Ben Bova: Scientific knowledge the cornerstone to the future


Saturday, July 18, 2009

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed in six impossible things before breakfast,” says the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

We all tend to fantasize now and then and to hope that something which is impossible might just somehow become real. Over the centuries people have tried prayers, lucky charms, incantations, even offered their souls to the devil to obtain the impossible thing that they so dearly want.

And over the centuries, science had been the best and surest route to make the impossible come true. From making leprosy no longer fearsome to allowing us to travel across the world in jet planes that go much faster then seven-league boots, scientific research has made the impossible become not only possible, but commonplace.

So here are six things that are impossible by what we know today, but which just might become realities in the foreseeable future.

Invisibility. Think of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man or crime-fighting Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow. It would be great to be able to make yourself invisible, but it’s simply not possible.

Or is it? Stealth technology can make airplanes and ships virtually invisible to radar, but they can still be seen visually; that’s why they operate at night.

True invisibility is still beyond us, but scientists are learning how to make objects less and less see-able. Last year a research team at Duke University showed (pardon the pun) a device that can make an object invisible in microwave wavelengths. Most radars operate in the microwave range.

The device bends microwaves so that they flow around the object being cloaked. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a step toward true invisibility.

Earlier, researchers at the A. James Clark School of Engineering in Maryland showed a similar device that bends visible light around an object. Again, it only works under certain laboratory conditions, but it might one day make true invisibility possible.

Anti-gravity. Benjamin Franklin predicted that one day we might be able to “deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity, for the sake of easy transport.” We aren’t able to push a button and have a heavy object become weightless, but we do have engines that do the work of countering gravity for us so that we can whisk along highways, soar across continents and oceans, and even fly into outer space.

In orbit, where the pull of Earth’s gravity is matched by a satellite’s orbital velocity, astronauts experience weightlessness. Commercial rocket companies are on the verge of offering that thrill to paying customers. Anti-gravity of a sort.

Telepathy. Direct mind-to-mind communications is still impossible, as are its corollaries of mind control over matter. We still can’t move objects by merely thinking about it, we need physical tools.

We do communicate virtually instantly all over the globe. Not by telepathy, but by telephone, radio and television. With cells phones and satellite links we can Twitter and Facebook everywhere, even in dictatorial societies that don’t want the outside world to see what they’re doing. Think Iran, for example.

Human flight. Who hasn’t dreamed of flying like a bird, propelled only by one’s own muscle power? That seems quite impossible on Earth, so we build machines to carry us aloft.

But on the Moon, where the gravity is only one-sixth of Earth’s, human muscle power will be enough to let us fly unaided by machines. Build a dome on the Moon and fill it was air at normal pressure. Attach a set of plastic wings to your arms and start flapping. You’ll be able to fly like a bird!

Immortality. The average life expectancy for Americans is already beyond the Bible’s “three score years and ten.” And it’s growing. Insurance actuaries tell us that a baby born in the U.S. can have a life expectancy of more than 100!

That’s a far cry from immortality, but it’s heading in the right direction. While no one has yet lived beyond 120, that will change as scientific understanding of disease, genetics, and the causes of aging will extend our life spans more and more.

The longer you live, the more new biomedical knowledge will be gained, which will allow you to live still longer. And you will live not as a decrepit physical wreck, but as a vigorous and healthy individual.

Some religiously-inclined people worry that extending our life spans, reaching for immortality, is somehow contrary to God’s will. They apparently feel that without the fear of death, and the judgment that will fall upon us for all eternity after death, human beings cannot or will not be righteous, “God fearing” citizens.

Phooey. If you need the fear of hell to make you behave, how good are you? Blessed are they who live good lives because it’s the right way to live, not because they fear eternal damnation.

Six impossible things. Each of them will be quite a bit less than impossible in the foreseeable future. And that is they one thing they have in common?

Knowledge. Scientific knowledge that strives to understand how the world works, and then allows us to build the tools that can bring the impossible into the realm of everyday reality.

For we are a tool-making species. Technology is the way we cope with the environment around us. Maybe if we thought ferociously hard about it, we could develop mental telepathy or learn to use mystic forces to make ourselves invisible. But it’s easier to build tools to do it. Science-based technology is our survival kit.

Francis Bacon, one of the founders of the scientific method, said it best some four hundred years ago:

“We are not to imagine or suppose, but to discover, what Nature does or may be made to do.”

Think about that. Once we understand how nature works, we can shape those forces to our bidding. That’s how we make the impossible possible.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including The Immortality Factor, his latest novel. Dr. Bova’s Web site address is