Science will never know it all: Richard Dawkins, Margaret Atwood and others predict the future!
Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion: There’s a serious risk of climate catastrophe and it could be soon. Another alarmingly plausible possibility during the present century is that weapons of mass destruction, which are designed to deter, will be acquired by deluded people for whom deterrence has no meaning. Assuming we survive such manmade disasters, external peril may be averted by technology growing out of the brilliant feat of landing on a comet. The dinosaurs’ world ended when a comet or large meteorite unleashed titanic destructive forces. That will eventually happen again, and smaller but still dangerous strikes are a perennial danger in every century. Telescopes of the future will improve the range of detection, increase the warning time, and give engineers the notice they will need to intercept the bolide and nudge it into a harmless orbit.
In the world of science, DNA sequencing will become ever faster and cheaper and this will revolutionise medicine, taxonomy and my own field of evolution, not to mention forensic evidence in courts of law. Embryology and cell biology will advance mightily. Novel imaging techniques may enable palaeontologists and archeologists to see down into the ground without digging it up. The rendering of virtual reality will improve to the point where the distinction from external reality may become blurred. I expect unmanned space exploration to continue, albeit with economically imposed hiatuses. Out beyond 50 years, self-sustaining colonies may be established on Mars. Human travel to other star systems lies way beyond 50 years, but radio communication from extraterrestrial scientists is an ever-present possibility. However, the intervening light centuries will rule out conversation.
Margaret Atwood, author of Hag-Seed:
Will we still have a liveable planet 50 years from now? Kill the oceans and it’s game over for oxygen-breathing mid-range mammals – the oceans make 60 to 80% of our oxygen. Superheating them and dumping them full of plastic may spell our doom. I hope that we’ll be smart enough to avoid this fate. From ideas proposed in my fiction, many are equally horrible, but it seems as if the use of the blood of young people to rejuvenate rich, older people – as posited in The Heart Goes Last – is already in process. I do try to avoid predicting “the future” because there are so many variables; thus, so many possible futures. But here’s a safe bet: in 25 years I won’t be on the planet, unless of course I get my tentacles on some of that rejuvenating blood!
Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of What We Cannot Know:
If I could communicate 100 years into the future and talk to the incumbent Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford (which I can confidently predict won’t be me, even if some scientists think that we are about to cure ageing), I wonder if he/she/it will know it all. Will we have answered all the big open questions of science? I think we’ll have understood what dark matter is and what is causing the accelerated expansion of the universe. But are there questions to which we’ll never know the answer, no matter how long we wait? Could we ever know if the universe is infinite? Can we find out what happened before the big bang? I predict that science will never know it all. It would be terrible if we did. Science is a living, breathing subject because of what we don’t know. But might there be things we’ll never know? That’s a bit more frightening for a scientist.
As the 2016 London Literature Festival begins, this year exploring the theme ‘Living in Future Times’, science and sci-fi writers, including (left to right) Marcus du Sautoy, Margaret Atwood and Richard Dawkins, share their visions of humanity’s future.