P.D. Thomas

(Investigator #2, 1988 September)

Albert Einstein was accepted as an expert in his own field, which was higher mathematics and physics. There is no particular reason why he should have been an expert on industrial nuclear power plants, so it may not be surprising that in 1932 he said "There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear] energy will ever be obtainable."

Einstein's colleague, Ernest Rutherford, had in 1923 put his foot in it when he said that anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atom was talking moonshine. Had he lived another 20 years he would have choked on his own big toe. Robert Millikan, another atomic expert, came out in his support in the same year.
But we must remember that Albert Einstein's high school report included the summary of his scholastic achievements: "He will never amount to anything" — an opinion of an educational expert.

Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky wrote a book called "THE EXPERTS SPEAK" (Pantheon, 1984) which is full of pontifications by "experts", predictions which failed, and discredited pronouncements. It is a healthy reminder that the expert is usually wrong, at least when he departs from his own narrow field.

Edison, for all his broad research into many branches of mechanics, chemistry, electricity, etc., probably wins the Oscar for an inability to see beyond the windows of his laboratory. This may have stemmed partly from his deafness, since deaf people have great difficulty in exchanging ideas and picking up clues when the subtleties of the speech of others elude them and free discussion is almost impossible.

So he believed that the phonograph was not of any commercial value and opposed the use of alternating current for power distribution. The legacy of his obstinacy is that America is stuck with 115 volt power while the rest of the world uses voltages between 220 and 240, a much more practical range.

Perhaps it was a little early, but in 1913 he said: "The talking motion picture will not supplant the regular silent motion picture... There is such a tremendous investment in pantomime pictures that it would be absurd to disturb it."

Surely that argues a lack of imagination rather than a lack of scientific communication. He also said that batteries would "put gasoline buggies [i.e. the internal combustion engine] out of existence." That sounds like a direct-current fixation again!

His teachers didn't think much of young Master Edison either, though he didn't go to the same school as Einstein. When Edison was expelled from school his teacher's report was: "His brain is addled..." We wonder what that education expert thought when he first heard Edison's phonograph. We hope his reaction was not that of the sceptical French scientist who, on hearing his first demonstration of the phonograph, seized the inventor by the throat and yelled "You are imposing on us. Do you imagine we are to be fooled by a ventriloquist?"

Perhaps that was poetic justice for Edison's arrogant treatment of Nicola Tesla, who said very little but rarely had to apologise. Even that genius had his lapses of judgment, however. In 1928 he commented "No rocket will reach the moon save by a miraculous discovery of an explosive far more energetic than any known."

H.G. Wells had an enormous following at one time as the leader and spokesman of the new age of scientific humanism the brave new world wherein science would redeem the sins of Man and build the New Jerusalem. He is almost forgotten today though thanks to his quasi-namesake Orson Welles, his story "The War of the Worlds" will long be remembered and his textbook of biology "The Science of Life" remains a classic in its particular field.

In 1920 he was "pessimistic about broadcasting" (probably because he did not have a good microphone voice!) and he "anticipated its complete disappearance". He was confident that WWI was "the last war". Though he anticipated the military tank in his story "The Land Ironclads", he had no use for the submarine. Perhaps that was professional jealousy since his only serious rival in science fiction, Jules Verne, had forestalled Wells by "inventing" the submarine in his famous novel. Or perhaps Wells suffered from claustrophobia — I can sympathise — because in 1902 he said "My imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea."

As a scientist, he might have been expected to have more imagination in the matter of mechanical inventions; but surely he was excessively willing to stick out his neck when he ventured into international politics in 1944 to predict that De Gaulle's day was passing, and "the road back to obscurity opens wide and imperative before him."

Space travel has been a stumbling block to many of the great scientists and astronomers. Those distinguished enough to become Astronomers-Royal seem to be particularly prone to making asses of themselves by fulminating against those foolish enough to have believed that Man would ever leave the surface of the Earth for outer space. However the famous writer on popular astronomy, familiar to millions on radio and TV, was very dubious of the hopes of sending even an unmanned rocket round the moon. Only 14 months after Patrick Moore made such a pronouncement, photographs of the other side of the moon appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world.

Hugo Gernsback was one of the great lateral thinkers of the 1930's and 1940's who postulated artificial satellites. In 1949 the pompous "Aeronautics Journal" announced: "They are already circling, but only in the heads of dreamers..." Ten years later, we all saw them in the sky.

The magazine "Science Digest" covers a wide range of scientific topics but tends to stress the "scientific" content of its information. In 1948 it announced that "Landing and moving around on the Moon offers so many serious problems for human beings that it may take science another 200 years to lick them."

Leaving aside flights to the Moon and setting our sights on a shorter journey, there was much scepticism expressed over the years about atmospheric flight. Even the Wright brothers had their doubts. Wilbur said in 1901 in a fit of pessimism, "Man will not fly for fifty years."

At least he didn't say it was impossible. Perhaps he had been influenced by his father, Bishop Wright, who dismissed the project with the words "They'll never do it. It is only given to God and angels to fly." Perhaps the good Bishop had forgotten the warning that at times we may entertain angels unawares.

Mr. Rolls, whose name, with that of Mr. Royce, is an international household word for the supreme motor car and a figure of speech for perfection, was quoted in 1909 as saying: "I do not think that a flight across the Atlantic will be made in our lifetime. Moreover, owing to the lightness of the air, in which the aeroplane has to operate, I do not think it will ever be used to carry either goods, or a large number of passengers."

Tennyson didn't fall for that one. In 1827 he wrote of his vision of the future — "Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales." But he wasn't a scientist.

Going to the other extreme, we recall the misguided officer who vas quoted (posthumously) as having assured a passenger on the "Titanic": "Madam, God himself could not sink this ship." Even after the collision, the Captain told the passengers: "There is no danger; the ship is unsinkable." Pinning his faith in materialistic technology, he had previously told the world's Press: "I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."

Today's dogma is tomorrow's fallacy. Only 75 years earlier, Sir William Symonds, a naval architect, had denied that such a ship as the Titanic could even be propelled because "the power being applied in the stern would make it impossible to steer the vessel".

We have had our fun at the expense of the experts. What do we learn? There is a common thread running through most of those misjudgments. It is the thread of dogmatic arrogance coupled with a lack of lateral thinking.

Those French academics, the "experts" of their day, who said stones couldn't fall from the sky were trying to prove a negative. Actually they didn't even try to prove their assertion. Everyone knew that stones couldn't fall from the sky. The anthropologists who accepted the Piltdown skull went to the other extreme they were too gullible. When the skull wouldn't fit into their elaborate family tree" of human evolution, they grafted a special branch on to the trunk and labeled it "Piltdown Man", who had never existed. Scientific "laws" change from century to century, even from year to year. If observed facts don't fit the laws, they are either ignored, denied as having happened, or fitted into a custom-built niche (like the Piltdown skull).