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"It'll never work": a collection of failed predictions (lhup.edu)
224 points by egor83 on Feb 19, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments

Space travel is utter bilge. - Dr. Richard van der Reit Wooley, Astronomer Royal, space advisor to the British government, 1956. (Sputnik orbited the earth the following year.)

IIRC, this is a misquote. The original was something like "All this talk of space travel is utter bilge. It would cost as much as a major war to put a man on the Moon." Which was more or less correct.

When did facts ever stop an opportunity to hype up a story?

Anyway, for reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_van_der_Riet_Woolley

Reminds me of the Bill Gates 640kb quote. Gates has denied saying it, but even if he had, it would have been an accurate statement at the time it was supposedly made.

The 640 KB quote wasn't about the time is was supposedly made. That's why it's so laughable. It was "Nobody will ever need more than 640 KB."

Clarke's 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 probably wrong.

Clarke's law is catchy, but I don't buy it. Unfortunately, elderly scientists are unreliable in both positive and negative predictions, especially outside their specialty: for example, Luc Montagnier's recent hokum or Linus Pauling's vitamin C megadosage scheme.

All "unreliable predictions" stem from the same general mistakes.

1) Prognosticating outside of one's expertise should raise a red flag.

2) Predictions should not rely only on scientific principles, but also involve economic analysis. (Larry Niven once wrote something to the effect: Anyone can write about teleport booths, but it takes a good author to come up with "flash crowds.")

3) Absolute laws are not always so simple to apply as it would first seem. (Example: the Halting Problem does not preclude useful bug checking software, just perfect bug checking software.)

Elder statesmen scientists aren't the only ones to make these mistakes. I posit that the common perception of reality is riddled with similar misapplication of fundamental knowledge. I also posit that there's huge profit potential hiding behind many such popular misapplications.

What about: It's impossible to go faster than the speed of light?

You have to be careful in how you define speed before answering this question: do you mean group velocity or phase velocity? And faster than the local velocity of light or the value in vacuo?

It is indeed possible for a particle to travel at a speed greater than the local phase velocity of light through a medium. This is what brings about Čerenkov radiation, which is that eerie blue glow associated with the core of nuclear reactors.

But it is possible to go faster than the speed of light. As space expands, it pushes the rest of space (and therefore its contents) apart, potentially faster than the speed of light.

Not really scientific but a good quote ;- ) : No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it. ~Terry Pratchett

Hence the "probably"'s.

> Clarke's 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 probably wrong.

Clarke's first law is an unnecessarily complicated version of:

It's probably possible.


You're overgeneralizing a bit. What it actually reduces to is "if a distinguished but elderly scientist expresses an opinion about something, it's probably possible". The reason this is meaningful is that distinguished scientists tend not to express opinions on ridiculous crackpot ideas.

Cute but not true. TFA itself included several counter-examples.

> Instead of a car in every garage, there will be a helicopter.... These 'copters' will be so safe and will cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny 'copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads.

That quote is not from a scientist. Also, note the use of “almost certainly” and “probably” in the quote you are criticizing.

(“TFA”?! Really?!)

One "rock to look under" is the misapplication of scientific theory or a common misunderstanding of basic principles.

(See: http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html)

One famous example is Professor Joseph Le Conte's mistaken engineering analysis demonstrating the impossibility of flight. (See below.)

Another common example is the use of the Halting Problem to rule out the entire notion of tools for detecting bugs in software. (Yes, I've had professors tell me this flat-out.) The Halting Problem doesn't rule out such programs, it only demonstrates that they can't be perfect. To date, there are lots of tools that do an imperfect but still valuable job, to the point where people can even charge for them.


A major area where basic principles are misunderstood is in security. It's a truism that no security is perfect. However, it doesn't follow that no one is able to do online banking without instantly being hacked and robbed. Yet many who find the previous idea ridiculous also think that all "DRM doesn't work." That's simply not true. While it's true that all DRM can eventually be broken, it's not true that all of it instantly evaporates on contact with the internet. Breaking DRM involves a certain cost. If enough people are "willing to pay" the cost, then it will be broken. This is almost always true for big-budget hollywood movies. It's certainly not true for all digital content.

---- Professor Joseph Le Conte's mistaken engineering analysis

Put these three indisputable facts together:

One: There is a low limit of weight, certainly not much beyond 50 pounds, beyond which it is impossible for an animal to fly. Nature has reached this limit, and with her utmost effort has failed to pass it.

Two: The animal machine is far more effective than any we can hope to make.; therefore the limit of the weight of a successful flying machine can not be more than fifty pounds.

