Nanotech, terraforming, geoengineering – facts and fictions entangled.

Posted July 26, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: fiction

Tags: , , , , ,

I have, I reckon, a pretty good grip on the distinction between science fiction and reality. I read a lot of non-fiction along with my fiction. Without diverting into epistemology, I see a difference. Also, reading and writing about science for a few decades encourages you to develop a good working bullshit detector.

I am even inclined to react to the common 21st century observation that we now live in a science-fictional reality with the raised eyebrow of a simple soul pedant. If it’s reality, it ain’t fictional.

But working on the current project for NESTA on SF and innovation has brought home more strongly that fact and fiction are deeply interwoven in some areas of science and technology.

The prime exhibit here, I think, is nanotechnology. It is a hard case to analyse clearly because the term is so vague. It is partly an extension of materials science, with finer control over the composition of the product, down to the molecular or even atomic level. It is also a label for a much broader collection of ideas, involving nanometre scale devices – equipped with some power source and computing and communication capacity – which would be able to do many wonderful things. The ostensibly non-fiction accounts of the latter prospectus often draw on science fiction tropes, a habit that extends on occasion to government reports.

These science-fictional roots of the more exotic possibilities of nanotechnology have attracted much attention. Conclusions about their significance differ widely. Some say that nanotechnology concepts are inherently science fictional, and this is a bad thing. Others maintain that it is true but does not matter. Science fiction either helps or hinders funding, confuses or informs policy-makers, inspires support, or raises unrealistic expectations and evokes public fears. Maybe all of these things have been true at some point, I don’t know. But it seems inescapably true that discussion of nanotechnology and its potential has always been a science fiction discourse, even when the point being made is that some claims are “science fiction” and therefore illegitimate. I like Chris Toumey’s formulation here: “Nanotechnology needs a language that describes the future because, no matter how good the science is now, most of the technology is still over the horizon.” That language is inherently science-fictional.

Now I’m wondering whether there is a category of technologies which are inherently science fiction in a similar way. They would need to be things which were realisable in principle (or someone claims are realisable – which is where many of the nano-disputes arise) but not yet achievable in practice. I’d rule out faster than light travel or time travel, as our current scientific understanding doesn’t offer any basis for thinking they will happen. That may change, but for now they are more simply fictional.

A clearer example of what I mean is terraforming. There are reasonable scenarios for how it might be done. We perhaps know enough geophysics and atmospheric chemistry to map routes to altering suitable planets to make them more hospitable than we find them. The topic remains inherently fictional as we do not have any planets to try out these ideas on.

Set dressing the atmosphere processor for Aliens. We may assume the real thing will be larger.

Or do we? Terraforming as an intellectual problem blends seamlessly with geoengineering, which is still imaginary but could become a usefully real prospect before the century is out. We might need to do some terraforming on Earth.

In which case, it is interesting to ask how SF accounts of refashioning other planets might influence ideas about geoengineering. The same authors have certainly touched on both topics. James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, turned to fiction – with co-author Michael Allaby – to describe the terraforming of Mars. Later on, he proposed schemes for geoengineering on Earth to combat the effects of climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy has probably the most detailed account of terraforming, went on to elaborate some geoengineering scenarios in his subsequent near-future Earth trilogy about climate change. Gregory Benford has written both fiction and non-fiction about terraforming, citing Heinlein as an inspiration there, and was an early proponent of geoengineering as a possible response to climate change, in 1997.

Then there are films, which as usual will have been seen by more people. Does that make them more influential? No idea. Terraforming is going on in Aliens (“we call them shake and bake planets”), and we see a vast industrial plant which is the colonists’ “atmosphere processor”, though don’t get any discussion of what it is actually doing. The wondrously silly scene at the end of Total Recall when Mars has its atmosphere reoxygenated in about half a minute also comes to mind, but only as a cheerful trashing of the laws of physics.

