Skip to main content

What's Next - Jim Al-Khalili (Ed.) ***

There's a certain kind of book that's popular with academic publishers, where you collect together a set of essays on a topic from different contributors. Most of the contents are usually rather dull, but the odd one shines out. I assume it's a cheap way for publishers to get material, but it's rarely highly readable. This is just such a book, but from a mainstream source and packaged with a shiny foil-bedecked cover as if it were a fun pop sci jaunt through the subject of the future. Just look at that title with it's provocative tagline 'Even scientists can't predict the future... or can they?'

The whole idea of futurology - attempting to extrapolate how we and our technology will develop in the future - is doomed to failure. Everyone gets most of it wrong, and it's impossible to pick out the gems from the dross. You only have to look back at Alvin Toffler's Future Shock with its impressive disaster of an attempt to predict the year 2000, which was wonderfully well received when written in the 70s, to see how difficult it is to get the future right. One of the few genuine bits of effective futurology often cited is Arthur C. Clarke's prediction of the communications satellite. But we need to bear in mind that this was from the man who thought it reasonable that in 2001 we would sending a manned mission to Jupiter and would have a huge rotating space station producing artificial gravity, connected to the Earth by PanAm space shuttles and Bell videophones.

All the articles in What's Next are fairly readable, though some tend to the academic turgid style. There is, however, a distinct split in approach between negative and positive outlooks. Peter Bowler, in A History of the Future, suggests that traditionally future-gazers with a scientific training tend to have a more positive view, while the literary types tend to dystopian visions. I'm not sure that is entirely true here, where all the writers have a science/tech background, but not every essay is cheery.

We see the most effusive approach in the essay on smart materials by Anna Ploszajski. Here there is no uncertainty: 'In the future this will be a reality', we are told. Perhaps someone ought to have warned the author that futurology really doesn't work like this. Elsewhere, highlights include a thoughtful essay on demographics by the always excellent Philip Ball, fun with Adam Rutherford on synthetic biology and some straightforward thoughts on the future of cybersecurity: here I learned a new (to me) acronym - PICNIC for 'Problem Is in the Chair Not In the Computer' i.e. it's easier for computers to avoid falling into traps than the humans who use them.

A few oddities struck me. The first was that the section on transport by John Miles hardly mentions trains, though it does seem a bit over-optimistic about the workings of a smart public transport system, given after decades of trying we can't even get bus and train timetables to align. Secondly, although several essays mentioned self-driving cars and how they will bring down the number of road deaths, no one looked at the psychology of their adoption. They need to draw a lesson from the failed 'Summertime all year round' experiment in the UK. Like self-driving cars, this significantly reduced road deaths. But the experiment was cancelled because a few deaths were caused by the approach. People consider a handful of actual deaths to be much more significant than thousands of potential lives saved.

The final oddity was the closing essay, by Jim Al-Khalili. This was straight popular science with quick summaries of teleportation and time travel. The only futurology here was the suggestion they might be practical at some point, but otherwise it was a very rapid zip through quantum entanglement and general relativity-related time travel (strangely, no mention of the much easier special relativity one-way version). Though very readable, this seemed a little out of synch with the rest of the book.

Overall, it's hard not to answer that question in the subtitle with 'No, they can't.' I always feel that futurology is a bit like hearing about someone else's dreams - more interesting for the teller than the listener.



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 …