National Geographic News
A photo of a flying car.

A Convair Model 118 ConvAirCar takes a test flight in California in November 1947. The flying vehicle never went into production.

PHOTOGRAPH BY FPG/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY

Christopher Kemp

for National Geographic

Published February 24, 2014

Lawrence Krauss is a busy man. A theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University, Krauss has studied the universe, served on the science policy committee for Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, and crossed paths with intellectuals like Stephen Hawking and Christopher Hitchens. He has authored several books, including The Physics of Star Trek. In February 2014, Krauss took part in an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium titled Where's My Flying Car? Science, Science Fiction, and a Changing Vision of the Future.

We caught up with him in the recent past, to talk with him about the future.

So, where is my flying car?

Your flying car is still in the dreams of people 50 years ago. You can feel bad that we don't have flying cars, that we're not living in hotels in space, but the real world intervenes. Certain [technological innovations] are just a lot harder, a lot more expensive.

At the same time, there's a flipside: The real things that have happened are much more interesting. The Internet is a clear example of how our lives have changed in ways we couldn't have imagined: a distributed information source, which is invisible to everyone, where you can access anything, and it's distributed throughout the whole world. Basically, communication is instantaneous.

When it comes to the things that people really want in science fiction—like space travel—the simplest things end up causing them not to happen. Humans are 100-pound bags of water, built to live on Earth.

We hoped for flying cars and got the Internet instead. What's to blame for the difference between our hopes and the reality we end up with instead?

I would say [innovations] almost never come from predictable places. If innovations were predictable, they wouldn't be discoveries. When people extrapolate into the future, they extrapolate [from] the known present. If I knew what the next big thing was, I'd be doing it now.

What have we done to the world? Climate change. Overpopulation. Global inequity. Perhaps a virus we set loose from the animal world by displacing so many exotic species, which could wipe us all out. These all either seem to be here already or looming in our near future.

The virus thing: I wouldn't stay up overnight on it. We're pretty robust; we've survived for four and a half million years.

So what does the future hold?

It looks like we're destroying the world as we know it. We certainly are entering Earth 2.0. But where that will go is not clear.

Are you hopeful for the future?

It depends on the day. I'm not very hopeful that humanity can act en masse to address what are now truly global problems that require a new way of thinking. As Einstein said when nuclear weapons were created: "Everything's changed save the way we think."

I think we need to change the way we think to address these global problems. Will it happen? Maybe kicking and screaming. My friend, the writer Cormac McCarthy, told me once: "I'm a pessimist, but that's no reason to be gloomy." In a sense, that's my attitude.

Five hundred years from now, will we be living on Mars?

Maybe. If we do space travel, it will tend to be one-way trips. Throughout human history, people have done these ridiculously difficult one-way voyages for one reason: because where they lived was so awful they were willing to get on a little wooden vessel that might sink and go across an ocean to some unknown place that they would probably never return from because it was so crummy where they were.

Maybe we'll do that for ourselves. We'll make the world so miserable that living in some harsh environment on Mars might seem attractive.

Christopher Kemp is the author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris.

15 comments
Bruce Carter
Bruce Carter

Considering how utterly incompetent the vast majority of drivers are - do you really want to give them a third dimension in which to have even more and deadlier accidents?  After 21 years of careful driving adhering to every traffic law, I was still almost taken out by the actions of an impatient woman trying to use the left turn lane as a passing lane.  I am more convinced than ever that we need to get the humans out from behind the wheel.  Why send a human to do something a computer can do better?  Computer controlled vehicles will cooperate with each other to get everybody to their destination in the most efficient way possible.  Nobody will exceed the posted limit.  Nobody will cut somebody off.  Nobody will rush around a line of traffic to cut in at the last minute.  Nobody will follow too closely.  These are the foolish things people do that make the driving experience horrific and dangerous for everybody else.

James Smith
James Smith

And I'd say the the "virus thing" is something to worry about. Have we forgotten about the 1918 flu pandemic that killed many, many million of people in every corner of the earth?


The close quarters and unsanitary conditions of trench warfare of WW1 likely contributed to the spread such a virulent strain of influence to cause the 1918 pandemic, and we are essentially doing the same right now the way we are growing our food in unnatural confined spaces, hence you get swine and avian (bird) flu.  

Roland Delhomme
Roland Delhomme

Maverick Flying Car: inconveniently, it exists. It's in production, was briefed on at the UN, has garnered international recognition, and is already in use, with numerous agencies and individuals finding ways to use it for agriculture, survey, wildlife monitoring, search and rescue, and perhaps of interest to those who read National Geographic, low cost access to remote areas by a road legal, offroad capable car that morphs, quite successfully, into a flying machine.

Aviation's oldest worn-out punch line has been put to rest.

