Sun, May 15, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The worst predictions in history

Many fled Rome after a prediction the city would be hit by an earthquake, but forecasters usually get the future spectacularly wrong

By Patrick Barkham  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Kevin Hsu

He was knighted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for his prophetic meteorological skills and now Internet rumors have revived acclaim for Raffaele Bendandi, an Italian seismologist who died in 1979, but decided that May 11, 2011, would be the day that Rome would be obliterated by an earthquake. His theory that the movement of the planets triggered seismic activity caused him to successfully predict an earthquake that killed 1,000 people in 1923. However, Paola Lagorio, president of a foundation that is dedicated to Bendandi and preserves his archives, insisted he never forecast an earthquake in Rome for May 11 this year.

As the new book History’s Worst Predictions by Eric Chaline shows, everyone from ancient prophets to modern futurologists have, more often than not, got the future spectacularly wrong.

THE MAYA

The Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica were obsessed with measuring time. They had two calendars, but also deployed “the Long Count,” counting forward from the date of the creation of the world (Sept. 8, 3114 BC, since you ask). Within the Long Count, their biggest unit of time was not a year or a century but the 144,000-day B’ak’tun. Because the number 13 was significant for the Maya, the conclusion of the 13th B’ak’tun — on Dec. 21 or Dec. 23 next year — has been viewed as apocalyptic.

Regardless of the dubious logic that this should herald the end of the world, the Mayan “prophecies” gained credibility with the perception that their civilization was a peace-loving theocracy.

“The truth is that even by the standards of ancient peoples, the Maya were technologically backward,” Chaline said.

They lacked the wheel, the arch, the plough and domesticated animals; they fought each other and ruined their environment. Did the Maya foresee their own collapse in the ninth century or the Spanish invasion in the 16th? Or have cataclysmic events happen on key dates in their future-oriented calendar? No.

THE VILLAGE HERBALIST

It was an unpromising start for a soothsayer: A merchant’s son in southern France dropped out of school because of the bubonic plague and spent eight years studying rural herbs. He was then expelled from university for continuing his work as an apothecary. Perhaps Michel de Nostredame had been smoking something because in 942 rhyming verses he apparently predicted every global tragedy from Hitler to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In reality, Nostradamus was a poor astrologer and plagiarist who successfully wooed the credulous French ruling classes. All his supposed predictions have been deciphered retrospectively with a creative leap of the imagination. Some were inserted after the event.

THE TECHNOPHOBES

Less soothsayers and more naysayers, some experts slip up when pouring scorn on new inventions. Irish mathematician Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859) warned that 190kph trains would crush passengers’ lungs and kill them.

“Who would want to use it anyway?” asked then-US president Rutherford Hayes of the telephone in 1876.

In Britain, William Preece, later engineer-in-chief of the Post Office, remarked: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

Henry Morton, the first president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, feared that Thomas Edison’s lightbulb was “a fraud upon the public” and Marshall Ferdinand Fox called airplanes “interesting toys” with “no military value.”

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