The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

W Patrick McCray, Author
W. Patrick McCray. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-691-13983-8
Reviewed on: 10/08/2012
Release date: 11/01/2012
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In his fascinating new book (after 2008’s Keep Watching the Skies!), McCray profiles the larger-than-life characters and ideas that changed science and technology in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. The author describes the titular visioneers as “hybrids”—creative combinations of futurist, scientist, and charismatic promoter. At the center of this story are physicist Gerard O’Neill and biotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler. The former’s rigorously realistic designs for space habitats, along with his optimistic dream of regular humans living and working in space, were a vivid antidote to the “widespread pessimism” surrounding the end of the Vietnam War, growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and environmental concerns. McCray, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, discusses how O’Neill’s vision of space as a tabula rasa for the human race spurred the formation of grassroots groups like the L5 Society and captured the imaginations of many young scientists and engineers like Drexler, as well as influential figures like Stewart Brand and Timothy Leary. Considered together, they “took speculative ideas out of the hands of sci-fi writers” and had an enormous impact on generations of people, science, and political policy. Photos, illus. (Jan. 13)
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