Sunday, 22 November 2009

Scientists Say the Stupidest Things

I was in Cambridge recently with my beautiful sweetheart, and we were browsing through Oxfam when I came across the book, Foolish Words, The most stupid words ever spoken by Laura Ward. It is gut wrenchingly funny in places (and also terribly sad at the same time), but I especially treasured some of the bold predictions about the future from people who would be expected to have a better than average insight into the topic. It reminds me of the wisdom of a quote on my classroom wall, "Never miss a good opportunity to shut-up."

Here are a few of them:
"The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who looks for a source of power in the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine."
Lord Ernest Rutherford after splitting the Atom in 1933

Einstein had said only a year earlier, "There is not the slightest indication that atomic energy will ever be attainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will."

Here is the Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, Sir Richard Woolley, in 1957, "I cannot see any nation or combination of nations producing the money necessary to put a satellite in outer space or to circumnavigate the moon." He was actually expanding earlier remarks (not in the book) when, on his appointment as Astronomer Royal, he reiterated his long-held view that 'space travel is utter bilge'. Speaking to Time in 1956, Woolley noted "It's utter bilge. I don't think anybody will ever put up enough money to do such a thing . . . What good would it do us? If we spent the same amount of money on preparing first-class astronomical equipment we would learn much more about the universe . . . It is all rather rot". Woolley's protestations came just one year prior to the launch of Sputnik, five years before launch of the Apollo Program, and thirteen years before the first landing on the moon. (from Wikipedia)

Thomas Edison in 1928, "I have determined that there is no market for talking pictures."

German Physicist/chemist Johann Poggendorf proudly announced, "It is impossible to transmit speech electrically, the 'telephone' is as mythical as the unicorn."

Simon Newcomb, one of the most brilliant men of his period, a polymath and perhaps the first discoverer of Benford's law, among other things; stated boldly, "Aerial flight is one of that class of problems with which man cannot cope", 1903. (for my students who know so little history they make me cry, it was in December 17, 1903 that the Wright Brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk.)

In March of 1949 an article in Popular Mechanics wrote, "..the Eniac is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.6 tons." (or perhaps, 1.6 pounds?)

Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, and so esteemed that he was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Isaac Newton, said, "X-rays will prove to be a hoax" and is also known to have said, "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" in 1895. Then he went on to doom another budding invention, "Radio has no future." Perhaps he had anticipated the birth of television.

Lee DeForest was an inventor whose work ushered in the electronic age. The inventor of the tube which made audio amplification possible and bringing sound to the motion picture went on to proclaim, "While theoretically and technically television my be possible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility."

Finally, a quote from Dr. William Clark, president of the Arthritis Foundation in 1966, "We just won't have arthritis in the year 2000." (I have it on good authority from my aching shoulder that it is back by 2009).

I guess I leave the last word to that Great Statesman, George Bush, who explained it all as an educational problem when he stated in 2000, "What's not fine is, rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?".

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