It would be interesting, though, to catalogue these and similar depictions and consider what effect they may have had on broader discussion of the merits of geoengineering. Which other examples should go on the list? Matt Williams has an interesting post on this, starting with Olaf Stapledon and working through Arthur Clarke (who turns Phobos into a Sun!) Heinlein, Asimov and Robinson. Any more?


Up and Atom – robots in Japan

Posted June 6, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: fiction, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , ,

While I’m pondering science fiction and technology, and their interaction, one thing which is hard to cover without vast research (and languages I don’t read) is the question of how the influences in either direction might differ between times and places – especially places.

But there is one obvious example where it does seem possible to find reasonably persuasive conclusions. Commentators often say that Japanese attitudes to technology in general are somehow different from those in the West, though usually at the not very interesting level of implying enthusiasm for gadgetry (those elaborate toilets usually get a mention, too). The strongest case, though, seems to apply to one kind of technology, and its fictional representations, in particular: robots.

A tradition of charming automata – related to earlier puppetry, combined with Buddhist and Shinto influences that blur the boundaries between animate and inanimate things, has apparently engendered a largely benign view of robots in Japan. This is reflected in fiction, especially in the two most important creations: Mighty Atom and Mobile Suit Gundam. The first, AKA Astro Boy,  is a super-powered, world-saving, peace-making robot of astounding cutesiness, conceived by Osamu Tezuka in 1951. He looks like this.

The first appearance of Astro Boy

The second, later, label refers to a whole raft of giant weaponised robots, “piloted” by teenagers – who also generally seem to end up saving the world. These anime superstars look more familiar, and less friendly…

Both have inspired big media franchises  – embracing comics, film and TV, toys and kits, and much other merchandise. And both feed into a general enthusiasm for robots and robotics, and research into making new ones.

As one academic engineer put it, “The difference between Mighty Atom and Terminator shows the differences between how Japanese and Westerners view robots. Westerners tend to have this sense of alarm or wariness, Japanese are unique in the world in their unique affinity and love for robots.”

This is an oversimplification, inevitably. Early audiences cheered Arnie’s Terminator, not Sarah Connor. And the print corpus of Western SF, and even film to some extent, includes an enormous range of possible robots, and possible responses to them. Still, there is lots of testimony that many Japanese engineers were enthused by Astro Boy when young, and set out to build something like him when they grew up.

The result is a wonderfully blended culture of research projects, design exercises, hobby clubs, toys, stories, and commercially available bots. Other influences are easily incorporated. ASIMO (which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, of course), has done a thousand corporate stunts, but there is still something touching about the small figure bringing a bouquet to the bust of Karel Capek in Prague.

But there definitely seem to be specifically Japanese influences at work here. The best source I’ve found so far on this is Timothy Hornyak’s Loving the Machine (where the Prague photo appears). There is some useful incidental stuff in Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, too. Any other useful reading would be good to hear about…

The dreams our stuff is made of – Science fiction and future technologies

Posted April 10, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: fiction, futures past


I have a new, and somewhat futuristic project on the go


NESTA have asked for a review and reflection on the role of science fiction in technological innovation. It will be published in the early Autumn alongside a couple of reports on more, ahem, formal futurological methods. I’ll be blogging thoughts about this here as I go.

Now, though, a simple request for help. There’s obviously stuff I need to know about. I can think of lots of different areas to explore – and will of course be doing a (limited) literature review and compiling a bibliography in academic mode.

But there are too many disciplines relevant here for one person to cover. There is also, I suspect, a fair bit of grey literature – some in print and, perhaps, more on the web.

So a little crowdsourcing seems in order. I’d be very grateful for any pointers to relevant items – research, commentary, discussion, etc – which I should ponder. Assume I will revisit the histories of SF and technology, literature on innovation, and journals in (science fiction) literature, science and technology studies and design. But anything outside those areas which I might miss is of interest.

I am particularly interested in:

  • Robots – as a case study
  • Design fiction/interaction design/speculative design
  • Examples from non-Anglophone countries
  • Projects in which tech development organisations (public or private) have dallied with science fiction in various ways.
  • and, to ensure the project is as much fun as I intended when I pitched for it, exemplary fictions!

