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I recently picked up a popular science book, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. The title caught my eye, and the subhead—“Science slightly over the edge”—sold me. I’d never heard of it, but as I skimmed I saw a well-loved little book, published in 1990. I mentioned this acquisition to a friend and she asked me why on science’s sweet Earth would I want to read a popular science book from the 90s? So much has changed since then, she said. Besides, there are a million and one popular science books from last year alone waiting to be read. I was reminded of the quote by playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton that advises: In science, read by preference the newest works; in literature, the oldest.
This got me thinking – how long is the shelf-life of a popular science book? Does the accelerating rate of change in science mean that popular science books are destined for an accelerated obsolescence?
This question suddenly seemed to become much more relevant with Stephen Hawking’s recent announcement that black holes may not be entirely what we thought them to be. Hawking’s latest paper allows that the event horizon—the boundary in black holes beyond which no light or information can escape—in all likelihood does not exist. He went on to say: “the absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes – in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity” (though black holes do exist in the sense that the event horizon can be replaced with what Hawking terms an “apparent horizon,” which does allow for light and information to escape, albeit in a highly scrambled form). Hawking’s announcement, if proven true in the course of time, allows us to witness major scientific change before our very eyes. But where on the knowledge path does one return when scientific principles taken for granted are retracted or modified or scrapped altogether? If we are to believe that science is only going to keep changing at an accelerating rate, we’ll need a place to go back to, to see where it all started, where the change began.
That’s where books like Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, quirky title and all, come in.
Great Mambo Chicken highlights some of the wacky, futuristic science that was going on in the late 1980s. This includes cryogenics, nanotechnology and space tourism. The author, Ed Regis, has an eye for the zany, emphasizing stories like the missing head and ensuing legal controversy of Dora Kent, one of cryonic’s first test subjects, or an experiment testing the effects on humans if they lived in G-forces stronger than those on Earth—except the experiment tested it on chickens and ended up creating a breed of high-G super-chickens (the ‘great mambo chicken’). But many of the topics Regis covers, while new back then, are well-known to us now. Nanotechnology, space tourism and even cryogenics are no longer unknown fringe sciences but growing fields that are gaining publicity by the day as celebrities jump on various tech-wagons: Simon Cowell has declared his intent to freeze his body when he dies, and Leonardo diCaprio is one of many famous names that have signed up for Virgin Galactic’s planned 2014 suborbital journey.
Yet Great Mambo Chicken shows its age in relation to the Internet, which was only fully commercialized about five years after the publication of the book, and has changed considerably since. Regis explains the concept of downloading as “a computer science term for taking information out of one computer and transferring it into another,” a term unfamiliar to readers in the nineties but now so commonplace as to make a definition superfluous. How relevant is a book once the terms and concepts it describes enter the mainstream and are no longer new, or even accurate?
Though some would argue that older books of science have an expiration date for everyone but historians, I believe well-written older science books can have new and different purposes. They illustrate how far we have travelled, and also how much farther we still have to go.
We may have come far enough that the concept of downloading is commonplace, but in the other fields of science that Regis documents, fantasy remains much further along than reality. The state of cryogenics is much the same as it was for Ed Regis in 1991. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation is still the world’s most advanced cryonics organization, and many scientists still regard the whole enterprise with skepticism, especially since no method has been found to revive patients that have been frozen. Plus, the procedure is still just as expensive as always. Nanotechnology, the field which many hoped would bring immortality to humankind with the invention of cell-sized medic-robots, has still not advanced much beyond winning Feynman’s Encyclopedia-Brittanica-on-the-head-of-a-pin bet in the 1980s. Space tourism has not seen much progress in light of the wild expectations after the Moon landing and the recent loss of the shuttle program. Since Great Mambo Chicken was published, these fields, which once sounded like science fiction, have found some validation. But they still haven’t moved much beyond the literary genre. Understanding these fields of science becomes much easier when we see what the expectations were with their inception, and whether those expectations were, or ever could be, met.
Older popular science books provide insight into science-in-the-making. Before a science gets bogged down by politics and public discourse and ideology, we can see scientific propositions in their purer form. These books give voice to scientists other than those known by their celebrity status, people who would otherwise be lost to history. We can read about the men and women who didn’t make it to space, like Dan Correa, who signed up to be the first private astronaut but couldn’t come up with $100,000 through his tortilla steamer business to get there; and the dreamers whose dreams never made it off the ground, like Dave Criswell, who thought about how we might dismantle the Sun and use it as an energy source.
Showing that science can be controversial allows for an understanding that science is not the final authority on fact and that it is very much a social activity open to challenge and ongoing contribution, beyond just science’s ‘great men.’ People don’t usually understand general scientific and technological concepts through scientific papers or snippets from headlines. It’s from popular science books. The appeal of these books lies in the fact that they make no attempt to hide the humanity of science behind objectivity. They fully allow the foibles and hubris of these people to shine through the hypotheses and data.
The great thing about science is that it always finds new ways to be relevant, which is good news for older popular science books. Great Mambo Chicken devotes a lot of attention to transhumanism, the idea that, with the right science, human limitations (on intelligence, on physical capabilities, on death) can be relegated to the past. We could create a post-biological man, a creature that would still be fundamentally human, just better. In every way. We could download our brains into computers, connect those computers to each other, and create a vast network of human consciousness that could transcend time and space. This stuff really does sound like it belongs firmly in the pages of an Asimov novel, but this is being talked about, seriously, even today. In 2011, Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov created the 2045 Initiative, which says that there is no reason we couldn’t just upload ourselves to a “non-biological carrier,” essentially making us immortal and free from the constraints of our fleshy and prone-to-decay meat vessels. Spike Jonze’s new film Her touches on many of these themes in a way that makes it not only seem highly likely, but almost inevitable.
Science-in-the-making is fascinating; it gives the opportunity to predict what science is still in the germinating phase, and what will resurrect its wacky head in years to come—will we ever have the technology to thaw out the 200-some people frozen in the basement of Alcor? Will we ever be able to merge every human memory together to create a world-wide super-consciousness? When we encounter new changes in scientific fields, whether they are the possibilities of artificial intelligence or the changing definition of a black hole, it’s important to know the methodological journey of its progress. Books like Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition are the stones marking the path that got us here.
Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw is a freelance journalist and writer passionate about science journalism, wildlife, space exploration and finding photos of pugs on the Internet. You can find her on Twitter @lilcadieuxshaw