The noted seer Michel de Nostredame, who is better known to the world by his Latinized name Nostradamus, was born on this date in 1503 in the south of France. Nostradamus made over 6000 vague prophecies during his life, which depending on your worldview have either forecast five centuries of calamities, or have only occasionally gotten things right due to the law of averages.
Irish-born mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin, born William Thompson, died during this week in 1907. He is remembered today in scientific circles mainly for his work on thermodynamics and for the Kelvin Scale, which measures temperatures based on Absolute Zero.
While Lord Kelvin possessed one of the keenest scientific minds of any age, he was not much of a prognosticator. When called on to comment on the future of science and technology, he often made big, bold specific statements (in contrast to Nostradamus’ vaguely-worded prophesies that can be stretched to apply to seemingly anything) that in hindsight proved laughable. Three of Kelvin’s greatest forecasting blunders have anniversaries this week: radio broadcasting, quantum physics, and heavier-than-air flight.
Kelvin was once quoted as saying that, “Radio has no future.” During this week in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi proved him wrong in a big way, when he sent the first wireless radio broadcast across the Atlantic Ocean.
Kelvin stated in 1900 that, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” (To be fair, this statement may have been made by someone else, and only later attributed to Kelvin.) A few months later (exactly 110 years ago today!), German Max Planck published his landmark paper outlining his theory of quantum physics, in which energy was no longer thought to move in a constant flow, but instead transferred in packets, or “quanta.” It may not have sounded like much of a change to laymen, but it soon brought about the end of “classical physics” which Kelvin thought just needed more precise measurement. After its evolution into quantum mechanics, Planck’s new theory gave the world things like laser beams and atomic weapons.
Kelvin never believed that humans would fly and erred again only one year before the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903 (incidentally, almost exactly 400 years after the birth of Nostradamus), when he made the prediction that, “No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful.”
Lord Kelvin’s statements prove, much like the record executive who declined signing the Beatles because “guitar bands are on their way out,” that we should all be leery of believing everything told to us by “experts.” It should also remind us that when we are called on to make predictions, to follow the example of Nostradamus, and not be too specific.