And the questions in NESTA’s original call were about:

  • The direct impact of science fiction on those undertaking technological development, and the extent to which it has influenced research, product design, or the ambition and direction of innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the demand for innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the social status of innovation
  • The creative processes and techniques that science fiction writers use to imagine and flesh out possible futures.

You might think, at first look, some of these will be easier to tackle than others. Me too…

If anything comes to mind in response to any of the above, do please take a moment to pass it on. If you use the comment space below, others can avoid repeating if they care to read through.


(working already – WordPress’s auto link search just gave me this…)

Are we safe? Maybe, sort of…

Posted March 27, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: extinction, fear of the future, optimism, talks and events

Tags: , ,

“Are we safe?”, I was asked last week. The question was a discussion starter for an enjoyable panel which closed the Oxford Literary Festival’s Saturday afternoon look at science and the future – an event which ranged from cosmology to climate change.

The event was a conversation (with the always apocalyptically cheerful Anders Sandberg and writer Sara Wheeler)– generally a  better way of doing these things than getting panellists to speak separately. But, in the way of conversation, it provoked some second thoughts. So here are a few of the things I said, or thought I might have said, in some sort of order.

Are we safe?

No, of course not. We are mortal. We live in a peculiarly fortunate culture where, for quite long spells, many of us can forget about this. But, in Larkinesque fashion, it is a truth which always comes back.

But what of existential risk – in the sense of threats to the whole of humanity? Individual responses to this tend, in my view, to be determined by a combination of temperament and circumstance.

How so? Well, we are talking about the probability of lots of inevitable individual deaths happening all at once, adding up to the death of a species (ours), or extinction.

We do have some information that bears on that, but not enough to give a very clear answer on how likely it is. So the way we feel about it tends to reflect our intuition about some related questions: is human life fragile or robust, the cosmos friendly or unfriendly, hospitable or inhospitable?

At the moment, we can find reasons for answering that question about equally convincingly either way.

Good things: the constants of the universe are tuned to just the right combination which allows life to exist. (The Goldilocks principle). We seem to live in a cosmos which is disposed to allow the emergence of  complexity – in ever more wondrous forms. In some sense, perhaps, we are meant to be here. In Stuart Kauffman’s phrase, we’re at home in the universe.

Notsogood: one of the main processes which allows that complexity to emerge – natural selection – is rather scary when you look at how it works. I don’t mean Nature red in tooth and claw: evolution has a place for co-operation as well as competition. However, although natural selection sounds neutral, or even benign, the agent of selection is death – of individuals and, on the larger scale, the death of species. Extinction is just what happens to species, in the end. Endurance beyond a few tens of millions of years is very much the exception, and those species that have lasted for a few hundred millions years are heroic survivors. (Afterthought to the afterthought – I wonder if that is true if you include the microbial world, where the concept of species is in any case pretty hard to apply…)

Of course, a species can leave descendents on the path to extinction, as we may do. But in its original form it has still quit the scene. At our current point, where culture – in the shape of technology – is a more powerful evolutionary force than natural selection, that seems an increasingly likely outcome. Whether you terribly much mind that idea depends on whether you think Homo sapiens in our present form are such an adornment to the cosmos we ought to be around for ever, or if it is OK we are just a stage on the way to something else. That something has a post-human form we cannot quite define. But we’ll know it when we see it.

Aside from how evolution actually works, other features of the cosmos suggest that a middle of the road position is justifiable. The universe is more or less hospitable, but risky.

It is interesting to contemplate the latest results on star systems with planets, for example. Amazingly, our observations now have such fine resolution that we can detect planets orbiting distant stars, and not just gas giants but even smaller, possibly Earth-like ones. It looks more and more as if there are an enormous number of solar systems out there, and a heck of a lot of Earth like planets. That surely makes it more likely that there is complex life spread, however thinly, through the galaxy, maybe all galaxies in the observable universe.

