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Choreographers of Matter, Life, and Intelligence
"There are three great themes in science in the twentieth century--the atom, the computer, and the gene."
--Harold Varmus, NIH Director
"Prediction is very hard, especially when it's about the future."
Three centuries ago, Isaac Newton wrote: ". . . to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on a seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." When Newton surveyed the vast ocean of truth which lay before him, the laws of nature were shrouded in an impenetrable veil of mystery, awe, and superstition. Science as we know it did not exist.
Life in Newton's time was short, cruel, and brutish. People were illiterate for the most part, never owned a book or entered a classroom, and rarely ventured beyond several miles of their birthplace. During the day, they toiled at backbreaking work in the fields under a merciless sun. At night, there was usually no entertainment or relief to comfort them except the empty sounds of the night. Most people knew firsthand the gnawing pain of hunger and chronic, debilitating disease. Most people would live not much longer than age thirty, and would see many of their ten or so children die in infancy.
But the few wondrous shells and pebbles picked up by Newton and other scientists on the seashore helped to trigger a marvelous chain of events. A profound transformation occurred in human society. With Newton's mechanics came powerful machines, and eventually the steam engine, the motive force which reshaped the world by overturning agrarian society, spawning factories and stimulating commerce, unleashing the industrial revolution, and opening up entire continents with the railroad.
By the nineteenth century, a period of intense scientific discovery was well underway. Remarkable advances in science and medicine helped to lift people out of wretched poverty and ignorance, enrich their lives, empower them with knowledge, open their eyes to new worlds, and eventually unleash complex forces which would topple the feudal dynasties, fiefdoms, and empires of Europe.
By the end of the twentieth century, science had reached the end of an era, unlocking the secrets of the atom, unraveling the molecule of life, and creating the electronic computer. With these three fundamental discoveries, triggered by the quantum revolution, the DNA revolution, and the computer revolution, the basic laws of matter, life, and computation were, in the main, finally solved.
That epic phase of science is now drawing to a close; one era is ending and another is only beginning.
This book is about this new dynamic era of science and technology which is now unfolding before our eyes. It focuses on science in the next 100 years, and beyond. The next era of science promises to be an even deeper, more thoroughgoing, more penetrating one than the last.
Clearly, we are on the threshold of yet another revolution. Human knowledge is doubling every ten years. In the past decade, more scientific knowledge has been created than in all of human history. Computer power is doubling every eighteen months. The Internet is doubling every year. The number of DNA sequences we can analyze is doubling every two years. Almost daily, the headlines herald new advances in computers, telecommunications, biotechnology, and space exploration. In the wake of this technological upheaval, entire industries and lifestyles are being overturned, only to give rise to entirely new ones. But these rapid, bewildering changes are not just quantitative. They mark the birth pangs of a new era.
Today, we are again like children walking on the seashore. But the ocean that Newton knew as a boy has largely disappeared. Before us lies a new ocean, the ocean of endless scientific possibilities and applications, giving us the potential for the first time to manipulate and mold these forces of Nature to our wishes.
For most of human history, we could only watch, like bystanders, the beautiful dance of Nature. But today, we are on the cusp of an epochmaking transition, from being passive observers of Nature to being active choreographers of Nature. It is this tenet that forms the central message of Visions. The era now unfolding makes this one of the most exciting times to be alive, allowing us to reap the fruits of the last 2,000 years of science. The Age of Discovery in science is coming to a close, opening up an Age of Mastery.
Emerging Consensus Among Scientists
What will the future look like? Science fiction writers have sometimes made preposterous predictions about the decades ahead, from vacationing on Mars to banishing all diseases. And even in the popular press, all too often an eccentric social critic's individual prejudices are substituted for the consensus within the scientific community. (ln 1996, for example, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to life in the next 100 years. Journalists, sociologists, writers, fashion designers, artists, and philosophers all submitted their thoughts. Remarkably, not a single scientist was consulted.)
The point here is that predictions about the future made by professional scientists tend to be based much more substantially on the realities of scientific knowledge than those made by social critics, or even those by scientists of the past whose predictions were made before the fundamental scientific laws were completely known.
It is, I think, an important distinction between Visions, which concerns an emerging consensus among the scientists themselves, and the predictions in the popular press made almost exclusively by writers, journalists, sociologists, science fiction writers, and others who are consumers of technology, rather than by those who have helped to shape and create it. (One is reminded of the prediction made by Admiral William Leahy to President Truman in 1945: "That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. . . . The [atomic] bomb will never go off, and I will speak as an expert in explosives." The admiral, like many "futurists" today, was substituting his own prejudices for the consensus of physicists working on the bomb.)
As a research physicist, I believe that physicists have been particularly successful at predicting the broad outlines of the future. Professionally, I work in one of the most fundamental areas of physics, the quest to complete Einstein's dream of a "theory of everything." As a result, I am constantly reminded of the ways in which quantum physics touches many of the key discoveries that shaped the twentieth century.
In the past, the track record of physicists has been formidable: we have been intimately involved with introducing a host of pivotal inventions (TV, radio, radar, X-rays, the transistor, the computer, the laser, the atomic bomb), decoding the DNA molecule, opening new dimensions in probing the body with PET, MRI, and CAT scans, and even designing the Internet and the World Wide Web. Physicists are by no means seers who can foretell the future (and we certainly haven't been spared our share of silly predictions!). Nonetheless, it is true that some of the shrewd observations and penetrating insights of leading physicists in the history of science have opened up entirely new fields.
