The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science

[Reynal and Hitchcock, $3.00]
THIS is a remarkably interesting and witty book, not very well described by its title, but hard to describe by any brief sequence of words. About two thirds of it is information; as for the rest, the author expatiates mainly on the technical defects of the present, the prospects of mitigating them, and the problems which the world will encounter after they are removed. If all of these are to be the unfinished business of science, her agenda will be full for thousands of years to come, not the next hundred only! The author came away from the Chicago Fair of 1933 ‘with the depressing conclusion that our progress is a myth’; nevertheless he makes an excellent story of the progress already realized by the applications of science, chiefly the applications of chemistry and to biology.
Hormones; enzymes; vitamins; solvents; synthesized fabrics and plastics; rubber, natural and imitated; the extraction of minerals from their ores, of bromine and gold from the sea, are treated at length and vividly.
There is a long discussion of transportation, with especial notice taken of the engineering problems of the automobile and the aeroplane. There is an even longer one of agriculture, full of trenchant passages and of dissatisfactions, with recommendations based upon the doctrine thus succinctly phrased; ‘ A farm is an organic chemical factory. It should be just that and no more. When sociology is mixed in with the crops it proves not to be good fertilizer and the crops suffer.’ Weather has a chapter to itself; so do insects; so do infectious diseases, the common cold in particular; so does the definition of life, and in the course of this chapter bacteriophage and the synthesis of organic compounds find their places; deuterium divides a chapter with artificial radioactivity; communication and lighting are briefly treated.
On the whole, chemistry and biology are abundantly honored. Physics is not befriended. I suspect that Dr. Furnas has had unpleasant experiences with young theoretical physicists interested only in the mathematical technique of subatomic theory, and in that case I cannot altogether blame him; but his readers will be gravely misled if they assess the importance of physics in the modern world on the basis of the treatment which it is given in his book. Dr. Furnas would like to have the physicists participate in the other sciences; so should we all; but first we must solve the problem of providing careers for men who either divide their student years equably between two or more sciences instead of concentrating in one, or else withdraw from a career already started in one field in order to spend years in mastering the knowledge and technique of another.
As to Dr. Furnas’s views on education, the right use of leisure, the standard of living, and contemporary life in general, individual readers had better form their individual opinions; they must at least agree that he expresses his ideas racily. He expects a further great shortening of the working day; he does not set the date or prescribe the procedure, but this is rather to be welcomed, as it signifies that he recommends no sociological or monetary panacea. In general he relies on science for the future, and does not reproach her with all the troubles of the present: ‘ We cannot, without further justification, blame economic distress on the machine, for all ancient history seems to reek with economic distress and there were no machines.’ He probably exaggerates the potency of science in respect of future achievements, but this should do more good than harm, as the tendency to underestimating is much the more widespread.
I have some apprehension lest the reader derive the impression that practical advances are always to be made by driving in what seems to be the direct way to the desired goal, rather than by acquiring general and fundamental knowledge; Dr. Furnas presumably does not believe this, but some of his more conspicuous passages tend to suggest it.
The pages of the book are pleasant in appearance, but misprints are too numerous (the strangest is ‘phosphorous,’repeated over and over), and even such small integers as one and two are printed as numerals. The author is not always right in apportioning discoverers and discoveries to various laboratories. The style is direct, swift-paced, and vivacious; not remarkable for elegance or grace, but enlivened with many bits of delicious humor.