Future imperfect

 

THE HISTORY of scientific research is littered with failures that did not deliver the expected outcomes. Here I present: Scientific and Technological Predictions that Didn’t Come True.

ON TIDES

“A useless fiction” – Galileo Galilei(1564-1642) said, dismissing the proposal by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) that the moon causes the tides. Galileo believed tides were caused because a point on earth alternately slows down and speeds up as earth rotates on its axis and moves around the sun.

HUMAN STOCK NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE

“It has now become a serious necessity to better the breed of the human race. The average citizen is too base for the everyday work of modern civilisation” – Francis Galton(1822-1911).

RADIO, AIRCRAFT, X-RAYS AND THE END OF PHYSICS

“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax” – William Thomson(Lord Kelvin, 1824-1907), mathematician and physicist and president of the Royal Society, 1899.

“In this field almost everything is already discovered and all that remains is to fill a few holes” – a Munich physics professor, Philipp von Jolly, in 1874, advising Max Planck (1858-1947) not to take up physics.

TANKS, STEAMBOATS AND TRAINS

“The idea that cavalry will be replaced by these iron coaches is absurd. It is little short of treasonous” – comment of aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Haig, at tank demonstration, 1916.

“How, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense” – Napoleon Bonaparte(1769-1821), when told about the steamboat.

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia” – Dionysys Larder(1793-1859), professor of natural philosophy and astronomy, University College London.

SPACE TRAVEL

“To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth – all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances” – Lee De Forest(1873-1961), radio pioneer and the inventor of the vacuum tube, 1926.

“Space travel is bunk” – Sir Harold Spencer Jones(1890-1960), UK Astronomer Royal, 1957. Two weeks later Sputnik orbited the earth.

NUCLEAR ENERGY AND WEAPONS

“The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine” – Ernest Rutherford(1871-1937), shortly after splitting the atom for the first time.

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will” – Albert Einstein(1879-1955), 1932.

“This is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives” – Admiral William D Leahy, chief of staff to the commander in chief of the army and navy, advising US president Truman on the atomic bomb, 1945.

“And it is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electricity too cheap to meter” – Lewis L Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, 1954.

TV AND COMPUTERS

“[Television] won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night” – Darryl Zanuck(1902-1979), movie producer, Twentieth Century Fox, 1946.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” – Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

POPULATION PREDICTION IN 1970s

Entomologist Paul Ehrlichpredicted in his 1968 bestselling book, The Population Bomb, that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the next two decades.

HIV AND AIDS

“That virus is a pussycat” – Dr Peter Duesberg, biology professor at University College, Berkeley, describing the power of HIV to cause Aids, 1988.


William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science Officer at University College Cork:

understandingscience.ucc.ie.