"If (says Arago) this question were simply proposed to me, Is the Sun inhabited? I should reply, that I know nothing about the matter. But let any one ask of me if the sun can be inhabited by beings organized in a manner analogous to those which people our globe, and I hesitate not to reply in the affirmative. The existence in the sun of a central obscure nucleus, enveloped in an opaque atmosphere far beyond which the luminous atmosphere exists, is by no means opposed, in effect, to such a conception.
"Sir William Herschel thought the sun to be inhabited ..."
(John Timbs, Things Not Generally Known, 1857)
While researching a couple of more or less scientific books – one on future warfare, one on past UFOs – I was inspired by many eminent scientists whose opinions proved to be just as rooted in eternal truth as those of Arago and Herschel above. It goes a long way back: Aristotle, without recourse to actual, sordid experiment ("No man can practise virtue who is living the life of a mechanic or labourer," he said), recorded such interesting facts as that all women have fewer teeth and blacker blood than men. And it still goes on. This century has seen such joys as the Astronomer Royal who growled that the possibility of spaceflight was "utter bilge" and the US general who made similar noises about heavier-than-air flight of any kind – unfortunately he made his remarks some three years after the Wrights first got off the ground. Likewise, it was after Henry Ford's cars hit the road that another US prophet wailed that with the way traffic was increasing, by 1920 the New York streets would be two feet deep in horse manure.
In 1939 Churchill predicted, "Atomic energy might be as good as our present day explosives, but it is unlikely to produce anything very much more dangerous. Rutherford put it more strongly in 1933: "Anyone who looks for a source of power in the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine." (A view held by Friends of the Earth to this day.} Having discovered the atomic nucleus which caused all the trouble, Rutherford should perhaps have known better. Not only atomics, but warfare in general provide a rich source of material: did you know that on the news of mobilization for World War I, the first task of UK armourers was to sharpen the officers' swords for battle? That a civil service job created in 1803 – for a watchman who stood on the Cliffs of Dover looking out for Napoleon – was abolished only in 1945? That Churchill wanted icebergs towed from the Arctic to use as floating airstrips during the European assault?
All this does have relevance to the literary arts so beloved of BSFA members, (Other arts too: "Colour and stereoscopy will make the cinema into the greatest art in the world. Bad films will be impossible." – John Betjeman, 1935.) These mispredictions are an artform in themselves; it's like watching a morality play, as with the inexorable unrolling of time the pompous prophets are deflated. Lasers as a missile defence are "pure nonsense", said Prof Hans Thirring after lengthy calculations in the sixties, and lo! in 1973 a laser was seen to destroy an anti-tank missile at a kilometre. But especially it has its relevance to that curious cesspit of literature containing the collected works of D. Langford. ("Possibly the greatest advance in writing since the discovery of the vowel!" – D. Glandorf.)
Publishers, you see, are always out for blood. You can be on the phone to one, merrily quipping about the spokesman for Daimler Benz who explained that the European automobile market was limited to about 1,000 (that being the maximum number of chauffeurs available) – and suddenly the publisher's eyes light up with that strange nonhuman gleam which you can detect along 150 miles of telephone cable. "Do a collection of these silly predictions," says the publisher evilly.
"But," I riposte swiftly, "to place a man in a multistage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon, where the passenger can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to Earth – all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne I Or so Lee DeForest, sometimes called the 'father of electronics', remarked in 1957."
"You would love to do this book. You wish nothing more than to spend the next year ferreting out such little quotations."
"June of 1957, to be precise," I quaver, hoping to change the subject.
"All right, swine of an author, I'll even pay for it."
"On the other hand, in 1897 the state legislature of Indiana came within a single vote of declaring that pi should be de jure 3.2 ..."
"An advance in double figures, even!"
"But I think I am right in saying that the Bible quite clearly implies that pi is equal to 3."
So here I am with orders to unearth countless suitable quotations for a work tentatively titled The Earth Was Created in 4004 BC on the Twenty-Sixth of October at 9.00 in the Morning, in memory of Bishop Ussher's immortal calculation. (Which reminds me that students of the Great Pyramid have infallibly predicted the end of the world as occurring in 1874, 1881, 1911, 1914 [nice one], 1920 [horse manure year – see above], 1925, 1928, 1936 and 1953, among other dates. This may be correct. I haven't checked. Meanwhile, 1999 and 2000 are popular dates for the next end of the world.) As the US Congressional Record put it in 1875, whilst contemplating the fearful power of internal combustion, my task "involves forces of a nature too dangerous to fit into any of our usual concepts."
So this is a sneaky appeal for help: does anyone out there know of items suitable for the ridiculous and absurd book? Send them to me at
22 Northumberland Avenue, Reading, Berks, RG2 7PW. Contributors of material actually used will have their names blazoned on the acknowledgements page, thus achieving undying fame without loss of amateur status. Or for a small extra fee we can keep your name out of the whole sordid business....