A Dozen+1 Visions of the Future

Between 13 and 20 years ago, I made a combination of humorous and pretentious predictions. Typically, these ventures reveal one’s biases more than they reveal the future. But I reprint them here because I hope you will find some of the writing full of, if nothing else, zest.

1.  In the last five decades of the twentieth century, prized “free time” was in principle supposed to allow people to derive more pleasure out of life. But people had allowed themselves to fall into more traps during their most precious hours. For instance, in order to create more leisure, they would pay people to mow their lawns and shovel their driveways. And rather than take a time-consuming walk to the grocery store, they would take their cars. But of course by doing so they found that they were not getting enough exercise, so they chewed up part of their leisure hours by joining health clubs to fiddle with dull and costly machines.

In that same time period, wifi and downloadable movies mushroomed on an astronomical scale because people had no time to engage in storytelling or thoughtful conversations. Without the patience and the energy to plan for adventures, and by engaging in limited concrete activities, they had wasted too much of their leisure in adolescence watching television or their telephones. Bereft of imagination and without an eventful agenda, they had to live vicariously through Hollywood’s products.
how-to-get-your-photo-taken-at-the-iconic-western-brook-pond-fjord-2But all of that had changed by 2036. The way people looked at leisure had been revolutionized. Megaplexes and Nautilus clubs were closing daily. People strolled regularly, admiring foliage, observing scars on pruned trees, and examining stars and planets above them. They raked their own leaves and indulged in cultivating gardens, growing the showiest flowers and juiciest vegetables; they hiked and cross-country skied in empty lots and forests and swam in ponds and seas. And they always took the time to share their experiences with friends and family in the form of fireside stories and handwritten letters.

2. CaptureEven in China, people had given up tobacco by the year 2035. Instead, many people “smoked” math and science. Teenagers would typically carry rolled up brain-teasers in cigarette-sized packages and would distribute them among friends, sharing creative solutions to frown-inducing puzzles. The prospect of being able to do math well into their ripe years made the young less fearful of aging. As a result, they no longer had reason to be rude to the elderly or to commit themselves to an early death by smoking cancer sticks.

3.  downloadBy the year 2034, a concrete version of Geocities‘ virtual world had become a reality. A new suburb was created out of neighbourhoods that were based on general interests, from sculpture to sports. In the sculpture neighbourhood,for example, there was art at every corner, and workshops were given weekly at community centers. If one wanted to talk about the history of the craft with a retired gentlemen sitting on his porch, all one had to do was walk through the particular neighbourhood. A longer stroll would take one out of that realm, and into a different sphere of human activity. All in all, the real Geocity was at least as intellectually diverse as the computerized version, and in addition it provided people with far more exercise and actual human contact.

4.  CapturteTwo important viral strains were identified in the year 2039. The first, ITOS,had been especially rampant in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Lodging itself in specific pathways between the cerebral cortex and brain stem, it was responsible for the urge to create workshops and seminars for white collar workers. ITOS was especially effective because of the action of its companion-virus, SIBS, which over a short period of time made people even more likely to accept untested ideas in education and industry. Since the viral epidemic, millions of dollars and worker hours had been surrendered to gurus who roamed the continent, preaching about high-school semestrial courses and downsizing. But once the vaccination program was launched in the spring of 2039, these gurus found themselves in unemployment lines, without even the urge to persuade those ahead of them to let them pass.

5. By the year 2040, virotherapy used cancer-killing viruses with the following characteristics:

(1) Captwqdurethey proliferated only in cells with Ras-gene signalling pathways or in those with excess protein-growth factors—in other words only in cancer cells and not in normal cells.
(2) they continuously changed their protein coat, preventing the human immune system from attacking these viruses before they had a chance to eliminate tumours.

In spite of these advances, some human tumours were resistant to virotherapy. Society as a result continued to invest in preventive medicine by:
(1) carefully controlling carcinogenic compounds in consumer goods and work sites and imposing stiff penalties on industries that ignored guidelines.

(2) and encouraging consumption of fruits, mushrooms and vegetables rich in antioxidants that were active in vivo and not only in vitro

(3) by leading a physically active life.

6. hqdefaultBy 2041 the WTA and ATP had merged into one. Women tennis stars were able to compete with men by benefiting from a heavy alloy which was used only in men’s rackets to take that boring big-serve out of their game. The ladies’ lighter rackets eliminated gentlemen’s muscular advantage, so that if the latter wanted to beat the opposite sex they had to do so with stamina and finesse, both of which were acquired and not inherited traits.

