Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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PROPHECY

During the last decade or so it's become almost routine for the major figures in science fiction to be asked by various news services, magazines, radio commentators, et cetera, to provide prophecies of what's coming up in the next year, decade, or by 2000 A. D. Consequently, along around the first of the year I get a rush of requests of this type, which makes me more aware at this season (it's January as I write this) of the problems of timed prophecy.
To say, in the 1930s - when I started saying it! - that "Men will land on and explore the Moon" was, it seemed then and seems now, somewhat - but not much! - less sure than predicting that the Sun would appear next morning. The Moon's there, and we're here, and our nature is such that something will be done about those two facts to bring them into coincidence.
But to say "Men will land on the Moon by 1970" was a very different thing.
In 1950 I was saying that men would reach the Moon with chemical powered rockets - but that we'd have nuclear powered ships by the time we reached Mars. I still believe that - but no one can, as of now, put a timed date on the first Martian Expedition. The Kiwi reactors - the flightless nuclear rocket studies the United States has been conducting - are well along, however, and progressing well; we probably will have workable nuclear-powered rockets before the full problems of a two- to-three-year life-support system are solved.
But those prophecies are very simple extrapolations of things now-in-hand, and using known methods to achieve well-explored-in-theory goals.
The great problems of prophecy, the really exciting ones, all lie in the area of the Now Totally Unknown.
First, be it recognized that we are, scientifically, abysmally ignorant. We've had true experimental science for only about three hundred years, and have achieved some magnificent progress in that brief moment. Any "scientist" who says that we now know all the basic principles of the Universe is about equivalent to a four-year-old claiming he now knows all the important facts of Life and Living. He's bright, and he's a fast learner, and he's doing very well, but...
What does the "scientist" expect succeeding generations of scientists to do during the next millennium? Worship the unsurpassable achievements of his generation? Erect monuments to the mighty wisdom of those who have already learned all there is to know?
We know all the fundamental principles of the Universe? When we haven't the foggiest notion of the real nature of the greatest of all forces in the Universe, gravity? And don't know the relationship between gravity, magnetism and electric fields? When we can't imagine any possible mechanism that could account for the observed energy output of quasars?
When we're only just beginning to discover the physical mechanisms underlying the astrological forces that operate on Earth's weather? (We have an article coming up on that; the underlying mechanism has been found, and it is real).

Science, today, has a magnificent beginning, of which we can well be proud. Just as the Egyptians had made immense discoveries in mathematics, geometry and structural engineering when they built their pyramids five thousand years ago. Of course, there have been a few advances since that time...
What will science be doing - and doing it with - when radio is a 5,000-year old invention - its origin lost in the mist of time?
Actually, a more important aspect is nothing so esoteric. I've pointed out previously in these pages a quite simple fact that every executive-level engineer today knows - but easily overlooks. The problem is best stated this way:
Suppose that one of those drone reconnaissance planes we send over China when the Reds hold one of their bomb tests gets kicked slide-wise in Time, and winds up making a deadstick landing on the Army Air Corps research station at Dayton, Ohio, in 1930.
Naturally, the scientists swarm around it to find out what goes on. It has obvious U. S. markings - but they're modified, clearly not the here-and-now (1930) version. But it's quickly found that many components have well-known U. S. manufacturer's nameplates. General Electric. Bendix, Westinghouse, Western Electric - it's clearly an American product.
But it's also very rapidly clear that it can't possibly exist. For one thing, it's radioactive all over to some degree - and one of the principal radioactives present is barium. But barium is totally nonradioactive: it's known-for-a-positive-fact that barium, in this universe, is a stable, nonradioactive element! There's no detectable radium present, and only slight traces of uranium, but half the elements in the periodic table are showing up radioactive! It's impossible! It's not just theoretically impossible: it's known by direct, positive observation that those elements are not radioactive. But here, they are!
It also has radio devices that can be recognized as such because they give off strong, sharply tuned beacon signals. At least they do until the most remarkably potent small batteries eventually give out. But the radio transmitters don't have any recognizable vacuum tubes, and some kind of a vaguely vacuum-tubelike gadget may be a radio device of some kind, but no detectable emission is coming from it. (It's a lighthouse tube operating at a low microwave frequency that nothing then on Earth could pick up). The integrated circuit modules, servo-amplifier systems, and computer systems all use silicon chip transistors, diodes, et cetera. Some of the power-handling transistors are big enough to be analyzed by the gross techniques then available to chemistry, and would simply be found to be "pure" silicon. Not having remotely adequate techniques, they'd have no idea how pure, and certainly couldn't duplicate them.
The radar gear's microwave plumbing, based on principles not recognized in 1930, would be completely meaningless and unusable.
Some of the gallium arsenide solid-state laser internal communication gadgets would drive them quite berserk. The gadgets lase only if given very massive currents - thousands of amperes - which will cause them to explode in a matter of a few milliseconds. Until radar was developed during WWII, techniques for switching such massive currents in fractional microseconds hadn't been invented.
Meanwhile the aeronautics people are establishing their own psychiatric ward. The drone was a Mach 2 design, with a simple ramjet engine, using a delta-wing configuration on a "Coke bottle" shape. The wings won't lift, and the ram jet won't start functioning below 500 miles per hour - and nothing on the planet in 1930 could approach that speed. It was normally launched either by a rocket booster of 30.000 pounds thrust, or from a supersonic bomber.
It's fairly obvious that the "engine" burned kerosine - there are adequate traces in the empty tanks. But supplying it with kerosine simply causes a spillage and a near-destructive fire - no engine action. Naturally. The "engine" is simply an open tube, constricted in the middle, with a ring of fuel jets. Careful examination shows no signs of any other equipment having been mounted in the "cowling" originally, and broken, or otherwise, moved out.
In other words, the standard operating technology of a relatively simple drone reconnaissance plane of 1968 operates on physical principles which were totally unimagined in 1930.
If I, in my early science-fiction writing days, had had a transtemporal fully detailed vision of that drone and its mechanisms, I would have been unable to describe it understandably, and certainly would have been unable to guess whether it was one hundred years or ten thousand years in the future.
But I would have been very sure it was no mere thirty-five years in advance!
The scientists of 1930 would have been so unable to analyze and understand the equipment, even when it was right in their hands, that they could have learned almost nothing from it. Suppose they did succeed in analyzing Teflon components as being (CF2)n; fine, only now what do they do with that information? Seeing a substance doesn't tell you how it was put together! And that silicone rubber, that works just fine at a temperature that makes the best high-temperature natural rubber start drooling out the cracks - how was that stuff produced? Sure, it's made of sand and natural gas. Only you don't just stir 'em together and get silicone rubber!
Inasmuch as the neutron, and induced radioactivity, weren't discovered until 1932, all those fission-product radioactives wouldn't help them guess at nuclear fission reactions.
From start to finish, they would be dealing with engineering devices based on unimagined physical principles, and on levels of technology they hadn't dreamed of.

