A scientific journey of discovery — Luke O’Neill lifts the lid in his new book

When young we are gripped by wonder as we discover the world. But we must encourage our youth to keep wondering

I only have a vague memory of my grandmother, Agnes Bourke O’Neill. She died when I was three years old. But two memories stand out. The first is me sitting in her garden on what I still remember as intensely bright green grass, beside some geraniums.

I was amazed at how green the grass was and the heady scent coming off the flowers. The second is even more vivid. I was sitting on the floor in her livingroom, and she was holding a small feather. She let it drop, and I remember it floating slowly to the floor. She picked it up, and let it drop again. I was transfixed and filled with awe at the sight. Was that simple physics experiment the start of me as a scientist?

As children, we are filled with wonder as we discover the world. And we’d better make sure we encourage our young people to keep wondering. We should especially encourage young people who think a bit differently to become scientists. As you’ll hopefully have realised, some of the best scientists were wackos. We need more wackos. As Carl Sagan, that great science communicator, famously said, ‘Something somewhere is waiting to be known’.

Think about that for a minute. Think of all the things we’ve found out already. To think, 100 years ago (a drop in the ocean of how long it’s been since the Earth formed) we didn’t know how big the universe is, or about viruses or DNA or treatments for so many diseases that afflict us. And there’s so much more still to be discovered.


Robert Boyle grappled with this and predicted what might be discovered in the future. And 300 years ago he drew up a list of things he hoped could be achieved through science. It’s intriguing to examine that list now and see how far we’ve come. He listed the following, and under each I’ve put the progress we’ve made.

Prolongation of life

This has been achieved to some extent: modern medicine and lifestyle changes are allowing us to live longer. The average lifespan in Boyle’s time was 35 years, so we’ve more than doubled that (to 82 years).

Recovery of youth

Sadly, this is not yet possible, unless you count Botox or hair transplants. Scientists have yet to come up with a way to reverse ageing.

Art of flying

Achieved – from balloons to planes to rockets.

Art of continuing long under water

Achieved too – with the invention of the submarine and scuba gear.

Cure of diseases at a distance

It’s not really clear what Boyle meant by “at a distance”, but there are now robots that can perform surgery and radiotherapy can be used to treat certain cancers.

Cure of wounds at a distance

This has also been achieved to some extent, with the discovery of drugs that can promote wound healing such as pentoxifylline, which works by increasing blood flow to the wound which then promotes repair.

Transmutation of metals

Radioactive decay can change one element into another, but we haven’t quite managed to change lead into gold.

The making of armour light

This has been achieved in the form of Kevlar, a strong, heat-resistant synthetic fibre made from a chemical called poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide (Kevlar is easier to say). It can protect against stabs – and when made of 15 layers, even bullets.

Finding longitude

This was achieved when in 1730 John Harrison invented his clock, which could measure time with remarkable precision – and we have the global positioning system now.

Potent drugs to exalt imagination

This has been achieved with the discovery of drugs such as LSD – but trippy, man!

A ship to sail with all winds

Achieved – with the invention of engines to drive ships.

So, we’ve made amazing progress. Boyle would be delighted because the scientific method he advocated for has been put to great use. But what might happen next? Several predictions were made in the TV show The Simpsons that have come true, notably the GoPro camera, autocorrect (even the errors: a bully writes down in an electronic diary “Beat up Martin”, which is autocorrected to “Eat up, Martha”), virtual reality glasses, video chatting and the smartwatch. The Simpsons is indeed the font of all human knowledge.

Here is my own list of what science might achieve in the future. I wonder how many of these will be achieved in my lifetime and beyond.

Figuring out how the mind works

This is still a mystery. We have no notion of how consciousness works, for example. If we did, I’d tell you.

Discovering why we age and being able to slow it down

This question persists from Boyle’s time. Ageing is a part of life and it’s still not clear what the underlying mechanism is. A lot of effort is going into trying to understand why we age, and there has been some progress.

The conquering of all the major diseases that afflict us, with equitable access to healthcare for all

This will most likely involve gene editing to correct the faulty genes that cause so many diseases. This might involve the DNA editing technology called CRISPR.

It might also involve the invention of vaccines for many diseases, including cancer, or better ways to deliver therapies to where you want them to go – with for example nanoparticles, an approach I am researching myself.

The halting of species becoming extinct and restoration of those that already have

This might involve the retrieval of DNA from the extinct animal, which could then be used to somehow fertilise an egg which might then develop. If we want them back – we might be wise to leave out the dinosaurs.

Effective 3D printing of everything we need – just like the replicator in Star Trek

This will mean an end to money, as why would money be needed if the only transactions involved buying a 3D printer and its supplies – as all the key things can be printed at the flip of a switch? The technology for 3D printing continues to improve.

A renewable and safe source of energy that will provide power for our needs without contributing to global warming

This is a very active area of research for the obvious reason that the way we currently extract energy is killing the planet. One goal is to achieve fusion, where more energy is released than was put in. There was progress in 2022, when two iso- topes of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – were fused in an experiment that was hailed as a big success, with the warning that turning this into a viable source of energy is still a long way off. But still, progress nonetheless.

All vehicles, (plane, trains, automobiles and beyond) becoming driverless

In the case of automobiles, this will mean an end to traffic accidents and traffic jams. Advances are being made in this area too, with artificial intelligence being deployed as well as a range of computer and imaging technologies.

Rapid global travel using a renewable energy source

Imagine getting to Australia in one hour. Ideas like the hyperloop, which is a high-speed transportation system for people and goods, are being explored. It involves magnetic propulsion in an almost frictionless tube.

Space travel for the fun of it

The Artemis missions’ plan to put humans on the moon by 2025, building a lunar gateway which will act as a jump-off point for a mission to Mars. We may need to go there if the Earth is dying, but hopefully not.

The discovery of extraterrestrial life

Surely only a matter of time. I can’t wait to see what it looks like. It’s a sign of how fast science and technology are evolving that I am confident that many of these will become reality within the next 50 years – and most within a century. We can catch up for a pint to see who was most correct in 2073. The loser buys the drinks!

The goal of science is to make discoveries, and then for those discoveries to be used by society to benefit all life on Earth

Think of all the things we’ve found out already. When my grandmother Agnes Bourke O’Neill was born in 1893 (more than a lifetime ago, but a drop in the ocean of how long it’s been since the Earth formed) we didn’t know how big the universe is, about black holes, or about viruses or DNA or treatments for so many diseases that afflict us, and there was no notion of computers and the internet.

I wonder if Agnes knew that with her demonstration of the aerodynamics of a feather she had inspired her grandson to embark on a lifetime of science, making discoveries about the immune system that will hopefully one day lead to better treatments for autoimmune and auto-inflammatory diseases?

Scientists have been participants in the best reality show of all time. With all the highs, lows, failures, conflicts, bust-ups and strange personalities. Only, this one has given us so much more than entertainment. The scientists have also given us hope.

  • Extracted from To Boldly Go Where No Book Has Gone Before by Luke O’Neill, published by Viking and available in stores and online. O’Neill’s children’s book Show Me The Science is published by Gill Books – and is also out now.