Sunday, April 20, 2008

Scientific Skepticism of Old

Here are some good quotes of technological/scientific skepticism of the past:

“ many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone couldfind hitherto unknown lands of any value.” - committee advising Ferdinandand Isabella regarding Columbus’ proposal, 1486

“I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stonesfell from the sky” - Thomas Jefferson, 1807 on hearing an eyewitnessreport of falling meteorites.

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil?You’re crazy.” - Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to hisproject to drill for oil in 1859.

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” - PierrePachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

“The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from theintrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.” - Sir John Eric Ericksen,British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria1873.

“Such startling announcements as these should be depreciated as beingunworthy of science and mischievious to to its true progress” - SirWilliam Siemens, 1880, on Edison’s announcement of a successful light bulb.

“We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” -Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888

“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobodywill use it, ever.” - Thomas Edison, 1889

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science haveall been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that thepossibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of newdiscoveries is exceedingly remote…. Our future discoveries must belooked for in the sixth place of decimals.” - physicist Albert. A.Michelson, 1894

“It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which twoor three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flyingmachine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.”- Thomas Edison, 1895

“The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, knownforms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in apracticable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through theair, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for thedemonstration of any physical fact to be.” - astronomer S. Newcomb, 1906

“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” - MarechalFerdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, 1911

“Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and menare wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war”- Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915, in regards to use of tanksin war.

“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action andreaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum againstwhich to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out dailyin high schools.” - 1921 New York Times editorial about RobertGoddard’s revolutionary rocket work.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Whowould pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” - DavidSarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in theradio in the 1920s.

“All a trick.” “A Mere Mountebank.” “Absolute swindler.” “Doesn’t knowwhat he’s about.”
“What’s the good of it?” “What useful purpose will itserve?” - Members of Britain’s Royal Society, 1926, after a demonstrationof television.

“This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurdlengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists.”-A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever beobtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered atwill.” — Albert Einstein, 1932

“The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone whoexpects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms istalking moonshine” - Ernst Rutherford, 1933

“The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]…presentsdifficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss thenotion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author’s insistentappeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibilityof heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished.” Richardvan der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator’s “Rocketsin Space”, Nature, March 14, 1936

“Space travel is utter bilge!” -Sir Richard Van Der Riet Wolley, astronomer

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” - PopularMechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talkedwith the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is afad that won’t last out the year.” - The editor in charge of businessbooks for Prentice Hall, 1957

“Space travel is bunk” -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal ofBritain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik

“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will beused to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radioservice inside the United States.” -T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

“But what… is it good for?” - Engineer at the Advanced ComputingSystems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” - KenOlson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp.,1977

Of course, there are many good skeptics, and good things to be skeptical about (in fact. I am willing to say that most new ideas are not completely valid, if at all.) Many will be surprised to find many great thinkers and scientists listed above (Thomas Edison, Jefferson, Einstein); just shows us that bad skepticism is not only the purview of the unthinking and unimaginative (The fact that these men where wrong in these instances didn’t take away from their virtues, by the way. In fact, some quotes above, even though they are wrong, are ligitimate thoughts somewhat taken out of context.)

By the way, I found all these quotes at Accelerating Future.

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