17th century scientist does "predictions of the future" better than Nostradamus

Robert Boyle has a scientific law named after him. So you already knew he was hot stuff. Apparently, though, the good Mr. Boyle was even more on top of his game than previously suspected. Boyle's "wish list" for future scientific advancements—written in the 1660s and recently released to the public—includes predictions that man would figure out the secrets behind everything from free diving and scratch n' sniff stickers, to genetic engineering, airplanes and organ transplants.(Via Steve Silberman)



  1. PV=nRT is really pretty inaccurate, although you can build refrigerators with it.

    You can build fridges using phlogiston theory, too…

  2. For the political equivalent, you should read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835. It’s not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s spooky how accurate his predictions were. de Tocqueville foresaw everything from rising divorce rates to the emergence of America and Russia as global superpowers to the reflexive distrust of science in American society.

    The creepiest part is when he predicts that in America, corporations will eventually brainwash large sectors of the public into letting them get away with outrageous abuses, under the name of “free market capitalism”, and that any attempts to bring them under control will result in public outrage. Remember that this was 1835, before things like “corporations” really even existed. Read that chapter, then turn on Fox News; the man was a prophet.

    1. Not for nothing, but multinational super-connected mega-corporations were around long before 1835; Dutch East India Co. existed for 200 years and had been defunct for almost 50 years before de Tocqueville published the book. All those explorers’ expeditions that sailed to the ‘New World’ were essentially organized under corporate charters to mitigate risk (this is not intended as a criticism of the book, incidentally)

  3. From wikipedia:

    He founded the Boyle Lectures, intended to defend the Christian religion against those he considered “notorious infidels, namely atheists, deists, pagans, Jews and Muslims”, with the provision that controversies between Christians were not to be mentioned.

    Sounds like a paragon of intellectualism. I wonder if he’d be arguing creationism these days.

    1. He lived in the 17th century, 200 years before we even knew about evolution, so yes, I expect he would. Our modern ideas about religion would have been heretical even a few generations ago, and could still get you killed in much of the world. Isaac Newton was a unitarian (didn’t believe in a triune god), but he kept this secret his whole life because he knew what would happen if people found out.

  4. I see a list of 15 successful predictions, but where are the few that didn’t (yet) come true? Where’s the full list?

  5. I often have mixed views about this sort of thing, after all there are so many people who make predictions, some of them have to end up getting them right simply by chance.

    That said, this is a startlingly accurate list (the article doesn’t say if this was everything on the list or not). There are a few other people who made very good predictions also. Benjamin Franklin for example predicted a lot of technologies including some that are still in their infancy (for example he predicted cryonics).

    One point on the fulfilled predictions is a bit off. The list includes “The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes” which is answered with navigation satellites. This misses the point. It was not difficult to calculate latitude based on the location of stars and the like. However, longitudinal calculations in the 1600s were very difficult unless one had a precise time (since the Earth rotates). This problem was solved in part by more accurate time-keeping pieces in the 1700s. See Dava Sobel’s book “Longitude” which discusses this in a lot of fascinating detail. So attributing this one to navsats seems to be due in not understanding the specific problem that was being discussed here.

  6. And Boyle’s (even smarter, more visionary) mate Zak Newton considered himself “…like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

    Feeling humble yet?

    The Royal Society in the Restoration Period: nerdiest gang ever

  7. I’m sure Mr. Boyle was really smart and all, and I’m sure that I could never have been admitted into the Royal Society, but some of this seems overstated.

    “The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth” seems more a wish for some magical Fountain of Youth than it does a prediction for “Botox, plastic surgery, teeth-capping, hair dye, transplants.”

    Similarly “Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables” doesn’t seem to predict “synthetic biology, genetic engineering,” it seems rather more like pining for an alchemy that was still widely believed in during Boyle’s time.

    And Joshua Z already mentioned that the solution to the problem of longitude presented in the 1700’s would have more than satisfied Boyle and those of his time. No need to invoke satellites.

