Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Future Past Histories: The Visioneers, Gerard O'Neill, & Eric Drexler

"At every crossway on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past. Let us have no fear lest the fair towers of former days be sufficiently defended. The least that the most timid among us can do is not to add to the immense dead weight which nature drags along.” 

-- Count Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949 Belgium poet, dramatist, essayist - Nobel Prize winner for literature 1911): Our Social Duty 

The San Jose Tech Museum’s monthly lecture series recently featured UCSB Professor of History W. Patrick McCrays presentation based on his science history, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future.

This story is as important as it is outlandish.

To the speaker first, then the narrative. McCray’s engaging, highly informed style was the perfect pitch tone to convey the stories of Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill and MIT-trained engineer K. Eric Drexler and their expansive, yet often divergent ideas, about future-technologies and limits on science.

McCray relays a science history, which in-of-itself is awesome, yet where McCray excels is by texturing the lives of these two futurists within the larger sociocultural, economic, and political environments in which they operated. Here is a larger-than-earth narrative, (as Paul Saffo, managing director, Discern, wrote so eloquently about McCray’s book), about visionaries who fought against “the gravity of habit and convention.”

A thousand men indeed.

The narrative begins in the early 1960s with Gerard O’Neill’s futurism and space expansion theories. The story is connected to the birth and growth of nanotechnologies and Eric Drexler in the 1990s, and concludes with the explosion of technologies in the early part of the 21st century…all the while crisscrossing through U.S. popular cultural, political, and economic histories.

“Ballast exists everywhere; all the pebbles of the harbor, all the sand of the beach, will serve for that. But sails are rare and precious things; their place is not in the murk of the well, but amid the light of the tall masts, where they will collect the winds of space.”

-- Count Maurice Maeterlinck

There are striking similarities and differences between the stories of these two futurists who had the ability to generate interest and mobilize supporters, hunt down funding and grants from unconventional sources, engage popular imagination and discourse, produce hard science, and navigate political and legislative bodies, while jutting up against the walls of forbidden science. These were futurists who extrapolated (in many cases in very concrete ways) what was possible in near future (the next 15-20 years).

It is a story about science, the human experience, fame, money, counterculture, libertarianism, future technologies, space, politics, legislation, academe, economics, and the very root and meanings of life.

This is a contested terrain. McCray astutely stated in his lecture: “The future is a politically contested space.”

The Short Story: Enter Gerard K. O’Neill (trained physicist, early futurist), who has the vision and the technical skills to conceive of space colonies and some of the apparatus needed to support life in space. His work coincides with the development of eco-catastrophism narratives expressed in film, TV, and science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. This coincided with the release of Limits to Growth (1972) authored by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. Computational modeling was used to explore how exponential growth interacted with finite resources. The theory and data analysis picked up social steam with the growth of the eco-movement, and were punctuated by the oil shortages that occurred in the US in the 1970s.

Some critics of the constraints of the limits theory countered that it coded for maintenance of the status quo. O’Neill and his comrades responded to the controls of the finite with a focus on the infinite….space…the colonization and humanization of space.

In the 1970s, O’Neill takes the space colonization vision public, drumming-up support on a variety of stages. He publishes an article in Physics Today in 1974; participates in a 1976 penthouse interview; publishes a book, The High Frontier, in 1976; and approaches policy makers and legislators in 1978.

This spurred a social movement which hit its high point with the development of the L5 society, which had slogans that wouldn’t look at out-of-place at a Singularity Summit. Not surprisingly, McCray relayed in his lecture that locations that had robust technology or aerospace infrastructures supported these burgeoning groups. Places like Silicon Valley, which served as an idealized backdrop for one of O’Neill’s space colony projections.

Here is a recent rendering of O’Neill’s space colony vision rendered in modern graphics (Terasem 02 O'Neill Space Colony). 

McCray examined the projected costs of O’Neill’s projects, considering costs of other outlandish building projects of the 1970s, and finds that ONeill’s estimates were not in the realm of science fiction.

Aspects of the social Left cast a skeptical eye toward the space exploration vision, seeing growth into space as an extension of the military industrial complex. Here is an interesting article from the Atlantic on oppostion to Apollo. Others, such as Timothy Leary, drew from a different well; espousing nascent ideas about life extension and the limits of human consciousness…here we see some early examples of transhumanism.

For the second part of this incredible science history, go here, and join me in thinking about the challenges we face when we gaze ever-up and ever-forward.

Postscript: This lecture and book generated so many critical questions and thoughts. Anachronistic as it might be, consider how different these stories would have been without the Cold War. If these stories had occurred during an era of open-access science…how much more might we have explored without the guardians of habit and routine…and what of my own guardianship? Learning about the early stories of techno-science is especially resonant for me as native of Silicon Valley. These stories hold local, national, and global significance, yet remain intensely personal.


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