At a recent speaking engagement, I was introduced as an “expert”. Scary title, that. At another place I was introduced as “highly experienced” which is a polite way of saying “old”.
These put me in mind of Clarke’s Law. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the inventor of the geostationary satellite, author of innumerable books both non-fiction and science-fiction, and one of the truly forward thinkers of the 20th century. Clarke’s first law has to do with predictions and experts. He came to an interesting conclusion after studying the predictions of experts over the previous centuries. To get you in the right frame of mind, consider some of these real predictions by well respected experts of the past:
Rail travel at high speeds is not possible because the passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia – Dr. D. Lardner, 1835
I can accept the theory of relativity as little as I can accept the existence of atoms and other such dogmas – Ernst Mach 1912
Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth decimal place – Nobel Prize laureate A. A. Michelson, 1894
Aerial flight is one of that class of problems with which man will never be able to cope – Simon Newcomb, 1903
The [atomic] bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives – Adm. William Leahy to President Truman, 1945
The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steam ships. It seems safe to say that such ideas are wholly visionary and even if the machine could get across with one or two passengers, the expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could use his own yacht. – William H. Pickering, 1910
And so on. You get the point, and there are plenty of other predictions we can laugh at today.
So Clarke postulated his first law:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Everybody is making up Christmas lists or maybe New Year’s Resolutions and wishes for what might happen in 2010 or later. I think I will avoid such lists.
In hopes of proving Sir Arthur Clarke correct, and based on my status as an aging “expert”, I would like to make some predictions (tongue firmly planted in cheek – hoping that reverse psychology will make the predictions fail):
1. Human spaceflight was a passing fancy and its disappearance will hardly be noted by historians nor missed by the general public.
2. Human beings will never again set foot on the moon nor travel to Mars or any other celestial body.
3. The study of engineering and technology will become a thing of the past as the world’s standard of living returns to that of the 18th century.
4. The popular entertainments of the day will so capture the imagination of the public that they are rendered incapable of any real productivity and spend their time in the pursuit of gossip about actors and sports figures.
5. Constant exposure to digital toys will decrease the human attention space to milliseconds preventing any useful thought or accomplishment.
6. Without any unifying goals, the world becomes increasingly balkanized into clan-like groups who turn to violence over ancient insults, real or imagined.
OH NO. What an awful set of predictions. The Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge could not have done better. But there they are, and I want credit for having made them. If they come true, then I should be remembered for having predicted them. If they don’t come true, I’ll be just as happy to join the company of William Pickering and A. A. Michelson!
Now for what I really wish for at this season (not a prediction, lest I jinx it!):
A commitment from all the space faring nations of the world to join together – with adequate resources – to explore in detail the entire solar system in our lifetime; including the first permanent human habitations (colonies) on the Moon and Mars and outposts at other strategic points in the solar system; a well established and effective transportation system to link this community together; and a strong technology development program to enable it all. Such an international effort would unite the peoples of the earth in cooperation to achieve a historic and noble goal and would result in innumerable benefits from technology and medical advancements, stronger economies and new industries, and serve to inspire our children to study the hard subjects and to follow their parents in achieving great things.
This may be too much to wish for; some may call it unrealistic, but human progress has only been truly made by unrealistic people. Now my wish is that we buckle down and do it!
My very best wishes for each of you to have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!