Three: The weight of any machine constructed for flying, including fuel and engineer, cannot be less than three or four hundred pounds. Is it not demonstrated that a true flying machine, self-raising, self-sustaining, self-propelling, is physically impossible?

— Joseph Le Conte, Professor of Natural History at the University of California, Popular Science Monthly, November 1888

I find Le Conte's reasoning interesting. It's almost seductive even now. He's absolutely right that we don't have systems which approach the efficiency of the "animal machine".

But that efficiency is due to our remarkable performances on nothing but a few grams of low-grade fuel. It doesn't say anything about what would happen if you had some really high-grade fuel.

Sugar has about 18.8 joules per gram. Kerosene, which was pretty well known in 1888, has almost 46 000 joules per gram.

Perhaps we can extract some general principles about prediction from that, like: given a complex enough system, if one factor changes by two or more orders of magnitude, previously observed behavior is useless as a guide to the future. I'm fudging on 'complex enough', though. Trigonometry works just fine with triangles the size of pencils or skyscrapers, but predicting the scope of inventions doesn't seem to work well when one factor changes radically.

The fudge point in his reasoning: "The animal machine is far more effective than any we can hope to make."

Exactly what does effective mean?

We still can't make ornithopters that approach the performance of birds. That is what his analysis actually shows. Our successful aircraft still don't have performance that resembles that of birds. Then again, no birds cruise at an altitude of 30,000 feet at nearly Mach 1. Our aircraft don't have to be bird-like to be economically useful, and this is indeed effective to us.

So to go back to my other comment that predictions should involve economic analysis: our professor should have considered flight performance envelopes that would be commercially useful, not flight performance envelopes that resemble those of birds. (For example, he could have extrapolated something like the performance envelope of a balloon, but with twice the speed and better directional control.) If he had considered a few examples of those, he'd have quickly realized that using birds as a model wasn't a good idea for an analysis of human flight technology.

The 18.8 number is kilojoules / gram (food energy).

The real limit is our ability to burn huge amounts of it. Even a small plane burns over 1 lb / minute, which would be a shocking metabolism for an animal.

Damn, sorry about that, and thanks for the correction. So the real difference between petroleum derivatives and sugars isn't the energy content so much as the power you can generate? In layman's terms, the kablooie factor?

That puts Le Conte's error in even more perspective. Imagine if you said to him in 1888 "...but what if you had access to vast, cheap supplies of high-grade fuel which you burned off at a rate of 1 lb per minute?" He'd look at you like you were an idiot. Now your heavier-than-air craft is carrying several hundred pounds of fuel too, just to stay aloft for a few hours? And what do you do when you get where you are going?

Does this mean Le Conte's real failure isn't energy calculations, but predicting the availability of such fuel? In other words, it's all economics?

I had another comment about "toys" versus "tools for real work" in this thread. Maybe that's another defining element of "toys", the difficulty of maintenance and the lack of ubiquitous infrastructure. Only rich or eccentric people are going to take the trouble to provide infrastructure for their own machines, so it becomes by definition a "toy". Like planes or cars in the early 20th century.

Okay, is this a new heuristic? We look for devices which are fun or useful but impractical because right now, enthusiasts have to provide their own infrastructure at great cost?

Hydrocarbons have more or less the same energy per gram, and sugar and kerosene are both hydrocarbons.

My favorite quote like this is from Ed Colligan, who was at the time the CEO of Palm. When asked in late 2006 about the prospect of Apple entering the mobile phone market: "We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in."

To be fair (and tease a bit), one can argue that Apple didn't make a decent /phone/ until this verizon deal :-P

"In my own time there have been inventions of this sort, transparent windows, tubes for diffusing warmth equally through all parts of a building, short-hand which has been carried to such a pitch of perfection that a writer can keep pace with the most rapid speaker. But the inventing of such things is drudgery for the lowest slaves; philosophy lies deeper... - Roman poet Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.)"

This quote is in a way a direct refutation of the work done by many here in programming, and this perspective has its merits and flaws. But I don't see exactly how its a prediction of anything.

Yeah, that seems to just be a subjective judgment, based on information that he did in fact have. I suspect many people here think Roman-era technology (transparent windows, tubes for diffusing warmth, aqueducts, etc.) is at least as interesting as Rome's contribution to philosophy and literature. Seneca disagreed. But neither view has a lot to do with predictions. It's not as if he was arguing that technological inventions could never have a big impact, and then history proved him wrong. He saw many inventions in his own day that did have a big impact; he was just arguing that philosophy is nonetheless a higher calling. If that's wrong, it's for reasons other than being a misprediction.

