Book Review

By I. M. Oderberg

Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, by Michio Kaku, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1997; 403 pages; ISBN 0-385-48498-4, cloth, $24.95.

Professor Michio Kaku presents in this book what he feels is an "authoritative" vision of science and technology in the next hundred years because it is based on research already taking place around the world. His interviews with over 150 key scientists revealed a growing consensus among them about how these fields will likely evolve through the early, middle, and late years of the 21st century. He sees an end to reductionism and the beginning of a synergy among the different scientific fields, resulting in technologies that will revolutionize industry and create in the 22nd century a true planetary civilization -- one that "has mastered all forms of terrestrial energy" -- leading eventually to the exploitation of solar and galactic energy. He holds that

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.
. . .
. . . Before us lies . . . 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 epoch-making 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 Age of Discovery in science is coming to a close, opening up an Age of Mastery. -- pp. 4-5

But would the results of such human mastery of nature be beneficial? Twentieth-century events have proven that humanity cannot be trusted to use constructively the scientific knowledge already acquired concerning the planet's mechanism and energies. Instead of working with nature, we continue to focus on controlling it under the guise of "improving" it, driven by ambition and greed for domination that is more correctly termed a "lust" for power, first over our world and, later, perhaps over the solar system and even beyond. Gone is the "sweet reasonableness" of an Einstein, who saw the complexity and marveled at the vast intelligence the mechanism suggested.

In a certain sense, that remarkable scholar Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the prototype of a modern scientist. He wrote Faust Part 1 about a man who aspired to be as the "gods" and reach into the "cosmic kitchens" where the universal energies are generated and transformed. Only many years later did Goethe publish Part 2 with its Prologue in which Faust is thrown down to earth and, offering help to some passers-by who complained of the decay of their country, succeeds in transmuting himself into an ethical being helping his new associates. When I first read the Prologue, I felt that Goethe believed that many people were not sufficiently geared to the ethical sense -- and it is the ethical sense that humanity today most needs to activate.

We have but to look back upon the appalling events of this century to see the misuse of the type of knowledge leading scientists are laboring to lay before us. Herein lies the danger of the attitudes Dr. Kaku's book embodies. Similar arrogance in the quest for knowledge has occurred before, if we can believe accounts of ancient historians and traditions concerning the fate of great legendary civilizations. The vices of competition and pride brought down past civilizations, no matter how brilliant, and such qualities are gnawing at our civilization, threatening to destroy it. -- I. M. Oderberg

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