SO, sometime this century, women are going to be shot into space for hundreds of years without the benefit of male companions.

Their spaceships will not be like the Starship Enterprise, but rather "light sails", hundreds of miles across and powered by lasers. These spaceships will weigh millions of tons and will operate as miniature cities.

Oh, and by the way, those giant sails will be as wide as the distance between London and Darlington - but they will be only a few millionths of a millimetre thick.

No, I promise you, I'm not writing this under the influence: it's Lent and I'm off the booze for 40 days and 40 nights.

These bizarre predictions come straight from the horse's mouth - that is from the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, now meeting in Boston. Dr Landis, one of their leading boffins, says: "You will then shine an incredibly powerful laser beam onto the sail to push it out to the stars as the wind pushes a sailing ship, only at a tenth of the speed of light. At this terrific speed, you would get to Alpha Centauri in about 43 years." He goes on: "The sails would be made of diamond, just a couple of molecules thick. When you get to Alpha Centauri, you could stop the ship by using a magnetic parachute 60 miles in diameter."

OK, Dr Landis, I believe you, but why no men on board? Because they weigh too much, that's why, and they would be just so much excess baggage. Instead, the pioneering women astronauts will take a sperm bank with them and breed their own. The good doctor adds: "After the long voyage without any men present, they might discover that humanity doesn't actually need men after all."

Far be it from me to cast doubt on what might be achieved in the fairly near future by great men of science, but this sounds like a woman's scheme to me - flying off to the land of stardust in a piece of laser-powered kitchen foil and leaving the men behind on earth to do the washing up. First, is that all we men are good for - providing seed to make offspring? Here we see an example of something that's typical of the scientific outlook: it's reductionist, that is it narrows things down to their least. So, because women might be able to do without men for the procreation of children, the assumption is that there's no reason for the existence of men at all. It's like saying that, because it's just possible to live on cabbage leaves and water, we might as well give up beer and fish and chips forever.

Secondly, whenever I read scientific predictions of this sort, I tend to look back at earlier predictions to see if they have come true. I remember we were told by scientists in the 1950s that, by the year 2000, there would be no more congestion in our cities; we would all be moving about on monorails high above the streets. Have you tried to get across town recently? We were told we would all have more leisure: there is both more unemployment and more overwork. And we were told back in the 1950s - after 20 years of cold winters and wet summers - that we were heading for a new Ice Age. Now we're warned of the disasters of global warming. Beam me up, Scottie. I feel like joining the ladies en route to the land of stardust.

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2002