Tag Archives: OMNI

The Big Bang Theory and Practice

In which The Author digs out an old magazine article

Thanks largely to my friends Rhian, Wayne B., Liz the Good Twin and Neil R., a few months ago I was turned onto the hit US sitcom The Big Bang Theory. As a premise for comedy, it’s an unusual set-up. It began as the everyday story of three high-flying but socially awkward scientists, their sex-mad pal who develops equipment for NASA, and the wannabe actress from Nebraska living in the apartment opposite.
Over time, the relationships between the main characters have driven the comedy to new heights. The situation is terrific, the potential for comedy is almost unlimited, and its popularity is attested by its guest stars; Professors Stephen Hawking, George Smoot and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are amongst some of the well-known scientists who’ve appeared in the show. In the same way that celebrities queue up to voice themselves in The Simpsons, a walk-on appearance in The Big Bang Theory gives these big names a fair degree of street cred.
The venerable academic institution at the heart of the action is never mentioned, possibly for fear of marring its reputation. However, the frequent script references to Pasadena left me in little doubt that it’s set at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. I first came across this hotbed of genius in the May 1980 edition of Omni, when I was embarking on my O Levels. The article about the annual ritual of Ditch Day fascinated me. Its combination of extreme science and extreme pranking made National Lampoon’s Animal House look tame by comparison.
The next time I came across Caltech was when I was reading James Gleick’s book Genius: Richard Feynman and modern physics. It didn’t surprise me one bit to learn that the arch-prankster of Nobel prizewinners found himself living out his last years in Pasadena. I’m fairly sure that he’d have loved Ditch Day. I’m very surprised that The Big Bang Theory hasn’t done an episode about it yet. Then again, maybe truth would be stranger than fiction. With that in mind, I thought I’d share that original article with you:
BRAIN WARS Prime coverage of the nation’s “super bowl of tomfoolery” BY RICHARD CHAPMAN
As the desert sun evaporates the mists off the mountains overlooking Pasadena, California, Caltech seniors disappear from campus. Behind them, in the dim labyrinth of dormitory corridors, underclass “wimps” begin to stir. Night visions of quantum mechanics and chemical reactions still waft through their brains. Breakfast beers in hand, they ramble the halls, discovering the seniors’ doors bolted – not just with simple turn-the key locks, or even with complex combinations. These rooms are protected by a startling array of devices rigged to respond to sound, heat, light, magnets, water, pressure, computers, or … a snake, did you say?
From one door emanates a series of electronic boops, beeps, and tweedles – a synthesized musical code to unravel. A fearsome python named Aristotle writhes before another door, with clues suggesting his use as a door opener. Some doors, like senior Werner Pyka’s. are barred with masses of steel and concrete, but most feature computer terminals, spaghetti mazes of wire, tubing and gadgets that must somehow be manipulated to afford entrance. It’s as if Albert Einstein had been reincarnated as a “frat rat.” Rube Goldberg meets Luke Skywalker.
It’s Ditch Day, an eccentric yearly ritual at Caltech that’s an intellectual field day for the young geniuses who pit their considerable head muscles against one another in a daylong tournament of wit and brawn. These are the technocrazies, the same pack of whiz kids whose stunts have befuddled sober minions of order, ranging from the FBI to giant corporations.
Ditch Day had its origins in some distant, modest prank in which underclassmen broke into the seniors’ room while the occupants were off on a day of relaxation before final exams. Since then, Ditch Day has rumbled its way up the Richter scale (invented at Caltech) to become a major Caltech event; for some, it’s the highlight of four mind-splitting years of nearly uninterrupted pressure. This “super bowl of tomfoolery” is calculated to give these brilliant students a chance to blow off pre-exam anxiety and to avert a cerebral meltdown.
Ditch Day is governed by an established set of rules and a rigid code of honor. The wimps must follow – to the letter – any instructions posted on the seniors’ doors, and they must gain entrance before the seniors return at 5:00 P.M.
The rules list three kinds of locks, or “stacks,” on the doors. The first, the “brute force” stack can be opened by any means short of nuclear weapons. Getting into a brute-force stack, according to one senior who’s dealt with several, “requires no intelligence – just some dynamite.” A few years ago underclassmen resorted to hydraulic lifts on one brute-force stack and raised the room’s ceiling to crawl into a senior’s room.
The “finesse” stack must be opened by manipulating whatever technological device (electronic, chemical or biological) is installed on the door. This year an entire room would be transformed into a radio telescope, and every clue would relate to radio astronomy.
The “honor” stack requires wimps to solve a written problem or puzzle before opening the unlocked door. It’s claimed that this is the easy way out for lazy seniors, yet several years ago a senior devised a quantum mechanics problem that not only kept out underclassmen but also stymied a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
The wimps also have a few rules of their own. On Ditch Day any senior caught on campus after 8:00 A.M. can be abducted and tied to the nearest tree. When the security of a senior’s room has finally been breached, either the wimps can accept a “bride” of food, drink or other goodies left by the senior in hopes his room will be spared or they can reengineer the locks or leave unusual surprises of their own. One past “counterstack” was masterminded by a group of wimps who disassembled a senior’s sports car, then put it back together in his room, with the engine running. Another year a senior scuba enthusiast returned to his room only to be greeted by a pool of sharks. Last year a senior opened his door and found a horse and a cow rummaging through his closet. The designer of that counterstack was senior Tod Lauer, a New Jersey astronomer whose reputation as campus practical joker virtually ensured outrageous acts against his room this year: “I could leave three naked women, Colombian dope, and a bottle of Seagram’s, and they’d still counterstack me.” Lauer’s bribe this year would be a half-eaten cupcake.
At 8:15 A.M. the wimps are massing before Pyka’s brute-force stack. A demolitions expert plays around with a mixture of gunpowder and mercury fulminate, while others explore the ventilation ducts and crawl spaces above the room. Another assault force, led by a muscular wimp nicknamed Froggie, attacks the steel plating with crowbars and sledgehammers. Outside, a third group of daredevils has scaled the dorm wall and is testing the windows. A cutting torch is on the way.
Downstairs, the wimps are stumped by Chris Lee’s musical door lock, emitting an insistent series of grating tones. After repeated attempts to break the code by serenading the door with a variety of musical instruments, a call goes out for any wimps with perfect pitch.
