~ ONE JOURNEY ~
~ There is only one journey: going inside yourself. ~
- Rainer Maria Rilke
't Hooft's lecture on Science Fiction & Reality ~ Wednesday, May 07, 2008
I just got back from Gerard t' Hooft's lecture on Science Fiction and Reality.
First, his credentials (taken from the Perimeter Institute's website) and the lecture's blurb (feel free to skip to the end of the blurb if it doesn't interest you):
Dr. Gerard 't Hooft, Nobel Laureate, Utrecht University
Science Fiction and Reality
In the recent past, rapid scientific and technological developments have had tremendous impact on human society. Notably, the personal computer, internet and mobile telephones changed the world and shrank our planet. These developments are vastly different from the forecasts by science fiction authors who promised us space travel and intelligent humanoid robots. Could real scientists have done a better job in forecasting the future? What can we say about the future now?
Many science fiction fantasies will never materialize. Some will, but only over time spans of millions of years rather than a couple of centuries. Nature's laws are very strict and forbidding but also show gaps that might promise fantastic possibilities for a scientific future, even within our lifetime.
Gerard 't Hooft was born in 1946, and raised in the Netherlands. He studied theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, completing his thesis work in 1972, under the supervision of Martin Veltman. For two years he continued his research at the European particle physics laboratory CERN, Geneva. After lectureships at Utrecht and in the USA (Harvard, Stanford), he was appointed full professor at Utrecht University in 1976. Among his many honours, he and Veltman were awarded the The Nobel Prize in physics 1999, "For elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions in physics", which refers to their joint work in 1972. More recently, ‘t Hooft became a member of Perimeter Institute’s highly esteemed Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC).
His research brought important new insights showing how to use quantized fields to describe sub-atomic particles, such as renormalization, magnetic monopoles, quark confinement and the physical effects of instantons. Later he turned his interest to the quantum aspects of gravitation and black holes. Dr.'t Hooft also supports educational outreach activities and considers the communication of fundamental science to the public as one of his most important duties.
Ultimately, an interesting lecture, not because of the content so much as because of what it revealed about the speaker himself.
On the one hand, as the blurb would imply, he entirely misses the point of science fiction, which at its best isn't about trying to predict the future and "get it right" by any means. It's more about ideas and the scope of human behaviour. It's less about whether we can and more about whether we should.
It's certainly true that there is some science fiction that is about either entertainment or psychology and so the "science" is a device--hand waving, and as unprovable as the magic used in fantasy. But there is also a massive body of writing that is rigorously scientific, based on our ever-evolving knowledge, taken to beyond its outer edges. But the stuff that stands out is the stuff that tells us how humans react and develop in the midst of this technology.
To me, Neuromancer is not remarkable because it predicted something like the internet. It's remarkable because it foresaw people whose psyches were so deeply interwoven with technology that they only felt fully-realised in a virtual world. In that virtual world, they were heroes and kings (or cyber cowboys, as it were)--legends among their peers, such that, once denied access to the virtual world, they felt like amputees, and as if they had lost an essential part of themselves. Hmmm.
Similarly so with the other prescient works of SF.
't Hooft's lecture missed this point entirely, and instead focussed on the science. This may be because he wanted to show the impressionable young people in the audience that SF really isn't always tenable, but I suspect that may be stretching things.
At any rate, I was fascinated because for the whole early portion of the lecture, as he described what science might be able to do very soon, I felt deeply disturbed--in part because his explication was so purely scientific and without value judgement at all.
He seemed disturbingly excited, or at best neutral, about ideas that freaked me out--ideas like tweaking DNA (you'd think that the whole issues around GM seeds and chemicals surrounding the Green Revolution would give one pause)... stuff that's so morally dark grey that it's another post entirely. At other times, he spoke with absolute equanimity about the idea of an advanced AI robot of some sort running for president. Maybe it would do a better job than W or any fallible human--or maybe it would become a creepy dictator--that's a side issue. My point here is that he brought this up, while admitting that we probably wouldn't be able to accept the idea of an AI governing us. In this case, it was his air of bafflement that got me. As a culture, we've been fighting about our right to freedom and self-choice ever since Eve decided she wanted to try some of that yummy-looking fruit up on the tree, but he didn't seem to get that.
And so it was as if he couldn't see the potential abuses to so many of the ideas he put forward.
This to me is the kind of mentality that was so effectively critiqued in the Terminator films, for instance (I'm thinking of the second one in particular, here, though it's ultimately a common motif in SF, going right back to Frankenstein). It amazed me that here was a man who so fit a certain paradigm, standing up at the front and critiquing SF. Yet, in the process, he was displaying a mentality that so many SF works sympathetically reveal as the most frightening of spectres: a person of visionary science, with a complete lack of perspective and understanding of human nature. Here was someone so fixated on the fact that we might be able to, that he entirely lost sight of the fact that in many cases, we really probably shouldn't.
The most revealing moment in the lecture, for me, came in the question period, when one of the audience members asked "Of all the things you discussed today, which idea scares you the most?"
His answer: people. He didn't understand people at all, he said. He didn't understand why they behaved as they did, thought as they did, and did what they did, to themselves and each other.
And I thought: Ah. Yes. And that's why he doesn't understand SF.
::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 9:30 PM::::