Gerard O'Neill, a professor of physics at Princeton University, described himself as "a romantic, an idealist, and a practical physicist and engineer." O'Neill hoped that whenever the romance got out of hand, the physics and engineering would pull him back to reality.
O'Neill fits Patrick McCray's definition of a "visioneer." He invented the term, he suggests, to capture the activities of men (visioneers, he claims, were virtually always men) who developed broad and comprehensive conceptions of how technology could change the future, conducted substantive theoretical and applied work related to these conceptions, and promoted their ideas to policy makers and the general public.
In "The Visioneers," McCray, a professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara, examines the experiences of O'Neill, a missionary for the establishment of space colonies, and Eric Drexler, a proponent of self-replicating nano-scale machines, and demonstrates that they existed "at the blurry boundary between scientific fact, technology possibility, and optimistic speculation."
Often (and easily) lampooned, the ideas of visioneers, he argues, often laid the foundations for research and development in important, emerging fields.
McCray's narrative is often fascinating. He connects interest in space colonies with a pervasive fear in the 1970s that unchecked population growth would precipitate an apocalyptic environmental crisis on Planet Earth.
He examines the "hedonistic view of a future made shiny and sexy by sophisticated technology" in Omni, a magazine founded by Bob Guccioni, who made his fortune with Penthouse, another sexy, if not always shiny, publication. And he sorts out the different theories, based in chemistry and computer science, that resulted in "nano-fabrication."
McCray is less successful in establishing the influence of his protagonists. He acknowledges that O'Neill became uncomfortable "with the isolated oddballs" attracted to his vision of colonization, that his company, Geostar, "failed for financial and political reasons," and that his ideas might be "a distraction." He does not make a compelling case that O'Neill "must be counted" as one of the factors that dissipated angst and ambivalence over technology.
McCray's assessment of Drexler's impact, moreover, is not accompanied by an evaluation of the critique of Drexler's principal antagonist, Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley.
McCray is (appropriately) dismissive of Smalley's ad hominem attacks, including his crack that chemists couldn't "stick molecules together as if they were Legos."
How valid, however, was Smalley's claim that chemical reactions occurred only "between consenting molecules"? Or the claim, made by law professor Lawrence Lessig, that Smalley was "stamping out good science" before it had been sufficiently evaluated?
McCray is surely right that visioneers work in terrain "made rough" by politics, economics, and the norms of an often-unforgiving scientific establishment, and that they sometimes do establish beachheads that make is possible for entrepreneurial scientists and engineers to push things forward in one direction or another.
Far more often, however, as McCray allows himself to admit, they "fall in love with their ideas, promoting them in the face of balanced criticisms," in ways that are not helpful to the technological ecosystem or the general polity.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Liwin Professor at Cornell University.
Original Print Headline: Trying to make the 'vision thing' reality
THE VISIONEERS: HOW A GROUP OF
ELITE SCIENTISTS PURSUED SPACE
AND A LIMITLESS FUTURE
By Patrick McCray
Princeton University Press, $29.95