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.
Alexander Friedmann saw that Einstein’s equations predicted multiple cosmic scenarios, including a Big Bang.
Some scientists of the past couldn’t imagine that atoms or gravity waves could one day be studied – or nuclear energy harnessed.
Wally Broecker’s insight into the shutdown of the great ocean conveyor belt spurred the study of abrupt climate change.
The book ‘The Brain in Search of Itself’ chronicles the life of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who discovered that the brain is made up of discrete cells.
Small interventions that influence people’s behavior can be tested. But the real world requires big, hard-to-measure changes too, scientists say.
Climate projections need to be pushed long past the established benchmark of 2100, researchers argue.
In the 100 years since Science News started reporting on it, science has offered up plenty of unexpected discoveries.
A century of science has pushed the boundaries of human reproduction even beyond writers’ imaginations.
Early scientists often assumed that Venus, though hotter than Earth, hosted life.
On the anniversary of Hiroshima, here’s a look back at the chain reaction of basic discoveries that led to nuclear weapons.
The argument between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis 100 years ago was ultimately settled by Edwin Hubble.
Landing on the moon for real dramatically demonstrated the confluence of science with the moon’s cultural mystique.
Human creativity conjured up the most extreme of astronomical phenomena long before they could be seen.
Discovering gravity waves confirms Einstein and illustrates the power of the human mind to discern physical phenomena hidden in mathematical equations.
Twenty years ago, Peter Shor showed how quantum computers could break secret codes, turning the movie Sneakers from fiction to fact.
In a 1997 interview with Context blogger Tom Siegfried, Murray Gell-Mann discussed the origin of the idea for the subatomic particles that he named quarks.
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.
British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson (shown at center) proposes forecasting the weather by piecing together the calculations of tens of thousands of meteorologists working on small parts of the atmosphere.
In the journal Naturwissenschaften, physicist Erwin Schrödinger coins the term Verschränkung, meaning “entanglement,” and develops his famous thought experiment of a cat that exists in a state of simultaneously being alive and dead.
Alan Turing (shown) sketches out the theoretical blueprint for a machine able to implement instructions for making any calculation — the principle behind modern computing devices.
In July, the United States tests the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. In August, the U.S. drops two bombs on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people and hastening the end of World War II.
Dolly the Sheep (shown) is the first mammal cloned from the DNA of an adult mammal. Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell of the Roslin Institute transferred the nucleus of an adult mammary gland cell into an egg cell, showing that adult DNA can be reprogrammed to grow a new organism.
A paralyzed woman controls a robotic arm with her mind, enabling her to drink coffee from a bottle.