June 01, 2010

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | The Undiscovered Country

It’s hard enough to predict the challenges we’ll face in 20 years, let alone to guess the solutions. The only thing we know for sure is that science can deliver.

By Wilson da Silva

NIELS BOHR WAS a Danish physicist who made fundamental contributions to our understanding of atomic structure and quantum mechanics, eventually earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics. He also had a dry wit: “Prediction is very difficult,” he once said, “especially about the future.”

Yet, predicting the future wasn’t a problem for most of human history: 100,000 years ago, life in the savannahs of Africa didn’t change much from century to century. In Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece and even the Middle Ages, life was largely unchanging, occasionally upset by war, the toppling of a monarch or pestilence and natural disaster.

It’s only since the Industrial Revolution that the future has been highly unpredictable. The march of science and technology has a way of tripping us up, surprising us, and changing our societies before our very eyes.

In October 2009, I was at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, where I heard an interesting talk by Mike Lazaridis. Now, Lazaridis is an intriguing guy: a successful entrepreneur who understands the power of science. He co-founded Research In Motion – makers of the BlackBerry empire – and donated $150 million to establish Perimeter so it could focus on fundamental challenges in physics – stuff that has no clear application today, but might in the future.

He asked us to think of the world in 1901. The scientific community was in crisis: experiments were not matching theory, and physicists were scratching their heads.

Meanwhile, the business community was in crisis: transport of produce and freight was reliant on horses, which couldn’t be bred fast enough. Governments had serious congestion on city roads, and the enviroment was suffering – there were fears New York would be buried under horse droppings as traffic grew exponentially.

Imagine a young physicist such as Albert Einstein asking for a grant in 1901 to study physics. His needs are an office, a blackboard, a shelf for books and papers, a small stipend to travel to scientific conferences and maybe a few postdoctoral researchers. A funding agency tasked with growing the economy or dealing with the day’s problems might well have asked, “What’s this got to do with horses?”

As we know, Einstein had to get a day job at the Swiss patent office. A few years later, working on his own time, he came up with some of the most important scientific papers of all time. 

“Ideas that transformed everything we knew and put mankind in a new direction,” Lazaridis told his audience. “He came up with one of the basic ideas leading to quantum technology when he predicted the quantum properties of light, explaining an observation called the photoelectric effect. He came up with special relativity, a new understanding of space and time. 

“He also discovered that mass and energy are the same thing at a fundamental level. These discoveries, over time, led to nuclear energy, semiconductors, computers, lasers, medical imaging, DVDs and much more.

“Now let’s fast forward to today,” Lazaridis continued. “We’re running out of energy ... and the energy sources we have today are changing our climate and the environment catastrophically and irreparably. We only have to flashback to that gentleman thinking about light to realise that we need to fund our scientists and our researchers and our students.

“We not only need to fund them imaginatively, we need to have faith that what they are doing is going to be important in 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now, and that we haven’t got a chance of understanding its relevance today.”

Many distinguished thinkers have cast their minds forward 20 years to imagine the kind of world we might live in. Some have been prescient, most have not. 

What’s clear is that the first few decades of the 21st century are bound to be as interesting – and probably as transformational – as those of the 20th century. Science is accelerating, and we are likely to cross a number of milestones in the next 20-30 years: from computing and nanotechnology to communications and biotechnology, there’s a good chance that game changers will spring up and surprise everyone.

In Hamlet’s soliloquy, William Shakespeare calls the death, “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”. The future is a similarly uncharted terrain – not one from which ‘no traveller returns’ but one we can never journey to – except by the decisions we make to do today, which determines where we’re headed.

Take 20th century: no other in history has been as transformative or as dramatic. Yes, it featured war, social unrest and dramatic political gyrations; but it was also a century of exponential scientific and medical advances that brought staggering benefits to the great bulk of humanity. 

Advances in science and technology extended life-spans, lifted millions out of poverty and brought an unparalleled level of comfort and convenience to wide sections of society. By the end of the 20th century, even the poorest members of modern societies had the kind of life that – a century earlier – only the wealthiest could have enjoyed. 

What will the 21st century be like? We are likely to see similar exponential growth in science, and a continued expansion of its benefits to more and more people on the planet.

But we are also facing a number of constraints to growth. This is not unexpected: as a species, we may have unlimited appetites but we live in a limited world. While our potential may be as boundless as our imagination, our planet does have boundaries – and we’re starting to bump up against them.

In just the next 20 years, according to a growing clutch of experts, we are likely to strike several bottlenecks. These will be partly triggered by population growth, and partly by increased wealth: as people become wealthier, they want more cars, more meat, and things like air conditioning and plasma televisions.

This means we’ll need more energy, more food, more water – and demand a bigger environmental footprint per person. These simultaneous peaks of energy consumption and population will come at a time when climate change – partly triggered by this success – is expected to have very negative impacts on society. 

But the next 20 years are also likely to see great scientific and technological breakthroughs that could produce solutions to these problems, and which may fundamentally drive the future of humanity into the next century – from nanotechnology and biotechnology to computing, communications and energy. 

This collision of tipping points is likely to be a milestone in the history of human civilisation. How we navigate the shoals ahead, what investments we make in science and what technologies we utilise may well determine the future for centuries, ensuring human civilisation not only survives, but thrives.

Our visions of the future – benevolent or dystopian – become reality through our choices. Let’s make the right ones.