Computers are already our lowest slaves, and I think perhaps with time they could become more efficient inventors than we are, so I'm not ready to write off this prediction yet.

This just shows how difficult prediction is. For every one of these, there is an equally wrong wildly positive prediction.

A few of those are included, like von Neumann's "nuclear power will make energy free!" prediction.

The future will surprise. It will surprise us by what is possible, and by what isn't.

We entrepreneurs can actually analyze his mistake and profit from it!

In this case, it was just mental laziness. Yes, even John von Neumann can be guilty of this. E=mc^2 implies a freaking huge ratio in your favor. That makes nuclear energy seem of "virtually limitless" abundance for the same reason that nuclear bombs seem like "virtually unstoppable" weapons. Yet, simple ball bearings or a complex mechanism like an Orion rocket pusher plate can survive close proximity to a nuclear explosion with some judicious engineering. If John von Neumann started looking closely at nuclear energy in the broader context of our industrial and political infrastructure, he might have come to a different conclusion.

My conclusion is this: One of the best places for opportunities to hide is in the mistaken popular applications of basic principles and physical laws. This isn't to say that those principles and laws are incorrect, just that the way most people apply them either doesn't go far enough, or fails to also include an economic analysis.

This tells us how to look for opportunities hiding behind other common misapplications of principles. (Not necessarily ones involved in nuclear energy.)

These three arguments against the use of gas street lights in 1878 demonstrate why change is so difficult, even today:

1) Theological: It is an intervention in God's order, which makes nights dark...

2) Medical: It will be easier for people to be in the streets at night, afflicting them with colds...

3) Philosophical-moral: Morality deteriorates through street lighting. Artificial lighting drives out fear of the dark, which keeps the weak from sinning...

I actually came to discuss the relative merits of this perspective.

Raise your hand if you have a sleep disorder...

"Mathematics is inadequate to describe the universe"

The jury is still out on that one.

And that is just the first half of the quote. It goes on:

Also, mathematics may predict things which don't exist, or are impossible in nature.

As a former experimental physicist I can't help but notice how true this is. ;)

Physicists deal with impossible things every day - light is a particle And a wave, far-away objects can be receeding faster than the speed of light.

How are they impossible if they are happening?

In the macroscopic world, they make no sense.

Somebody said "the Universe isn't just stranger than you imagine; its stranger than you Can imagine"

Mathematics will always be inadequate to describe mathematics, let alone the universe, as there will always be a need for new axioms.

That's mathematically proven, so it must be true.

It also depends to some extent on whether you count interpretations as "within" mathematics. For example, Stephen Hawking's latest book clearly draws on a lot of mathematical models of the universe, but its main arguments are non-mathematized, philosophical ones. Arguably they're arguments over how to interpret the existing mathematical models (though some stray further from math than others), but the arguments themselves appear to live outside what you'd normally call mathematics.

Interpretations of quantum mechanics fall into a similar camp. There is the actual formal theory of quantum mechanics, which is clearly mathematics; but something like the Copenhagen Interpretation is also attempting to "describe" the universe, but is forced to do it extra-mathematically, by attaching interpretations (which can't be mathematically proven) to the formal results.

I suppose it also depends on what one means by "describe": does quantum mechanics fully "describe" the universe, or is it quantum mechanics plus an interpretation which describes the universe?

Everything that is provably correct becomes mathematics. Of course physical laws are never provably correct.

So mathematics is not even adequate to describe the universe? “Adequate” doesn’t imply ”perfect“ for me.

The meaning of the sentence hinges on the word 'describe'. I took it to mean a complete description.

You're right though, it could mean a description of any complexity, something Mathematics is well capable of.

Computers in the future may...perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.

That's hardly a howler is it?! I see nothing suggesting that 1.5 tons is the endpoint or that we'll be using heavy computers in The Year 2000.

Will those people suggesting we'd one day have a supercomputer in our pockets be laughed at when we have microscopic omniputers floating around our then-useless brains?

The kind of computers Popular Science was thinking of in 1949 are what we call supercomputers today. They didn't have anything to distinguish it from, so "computer" was the only term to use.

IBM's Watson is powered by 90 of these (according to the wiki): http://www-03.ibm.com/systems/power/hardware/750/index.html

The datasheet says they weigh 120 pounds. 90 of those would be 10,800 pounds, or 5.4 tons. We're still a bit above the prediction, but I think Watson could be done in 1.5 tons of gear with some more development work focused on that.

