Daedalus: Or, Science and the Future | Vol. 2 / No. 41.4

Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On this #ThrowbackThursday, I share one of my favourite historical science books: J. B. S. Haldane’s Daedalus, or, Science and the Future.

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When I was in undergrad, one of the colleges at my university had an annual book sale. Now, I’m a used-book scrounger and irrational lover of old dusty books at the best of times; it’s no small coincidence that I find myself today working in a rare book library while I toil away on my dissertation. And this book sale was like catnip to me — hidden among the used textbooks and dog-eared copies of Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were occasional treasures. One year I picked up a red leatherbound copy of Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden from the turn of the century. The next I managed a quite different find.

Daedalus, or, Science and the Future is an edited and published version of a series of papers given around 1923 by J. B. S. Haldane, a polymath, evolutionary biologist, mathematician, atheist, socialist (and more!) from the first half of the twentieth century, who Arthur C. Clarke apparently once called “perhaps the most brilliant science populariser of his generation.” Think Bill Nye in the 1920s. For all that the book gets wrong, and there are certainly things here and there, much of what he sees in the future is astoundingly accurate (if, perhaps, his estimates of timing were little off), and his insights are also often quite funny, to boot. While I can’t recommend strongly enough reading the full transcription here when you get a chance, it’s a bit long for a blog post.

So instead, I’ll cut and paste three different passages from Daedalus. The first predicts the future of power generation in England; the second reflects on our reactions to new technologies; the third, our reactions to new knowledge. The first, I think we will reach ahead of his schedule — but then, how could he have known about climate change in 1923? The second I chose simply because I’ve felt the same way about drinking milk (you’ll see). The third, well, I think he was a little optimistic about the acceptance of Darwin’s ideas, but even so it was remarkably prescient in its own way.

Read on and enjoy a little bit of the history of the future.

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Ultimately we shall have to tap those intermittent but inexhaustible sources of power, the wind and the sunlight. The problem is simply one of storing their energy in a form as convenient as coal or petrol. If a windmill in one’s back garden could produce a hundredweight of coal daily (and it can produce its equivalent in energy), our coalmines would be shut down to-morrow. Even to-morrow a cheap, foolproof, and durable storage battery may be invented, which will enable us to transform the intermittent energy of the wind into continuous electric power… 

Personally, I think that four hundred years hence the power question in England may be solved somewhat as follows: The country will be covered with rows of metallic windmills working electric motors which in their turn supply current at a very high voltage to great electric mains. At suitable distances, there will be great power stations where during windy weather the surplus power will be used for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen. These gasses will be liquefied, and stored in vast vacuum jacketed reservoirs, probably sunk in the ground. If these reservoirs are sufficiently large, the loss of liquid due to leakage inwards of heat will not be great; thus the proportion evaporating daily from a reservoir 100 yards square by 60 feet deep would not be 1/1000 of that lost from a tank measuring two feet each way. In times of calm, the gasses will be recombined in explosion motors working dynamos which produce electrical energy once more, or more probably in oxidation cells. Liquid hydrogen is weight for weight the most efficient known method of storing energy, as it gives about three times as much heat per pound as petrol. On the other hand it is very light, and bulk for bulk has only one third of the efficiency of petrol. This will not, however, detract from its use in aeroplanes, where weight is more important than bulk. These huge reservoirs of liquified gasses will enable wind energy to be stored, so that it can be expended for industry, transportation, heating and lighting, as desired. The initial costs will be very considerable, but the running expenses less than those of our present system. Among its more obvious advantages will be the fact that energy will be as cheap in one part of the country as another, so that industry will be greatly decentralized; and that no smoke or ash will be produced.

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The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural…

Consider so simple and time-honored a process as the milking of a cow. The milk which should have been an intimate and almost sacramental bond between mother and child is elicited by the deft fingers of a milk-maid, and drunk, cooked, or even allowed to rot into cheese. We have only to imagine ourselves as drinking any of its other secretions, in order to realise the radical indecency of our relation to the cow.

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Darwin’s results are beginning to be appreciated, with alarming effects on certain types of religion, those of Weismann and Mendel will be digested in the course of the present century, and are going to affect political and philosophical theories almost equally profoundly. I need hardly say that these latter results deal with the question of reproduction and heredity. We may expect, moreover, as time goes on, that a series of shocks of the type of Darwinism will be given to established opinions on all sorts of subjects. One cannot suggest in detail what these shocks will be, but since the opinions on which they will impinge are deep-seated and irrational, they will come upon us and our descendants with the same air of presumption and indecency with which the view that we are descended from monkeys came to our grandfathers. But owing to man’s fortunate capacity for thinking in watertight (or rather idea-tight) compartments, they will probably not have immediate and disruptive effects upon society any more than Darwinism had.

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Richard Ford Burley is a writer, library worker, and doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s studying remix culture and the processes that generate texts. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and the history of the future) here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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