Across campus in Blacker House some underclassmen discover an entire corridor has been stacked. They crowd around a large spring-loaded Plexiglas window revealing a hallway resembling a giant pinball machine – festooned with beer bottles, Christmas-tree lights, and Penthouse centerfolds. The wimps listen intently to a set of recorded instructions, having just been informed the tape will self-destruct.
In the adjoining dorm a small, yet determined, group is already hard at work on what appears to be a simple honor stack. The senior has left five physics problems tacked on his door. Simple enough, yet quite lethal, since these problems can be attacked only after consuming four ounces of bourbon and the box of foul cigars left in front of the door. By 9:00 A.M., only one cigar remains, and one wimp lies passed out in the middle of the hallway.
But at Ruddock House the wimps are trying hard to penetrate Stan Cohn’s room. It would be a distinct honor, not to mention pleasure, to be the first underclassman to break into the room of the senior class president. By attacking the dorm’s electrical system, the wimps hope to neutralize a sinister silver box guarding Cohn’s door. Along the way, they’re discovered another bonus that Cohn had left them: a chemistry minilab, in which underclassmen are commanded to select several vials and mix various chemicals to obtain further clues. An energetic wimp heads to the bathroom, having just discovered the extent of Cohn’s villainy. One of the unmarked vials contains foul-smelling ether – thrown in just for laughs.
Anyone who’s survived four grueling years at the California Institute of Technology deserves a few laughs. It’s a deceptively peaceful and lush campus, where some 200 professors and 1,600 students ponder everything from black holes to the basic structure of matter.
Add up the I.Q.’s of the Caltech football team, and the sum exceeds the total number of pounds they weigh. But, then, Caltech’s linemen are not being groomed for the NFL. More likely, they’re headed for the JPL, Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates the sophisticated robot spacecraft that are now exploring our solar system.
Tech students also log time at the seismological lab, monitoring creaks and groans in the earth, trying to puzzle out when the Big One is coming – the super-quake that will see Californians treading water in the Pacific Ocean.
Caltech astronomers scan the night skies with their telescopes, including the 500-ton giant at Palomar – gathering light from quasars and exploding galaxies. With awesome responsibilities like these, it’s easy to see why “Techies” aren’t out on Saturday nights, simulating the fall of Rome in writhing flesh piles.
Caltech’s academic demands and its incredibly tough workload make MIT look like a trade school. Despite average national college entrance-exam scores in the ninety-ninth percentile for math and the ninety-seventh percentile for verbal skills, 30 percent of entering undergraduates never do graduate. Caltech is the toughest school in the nation. It is a boot camp for genius, the spawning ground for many leaders of government and industry who can speak the arcane language of science. The coolly efficient Harold Brown, secretary of Defense, is a former Caltech president, and Frank Press, presidential science adviser, once headed Caltech’s seismological laboratory.
By mid-morning, mounds of sand pour into the hall from Pyka’s room. The tenacious wimps crowbar their way through the first steel plating, shoveling out the sandbagged surprise, and are well into the second layer. They know it’ll be only a few more minutes before they punch through the sets of railroad ties and get into the room. “Brute force …” snickers a sledgehammering sophomore, “… it’s a piece of cake.”
Several excited students enter Blacker House under an archway with this sculpted motto: “Doest thou love life, then do not squander time.” Inside, a big group wastes no time in attacking the stacked hallway. A wimp standing at the Plexiglas window carefully aims a laser device directly at one nipple of a Penthouse centerfold. “We’re sure there’s a laser detector up there,” he shouts.
Across the courtyard, up several sets of crumbling stairs, and along a rabbit-warren maze of hallways, one of the day’s first finesse stacks has been conquered. But the victors are nowhere to be seen. Only the victim – an electronic glass contraption several feet high, which a sober-faced wimp explains is a computerized pot smoker – is still on the scene. The stack’s mathematical clues produced an equation stating the magic number of tokes necessary to open the door. Following the honor code undeviatingly, the underclassmen had been required to smoke 27 units of grass. The wimps explained that each hit of fully inhaled weed was counted by this “tokometer” when the puff interrupted a light beam in the tube. After 128 hits the device automatically released the door’s lock. The empty baggie at the base of the tube was mute testimony to their accomplishment, but the five wimps who did it were unavailable for comment. They were last seen in the vicinity of the cafeteria.
The city of Pasadena breathes a municipal sigh of relief on Ditch Day. It means at least 24 hours of peace for Pasadenans. A bastion of conservatism, Pasadena’s the kind of place where General George Patton would’ve retired to cultivate roses. Having Caltech in its midst can be a little unnerving for this staid community. It’s as if the behemoth, glittering mother ship from Close Encounters had set down in a sea of well-manicured lawns. And the locals have never been quite sure how to deal with it, especially when things begin getting out of hand.
Besides annoying the neighbors with an occasional good-natured prank, the students frequently engage in comic duels with the harried Pasadena police, who by now are thoroughly convinced that Caltech students can zap into other dimensions at will. This seems to be the only explanation (besides marsh gas) for some of the amazing student capers.
Techies once surreptitiously hauled a full-sized F-84 jet fighter on display at Caltech through three miles of downtown streets to install it on the lawn of the ROTC commandant’s home.
Giant signs, cannons, and sculptures routinely vanish from their rightful locations, only to appear in the courtyards of Caltech dorms. Entirely original decorations occasionally materialize in the most unexpected of places. When a newly-constructed auditorium resembling an ornate wedding cake was to be dedicated on campus, a huge bride and groom appeared atop it, gazing serenely down at the assembled dignitaries and crusty patrons who’d paid for the buildings. A gigantic Mickey Mouse, complete with hands, sprouted on the main Caltech clock tower another year.
A Caltech prank could lead to a scientific breakthrough, or it might just have some fun with national security. It was rumored one year that students were tapping phone lines, and an FBI agent showed up to check it out routinely.
“Somebody claims you’ve been tapping the professors’ phones,” the agent told a student who was a prime suspect as the culprit.
“Oh no, not the professors’ phones,” the student replied. “I tapped the Strategic Air Command hot line.”
For the next two hours, the student pleasantly explained how he’d tapped into the SAC’s hot line from a nearby air force base to the Pentagon. The student was warned not to attempt any further shenanigans, and the shaken agent emerged to phone his superiors. It was later reported that significant changes had been quickly made in the SAC communications system.
