You just don't see many illuminated manuscripts these days. There’s a good reason why: They take a long time to make.
I learned this recently when I set out to commission a thoroughly modern illuminated manuscript: not a religious text, but an interview with theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies, a professor at Arizona State University and the author of books like How to Build a Time Machine. In the interview, Davies discusses the feedback loop between science-fiction storytelling and real-world innovation and discovery; lauds science fiction as an important vehicle for social and political commentary; ponders why our visions of the future are so often mired in gloomy dystopian thinking; and shares his insights on the art of communicating cutting-edge scientific concepts to the public.
The manuscript was created as a holiday gift for Project Hieroglyph’s digital community members. Hieroglyph, which is based at Arizona State University, is a network of science fiction authors, scientists, and other creative people who collaborate on hopeful, technically grounded stories about the future. (I work for Hieroglyph; Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU, and New America.)
The interview with Davies originally appeared in the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a collection of short stories set in the near future that aims to rekindle our ambitions for the future by creating new, inspiring icons of scientific and technological progress and achievement to match Isaac Asimov’s robots and Robert Heinlein’s rockets.
In a particularly compelling exchange, Davies argues that establishing colonies on Mars is possible today without any new technological breakthroughs—if only the funding and public support were there. He explains how the “national virility contest” of the Cold War drove the development of advanced physics throughout most of his career. Now that hostilities have subsided, funding for “big science” is much harder to come by: “The plan was when we stop spending this obscene amount of money on armaments ... the nonmilitary science would absolutely flourish. The exact opposite occurred. The peace dividend turned out to be a negative once the arms race faded away.”
Davies also discusses the role of science fiction not only in inspiring young people to pursue careers in science and technology, but also in communicating “the science process”—how inquiry at the forefront of scientific knowledge is conducted. He admires writers like Stephen Baxter and David Brin who create meticulously researched fictional worlds and keep abreast of cutting-edge discoveries, and is a lifelong fan of Fred Hoyle, a fiction writer and renowned cosmologist who ended up giving Davies his first job.
The artist (or should I say “illuminator”?) is Roy Wasson Valle, an Arizona-based printmaker. Valle was inspired by Davies’ discussion of medieval cathedrals and the idea of ambitious, long-term human projects. We decided to use a devotional art form to express the way that interplanetary missions and particle accelerators might function as the scientific cathedrals of our era. These enormous investments of capital and labor are designed to give us a window on the universe, a way of grasping at something larger than ourselves. In Davies’ words, they represent “a great, collective human venture for trying to understand our place in nature.”
We hope you enjoy reading the manuscript as much as we enjoyed creating it. It’s free to read, download, and share.