The Pipe Dreams of Physicists

“[F]rom all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.” (Anglican Book of Common Prayer)

In 1972 London’s Birkbeck College invited British-born physicist Freeman J. Dyson to give the school’s annual Bernal Lecture. The lecture series was named after John Desmond Bernal, an Irish crystallographer and molecular biologist. For his lecture topic, Dyson decided to revisit Bernal’s visionary 1929 book about the future called The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

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Dyson in 1972

Bernal’s book gave a succinct exploration of how radical new technologies could help society confront what he called the “three enemies of the rational soul.” Bernal’s first and foremost foe was the World. To transcend the limits of terrestrial resources and the unpredictability of the planet’s environment, he proposed that people expand into the cosmos. In permanent free-floating settlements, “free communication and voluntary associations of interested persons” would prevail, liberating people from earthly traditions and values. To thrive in these new environments, people would be obliged to “interfere in a highly unnatural manner” with the Flesh. For Bernal, this first meant radical surgery, the replacement of organs and tissues with mechanical substitutes, and then the eventual modification of people’s genetic material. However, the Devil, which Bernal defined as our “desires and fears…imaginations and stupidities,” remained a treacherous foe for people who wanted to actively engineer their future.

Dyson, like Bernal, had a long-standing interest in the technological future. But his reputation as a physicist was based on his theoretical work on the fundamentals of how light and matter interact at the quantum level. After coming to the U.S. in 1947, he studied physics at Cornell, O’Neill’s alma mater. A year later, physicist Robert Oppenheimer recruited Dyson to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

After Sputnik’s launch in 1957, Dyson took a break from theoretical physics to help design Project Orion, an proposed interplanetary spaceship that would be propelled forward by nuclear explosions. As bizarre as such an effort might seem today, military and NASA funding helped the Orion team build a small (non-nuclear) test version of their space exploration machine. However, the signing of the limited test ban treaty in 1963 and dwindling Air Force interest contributed to Orion’s cancellation in 1965 even though Dyson and others had contributed years of serious design and engineering work.1

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Schematic or Orion, the atom-bomb powered spaceship. (Source)

In his 1972 lecture, Dyson gave an assessment of Bernal’s futuristic ideas (the text of his lecture is here.) He concluded Bernal had been largely on target.2 People had gone into space, artificial organ transplants were now possible, molecular biology was an established field, and knowledge about the workings of the human brain had grown greatly. Even when it came to the Devil, Dyson found Bernal on the mark. In 1972, just as in 1929, there was a “highly vocal and well-organized opposition” to the “further growth of technology” as irrational “social prophets” depicted it as a “destructive rather than liberating force.”

In his lecture, Dyson went on to use Bernal’s slim book as a springboard for his own predictions. He suggested that new technologies must be harnessed as allies in the struggle against resource scarcity, overpopulation, and other planetary ills. For example, biological engineering could design novel organisms that could convert “wastes efficiently into usable solids and pure water.” Inorganic “self-reproducing machinery,” analogous to coral and oysters, could collect minerals from the ocean and be another ally in the “attack on Bernal’s three enemies.” Besides ameliorating life on earth, radical bio-engineering could also enable the colonization of space. New life forms such as “Big Trees,” as Dyson called them, could be engineered to grow on comets which had ample amounts of water and nitrogen. The result might be the “greening of the Galaxy” as settlers transformed space into habitable oases.

The success of the Apollo era helped shape Dyson’s thinking about the technological future. So did his experiences as a father. His trials as a parent became public knowledge in 1978 with the appearance of popular book written by Kenneth Brower, son of Sierra Club founder David Brower. The Starship and the Canoe chronicled the tensions between the famous physicist who worked at the intersection of science and the military – Freeman Dyson regularly advised on national security issues – and his rebellious son.

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The book’s narrative eloquently juxtaposed Freeman’s desire to build nuclear-powered spacecraft and live in space with those of his son, George, who was building a giant ocean-going kayak while residing in a towering Douglas fir tree in British Columbia.

