'Science will never know it all': Richard Dawkins, Margaret Atwood and others predict the future

Editor,  5 October at 9:18 0 713

As the 2016 London Literature festival begins, this year exploring the theme ‘living in future times’, science and sci-fi writers share their visions of humanity’s future. Interviews by Lucy Peters

4th May - OXFORD: Richard Dawkins in his home.( Photograph by Graeme Robertson)
Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion

There’s a serious risk of climate catastrophe and it could be soon. Another alarmingly plausible possibility during the present century is that weapons of mass destruction, which are designed to deter, will be acquired by deluded people for whom deterrence has no meaning. Assuming we survive such manmade disasters, external peril may be averted by technology growing out of the brilliant feat of landing on a comet. The dinosaurs’ world ended when a comet or large meteorite unleashed titanic destructive forces. That will eventually happen again, and smaller but still dangerous strikes are a perennial danger in every century. Telescopes of the future will improve the range of detection, increase the warning time, and give engineers the notice they will need to intercept the bolide and nudge it into a harmless orbit.

In the world of science, DNA sequencing will become ever faster and cheaper and this will revolutionise medicine, taxonomy and my own field of evolution, not to mention forensic evidence in courts of law. Embryology and cell biology will advance mightily. Novel imaging techniques may enable palaeontologists and archeologists to see down into the ground without digging it up. The rendering of virtual reality will improve to the point where the distinction from external reality may become blurred. I expect unmanned space exploration to continue, albeit with economically imposed hiatuses. Out beyond 50 years, self-sustaining colonies may be established on Mars. Human travel to other star systems lies way beyond 50 years, but radio communication from extraterrestrial scientists is an ever-present possibility. However, the intervening light centuries will rule out conversation.

Canadian Author and Poet Margaret Atwood Date: 28 September 2015. Photograph by Amit Lennon Commissioned for Arts
Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Amit Lennon for the Guardian

Margaret Atwood, author of Hag-Seed

Will we still have a liveable planet 50 years from now? Kill the oceans and it’s game over for oxygen-breathing mid-range mammals – the oceans make 60 to 80% of our oxygen. Superheating them and dumping them full of plastic may spell our doom. I hope that we’ll be smart enough to avoid this fate. From ideas proposed in my fiction, many are equally horrible, but it seems as if the use of the blood of young people to rejuvenate rich older people – as posited in The Heart Goes Last – is already in process. I do try to avoid predicting “the future” because there are so many variables; thus, so many possible futures. But here’s a safe bet: in 25 years I won’t be on the planet, unless of course I get my tentacles on some of that rejuvenating blood.

Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford, Britain - 23 Jul 2014Mandatory Credit: Photo by Joby Sessions/Oxford Univers/REX Shutterstock (4272778a) Marcus du Sautoy standing at blackboard with mathematical formulae and equations. Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford, Britain - 23 Jul 2014 Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Formerly a Fellow of All Souls College, and Wadham College, he is now a Fellow of New College. He is President of the Mathematical Association.
Marcus du Sautoy. Photograph: Oxford Univers/REX Shutterstock

If I could communicate 100 years into the future and talk to the incumbent Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford (which I can confidently predict won’t be me, even if some scientists think that we are about to cure ageing), I wonder if he/she/it will know it all. Will we have answered all the big open questions of science? I think we’ll have understood what dark matter is and what is causing the accelerated expansion of the universe. But are there questions to which we’ll never know the answer, no matter how long we wait? Could we ever know if the universe is infinite? Can we find out what happened before the big bang? I predict that science will never know it all. It would be terrible if we did. Science is a living, breathing subject because of what we don’t know. But might there be things we’ll never know? That’s a bit more frightening for a scientist.

Lauren Beukes Portrait SessionLYON, FRANCE - APRIL 5: Lauren Beukes, South African writer poses during portrait session held on April 5, 2014 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
Lauren Beukes. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls and Slipping

Thomas Thwaites receives the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology, for “creating prosthetic extension of his limbs that allowed him to move in the manner of, and spend time roaming the hills in the company of, goats”.
Thomas Thwaites receives the 2016 Ig Nobel prize in biology, for “creating prosthetic extension of his limbs that allowed him to move in the manner of, and spend time roaming the hills in the company of, goats”. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Thomas Thwaites, 2016 Ig Nobel prizewinner and author of GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human

Gaia Vince
Gaia Vince. Photograph: Matt Lincoln

Gaia Vince, environmental journalist and author of Adventures in the Anthropocene

My fears for the future are that we miss the opportunity to act as a cohesive global society to address the environmental challenges we face and end up in a situation in which a small population thrives but many struggle in poverty. My hope is that instead we face up to the crisis as a cooperative species and negotiate a way to share the world’s resources between ourselves and the natural world. I do predict, however, that in 50 years’ time the majority of our energy will be generated from carbon-free sources.

Writer Nikesh Shukla
Nikesh Shukla. Photograph: Chris Lawson/PR

Nikesh Shukla, author and editor of The Good Immigrant

I worry a lot about the world we’re handing over to young people. I’m a youth worker so it’s on my mind a lot. My biggest fear is we’re handing over an unfixable world, one where lines in the sand have been drawn and the only way to undo all of this is for a revolution. Or for the west to no longer be a cultural leader. It’s damn sure on its way to not being an economic one. I don’t know what the future looks like. I try to be optimistic, because you have to be, especially when you have children. But I feel as if what has happened this year will have repercussions for the future that will outlive us all.

Etgar Keret.
Etgar Keret. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Etgar Keret, author of Seven Good Years

As a parent, I think that the greatest challenge is and will always be to serve as an interface between a child and a world that often makes very little sense. Technology may advance but human behaviour will stay unpredictable and often difficult to explain. I find the present tough enough to handle. When I’m done with sorting that, I’ll be ready to deal with the next challenge – but broadly speaking, things will get better, then worse and then better again. 


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