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When Imagination Fails

Science fiction has long been looked to as a source of prophecy...but why? Perhaps because, out of necessity, its futures work: spaceships fly and inventions are successful because they need to be—there'd be no story without them. And because more often than not (to paraphrase Jules Verne) whatever one man can imagine another one can do, imaginary science often becomes real science. On the other hand, professional scientists have a tendency (and it's a justifiable one) to be more than a bit conservative—but, as one of Clarke's Laws tells us, more or less, whenever a venerable and respected scientist tells us that something is impossible, he will almost assuredly be wrong. And that's exact­ly what has happened, over and over again....

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We can start in 1610 with the Aristotelian professor who greeted Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons with this elegant piece of rea­soning: "Jupiter's moons are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can have no influ­ence on the Earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist." In the late 1700s it was argued that the recently dis­covered small-pox vaccine used by Dr. Ed­ward Jenner "would produce a cow-like face" on humans and that people vaccinated with it would "grow hairy and cough like cows"—all because the substance is incubated in the animal (vacca is Latin for cow). Four hundred years of successful vaccinations later we still have anti-vaxxers.

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William Wollaston, an English chemist and natural philosopher, greeted gas lighting with "They might as well try to light London with a slice of the Moon." Even Sir Walter Scott didn't think highly of the project, say­ing, "There is a madman proposing to light the streets of London—with what do you suppose—with smoke." Martin van Buren wrote to then president Andrew Jackson con­cerning railroads: "The Almighty never in­tended that people should travel at such break-neck speeds." The tremendous speeds promised by railroads in the early part of the 19th century worried a lot of people. In Ger­many it was proven that if trains were to go at the unheard-of speed of 15 miles per hour, blood would spurt from the passengers' noses, mouths and ears. Transportation al­ways did prove to be a major stumbling-block for self-proclaimed prophets. The New York Times editorialized in 1871 that there was "abundant precedent for the supposition that the laws of gravity will always prove too much, in the aerial field, for the ambitious dexterity of man." Or from The Engineer, in 1882: "We are probably no nearer flying now than we were a thousand years ago...." In 1901 Wilbur Wright told his brother Orville that man would not fly for another 50 years. (Harper's Weekly editorialized in 1902 that "The actual building of roads devoted to mo­tor cars is not for the near future....")

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The unlucky mathematician Simon Newcomb had little faith in the possibility of heavier-than-air flight. In October 1903 he prov-mathematically, that such a flying ma­chine was impossible. Two months later, the Wright brothers flew one. Newcomb re­worked his calculations and proved that while it might just be possible for such a machine to work, it could never carry a passenger. Even as late as 1906 he was saying, "... no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physi­cal fact to be." Where most of the anti-prophets made their error is neatly summed up in Newcomb's repeated use of the word "known." As a scientist he was constrained by reality, where the science-fiction writer, when faced with the limitations of the known, simply assumes that the problem will be solved with the unknown—as it usually is. In the case just quoted, heavier-than-air flight was made possible by a combination of un­knowns: where there had been no source of power light enough, one was invented. Even after the invention of the successful airplane, some people were still not convinced. The British War Office was of the opinion that "the aeroplane would not be of any practical use to the Naval Service."

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There might have been some comfort in that the French felt the same way: Marshall Foch said in 1910 that the airplane was "all very fine for sport, you know. But the airplane's no use to the army." Our own Franklin Roosevelt, in 1922: "... it is highly unlikely that an airplane, or fleet of them, could ever successfully sink a fleet of Navy vessels under battle conditions." In Germany, until 1926, airplane patents were filed under the same classification as children's toys and shooting galleries! Nevil Shute, who became one of the great aviation novelists, wrote in 1929 that by 1980 we could expect these limits to the commercial air­plane: "speed: 110-130 mph; range: 600 miles; payload: 4 tons; total weight: 20 tons." Of more special interest to the SF fan are "prophecies" relating to space travel and rocketry. After Robert Goddard's" epic-making paper at the turn of the century on the possibilities of space flight (in which Goddard had daringly proposed using the energy of radium as a power source for interplanetary flights), it became a very popular target. In a letter to Goddard, written in January of 1908, Professor W.W. Payne wrote, "...the possibility [of navigat­ing interplanetary space]... is so remote, is it worthwhile to publish it?... You have writ­ten well and clearly, but not helpfully to sci­ence as I see it—" The New York Times famously wrote in 1920 that "...Professor Goddard... does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