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

il y a une fin à tout y compris la pollution et autres nuisances, donc plutôt que d'être sur Mars, je pense plutôt qu'on sera devant notre créateur à lui rendre des comptes!!! les civilisations qui nous ont précédé ont agi isolement; il y 'avait toujours quelque part au monde où on respectait la nature. maintenant, aujourd'hui c'est l'attaque sur la terre de tous les cotés, la pollution même provoquée par quelques uns se disperse sur toute la surface de la terre les animaux sont exterminés pour une raison ou une autre, alors je pense que la suite logique à tous cela c'est la fin de tout    

Kristianna Thomas
Kristianna Thomas

Change is the only constant in the universe, and change is constantly taking its tole on the way we live removing all the norms and replacing them with a higher quantum state of being.  We can't predetermine how we will live in the distant future, but we can take a few shots at what may be.  One hundred years ago when communications was done over telegraph, the thought of talking to someone instantly on the opposite side of the world would have seemed fantasy; we do it every day and don't give it a second thought. Living in the "harsh" conditions of Mars seems sci-fi and not reality, but several generations from now it will be just another day.  To make the claim that science fiction is "cool", but science is "cooler" is a slap in the face when many scientist have been influenced by science fiction.  Where was humanity 500 years ago, and where will we be 500 years from now?  We are like pilgrims trying to create and predict a future we will never be part of.  Could a person driving a stage coach predict UPS or our present form of transportation, so are we any better than someone living 100 years ago?

Gregory S.
Gregory S.

The track record of this species when it comes to preserving our world is abysmal. Faced with a global catastrophe, the leaders of the race have decided they don't care since the dire impacts loom just beyond their lifetimes. Yet there is a subset of the population that does understand this and wants to take care of the planet and by default the future of the human race. The problem is these people are not in charge. Commerce driven greed and those who pursue it are the people who still run this planet. They are essentially megalomaniacs who's source of status is how many resources they have gathered for themselves and they use those resources to gather even more resources. Their appetite for wealth and resources is like a black hole that can never be sated with enough. The same lack of moral fibre that fuels their insatiable desire also enables their neglect of the welfare of the resources and the surroundings they are exploiting. Our leaders are supposed to be guardians of the common good, but they too get swept up in this quest for power, wealth and status and become part of the problem. The people in turn have failed to elect the right kind of leaders who are immune to this kind of power-seeking behavior and instead elect people into power who stick to their principles and unwaveringly protect the common resources against the destructive powers of those who exploit them for their own benefit. The single most dire need  for the race for it to survive is for it to learn how to vet it's leaders in order to weed out these kinds of people who we routinely elect into power. For those who say that it doesn't matter, that everyone corrupts when given power, I say they are wrong, but the kind of people who stick to their principles to the point that they sacrifice opportunities for personal gain are hard to find. They are hard to find since they do not seek power as they properly see it as responsibility and not opportunity or privilege. The notion as it stands for electing leaders has to be razed completely. Voting based on popularity (personal appeal) selects for the kinds of status-seeking, image-conscious, and power-craving individuals  that I mentioned above. We need to vet candidates based on a proven track record of self-sacrifice, especially one of passing on opportunities for personal gain in order to adhere to the principles of doing what is best for everyone. You will find that these kinds of individuals are uncommon, but they do exist. They would be reluctant to take the reigns of power, but they are the only ones properly suited to take that job. For a solution a start would be an independent ratings system of candidates based on transparent and objective criteria with regards to their capacity for self-sacrifice and lack of exploitative/abusive behavior.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I agree with you Wayne. I mean GET A GRIP! He wasn't talking in exacts here, He was talking about the entire trip we took to get here. And I just happen to believe that we as a whole are capable of greatness. I mean look at Steven Hawking, He has to be the biggest optimist in the world given the what's been dished out to him. And he has shown just how great we can be if given a chance. So get off you pity pot and try to be a part of the solution instead of focusing on the negative.

Richard Evans
Richard Evans

Fun article.  It did cross my mind that Heinlein predicted something very close to the internet.  In "Friday" the heroine could access a global network from terminals at hotels where she (it) traveled.  She also researched a company history, using something very much like hyperlinks,  from a global database, if I recall.   "Friday" was 1983, as the internet was already taking shape with arpanet, bitnet, and other specialized networks. 

Fact-checking just uncovered Heinlein first predicted it in 1938's "For Us The Living," only published posthumously. There's more at: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/08/robert-a-heinleins-technological-prophecies

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

  We have NOT "been around for 4.5 millions years"!

   There have been several main species of humans over the last 2.5 to 3 million years and many were contemporary. Some hominid fossils of that age are considered to be the first human species Homo habilis ('Handy Man), although others argue that those fossils are not the first humans. 

   All human species have now gone extinct except for us - Homo sapiens sapiens. In fact, since the extinction of Homo neanderthalensis some 24,000 years ago this is the only time in human history when there has been just one species of Man on the planet - all others are now extinct. The longest-lived species of Man was Homo erectus who populated the world and lived for 1.5 million years - now extinct too.

   Our species Homo sapiens has only been around for some 100,000+ years - and we have been a disaster! We probably destroyed two other species of Man - Homo neanderthalensis as well as Homo floriensis from Indonesia. Our population is now out of control and destroying 100 species of plants and animals a day - as well as damaging the entire planet! I really don't think it too long before Homo sapiens sapiens follows all the other species of Man into extinction. We certainly won't last as long as Homo neanderthalensis or erectus. 

Gonzalo Huidobro
Gonzalo Huidobro

We have been around for a long long time, we are the product of an ongoing evolution, among, Homo Neanderthalis and as it seems an even older ancestor, keep on existing in our genes, that makes us "robust" as the interview states, otherwise, yes, we are quite a desaster..

Share

Feed the World

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »