Since 1665, the Royal Society has been publishing scientific discoveries and ideas in its Philosophical Transactions . For many years these tended to be long and full of detail, but the appetite for such monographs has waned. Nowadays, the Transactions follow more closely the pattern of other learned journals. As the new millennium approached, more than 50 young scientists were invited to write about their own interests and to look ahead to what the future might have in store. The Royal Society, at any rate its editor Michael Thompson, is well enough satisfied with this first shot to promise similar annual Christmas offerings. And Cambridge University Press (which publishes the Transactions ) has taken 30 of the millennium contributions and presented them, slightly abbreviated, in three paperbacks. The preface implies that the editing was undertaken by the press rather than by the authors themselves, but comparison of some with their originals shows that much has survived without change. There was little mathematical detail in the originals, and in the edited pieces there is even less but the argument hardly suffers; most of the helpful pictures are retained.
Series A of Phil. Trans ., from which the material is taken, is devoted to the physical sciences that include mathematics, engineering, chemistry and applications of physics and chemistry to biology, but not the great growth area of molecular biology. It seems that developments in mathematics are not considered suitable for popular consumption, but what we do get is still wide-ranging, from cosmology and planetary science through some exotic aspects of solid-state physics and chemistry to computer models of the heart and ear, taking in the earth's climate and control of the internet, plus, for good measure, a physicist's meditation on metaphysics.
On the whole, the authors appear to be in control of their imaginations even if, not infrequently, the reader is left gasping for air. The wide range inevitably omits much that is central to cosmology and to laboratory science; conventional metals and other materials, high-temperature superconductors, fluid flow, chaos and critical organisation hardly get a mention.A chemist would have no trouble compiling a similar list of absent friends. The editor need not be at a loss in finding topics for future productions, were it not for the limitations imposed by a policy of choosing young authors largely from the ranks of those who hold, or have held, research fellowships from the Royal Society. These awards understandably reflect research promise rather than the gift of popular exposition.
On this point one must bear in mind that Phil. Trans . is not written to appeal to the general public; on the contrary, it is highly technical and the millennium essays are quite a departure from the norm. The authors can hardly be faulted for assuming their readers to be reasonably familiar with the language of their own trade, and they probably gave little thought to using only terms familiar to scientists of all persuasions. Those habitually at home with the distinction between cancellous bone and periosteum may be, as it were, at sea when faced with the stratification of sedimentary rocks, let alone content to take for granted the cosmological consequences of the difference between spherical and pseudo-spherical space times. Bones and stratification can be acceptably described in words and pictures; general relativity and non-Euclidean geometry need more than this, and are not rendered more transparent by omitting the mathematics. I cannot agree with the publishers in recommending these volumes collectively as "definitive reviews for anyone with a general interest in the future directions of science". Probably no one with a general interest could read and be enlightened by more than a few of the chapters - different chapters for different readers.
To go into more detail, Astronomy and Earth Science immediately challenges the innocent reader who is told, with no further explanation, that "galaxies are not moving away from each other: they are fixed in space, and space is expanding". This may sum up for an expert the principles underlying general relativity, but otherwise it sounds like a clever cocktail-party remark. And what can one make of the bald assertion, "inflation is a way of switching on the cosmological constant, and then letting it decay into ordinary matter. The trick is played by a field, called the inflation field". Skimming airily over abysses of understanding occupies much of the first two chapters and suggests that recent cosmological ideas have not yet been digested into a meal fit for the beaks of fledglings. As we leave the far reaches of the early universe and return home to our solar system, the Moon, the depths of the earth and then its shallows, to finish with the climate and its future development, things became more readily acceptable; there is much of general interest, though none makes easy reading. I was glad to find in chapter nine - "Geophysical and astrophysical vortices" - a straightforward, albeit brief, explanation of the Coriolis force that is responsible for cyclones and anticyclones and for controlling ocean currents, as well as initiating and maintaining the great whirlwind of Jupiter's red spot. The general reader would enjoy more exposition at this level.
Astronomy and Earth Science contains little of technological importance, but Physics and Electronics is naturally dominated by computing and communication, with even a final chapter on control and pricing of the internet. The chapter on magnetic memories is firmly grounded in the work of the pioneering Elizabethan William Gilbert, but does not take long to come round to deploring the limitations of two-dimensional storage (a mere 400 gigabytes to the square inch) and expecting the next century to see three-dimensional storage with millions of gigabytes to the cubic inch. Would William Blake, who thought to see a world in a grain of sand, have relished, like the author, holding the British Library in a lump of sugar?
The ambitions of today's young scientists know no bounds. Huge increases in computer power, resulting from large-scale integration, make them avid for still more; instruments undreamt of 40 years ago - or, if dreamt of, rejected as impossible - have become commonplace and must now give way to the latest and still better. The task of many in the electronics and solid-state field is to overcome the limitations of known materials by developing better alternatives. Their colleagues are breathing down their necks; not just the traditional trend-setters but the previously humble - biologists who want to build a computer model of the heart, and think a 500-fold increase in computing power would make a big difference, or who want to discover how the ear works by finite-element modelling. They look to the still-distant prospect of rapid medical response to acute heart disease, or alleviation of the hardships of deafness. Astrophysicists, on the other hand, seek no public benefit in their quest, and much the same goes for planetary research, though exceptions can be envisaged; an observatory on the far side of the moon would be a marvellous site for low-frequency radio astronomy, but might also serve a more mercantile purpose if combined with exploration and exploitation of its natural resources.
Leaving aside the morality of desecrating the Moon's chastity, we may wonder whether we shall see again, when it is needed, the political spur that drove the competition between the United States and Soviet Russia to invade space, or whether the sheer enthusiasm for knowledge and for technical mastery will be held to justify the cost. It is a different matter for communication and data acquisition encouraged by commercial pressure; and scientists have never been backward in making use of advances that did not originally have their needs in mind. But the abandoning of the gigantic Stennis Space Centre particle accelerator must cast a shadow over the more extreme hopes of these in pure research. Perhaps the age of Big Science as a branch of physics is over, leaving the future in the hands of the molecular biologists and all who follow where they have led into areas of thought whose huge potential exceeds the aspirations of all but the most febrile of visionaries. And that is what one must be to have any expectation of seeing more than a fraction of what these enthusiastic authors have in mind. After the undeniable intellectual effort of reading all three volumes I cannot recommend the same to others; many would, however, enjoy picking out a few sample chapters. Even if you think their optimism unreasonable, you can't deny the excitement the writers feel for what they are doing; and in these secular times such excitement must serve to replace the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom.
Sir Brian Pippard is emeritus professor of physics, University of Cambridge.
Visions of the Future: Chemistry and Life Science; Astronomy and Earth Science; Physics and Electronics
Editor - J. Michael T. Thompson
ISBN - 0 521 80539 2/0 521 80537 6/0 521 80538 4/ 0 471 89954 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £16.95/£17.95/£16.95 £29.95
Pages - 199/237/213/256