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The wizard's tale

Don Braben

Don Braben has a vision…

Geoscientist 18.12 December 2008

Once upon a time, I dreamt about a meeting about 100 years ago, at which a wizard addressed a large gathering of industrial and scientific leaders. He announced that he would use his 20:20 foresight to describe the powerful discoveries that would enrich the coming 20th Century.

“However, your language does not yet contain the words I need to describe the future”, he said, so he put a spell on the audience that conjured visions of energy quantisation, relativity theory, atomic and nuclear structure, quantum mechanics, and molecular biology to give some impressions of the sciences that might shortly come. With mounting excitement, he outlined some of the magical technologies that might stem from them: magnetic resonance imaging and a wealth of other medical diagnostics, lasers, nuclear power, computers, telecommunications, and genetic manipulation. The audience was (quite literally) spellbound. They had expected him to talk about developments in electric and steam power, hydraulics, and oil and coal technologies. What they heard was totally unexpected.

When the wizard had finished, someone asked what we had to do to make these fantastical things happen. His reply was equally stunning. “Nothing”, he said, his voice quivering with emotion. “Humanity has been given the priceless gift of creativity, but it’s vital that you understand how it works. Creativity is the essence of the human spirit, and flowers best when it’s unconstrained. If you try to control it for your own ends you must learn that you can get only what you ask for. The unexpected will not arise. You are not wizards.” These last words came in an intense growl. Then he disappeared, and I woke up.

I dreamt about him again recently. He told me that he had given similarly prescient lectures every hundred years since 1600 when Francis Bacon and a few others began to appreciate the value of organised scientific research. Before that, the scientific world had been more or less stagnant for a long time, so there was nothing new to herald. His lecture on the 21st Century was clearly long overdue, and I asked him when next he would be speaking to us.

His answer was depressing. “I will give no more lectures”, he said, “until humanity regains its sense of wonder. As you know, my foresight is perfect, but I’m not allowed to reveal anything about the major discoveries that await you. The sole purpose of my centennial addresses has been to inspire, to conjure for your subconscious minds images of what you and your creative talents are currently capable. The rest is up to you. Unfortunately, your leaders have now decided that wonder is inefficient because it cannot be controlled, quantified, or targeted. You must consolidate what you think you know, of course, but nowadays that is all you are doing. Humanity’s powers of foresight have always been puny, so you’ll get nowhere unless you listen to what I am trying to tell you and back those rare individuals whose vision transcends need.”

* This Soapbox piece is based on an editorial by the author published in The Scientist, 27 September 2004. Excerpt from Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization, Wiley 2008 by Donald W Braben Copyright Wiley 2008.