The conceptual designs for the O’Neill Colonies and the subject of Nanotechnology have always managed to capture my attention.
At least when it comes to the O'Neill colonies, often I find myself going back and observing the designs as envisioned by Gerard O'Neill. Also, I keep thinking and wondering about the enormous potential nanotechnology, in a developed form can offer for our species.
To cut to through the chase, large scale sustainable colonization of space is impossible, unless and until our species gets a much a better control over how to structure and positions atoms.
A thought related to this conceptual merger between space colonies and nanotechnology, led me to this very question.
So I started searching the web, and sure enough, my search soon led me to this very book called ‘The Visioneers’ written by a gentleman by the name of W. Patrick McCray.
I was very surprised to observe, that the entire book is a historical record when it comes to the developments related to the two concepts that I was thinking about, namely space colonies and nanotechnology!
As you might have noticed from the front cover (image above), this book is about “How a group of elite scientists pursued space colonies, nanotechnologies and a limitless future”.
Now, since the 60’s, a number scientists and visionaries have been trying to build a case for the colonization space. But, this vision has been met with a fair bit of resistance. Largely, due to the fact that the technology just wasn’t ready. And even if it was possible, then there has always been scare mongering that has been attached with these concepts (at the time) and how it had the (supposed) potential to destroy the world.
But in fits and starts, this movement has also gained encouragement from certain segments of society, academia and the Government. Namely, the United States Government and from what I can gather from this book. I’m sure that (since the 60’s) other governments have also invested in both nanotechnology and the colonization of space, but that is not in scope when it comes to the contents of this book.
The main characters:
Coming back to the book, most of the content revolves around the work performed by:
Gerard K. O’Neill: An American physicist, inventor and space activist. O’Neill tried to champion the cause of giant space settlements that could hypothetically be used for the colonization of space, using materials used from mining asteroids and the moon. O’Neill’s designs weren’t just an artistic rendition of what the conceptual models for the space colonies and manufacturing sites could look like. In fact, these designs were backed by a lot of research and what really distinguished them from science fiction was the meticulous amount of calculations that went into effect, in order to support the overall models.
Eric K. Drexler: The other amazing individual is Eric K. Drexler. An engineer from MIT (at the time), who in my opinion, is the rightful father of nanotechnology. Drexler, took the ideas as envisioned by Richard Feynmann for manipulating and controlling atoms and molecules and helped nurture and guide those ideas towards a path where they could eventually turn into a science.
Drexler’s book ‘Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology’ (published in 1986) is considered to be the first written record that hypothesizing the designs and details of machines that can be operated on a nanoscale. To quote from Wikipedia, Drexler envisioned a world where: “Molecular robots can be used for any purpose, from medicinal robots that can be guided for helping clear capillaries to environment scrubbers that can clear pollutant from air.” To even molecular robots that come together, in order to build lighter and stronger materials. Drexler worked closely with O’Neill, to see how the overall vision for the colonization of space could be supported with the aid of nanotechnology.
Obviously, there are other characters mentioned in this book as well. But like I said, most of the content focuses on the work performed by these gentlemen.
Meat and Potatoes
The overall narrative is really all about the dreams, the vision (backed by engineering designs) that these individuals continued to pursue, sometimes in the face of resistance and setbacks.
Also, after reading this book, I believe that the present day planning and activity when it relates to space exploration, colonization and mining can only trace it’s roots back to the work that individuals like O’Neill and Drexler helped envision and also champion.
Not only were these gentlemen the original dreamers, they were also the very first pioneers who dedicated a significant chunk (if not the entirety) of their lives when it comes to taking certain ideas and concepts from a fuzzy area and help bring them to a place where they could become very tangible in the foreseeable future. It is my wish that society will look back in time and always be indebted to individuals like O’Neill and Drexler and the fine work they did and sacrifices they made.
It’s also interesting to see how things are interconnected. Starting in the 60’s, from the origins of the L5 society and the whole world catalog and even individuals like Timothy Leary. To the emergence of social networks (in the absence of the internet) in the form of telephone networks e.t.c.
Or on the flip side, in a modern day context and to quote from the book “It’s impossible to ignore a certain homogeneity among this book’s characters. O’Neill, Drexler, Raymond Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Ted Nelson, Freeman Dyson, and even Richard Smalley: all men who graduated from elite schools with technical degrees.
This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in the following:
Also, there is a silver lining to the resistance that visionaries like O'Neill and Drexler had faced. As it can now serve as a lesson for new age visionaries. Namely:
It seems like a lot of things in life, kind of go back a full circle. Towards the beginning of this book, they were talking about this movement of sorts in the 60's where there was a lot of emphasis on 'Limits'. And supposedly, how limits had to be imposed on the continued advancement and development of society, if we were to continue living on this planet in a sustainable way. This was precisely the time when creative and intelligent engineers like like O'Neill and Drexler had decided to tackle these challenge head on. Their ideas and designs could help potentially help the human race leap frog these limits and such a movement could also (potentially and theoretically) help usher in a new age of abundance.
Now, some 50 ++ years later, the human race finds itself confronting a somewhat similar scenario. Where, among a host of other problems, we also have the looming threat of climate change. Luckily, for us, the debate this time around is not so much around the imposition of limits. There isn't much of a debate, the way I see it. But the one good movement I have noticed is the very nascent framework that is beginning to develop around space exploration, manufacturing and mining.
Hence, the vision as it was conceived by Gerard O'Neill and Eric K. Drexler, is still alive. It was dormant for a while and now it is slowly beginning to materialize. These individuals performed all this intelligent work decades ago, sometimes in the face of resistance, so that one day humanity could benefit from it. That era is getting closer with the passage of each day.
Overall, great read. Backed by a lot of research. Great work by Patrick McCray!