If they could get to the air force, another group of electronic zanies from Caltech reasoned, then they were ready for a tougher foe: McDonald’s. When the hamburger chain ran a promotional contest in California a few years ago, Caltech students exploited a loophole in the role and ginned up their computer to generate 12 million entries, bilking Ronald McDonald out of thousands of dollars in prizes, all of which were later donated to charity and to refurbishing the dorms. Honoring the hamburglars’ brilliance, a delighted rival, Burger King, awarded the intrepid students a $3,000 scolarship for their school.
But the proudest moment in the history of Caltrickery, the most sublime of all student pranks, is certainly the Great Rose Bowl Heist of 1961, pulled off during Pasadena’s most sacred civic event and witnessed by millions on national television.
The stunt was conceived by bored students in Lloyd House dorm during Christmas recess. The first step called for a student, disguised as a high-school reporter, to conduct a lengthy interview with the flustered student director of half-time events for the University of Washington, a Rose Bowl contender that year.
The student quizzed the unsuspecting director on how the planned card stunts were arranged and later managed to make off with one the instruction sheets. Back at Caltech, the students worked night and day, meticulously reworking and counterfeiting all 2,300 instruction cards. On New Year’s Eve a commando team broke into the director’s hotel room and pulled the switch.
At halftime of the Rose Bowl game, the cocky Washington card section went through their first nine stunts without a hitch. On the tenth, the director called for “a big Washington,” but, to his amazement, the cards came up “Caltech.” Nonplussed, he hurried ordered the next trick, which was to spell “Huskies” slowly across the section. It came out “Seiksuh.” The director became frantic and called for the next sequence, a picture of the Washington Huskie mascot. Up popped a leering Caltech beaver, and all semblance of order was lost as the shattered card section gave up. It was a shame, for the next trick, a patriotic appeal to “Buy Bonds,” had been transmuted into “Buy Blondes” by the Caltech students.
It’s noon and reports are flooding in from the field that more senior stacks have joined the growing casualty rolls: Pyka’s room was broken into hours ago and a counterstack is already in progress.
In another dorm Aristotle the snake is gingerly lowered on a sling through the transom into the room. The snake responds beautifully and wraps himself around a box containing the key. He’s pulled back through the transom, and another finesse stack bites the dust.
The Blacker beer bottle-laser stack is declared OUT OF ORDER, while smoke fills another dorm corridor. Several wimps try to scotch a fire caused while they attacked a heat-seeking finesse stack. An enthusiastic sophomore had poured hot wax into the lock, unintentionally setting fire to a pile of underwear on the other side of the door.
When they encounter a prank, the good gray heads of Caltech’s professors only nod appreciatively. They can hardly criticize, having engineered stunts as wild as any dreamed up by their students. Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, is also a bongo drum player and master safecracker. While working on the Manhattan Project developing the A-bomb, Feynman practiced on safes, leaving “Guess who?” notes among the top-secret papers.
Another faculty member, Harry “The Horse” Gray, is a brilliant chemist and bon vivant who frequently enlivens his complex lectures by delivering them in, would you believe, a horse suit.
How does all this eccentricity sit with Caltech President Marvin L. Goldberger? A respected physicist, he possesses a dignified carriage, a proud profile, and a mane of white hair that would be the envy of any senior statesman. However, the good doctor is well suited for the job of tracking the strange orbits of Caltech’s students; he, too, has that Wizard of Oz sparkle in his eye. The students recognized it immediately after his arrival last year from Princeton, and they saluted him by tossing him into the Pacific Ocean. Not to be outdone by the informal welcome, Dr Goldberger later made his own entry into Caltech legend.
To celebrate Einstein’s hundredth birthday, President Goldberger donned a riding habit and polo helmet and triumphantly piloted a rented elephant along the same campus walks where the gentle Einstein had wandered on his visits. Later, wielding a saber and with a samurai yell, Goldberger expertly slashed into a three-layer birthday cake.
All are agreed that the master faculty prankster is the puckish Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann, the theoretical physicist who bestowed the unlikely name quark on nature’s fundamental unit of matter. From now into infinity, whenever sober physicists gather to discuss the serious business of the nature of the universe, they will be required to make a sound not unlike a lovesick stork.
By 4:00 P.M., most of the stacks have been either broken into or broken down. Isolated knots of frenzied underclassmen are working to beat the clock on the remaining puzzles. Outside Page House, the crisp pop of a .22 rifle is heard as wimps, poised on an adjacent roof, fire into an open window, striving to hit the more diverting parts of another Penthouse centerfold, breaking circuits that will spring the lock.
In an older dorm three wimps are locked in mortal combat with a computer console, battling an intricate program that requires them to enter a series of mythical caves where they face an electronic monster named Ork. Two wimps can only watch, having already been “devoured” by Ork.
As each stack is liberated, the group in front of Barbara Hsu’s room grows. Above her door a transom has been converted into a three-dimensional maze with 60 interconnecting coded compartments. With only three obscure modern poems providing clues and with a little white mouse occasionally appearing at the openings, the wimps deduce they have to force the mouse into one compartment, which will close an electrical circuit and open the door. But which compartment? If the mouse knows, he’s not talking. Nor is he cooperating, having eagerly accepted the numerous bread bribes the wimps have offered, only to retreat into a back corner of the maze and promptly fall asleep.
An impenetrable web of thousands of feet of string will greet another returning senior, while Cohn, senior class president, will discover his new roommate – a 1,000-pound rock sculpture carted gleefully from a formal garden.
Pyka’s room is resealed with enough steel to build an aircraft carrier and decorated with the immortal words Caltech students share with every other college student: “Eat it, Werner.” Once inside, Pyka will also discover 400 cases of bottles filled with water, But he’ll have to drill through the wall and climb through a dresser drawer to get in.
No one is quite sure why Caltech developed into such a den of tricksters. Some say it’s a fusion of the students’ natural brilliance and California’s nutball tradition. Others claim that confronting challenges like Ditch Day is a worthy part of the students’ training, like a lion cub engaging in mock combat. When they graduate to become full-fledged toilers in the halls of science, they may be inspired by remembering, “Once there was this door.”
Ditch Day is over, and the young prodigies are weary from their mental workout, but you’ll hear from them again; if not directly, then indirectly through the machines they’ll build to keep out technological society afloat. After all, anyone who can break into a complex finesse stack can surely solve small problems like the energy crisis, Three Mile Island, or a falling Skylab.
However, they were stopped short by a mouse.


