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

Overview

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 ...

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

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Overview

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 Visioneers tells 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 of Star 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 Visioneers provides 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his fascinating new book (after 2008’s Keep Watching the Skies!), McCray profiles the larger-than-life characters and ideas that changed science and technology in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. The author describes the titular visioneers as “hybrids”—creative combinations of futurist, scientist, and charismatic promoter. At the center of this story are physicist Gerard O’Neill and biotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler. The former’s rigorously realistic designs for space habitats, along with his optimistic dream of regular humans living and working in space, were a vivid antidote to the “widespread pessimism” surrounding the end of the Vietnam War, growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and environmental concerns. McCray, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, discusses how O’Neill’s vision of space as a tabula rasa for the human race spurred the formation of grassroots groups like the L5 Society and captured the imaginations of many young scientists and engineers like Drexler, as well as influential figures like Stewart Brand and Timothy Leary. Considered together, they “took speculative ideas out of the hands of sci-fi writers” and had an enormous impact on generations of people, science, and political policy. Photos, illus. (Jan. 13)
Nature - Cyrus Mody
McCray focuses on Gerard K. O'Neill, the Princeton physicist and designer of space colonies, and on his protégé, K. Eric Drexler, the 'speculative engineer' trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who helped to put nanotechnology on political agendas in the early 1990s. Along the way, McCray introduces a large and colourful cast of others who, over four decades, promoted technological progress as the way to overcome every limit. . . . McCray's book is especially convincing in following the various movements that arose in reaction to the Club of Rome's 1972 book (The Limits of Growth). . . . McCray's argument that visioneers play an important part in the 'technological ecosystem' is also compelling . . .
ForeWord
The overarching narrative of The Visioneers—that of humankind's struggle against limits real and imagined—is compelling, and no less so because of how effectively it reflects the questions of technology surrounding today's big fears like peak oil and global warming. . . . [The Visioneers] is an extremely edifying and well-researched history. Recommended for technology buffs, doomsayers, and anyone with an interest in the intersection of science, technology, and society.
New Scientist - Simon Ings
[A] thoughtful, meticulous history . . .
Leonardo Journal - Roger F Malina
I recommend McCray's The Visioneers to all readers interested recent history of science in the making and, more generally, in the place of science in society. The marketing of science is entering a new era and many of the visioneers described by McCray may be seen as the first of a wave of new kind of figures in the history of science, both technoscientists and visionary promoters.
Tulsa World - Glenn C. Altschuler
McCray's narrative is often fascinating. He connects interest in space colonies with a pervasive fear in the 1970s that unchecked population growth would precipitate an apocalyptic environmental crisis on Planet Earth.
Leonardo Journal - Roger F. Malina
I recommend McCray's The Visioneers to all readers interested recent history of science in the making and, more generally, in the place of science in society. The marketing of science is entering a new era and many of the visioneers described by McCray may be seen as the first of a wave of new kind of figures in the history of science, both technoscientists and visionary promoters.
Reason - Brian Doherty
Remember the late 20th century? When machines on the moon were spitting 10-pound spoonfuls of soil into orbit every few seconds, as raw material for space colonies and zero-gravity factories? When solar panels in orbit were beaming down the planet's power supply? When we were manufacturing everything we wanted, molecule by molecule, via machines smaller than the smallest objects we previously knew? In The Visioneers, the UC-Santa Barbara historian W. Patrick McCray revisits the birth and growth of those futures—or rather, those concepts of the future, which haven't (yet) come true. . . . [W]ell-detailed . . .
Astronomy Now - Keith Cooper
McCray skilfully weaves a narrative between O'Neill and Drexler in what is a superb and important book.
From the Publisher

Winner of the 2012 Eugene E. Emme Award for Astronautical Literature, American Astronautical Society

"In his fascinating new book, McCray profiles the larger-than-life characters and ideas that changed science and technology in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. The author describes the titular visioneers as 'hybrids'--creative combinations of futurist, scientist, and charismatic promoter. At the center of this story are physicist Gerard O'Neill and biotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler. . . . McCray, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, discusses how O'Neill's vision of space as a tabula rasa for the human race spurred the formation of grassroots groups like the L5 Society and captured the imaginations of many young scientists and engineers like Drexler, as well as influential figures like Stewart Brand and Timothy Leary. Considered together, they 'took speculative ideas out of the hands of sci-fi writers' and had an enormous impact on generations of people, science, and political policy."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"McCray focuses on Gerard K. O'Neill, the Princeton physicist and designer of space colonies, and on his protégé, K. Eric Drexler, the 'speculative engineer' trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who helped to put nanotechnology on political agendas in the early 1990s. Along the way, McCray introduces a large and colourful cast of others who, over four decades, promoted technological progress as the way to overcome every limit. . . . McCray's book is especially convincing in following the various movements that arose in reaction to the Club of Rome's 1972 book (The Limits of Growth). . . . McCray's argument that visioneers play an important part in the 'technological ecosystem' is also compelling . . ."--Cyrus Mody, Nature