Dyson had a kindred spirit in thinking about settlements in space. His neighbor was Princeton University physicist and space colony popularizer Gerard O’Neill. Dyson and O’Neill agreed on the merits of human settlements in space, but they differed as to what this humanization of space might look like. “Your standardized prefab communities have a bureaucratic quality which repels me,” Dyson wrote O’Neill. Although “my pipe dreams are different from yours,” Dyson noted that the planet needs “many dreamers and many dreams” from which “fate will make her choice.” Despite their differing views about how the humanization of space might happen, Dyson recalled that his Princeton neighbor revitalized his interest in space exploration.

Years later, O’Neill was dying from leukemia. But he was still thinking of visionary technologies – in this case a plan for a super-speed train system called VSE (for velocity, silence, and efficiency). When he was too sick to travel to Washington, DC to present it to scientists at the Department of Energy, Dyson literally gave him a hand, taking O’Neill’s plans to the Capital. As he told me an email, “I was desperately sad because I loved both the idea of VSE and Gerry O’Neill, and I knew that both were dying.” O’Neill passed away a few weeks later.

  1. George Dyson, Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship, 1957-1965 (New York: Allen Lane Science, 2002). []
  2. Dyson’s lecture was published as Freeman J. Dyson, “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” in Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, edited by Carl Sagan (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1972), 370-89. []

Worldly Devils

“NO MORE SEX!” London’s Daily Herald brought this unexpected news to readers in February 1929. Those intrigued or alarmed enough to continue reading found yet more startling news – “MEN WITH EARS UNDER LUNGS” and “WHAT HUMANS MAY BE LIKE ANOTHER DAY.” All of this was revealed by John Desmond Bernal, a young Irish scientist who had taken a “PEEP INTO THE FUTURE” with his new daring book, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.

I composed the above paragraph back in 2008 when I started to write The Visioneers. I was living in Cassis, a lovely seaside town near Marseille as a fellow at the Camargo Foundation. In the end, I discarded this opening gambit for something else. But after a student visited me yesterday to talk about The Future, I thought about Bernal’s visions again…

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J.D. Bernal, scientist and futurist

Familiar to the denizens of Cambridge and Bloomsbury for his piercing eyes and rolling gait, J.D. Bernal was an Irish crystallographer and molecular biologist who counted H.G Wells, Julian and Aldous Huxley, and C.P. Snow among his colleagues. At least three of his protégées won Nobel prizes. A committed Marxist, Bernal believed in the power of rational thought and radical new technologies to help society confront – as the subtitle of his book says – the “three enemies of the rational soul.” (The full text of Bernal’s slight classic is here.)

The first and foremost foe was the World. To transcend the limits of terrestrial resources and the sheer unpredictability of the planet’s environment, he proposed that people leave the planet with its “massive, unintelligent forces of nature, heat and cold, winds, rivers, matter and energy” and expand into the cosmos. After building “space sailing” vessels – yes, Bernal predicted solar sailing –  these people would go forth to explore the solar system. Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 11.04.16 AM

There, they would establish permanent free-floating spherical settlements where “free communication and voluntary associations of interested persons” would prevail, freeing people from the traditions of earthly politics and societal mores. (Bernal himself championed “open marriage.)

Building these new space structures and vehicles would require novel materials fashioned with a precise and deliberate “molecular architecture.” Light, strong, and manufactured via solar power, future engineers would restructure the physical world with their “new molecular materials” and take humanity out into space and to its destiny.

It’s hard not to read Bernal’s predictions and think of Richard Feynman’s own prognostications, made in a 1959 speech, about how scientists would eventually acquire the power to manipulate the material world at the molecular level.

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Feynman’s vision in Popular Science, 1960

Such predictions acquired greater currency in the 1980s as futurist Eric Drexler popularized nanotechnology (and brought Feynman’s predictions back into the limelight).

