Happy new year, from Arthur Compton in 1931

It’s the year 2011. (By the way, can we please agree to say “twenty eleven”? “Two thousand and ten” was tiresome enough, I don’t think I can handle two extra syllables). Instead of making my own new year predictions, I’d like to share those of Nobel Prize winner Arthur Compton.

In 1931, the New York Times collected opinions from leading thinkers on what the world would be like 80 years hence. Compton and others made some surprisingly insightful guesses. I encourage you to read the original article yourself, if only to appreciate the language nuances (apparently, no one blinked an eye at the word “corpuscles”).

Compton, who was professor-at-large at UC Berkeley when he died in 1962, had this to say on the fate of science:

“China, with its virile manhood and great natural resources, will be taking a more prominent part in world affairs, and science will no longer be a monopoly of the West.”

I have no comment on the virility of China’s manhood, or its womanhood for that matter, but the spirit of this prediction has certainly come true. He also seems to have premonitions of the internet (“communication [should become] much more common than at present, so that the whole earth will be one great neighborhood”) and the EU (“voluntary union of neighboring nations under a centralized government of continental size”).

I’ve transcribed the whole article below for your enjoyment. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come. Anyone taking bets for flying cars in 2091?

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“WHOLE OF THE EARTH WILL BE BUT ONE GREAT NEIGHBORHOOD”
Dr. Compton Envisions the Great Development of Our Communications
By A. H. Compton, Nobel Prize Winner, Who Proved That X-Rays Act Like Corpuscles.

During the next eighty years we may confidently expect power to become cheaper and more widely distributed, and motors and fuel less bulky. Possibly this may mean the development of atomic power. We should at least know by that time whether we may look toward atomic destruction as a source of power that man may use. Following this power development, transportation should become faster and cheaper, and communication by printed and spoken word and television much more common than at present, so that the whole earth will be one great neighborhood. With better communication, national boundaries will gradually cease to have their present importance. Because of racial differences a world union cannot be expected within eighty years. The best adjustment that we can hope for to this certain change would seem to be the voluntary union of neighboring nations under a centralized government of continental size.

Nothing can stay the rapid mechanization of industry and the arts, for this is in the direction of easier living. Along with this must come greater leisure, though, as we are already aware, this increased leisure can hardly be realized without a drastic reorganization of our economic system.

We may expect the present problems of the structure of matter to be pretty well solved, and physical science will be turning its attention to cosmology and biology. Questions of life and health, including psychology and genetic selection, will probably be in the forefront. The United States and Germany will probably be the world leaders in science eighty years hence. The Orient, however, and especially China, with its virile manhood and great natural resources, will be taking a more prominent part in world affairs, and science will no longer be a monopoly of the West.

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  1. Anonymous

    Thank you! Very interesting.