Skip to main content

A History of the Future - Peter Bowler ***

Having just read What's Next, a book of futurology, it was quite interesting to move onto a book about futurology - specifically futurology in the first half of the twentieth century before it became such a recognised entity in its own right.

It's interesting that in the subtitle, Peter Bowler chooses H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov to bracket the periods he is covering, as both are better known as science fiction writers than for their non-fiction. Although Bowler does bring in a number of 'straight' writers on the future, he doesn't draw a hard line between science fiction and futurology, which makes a lot of sense. As he points out, while there have always been SF writers who go way beyond extrapolation to the near future - think, for example, E. E. 'Doc' Smith's wide ranging space operas or Asimov's Foundation series - there has equally always been plenty of science fiction where we are dealing with the near future and science/technology that is based on what's current. And while the purpose of science fiction is not to predict the future, science fiction writers inevitably speculate about what is to come.

Personally, I found the content of the book very interesting, but the way that it was presented less so. Although I had heard of many of the books that Bowler references and read some of them, from Bernal's quirky futurology in The World, The Flesh and The Devil (not a Hammer Horror as the title suggests) to Brave New World, there was plenty in here that was new to me. I wasn't aware, for example, that there was a lot of interest in renewable energy in the first half of the twentieth century. Though driven more by concerns about running out of oil than climate change it seems the ideas were ahead of the technology. Apparently, for example, the British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924, featured a discussion of alternative power sources, taking in geothermal, tidal, solar and wind.

Another interesting point that Bowler makes frequently is the distinction between the future visions of those with a science and engineering background - usually overly rosy - and those from a literary background - mostly distinctly dystopian. The visions of the future both in non-fiction and fiction seemed strongly tied to the level (or lack) of scientific expertise in the writer.

Lots of information, then. Unfortunately, though, it was quite heavy going to read, because most of it consists of unadulterated collections of facts. 'X said Y in 19zz in this publication.' There's very little in the way of narrative flow, which makes it stodgy to digest. On top of this, the approach taken can feel quite repetitive. I think this is because Bowler has chosen to split up the book by topic - but futurology or science fiction rarely covers a single future topic, so we get the same books mentioned over and over again. Brave New World, for example, is mentioned in over a dozen places. H. G. Wells alone takes up half a page in the index.

I don't think I can recommend this book as popular science or (or even popular history of science communication). However, it certainly should be of interest to anyone who has an academic interest in either science fiction or futurology. And that definitely includes me.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …