I always shudder to see those articles that come around periodically in which august and lofty scientists and engineers venture their predictions for the future. When I was a small boy, I couldn't wait to see the introduction of those flying cars and the space-age robots that would cater to our every whim, taking the drudgery out of household chores, and freeing us to enjoy the finer things in life. Hold on – I'm still waiting!

Over the years, the experts have never learned the basics of the ‘Peter Principle’. (In 1969, Lawrence Peter and Raymond Hull generalized that people are often promoted to a level at which they are incompetent.) Just because you are, or once were, good at something doesn't mean you are going to be as successful at something else, in this case, predicting the future. Casinos routinely make huge profits on the basis of our ability to delude ourselves.

What are some of the less successful predictions made over the years in our field?

How about the statement in 1899 by Charles Duell, the then head of the US Patent and Trademark office that “everything that can be invented has been invented”? Or that “X-Rays are a hoax” as Lord Kelvin said in 1900. Stick to your temperature scale, buddy! Thomas J. Watson, founder and chairman of IBM in 1943 said, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” We should give old Tommy a pass on that one, because it was true in the early 1990s (gratuitous dig at IBM's failure to capitalize on the shift to PCs from mainframes in that time period). “Space travel is utter bilge”, claimed Richard van der Riet Woolley, on assuming the post of British Astronomer Royal in 1956. (I know some astronomers who are royal pains but not astronomer royals – presumably there is a difference.) Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Corporation, said memorably in 1977, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” One of my personal favorites was said by Bill Gates of Microsoft in 1981, “640 K of memory ought to be enough for anybody”. (Fill in your own observation about the unwieldy and eccentric workings of Windows here.)

Growing up, I always enjoyed the story of the Mechanical Turk, a brilliant calculating machine that was able to defeat all comers in chess. Alas, it was too good to be true, of course. On closer inspection, it was found to be simply a box containing a rather cramped chess genius who could observe moves and make counter-moves through a series of mirrors and pulleys.

A staple of tabloid newspapers worldwide is to have some type of creature, demonstrably dumber than a human and often without opposable thumbs, to pick the results of football matches or predict the increase in stock market share prices by flinging fruit or pointing a stick at a chart. The random results can then be compared with those predicted by experts in that field. The results are depressing for the human race. Out-tipped by a macaw!

What has this to do with materials science? My theme is perhaps that we as a discipline are too level-headed and fond of facts to garner much interest from the general population. Recently, I read with alarm in Wiredthat the 42 biggest questions in science don't involve any on materials1. The questions include such topics as ‘why do we sleep?’, ‘is time an illusion?’, ‘where did life come from?’, ‘what is the universe made of?’, ‘what happens to information in a black hole?’, and so on. The great imponderables. Of course, we had some small news in that particular issue of Wired, which reported the potential of polyurethane compounds for surfboards and the components of ‘belly-button lint’ – a combination of clothing fibers and dead skin, for those of you who must know.

And I did find out the actual value of ‘all the tea in China’, calculated to be $1 596 653 400 at a commodity price of $1.86 per kilogram, so not all is lost.

Maybe we need to advertise more of the outlandish materials work going on. I'm sure the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Robo Lobster (small, remotely operated, sea-going, mobile sensor unit) from a few years back would have been a crowd pleaser. Try boiling that bad boy and serving him up with a nice sauce and accompanied by an appropriate white wine! We could also jazz up our system of units for different materials properties. Let's face it, ohms, amperes, atoms per cubic centimeter, etc. are not exactly spell binding. I always liked the idea of defining beauty in units of milliHelens – a face that could launch one ship.

Further reading
[1] J. Hodgman et al. Wired, 15.02 (2007), p. 104

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70292-4