When it comes to predicting the future, weather forecasters, stock market traders and even the Oracles at Delphi have had a hard time foreseeing beyond the present.
This year was no different, with doomsayers, physicists and amateur astronomers making predictions that fell flat. Here is a roundup of eight predictions that did not come true in 2011.
1. In 1931, The New York Times made a list of predictions 80 years out. Physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Millikan thought that people would apply the scientific method to solve social and political problems. The scientific method had benefited physicists, he said, so what was stopping the method from solving the world’s social problems? Of course, people of different politics and cultures disagree about what constitutes a “solution.” Human nature predominates.
2. It was widely hyped Dec. 13 that researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva would know something about the Higgs Boson even if that something was that it didn’t exist. The Higgs Boson, called the God Particle, and the related Higgs field, are key to explaining how particles have mass. Yet the day came and went, and scientists are still waiting for (the) God(ot) particle.
3. Though Hurricane Irene took the lives of 44 people, caused thousands to evacuate the East Coast, canceled about 10,000 flights, shut down power for 2 million people and caused the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to halt the New York subway, it wasn’t nearly as bad a forecasters projected. Downgraded to a tropical storm as it neared New York Aug. 28, it didn’t cause the astronomical damage that some predicted. Better safe than sorry, experts said, and we’ll cut them some slack because hurricanes are hard to measure.
4. The Rapture—We don’t call it science, but Harold Camping predicted that starting on May 21, Judgment Day, God would start collecting his “elect people” and the world would go up in flames on October 21. Camping also famously predicted the end of days in 1988 and 1994, but to no avail. Bart Centre of New Hampshire even started a business, Eternal Earth-bound Pets, to care for the people’s pets (as animals cannot be raptured along with their owners), and photographers posted hilarious photos on Flickr to commemorate the day. Obviously we’re still here. Bad luck, Harold.
5. The amateur astronomers Space.com called “skywatching soothsayers,” predicted Comet Elenin would bring earthquakes and disaster. For example, Alamongordo made a timeline of Elenin’s progress, forecasting debris from the comet would hit Earth and a “rain of fire” on November 11. But NASA was not among those forecasting doom, and the comet was in pieces by the time it neared Earth Oct. 16.
6. The New Scientist postulated 2011 would be a big year for private space flights. It predicted SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, would launch two new test flights this year. According to its website, SpaceX had no flights in 2011 and plans its next flight, to the International Space Station, for February 2012. On Oct. 17, Virgin Galactic dedicated its “Gateway to Space” in New Mexico, and there is a bookings page on its site, but space tourism remains a thing of the future.
The business is still growing — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently announced a new company, Stratolaunch Systems, which will use planes to launch rockets into space. What we do know is that Blue Origins, the private space company headed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, crashed a test flight in September and didn’t tell the world about it for nine days.
7. Many environmentalists thought President Barack Obama would, like Kermit the Frog, be green until he failed to support stricter air quality regulations in September, citing the recession as the reason. But in December, President Obama announced his support for limiting mercury emissions. Political predictions can be just as slippery as scientific ones.
8. With the release of the blockbuster “Contagion” in September, reporters and researchers theorized how the world would react to a contagious and deadly virus that spread faster than wildfire. A super virus wiping out the human race still hasn’t come to pass, but we’re keeping our eyes on the newly sequenced H5N1 avian influenza, an extremely contagious bug. The American government asked scientists not to publish its genome for fear terrorists would manufacture and spread it, but researchers call it a critical piece of information that could aid experiments for treatment.
We’re looking forward to predictions for 2012. Remember, when foreseeing the future, keep any clairvoyant thoughts vague so your audience can interpret it any way they please.