2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

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Theoretical Physicist; Aix-Marseille University, in the Centre de Physique Théorique, Marseille, France; Author, The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy
AND IF THE BIG CHANGE DIDN'T ARRIVE?

I grew up expecting that, when adult, I'd travel to Mars. I expected cancer and the flu—and all illnesses—to be cured, robots taking care of labor, the biochemistry of life fully unraveled, the possibility of recreating damaged organs in every hospital, the nations of the Earth living prosperously in peace thanks to new technology, and physics having understood the center of a black hole. I expected great changes, that did not came. Let's be open minded: it is still possible for them to come. It is possible for unexpected advances to change everything—it has happened in the past. But—let's indeed be open minded—it is also possible that big changes would not come.

Maybe I am biased by my own research field, theoretical physics. I grew up in awe for the physics of the second half of the XIX century and the first third of the XX century. What a marvel! The discovery of the electromagnetic field and waves, understanding thermodynamics with probability, special relativity, quantum mechanics, general relativity... Curved spacetimes, probability waves and black holes. What a feast! The world transforming every 10 years under our eyes; reality becoming more subtle, more beautiful. Seeing new worlds. I got into theoretical physics. What has happened big in the last 30 years? We are not sure. Perhaps not much. Big dreams, like string theory and multi-universes, but are they credible? We do not know. Perhaps the same passion that charmed me towards the future has driven large chunks of today's research into useless dead-end dreams. Maybe not. Maybe we are really understanding what happened before the Big Bang (a "Big Bounce"?) and what takes place deep down at the Planck scale ("loops"? space and time loosing their meaning?). Let's be open to the possibility we are getting there—let's work hard to get there. But let's also be ready to recognize that perhaps we are not there. Perhaps our dreams are just that: dreams. Too often I have been hearing that somebody is "on the brink of" the great leap ahead. I now tend to get asleep when I hear "on the brink of". In physics it is 15 years that I hear that we are "on the brink of observing supersymmetry". Please weak me up when we are actually there.

I do not want to sound pessimistic. I just want to put a word of caution in. Maybe what really changes everything is not something that sounds so glamourous. What did really change everything in the past? Here are two examples. Until no more than a couple of centuries ago, 95% of humanity worked the countryside as peasants. That is, humanity needed the labour of 95 out of 100 of its members just to feed the group. This left happy few for doing everything else. Today only a few percent of the humans work the fields. A few are enough to feed everybody else. This means that the large majority of us, including me and most probably you, my reader, are free to do something else, participating in constructing the world we inhabit, a better one, perhaps. What made such a huge change in our lives possible? Mostly, just one technological tool: the tractor. The humble rural machine has changed our life perhaps more than the wheel or electricity. Another example? Hygiene. Our life expectancy has nearly doubled from little more than washing hands and taking showers. Change comes often from where it is not expected. The famous note from the IBM top management at the beginning of the computer history estimated that: "there is no market for more than a few dozens of computers in the world".

So, what is my moral? Making predictions is difficult, of course, especially about the future. It is good to dream about big changes, actively seek them and be open minded to them. Otherwise we are stuck here. But let us not get blinded by hopes. Dreams and hopes of humanity sometimes succeed, sometime fail big. The century just ended has shown us momentous examples of both. The Edge question is about what will change everything, which I'll see in my lifetime: and if the answer was: "nothing"? Are we able to discern hype from substance? Dolly may be scientifically important, but I tend to see it just as a funny-born twin-sister: she hasn't changed much in my life, yet. Will she really?