Professor A.W. Bickerton, in 1926: "This foolish idea of shooting at the Moon is an example of the "absurd length to which vicious specialization will carry scien­tists ... the proposition appears to be basically impossible." And he showed the math to prove it, too. Dr. F.R. Moulton, in his book Consider the Heavens, said, "... in all fair­ness to those who by training are not prepared to evaluate the fundamental difficulties of going from one planet to another, or even from the Earth to the Moon, it must be stated that there is not the slightest possibility of such journeys...." Even Charles Lind­bergh: "I would much prefer to have Goddard interested in real scientific development than to have him primarily interested in more spectacular achievements which are of less value."

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Even those who were keen on space travel still had some doubts. Philip Cleator, a serious proponent of space flight and one of the founders of the British Interplanetary Society, was appalled by its prospective cost, assuming (in 1936) "...the terrifying total of $100,000,000." Goddard's idea for a rocket-powered bomb was dismissed by the editors of Scientific American as being ".. .too far­ fetched to be considered." In 1945—even after the Germans had bombarded England (however haphazardly) with the V1 and V2—Dr. Vannevar Bush was still able to state to the U.S. Senate that "... there has been a great deal said about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible and will be impossi­ble for many years. The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket shot from one continent to another carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to... land on a certain target, such as a city...." Upon being appointed Astrono­mer Royal of England, Dr. Richard van der Riet Vooley was asked for his views on space flight. His answer, given one year before the launch of Sputnik, was simple: "Space travel is utter bilge," he declared. President Eisenhower was shocked to learn of the multi-billion dollar cost of a proposed lunar landing. When it was compared to Columbus' discovery of the New World, Eisen­hower's reply was that he "was not about to hock his jewels" to send men to the Moon.

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Atomic power fared little better. While many science-fiction authors were writing about the practical uses of atomic energy and its uses in warfare, (H.G. Wells, Arthur Train and Stanley Weinbaum were describing atomic bombs by the 1930s), scientists themselves were making statements like this one by Lord Rutherford, the "father of nuclear physics": "There are some visionaries who think that nuclear power could be used for a practical purpose... this is impossibile." Admiral William Leahy told Pres­ident Truman in 1945, "That [atomic bomb] is the biggest fool thing we have ever done.... The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives."

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There are the permanently constipated minds whose imaginations are limited in all directions, such as the U.S. Commissioner of Patents who resigned saying, ".. .the ad­vancement of the arts from year to year taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when further improvement must end.'' Or the head of the physics depart­ment of the University of Munich, who said in 1875, "All the important discoveries (in physics) have been made." Or our friend Si­mon Newcomb, who said, while director of the U.S. Naval Observatory, "We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy."

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Why all these failures on the parts of peo­ple of great intelligence, and of people of otherwise great imagination? There are many possible reasons. One, of course, is simple ignorance. Another is a failure of imagination. There are also politically driven motivations as well. We find evidence of all of these today in the anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and creationists.

Another reason might be the limitations of reality. Only the science-fiction writer, when faced with a dead-end in known science or knowledge, will simply postulate whatever new science or knowledge or devices he requires, and then forge on ahead. If there is no known power source available for his flying machine, he simply doesn't state that fact and be done with it. He invents, even if only in his own im­agination, the kind of powerplant that would work. It may bear only the slightest resemblance, if any, to eventual reality. But if a flying machine is wanted badly enough, then someone will eventually make one. If it isn't exactly how the writer had envisioned it, at least he had faith that it could be done.

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