There undoubtedly will be some astonishing surprises, twists of fate, and embarrassing gaps in this vision of the future: I will almost inevitably overlook some important inventions and discoveries of the twenty-first century. But by focusing on the interrelations between the three great scientific revolutions, and by consulting with the scientists who are actively bringing about this revolution and examining their discoveries, it is my hope that we can see the direction of science in the future with considerable insight and accuracy.
Over the past ten years, while working on this book, I have had the rare privilege of interviewing over 150 scientists, including a good many Nobel Laureates, in part during the course of preparing a weekly national science radio program and producing science commentaries.
These are the scientists who are tirelessly working in the trenches, who are laying the foundations of the twenty-first century, many of whom are opening up new avenues and vistas for scientific discovery. In these interviews, as well as through my own work and research, I was able to go back over the vast panorama of science laid out before me and draw from a wide variety of expertise and knowledge. These scientists have graciously opened their offices and their laboratories and shared their most intimate scientific ideas with me. In this book, I've tried to return the favor by capturing the raw excitement and vitality of their scientific discoveries, for it is essential to instill the romance and excitement of science in the general public, especially the young, if democracy is to remain a vibrant and resonating force in an increasingly technological and bewildering world.
The fact is that there is a rough consensus emerging among those engaged in research about how the future will evolve. Because the laws behind the quantum theory, computers, and molecular biology are now well established, it is possible for scientists to generally predict the paths of scientific progress in the future. This is the central reason why the predictions made here, I feel, are more accurate than those of the past.
What is emerging is the following.
The Three Pillars of Science
Matter. Life. The Mind.
These three elements form the pillars of modern science. Historians will most likely record that the crowning achievement of twentieth-century science was unraveling the basic components underlying these three pillars, culminating in the splitting of the nucleus of the atom, the decoding of the nucleus of the cell, and the development of the electronic computer. With our basic understanding of matter and life largely complete, we are witnessing the close of one of the great chapters in the history of science. (This does not mean that all the laws of these three pillars are completely known, only the most fundamental. For example, although the laws of electronic computers are well known, only some of the basic laws of artificial intelligence and the brain are known.)
The first of these twentieth-century revolutions was the quantum revolution, the most fundamental of all. It was the quantum revolution that later helped to spawn the two other great scientific revolutions, the biomolecular revolution and the computer revolution.
The Quantum Revolution
Since time immemorial, people have speculated what the world was made of. The Greeks thought that the universe was made of four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. The philosopher Democritus believed that even these could be broken down into smaller units, which he called "atoms." But attempts to explain how atoms could create the vast, wondrous diversity of matter we see in Nature always faltered. Even Newton, who discovered the cosmic laws which guided the motion of planets and moons, was at a loss to explain the bewildering nature of matter.
All this changed in 1925 with the birth of the quantum theory, which has unleashed a thundering tidal wave of scientific discovery that continues to surge unabated to this day. The quantum revolution has now given us an almost complete description of matter, allowing us to describe the seemingly infinite multiplicity of matter we see arrayed around us in terms of a handful of particles, in the same way that a richly decorated tapestry is woven from a few colored strands.
The quantum theory, created by Erwin Schr÷dinger, Werner Heisenberg, and many others, reduced the mystery of matter to a few postulates. First, that energy is not continuous, as the ancients thought, but occurs in discrete bundles, called "quanta." (The photon, for example, is a quantum or packet of light.) Second, that subatomic particles have both particle and wavelike qualities, obeying a well-defined equation, the celebrated Schr÷dinger wave equation, which determines the probability that certain events occur. With this equation, we can mathematically predict the properties of a wide variety of substances before creating them in the laboratory. The culmination of the quantum theory is the Standard Model, which can predict the properties of everything from tiny subatomic quarks to giant supernovas in outer space.
In the twentieth century, the quantum theory has given us the ability to understand the matter we see around us. In the next century, the quantum revolution may open the door to the next step: the ability to manipulate and choreograph new forms of matter, almost at will.
The Computer Revolution
ln the past, computers were mathematical curiosities; they were supremely clumsy, messy contraptions, consisting of a complex mass of gears, levers, and cogs. During World War II, mechanical computers were replaced by vacuum tubes, but they were also monstrous in size, filling up entire rooms with racks of thousands of vacuum tubes.
The turning point came in 1948, when scientists at Bell Laboratories discovered the transistor, which made possible the modern computer. A decade after that, the laser was discovered, which is essential to the Internet and the information highway. Both are quantum mechanical devices.
In the quantum theory, electricity can be understood as the movement of electrons, just as droplets of water can make a river. But one of the surprises of the quantum theory is that there are "bubbles" or "holes" in the current, corresponding to vacancies in electron states, which act as if they are electrons with positive charge. The motion of these currents of both holes and electrons allows transistors to amplify tiny electrical signals, which forms the basis of modern electronics.
Today, tens of millions of transistors can be crammed into an area the size of a fingernail. In the future, our lifestyles will be irrevocably changed when microchips become so plentiful that intelligent systems are dispersed by the millions into all parts of our environment.
In the past, we could only marvel at the precious phenomenon called intelligence; in the future, we will be able to manipulate it according to our wishes.
The Biomolecular Revolution
Historically, many biologists were influenced by the theory of "vitalism"--i.e., that a mysterious "life force" or substance animated living things. This view was challenged when Schr÷dinger, in his 1944 book What Is Life?, dared to claim that life could be explained by a "genetic code" written on the molecules within a cell. It was a bold idea: that the secret of life could be explained by using the quantum theory.
James Watson and Francis Crick, inspired by Schr÷dinger's book, eventually proved his conjecture by using X-ray crystallography. By analyzing the pattern of X-rays scattered off a DNA molecule, they were able to reconstruct the detailed atomic struc
From the Hardcover edition.