Back to Bernal…To thrive in their new environments, people would “interfere in a highly unnatural manner” with their own “germ plasm” – the Flesh. For Bernal, this meant radical surgery, the replacement of organs and tissues by mechanical substitutes, and the eventual modification of humanity’s genetic code. Eventually, these new cybernetic creatures would seek a form of immortality by preserving their ideas and memories with the electronics and machines they were now conjoined with. Four decades after Bernal’s book appeared, molecular biologists took the first steps toward genetic engineering. Today, scientists treat DNA not just as an information containing molecule – code – but also as something to build with.

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However, the Devil – our “desires and fears…imaginations and stupidities” – remained a treacherous foe. Could people someday overcome their own psychology and create the world they wanted with their new technologies, Bernal asked? Between “the humanizers and the mechanizers,” Bernal optimistically sided with the latter.

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Bernal’s book was part of a British series called “Today and Tomorrow” that included offerings from J.B.S. Haldane and Bertrand Russell. All three British intellectuals speculated on the future of science and technology. When their books appeared, these rational forces appeared ascendant. Stories about genetics, quantum mechanics, understanding the human mind, and even the expansion of the universe itself filled newspapers and magazines. The hyperbolic headlines Bernal’s book generated typified media coverage of radical new technological ideas (as they still do today).

Since the founding of the Republic, Americans had flung themselves into a technological torrent with enthusiasm bordering on faith. Technology enabled the rise of the United States as an economic, military, and cultural power and helped create Americans’ faith in the future, what H.G. Well’s once termed their “optimistic fatalism.” However, the technocratic elimination of entire populations, mushrooming radioactive clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and apocalyptic fears generated by the Cold War eroded this technological optimism.

As the Vietnam War ground on and environmental concerns mounted, public enthusiasm in the United States for massive new technological undertakings reached a nadir. Doubt, ambivalence, and apprehension about the future took hold instead. Jump ahead to today – an anti-science Congress, anti-vaxxers, religious fundamentalists, and just plain, old-fashioned stubbornness and irrationality. While scientists and engineers have mastered the World and even dared to improve the Flesh, the Devil has refused to surrender the whip hand.

Elon Musk, Visioneer?

In 2013, shortly after The Visioneers came out, the publisher sent me on a short book tour. At talks I gave – from San Jose, Los Angeles, & Philadelphia to Seattle and Washington DC – the question I heard most from audiences was “Who is a visioneer today?” My answer was always “Elon Musk.”

This week, a new biography of Musk by tech journalist Ashlee Vance comes out. I’m looking forward very much to reading it. (With a subtitle of “…the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” how could I not?)

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In the meantime, I thought I would revisit that question that audiences asked me – is Musk a visioneer?

The title of my book is a portmanteau of visionary and engineer. The term “visioneer” refers to a person with a hybrid set of talents and interests – someone who has a robust and expansive view of the future; someone who also has the technical chops – usually bolstered by a degree in science or engineering; and, finally, someone who is eager to bring that vision to a wider audience (this could be the public, investors, policy makers).

I anchored my book around two such visioneers – physicist Gerard O’Neill and engineer K. Eric Drexler. O’Neill was famous for his promotion of space settlements in the 1970s. Drexler achieved notoriety for his advocacy in the 1980s and 1990s for a radical form of molecular engineering that he christened nanotechnology.

How does Musk’s background and interests compare? 

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Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson for Businessweek

First, there’s the obvious – Musk is a celebrity…the living model for Tony Stark aka Ironman. O’Neill, on the other hand, is largely a footnote to history, except among space and tech buffs while Drexler is living in semi-anonymity in the U.K. after his nano-star rose and fell.