In which The Author finds his Time Machine

I’ve been spring cleaning for the last few days. (I know it’s late, but during what passed for Spring in Wales, Stella and I were walking in the Country Park. By the time we got back to the pub, it had finished.)
In the bedroom cupboard I found my Time Machine, which must have been sitting there since I first moved in, over August Bank Holiday 1998. I started working on it in 1980, and had almost forgotten about it. When my parents split up, I put the final touches to it and despatched it into my own future. It waited there, gathering dust, for me to catch up with it.
In 1980 I was fourteen and embarking on my O Levels. My interest in science fiction was at its absolute peak at around this time (see Everything Changes.) Television was a rich source of both SF and information on real science during the late 70s and early 80s. Since I was studying the sciences, it made sense to try and keep abreast of the real world as best I could.
I’d grown up in exciting times, after all. My parents let me stay up, aged three, to watch the live coverage of Neil Armstrong fluffing his lines. I don’t remember watching it, of course, but it had two long-term effects on me: I became hooked on the idea of space travel; and at a very tender age I was turned onto the music of Pink Floyd.
The US space programme was headline news throughout the decade. Unmanned lunar and planetary explorations continued. Probes were launched on complex trajectories which would eventually take them out of the Solar System altogether. The Space Shuttle was in development. There was talk of Moon bases, space stations, and manned expeditions to Mars. From the perspective of a teenage boy, it started to look as though humankind was on the verge of finally growing up and leaving home.
Closer to home, the much-hyped Comet Kohoutek was a let-down in the winter of 1973-4; even Sir Patrick Moore described it as the ‘greatest cometary disappointment of modern times’ (Moore, 1979: p. 122.) However, I vaguely remember watching an eclipse through a piece of smoked glass in the school playground. Going on the information in Moore (1979), this would appear to have been the partial solar eclipse of May 11, 1975. That was really exciting at the time, shortly after my ninth birthday.
I was fascinated by anything to with science. I read and re-read the occasional science articles in Dad’s Reader’s Digest. Earthbound science was no less exciting than the space programme. It was the era of multiple organ transplants and test-tube babies. ‘Bionic’ limbs were starting to make the slow transition from fiction to reality. People started to look towards alternative fuels as the price of oil rocketed. The Cold War had thawed slightly, but the prospect of nuclear Armageddon still hung over us. Computers and robots were no longer confined to SF films and TV shows, but were operating in industry. As a kid, these advances in science were really thrilling.
I’ve referred to James Burke’s landmark series Connections a couple of times already. It was shown on the BBC in 1978, and I watched at least some of it. I know that, because I remember during one edition Dad said something about it being ‘very strange.’ I suppose he was right, in hindsight, especially if you didn’t come from a scientific background. Watching it again, it was non-linear and most unlike a traditional documentary. A couple of years later we got to see Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as well. That was more like the format we were used to, but still packed with good stuff.
In Bob Mock’s newsagents in Trecynon, some time early in 1980, I chanced across a magazine called OMNI. It hadn’t been around very long. I hadn’t noticed it before, but its strapline was The magazine of science fact, fiction and fantasy. I remember a great painting of a mermaid-like creature on a beach had decorated its front cover. It wasn’t the sort of thing one expected to find in a small paper shop in South Wales, I suppose.
At a whole pound it was four or five times the cost of the comics we used to buy, but I had my pocket money. I bought it and took it home. I admit that I was probably too young to fully understand some of the articles, and a lot of the fiction went over my head at that age. Even so, it was over a hundred pages of features, interviews, short stories, colour and b/w photographs, superb artwork, cartoons, and puzzles (with a fair bit of advertising as well, of course.) It was a lot more substantial, and would take far longer to read, than the comics I’d outgrown by then.
I bought it every month until Mock’s stopped stocking it. There wasn’t anywhere else to get it locally, so I moved onto something else. However, during the period when it was available, its masthead made it stand out on the shelves.
Likewise, the covers were always eye-catching paintings, like this from May 1981 by the Viennese artist Wolfgang Hutter:

It didn’t even look like anything else on the market, as far as I can recall. Just the visual content was well worth the cover price. Over the following months I cut out some of the artwork and author photographs to illustrate my English O Level project on SF writing. They were ideal for the purpose, printed as they were on glossy paper so that the reverse side wouldn’t show through.
I often flicked through what remained of the magazines, trying to make sense of some of the stories and revisit the articles which had baffled me the first time round. But my parents split up and sold the house. After some upheaval, I moved in with Dad. So it was that, aged 20, in the process of moving house, I put about a year’s worth of OMNI into my Time Machine and sent them into the future.
[A digression: I wasn’t consciously, intentionally building a Time Machine. OMNI wasn’t a Marshall Cavendish partwork, after all. Mind you, that would have been great! Imagine the TV ad:
Have you ever wondered what the dinosaurs really looked like? Would you like to meet Julius Caesar? Or take part in the Crusades? Or visit the first performance of Macbeth? Now you can, with Build Your Own Time Machine. Each issue contains informative illustrated articles, interviews with leading physicists, and exclusive components which you can’t buy in any shop. Our detailed, easy-to-follow instructions build up week by week, showing you how to make your very own time machine from easy-to-obtain parts. Issue 1, with a free I Built My Own Time Machine badge, is in your shops now, priced 99p.]
Every so often Blue Peter used to get schoolkids to bury time capsules filled with the artefacts of the age and marked Not to be opened till the Year 2000 AD. Even then, it seemed to me that they lacked any great vision. Twenty years wasn’t very long, was it? (Mind you, Dad had a dictionary that was at least twenty years old. I’ve still got it, but I wouldn’t dream of using it to do the crossword.) However, fifty years would have made for a great fly-on-the-wall documentary with a long project life cycle. The BBC would be able to televise the time capsule’s opening. The original participants would be able to gather round with their grandchildren and talk them through each object as it was unearthed.
If the engraving on the lid had said 2100 AD it might have been better, although not many of those involved at the outset would see the project through to its completion. 2500 AD would have been really ambitious. Meanwhile, in the year 3000 AD, archaeologists and palaeolinguists would probably have to be called in to make sense of the strange objects and writing of a forgotten age. (Always assuming that they figured out that we’d meant to say ‘the Year 3000 CE’, that is – or assuming that they weren’t operating on a totally different calendar by that time.) They’d be as amused, bemused and confused as the people The Traveller encounters in George Pal’s 1960 film of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Then again, it wouldn’t have been such an interesting item for children’s TV, would it?
So please don’t confuse my Time Machine with the time capsules Blue Peter were assembling. I didn’t have a endpoint in mind. I was just confident that it would find its way to the future, conveying its strange cargo of magazines with it.
And last week it turned up, not very far from its launching point. The journey through the Vortex had obviously taken its toll on its contents; most of the covers were missing, and at least two have vanished entirely. I went through some of them over the weekend, looking for a particular cartoon which I knew a few of my friends would appreciate. I couldn’t find it, so it must be in one of the missing ones. Whether they’re still travelling, or whether they were atomised by the enormous cosmic forces as they were wrenched from their proper four-dimensional coordinates, I can only speculate. Even so, eight of them have made it through to 2012 relatively unscathed. The copy from May 1981 is almost entirely intact, so I’d like to start there.
OMNI came from Bob Guccione’s stable. He was the man behind Penthouse, and to judge from the adverts it seems to have been pitching for a pretty similar readership – affluent, professional, liberal-minded men with an interest in technology, consumer durables, sports, smoking and drinking. With respected SF novelist Ben Bova as Executive Editor, his equally-respected colleague Robert Sheckley as Fiction Editor, and Dr Bernard Dixon as European Editor, the standard of material was pretty high. Its presentation was high-quality as well – slightly smaller than A4, it was printed in full-colour on heavy glossy paper. It was Guccione’s upmarket wank-mag for geeks and technophiles: Penthouse without the porn.
In common with other periodicals, each issue was laid out in a fairly standard pattern. First Word was an leading article dealing with a key topic of the day. It was usually penned by Bova himself, but industrialists, educators and policy-makers were often given free rein to state their case. Omnibus profiled the guest contributors to that month’s edition, Communications featured letters to the editor, and Forum allowed readers and contributors to debate previous articles in print. Earth covered ecological matters, Life reported discoveries in biology or medicine, Space kept us up to date with developments in astronomy or space exploration (not exclusively devoted to the work of NASA), and Mind looked at research in psychology. The Arts ranged widely over films, music, books, architecture, and embryonic fields such as computer graphics. UFO Update did exactly what it said on the tin. Explorations looked at geology, meteorology or oceanography. Continuum was a digest of key articles from recent journals, much like that which New Scientist still runs today.
Interspersed with adverts for cars, cigarettes, beer and spirits, sports equipment, audio equipment and TVs, cameras, book clubs, telecoms companies, and credit cards, these regular columns make up the first thirty or forty pages of each issue.
After a couple more adverts, we come to the real meat: the headline articles, the fiction, the interview, and the visual items.
In May 1981 the main article features extracts from Gerard O’Neill’s latest book 2081. O’Neill was a Princeton physicist whose ideas had a big influence on Timothy Leary’s S.M.I.²L.E Agenda. His book was his personal view on how key technologies would evolve in the next century.
Following that, accompanied by a very disturbing painting by Etienne Sandorfi, is a short story. It was making its print debut in OMNI. I tried reading it at the time, but gave up. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Looking back, I missed a golden opportunity to get in on the ground floor of cyberpunk:

