Williams, R. A Promise of Miracles

A Promise of Miracles – Celebrating the Scientific Experience Penguin Books $14.95, 311 pages


Robyn Williams’ collection of 59 short pieces: essays, speeches, interviews, reminiscences etc. has something for nearly everyone. Here are meetings with famous people, meditations on natural (and unnatural) wonders, rapid excursions through key ideas and witty forays into the future.

Despite the pressures of public life (“slithering piles of faxes”, endless phone calls and a cardiac arrest) Williams still has a genuine “sense of wonder” about the world. For him science is the great channel through which the latter can be understood and perhaps even preserved. His central mission, therefore, is to extract from the brightest and the best their special insights and findings – and then make them accessible, particularly to the young. It is a globe-spanning enterprise, and the book reflects this broad approach.

Some heavy themes are covered with a characteristic ironic humour. When working on the Snowy River project, he notes that “there was no language to celebrate nature; it was reduced to some kind of a threat to your motor car”. In a later essay he wittily explores some of the consequences of each person bearing personal bar-code on their left buttock. Williams is no stylist – but he does not go in for didacticism either. He is never boring; he is never, well, hardly ever, telling you anything. Rather he enthuses, entertains and, with the lightest of touches, informs the reader. He specifically disavows a more active social role: “I am an observer, a reporter of change in society, not a perpetrator or technocrat”, he declares. No ego on wheels here. Just an active mind reporting back to its friends. A kind of collective uncle.

He is emphatic about the humanising possibilities of science. It “may be powerful, it may be staggering, but it remains ours” he declares. So, potentially, do the technologies that flow from it. Hence, “the future is ours to create as we choose. There is time.” Moreover, “we need to have real pictures of what life could be like next century…We can’t get by just trimming what’s here now, because it’s not good enough.” Or again: “trolling on through in the complacent way of yesteryear is the surest path to extinction.” No pussyfooting around the issue here, but no simple prescriptions either.

The book is undemanding and delightfully free of abstractions. Yet it positively fizzes with ideas. The central problem (upon which the future hinges) is so understated it could easily be missed. A clue is given in the publisher’s flyer where Williams is quoted as saying “only a scientifically aware population can avoid being bamboozled by a spurious promise of miracles and build a scientific culture that will last.” Thus, a key question is posed: what part of this promise is spurious? The question is never answered, though it permeates the book. However, a trek through these pages will entertain while providing clues for the attentive reader.

Published in 21C, Summer, Commission for the Future, Melbourne 1993/94, p 91.