But all three shared a passion for space exploration. Drexler, for example, was a devotee of O’Neill’s ideas in the 1970s and his popular books on nanotech pitch molecular engineering as a path to the stars. Even though Musk’s fantastic successes with SpaceX seem to speak to more prosaic interests – launching people and things into orbit – the South African-born entrepreneur has been an outspoken champion of making humanity a multi-planet species with Mars as the target. As Musk himself quipped – “I’d like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”

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Artist’s rendition of a Musk’ian craft landing on the Red Planet

Obviously, Musk was massively more successful at commercializing his visions – his success with PayPal provided the bankroll and business credibility to launch ventures like Tesla Motors and SpaceX. But O’Neill once started a tech company called Geostar – the goal was to provide satellite-based communication and location services. Think of a device that would allow you to know where you are and also to talk to people. What’s that? You have one? Hmmm. Well, O’Neill launched his company in 1983, when Steve Jobs was just dreaming – maybe – about the iPhone. O’Neill attracted investors such as physicist Luis Alvarez and Hewlett-Packard’s tech guru Barney Oliver. Geostar, with O’Neill’s guidance, raised millions of dollars and carried out ground tests until its founder’s diagnosis of leukemia in 1985 ended the effort.

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Schematic of the Geostar system, c.1985

Controversy swirls around Musk today just as it did, in more limited fashion, with O’Neill and Drexler. Drexler’s vision for nanotechnology inspired many in the public as well as some scientists. Policy makers used – or even co-opted – the popularity of nanotechnology to develop a less expansive national R&D program. For Musk, much of the press concerns his personal life as much as it does his technological visions or his business activities. In 2012, for example, Musk made a much hyped and heralded announcement about his vision for a high-speed transport system called the Hyperloop.

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Gerard O’Neill – who loved big engineering projects, especially those connected to trains and transportation – would have appreciated this idea. In the 1970s – with NASA funding – O’Neill spent a year at MIT working on his “mass driver” concept. This used electromagnetic force to propel objects at high speeds. Shortly before his death in 1992, O’Neill speculated about how this might be used as the basis for a train system. He called this VSE – short for velocity, silence, efficiency. Unrealized plans for high-speed trains and transport systems abound, of course. But it’s hard not to see slight shades of O’Neill’s visions in Musk’s techno-dreams.

However, when we start to think about how these visions of the technological future might be realized, things diverge. O’Neill’s vision for the “humanization of space”, as he phrased it, was tied to a NASA-based model. He was hard-pressed to realistically argue for space settlements without invoking some large Apollo-scale program. Drexler went in the opposite direction. Nanotechnology, he argued, was potentially too dangerous – remember “gray goo”!? – to be a government-developed technology and, moreover, this wouldn’t comport with the libertarian-rooted political views he had in the late 1980s. Musk has managed to split the difference – SpaceX and Tesla are private companies. yet, SpaceX’s biggest customer is NASA while those Tesla cars motor about on the public infrastructure and are charged on the public grid.

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I can see a darker side, however, when comparing Elon Musk today with past visioneers like O’Neill and Drexler. It speaks to a broader issue endemic in today’s Silicon Valley ecosystem – all three of them were educated at elite Ivy League schools. More problematic –  all three are white men.

A question I often got on my book tour was “where are the women and people of color in your story?” This was always an uncomfortable moment for me – there weren’t many and I tried to explain why this was the case. The issue had to be confronted head-on but the answer was always unsatisfying, rooted not as it was in the history I had written but in larger systemic failures in society. In the end, I encouraged my audience to think about ways in which visioneers like Musk (or O’Neill and Drexler) were educated, encouraged, nurtured that resulted in others being left out. Rephrased – Is Musk’s success story a synecdoche for Silicon Valley’s corporate monoculture that slights women, blacks, Hispanics, et al.? 

I admire what Musk has accomplished in the technological realm. I’m stoked to read Vance’s biography to learn more (reviews I’ve read are positive). I’d like to think Musk stands as an inspiration for young engineers of all backgrounds to think about they might shape the technological future. And, of course, I wonder how he will be viewed as a historical figure 50 years from now. Largely forgotten? Like the tycoons – Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller – of the First Gilded Age?

Perhaps Musk will surprise us yet again and turn his visioneering skills to crafting not just a cooler technological future but a more robust and equitable social future as well.