Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and posting her thoughts on the Nature news blog every Tuesday between now and the prize ceremony on 17 November.
Humankind’s view of the future has changed throughout the ages. As we have learned more about the depths of our past, our ability to peer further has improved: with a knowledge of deep time and past changes has come a greater awareness of future possibilities. The scientific and industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century not only sped up progress, but also gave us the tools to imagine how our world could be different, rather than the repeating seasonal cycles to which we’d previously been limited. So argues Jon Turney in the early chapters of The Rough Guide to the Future.
Once he has laid out how humans have viewed the future in our history, and come to terms with various models for prediction and the growing numbers of think tanks that try to do it, Turney sets out what makes a successful prediction alongside some — sometimes unsuccessful — predictions from the past. One of the strengths of this book is that it teaches us how to evaluate future visions before putting them in front of us.
Jon Turney believes that distant ‘futurecasting’ is difficult — although he does go on to suggest possibilities himself. It is easier to imagine a near future, improved by technology that we already know, and this is where this book is most rewarding.
These chapters cover science, population, climate and energy — all topics that will be familiar to the reader. Whether his focus is prioritizing energy efficiency or computer scientist Gordon Moore of Moore’s law fame — who predicted in 2005 that transistors as small as atoms could exist in the next 10 to 20 years — the breadth of research and ideas is awe-inspiring. Later prediction, though important, is less certain, rather like a weather forecast that will be far more reliable for the next 24 hours than for the next 6 days.
The pages are punctuated with explanatory boxes for ideas and predictions from futurologists, scientists and other experts who tell us their highest hopes, their worst fears and their best bets for what will actually occur.
Although The Rough Guide to the Future seems dense — and it was certainly a challenge to try to tackle it in a week — Turney’s tone is light. He advises readers keen on predicting to do so often and to let their predictions go easily. As Umberto Eco advised: “Never fall in love with your own airship.” Indeed, Turney says in his introduction, “I meant what I said when writing them, but whether I still agree with all my ideas now is another matter. The future is a moving boundary.”
Previously on Ruth’s Reviews