And that, of course, shows how magnificently brilliant and all knowing we, now in 1968, are. We know all these things. We have reached the Ultimate Peak of Omniscience, and know all the physical principles ever to be found useful in the sweep of the Universe in Time and Space.
That's what makes prophecy so simple for the year 2000.
The year 2000 is just thirty-two years ahead of us - some six years less removed from us than 1930. Anybody who wants to bet that science - which has been advancing logarithmically, not merely linearly - won't make progress as massive in the coming thirty-two years as it quite clearly did in the past thirty-eight is out of his everloving mind.
Some items to ponder:
Again and again in science-fiction stories the visiting aliens have had their ship constructed "of an unknown metal, harder, tougher, and more corrosion resistant than anything known to Earth". Present indications are that the answer is - it ain't metal. It's a ceramic-fiber material.
One of the delightful weirdos one of my friends demonstrated to me is that the strongest, lightest, and, because of the immense cost of weight in space, the cheapest structural material, would be members made of diamond in a platinum-iridium matrix. Not because somebody loves expensive jewelry but because diamond is the hardest, stiffest, strongest material known to exist in the Universe, and the modern synthetic diamond forms a beautiful space-filling crystal shape; that is, the crystals nest with each other almost perfectly, leaving only about a three to four percent vacuity, to be filled by the Pt-Ir matrix. Despite the specific gravity of the Pt-Ir alloy being greater than 20, diamond is a very light material, and the average density is low. And the structural strength works out to a fantastically high value. Net result: A structural material so strong and so light that a diamond-and-platinum tube becomes cheaper than steel, aluminum or titanium!
Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome designs are, gradually, being accepted as being in actuality what they "obviously" can't possibly be. They appear so fragile and bubble-like as to seem flimsy - but engineering experience has proven Fuller's original point. They are, by reason of their linked-tetrahedral design, fantastically rigid and rugged.
Fuller and his associates have gone further; working with boron fiber-epoxy matrix materials - fantastically stronger than steel, though still far weaker than the diamond-iridium - and geometrical principles of force analysis, they have been able to design a structure weighing about as much as a five cent piece which is about four inches high, and can carry a compressive load of some 3,000 kilograms. So...
Late in 1968, a prolonged and rising grumbling roar ends as a 15-foot drone subterrene surfaces in the middle of the test range at the U. S. Navy test grounds at Aberdeen. It carries markings vaguely resembling U. S. Navy insignia, somewhat worn after driving up through the underlying rock layers. It appears to be completely inert - but the nuclear physics lab presently reports that it's transmitting a code-modulated coherent beam of gamma radiation with a wavelength somewhere around 0.5 angstroms. The device shows a general radiation emission below background level - but tritium steam mixed with helium is oozing out one of the small vent ports. H3 and He3 are both present - but no neutrons are escaping.
It seems to be constructed of an unknown metal, harder, tougher, stronger, and more corrosion-resistant than anything known. Diamond drills polish it nicely, but wear out without progress. A hydrogen-fluorine blowtorch disintegrates a small hole, with some difficulty. Eventually, a ragged disk of the quarter-inch thick shell is cut out, mounted on a high-speed shaft, and used as a friction saw to cut off some samples for testing.
It's presently determined that it didn't disintegrate rock, or liquefy it - it simply pushed its way through. It's much harder, stiffer and stronger than any rock, and there is apparently a hydrogen fusion engine for power source.
When everything else failed, an effort was made to disassemble the engine by remote control (thirty-five miles) on Eniwetok. There was no explosion - some kind of safeties operated, and it simply went into slag-down, volatilizing most of its mass vigorously for half an hour.
How the power of the engine was applied, however, is even less clear. There is a large block of something that appears to be cast granite, which reveals, under electron microscopy, at the limits of resolution, some very complex form of ordered array. No efforts to get the device to resume activity succeeded.
The material of the shell analyzes out to beryllium, boron, carbon and nitrogen: electron microscopy shows that the material is actually an ordered fibrous matrix, with the fibers forming interlocked and interpenetrative tetrahedral structures. Under loads of several million psi it will elongate as much as fifty percent and return with full elasticity. The concepts of Young's Modulus prove to be simply not applicable to this peculiar material.

In other words, we can properly predict that if a standard technological device of the year 2000 were presented to us - we wouldn't learn a darned thing. We don't know enough about the principles to be discovered to be able to analyze it - let alone duplicate it!
And this simply means that by the time the current college engineering students have had time to work up to senior engineer-executive level, basic principles we've never imagined will have been reduced to common engineering practice.
We haven't a prayer of predicting those unimagined principles - which will be the everyday shop practices then. We can't predict anything that stems from applying principles we've never imagined.
Anymore than I, back in 1930, could predict neutron-activation techniques for chemical identification, when neutrons hadn't been discovered. Or the sociological effects of transistor radios - and the consequent immense development of superior dry cells. I might have predicted radar: the principles of electromagnetic wave propagation were known at least in sufficient degree - but radar stems from a technological development following on improved understanding of electronic circuitry.
But predicting lasers? The principles hadn't been imagined. Sure, we could predict "atomic power" - but not nuclear fission, of course. Actually what we did predict then was hydrogen fusion - which we haven't cracked yet.
The trouble with Science, at any given time, is its ever-repeated conviction that "There's nothing really important - nothing basic - that we don't already understand".
Yet the span of one man's active lifetime in engineering science shows that to be completely false.
And a moment's consideration of "What will scientists of 1.000 years hence - 100.000 years - be studying?" helps gain some perspective. Can anyone seriously hold that, in all that time, no one will find even a few fundamental principles we haven't already understood?

May 1968

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