Berry

Headline, 1995, 338 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-7472-0987-1

So you want to know the future? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. From palm-reading charlatans to government-sponsored futurists to your humble reviewer, everyone has his or her idea on what’s going to happen sooner or later. The only thing every one of these apprentice-seers have in common is that they’re all wrong. The future never ends up being like we imagine it to be, which is both a terrifying and a comforting thought.

This incertitude aside, it’s always a good idea to keep informed of what other people think may happen soon. Fortunately, a quasi-subgenre of non-fiction literature has popped up to fulfill this desire. Futurist books may be less entertaining than science-fiction, but they appear to have an extra sheen of credibility.

Adrian Berry’s The Next 500 Years attempts to paint a cohesive and all-encompassing picture of humanity’s near-to-medium future. Though written with a certain sympathetic style and containing many good ideas, it nevertheless fails at being a satisfying read.

The first half of the book lacks cohesiveness: Berry flits away from irrelevant panics to upcoming ice ages to undersea exploration with very little transition. This would have been fine if the whole book would have been done this way, but the second part of the book flow far more easily, reinforcing the impression that he’s anthologizing a few short pieces written separately.

I still was about to give high marks to The Next 500 Years where two things happened to make me change my mind. The second thing was an overly condescending final chapter, where Berry abandons every pretence at cautious projection and confidently states such enormities as “politicians will disappear” and “religion is doomed” while “belief will still continue”. Not only is this contradictory, but the whole final chapter smacks of unproven assertions, and the effect is rather sobering, in a bad sense.

The first thing was rather more damning. The Next 500 years contains several surprising counter-popular affirmations (The ozone hole is not a problem, the greenhouse effect is natural, etc…) One must take these affirmation on the basis that the author knows what he’s doing. But then, I discovered a huge mistake in one of the most basic equations of the books, where it is stated that passengers aboard a spaceship going to a star seven light-years away at a speed of .7c will only experience a trip of two-and-a-half years.

This is incorrect for two reasons. One: a .7c trip won’t take (1/.7)*light-years-to-destination because of the gradual acceleration/deceleration of the spaceship. Second, the time-dilatation factor of .7c is closer to 2/3 than 2/5, but Berry translates his factors in minutes (1=60) and then takes the minute figures as decimal (1=.6) factors!! In both case, he really screws up.

Pretty esoteric, true (I did research on this very subject for a short-story of mine, which is why I happened to know that much about it), but if I see such a stupid mistake, what about the remainder of the book? In one statement, Berry blows away most of his credibility. This is not complex science, but if it made its way through multiple revisions, then what about the more complex statements he makes?

So, it is with reluctance (and, it is true, a giggle or two) that I would ask readers to stay away from The Next 500 Years. Fortunately, other resources can now offer a better picture of the future. (Beginning by the web, resources go from K. Eric Drexler’s Foresight institute at http://www.foresight.org/ to the very serious Futurist at http://www.thefuturist.com/).

Let’s just hope that this future will include better book editors…

[Update, November 2005: A reader writes to add…

I spotted his use of Kinetic Energy = 0.5 m v^2 for input values approaching c in the BASIC program that appears in the appendix.  Slightly more entertaining (in a very sad way) was his claim that the origin of the factor of 1/30 in the reduction of energy required to lift matter from the Moon’s surface compared to lifting it from the Earth’s surface arises as the product of the ratio of surface gravities (1/6) and the ratio of escape velocities (1/5).  By my algebra, this equates to the claim that “all astronomical bodies are the same density”!

Ouch…]

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