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Editorial: The risks of prediction

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Editorial: The risks of prediction. the Exchange 8(4):2.

The end of a millennium tempts even the most conservative among us to wonder about the future, and as scientists or communicators of science, we’re often the ones asked to comment on what we expect the future to hold. Since these predictions often achieve startlingly long lifespans, it behooves us to exercise some care and judgment in making them; after all, one of the really fun things about science is how often it surprises us just when we think we understand things and can see how they’ll turn out. Let me offer, for your eschatological pleasure, a few choice quotes by others who unwisely tried to predict the future:

1873: “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.”—Sir John Eric Erickson, Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria

1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”—Western Union internal memo

1899: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”—Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents

1920s: “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”—David Sarnoff ’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio

1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”—Thomas Watson, IBM chairman

1949: “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”—Popular Mechanics

1957: “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”—Editor, business books, for Prentice-Hall

1968: “But what... is it good for?”—engineer at Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip

1977: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”—Ken Olson, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp.

1981: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” —Bill Gates

Reading such quotes always humbles me, because in each case, the prediction was made by someone with considerable expertise in their field—and as in the case of Bill Gates and Thomas Watson, someone with enough smarts to make a previously unprecedented fortune from the proceeds of their insights. Reading magazines such as Scientific American and Discover awes me with the sheer volume of fascinating new discoveries reported every month. In 2002, I urge you take a few moments to re-establish your sense of wonder at the seemingly limitless scope of science, and to try bringing some of that magic to your own communications work.

Editor’s note: I received these quotes in an e-mail message without any attribution. If you’ve seen them before and can provide verifiable author information, I’ll happily present due credit in the next issue.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved