Future Tense

OPINION | COSMOS | June 2010


In trying to imagine the future, we are hampered by what we know today

It’s hard enough to predict the challenges we’ll face in 20 years, let alone to guess the solutions. The only thing we know for sure is that science can deliver, argues Wilson da Silva.


NIELS BOHR WAS A Danish physicist who made fundamental contributions to our understanding of atomic structure and quantum mechanics, eventually earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics. He also had a dry wit: “Prediction is very difficult,” he once said, “especially about the future.”


Yet, predicting the future wasn’t a problem for most of human history: 100,000 years ago, life in the savannahs of Africa didn’t change much from century to century. In Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece and even the Middle Ages, life was largely unchanging, occasionally upset by war, the toppling of a monarch or pestilence and natural disaster.

Predicting the future wasn’t a problem for most of human history. It’s only since the Industrial Revolution that the march of science has been changing our societies before our very eyes.

It’s only since the Industrial Revolution that the future has been highly unpredictable. The march of science and technology has a way of tripping us up, surprising us, and changing our societies before our very eyes.


In October 2009, I was at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, where I heard an interesting talk by Mike Lazaridis. Now, Lazaridis is an intriguing guy: a successful entrepreneur who understands the power of science. He co-founded Research In Motion – makers of the BlackBerry empire – and donated $150 million to establish Perimeter so it could focus on fundamental challenges in physics – stuff that has no clear application today, but might in the future.


He asked us to think of the world in 1901. The scientific community was in crisis: experiments were not matching theory, and physicists were scratching their heads. The business community was in crisis: transport of produce and freight was reliant on horses, which couldn’t be bred fast enough. Governments had serious congestion on city roads, and the environment was suffering – there were fears New York would be buried under horse droppings as traffic grew exponentially.


Science is accelerating, and we are likely to cross a number of milestones in the next 20-30 years

Imagine a young physicist such as Albert Einstein asking for a grant in 1901 to study physics. His needs are an office, a blackboard, a shelf for books and papers, a small stipend to travel to scientific conferences and maybe a few postdoctoral researchers. A funding agency tasked with growing the economy or dealing with the day’s problems might well have asked, “What’s all this got to do with horses?”


As we know, Einstein had to get a day job at the Swiss patent office. A few years later, working on his own time, he came up with some of the most important scientific papers of all time. “Ideas that transformed everything we knew and put mankind in a new direction,” Lazaridis told his audience.


“He came up with one of the basic ideas leading to quantum technology when he predicted the quantum properties of light, explaining an observation called the photoelectric effect. He came up with special relativity, a new understanding of space and time. He also discovered that mass and energy are the same thing at a fundamental level. These discoveries, over time, led to nuclear energy, semiconductors, computers, lasers, medical imaging, DVDs and much more.


“Now let’s fast forward to today,” Lazaridis continued. “We’re running out of energy … and the energy sources we have today are changing our climate and the environment catastrophically and irreparably. We only have to flashback to that gentleman thinking about light to realise that we need to fund our scientists and our researchers and our students.

Predicting the future is hard. What’s clear is that the first few decades of the 21st century are bound to be as interesting – and probably as transformational – as those of the 20th century.

“We not only need to fund them imaginatively, we need to have faith that what they are doing is going to be important in 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now, and that we haven’t got a chance of understanding its relevance today.”


Predicting the future is hard. Some prognostications will be prescient, some not. What’s clear is that the first few decades of the 21st century are bound to be as interesting – and probably as transformational – as those of the 20th century.


Science is accelerating, and we are likely to cross a number of milestones in the next 20-30 years: from computing and nanotechnology to communications and biotechnology, there’s a good chance that game-changers will arise and surprise everyone. Like the notional funding agency in 1901, we are limited by what we can imagine: something considered wild and unlikely today could be commonplace by then.


“Your theory is crazy,” as the eminently quotable Bohr once noted, “but it’s not crazy enough to be true.”

Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS. his was originally published in COSMOS Magazine in June 2010.

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