Thursday, June 7, 2018

"We put a man on the moon. How hard can this be?"

Another crowdsourcing project for the science and technology historians in the audience.

The postwar era (roughly defined here as 1945 to 1970) was a period of such rapid and ubiquitous technological and scientific advances that people naturally assumed that this rate of progress would continue or even accelerate. This led not just futurists like Arthur C Clarke but also researchers in the fields to underestimate the difficulty of certain problems, often optimistically applying the within-a-decade deadline to their predictions.

I'm trying to come up with a list of big, high profile goals that proved far more challenging than people had anticipated circa 1970. Here are some examples that come to mind.

The war on cancer. I suspect that the celebrated victory over polio significantly contributed to an unrealistic expectation for other major diseases.

Fusion reactors. It took about a decade to go from atomic bomb to nuclear power compact and reliable enough to deploy in submarines.

Artificial intelligence. We've already mentioned the famously overoptimistic predictions that came out of the field at the time.

Artificial hearts.
From Wikipedia:

“In 1964, the National Institutes of Health started the Artificial Heart Program, with the goal of putting a man-made heart into a human by the end of the decade.”

Not sure whether they meant 1970 or 1974, but either way, they missed their target.

Does anyone out there have additional items I should add to the list?


  1. Commenting a little late but depending on how narrowly you define things various geoengineering ideas might fit the bill. Cloud seeding got a lot of optimistic coverage and I think the tone was often of the "of course we'll get it worked out soon and no more droughts" style. It was also the age of heroic projects to drain swamps and control rivers, with more ambitious ideas being floated like making the Sahara or Australian deserts bloom up to even lowering the Mediterranean to open up more arable land.

    By the time you get the last you're obviously in pie-in-the-sky territory even for the time. But I do remember reading about this in grade school--I was born in 1970 and up through maybe 1980 we'd have reading material that included stuff like this, a holdover from more optimistic (and environmentally indifferent) times.

  2. Yes, weather modification (cloud seeding, etc.) probably should've been on the list. It's easy to dismiss as a sci-fi trope now controlling the weather was a standard super bill and plot, perhaps in part because it was so easy to get stock footage, but I've come across actual quotes from researchers that suggest it was being taken seriously.