"The overarching narrative of The Visioneers--that of humankind's struggle against limits real and imagined--is compelling, and no less so because of how effectively it reflects the questions of technology surrounding today's big fears like peak oil and global warming. . . . [The Visioneers] is an extremely edifying and well-researched history. Recommended for technology buffs, doomsayers, and anyone with an interest in the intersection of science, technology, and society."--ForeWord

"[A] thoughtful, meticulous history . . ."--Simon Ings, New Scientist

"I recommend McCray's The Visioneers to all readers interested recent history of science in the making and, more generally, in the place of science in society. The marketing of science is entering a new era and many of the visioneers described by McCray may be seen as the first of a wave of new kind of figures in the history of science, both technoscientists and visionary promoters."--Roger F Malina, Leonardo Journal

"McCray's narrative is often fascinating. He connects interest in space colonies with a pervasive fear in the 1970s that unchecked population growth would precipitate an apocalyptic environmental crisis on Planet Earth."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World

"Remember the late 20th century? When machines on the moon were spitting 10-pound spoonfuls of soil into orbit every few seconds, as raw material for space colonies and zero-gravity factories? When solar panels in orbit were beaming down the planet's power supply? When we were manufacturing everything we wanted, molecule by molecule, via machines smaller than the smallest objects we previously knew? In The Visioneers, the UC-Santa Barbara historian W. Patrick McCray revisits the birth and growth of those futures--or rather, those concepts of the future, which haven't (yet) come true. . . . [W]ell-detailed . . ."--Brian Doherty, Reason

"[M]cCray focuses on the public relations efforts of [Gerard O'Neil and Eric Drexler] and how their agenda helped shape the national agenda for science and technology research and reveals how these visionaries worked tirelessly to make their dreams a reality. Recommended for readers with an interest in the history of science, especially in the space exploration or nanotechnology fields."--Library Journal

"McCray skilfully weaves a narrative between O'Neill and Drexler in what is a superb and important book."--Keith Cooper, Astronomy Now

Library Journal
The term visioneer, a combination of visionary and engineer, was coined by McCray (history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Keep Watching the Skies!) to describe an individual with an an inquiring mind that is not merely scientific or technical but posed imaginatively toward the future. A key component of visioneers is promoting their dream to others, not just inside but also outside the established research community, envisioning what a field of research could become with proper funding and a focused research agenda. The two primary visioneers examined by McCray are Gerard O'Neil, a prominent Princeton physicist who saw space colonization as an answer to Earth's growing population, and Eric Drexler, who was fascinated by the new field of nanotechnology. Both visioneers brought their ideas to the research community and the public in general. Ultimately, neither field developed the way these men had hoped or intended, yet their labors had a lasting effect that went far beyond their own scientific developments. Rather than covering the history of these two fascinating fields of study, McCray focuses on the public relations efforts of these scientists and how their agenda helped shape the national agenda for science and technology research and reveals how these visionaries worked tirelessly to make their dreams a reality. VERDICT Recommended for readers with an interest in the history of science, especially in the space exploration or nanotechnology fields.—William Baer, Georgia Institute. of Technology Lib., Atlanta
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691139838
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 12/9/2012
  • Pages: 366
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author


W. Patrick McCray is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of "Keep Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age" (Princeton) and "Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology".
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: Visioneering Technological Futures 1
Chapter 1 Utopia or Oblivion for Spaceship Earth? 20
Chapter 2 The Inspiration of Limits 40
Chapter 3 Building Castles in the Sky 73
Chapter 4 Omnificent 113
Chapter 5 Could Small Be Beautiful? 146
Chapter 6 California Dreaming 183
Chapter 7 Confirmation, Benediction, and Inquisition 222
Chapter 8 Visioneering's Value 258
A Note on Sources 277
Notes 281
Index 325
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