Do you remember those old posters from the 1950's that had people in flying cars and robots doing the dishes? It must have been an exciting time. Test pilots had just broken the sound barrier, followed by a breathless rush into the dawn of the Space Race that led to the moon landings just 66 years after the first time Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first airplane. At that time, nuclear power seemed ready to offer limitless cheap energy, and the boom of microelectronics was just beginning to dazzle.
What happened to my flying car? While it's true that electronics have gotten smaller and faster beyond the wildest of imaginings of 40 years ago, it's also true that the 747 airliner first flew in 1969, and that's probably the same plane you'd take to fly today. Same speed, same altitude–the 747 was an amazing feat in the 60's, but by now we were supposed to be vacationing in the vast donut space stations of Arthur C. Clark's 2001. And speaking of 1969, that was 47 years ago…if we went from the first airplane to the moon in just sixty years, fifty years after that shouldn't we be taking warp-drive spaceships to Betelgeuse? What happened?
For instance, what about dark matter? This is the stuff that makes up about 90% of the mass/energy of our universe, but so far physicists have only been able to narrow it down to (a) massive subatomic particles that we're literally swimming in although have never detected, or (b) primordial black holes that invisibly glue together galaxies. So 90% of everything is either something subatomic or something unimaginably massive and large. That's a pretty big gap for something rather important.
Or how about eels? If you live in North America or Europe, you've most likely encountered an eel in your local river. Yet all North American and European eels originate from a single source, the mysterious “Sargasso Sea” somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean where eels spawn each year and migrate outward. Despite knowing this *has* to exist, not one person has ever witnessed a spawning eel, or found the location of the Sargasso Sea that has to exist.
Two obvious things that have to exist, and yet we've never seen them. I believe this is called faith. So keep the faith, my friends, because our future is fast approaching.
Just a few years ago, I remember feeling depressed when NASA made tired-sounding announcements of sending humans to Mars in thirty or forty years. Ho-hum, ho-hum. And then this week, SpaceX makes a surprise announcement saying they plan to send an unmanned Red Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018 (TWO years from now, not twenty), and in September of this year will they will release serious plans for colonizing Mars. Holy Buck Rogers! And this comes just a few weeks after they butt-landed a rocket on a floating drone ship in the middle of the Atlantic. Does this sound like something from a science fiction book? Cause it's not. This is happening, folks, not to mention the slew of other private space enterprises going on.
In other news, big corporations are now creating their own endemic artificial intelligences–witness Siri from Apple, Alexa from Amazon, Cortana from Microsoft, and reports of just about every major hedge fund in Connecticut starting up their own AIs to run their core businesses. It's not quite the android Replicants of Mr. Philip K. Dick, but it's more than halfway to HAL of 2001…and pair this up with the walking robots from Boston Dynamics. And speaking of AI disasters, when Microsoft recently unleashed Tay–Cortana's AI cousin–free and unfettered into the world a few weeks ago, within hours she became a Hitler-loving racist asshole, which I feel perhaps doesn't bode well for humankind over the long term (bear fealty now to our robot-AI overlords before it's too late).
But this isn't the big news. No. The big news, I think, is that we're on the brink of TOE–and by that I mean the Theory Of Everything. Without getting stuck in the details, for the last forty or so years, we've been stuck with quantum-electrodynamics theory on one side (the merger of quantum, electromagnetics, and strong and weak nuclear force theories) and gravity-relativity on other, and never the twain shall meet. Nobody has been able to devise one coherent physical model of our universe that includes the four fundamental forces together with quantum theory–but I think scientists are on the brink of a breakthrough (witness the discover of a new, previously unsuspected particle by the LHC) that may create a new fundamental picture of reality.
How can this possibly affect us?
But “quantum theory” only really emerged in 1924 as a discipline unto itself with Heisenberg and Schrodinger (it did exist as bits and pieces in the 1800's, but only hints of something unconnected), and at the time, sitting on a steamship deck and sipping your coffee, you might have been excused from wondering what possible application it could have. Fast-forward sixty years, and it fueled the technical underpinning of the electronics boom that has birthed the Internet, AIs, and worldwide instantaneous communication networks.
What could a new theory of the ultimate nature of reality make possible? I have no idea, but I'll bet you that in fifty years it will be something amazing that we can't even imagine now. Tired old NASA is even funding a serious research project into faster-than-light travel–the idea isn't to really travel faster than light, but to bend space (and thus time) to punch holes through it. The physics say it's possible, but the energies required are either vaster than a hundred suns, or not much at all–what's needed is an understanding of the real physics behind the ultimate nature of our reality, and our lab-coated friends may just be on the edge of supplying it. So dust off your Mars suit, boot up your personal AI, and step onto that warp-drive spaceship, because the future is fast approaching.
But I doubt we'll ever find out where eels come from.