I'd need to see the Popular Science article, but I doubt they were envisioning a personal computer. They might have been envisioning a community computer though. 1.5 tons would probably be enough for that in terms of a shared file/message board/connectivity supercomputer for a city block's worth of people.

Professor Frink's (from The Simpsons) prediction on where computers would be in one hundred years:


One comment (on youtube) says this is from a radio show during the 40's; is "The Simpsons" that old?

No. That was from one of the episodes (recent, a few years ago) but I can't remember which episode.

The reasoning here of course being that they had not yet discovered transistors (Though some work had been done in devices similar), and MOSFETs were still a long way out, so it was reasonable at this point to assume that computers of any variety would still be huge.

Many of these are not even predictions, and most are badly sourced and out of context. E.g. the guy who foresaw no further progress for engines of war in 84 CE was definitely right for the next few hundred years.

But one quotation that I'm really taking issue with is the one about Sir Walter Scott dismissing public gas lighting. Far from that, Scott was actually a dedicated promoter of gas lighting in its early years, as evidenced by his tenure as the First Chairman of the Edinburgh Gas Street Lighting Company:


But when was a little bit of historical research an obstacle in the way of feeling good at the expense of people who lived hundreds of years ago?

This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.

Whenever I see that quote I picture Martin Luther as the "Get A BRAIN! MORANS" guy.

I've lurked Hacker News for a long time, but never posted or commented until now. This is one of the most inspirational things I've ever read. Thank you for posting.

You're welcome :)

Animals, which move, have limbs and muscles. The earth does not have limbs and muscles; therefore it does not move.

I wonder if this sounded as dumb back then as it does now? What about things that do not move under their own power, yet move nonetheless, such as waves and wind? What about flowers that close every night and open in every morning? What about the fact that they knew almost nothing about the earth deeper than the tiniest scratch on its surface -- perhaps there are muscles of a sort under there?

What about the "fact," as they would have seen it, that God can make anything move however he wants, and that he might have a special mechanism that makes planets and stars move but does not apply the same way to things on Earth? And did he really believe that the moon and stars have limbs and muscles?

I think this illustrates how people can get away with any possible idiocy as long as they are on the right side of an issue. This is why scientists care about the timing of publication: they look a lot more competent if they publish their results at a time when everyone will tend to believe they are correct, instead of at a time when everyone will pick their paper apart looking for flaws (or simply assume the flaws are there.)

Although I cannot find the original text, I expect the word "move" is not a precise translation because he goes on to say:

> Animals, which move, have limbs and muscles; the earth has no limbs or muscles, therefore it does not move. It is angels who make Saturn, Jupiter, the sun, etc., turn round. If the earth revolves, it must also have an angel in the centre to set it in motion; but only devils live there; it would therefore be a devil who would impart motion to the earth....

> The planets, the sun, the fixed stars, all belong to one species - namely, that of stars. It seems, therefore, to be a grievous wrong to place the earth, which is a sink of impurity, among these heavenly bodies, which are pure and divine things.''

A sink of impurity. There's a data point that has lasted through the ages.

A sink of impurity. There's a data point that has lasted through the ages.

I wonder, then, why he didn't find it plausible that it is devils or fallen angels who move the earth?

This statement is a clear and obvious logical fallacy, and should have appeared as such to contemporary audiences. He is saying that Animals have (limbs => they move) => (the Earth does not have limbs => it does not move). But the latter is the inverse of the former, which must be proven separately and which is not implied by the conditional.

As I commented below, I expect the translation "move" makes it sound worse than it did in the original. If he means "are self-propelled" or "are mobile", it's slight less wrong.

That's correct.

Nonetheless, we can certainly grant him an implicit "Only living things (animals) can move (by themselves)." Doesn't make it any less wrong, but I doubt that it's just a logical fallacy.

It's hard to know the tone and context of the statement in its era. Perhaps it was simply a philosophical statement about God's intentions; perhaps it was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek; perhaps it was mis-translated.

The most interesting predictions at least got right what would be the hard parts of the problem. Simon Newcombe's full article points to landing as the most difficult part of flying, which turned out to be the case. Landing technique depends on ground effect and stall, which wasn't well understood.

I'm still amazed that people spend so much time staring at plywood boxes.

A common theme of failed predictions is the "X are interesting toys, but not suitable for Y" statement. Let's unpack that statement.

A toy is something which fascinates the mind in some way. An "interesting toy" suggests something that has a scope of operation within some small realm. I'll posit that Legos are an "interesting toy" whereas a toy car is "just a toy".

