Thursday, August 24, 2017

62 years later: scientific predictions by George Thomson

George Paget Thomson
In a previous post in this blog I expressed distrust about the predictions made by scientists and popular writers about the future of science and technology. Most of them never take place. Sometimes they are overly optimistic, sometimes overly pessimistic.
Sometimes, however,  they are true, if only in part. In 1955, George Paget Thomson (Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of electron diffraction) published a book about technological predictions (The Foreseeable Future, Cambridge University Press). I will summarize here the conclusions of his first chapter about the future of energy:
Until the population increase can be stopped, which is not foreseeable until 2050, energy consumption will continue to increase. Among the various sources, hydraulics will quickly reach its practical limits; coal and oil will be depleted sooner or later; solar energy is too dispersed and its use too expensive; wind and tidal power will never be major sources. The only alternative is nuclear energy: for the time being, fission energy, until fusion becomes possible.
This paragraph written 62 years ago could have been written today. In this field, progress has been very slow. In contrast, Thomson’s predictions about the evolution of transportation have been less accurate and can be summarized as follows:
Increasing the maximum speed of cars does not make sense. The maximum speed in railroads (100 miles per hour) has hardly grown in the last century and  is not expected to improve much. The only option to increase the speed of shipping would be by building large submarines powered by atomic energy, capable of moving at 60 or 70 knots. Major advances can only be envisaged in commercial air navigation, which will soon reach 2.5 times the speed of sound: crossing the Atlantic will take one hour.
Thomson’s predictions for commercial air navigation have not been met. The only step in that direction, the Concorde, was a failure. The super-submarines have never come into existence. By contrast, railroads have more than doubled their top speed.
In biology, he correctly predicted the rise of biotechnology, genetics and the industrial use of microorganisms. In medicine, on the other hand, he expressed doubts about increasing the average duration of human life beyond 70 years (by 1955 it was 63) unless it were possible to eliminate death completely and maintain youth indefinitely. In his words:
This new state of affairs will profoundly alter man’s attitude toward death, perhaps not for his good. It will make him more cowardly, as he will have more to lose.
Thomson fails dramatically in his predictions about the future of computing. He believes that one can now say that computers do think (while they were in the first generation!), But the only future applications he envisages are the verification of scientific theories and performing economic and electoral predictions. As their publication can influence the result of what they predict, he assumes that these predictions and polls will be considered top secret by governments. In this way, according to Thomson, the use of computers will lead, in the long run, to less information dissemination. What has happened is exactly the opposite.
It is interesting to mention his predictions about the importance of scientific popularization, which compensates for the growing specialization in science and technology:
[Popularization] is not easy to do, and those who dedicate themselves to it deserve as high a place in scientific estimation as the researchers. Generally, those who are not specialists in a field are better able to explain to others.

The same post in Spanish
Manuel Alfonseca

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