7. rainMost autistic people, like most people in general, do not have a special talent. A minority, the so-called autistic savants, have a phenomenal memory for specific things such as music, numbers or smells. As a renowned psychologist had pointed out at the turn of the century, it was as if the rest of the autistic brain was overcompensating for its dysfunctional part.Years after, it occurred to educators that in most people, the parts of the brain responsible for social behaviours—the same ones that are limited in autistic patients— are too active, limiting the average person’s capacity for both logical and creative thinking. Through a combination of mental training, proper diet, self-discipline and the release of internal psychoactive substances, people in 2046 became capable of turning the loud voices of fruitless thinking into a feathery whisper. On demand, the brain no longer occupied itself with commercial and political propaganda; when necessary, it shut off thoughts of gossip and finances. It then had far more energy to create art and to listen to the sounds of science.

8. By the year 2047, the LHA class of 2003 had left an indelible mark on the world of science. Forty four years ago they had consisted of a musical talent who laughed a lot, a big guy who temporarily wanted to become a fireman, an artist who for a short time distracted himself with a donut-job, a peace-loving girl who dyed her hair red for the prom, another musical talent who actually read the Crystal Ball reports, a bright girl who could easily persuade her less motivated boyfriend to study, a girl who took caffeine to dance more gracefully, a modest guy who had the most analytical brain the school had seen in the 21st century to date and of many more noteworthy students.

Although they managed to open windows into the neurochemistry behind motivation, musical talent,logic, ambition, and temperament, the LHA class of 2003 found that the brain is like the sky and weather: intricate, beautiful, stormy, partly predetermined, and in the long-term unpredictable. Whether they approached a subject at the level of the organism or at the molecular level, their probes themselves had an impact on the human brain, not to mention the countless other factors that shaped each person along the way. Are all the possible outcomes of personality being played out somewhere in an infinite universe? The other versions of the red-haired girl and her classmates may be unfolding, as we speak.

9. By the year 2032, the world of advertising had crumbled. After a century of “slavery to brand-names”, people became fed up with paying $100 for a pair of shoes that cost $2 to manufacture but $20 to promote. As long as the quality of goods was improved, total sales did not suffer dramatically because of Third World demand. With public opinion behind them, governments were then able to pressure manufacturers in meeting durability and environmental standards, which were funded by capital that in the past had gone into running shoe contracts.

10. 3ureNot too long ago, the crystal ball of science gave us a glimpse of the year 2029. For most of the twentieth century, thanks to chemical pigments in photographs and to fluorescent materials in TV screens, electromagnetic waves from inanimate materials could resemble those bouncing off the people we loved thousands of miles away. Similarly the waves from their voices could be made to disturb the crystal patterns of tiny fragments of iron, which later led to the regeneration of so very similar disturbances on the cardboard of a speaker. But smells and tactile impressions, so unlike sights and sounds in that they involved direct interaction with matter and not energy, could not, for the longest time, be recorded. In 2029 a dream specialist, after understanding the way the brain uses memory to recreate physical feelings and smells in dreams, recorded the perfume and velvety texture of a rose and induced its impressions in the consciousness of a computer operator who had not smelled a flower in 22 years.

11. Only hydrogen and electric cars motored through the streets of Honolulu .There were no tourists parading on their scooters without a helmet. In fact, the streets of Waikiki were relatively quiet. Most tourists came to Oahu to study the geology of the island or to appreciate the interaction of light and water. Only birds slept in Kapiolani Park. The hydrogen-generating plant in Pearl Harbor had rehabilitated and hired all of the city’s homeless people.

12. This month, the crystal ball of science gave us a glimpse of the year 2026. Most states had adopted Vermont’s no billboard law on their highways. Within urban centers, the only billboards found (and there were never more than 2 per acre ) were those containing useful information such as atomic masses and physical constants.

I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.

-Ogden Nash

Untitled-1At every major intersection, along with a 911 terminal, there was a 912 terminal, an emergency computer hot line for students stuck on homework problems. We saw a haze over L.A. that slowly but surely dissipated, suggesting that for the first time in 75 years, less than 1000 compounds diffused into its atmosphere. And there were quiet motorcycle gangs wearing T-shirts with elemental symbols on their backs. Street gangs had traded their guns in for periodic tables, and they spent their nights helping little old ladies understand moles and molecules.

13.  The Empathy Assistor was invented in 2043. Using only two consenting participants with a minimum age of 15, for three nights the two people involved would experience manufactured dreams based on each others’ fears, hopes and aspirations. Each person would wake up knowing what went on in the other person’s head and soul as the latter experienced anything from taunting to ice cream, from math to television drama. It was more efficient than any other therapy or method for resolving inter- and intra-personal conflicts. Like most new technologies in the last two centuries, it was embraced too enthusiastically. Even  after strict controls and guidelines, it did not work on some people. The public went back to shaming them until they were reminded to have a little empathy for those who lack the capacity.

