"All the great empires of the future will be empires of the mind."
WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1953
"If you don't know history, you don't know anything."
EDWARD JOHNSTON, 1990
"I'm not interested in the future. I'm interested in the future of the future."
ROBERT DONIGER, 1996
Science at the End of the Century
A hundred years ago, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, scientists
around the world were satisfied that they had arrived at an accurate picture of
the physical world. As physicist Alastair Rae put it, "By the end of the
nineteenth century it seemed that the basic fundamental principles governing the
behavior of the physical universe were known."* Indeed, many scientists said
that the study of physics was nearly completed: no big discoveries remained to
be made, only details and finishing touches.
But late in the final decade, a few curiosities came to light. Roentgen
discovered rays that passed through flesh; because they were unexplained, he
called them X rays. Two months later, Henri Becquerel accidentally found that a
piece of uranium ore emitted something that fogged photographic plates. And the
electron, the carrier of electricity, was discovered in 1897.
Yet on the whole, physicists remained calm, expecting that these oddities would
eventually be explained by existing theory. No one would have predicted that
within five years their complacent view of the world would be shockingly
upended, producing an entirely new conception of the universe and entirely new
technologies that would transform daily life in the twentieth century in
If you were to say to a physicist in 1899 that in 1999, a hundred years later,
moving images would be transmitted into homes all over the world from satellites
in the sky; that bombs of unimaginable power would threaten the species; that
antibiotics would abolish infectious disease but that disease would fight back;