The Future of Science and Society

WHAT science is and the present state of its proficiency, as well as its limitations, are engagingly set forth by J. W. N. Sullivan in The Limitations of Science (Viking Press, $2.75). Mr. Sullivan has issued previous volumes interpretative of various aspects of science, but this latest book is his best from the point of view of the layman wanting an interpreter. In it Mr. Sullivan marshals the most recent news of the laboratories and the observatories into a comprehensive outline of what is known of the physical universe, and of what is suspected of its limits beyond the reach of optical instruments and measuring devices. The result is both exciting and informing — a glimpse into the queer world of relativity and the even queerer world of quantum mechanics, with side glimpses at the strange barriers which have been discovered lately and which seem to impose definite limitations on the experimental method.
Those who have read in newspapers and magazines rumors of an upset of law and order in science will find here the enigmatic matter dissected and interpreted. Those who have wondered how far we may depend on science to unravel the riddle of protoplasm and of consciousness will find here some clear suggestions both of possibilities and of limitations. The book ranges a wide field; astronomy, physics, geology, biology, psychology, are each deftly touched on. Mr. Sullivan is in revolt against mechanistic philosophy . Life may be the purpose of the universe: ‘There is nothing opposed to what we know of nature’s economy in supposing that a million stars burn themselves out through millions of years in order that a few brief and evanescent lives may appear.’ The book bristles with quotations from or references to Jeans, Eddington, Millikan, and other modern and ancient worthies. It is the best brief survey I know of current thinking in fundamental science. Its prose is exact, clear, full of color, illumined with analogy, and without a single mathematical equation in its 303 pages.
A survey of quite a different typeis H.G. Wells’s intimation of the future, The Shape of Things to Come (Macmillan, $2.50). Mr. Wells himself describes it as ‘a modern Sibylline book,’ and the Sibyl in this case is a certain Dr. Haven who was possessed of the remarkable faculty of dreaming the future. Daily he recorded his dreams, and on his death these notes, outlining the history of mankind on this planet for the years up to 2106, came into the hands of Mr. Wells for editing. Thus the earth’s most prolific prophet is enabled to write another prophecy without seeming to repeat or contradict any of the earlier forecasts scattered through many of the preceding sixty-four Wellsian books.
The Shape of Things to Come begins with a look at Things Already Here. This analysis of post-war, boom, and depression conditions is acutely penetrating, and lays a foundation for confidence in the plausibility of the forecasts which follow, profoundly disquieting though the forecasts be. The Age of Frustration goes to smash in 1940 in war — the East War, for when it finally fritters out in a ‘suspension of hostilities,’in 1949, the peoples are so decimated and exhausted that even the projected peace conference is never held. It is not necessary to declare peace, because it is impossible for scattered, shattered humanity to resume war, and the suspension of hostilities ‘endures to this day. But if science, with its frightful explosives, its revolting disease germs, and its fantastically murderous gas, made the Last War final, science also at last brought in the New Society. For it was the aviators and other technicians of the airways who took hold of world affairs, so far as there were any world affairs after civilization and all its works had lapsed. The Air Dictatorship grew up gradually, gave way in turn to the Educational Control, to be superseded finally by the Modern State. And the Modern State is the new world society, a projection of that happy Utopia of which Mr. Wells has so often and so eloquently dreamed.
The thing is done lavishly in its minute attention to detail and to dramatic effect. It is in Mr. Wells’s characteristic style, pushing, persistent, piling picture on picture, etching whole movements in brief, sharp profiles of personalities — for example, Herr Hitler. Whatever may be its value as prophecy, there is nothing imaginative in its description of the tinder and fire that are waiting, and indeed are even now being flourished about. In its discussion of these combustibles, both material and emotional, the book is stark history.