Friday, February 5, 2010
Michael Hanlon, editor, and writer of science fact and fiction
Michael Hanlon is the Science Editor at the Daily Mail. He has appeared on TV and radio and headlined several science festivals. His fourth popular science book, Eternity, was released in 2009. Most notable of his others, at least to sci-fi readers would be The Science Of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Macmillan, 2005).
And for my Seattle readers, he's coming your way later this month. Science: Michael Hanlon: Science’s Unanswered Questions
AW: Especially in your chapters concerning how the future might look on an individual level, I could name all the stories or novels in which I read those very premises. I'm guessing you're a SF fan yourself. You mentioned David Brin's Earth. He's one of my favorite authors, though I haven't read that one. Might have to rethink it now.
MH: Earth, written 21 years ago, had a lot of 'hits', including an almost spot-on prediction of how the Internet would develop in the early 21st Century, and the increasing concern about environmental degradation. Considering nothing dates like the future, Earth has held up pretty well I think.
AW: Who are your favorite SF authors?
MH: Clarke, Brin, Baxter, Asimov, Aldiss, Pohl, Heinlein, Stapledon, Wells, Verne, Ballard. The greats. I have never much gone for anything with elves in it, however.
AW: Have you ever considered trying your hand at it yourself?
MH: Yes indeed. Some of the chapters of Eternity are sci-fi. I am working on a novel right now, and have had a short-story (my only attempt thus far) published in Nature.
AW: You mentioned the devastating numbers of people lost to wars and the population explosion on the same page. was this an intentional placement? Like controlled fires saving the forest? No one would ever want to say that war is a good thing, but were you, in a read-between-the-lines way, suggesting it might be a necessary evil?
MH: No, I wasn't thinking of that. It is interesting that throughout the 20th Century, war had little impact on the inexorable rise in population. The best way to regulate the number of people is not by killing them but by providing better education for women, and giving women economic freedom. Where this has happened, population growth rates have more or less always dropped off a cliff.
AW: Flying cars mentioned a lot (pg 100 was 2nd or 3rd mention. At least 3 more by 115. When did you first fall in love with them?
MH: When I was 3. I am still cross that I don't have one. I use the flying car as a metaphor to represent the futures that could never be.
AW: On page 110, you wrote: Finally, there is the possibility of some wholly new technology: artificial microbes that turn sunlight into gasoline, huge space mirrors, or some way of harnessing the vacuum energy. Can you elaborate on the first one at all?
MH: Craig Venter is working on an artificial microbe to do just that, or at least something very similar. It is early days, but synthetic genomics has huge potential to change the world. We shall see. My point is that world-changing technologies often come out of the blue. No one really foresaw atomic power nor even steam power until they were almost upon us.
AW: My husband LOVES airships. We went on a airship trip around the bay (SF bay) on Airship Ventures' Eureka. It was wonderful. You mention them as a possible future airliner: There will always be a market for flights across the Atlantic in six hours; but throw in enough comfort and enough greenery and a cruise taking a day or two for rhe same distance should not be too much of a hard sell. On shorter routes, airships make even more sense. What are the barriers? What about solar flares and other types of radiation? I know this is a concern for planes now. What happens when we use photovoltaic cells on an airship? Or would it charge up on the ground? How would it hold the charge?
MH: I would love airships to replace planes. I would actually be happy for trains to replace planes (which they yet may). But there are problems. Airships are slow ... best-case is 24 hours London-NYC, using modern engines and aerodynamics. I could live with that (go to the bar, dinner, watch a film, the bar - again, bed, wake up in new continent) but most people, lunatics as they are, want to rush around as fast as possible. Airships are also susceptible to weather, and landing in windy conditions is hard or impossible. Solar flares would be far less of a problem for airships than jet airliners as the former fly so much lower. It would make sense to coat the hull with PV cells indeed.
AW: Do you have any words of wisdom on organizing research?
MH: You mean for writing? Random stabs in the dark is the best way, I find.
AW: What are your top five online research resources?
MH: Well, aside form the usual first-port-of-call on-line suspects, my increasingly unreliable memory, various random books, overheard snippets, surmise, conjecture and the wonderful British Library. And those random stabs in the dark.
AW: Can you tell me about your next book?
MH: Yes. It is a science fiction novel, a detective story set 872 years hence, in a decaying and decadent London, although the action stretches from America to China. All with a HUGE twist at the end. Progress is slow. Hopefully it will be finished before '872 years hence' starts to look too current. If I can't make more progress I might just write the twist and let the readers fill the rest of the book in for themselves.
And his 10 Questions Science Can't Answer (Yet): A Guide to the Scientific Wilderness releases later this month.
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This interview was intriguing; your style is delightfully offbeat yet retaining all the professionalism of a gifted journalist. I shall return soon to read of the archives.
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