The Future of Science by Ben Bova


The Future of Science:

Prometheus, Apollo,


Where is science heading? Is it taking us on a one-way ride to oblivion, or leading the human spirit upward to the stars? Science fiction writers have been predicting both, for centuries.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided,” Patrick Henry said, “and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

Look at the past, at the way science and technology have affected the human race. Look far back. Picture all of humanity from the earliest Homo erectus of a half-million years ago as a single human being. Now picture science as a genie that will grant that person the traditional three wishes of every good fable.

We have already used up one of those wishes. We are working on the second one of them now. And the future of humankind, the difference between oblivion and infinity, lies in our choice of the third wish.

Our three wishes can be given classical names: Prometheus, Apollo, and Athena.


Long before there was science, perhaps even before there was speech, our primitive ancestors discovered technology. Modern man thinks of technology as the stepson of scientific research, but that is only a very recent reversal of a half-million-year-long situation. Technology-toolmaking-came first. Science understanding-came a long time later.

Look at the Prometheus legend. It speaks the truth as clearly as any modern science fiction story. It speaks of the first of our three wishes.

Prometheus brought the gift of fire. He saw from his Olympian height that man was a weak, cold, hungry, miserable creature, little better than the animals of the fields. At enormous cost to himself, Prometheus stole fire from the heavens and gave it to man. With fire, man became almost godlike in his domination of all the rest of the world.

Like most myths, the legend of the fire-bringer is fantastic in detail and absolutely correct in spirit. Anthropologists who have sifted through the fossil remains of early man have drawn a picture that is much less romantic, yet startlingly close to the essence of the Prometheus legend.

The first evidence of man’s use of fire dates back some half million years. The hero of the story is hardly godlike in appearance. He is Homo erectus, an ancestor of ours who lived in Africa, Asia, and possibly Europe during the warm millennia between the second and third glaciations of the Ice Age. Homo erectus was scarcely five feet tall. His skull was rather halfway between the shape of an ape’s and our own. His brain case was only two-thirds of our size. But his body was fully human: he walked erect and had human, grasping hands.

And he was dying. The titanic climate shifts of the Ice Age caused drought even in tropical Africa, his most likely home territory. Forests dwindled. Anthropologists have found many H. erectus skulls scratched by leopard’s teeth. Our ancestors were not well equipped to protect themselves. Picture Moon Watcher and his tribe from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001.

It was a gift from the skies that saved Homo erectus from oblivion. Not an extraterrestrial visitor, but a blast of lightning that set a bush afire. An especially curious and courageous member of the erectus clan overcame his very natural fear to reach out for the bright warm promise of the flames. No telling how many times our ancestors got nothing for their curiosity and courage except a set of burnt fingers and a yowl of pain. But eventually they learned to handle fire safely, and to use it.

With fire, humankind’s technology was born.

Fire, the gift of Prometheus, satisfied our first wish, which was: Feed me, warm me, protect me.

Fire not only frightened away the night-stalking beasts and gave our ancestors a source of warmth, it helped to change the very shape of their faces and their society.

Homo erectus was the world’s first cook. He used fire to cook the food that had always been eaten raw previously. Cooked food is softer and juicier than raw food. Cooking cuts down greatly on the amount of chewing that must be done. Our ancestors found that they could spend less time actually eating and have more time available for hunting or traveling or making better spear points.

More important, the apelike muzzle of Homo erectus, with its powerful jaw muscles, was no longer needed. Faces became more human. The brain case grew as the jaw shortened. No one can definitely say that these two face changes are related. But they happened at the same time. The apelike face of the early hominids changed into the present small-jawed, big domed head of Homo sapiens sapiens.

Beyond that, fire was the first source of energy for any animal outside its own muscles. Fire liberated us

from physical labor and unleashed forces that have made us masters of the world. Fire is the basis of all technology. Without fire we would have no metals, no steam, no electricity, no books, no cities, no agriculture, nothing that we would recognize as civilization.

The gift of Prometheus satisfied our first wish. It has fed us, kept us warm, protected us from our enemies. Too well. It has led to the development of a technology that is now itself a threat to our survival on this planet.

The price Prometheus paid for giving fire to us was to be chained eternally to a rock and suffer daily torture. Again, the myth is truer than it sounds. The technology that we have developed over the past half-million years is gutting the Earth. Forests have been stripped away, mountains leveled, our air and water fouled with the wastes of modern industry.

For our first wish, the wish that Prometheus answered, was actually: Feed me, warm me, protect me, regardless of the consequences. Our leopard-stalked ancestors gave no thought to the air pollution arising from their primitive fires. And our waist coated entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution did not care if their factories turned the millstream into an open sewer.

But today, when the air we breathe can kill us and the water is often unfit to drink, we care deeply about the consequences of technology.

The gift of Prometheus was a first-generation technology. It bought the survival of the human race at the price of eventual ecological danger. Now we seek a second-generation technology, one that can give us all the benefits of Prometheus’s gift without the harmful by-products.

This is our second wish. We have already asked it, and if it is truly answered, it will be answered by Apollo.

The sun god. The symbol of brilliance and clarity and music and poetry. The beautiful one.

* * *


Although our first-generation technology predated actual science by some half-million years, the second generation technology of Apollo cannot come about without the deep understandings that only science can bring us. To go beyond the ills of first-generation technology, we must turn to science, to the quality of mind that sees beyond the immediate and makes the desire to know, to understand, the central theme of human activity.

Science is something very new in human history. As new, actually, as the founding of America. In- the year 1620, when the Puritans were stepping on Plymouth Rock, Francis Bacon published the book that signaled the opening of the scientific age: Novum Organum.

Men had pursued a quest for knowledge for ages before that date. Ancients had mapped the heavens, tribal ` shamans had started the study of medicine, mystics had developed some rudimentary understandings of the human mind, philosophers had argued about causes and origins. But it was not until the first few decades of the seventeenth century that the deliberate, organized method of thinking that we now call science was created.

It was in those decades, some 350 years ago, that Galileo began settling arguments about physical phenomena by setting up experiments and measuring the results. Kepler was deducing the laws that govern planetary motion. Bacon was writing about a new method of thinking and investigating the secrets of nature: the technique of inductive reasoning, a technique that requires a careful interplay of observation, measurement, and logic.

Bacon’s landmark book, Novum Organum, was written and titled in reaction to Aristotle’s De Organum, written some fifteen hundred years earlier as a summarization of all that was known about the physi

cal universe. For fifteen hundred years, Aristotle’s word was the last one on any subject dealing with “natural philosophy,” or what we today call the physical sciences. For fifteen hundred years it was blindly accepted that a heavy body falls faster than a light one, that the Earth is the center of the universe, that the heart is the seat of human emotion. (And when have you seen a Valentine card bearing a picture of the brain or an adrenal gland?)

For fifteen hundred years, human knowledge and understanding advanced so little that the peasant of Aristotle’s day and that of Bacon’s would scarcely seem different to each other. This was not due to a Dark Age that blotted out ancient knowledge and prevented progress. For this fifteen-hundred-year stasis affected not only Europe, but the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Americas as well.

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