Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Science Writing About the Future

I’ve been on a kick lately to get away from the constant doomsday prophecies of the news, towards maybe a not-as-shitty-as-we-think view of the future.

I’m not a full-fledged futurist who believes the world is moving towards some utopian state, though. As with all things, I expect our real future will fall somewhere in the middle of our fears and dreams. A future that’s not quite a hell-barren apocalypse and not quite the singularity that is spoken of with a near-religious fervor.

If you similarly want to find some of that optimism about the future, here are four books to get started with.

Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Dreaming of the Future, Nonfiction Edition | Physics of the Future by Michio KakuPhysics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku

Kaku is one of the leading scientists in both string theory and futurism (and he’s got the intelligence–and ego–to prove it). While his dreams of the future tend towards the utopian side of things, he backs up a lot of his prophecies with the prototype technologies he studied while writing the book.

The strangest thing about this book, however, is its relatively young age. It was published in 2011 and so, already, you see some of his predictions coming to pass: incorporation of wearables into everyday life, smart mirrors to monitor health, driverless cars, and the like. BUT, he also notes that one day we’ll be able to store every person’s specific DNA sequence… on a CD-ROM that the person keeps in a drawer at home.

Verdict: Borrow. Some will love and some will be off-put by Kaku’s style and tone, even though the content is really interesting. 

Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Dreaming of the Future, Nonfiction Edition | Creation by Adam RutherfordCreation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford 

Rutherford starts at the very beginning for this book–to the origins of life and then attempting to define what life really is (which is a fascinatingly complex issue). Along the way, he provides a great breakdown of the processes of DNA, cells, and multicellular organisms.

The book gets even more interesting when he writes about the current study of synthetic biology and how we’re actively manipulating genes to solve the challenges of the future.

Within that section, he discusses “goats that produce spider silk in their milk to bacteria that excrete diesel to genetic circuits that identify and destroy cancer cells.”

Verdict: Buy. (It’s also available on audio, which was super necessary for this auditory learner.) 

Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Dreaming of the Future, Nonfiction Edition | Dreaming the Biosphere by Rebecca ReiderDreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities by Rebecca Reider

While Reider’s book is rooted in the past and the early 1990s debacle around Biosphere 2, just like the project itself, it’s a forward-facing look at what could be possible in the future of science, our planet, and space travel.

What Reider does most masterfully is show how human perspectives and ethical debates are intrinsically part of scientific questions about off-world exploration and climate change. She argues that without understanding the constant struggle between funding, big versus small perspectives, and human psychology, we’ll never be able to fully answer those larger questions. In the end, though, she uses Biosphere 2’s story to show how, even in the midst of its supposed “failure,” humans were able to achieve huge goals and work together on a challenge.

Verdict: Buy. 

Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Dreaming of the Future, Nonfiction Edition | Neutrino Hunters by Ray JayawardhanaNeutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana

Jayawardhana somehow takes the subject of neutrinos from technical science to a tale of mystery and discovery. Like all fantastic science writing, Jayawardhana uses the personal stories, conflicts, and rivalries of physicists in this research field to illuminate the subject itself. Through that, he defines what neutrinos are, how they work in the universe and our planet, and why discovering them was a process of many decades. He also speculates on the future applications of neutrinos if we can better isolate these elusive particles.

Even though he does his best to explain this topic, it’s complicated physics. I had to struggle through and re-listen to some sections before fully understanding them. (Let’s be honest, “fully” isn’t the right word there.)

Verdict: Borrow, but be ready to buy if you love science. Also available on audio.  

If you ate these books up, an extended reading list could include:

You got any more recommendations for super science-y nonfiction books about the future? 

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