You can see what sort of hardhatted Neanderthal is responsible for this page – its graphics reveal all. So you will not be surprised when I admit that I do not know how much scientific truth there might be in the following statement. ‘We shall all die of asphyxia sooner than run out of carbon fuels. To burn out the earth’s stocks of those would take more oxygen than the planet possesses.’ So I heard said during a discussion at a professional institution. The assertion was not contested and it sounds plausible to me.

But does it matter? Either way, fossil fuelling is a dead end. So our sort of industrial civilisation can be sustained for more than another few centuries only if we turn to renewables and/or nuclear power. Unless and until science finds something else, that is, as even a hardhatted Neanderthal can work out.

Foretell for fun

Musing on twentieth-century sci-fi authors as futurologists, the writer Michael Prowse has commented in FT Weekend (a UK leisure paper) that almost nothing has turned out as the authors of the 1950s and 1960s expected. Essaying prediction himself, Prowse opined that those authors’ books will in the future seem almost as dated as mediaeval manuscripts ‘because of the absence of personal computers, email and the internet’. He thought that the authors’ greatest shortcoming, shared with their predecessors of the 1930s and 1940s, had perhaps been their utter failure to foresee ‘the renascence of a red-blooded, fundamentalist capitalism’ and the dominance of our lives by markets.

Why did the authors assume that technology and planning would take care of the issues of economics, a subject that they virtually disregarded? Prowse asked this question and offered an answer to it: they just did not imagine that politicians would return to the Newtonian mechanistic view of human life that ‘undergirds the market ideology’: the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had seen a heroic intellectual struggle to show the flaws in the ‘superficially appealing story’ of Newtonian mechanics and the later sci-fi authors believed the demonstration to have succeeded.

A popular UK writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was H G Wells. His literary output spanned novels and books on politics and social questions. It included some notable science writing, fictive or factual or both at once. Among those of today’s accomplished science writers who are intrigued by Wells’ oeuvre is David Fishlock, who has drawn the attention of one of my MPS colleagues to The world set free, a book published in 1914. It is one of Wells’ socio-political science-based fantasies, compounded of real and extrapolated (and much romanticised) history. As an aficionado of atomic energy, Fishlock delights in the book’s prophecy of that power-source’s twentieth-century debut.

Wells’ vision was indeed remarkable. The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford and Soddy in the very beginning of the twentieth century, he declared at the start of Chapter 1, the problem of inducing radioactivity in the heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was solved … as soon as the year 1933. From the first detection of radioactivity to its first subjugation to human purpose measured little more than a quarter of a century. Of course Wells’ tale, cast as a history of the discovery and application of atomic energy, did not in its detailed narrative much resemble what actually happened, but the prescience of his imaginative creation was astonishingly well founded.

However, I very much doubt that he would have thought himself a rebel against Newtonian constraint. The science-centred utopia of The world set free could function without abandonment of classical mechanics. (So, for many practical purposes, can our world today.) But Wells foretold a future quite unlike the real one – he expected, for example, the smashing of the capitalist system ‘beyond repair’ by the ‘onset’ of limitless energy – so he could be as wrong as were the later science writers criticised by Prowse, even if not because Wells disregarded economic issues as Prowse blames them for doing.

Yet Prowse does have a point. Newtonian mechanics could be called culpable at least to the extent that, by enabling us precisely to predict such events as eclipses, it raised the false hope of precise scientific prediction generally. Futurology, which used to be known as soothsaying, is fun, and popular, and can be made to look respectable by dressing it in pseudo-scientific clothes, but it is not science. Neither is it engineering or technology.