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