Back | Next


"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Arthur C. Clarke
Profiles of the Future


My thanks to Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Ben Bova, who first encouraged me to write down some of these "crazy" ideas and to Arthur C. Clarke, Philip Chapman, John Cramer, Edwin Dodson, Freeman Dyson, Dani Eder, Rod Hyde, Keith Lofstrom, David K. Lynch, Hans Moravec, Charles Sheffield, and Frank Tipler, who helped in a number of technical areas.

I also want to acknowledge the long term support of Dr. George F. Smith, Senior Vice President and Director of the Hughes Aircraft Company Research Laboratories, who, during my 31 years at Hughes Research Labs, allowed me to spend part of my time poking at the cracks in the boundaries of scientific knowledge in an attempt to break through. It is hoped that this book will widen those cracks so we can begin to develop some of those technologies that we can glimpse on the other side that are presently indistinguishable from magic.



Each day we see on television or read in the papers about some new advance in technology. In most cases we take the news in stride, for we have heard of similar things. But for our ancestors of only a few generations ago, these new technological achievements would have been indistinguishable from magic.

It is magic—future magic—and we live with and use it daily. Direct broadcast satellites that instantaneously bring us pictures of events from anywhere on the globe like the magic crystal ball of the Wicked Witch of the West, powerful laser beams that destroy the missiles of our foes like a bolt of lightning from the hand of Zeus; aircushion boats that magically levitate and walk over the surface of the water; genetically tailored microorganisms that produce insulin, eat oil spills, and leach copper ores like miniature golems animated by our biological magic; the magic spectacles of radar that let us see beyond what the unaided eye can see. The wonders that take place every day of our lives would have amazed our parents thirty years ago, bewildered our grandparents of sixty years ago, and would have raised cries of "black magic!" a century ago.

The now-prosaic microwave oven is an excellent example of future magic. If you want to cook a large beef roast with heat, it takes four hours. It doesn't matter if the heat comes from wood, coal, oil, electricity, nuclear energy, evaporating black holes, sunlight, or cow dung—it takes four hours to cook a roast with heat. An ancient cook brought from the caves a million years past and taken to a kitchen a thousand years in the future, might not understand the source of the heat in a "black hole" oven, but after a few minutes of watching it cook a beef roast he would be able to prepare an urus roast that would be done to perfection. Yet show him your microwave oven cooking a roast in a half hour and he would be bewildered by its magic. The technology that produced the microwave oven did not develop a new source of heat, it developed "magic" heat—heat that is generated inside the turkey, not applied to the outside, so the turkey gets done in the "magical" time of thirtyminutes instead of six hours.

A number of years ago the famous science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke propounded what is now known as Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It used to be that technology evolved slowly, and generations could go by with almost no change in the way things were done. Every decade or so, however, something new would be added to the existing base of technology. A blacksmith would find that a blade would take on a different temper if it were quenched in oil instead of water. A sea captain would find that his crew didn't come down with scurvy if he took along a few barrels of limes. A doctor noticed that he never saw a milkmaid among his smallpox patients.

In those days, the words "sufficiently advanced" meant hundreds of years in the future. For back then there was time enough between those new advances in technology to allow people to accept them and absorb them into "the way things are done".

But even then, there was a resistance to change. It took the Royal Navy over a century to make limes part of the normal diet of a seagoing "limey"; and Edward Jenner's 1798 introduction of the concept of vaccination is regarded as magic by the ignorant even today—"How can you possibly make someone well by making them sick?"

Events move much faster these days. There are more scientists, doctors, and engineers active now. The rate at which they produce new technology has been accelerated by the prior technological inventions of the printing press, radio, television, and now the communication satellites and data links that spread the information about each new technological advance rapidly around the globe, making it almost instantly available to other researchers. The power of each researcher is also magnified a thousand-fold by the electronic slaves they created—the computers. These range from the handheld pocket wonders of the engineers to the giant electronic genies that serve a hundred masters at one time.

Nowadays, the distance in time where future science fades into future magic is only decades away. The best example is spaceflight. Who in 1929, in the bleakest days of the depression, would have thought that in four decades there would be a man walking on the moon?

Here we are today, living among and using those magical wonders that were so impossible that our parents and grandparents couldn't even imagine them. What will be the magic in our future? It is hard to predict, because if we can tell exactly how it can be done and when it will be done, then it is no longer future magic, but future technology.

There are, however, some magical things coming in our future that can now be glimpsed, although dimly. Aided by existing theories, we can guess at these magical wonders, but we are very uncertain of how we will attain the technologies that will be needed to turn them from wishful thinking into hard reality.

Whether they will come true is not known. The theory on which some possible future concept is based may be wrong and it could never come to pass. The theory may be correct, but the technology needed to achieve the goal may require a material that just doesn't exist. It may be that the theory is correct, and the technology is possible, but we decide that the effort involved is more than it is worth. Or, it may be we will be too busy exploring other realms of future technology that we think are more important.

In the following pages are some of the magical things that I can see through the uncertain curtain of the future. Things that are theoretically possible, but so far from our present technical capabilities that they seem almost magical. In the next pages, through the differing media of fiction and non-fiction, we will visit that black magic marvel of gravitation, the black hole; travel through time and space in time machines and space warps, float through the air without wings, defying gravity; climb into space on a magic beanstalk; fly through the solar system on antimatter rockets; and then sail off to the stars on beams of light.

There is magic in our future. How and when it will come we can only guess. But come it will—and sooner than you think.

Recommended Reading

For those who would like to read a little more on some of the technical topics discussed in this book, I have selected a few references for further reading out of the many books and scientific papers that I used as background material in preparing the manuscript. You will find these listed under Recommended Reading at the end of each of the science speculation chapters.

The book and magazine references can be found in any good library, but the scientific journal references will require that you arrange a visit to the library at a nearby university library. Most university libraries allow the public to visit the library during certain hours, although they usually do not let the public check out books. Most have, however, extensive (and comparatively cheap) copying facilities.

Arthur C. Clarke's speculations about the future and his three laws can be found in: Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, pp. 29 and 36 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1984).

Many of the scientific concepts discussed in detail in the various chapters of this book were briefly touched upon in a speech I gave to a group of science fiction writers in 1974. The notes for that speech can be found in my science "fact" article: "Far Out Physics" published in the August 1975 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Volume 95, Number 8, pages 147-166. The speculative concepts in that article, along with similar concepts from a number of articles that I had written for the magazines Omni, Science Digest, Science 80, Galaxy, and Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, were turned into a popular science book, Future Magic, which is now out of date and out of print.

This book, Indistinguishable From Magic, containing a combination of science fact and science fiction, is intended as a replacement for Future Magic.

Back | Next