The Future Revealed at the Library

by Bill Peak

Ten years ago, after my first day of work at the library, I drove straight home and cancelled all but one of my magazine subscriptions. What was the point in paying an annual fee to Field and Stream and The Atlantic Monthly when I could read them absolutely free of charge at the library? And now, with the library's online Zinio program and Master File Premier database, the number of magazines I can read without spending a dime of my own money numbers in the hundreds.

Still there was one subscription I just couldn't bring myself to cancel. I first discovered Scientific American in a doctor's office some forty years ago. I can still remember the article I read that day, remember it, I believe, because I was surprised to find myself so challenged by something picked up offhand while sitting in an otherwise ordinary waiting room. Sometimes, when listening to Bach, my brain responds to the complexities of that man's music as if it were a muscle being stretched and strengthened by exercise. It feels good. It feels very good indeed. And on that day, in that doctor's office, for the first time in my life, I experienced a similar sensation reading a simple magazine.

Needless to say, I was hooked. Though I am by nature a fiction and poetry addict, once a month I look forward to losing myself in the hard, cold, unrelentingly mysterious world of science that this one magazine provides. Well, actually, that's not entirely true. Every September, Scientific American runs a special edition devoted to a single subject, and, by some perverse luck, the editors always seem to pick a topic like computer science (boring) or quantum physics (baffling) that leaves me cold. I may attempt to read an article or two, I'll scan the latest findings and research updates in the publication's news section, but the bulk of the thing will go into our family recycle bin completely unread. So it was that, when this September's issue arrived, I greeted it with a healthy dose of skepticism. “The Future,” its cover proudly proclaimed in a sort of retro, M. C. Escher script, and I found myself thinking, “Yeah ... your future, my friend, won't be long.” Then I opened it up.

Counterintuitively for a magazine about what we usually think of as a single time—the future—the issue follows a sort of chronological order. The first article considers the deep time of geology. If the Pleistocene marks the geological boundaries of a world warped and molded by the last ice age, would some alien geologist visiting our planet long after we're gone be able to detect evidence of our existence in the stratum laid down while we were here ... and, consequently, label that layer the “Anthropocene”? Next, a series of articles looks at the immediate threats, challenges, and opportunities facing our world and how they are likely to play out. We hear from climate scientists, environmentalists, and even a denizen of the dismal science: economics. Then medicine joins hands with technology to consider two of mankind's oldest enemies, aging (can it be defeated?) and mortality (would we even want to live forever if we could?). Then an astrobiologist considers the lifespan not of individual human beings but of the race as a whole. If we are, indeed, in the midst of an “Anthropocene” epoch, how and when will it end? Finally, in what strikes me as a bit of subtle lab coat humor, the editors asked a Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer to judge the likelihood that any of the forgoing authors' predictions will prove correct.

I read the thing cover to cover. And now I invite you to as well. The library has ten copies of Scientific American's September issue available for check out, or you can just read it online using our Master File Premier database. Which ever way you read the magazine, I would love to hear what you think of it. On Monday, January 23, at 6:00 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on Thursday, January 26, at 3:00 p.m., in our St. Michaels branch, I will, for the first time ever, host a discussion not of a book but of a magazine, the September issue of Scientific American. Together, let's find out what the future holds in store.