[A digression. Talking of mnemonics, OMNI ran a competition to come up with witty ways to remember things. One of the winning submissions stuck in my mind because I was studying Chemistry at the time. Douglas R. Frank of Great Lakes, Illinois devised a neat way to remember Avogadro’s Number, the number of atoms in a mole of any given element – 6.023 x 1023. Just count the letters in each word of the phrase Number constantly in use (in lab.)
I’m looking at the list now, and most of the rest were pretty US-oriented. They didn’t mean much to me then (or now, for that matter!) However, another winner came up with PEG’S LAW as a way to remember the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Avarice, Wrath. I’ve won a couple of quizzes over the years, thanks to that beauty by Randi Klinginsmith of Akron, Ohio. Finally, a lovely recursive entry came from William D. Harvey of Costa Mesa, California: Mnemonics neatly eliminate man’s only nemesis: insufficient cerebral storage is a cool (if rather unnecessary) way to remember how to spell ‘mnemonics.’]
Next up in May 1981 is a terrific centre-pages feature on the art of Dale Eldred. He constructed extraordinary metallic structures in the desert and photographed the interplay of light as the sun moved across the sky. OMNI used to do this sort of photo feature especially well. It’s hard to believe that the photographers were using conventional 35mm cameras, lenses and film.
In August 1980, they printed the winning photos of their annual competition. One of them was this incredible image by Robert H. Miller of Rochester, Michigan. It isn’t some strange deep-ocean fish about to swallow its prey, as it appears to be at first glance.

Look more closely. It’s a dart piercing a glitter-filled balloon, photographed at the instant of bursting with a Pentax ME camera using an almost unbelievable 1/250,000 sec exposure.
We move on to read about a high school in Camden, a very underprivileged area of New Jersey. Thanks to grants from industry, students have been given a rare chance to work alongside NASA scientists in devising experiments for the Space Shuttle.
A few pages on we find another short story – ‘Colonel Stonesteel’s Genuine Home-Made Truly Egyptian Mummy’, by the late great Ray Bradbury. A typically witty, wise, folksy tale of everyday smalltown magic, it’s Bradbury’s first original contribution to OMNI, as is Gibson’s story. We have the Grand Master and the Tyro side by side.
Each issue included an Interview. In this issue the subject is Olaf Helmer, a former Rand Corporation mathematician and futurist. Other interviewees around this time included the business guru C. Northcote Parkinson (exponent of Parkinson’s Law), solar power champion Denis Hayes, and psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose controversial book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind had been a surprise bestseller the previous year.
Next up is a feature about the relatively new field of bioethics, followed by several pages where previous stories and articles tie up their loose ends. (Like many US magazines of the time, OMNI seems to have had that annoying tendency to split its articles, so that the reader had to skip a couple of dozen pages in order to read the next bit.)
After this avalanche of text, here comes another visual feast, this time by the acclaimed artist and illustrator Vincent Di Fate.
Hot on the heels of the paintings, we come to the next of the headline features, an intriguing article about intelligence in cephalopods (the octopus and squid family.)
Next, here’s a great feature about the professional magician Jerry Andrus. I’ve scanned in the next two pages, and reproduced the original picture to a reasonable tolerance of error. It’s worth a closer look – OMNI‘s Games Editor Scot Morris is standing inside Andrus’ Impossible Box.

Don’t look at it for too long, you might go mad trying to work it out. The magazine invited readers to send in their ideas of how Andrus had constructed the thing, before revealing the secret. I won’t spoil your fun.
(A few months before, Scot Morris had run an item about a new toy which was just emerging on the US market, and invited his readers to come up with a structure for that as well. It was Erno Rubik’s Cube, which swept the world soon after.)
Jerry Andrus had also invented the hypnodisc, which had a patent pending, but OMNI had printed a paper version which you could play with. And we did play with it! Mounted on the record turntable and allowed to spin while you stared at it, the hypnodisc really screwed with your perception for a short time afterwards. Part of Michael Moorcock’s 1968 novel The Final Programme was set in a fake Le Corbusier chateau filled with mind-fucking booby traps like that. For a while, I had my very own mind-fucking toy. It may have been designed as a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ item, but Phil and I failed on the second part of the exercise. It’s long gone. I wonder if you can still get Jerry Andrus’ version. If you can, I expect it costs rather more than $3 these days.
Many of OMNI‘s cartoons were timeless, based on scientists in their labs, or mathematicians, or our cave-dwelling ancestors. Even so, once in a while someone would come up with a cartoon which reflected events in the real world. One such, signed simply RICO, appears on p. 118. NASA’s Skylab had fallen to Earth in the Australian outback in 1979, and this was a nice take on what might have happened to it afterwards.

Like any self-respecting US magazine, OMNI had its gossip column. People wasn’t scandalous, but instead gave a light-hearted insight into the lives of writers and scientists. In May 1981, it focuses briefly on Richard Adamson, the last-surviving member of the team who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Adamson revealed, rather disappointingly, that the Mummy’s Curse was invented by Howard Carter and Lord Caernarvon ‘because it helped with security at night.’
After more tying up of loose ends, there’s a double-page spread entitled Science-Fiction Table of Elements. Compiled by a reader named Arlan Keith Andrews Senior, it assigns well-known authors to the chemical symbols we’re all familiar with: H for [Robert A.] Heinlein, He for Harlan Ellison, Li for [Fritz] Leiber, Be for [Alfred] Bester, and so forth. It’s a bit of fun, of course, but it must have taken Mr Andrews considerable time to assemble it.
On p. 128 is the monthly advert to send off for the Mastery of Life, a free book published by The Rosicrucians (AMORC) in San Jose, California. I doubt very much whether Brogan would approve of this bunch. I met a chap in Dillons years ago whose reading list led me to suspect that he’d got involved with an esoteric order, maybe AMORC themselves. It might seem out of place in a science magazine, but bear in mind that this was the notional dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics had been a best-seller, Richard Feynman used to visit Esalen, and David Bohm teamed up with J. Krishnamurti from time to time. Perhaps, with hindsight, it wasn’t as incongruous as it looks.
Patrick Moore’s at the helm of Stars this month, with an article about Barnard’s Star. Alongside his column is a full-page ad for Heinlein’s latest novel, ‘The Number of the Beast‘, which helps me to carbon-date the copy on my shelf in the front room.
The final photographic feature of each issue was Phenomena, and this month it’s a beautiful image of clouds at night. Paul Lewis had exposed Ektachrome 64 film for 15 seconds, through a 210mm lens on a Canon F-1 at f/16. (In Picture This I said I was scared away from Dad’s camera by all those levers and sliders? That’s exactly what I was talking about.)
Scot Morris’s regular Games column is about building up an image from a very limited palette or set of characters. He reproduces a portrait by a computer engineer named Ken Knowlton, made up of 1,320 dominoes to create halftones. At first glance it looks like something generated by an old dot-matrix printer, until you look more closely. The competition was to send in a picture in an unusual medium, in the spirit of Knowlton’s picture.
Finally, Last Word is a piece by the magician and debunker James Randi, announcing the winners of the Uri Awards. Named after the notorious spoon-bender Uri Geller, Randi singles out particularly daft pieces of parapsychology research for ridicule.
And there you have it – 140 pages, with enough content to keep you going for far longer than it took to read 2000 AD. Not bad value for a quid, was it?
I’m going to show some more extracts from those issues to give you a taste of the stuff I was reading thirty years ago. This great cartoon (reminiscent of John Nash’s doomed paper on the Riemann Hypothesis in A Beautiful Mind) appeared in the middle of an article about the Soviet space programme:

This is the most Stephen King I’ve ever been able to read. I didn’t like his style then, and I don’t like it now. In July 1980, at least OMNI saved me from buying any of his books:

When BBC TV showed The Martian Chronicles, there was a plotline where a Martian gets mistaken for Jesus, by reading people’s subconscious desires and taking the shape they’d expected to see. That particular idea didn’t feature in Ray Bradbury’s original novel The Silver Locusts, but it turned up in OMNI instead, in October 1980:

And I know it’s satire, but some of the more jaundiced comments I’ve expressed in this blog over time might have been unconsciously influenced by the blurb to this October 1980 reprint of one of C.M. Kornbluth’s short stories…

I’ve also found myself agreeing more and more with the words of TV anchorman Edwin Newman in his article Torrents of Babel (especially the splash quote at the centre of the page):

Thanks to Continuum in January 1981, I was one of the first people in Aberdare to know that the G-spot existed. (However, from my perspective it remains a purely theoretical concept.)

Here’s a lovely comment on US consumerism and marketing from July 1980. This appeared in the middle of a short story, set on board a spaceship heading for the star Vega. I don’t know what my friends Alyson and Josie will make of the disparaging comments about ‘Vegans’ throughout the piece, mind.

Here’s a piece about what I call Granotechnology, or what James Burke called ‘The Trigger Effect’ – how a new invention changes not only the world around it, but the people around it as well.

Talking of James Burke, here’s a full-page ad for the repeat of Connections, together with a full-page ad for the first screening of the next (and possibly last) great science series on TV, from the same edition:

Oct 1980 Burke
Oct 1980 Sagan

In March 1981 the Space Shuttle hasn’t even completed its first test flight, but OMNI are already speculating on what will happen next!

Here’s James Lovelock, in July 1980, outlining his Gaia Hypothesis…

Here’s a little item, also from March 1981, about acid rain damaging the ancient monuments of Greece and Rome…

… and one from March 1980 about the mass extinction of plants and animals which was in full swing then.

When one of the UK tabloid newspapers got very excited about a photo which purported to show a human face on the surface of Mars, I was able to yawn and say, in a blasé manner, ‘Oh, I knew about that years ago.’ I didn’t say it to sound superior in any way, but purely because I did! In October 1980, to be exact…

Here’s another article from March 1981, about the developing area of cybercrime. No doubt some of the programmers who came in the wake of these pioneers were responsible for the open source programs on which I drafted this blog last night. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Computers themselves weren’t up to very much by that stage. It was all dot matrix printers, green text on black screens, tape drives, Winchester drives, and floppy disks which really were floppy – 5¼” squares of mylar encased in flimsy cardboard. Bend it and you’re buggered! (Losing 512 kb of data was a big deal in those days!) As for computer graphics…

One of the home computer manufacturers in those days was called Ohio Scientific. Texas Instruments still exist. The little radio-controlled digital clock on my bedside table was made by a company called Oregon Scientific. Maybe Timothy Leary was right, and technologists migrate westward over time. It would certainly explain why Boeing and Microsoft both set up shop in Seattle.
As for Ohio Scientific, the home computer side of their business was defunct by 1982, overtaken by Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Atari. Let’s have a look at what Hewlett-Packard were offering in March 1981…

Mar 1981 TI and HP ads

A snip, I’d say! I’ll take two! Meanwhile, Apple were pitching at home users and small businesses. Their ad from August 1980 was a quaint take on Thomas Jefferson’s well-known struggle to finalise the wording of the Declaration of Independence:

From the same edition (which seems to have been an especially representative sample for some reason) is this double-page ad for the International Paper Company. The celebrated US novelist James A. Michener (don’t the Americans love their middle initials?) gives us a handy introduction to the library. A few tweaks and technical updates aside, the same thing could be given out to every new student at the University of Glamorgan in Freshers’ Week and not go amiss.

I’m in my local library at the moment, and given the rate at which they’re de-accessioning (a euphemism for ‘selling off stock’), by Xmas I’ll have more books in my house than they have here. De-accessioning isn’t the only problem, of course. Last week I asked for two books in the Reference section, which I’d looked at previously. Both had been stolen.
[A digression: Rhian has just come in, and it reminded me of when she, her mother and her gran came mob-handed into Waterstone’s one day, wanting a book by James A. Michener. The first person her gran spoke to hadn’t even heard of him. It must be an age thing!]
The adverts themselves are great fun. Even more than the articles, they bear witness to the rate of change technology has undergone in the last three decades. Home computers were starting to appear on the market. Here’s the ancestor to my own first computer, from the great Clive Sinclair:

And if you’ve bought a computer, you need to know how to use the damned thing, of course. The newly-launched Sybex Publishing had just the ticket…

Audiophiles in the OMNI audience could have splashed their cash on TDK cassettes (endorsed by Stevie Wonder) or Blaupunkt speakers. But what self-respecting music fan could turn his nose up at this little beauty?

Exactly six years down the line, in March 1987, I acquired a CD player. Even at this stage of the game, I don’t know how many OMNI readers saw the digital revolution coming.
If you wanted to make your own music, Casio had the perfect toy for the budding Vangelis:

Photographers were also stuck in the analogue age – this new Fuji camera was pretty much the state of the art, but still used 35mm film. (Although a Continuum item from around this period reported that two Soviet scientists had developed reusable film. Imagine that!)

As for home electronics, the technology was advancing, but the basic design was still firmly in the 60s. Major League baseball star Reggie Jackson was the face of Panasonic in their Winter 1980 ad campaign. Don’t get excited, they didn’t really have 3D TV in 1980!

Here’s Reggie again, in January 1981, showing off his Xmas presents…

Mind you, the must-have Xmas gadget for the real geek must have been this cordless phone…

Elsewhere, over a century since King Camp Gillette developed the safety razor, the company he founded was still developing its best ever razor.

