Re­vive the spirit of the space race


In the mid­dle of Lon­don’s Bar­bican Cen­tre’s sci­ence fic­tion ex­hi­bi­tion is an un­pre­pos­sess­ing doc­u­ment that crack­les with the prom­ise of what hu­man­ity might have been.

It is a script for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. In a few months’ time, 2001 will be half a cen­tury old.

It is worth think­ing about the film as a se­ri­ous at­tempt to chart a course for mankind.

Piers Bi­zony, a sci­ence his­to­rian and au­thor­ity on the mak­ing of the film, has been work­ing on a dig­i­tal re­con­struc­tion of the space sta­tion Dis­cov­ery’s grav­ity cen­trifuge. It turns out that the wheel would prob­a­bly work if we tried to build it.

HAL 9000, the mad su­per­com­puter, is based on blue­prints Kubrick’s min­ions bor­rowed from IBM.

Two as­tro­nauts on the film’s Jupiter mis­sion carry elec­tronic tablets, 40 years be­fore the first iPad. All of which has left Mr Bi­zony with a se­ries of de­press­ing but im­por­tant ques­tions.

Who is do­ing director Stan­ley Kubrick’s job to­day?

Even our sci­ence fic­tion is a grim kalei­do­scope of im­pend­ing so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes. The fu­ture is no longer some­thing to be pur­sued, but to be coped with.

We have fallen back into the trap of think­ing that there are no more worlds to con­quer: we are stuck on this one with its lim­ited re­sources, and we must con­cen­trate on do­ing what we do al­ready, but more ef­fi­ciently.

The grand tech­no­log­i­cal projects of the early 21st cen­tury - re­new­able en­ergy, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ‘‘smart’’ cities, the in­ter­net of things, driver­less roads - are ex­er­cises in op­ti­mi­sa­tion rather than ex­plo­ration.

Much of this is down to the way we treat our sci­en­tists, who for too long have been stuck out on the mar­gins of public pol­icy and in­cen­tivised by the grant sys­tem to look not much far­ther ahead than the next ex­per­i­ment.

Spec­u­la­tion is a dirty word in mod­ern academia. It should be a priv­i­lege. It is time to re­dis­cover the ad­ven­tur­ous spirit of the 1960s. The Imag­i­neers of War, a new book by the se­cu­rity jour­nal­ist Sharon Wein­berger, gives a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of what sci­ence can do when it is let off the leash.

Founded in 1958, the De­fence Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (Darpa) was meant to be the Pen­tagon’s at­tempt to thrust the US back into the space race. It be­came in­stead the clos­est thing the West has ever had to a real-life Q Branch.

The agency was a ru­inously ex­pen­sive bed­lam of out­ra­geous opin­ions and de­ranged ex­per­i­ments.

Darpa sci­en­tists spent hun­dreds of mil­lions of public dol­lars on abortive at­tempts to de­velop anti­grav­ity, death rays, or­bit­ing bat­tle sta­tions, mass hyp­no­sis, mind-con­trol­ling mi­crowaves and tele­ki­netic mon­keys.

Yet in its first decades, Darpa also fos­tered the tech­nolo­gies that would one day be­come the per­sonal com­puter, the in­ter­net, GPS, the smart­phone as­sis­tant and the brain-ma­chine in­ter­face.

Its work on the de­tec­tion of nu­clear tests led to the first ex­per­i­men­tal con­fir­ma­tion of plate tec­ton­ics. It has paid for it­self a hun­dred times over.Vi­sion­ary sci­ence, the sort of re­search that al­ters the course of civil­i­sa­tions, is a stu­pen­dously waste­ful process.

If you give clever and driven sci­en­tists as much money and free­dom as they like to solve big prob­lems, they will frit­ter much of it away. Some of them might say of­fen­sive things or pay psy­chics to bend spoons. This is a risk we have to take. In 2001, hu­man­ity ad­vances when­ever a pa­ter­nal­is­tic alien master-race deigns to drop off a magic mono­lith. In the real world, this hap­pens when we give peo­ple with tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise the re­sources and re­spect they need to do their jobs prop­erly.

Oliver Moody is sci­ence cor­re­spon­dent of The Times

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