Science: The Coming Century

Fifty years ago no one could confidently have predicted the geopolitical landscape of today. And scientific forecasting is just as hazardous. Three of today’s most remarkable technologies had their gestation in the 1950s. But nobody could then have guessed how pervasively they would shape our lives. It was in 1958 that Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductors built the first integrated circuit—the precursor of today’s ubiquitous silicon chips, each containing literally billions of microscopic circuit elements. This was perhaps the most transformative single invention of the past century. A second technology with huge potential began in Cambridge in the 1950s, when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the bedrock mechanism of heredity—the famous double helix. This discovery launched the science of molecular biology, opening exciting prospects in genomics and synthetic biology.

And it’s just over fifty years since the launch of Sputnik. This event started the “space race,” and led President Kennedy to inaugurate the program to land men on the moon. Kennedy’s prime motive was of course superpower rivalry—cynics could deride it as a stunt. But it was an extraordinary technical triumph—especially as NASA’s total computing power then was far less than that of a single mobile phone today. And it had an inspirational aspect too: it offered a new perspective on our planet. Distant images of earth—its delicate biosphere of clouds, land, and oceans contrasting with the sterile moonscape where the astronauts left their footprints—have, ever since the 1960s, been iconic for environmentalists.

To young people today, however, this is ancient history: they know that the Americans went to the moon, just as they know the Egyptians built pyramids, but the motives for these two enterprises may seem equally baffling. There was no real follow-up after Apollo: there is no practical or scientific motive adequate to justify the huge expense of NASA-style manned spaceflight, and it has lost its glamour. But unmanned space technology has flourished, giving us GPS, global communications, environmental monitoring, and other everyday benefits, as well as an immense scientific yield. But of course there is a dark side. Its initial motivation was to provide missiles to carry nuclear weapons. And those weapons were themselves the outcome of a huge enterprise, the Manhattan Project, that was even more intense and focused than the Apollo program.

Soon after World War II, some physicists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project founded a journal called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, aimed at promoting arms control. The logo on the Bulletin ‘s cover is a clock, the closeness of whose hands to midnight indicates the Editorial Board’s judgment on how precarious the world situation is. Every year or two, the minute hand is shifted, either forward or backward.

It was closest to midnight at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Robert MacNamara spoke frankly about that episode in Errol Morris’s documentary Fog of War. He said that “we came within a hairbreadth of nuclear war without realizing it. It’s…

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