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The Visioneers

The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

W. Patrick McCray
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    The Visioneers
    Book Description:

    In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity's expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, turned his attention to the molecular world as the place where society's future needs could be met using self-replicating nanoscale machines. These modern utopians predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds, undertook atomic-scale engineering, and, if truly successful, overcame their own biological limits.The Visioneerstells the story of how these scientists and the communities they fostered imagined, designed, and popularized speculative technologies such as space colonies and nanotechnologies.

    Patrick McCray traces how these visioneers blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future. He shows how they built networks that communicated their ideas to writers, politicians, and corporate leaders. But the visioneers were not immune to failure--or to the lures of profit, celebrity, and hype. O'Neill and Drexler faced difficulty funding their work and overcoming colleagues' skepticism, and saw their ideas co-opted and transformed by Timothy Leary, the scriptwriters ofStar Trek, and many others. Ultimately, both men struggled to overcome stigma and ostracism as they tried to unshackle their visioneering from pejorative labels like "fringe" and "pseudoscience."

    The Visioneersprovides a balanced look at the successes and pitfalls they encountered. The book exposes the dangers of promotion--oversimplification, misuse, and misunderstanding--that can plague exploratory science. But above all, it highlights the importance of radical new ideas that inspire us to support cutting-edge research into tomorrow's technologies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4468-5
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    W. Patrick McCray
  5. INTRODUCTION: Visioneering Technological Futures
    (pp. 1-19)

    On August 11, 1977, some 1,100 invited guests trekked to the old Museum of Science and Industry in downtown Los Angeles and celebrated California’s first Space Day. Space exploration was big news that summer. At theaters all across the United States,Star Warswas raking in millions of dollars as fans queued to see the epic space opera over and over. The upsurge of excitement about space wasn’t limited to just the silver screen. Out in California’s Mojave Desert, engineers were readying the space shuttleEnterprisefor its first solo atmospheric flight. NASA had high hopes that America’s human spaceflight...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Utopia or Oblivion for Spaceship Earth?
    (pp. 20-39)

    When the Club of Rome releasedThe Limits to Growthin 1972, it came as the culmination of growing ambivalence, confusion, and pessimism about the future and technology’s place in it. In the United States, Americans’ reluctant recognition that the planet had finite resources, coupled with fears of uncontrolled consumption and population growth, profoundly shaped this pessimistic context. The roots of this anxiety went deep, though, and tapped reservoirs of anger as well.

    In 1964, Mario Savio, a leader in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, exhorted students to throw their bodies onto the “Machine” as...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Inspiration of Limits
    (pp. 40-72)

    In 1969, as autumn approached, Gerard O’Neill was preparing to teach Princeton University’s introductory physics class. The school catalog’s description—“a course in general physics offering good school preparation . . . two lectures with demonstration experiments . . . Mr. O’Neill”—wasn’t terribly inspiring for the scientist, however.¹ As he made his syllabus, O’Neill decided he wanted to take a different approach to the topic. Campus attitudes, he observed, reflected widespread “disenchantment with the sciences” and a “revulsion against authority and against technology.” Even his best students seemed defensive and worried about being “accused by their colleagues of being...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Building Castles in the Sky
    (pp. 73-112)

    While searching through papers related to Gerard O’Neill’s career, I found an intriguing photograph. Taken on January 25, 1978, it shows O’Neill testifying before a congressional committee. Books and articles outlining his visioneering ideas are stacked in front of him. O’Neill himself looks distracted or perhaps just tired. He had been traveling a great deal to promote his ideas. Seated next to him is Barbara Marx Hubbard, a wealthy social activist and space enthusiast who advocated what she called humanity’s “conscious evolution.” Behind O’Neill, his eyes turned toward someone in the gallery, is Eric Drexler. When the photo was taken,...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Omnificent
    (pp. 113-145)

    Bob Guccione always said he never wanted to be a pornographer. It was just a way to pay for his first love, art. Nonetheless, his Xrated publications made him splendidly rich. Presented asPlayboy’sraunchier cousin, Guccione’sPenthouse, with its muckraking journalism and images that left nothing to the imagination, enticed millions of readers each month. The fortune Guccione amassed allowed him to buy a giant Romanesque townhouse in Manhattan and fill it with artworks by Degas, Picasso, El Greco, and other masters.

    A flamboyant Sicilian-American, Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione was born in Brooklyn in 1930 and raised...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Could Small Be Beautiful?
    (pp. 146-182)

    Nanotechnology did not appear ex nihilo. Even if one could point to a single entity that encapsulates such a sprawling technological, scientific, and economic enterprise, nanotechnology is far too complex for one research discipline, let alone one person, to lay claim to it. But Eric Drexler and a cohort of like-minded technology enthusiasts did help createsomethingnew and exciting.

    As the excitement of the space program waned, new technological frontiers were found not beyond our planet but with the manipulation of matter at the smallest scales. Instead of imagining a future that started with settlements floating in the inky...

  11. CHAPTER 6 California Dreaming
    (pp. 183-221)

    Only a few years after nanotechnology had blossomed into a global research initiative that consumed billions of government and corporate dollars, one well-placed observer claimed the field, if indeed nanotechnology could be delimited to such a thing, was experiencing an “existential crisis.”¹ But how could the “brave and wondrous new world” of nanotechnology already be in such a perilous state?²

    One answer was that nanotechnologywasn’tnew. Quite the opposite. Despite the oft-used revolutionary rhetoric, its foundations were rooted in Cold War–era microelectronics and molecular biology. Scientists like von Hippel and Feynman proposed a future in which precise manipulation...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Confirmation, Benediction, and Inquisition
    (pp. 222-257)

    Outside the Oval Office, it was a cold, sunny afternoon in early December 2003. Inside, George W. Bush sat behind a desk constructed from timbers salvaged from the nineteenth-century Arctic exploration shipHMS Resolute. As cameras clicked, Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. It authorized the government to spend nearly $4 billion over the next five years so America would “lead the world at the new frontier of the nanotechnology revolution.”¹

    Bush’s signature continued the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a program started three years earlier under the Clinton administration. The effort was managed by an ensemble of...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Visioneering’s Value
    (pp. 258-276)

    Over the years, Ed Regis wrote a great many things, including two books about nanotechnology in general and Eric Drexler specifically. In 2004, the science writer authored one more piece. Compared with the protagonist of his earlier work, the person Regis presented was hardly recognizable. Drexler’s “salt-and-pepper beard and hunched posture” made him “look older than his 49 years.” “Never a rich man,” Drexler was now “barely solvent” after his divorce from Christine Peterson and living in a “modest apartment.” He spoke in “apocalyptic terms.” And he was angry. “I never expected that a bunch of researchers would pick up...

  14. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 277-280)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 281-324)
  16. Index
    (pp. 325-351)