However, what struck me as I leafed through those magazines, some thirty years down the line, is how little some things have changed. Our SF future seems further away than it seemed to be in 1980. I’m going to run a few pages past you to illustrate what I mean.
Then, as now, our future energy supply was high on the agenda. Here’s the lead-in to an in-depth feature from January 1981:

A BBC Horizon special a year or so ago looked into the current state of fusion research, and concluded that we haven’t progressed very far in the last three decades. We’re still a long way from the future James Burke foresaw in the final programme of Connections, when he pulled a bucket of water from a mill race and told us that it would ‘soon’ be possible to use its contents to power a city the size of Los Angeles.
In my last entry I mentioned that my friend Ian has gone into business fitting solar panels. Some of the houses in the next street have solar panels already, and another friend of mine is an agent for a solar installation company. There’s a large solar array near the sewage works in Abercynon. In Wales, we’re just dipping our toes into the renewable ocean. I mentioned the solar champion Denis Hayes earlier on. Here’s Hayes himself, from the August 1980 edition:

Just have a quick look at the splash quote under his picture, and reflect on how long it’s taken for passive solar energy to catch on. The Welsh Government trumpets the environmental credentials of its building in Cardiff Bay, but it’s little more than a decade old. It’s clear from Hayes’ interview that architects, planners, governments and corporations should have been taking these ideas on board twenty (or even) or thirty years ago.
On the subject of renewable energy, try this little piece from Continuum in the same edition. Wind farms are a hot topic in Wales these days. Sometimes it feels like the people debating it are contributing far more hot air and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the coal and petrochemical industries combined. I think I was converted to the idea way back then.

On the same page, there’s some breaking news. Who had ever heard of polychlorinated biphenyls three decades ago? Yet when the Rechem plant near Pontypool was found to be generating very high levels of these toxins, they hit the headlines and (in Wales, at least) stayed there for years.
Still on the subject of fuel consumption, in February 1981 this full-page ad for freight trains made a powerful argument in their favour. In Britain in 2012, transferring freight off the roads and onto trains (or even canals) is still a topic for debate.

The author of this polemical piece from July 1980 made it clear where the blame lay for the short-sightedness of corporations and policy-makers alike – right at the top!

Here in Wales, the new Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood has drawn up a ‘Greenprint For the Valleys’, laying out strategies for job creation and a reduction in resource use. It’s an exciting, forward-looking and refreshing approach. However, it’s clear from reading these articles from three decades ago that politicians should have been thinking in those terms then, not now.
Talking about the Valleys, some BT subscribers in Aberdare are now receiving superfast fibre-optic broadband. Western Electric (amongst others)  saw it coming thirty years ago. Some of us might see it by the year 2015.

I’d forgotten about this bit until I saw a Tweet from Prof Brian Cox. A new visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is giving equal time to the Creationist argument as to the orthodox geological explanation for its formation. That’s nothing new either, as this Ben Bova piece from the Second Anniversary Issue makes abundantly clear:

Finally, in the light of all the foregoing, I’d like to show you a complete article from February 1981. It’s a list of highlights from The People’s Almanac® Presents the Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irvin Wallace (William Morrow, 1981.) As with a great deal of futurology, it’s interesting to see how wide of the mark some of their prognostications were. The USSR didn’t make it into the 1990s, while Iran is still a totalitarian theocracy. Polio might have been virtually eradicated, but nobody foresaw the appearance of HIV/AIDS a few years later, and the devastation it would cause in Sub-Saharan Africa. As for the mothballed space programmes, I don’t even want to think about it. It’s just too depressing for a man who grew up on the later Apollo missions, Viking, Voyager, Pioneer, and the early Shuttle launches.
It is a measure of chronology. This chronology records events that will, or may, happen in the next 50 years or so. The events that will occur – or are most likely to to take place – are events that have been scheduled, like a sports event, an election, a heavenly cycle, an anniversary. These more of less sure things will be indicated by two stars, **. All the other events entered in this history are predictions made by experts in various fields of knowledge. Relying on their learning in their specialized fields, these experts are forecasting what your future may bring.
But, you may wonder, is it all – or any of it – believable? Are the forecasts made for the years between 1982 and 2002 possible? Can these predictions come true?
To convince yourself that they are possible, we suggest you take a look over your shoulder. Look back through a similar time period lasting through the years 1962 to 1982. Had someone told you in 1962 that the 20 years ahead would bring you portable computers, home videotape machines, digital watches, microwave ovens, birth-control pills, supersonic passenger planes, and test-tube babies, you might have had doubts. Had someone told you in 1962 that the next two decades would bring you heart and kidney transplants, moon walks, spacecraft on Mars and Venus, discovery of DNA, satellite broadcasts, a Polish pope, an Israeli Jerusalem, a resigned U.S. president, you might have scoffed.
But it all actually happened. In the light of the recent past, there is no reason to disbelieve the advent of new miracles, advances, and changes in the next twenty years.
Open your mind.
Make way for tomorrow.
  • A massive earthquake hits northern Iran, taking a large toll of lives. The inability of the government to deal with the crisis leads to its downfall. The Ayatollah Khomeini (or his heir) is overthrown by a coalition of minorities.
  • Automobile gas rationing takes effect throughout the Western world.
  • **Spain hosts the twelfth World Cup Soccer Championship.
  • **The city of Juneau is replaced by Willow as Alaska’s new state capital.


  • The USSR puts into operation a particle-beam accelerator that can protect the nation against any guided-missile attack.
  • The USSR achieves clearcut strategic nuclear superiority over the United States, the NATO alliance, Communist China, and Japan combined.
  • Saudi Arabia and Libya lose their oil wealth. In each nation a democratic form of government takes power.
  • With the crash of the U.S. Stock market, a long economic depression begins.
  • **The U.S. Spacecraft Pioneer 10, launched 11 years earlier, is just passing the planet Neptune.
  • The first space telescope, which revolutionizes astronomy, is launched.
  • **The Alcan oil pipeline, routed through Canada to the northwestern United States, begins to deliver its crude.


  • **The XXII Summer Olympics, staged in Los Angeles, goes on. Maybe.
  • **The United States elects a president.
  • The risk of nuclear war peaks, with central Europe and the Middle East presenting special dangers.


  • Israel formally annexes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
  • People work a four-day, 32-hour week.
  • Most family homes have installed flushless toilets that compost wastes. (One brand of toilet uses a sound track that makes a flushing noise whenever the toilet lever is pressed, even though no water is used in the system.)
  • Your home television set has 300 channels.
  • Using expensive digital synthesizers, if you are able to play one musical instrument, you are able to play any instrument.
  • A national health insurance goes into effect in the United States. This federal insurance covers 90 per cent of your medical costs.
  • The U.S. Government nationalizes all gasoline stations.
  • Gasohol totally replaces gasoline for use in motor vehicles.
  • The first nonscientist passengers are carried into orbit by the space shuttle.
  • A private company, selling to any customer, launches a satellite into space. The company’s first customer is China.
  • **Halley’s Comet soars through the skies once more. It is most clearly seen in November and December.


