Books  General Natural History  History of Science 

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

Biography / Memoir

By: W Patrick McCray (Author)

366 pages, 13 b/w photos, 4 b/w illustrations

Princeton University Press

Hardback | Dec 2012 | #205576 | ISBN-13: 9780691139838
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NHBS Price: £19.95 $24/€22 approx

About this book

In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity's expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, turned his attention to the molecular world as the place where society's future needs could be met using self-replicating nanoscale machines. These modern utopians predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds, undertook atomic-scale engineering, and, if truly successful, overcame their own biological limits. The Visioneers tells the story of how these scientists and the communities they fostered imagined, designed, and popularized speculative technologies such as space colonies and nanotechnologies.

Patrick McCray traces how these visioneers blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future. He shows how they built networks that communicated their ideas to writers, politicians, and corporate leaders. But the visioneers were not immune to failure – or to the lures of profit, celebrity, and hype. O'Neill and Drexler faced difficulty funding their work and overcoming colleagues' skepticism, and saw their ideas co-opted and transformed by Timothy Leary, the scriptwriters of Star Trek, and many others. Ultimately, both men struggled to overcome stigma and ostracism as they tried to unshackle their visioneering from pejorative labels like "fringe" and "pseudoscience."

The Visioneers provides a balanced look at the successes and pitfalls they encountered. The Visioneers exposes the dangers of promotion – oversimplification, misuse, and misunderstanding – that can plague exploratory science. But above all, it highlights the importance of radical new ideas that inspire us to support cutting-edge research into tomorrow's technologies.

"In his fascinating new book, 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 [...] 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."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"McCray focuses on Gerard K. O'Neill, the Princeton physicist and designer of space colonies, and on his protégé, K. Eric Drexler, the 'speculative engineer' trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who helped to put nanotechnology on political agendas in the early 1990s. Along the way, McCray introduces a large and colourful cast of others who, over four decades, promoted technological progress as the way to overcome every limit [...] McCray's book is especially convincing in following the various movements that arose in reaction to the Club of Rome's 1972 book (The Limits of Growth) [...] McCray's argument that visioneers play an important part in the 'technological ecosystem' is also compelling [...] "
– Cyrus Mody, Nature

The overarching narrative of The Visioneers – that of humankind's struggle against limits real and imagined – is compelling, and no less so because of how effectively it reflects the questions of technology surrounding today's big fears like peak oil and global warming [...] [The Visioneers] is an extremely edifying and well-researched history. Recommended for technology buffs, doomsayers, and anyone with an interest in the intersection of science, technology, and society."

"[A] thoughtful, meticulous history [...] "
– Simon Ings, New Scientist

"I recommend McCray's The Visioneers to all readers interested recent history of science in the making and, more generally, in the place of science in society. The marketing of science is entering a new era and many of the visioneers described by McCray may be seen as the first of a wave of new kind of figures in the history of science, both technoscientists and visionary promoters."
– Roger F Malina, Leonardo Journal

"McCray's narrative is often fascinating. He connects interest in space colonies with a pervasive fear in the 1970s that unchecked population growth would precipitate an apocalyptic environmental crisis on Planet Earth."
– Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World

"In The Visioneers, Patrick McCray introduces us to a host of innovators who pushed back against the language of limits. Their techno-enthusiast ventures, unfolding in the closing decades of the twentieth century, combined technical skill, bold speculation, and public-relations savvy. By tracing their inspirations, missteps, and unconventional networks, McCray offers a rich and fascinating cultural history of technological aspirations at a critical turning point in American history."
– David Kaiser, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"This wonderful and unique book uncovers the complex array of activities scientific dreamers undertake in convincing the world that their visions of technological utopias can, and should, become realities. McCray tells a masterful story about how 'visioneers' rely on their scientific expertise and detailed engineering plans to legitimate their evocative tales of technological salvation in the face of ecological disasters."
– David A. Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood

"In this compulsively readable history, Patrick McCray tells the remarkable, intertwined story of the 'visioneers,' improbable dreamers whose aspirations for a transformative future surprisingly helped create the world of today. His American panorama sweeps us from the malaise of the 1970s through the go-go 1980s and the technocratic 1990s. We end up in our present, richer for the journey."
– Michael Gordin, Princeton University

"The Visioneers is an enthralling tale of visionaries fighting against the gravity of habit and convention, cajoling the rest of us to create a new and better future. It is at once compelling history and a reminder that if one aims high and far enough, even failures can lead to unintended society-changing successes."
– Paul Saffo, managing director, Discern

"Having been a cheerleader for the grand schemes recounted in this book, I'm happy to be a cheerleader for the book itself. It is accurate, thorough, and insightful. Since this century is certain to produce many new cadres of visioneers, the book will lend perspective on how best to critique and harness their dreams."
– Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline

"McCray presents a fast-moving, compelling, and highly readable account of scientific movements in space colonization and nanotech. In each case, he argues that a single individual – a visioneer – brought the movement into existence and drove its rise to popularity through a mix of networking, promotion, and engineering."
– Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture

"McCray tells the engaging story of Gerard O'Neill and K. Eric Drexler and the people they knew and worked with as they launched scientific, technological, and social movements in space exploration and nanotechnology. He has mined most if not all of the available sources and interviewed many of the key players. The Visioneers is a major contribution."
– Peter Bishop, coeditor of Thinking about the Future

"This is the foremost study of its kind in terms of detail, depth, and intellectual significance. McCray illuminates the challenges these visioneers faced in conceiving of their respective visions, defending them against critics and rivals, and learning to balance partial victories and partial defeats. Readers come to understand these figures as human beings beyond coming to understand their ideas, projects, and crusades."
– Howard P. Segal, author of Technological Utopianism in American Culture


List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: Visioneering Technological Futures 1

Chapter 1 Utopia or Oblivion for Spaceship Earth? 20
Chapter 2 The Inspiration of Limits 40
Chapter 3 Building Castles in the Sky 73
Chapter 4 Omnificent 113
Chapter 5 Could Small Be Beautiful? 146
Chapter 6 California Dreaming 183
Chapter 7 Confirmation, Benediction, and Inquisition 222
Chapter 8 Visioneering's Value 258

A Note on Sources 277
Notes 281
Index 325

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W. Patrick McCray is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Keep Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age and Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology.

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