Thinking big

Peter Campbell

  • Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis
    Viking, 308 pp, £16.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 670 83855 1

Great ideas share skulls with foolish thoughts. Nonsense runs with greatness, like vermin in a zoo, and no intellectual pesticide can guarantee to kill it and leave truth alive. Common sense has a particularly bad track record as a check on what is possible. So Newton, who dabbled in alchemy, would understand the characters in Ed Regis’s history of fin-de-siècle scientific hubris – subtitled ‘Science Slightly over the Edge’, it tells stories, mainly from the Seventies and Eighties, of some of the wilder projects of scientists, engineers and DIY enthusiasts. Once you start thinking on a really big scale there is no simple way of of separating the reasonable from the silly. Today’s impossibilities (immortality, travelling to the ends of the galaxy, mining the Sun, building living organisms from scratch) seem only a step or two away from a project like getting a man on the Moon. And that, only yesterday, was said by Astronomers Royal and leader writers on the New York Times to be, demonstrably, not on. Why should one be talked down from one’s tree by the kind of people who made that booboo?

Regis’s cast includes visionary scientists, Science Fiction writers, Nobel Prize-winners, boffins, rocket engineers and plain nutters. Many of them have doubled up on those categories and all tend to be practical as well as clever. They admit no necessary divide between literary and scientific imagination and are keen to move from story to theory, theory to tinkering in the garage, and from tinkering to the stars. When you start to make even small moves of a practical nature the fun starts. Take the case of Dora Kent’s head.

Way back in 1968 her son Saul had been involved in cryonics – the preservation of dead bodies by freezing. This gave an interim ‘yes, but’ answer to the question ‘need I die?’ Stored in a stainless steel container of liquid nitrogen, having been suitably drained and cleaned up as soon as heartbeat and breathing stopped, your body, your cryonicist promises, will be available for later repair, rejuvenation, and fun. If you are only interested in what you have in your head, you can have the cheaper head-only freeze ($35,000 as against $100,000). Repair? Yes, we are told, a real possibility. Consider, for example, Eric Drexler’s tiny single-cell-scale self-replicating machines, the ultimate end of ‘nanotechnology’. These would be ideal for sorting through frost-bitten cells, molecule by molecule, putting them back into working order, and, maybe, adding new ones to make a new body (age of your choice) as well. Not available yet, but, as Hans Morvec, director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory of the Carnegie-Mellon University, put it, ‘it requires only a moderately liberal extrapolation of present technical trends to admit the future possibility of reversing the effects of particular diseases, of ageing, and of death as currently defined.’ With ideas like that around why let ashes go to ashes? If you can keep yourself together long enough there may be a whole new world awaiting you.

So when Dora Kent died in 1987 she was given the treatment – head only in her case. Unfortunately the operatives who decided she was dead were not licensed physicians. With the head safely in the ‘cephalarium vault’ (frozen-head store) the body was sent off for cremation. Then the ambiguities about ‘dead’ and ‘alive’ came home to roost. The crematorium couldn’t get a death certificate and the county coroner turned up to take away the body. A few days later Saul Kent was facing a homicide charge. Nothing has come of it, and it looks as though nothing will, but it shows how, when you mix visionary engineering with the commonplaces of everyday life, misunderstandings are bound to occur. Bob Ettinger, who published the first book about cryonics in 1964, remembers a prospective customer who, given a glowing account of how she and her husband would be resurrected together, said: ‘In that case count me out. I don’t want him when I’m thawed, I want 500 years of free love.’

Another strand in the immortality story begins with the premise that you are what you remember. If the body and brain are the hardware of a biological computer it ought to follow that the real road to immortality is via some kind of electronic connection which will ‘download’ the information content of your brain onto a less fragile storage medium. This, too, raises logical, not to mention ethical, problems, and Regis tracks some of the debates. What kind of freedom would you have? Are simulated pleasures (of sex, or listening to Bach, or eating a walnut) the same as real ones? If so, in what sense of ‘same’? Does consciousness arise as a by-product of data density? Or is it more intimately connected with your physical existence than the self-as-information model allows? Moravec, an advocate of non-biological life, is accused of ‘uterus envy’: he says all he wants to do is anticipate evolution. Why, he asks, should he not be praised for wanting to build his own children when women are admired for their maternal feelings. It all may seem a bit child-like, not to say childish.

