Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Visioneers – W. Patrick McCray ***

It may sound like a job at a Walt Disney theme park (where designers are called imagineers), but ‘visioneer’ is Patrick McCray’s portmanteau word combining ‘visionary’and ‘engineer’ – not a hand-waving futurologist, but a scientist or engineer who is coming up with blue sky ideas that are, nonetheless, based on the projection of solid science and engineering.
The two key figures here are physicist Gerard O’Neill, who devised space colonies, and engineer Eric Drexler who was at the forefront of the nanotechnology movement, both dating back to the heady days of the 1970s. Their ideas are put in the contrasting context of limits – an influential group, the Club of Rome had recently published dire warnings of the limited resources available to human beings, and arguably both these threads were about ways to escape the limits, either by reaching outside the Earth, or into the microcosm.
The opening of the book promised a lot – it looked as if it was going to be really exciting and engaging. But overall McCray doesn’t really deliver. The problem is that this is essentially a social history rather than a piece of popular science writing. Historian McCray makes it clear early on he isn’t going to be dealing much with the actual science and technology (which is perhaps just as well when one the few mentions he has of actual science is a distinct blooper in saying ‘Unlike time travel, designing a space colony violated no obvious physical laws’ – if the author would care to take a look at How to Build a Time Machine, he’d discover time travel violates no physical laws either). And that is a big shame.
While what we read provides interesting context (if spending far too long on, for instance,Omni magazine) there really is very little about the actual ideas and the science behind them – just glancing references that intrigue but never clarify. I appreciate this was what McCray was setting out to do, but it is frustrating as the book would have been so much better if had been significantly beefed up on the science side.
If you are looking for a social history of these two big ideas that still seem as far away as they did in the 1970s (and a book with the longest index I’ve ever seen), go for it. But don’t expect to have any detailed grasp of what the ideas actually were.
Review by Brian Clegg

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