The Periodic Table of the Elements’ Natural Sources

EMA1EtCWsAIopQaThere are thousands of different periodic tables in existence. Aside from the usual ones that offer atomic masses and numbers, for a long time we have had those that revealed various periodic trends. In more recent years, some have focused on their time or place of discovery, on cosmic origins of the elements, and even on endangered “species”.

Many academic institutions and a slightly-richer-than-the average-guy by the name of Bill Gates,  have placed actual samples of elements in cubicles to create a 3D-version. There are more modest tables filled with beautiful photographs of the  elements—in fact, you can even get a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle version.

(Although it should have had 118 or 1180 pieces to match the number of elements. 🙂 ) 914eg7tsctl

I thought of creating one more, a table that focuses on some of the natural sources of the elements—even though I’m sure the idea is far from original. You probably know already that such a table will leave out synthetic ones, about 34 of them. Of course, for most of the remainder, there is more than one natural source. So anyone else who has created such a table will have put together merely one of at least millions of possibilities.

periodic

You will notice that whereas a periodic table has mostly metals, the natural source- version consists of mostly minerals, which I find more aesthetically pleasing. A rock is a heterogeneous mixture of minerals, while a mineral is similar to a chemical compound, but it is not as narrowly defined. Its composition can vary within limits; impurities can drastically change the colour of a mineral, and those impurities can sometimes be the only source of the element, as is the case with rhodium and several of the rare earth elements.

The list of elements that can be found in their native, non-bonded state is longer than most of us imagine. It includes four of the five elements in group 15: nitrogen, arsenic, antimony and bismuth; all three mintage elements: copper, silver and gold; iron and nickel in meteorites—in fact native iron can also be found in basalt; five other heavy metals: osmium, rhodium, iridium, palladium and platinum; oxygen, sulfur and, of course, all six noble gases.

For four of the elements, helium, gallium, rubidium and cesium,  I included spectra, which is how those elements were discovered. In helium’s case, the scientists were looking at the sun’s outer layers during the eclipse of 1868. Only decades later was helium gas found on earth when it was found to be released from a uranium ore. Soon after, they realized that lots could be extracted from natural gas sources.

If you refer back to the first table I listed, that of the endangered elements, you will notice that helium is one of them. The number of suppliers worldwide is limited. If one  of them experiences issues, shortages quickly develop. This leads to a spike in prices for the simplest but most essential of the noble gases. Helium is used as a coolant in MRIs, smartphone-manufacturing and other applications.

It’s just not recycled enough, if at all, as is the case with many of the endangered elements.

The Impact of Two Latin Words for Celery

When I was in elementary school, my Mom would drag me to to church on most Sunday mornings for the 8 o’clock mass. Invariably, I would try to listen to what the priest said for the first five minutes. But he spoke Italian too quickly, and it was different enough from the dialect that we spoke at home that I could not follow the mass for very long. So I let my mind wander, admired the stained glass and stared at the mediocre murals on the walls.

About a half century later, my wife and I only attend mass when people we know have died. Yesterday was such a day. My comprehension of Italian has improved dramatically, but I still chose not to listen to the priest for very long and to distract myself with thoughts of my deceased aunt, math and science until a heartfelt eulogy was delivered by my cousin’s husband.

Perhaps inspired by the subsequent get-together with my Italian relatives and acquaintances, I woke up this morning wondering why there are different words for celery in Italian and in its various dialects. It’s rooted in the fact that when people spoke Latin at the time of the Roman Empire, even then, there was more than one word for celery.

Umbelliferae
The inflorescence of a fennel plant similar in shape to that of the carrot, parsley and celery.

Both parsley and celery, along with carrots, poison hemlock and about 3700 other species,  are members of the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family.  It’s not a coincidence that “Umbelliferae” sounds like umbrella. All plants of this family have an inflorescence that is shaped like an upside down umbrella. Structural similarities between flowers of plants are not coincidences. If a genetic analysis is done, almost invariably, when structures in plants resemble each other, so do overall genetic sequences.

It’s therefore not a shock that when vernacular Latin adopted a word for celery, they derived it from the Greek word for parsley, selinon, and called celery, selinum. This eventually evolved into the currently accepted Italian word sedano. But selinum also morphed into another word, sellaro, still used today by people who speak dialect in villages of Lombardy. Sellaro, as you have probably guessed, became the French word, céleri and the English word, celery. 

More formal Latin, however, used the word appium for celery, hence the family name Apiaceae. This led to another accepted term for celery, appio dolce.  But the consonant p of either appium or appio changed to a c, forming the word accio or acc’ for celery that most dialects of Campania use. Such a transformation is not uncommon. A switch of a p to a c also occurred when “che io sappio” (as far as I know) became “chi sacc?” (who knows?) in Napolitano.

I wish priests would find a way of blending etymology and botany with spirituality. I would attend every Sunday.

 

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