On the other hand, the child-like simplicity of the engineer, who, having examined the human personality, decides that we would evolve more successfully in hardware than in the jelly-and-water bio-machines which chance and the evolutionary ratchet have provided us with, is the simplicity which has had such spectacular successes in challenging the limits of existing technology. In 1959, long before he had won his Nobel Prize, Richard Feynman encouraged people to think small by offering a couple of prizes of his own: $1000 dollars for an electric motor which would fit into a cube with 1/64 of an inch sides, and another $1000 for a page of text 1/250,000th of its normal size, in a form readable by electron microscope. The first $1000 was picked up within a few months. Worried about his bank balance, Feynman issued a statement. ‘This, then, is a public appeal to all inventors who are now at work trying to write small and collect the Second Feynman Prize – TAKE YOUR TIME! WORK SLOWLY! RELAX!’

It was not until 1985 that someone got round to writing the first page of A Tale of Two Cities to the required scale. Then things speeded up. In April 1990 two IBM researchers used a scanning tunnelling microscope to spell out the company’s logo in 35 atoms of xenon, and a picture of a one-atom switch appeared on the cover of Nature only the other day. These results give practical support to the ideas of theoretical nanotechnologists. What is possible in principle is pretty often practically possible as well, and Regis’s book is studded with reports of back-of-envelope calculations which use simple arithmetic to take the first steps towards taming the frontiers of time and space. Freeman Dyson’s calculations about enclosing the Solar system in a huge sphere made by spreading Jupiter out very thin were themselves the answer to other calculations about the limits the size of Earth puts on population and resources. These calculations about space, time and natural forces bring to mind the computations about how much material would be needed to initiate a nuclear explosion, or, more chillingly, the odds against the first of those explosions setting the atmosphere alight, which sent a shudder down the spine of anyone who thought there could be no bad outcome from innocent wonderment. Arithmetic lets you get down to the details. How much would a private space flight cost, how much information is there in your head, how long would it take a body to re-grow, how long would it take life to colonise the furthest reaches of the universe, how long have we before the universe cools down, or before the last proton decays? All these begin to seem not so different from calculations about how many gallons of fuel are needed to get your car from A to B.

Despite the sums, the costings and the pilot projects, Regis’s book is mainly about hopes which have faded. He sifts ashes to find what is left of ideas which flared brightly when fuelled by mid-century discoveries and achievements, and burnt low or petered out when there was no money left to throw on the fire. His epilogue brings some of his stories up to date. Bob Truax, who, after years as a professional rocket engineer, set up on his own with the aim of providing private space travel, sold his Volksrocket X-3 to the US Navy for $750,000 in 1987. Less of a windfall than you might think – it had involved years of work – but satisfying to get a reasonable price for an item which included Atlas engines, the product of millions of dollars of government research money, which Truax had bought from a government scrapyard for $25 apiece. Off-the-shelf space launches never took off; the search for a vehicle to propel Evel Knievel over the Snake River Canyon had furnished a sideshow – and Knievel was making noises about getting his son up there defying death – but Truax has lost interest in that kind of thing. ‘They always want to do it on a cheapo basis – you know, nickel and dime you to death.’ As for the private astronaut project: ‘The Navy’s not interested in it and neither is anyone else at the moment. No one who has any money anyway.’ The robot-makers bring their newest toys to the robotics fairs, but progress is slow. Computers are getting bigger and better, but as no one has even made a workable translation machine yet, it seems a bit early to hand over the future of the human race to them.

Great Mambo Chicken (the title refers to an experiment: flocks of chickens were kept in a centrifuge where, in an environment of 2½G, they became ‘paragons of brute strength and endurance ... When the accelerator was turned off, out walked ... Great Mambo Chicken!’) is very funny, and wonderfully illuminating about the nuttiness of science and scientists. It celebrates the kind of mad galaxy-is-no-limit planning and done-in-the-garage ingenuity which in the days of the Whole Earth Catalog seemed to be democratising technology and de-institutionalising science. In the end, the Californian garage-based activity which had the greatest impact was the development of the micro-computer. This put more processing power at the command of a copy typist than was available to the makers of the first atomic bomb; sitting in front of one’s word-processor, one must be grateful.

The mind-freezers, rocket-makers, robot-lovers and space colonisers Ed Regis celebrates with loving, sometimes respectful, sometimes gleeful mockery misjudged the technological trajectory. The present decade does not look like being the best of times for ludic enterprises. It is the turn of common sense to call the shots. Perhaps that is why this account of people whose idea of a really good time was recreational explosions (pour a drum of propane down an empty mine-shaft, throw in a light and run for it), who signed up for a party of revived bodies in the distant future, who did not flinch when a 1012 or 10−12 turned up in the measurements, is strangely stirring.