Saturday, October 20, 2007

In the paleo-future.....

Mark Shea recently wrote an article about old predictions about the future, such as those collected on a blog called Paleo-Future. (Hat tip to Sci-Fi Catholic.)Of course, most of these predictions were wildly inaccurate, although some have come true. (I think here of a Renaissance woodcut that depicted the technology of Utopia, with submarines, "light projected great distances," fire that burns on water, and plants modified to bear larger and tastier fruit.)

Since I have nothing wise or illuminating to say about that, I'll just show you an old prophecy that I came across in the book Misguided Weapons, which quotes at length one Dr. Vannevar Bush.

Dr. Vannevar Bush was head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, which was in charge of everything American scientists did for the war effort, from the Manhattan Project to penicillin production. After the war - in September of 1949 to be exact, he wrote a book (Modern Arms and Free Men) on the nature of a future conflict. Of course, this could only refer to a confrontation with the Soviet Union, which by then had its own atomic bombs.

The most notable predictions:

  1. Future navies would operate only against enemy submarines, since they alone would be capable of strategic bombardment. Bombers, missiles, and land-based rockets would be useless because...
  2. Jet aircraft and anti-aircraft guns would make short work of any bomber before it got in range of any important target. Jets, however, would be incapable of dogfighting, since their velocity wide turning radii would leave them at the mercy of more maneuverable propeller aircraft. (Bush apparently believed that speed is a liability in a fighter aircraft.)
  3. As for missiles, their predictable flight paths would make them easy to shoot down.
  4. Rockets (i.e. ballistic missiles) would have a practical range of only 400 miles, and therefore only submarine-mounted rockets would be threats to the U.S. homeland.
  5. Even if rockets were capable of intercontinental flight, they would be impossible to guide, and would miss their targets by hundreds of miles - making them completely useless.
  6. The limited supply of uranium would make it "quite a few years" before the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had enough bombs to wage an all-out nuclear war. (In 1951, the USSR had 25 bombs, while the U.S. had 438, 268 of which had been built after the Soviet bomb test.)
  7. No totalitarian regime would be capable of producing the sophisticated products which free countries like the U.S. were capable of. (Bush, however, does praise the Nazi-developed V-2, which required "great ingenuity and engineering skill," and which formed the basis for all subsequent rocket science.)

Now, this is the exact opposite of what Paleo-Future is about. Bush is prophesying that various forms of technology would not be used in the future: by 1959 all of his predictions were proved wrong. So spectacularly wrong, in fact, that the author of Misguided Weapons conjectures that Bush was deliberately making false predictions in order to confuse the Soviets. However, Bush may have in fact believed everything he said, in which case a scientist, with access to the most up-to-date information on military technology, and years of experience in military research, was flat-out wrong about everything he expressed an opinion on.

I think you know what that implies.