Visions, Michio Kaku

Anchor, 1997, 403 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-48499-2

Science-as-solution has taken a beating over the last century. While pundits of the Victorian era could confidently claim that “Science will solve everything!”, they were too close to the soot and grime of Industrial-era London to know better. We have the benefit of hindsight, and names like Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Challenger and Thalidomide to remind us of what happens when mistakes happen.

In this context, it’s a bit adventurous to write a book with a subtitle like “how science will revolutionize the 21st century”. Even though Americans haven’t lost their lust for new technology (as exemplified by the five years it took for the Internet to enter mainstream status), surely we’ve seen the end of the “scientific revolutions”, haven’t we? It’s not as if there are sizeable dragons to be explained away yet, right? Aren’t we reaching the end of science?

Ironically, this “end of science” argument closes Charles Sheffield’s book Borderlands of Science, a similarly-themed overview of the limits of today’s science. Kaku begins with this questions, answering it with a compelling argument: While it is true that we are reaching the limits of the Age of Understanding -a Theory of Everything is even in sight-, we are only beginning the Age of Mastery, where we’ll apply our pure knowledge in increasingly practical ways.

This Age of Mastery, according to Kaku, will spring from three different sources: the Quantum revolution, computer revolution and biomolecular revolution.

Readers already familiar with the field of scientific vulgarization probably already recognize Michio Kaku’s name from his previous book, the superb Hyperspace, which managed to teach superstring theory in an entertaining fashion. Vision doesn’t equal the sheer fun of the previous book, but stand alone as a successful attempt to survey today’s science and to predict where it will lead us in 2050 and beyond. Obviously, no single person can make such a judgement. Sheffield’s Borderlands of Science was a half-failure because he didn’t have the necessary knowledge to make accurate projections beyond the realm of physics. Kaku sidesteps the difficulty by donning a reporter’s hat and interviewing specialists outside his own sphere of competence. The result is a book that does feel like an overlong TV documentary at times, but that also covers most of the important subjects.

And so we go from ubiquitous PCs to global communications to artificial intelligence to beyond silicon to DNA decoding to genetic therapy to molecular medicine to longevity to genetic engineering to interstellar colonization. All subjects are examined in three different time frames: From here to 2020, from 2020 to 2050 and beyond 2050. Each major theme is followed by a counterpoint chapter which questions the pro-scientific assumptions of the previous chapters. If Visions somehow isn’t complete, well, it sure does feel complete.

As with any overview, there are rough patches. Ironically, the single major strength of Hyperspace, a sense-of-wonder at new theories, simply isn’t present in Visions, which for the most part presents material that’s quite familiar to anyone following technology news: Nanotechnology and immortality and semi-sentient computers have been discussed to death in Science-Fiction and socio-technological forums; while their inclusion is essential to Visions, they’re not new or especially mind-bending.

But it doesn’t really matter: Visions packages a really thorough mini-guide to science in a few hundred pages, and does so with a good sense of organization, plenty of sources, a good index and a very accessible writing style. Best read by individuals not currently aware of the cutting-edge fields of research, but also enjoyable by anyone else. Good stuff.

Still, I wonder how well it’ll read ten, twenty-five years from now… at the current pace of research, it almost looks as if we might be well beyond his most optimistic projections by then!

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