Then consider gamma ray bursts. We don’t understand them very well, but we do know by observation that, occasionally, there are absolutely enormous energy releases, with no warning that we know how to register, that rip through large regions of space.

So if life, even intelligent life, is ubiquitous, every now and again one of these gamma bursts takes out a civilization. (Oliver Morton wrote about this eloquently in Prospect a decade or so ago, when the search for extra-solar planets was less well on than it is now.) The universe, if you like, is welcoming to life, then takes random shots at it for sport.

Against that background, the risks we face on Earth at the moment seem relatively manageable. Bad things will happen. Perfectly terrible things may happen, in the future as in the past. A person who predicted that the sky would fall 65 million years ago, before an asteroid impact caused a mass extinction, would have been right. A person who predicted crop failure, pandemic and the death of between a third and a half of the population of Europe in the 14th century would have been right. Those who foresaw a a terrible conflict in Europe in the late 1930s (read Louis MacNiece’s Autumn journal for the atmosphere) were correct.

On the other hand, plenty of possible dire events did not come to pass. No nuclear holocaust (yet). No billions starving before 2000, pace Professor Ehrlich.

So, there will be good and bad. But, assuming gamma ray bursts are not coming our way, the end of humanity is not coming any time soon, probably…

(Thanks to Georgina Ferry for the invitation to Oxford.)

Styling the future

Posted March 4, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: futures past, Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

What does the future look like? Does it matter? A piece of book karma prompts an attempt to amplify a thought I was trying to air last week. Talking to an audience at UCL, including quite a few old friends, I mentioned an idea which has come up here, and in other talks, a few times – that the accumulation of old futures has interesting effects on the way we respond (if we do) to current future talk.

The accumulation is real, and takes various forms – there are quite a few coffee table books. But it is most often encountered, I reckon, in websites, often very nicely curated ones, which feature images and designs from past futures efforts – Worlds Fairs, magazines, comics and so on. As I said on the night, hardly any need to illustrate these. Do a google image search for retrofuture or palaeofuture and you’ll get thousands of them.

Next day I called in on my favourite London odds and ends bookshop, Judd Street Books (don’t look there, incidentally, it’s in Marchmont Street). More or less the first title I set eyes on on the front table was this.

It is a beautifully crafted graphic novel, only published in 2009, which I unaccountably missed when it came out. The narrative is a little didactic, but the imagery covers much of the history of decayed futurity, and comments on it perceptively. There’s a clever, and also nicely realised, interwoven narrative of a made-up comic book which enriches the author’s take on the feelings which were in play in all the episodes he depicts so well, from the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – which I talk about as well – to the final Apollo moon landing in 1975.

I won’t summarise it, as plenty of others have – here and here for example.

But what I like about it is that it takes such trouble to go beyond the images. The very interesting discussion after the talk moved a few times to talk about imagery and design like this and how they get used now. And it seemed to me, though I didn’t formulate the thought clearly at the time, that this is part of the problem. The images are so easy to come by that folks get caught up in talking about the look and style of the future.

I love looking at these pix, but I don’t actually care what the future looks like, or much about changing fashions in futuristic design. What matters is surely how the future might feel, what past futures tales tell us about that and, if we can fathom them, what the mentalities of times past made of their imagined futures.

This book makes a good stab at representing that, going beyond and reworking the images. It has affinities with David Gelernter’s splendid but quirky Lost World of the Fair, but is more accessible. It is well worth getting hold of as a discussion starter.

Incidentally, and back to images again, the notes to the other book point to a fascinating compilation of visitor shot cine of the World’s Fair, at

like this 

Science fiction, science future – London panel, March 1st

Posted February 22, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: talks and events

I’m kicking off a discussion in London next week on science, futures and all that.

Especially pleased to be doing this one as it arises from the university department I once headed (before I ran away to be an irresponsible freelance) selecting Rough Guide to the Future as their “one book” – which is assigned reading for all incoming students this session.

