Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past

A Future without Limits

For decades serious people have tried to turn the stuff of science fiction—space colonies, self-replicating machines, and solar sails—into scientific reality.

Color illustrations of a donut-shaped space colony

Patrick McCray. The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. 351 pp. $29.95.

On Christmas Eve 1968 astronaut William Anders snapped a color photograph of Earth emerging from behind the lunar horizon. For the first time the entire world had been captured in a single image, one that reinforced both the beauty of our home planet and its relative fragility. Policy makers and activists used Anders’s “Earthrise” to call attention to the dangers of overpopulation, pollution, and nuclear war, as well as to the limited resources available to address these issues. More and more it seemed the optimism of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” was giving way to an era obsessed with scarcity, as epitomized by a 1972 report issued by the Club of Rome. Citing complex computer simulations, this association of businessmen, politicians, and scientists cautioned that the rapid pace of society’s industrial growth was unsustainable. In the absence of strict regulations technological solutions to this crisis would only delay the inevitable.

While many viewed the Club of Rome’s pessimistic predictions as a warning, Patrick McCray’s latest book focuses on a small group of entrepreneurial individuals who viewed them as a challenge. These scientists pursued new technologies that would enable humanity to overcome natural limits and obtain an unprecedented mastery over the material world. McCray describes these figures as “visioneers.”

For McCray the archetypal visioneer was Gerard O’Neill, a Prince-ton physicist who became America’s leading proponent for human settlement in outer space. O’Neill viewed space colonies as a means of avoiding the quasi-totalitarian regulations that the Club of Rome deemed necessary to avoid disaster. Positioned in stable orbits between Earth and the Moon, these facilities could serve as manufacturing centers and solar power stations while supplying housing for the planet’s burgeoning population. In lectures, books, and articles O’Neill provided detailed assembly guidelines for these habitats, including descriptions of how construction materials could be mined from the surface of the Moon and launched into orbit using electromagnetic catapults called mass drivers.

Despite their science-fiction overtones O’Neill’s ideas were firmly rooted in physics principles. During the mid-1970s NASA and Stanford University cosponsored workshops aimed at implementing his designs. At the same time, the notion of an outer-space utopia attracted a large grassroots following, which counted environmentalists, libertarians, and counterculture icon Timothy Leary among its supporters. While O’Neill recognized that organizations like the L5 Society (named for the proposed location of the first space settlements) raised public awareness of his ideas, the expansion of these groups inspired heated debates. By the early 1980s conflicts over the commercialization and militarization of space splintered the colonization movement, though nonprofits, such as the National Space Society, continue to promote aspects of O’Neill’s vision today.

Even as O’Neill stopped looking outward for salvation, one of his former assistants was pursuing the same goal by peering into the structure of matter itself. As a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, K. Eric Drexler had collaborated with O’Neill to construct a prototype mass driver before serving on the L5 Society’s board of directors. Drexler’s interest in spaceflight, specifically the use of ultrathin metal films in solar sails, led him to consider new manufacturing techniques.

Drexler imagined using protein-based molecular machines to assemble atoms in any desired configuration. His 1986 book, Engines of Creation, expanded on these ideas and established the theoretical groundwork for the nascent field of nanotechnology, suggesting that these self-replicating automata could facilitate major advances in robotics, computing, and medicine. Like his mentor, Drexler lost control of his technological vision as chemists like Richard Smalley rejected Drexler’s more revolutionary approach in favor of an incremental strategy based on existing tools, such as the scanning tunneling microscope.

The Visioneers does an excellent job illustrating the parallels between O’Neill’s and Drexler’s respective struggles to popularize their theories while retaining intellectual authority over intersecting networks of supporters. After all, no visioneer operates in a vacuum. Supporters of space colonization often found ideological common ground with aspiring nanotechnologists and supporters of other technologies, such as cryonics, that sought to overcome the limits of human biology.

McCray weaves the stories of these groups together elegantly, particularly in a standout chapter on Omni, the technology magazine that served as a forum for many of their discussions. Omni ceased publication in 1997, but McCray shows how its ideals survive in the work of people like Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk and life-extension proponent Ray Kurzweil. Musk’s electric cars can be viewed as a response to the long-term scarcity of fossil fuels, while Kurzweil’s transhumanism seeks to subvert the very notion of mortality.

McCray suggests that cultivating a diverse group of problem solvers would be beneficial to the “technological ecosystem” of the 21st century. Indeed, given the resurgence of concerns about an overcrowded planet, the need for creative technological solutions—and visioneers to promote and design them—remains as vital as ever.

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