Columns

2007.01.31 The future may not be as friendly as you think

on . Posted in Nowhere Road

By RICH FOLEY

Predicting the future has probably always been a bit of a black art. Everyone remembers the mistakes much more than any successes. I know I’m not the only one still waiting for those flying cars the “experts” used to predict were on the way.

Often, progress changes the equation and what seems to be a dire future takes on a new look. For instance, back in the late 1800s, some expert could have predicted that there would be so many horses needed by today’s growing population that we would all be knee deep in manure. Instead, people turned to that newfangled “horseless carriage” for transportation, bringing on its own set of problems. And later, experts promised those still-absent flying cars.

I got to thinking about this after looking through an old science textbook I picked up at the sale at the Lyons school a couple of months ago. The book, a 1950 edition of a 1941 text, had a couple of interesting predictions in it, both pertaining to the supply of oil.

One said that if we kept using oil at the present rate, the supply may not last for more than ten years. Other experts were cited who predicted the supply could last for another ten years beyond that. That means we would have run out back in 1970 at the latest. When predictions are wrong, it makes the next similar prediction harder to take seriously, even though the latest prophecy may turn out to be right.

Sometimes, what was acceptable turns out, often much later, to be a bad idea. The science book I purchased suggested, along with several other more benign ideas, that students “experiment with mercury,” adding the warning “be sure not to let the mercury touch gold.”

Apparently in the days following World War II, getting mercury near gold jewelry was the only danger people associated with the silvery metal. Mercury supposedly joins easily with gold, turning the gold to a silver color. If this happened, you were advised to take it to a jeweler to have the mercury “driven out.” Take some mercury to a jeweler now and see what kind of reception you get.

 Nowadays, you need to be wearing a hazardous materials suit to be near mercury. Of course, back when the book was printed, schools were full of asbestos and lead-based paint, too. It’s a wonder any students from that era are still with us.

Another futuristic sort of experiment from the 50s will finally come to a conclusion this summer in Oklahoma. In 1957, city officials in Tulsa buried a time capsule to be opened 50 years later in June 2007. The winner of a contest to predict Tulsa’s 2007 population will receive all items in the time capsule, including a new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere.

The Plymouth was covered in a metal preservative called cosmolene, wrapped in plastic and buried in a steel and concrete box in front of the county courthouse. But were those precautions enough?

Rust was a common problem in 1957 Plymouths and some feel that there’s no way that the time capsule hasn’t cracked and left moisture into the car’s tomb during the last 49-1/2 years. And some of the items accompanying the Plymouth may prove problematic on their own.

The case of beer waiting for the lucky winner (or their heirs) will probably be merely undrinkable. But another prize, courtesy of someone’s prediction of the future, would make me think twice about attending the capsule opening.

Someone decided to include ten gallons of premium gasoline in the Belvedere’s trunk, in case gas was not available in 2007 (wrong again). An article in the New York Times predicts that the gasoline may now be a “potentially volatile cocktail of unstable flammable chemicals.” There’s that darned old future, biting you in the rear again.

On the positive side, a $100 savings account included with the car should be worth quite a bit more now. That would come in handy if the new owner wisely chooses to have his “new” Plymouth checked out by a mechanic before driving it. I’d advise buying some new tires, belts and hoses before taking it for a spin.

If, on the other hand, the Plymouth has devolved into a pile of scrap metal and dangerous fluids, the money will come in handy in paying all the fines the EPA will be assessing you. But look on the bright side. At least they didn’t include a giant flask of mercury with the prizes in the car. The future probably already has all the surprises it needs waiting for you. And no matter what, I guarantee the Plymouth will not be able to fly.

    - Jan. 31, 2007 

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