    I’d say that retroactive interpretation always yields the results you’re looking for. But more tellingly, the National Academy has some good reasons to interpret its bygone heroes as super-rationalists. And being a supporter of rationalism, I applaud those reasons. But the incline towards rationality was a gradual one, and the fact is, rationality and mysticism co-existed for a good long time. Still does, to a degree, I guess. Boyle’s list seems to make this point better than some other things I’ve read.

  8. The man made a list of things that would be cool. People invent things that are cool. On a long enough timeline the two will match up pretty well. Nothing uncanny there.

  9. My apologies but the presented article is somewhat less than profound and, in many ways, rather misleading. Only a single item on the “predictive” wish-list struck me as deserving the label of truly innovative, “varnishes perfumable by rubbing.” The other items could just as easily be classified as general desires common to people of the period. The desires of returned youth and vigor, prevention of diseases and exceptional physical ability are documented as innate desires in essentially every myth cycle in every culture, even pre-Babylonian. Technology allowing stronger armor and high-yield crops have been standards ever since the city-state became established and increasing populations demanded conquest and food. Yes, Boyle was a smart guy but that particular list doesn’t exactly place him as particularly visionary.

  10. this is all naff.

    these “predictions” are nothing of the sort. and the mapping of his “predictions” to current events is complete speculation about what he meant.

    you are seeing what you want to see… this is NO different than presuming that Nostradamus’ predictions were true either.

    “The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed” NOT equal to GM crops… NOT NOT NOT

  11. The full list was published in The Telegraph, whence the article originated.

    Those unfulfilled:

    1. The Cure of Wounds at a Distance – Star Trek style healing devices.
    2. The Transmutation of Metalls – nuclear physicists have transformed some metals slightly though turning lead into gold still impossible
    3. The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums – invention of a universal solvent

    You can apparently go & see it yourself as part of the Royal Society’s new exhibition.

  12. Nostradamus is a pretty bad point of comparison since he didn’t make a single prediction that can objectively be said to have come true. Even true believers have only been able to make sense of his “prophecies” in hindsight.

  13. My favorite part, hands down, is his desire for Varnishes Perfumable by Rubbing. All of the others are either the sorts of things that every other human in history had desired (swim like a fish, live forever, fly like a bird, etc.), or are drawn from the scientific bugaboos of his age, ala transmutation of metals. But, scratch and sniff furniture polish? That’s bananas. (or smells like bananas when you scratch it). Does this imply some sort of “hey! you know what’d be cool?” nerd riff, or was that actually some sort of scientific puzzle people were trying to crack at the time? Why on earth is that in the top 24 desires for the future of an Royal Society scientist?

    Boggled in Boise

  14. How jealous Mr. Boyle would be of 21st century man’s life with a plethora scratch n’ sniff stickers!

  15. The article itself is more akin to medieval magic than to science. Boyle had a vague “wish list,” not predictions. Boyle certainly did not invent such wishes as the wish to fly, which is represented in the earliest known cultures. Kevlar is light but not “extremely hard.” The “free diving” interpretation is either facetious or idiotic beyond belief. And so on. Furthermore, the article is just plain wrong in saying that the word “science” was an innovation of Boyle’s era. It is, in fact, a medieval term (in English; it is of course ultimately ancient Greek).

    The article might as well have said that the Bible “predicted” global warming, genetically modified apples, zoos and Linnaean genus-species classification because of the Garden of Eden story.

    1. Pretty sure that ‘science’ has its roots in Latin, not Greek. It comes from the word for ‘knowledge’.

  16. These are interesting, another remarkable predictor of the future was de Tocqueville. Writing in the 1830’s he predicted that not only would english become the primary language of diplomacy and science but America and Russia would eventually become the two major superpowers in world politics.

  17. “Strength and Agility … exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons – steroids”

    More like, amphetamine and LSD.

  18. ”The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education” – free diving.

    Of course, people were already doing this at the time. Pearl divers for example.

  19. You know, a lot of the thing listed as the province of the demons in the Goetia can be accomplished by modern technology. So much for disparaging “magic and superstition,” then.

  20. Actually, Da Vinci fortold and proposed ways for acomplishing much of these some years before… Still, is quite impressive Boyle´s accuracy.

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