Guess that means that I will be in the unusual position of talking with people who have mostly read the book…   Should make for some hard questions. UCL have put together an interesting panel, too (one of whom edited a scholarly book on SF). And there is free wine for those who stay the course, courtesy of the rather wonderful Grant Museum. Which is nice.



Date: 1 March | Time: 6pm | Location: JZ Young Theatre, Anatomy Building, University College London, Gower Street, WC1E 6BT | Price: Free – there is no need to book | Age group: Adults |

Everyone worries about the future. What’s going to happen? What can we do about it? In his Rough Guide to the Future, Jon Turney explores past, present, and future approaches to the “what’s next?” His guide was short-listed for the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Join us for an evening of conversation with the author and an expert panel of science historians and scientists who also study future-ology. Bring along your ideas about how we might best think about the future.
The panel consists of:
• Dr Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future
• Dr James Kneale, UCL Department of Geography
• Mr Mat Paskins, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies
• Dr Jon Agar, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies, chair

Following the event join us for a free glass of wine in a private view of the Museum.

 020 3108 2052 |

p.s look out for Jon Agar’s positively heroic history of science in the twentieth century and beyond, published imminently.

A date for the Diary – Uncertain futures at Oxford Lit fest

Posted January 13, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: talks and events

Science and the Future – Uncertain Futures

2:00pm | Saturday 24 March

Tickets: Duration: Venue:
£47 Half Day Merton College: TS Eliot Theatre
 (looking forward to this – programme has just been confirmed. I’ll be pitching in for the last bit: are we safe? With Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Stott…)

Introduced by Dr Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford

For the second year the festival is devoting a whole afternoon to a series of panel discussions around a common scientific theme. The umbrella title for these themed afternoons is Science and the Future. The theme for 2012 is Uncertain Futures.

We still have much to learn about the nature of the Universe. And we continually set ourselves new questions about the impact that technology and social change will make on ourselves and on our environment. Through three panel discussions, this seminar will explore the question of how we deal with uncertainty in science.

The afternoon is chaired by science writer and author Georgina Ferry and has been developed in partnership with the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School, which supports 30 interdisciplinary research teams tackling global challenges, and with Science Oxford Live.

The programme is designed to offer a more in-depth review of key issues and the opportunity to meet and talk with speakers both over tea and at an evening drinks reception.

2.10 – 3.10pm
Into the unknown

As our tools for studying the Universe get bigger and more expensive, the questions that still need answering become ever more intractable. Will the latest experiments find the answers? Or will there just be more questions? And does it matter?

Professor Frank Close, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, author ofThe Infinity Puzzle, the story of the search for the elusive Higgs particle; Joanna Dunkley, lecturer in astrophysics, University of Oxford, researching the nature of dark matter and dark energy – without which the Universe would collapse, but which have never been seen; and William Hartston, chess columnist and writer of the Daily Express ‘Beachcomber’ column, and author of The Things Nobody Knows: 501 Mysteries of Life, the Universe and Everything.

3.10 – 3.45pm Tea

3.45 – 4.45pm
Working with Uncertainty

Quantum physics and climate prediction are two areas of science particularly burdened with uncertainty. But can we use our understanding of that uncertainty for practical ends?

John Gribbin, science writer and author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat andErwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, a new biography of one of the fathers of quantum theory; and Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, and co-director of the programme on modelling and predicting climate at the Oxford Martin School. A further speaker is to be confirmed.

5– 6pm
Are we safe (and do we need to be)?

Technology is changing our world at a breathless pace. How important is it to assess its risks accurately? And is there a place for risk in both artistic and scientific creativity?

Anders Sandberg, research fellow in the Future of Humanity Institute at the Oxford Martin School, working on social and ethical issues surrounding new technology; Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future, shortlisted for the 2011 Royal Society Science Books Prize; and Rebecca Stott, novelist and teacher of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, author ofGhostwalk and The Coral Thief.

6.00 – 6.30pm Drinks reception.

Science and the Future is presented in partnership with the Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford and Science Oxford