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Excerpt: 'Physics Of The Future'

Physics of the Future

Predicting the next few years, let alone a century into the future, is a daunting task. Yet it is one that challenges us to dream about technologies we believe will one day alter the fate of humanity.

In 1863, the great novelist Jules Verne undertook perhaps his most ambitious project. He wrote a prophetic novel, called Paris in the Twentieth Century, in which he applied the full power of his enormous talents to forecast the coming century. Unfortunately, the manuscript was lost in the mist of time, until his great-grandson accidentally stumbled upon it lying in a safe where it had been carefully locked away for almost 130 years. Realizing what a treasure he had found, he arranged to have it published in 1994, and it became a best seller.

Back in 1863, kings and emperors still ruled ancient empires, with impoverished peasants performing backbreaking work toiling in the fields. The United States was consumed by a ruinous civil war that would almost tear the country apart, and steam power was just beginning to revolutionize the world. But Verne predicted that Paris in 1960 would have glass skyscrapers, air conditioning, TV, elevators, high-speed trains, gasoline-powered automobiles, fax machines, and even something resembling the Internet. With uncanny accuracy, Verne depicted life in modern Paris.

This was not a fluke, because just a few years later he made another spectacular prediction. In 1865, he wrote From the Earth to the Moon, in which he predicted the details of the mission that sent our astronauts to the moon more than 100 years later in 1969. He accurately predicted the size of the space capsule to within a few percent, the location of the launch site in Florida not far from Cape Canaveral, the number of astronauts on the mission, the length of time the voyage would last, the weightlessness that the astronauts would experience, and the final splashdown in the ocean. (The only major mistake was that he used gunpowder, rather than rocket fuel, to take his astronauts to the moon. But liquid-fueled rockets wouldn't be invented for another seventy years.)

How was Jules Verne able to predict 100 years into the future with such breathtaking accuracy? His biographers have noted that, although Verne was not a scientist himself, he constantly sought out scientists, peppering them with questions about their visions of the future. He amassed a vast archive summarizing the great scientific discoveries of his time. Verne, more than others, realized that science was the engine shaking the foundations of civilization, propelling it into a new century with unexpected marvels and miracles. The key to Verne's vision and profound insights was his grasp of the power of science to revolutionize society.

Another great prophet of technology was Leonardo da Vinci, painter, thinker, and visionary. In the late 1400s, he drew beautiful, accurate diagrams of machines that would one day fill the skies: sketches of parachutes, helicopters, hang gliders, and even airplanes. Remarkably, many of his inventions would have flown. (His flying machines, however, needed one more ingredient: at least a 1-horsepower motor, something that would not be available for another 400 years.)

What is equally astonishing is that Leonardo sketched the blueprint for a mechanical adding machine, which was perhaps 150 years ahead of its time. In 1967, a misplaced manuscript was reanalyzed, revealing his idea for an adding machine with thirteen digital wheels. If one turned a crank, the gears inside turned in sequence performing the arithmetic calculations. (The machine was built in 1968 and it worked.)

In addition, in the 1950s another manuscript was uncovered which contained a sketch for a warrior automaton, wearing German-Italian armor, that could sit up and move its arms, neck, and jaw. It, too, was subsequently built and found to work.

Like Jules Verne, Leonardo was able to get profound insights into the future by consulting a handful of forward-thinking individuals of his time. He was part of a small circle of people who were at the forefront of innovation. In addition, Leonardo was always experimenting, building, and sketching models, a key attribute of anyone who wants to translate thinking into reality.

Given the enormous, prophetic insights of Verne and Leonardo da Vinci, we ask the question: Is it possible to predict the world of 2100? In the tradition of Verne and Leonardo, this book will closely examine the work of the leading scientists who are building prototypes of the technologies that will change our future. This book is not a work of fiction, a by-product of the overheated imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter, but rather is based on the solid science being conducted in major laboratories around the world today.

The prototypes of all these technologies already exist. As William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer who coined the word cyberspace, once said, "The future is already here. It's just unevenly distributed."

Predicting the world of 2100 is a daunting task, since we are in an era of profound scientific upheaval, in which the pace of discovery is always accelerating. More scientific knowledge has been accumulated just in the last few decades than in all human history. And by 2100, this scientific knowledge will again have doubled many times over.

But perhaps the best way to grasp the enormity of predicting 100 years into the future is to recall the world of 1900 and remember the lives our grandparents lived.

Journalist Mark Sullivan asks us to imagine someone reading a newspaper in the year 1900:

"In his newspapers of January 1, 1900, the American found no such word as radio, for that was yet twenty years in from coming; nor "movie," for that too was still mainly of the future; nor chauffeur, for the automobile was only just emerging and had been called "horseless carriage. . . ." There was no such word as aviator. . . . Farmers had not heard of tractors, nor bankers of the Federal Reserve System. Merchants had not heard of chain-stores nor "self-service"; nor seamen of oil-burning engines. . . . Ox-teams could still be seen on country roads. . . . Horses or mules for trucks were practically universal. . . . The blacksmith beneath the spreading chestnut-tree was a reality."

To understand the difficulty of predicting the next 100 years, we have to appreciate the difficulty that the people of 1900 had in predicting the world of 2000. In 1893, as part of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, seventy-four well-known individuals were asked to predict what life would be like in the next 100 years. The one problem was that they consistently underestimated the rate of progress of science. For example, many correctly predicted that we would one day have commercial transatlantic airships, but they thought that they would be balloons. Senator John J. Ingalls said, "It will be as common for the citizen to call for his dirigible balloon as it now is for his buggy or his boots." They also consistently missed the coming of the automobile. Postmaster General John Wanamaker stated that the U.S. mail would be delivered by stagecoach and horseback, even 100 years into the future.

This underestimation of science and innovation even extended to the patent office. In 1899, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

Sometimes experts in their own field underestimated what was happening right beneath their noses. In 1927, Harry M. Warner, one of the founders of Warner Brothers, remarked during the era of silent movies, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"

And Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said in 1943, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

This underestimation of the power of scientific discovery even extended to the venerable New York Times. (In 1903, the Times declared that flying machines were a waste of time, just a week before the Wright brothers successfully flew their airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1920, the Times criticized rocket scientist Robert Goddard, declaring his work nonsense because rockets cannot move in a vacuum. Forty-nine years later, when Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon, the Times, to its credit, ran the retraction: "It is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum. The Times regrets the error.")

The lesson here is that it is very dangerous to bet against the future.

Predictions for the future, with a few exceptions, have always underestimated the pace of technological progress. History, we are told over and over again, is written by the optimists, not the pessimists. As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, "Pessimism never won a war."

We can even see how science fiction writers underestimated the pace of scientific discovery. When watching reruns of the old 1960s TV series Star Trek, you notice that much of this "twenty-third-century technology" is already here. Back then, TV audiences were startled to see mobile phones, portable computers, machines that could talk, and typewriters that could take dictation. Yet all these technologies exist today. Soon, we will also have versions of the universal translator, which can rapidly translate between languages as you speak, and also "tricorders," which can diagnose disease from a distance. (Excepting warp drive engines and transporters, much of this twenty-third-century science is already here.)

Given the glaring mistakes people have made in underestimating the future, how can we begin to provide a firmer scientific basis to our predictions?

Excerpted from Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. Copyright 2011 by Michio Kaku. Published by Doubleday. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday.

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Michio Kaku