Substituted, this is now "X are things which have great possibilities within a smaller realm of operation, but are not suitable for Y".

The problem should now be obvious. The next question is to ask what it would take to scale the X's realm up. If it's economically feasible, it will happen.

The use of "toy" is the rhetorical trick here, because it implies the thing in question has permanently limited scope, and it might not be. (There's also the implied put-down, that those who find them worthwhile are childish.)

So what things today are "interesting toys" but not suitable for "real work"? Mobile devices? Social networks?

The underlying fallacy is in imagining that there is some strict segregation between "toys" and tools. When a tool is too expensive and only moderately practical it is deemed a toy. But toys of such sort can become cheaper and evolve in function and scale, becoming imminently practical in the process. Many of the most practical tools began as toys of such sort: the steam engine, the automobile, the airplane, the laser, the rocket, personal computer, etc.

Today the premier example would be mobile devices and mobile OS tablets. They have enormous potential, even the potential to replace traditional PCs, but today they are often regarded as toys.

Two years later we ourselves made flights. This demonstration of my impotence as a prophet gave me such a shock that ever since I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions. Wilbur Wright

Isn't the below an over-optimistic failed prediction?

a few decades hence, energy may be free—just like the unmetered air.... John von Neumann

The first quotation, from Lucius Annaeus Seneca, contains no prediction.

Sometimes you are glad that they were wrong and sometimes you are sad that they were not right.

Automobiles will start to decline almost as soon as the last shot is fired in World War II. The name of Igor Sikorsky will be as well known as Henry Ford's, for his helicopter will all but replace the horseless carriage as the new means of popular transportation. Instead of a car in every garage, there will be a helicopter.... These 'copters' will be so safe and will cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny 'copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads.

You really want your typical driver flying around in a helicopter?

I think this is the reason we don't have flying cars. We could build them. We could do a lot of things. But nobody really wants them, given the danger they would pose. (Energy constraints are probably another reason, but secondary. There are flying car prototypes that get MPG numbers comparable to SUVs.)

Any flying car system I can conceive of would be vastly safer than the bloodbath caused by non-flying cars.

And yes, we want them. Many times faster than ground transport, safely usable by any person young or old, no congestion, frees up the ground for other uses. Feasibiliy aside, it would be undeniably utopian.

I'm assuming your hypothetical flying cars transporting people around cities are dramatically safer than today's general aviation (light aircraft piloted largely by well-trained enthusiasts and professionals in controlled environments).

If I had to bet it would be on the "driverless" car.

I think this is the reason we don't have flying cars. We could build them.

So if the biggest problem here is safety (introduced to some extent by irresponsible drivers), maybe flying cars will be possible once we can create automated car control?

Once these robot cars are reliable enough, they will look like a much better alternative to human drivers to me: quicker reaction, possibility to have 360 degrees field of view at all times, impossible to DUI etc.

Let's keep an eye on DARPA's Grand Challenge and Google robot car attempts.

Can you link to the flying car prototypes that you're referring to?

If it were not for the national highway (more, or accurately, civilian use of the national highway) helicopters might have been cheaper than automobile.

If I threw together a quick Android/iPhone app that allowed for user contributed geek/hacker/internets quotes that we could all contribute to, would anyone care? There are a couple out there but I'd prefer one community based which had entires that didn't suck. Free of course.

Why limit to Adroid/iPhone? Maybe a website (which can be accessed from the mobile) is a better idea.

On a second thought, isn't bash.org exactly that?

(self-promotion) I wrote a somewhat related post a few days ago (Twitter predictions in the early days): http://syskall.com/twttr-and-the-benefit-of-hindsight

"When an experienced scientist says something is impossible, they are almost always wrong. When an experienced scientist says something is possible, they are almost always right" - my memory, but almost certainly somebody else first

a friend who is MD/owner of a cloud storage service for corporate told me that his career teacher at school told him not to do computers as a subject as they would never take over.. this was in the early 90s

My problem isn't in people wanting things that are impossible (at first glance), the problem is they want them done in so short an amount of time that they are impossible.

One of the automobile quotes is false[1]

[1] http://www.snopes.com/history/document/horseless.asp

Prediction is hard. Even more so if it is about the future.

Great collection! And the Lock Haven url made me smile.

My favorite has always been the one by Wilbur Wright:

"I confess that in 1901 I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years. Two years later we ourselves made flights. This demonstration of my impotence as a prophet gave me such a shock that ever since I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions."

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. - Lord Kelvin

I wonder how he explained birds?

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