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Century of Science: Connection

Human imagination

from ScienceNews


Scientists sometimes possess impressive powers of divination. Time and again, with only their minds and meager evidence to guide them, researchers have predicted natural phenomena long before they turned up in experiments.

James Clerk Maxwell foresaw radio waves a couple of decades before their discovery. Numerous elements of the periodic table and a whole zoo of subatomic particles were intuited before they materialized. And in a lecture not long after the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, Francis Crick outlined how proteins might be synthesized from genes. He got it basically right; he was a sage for modern biology.

Likewise, scientists — along with science fiction authors — have been surprisingly spot-on in imagining how science and technology advances would affect society. We’ve got bionic bodies, long-distance space voyages, cyber warfare and test-tube babies, along with related ethical quandaries that were discussed and debated before they ever became real.

Yet, there’s also a lot that scientists failed to foresee. The shocking discovery in 1998 that the expansion of the universe was speeding up came at a time when most everyone expected the expansion to be slowing down. For a long time, experts believed there was no practical way to release the enormous amounts of energy packed into atoms; those scientists were proved wrong. Many too have failed to foresee the environmental damage of a whole range of new chemicals and materials from chlorofluorocarbons to DDT to plastics.

Science is thus marked by brilliant predictions and moments of blindness. This collection explores the power and limits of human imagination through stories of what scientists, and other forecasters of the future, saw coming — and what they missed.


A Mind from Math

Alan Turing, often considered the father of computer science, was born a century ago, in June of 1912. He foresaw machines’ potential to mimic brains.


Human imagination Milestones

All Human imagination Milestones