Science fiction writers who thrived in the postwar years, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, promised a bright technological future. Much of what they imagined has come true, from powerful pocket phones and a global library to synthetic foods and self-driving cars. “The Jetsons”, created in 1962, portrays a futuristic life of extraordinary ease. George Jetson’s flying car folded into his briefcase, while his job at Spacely Space Sprockets was mostly to rest his feet on his desk while the machines did the work.
The question for J. Storrs Hall is why some of these visions came to fruition but not others. Air travel remains a tedious task of getting to the airport, getting on a plane, and then driving to the final destination. Space travel languished for decades until a recent private sector boom. And the way we produce, transmit and use energy remains archaic.
Mr. Hall is a researcher at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and associate editor of the International Journal of Nanotechnology and Molecular Computation. “Where’s my flying car?” Is a beautifully crafted hardcover book published by Stripe Press, owned by Stripe, the hugely successful payment infrastructure company. The press publishes “ideas for progress”, and Stripe is to be applauded for relying on old-fashioned printing to disseminate ideas. The combination of Mr. Hall and Stripe makes this an unusual type of book – argumentative, vulgar, and technical but ultimately inspiring.
Mr Hall is focusing on three scientific breakthroughs that he says are within reach but remain unfinished: flying cars, nanotechnology and cold fusion. “The reason we don’t have flying cars today is not technological feasibility,” he writes. “We have had the means to build, manufacture and improve flying cars for almost a century. ”
Likewise, physicist Richard Feynman gave a lecture in 1959 entitled “There’s a lot of room at the bottom”, in which he described a feasible route from large-scale manufacturing to nanoscale manufacturing. Such a change, he said, would allow us to make ever smaller sets of tools to make ever smaller products. The path was followed intermittently by a few brave men. Had this been pursued more rigorously, argues Mr. Hall, “all the physical paraphernalia of The Jetsons the world would be here now. “The same thing happened with cold fusion, which promised huge gains in terms of energy use and efficiency but was never seriously implemented.
The author gives several reasons for this discouraging phenomenon. The first is the “Machiavelli effect”. In “The Prince” Machiavelli wrote that innovators are opposed by “all those who have done well under the old conditions”. In scientific research, the academy tends to be full of people who have done well under old conditions and hate new things. They are protected by a centralized funding system that rewards incumbents and “makes it easier for executives, cliques and politicians to take control of an area.” These established actors “are resistant to new, external, non-Ptolemaic ideas. The ivory tower has a moat full of crocodiles.
There is also what Mr. Hall calls “failures of the nerve” and “failures of the imagination”. Nerve failures happen when the facts are out and the challenge is clear, but somehow an experiment risks giving a result that seems strange: a flying machine, a rocket, factories of the pin size. Failures of the imagination occur when we assume we know everything and exclude the vast possibilities of the unknown. Without accepting the limits of our knowledge, we will never exceed them.
Where is my flying car?
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Mr. Hall also blames a culture of fear of work that had been fostered since the 1960s, when Americans became so complacent about meeting their basic needs that they began to denigrate the value of technological progress. He argues that environmentalism has “essentially supplanted Christianity as the default religion of Western civilization, especially in academic circles,” and has “developed into an apocalyptic, climate change-centric nature cult. “. Skeptics are treated like heretics, an attitude that has frozen science.
Another major obstacle to innovation has been regulation. The increase in product liability in the 1970s essentially killed the manufacture of private planes. Even as accident rates declined, product liability costs increased, limiting business growth and eliminating the possibility of cars being stolen. Mr Hall quotes Wilbur Wright, who said that “if you are looking for perfect security you would do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds”. If the Wright Brothers had dealt with today’s Washington, DC, they probably never would have approached the improbable.
Flying cars, nanotechnology and cold fusion, argues Mr Hall, would together erase “neurotic pessimism from our current culture.” He imagines nanotechnological engines in light planes, propelled by an abundance of hydrogen, soaring silently in the air. These planes would cross the sky, freeing the planet for more interesting uses than highways and parking lots.
With state-of-the-art manufacturing, we could dig vast trenches of earth under the oceans and stack them in new islands, all accessible by flying car. “What I would really love to do,” he writes, “is float over the ocean about 3,000 feet in an open-deck airship, mai tai in hand, watching the clouds. Endless fascinating, spectacular sunsets, while being swept from island to island by the trade winds.
Philosophically, Mr. Hall believes that we are limited by a zero-sum worldview, where we fight against each other for finite resources and reject any expansion of the possible. He’s thirsty for a world of dynamism and increased productivity, one of the “makers instead of takers” in which “anyone can afford a million dollar flying car and vacation around. rings of Saturn “. At this time of physical and psychological stress, it is difficult not to get carried away.
Mr. Delves Broughton is the author of “The Art of Selling: Learning From The Masters About The Business Of Life”.
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