  • The People’s Republic of China places an astronaut into orbit – and becomes the third nation with a man in space.
  • A computer program beats the world chess champion.
  • **Colombia hosts the thirteenth World Cup Soccer Championship.
  • The majority of working people are on Flextime – setting their own hours for going to work and leaving work.
  • **Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of murdering Robert F. Kennedy, comes up for parole.


  • Most courtrooms are open to television coverage. Criminal and civil courtroom proceedings are so popular they have replaced soap operas and game shows.
  • Your television screen can project three-dimensional pictures through the use of laser holography.
  • A bottle of hard liquor costs $125, a double martini at a bar costs $20, and a pack of cigarettes costs $5.
  • The United States legalizes marijuana. Some of the leading brands for sale in your liquor store of tobacco shop are Connoisseur Colombian, Santa Maria Gold, Primo Mexican, and California Sinsemilla. (Colombia legalized marijuana two years earlier.)
  • The British sport of cricket becomes a national sport in the United States.
  • A computer chess champion proves superior to almost all grand-master human chess players.
  • **The bicentennial of the signing of the U.S. Constitution is celebrated.
  • Since winters in the eastern United States have become harder, almost all large corporations are transferring their headquarters to California and Florida.
  • One of three California cities – San Diego or Los Angeles or San Francisco – suffers several destructive earthquakes along a major fault line.
  • **A locust plague sweeps the eastern United States.
  • The U.S. public school system collapses and is replaced by one-room local schools in every neighborhood.
  • A woman priest is ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.
  • New scientific experiments prove that Einstein’s theory of relativity is partially wrong.
  • In South Africa, black resistance increases as black leaders resort to urban terror. The white government makes dramatic concessions to blacks in social and economic fields, but the whites continue to hold military and political power.


  • The track record for the mile is now 3 minutes 32 seconds.
  • Women compete in the Olympic marathon for the first time.
  • A 1,000-seat jetliner has its inaugural flight.
  • Most laborers working on assembly lines are replaced by robots.
  • West Germany and East Germany fight an undeclared war. No other nation is involved.
  • Both the United States and the USSR invade Iran, the Russians occupying the Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan and the Americans landing on the northern coast of the Strait of Hormuz. The incident ends peacefully.
  • A terrorist group gets its hands on an atomic bomb.
  • **A U.S. presidential election is held.
  • The first human being is cloned.


  • The median age in the United States is 32.5.
  • Roger Maris’s home run record of 61 is broken. Someone hits 63.
  • Weather forecasting achieves accuracy for 30-day periods.
  • A computer makes an original scientific discovery, and its program is nominated for a Nobel Prize.
  • Because of excessive unemployment caused by increasing automation, work riots occur in most industrialized nations.
  • Nuclear war breaks out between India and Pakistan, destroying major population centers.


  • Spanish joins English as an official language of the United States.
  • Parts of Texas and California split off to form new states.
  • Vegetarians outnumber meat eaters in the United States.
  • Most large corporations provide paid educational sabbaticals.
  • Control of outer space shifts from civil to military authority in the United States. NASA gives way to the Department of Defense.
  • A male astronaut in outer space shoots and kills a crewmate in an argument over a woman.
  • All school buildings vanish as students receive their education from portable communications-linked appliances that are cast on pieces of silicon.
  • Every automobile is equipped with microcomputer, sensor, and control actuator for self-operation by voice command. Also, every car is equipped with collision-avoidance electronic gadgetry.
  • Wrist telephones are popular.
  • Daily body checkups by computer provide ample warning of any impending illness.
  • In the past ten years, heart disease has decreased 37 percent because of improved diet and increased exercise.
  • Diabetics have pumps implanted in their bodies to feed them insulin automatically as they require it.
  • Artificial eyesight is invented for blind people.
  • Chemicals are produced that arrest senility in the aged.
  • The Communist government of the USSR is overthrown by a social democratic faction working inside the party.


  • The common cold is treated successfully with interferon.
  • The first human is brought back to life after being frozen and thawed.
  • Twenty-seven percent of Americans are illiterate. (It had been 1 percent in 1980.)
  • More than 90 percent of the households in the United States play electronic television games for recreation.
  • The average secretary earns $25,000 a year, but inflation continues to soar.
  • Four or five women judges are on the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • ** A U.S. presidential election is held.


  • After a U.S. Stock market crash and major depression, the United States ceases to be a great power. The USSR dominates most of the world.


  • A do-it-yourself device for music lovers comes on the market. You can buy an electric baton and conduct a recorded orchestra, actually controlling the tempo and volume of the music.
  • Ceremonies celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Charter.


  • In order to protest the rising rate of cancer among their ranks, workers set off a series of nuclear “accidents” at several nuclear-power plants.
  • **A U.S. presidential election is held.


  • Most U.S. Companies install locker rooms and give time off for exercise.
  • **The longtime British lease on Hong Kong expires, and Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control unless the lease is extended.


  • First tourist service to outer space. All seats are booked a year in advance.
  • A special gadget built into men’s suits and women’s dresses enables people to change the color, pattern and shape of their garments.
  • **Israel celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of independence.


  • The capital of the United States moves from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • **Pluto regains its position as the outermost known planet in our solar system, a position Neptune had held for 20 years.
  • **On December 31, the United States turns the Panama Canal over to Panama.


  • **More than 600 million are living in “absolute poverty.” More than half the world’s population is living in cities.
  • Most couples live together before getting married.
  • **According to the Library of Congress, in this year all nonfiction books published between 1900 and 1940 will be disintegrating because of acid in their paper, poor-quality ink, and pollution, and will be rendered useless.
  • Computer printout terminals in every neighborhood publish and bind any book while you wait.
  • **Presuming no preventive action has been taken, the noise level on U.S. Highways this year will be 50 percent greater than it was in 1980.
  • Cocaine is legalized in the United States. It is sold in liquor shops, packaged in snuffboxes bearing such names as Peruvian Flake and Bolivian Rock.
  • Almost all illnesses are treated electromagnetically. Body cells are “fooled” into producing antibodies, coagulants, new tissue, and chemicals and when they are exposed to certain kinds of electric and magnetic fields. This drugless treatment revolutionizes medicine.
  • All Persian Gulf countries run out of oil. Most new autos everywhere on Earth use alcohol or liquids converted from farm and forestry waste. On such fuels, each car gets 100 miles to the gallon.
  • A shortage of oil starts a large-scale migration of people from cold parts of the world to warmer parts.
  • The world’s oceans are being used extensively as a source of minerals and energy. Ocean-floor and subfloor mining is accomplished by automated systems and remotely controlled robots.
  • More than 90 percent of persons over sixteen will recognize that a Power Control Group (including Allen Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, some members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others) conspired to murder President John F. Kennedy, arranged the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; tried to assassinate George C. Wallace; and probably assassinated Adlai Stevenson, Walter Reuther, and others.
  • **A U.S. presidential election is held.
  • 50,000 people are living and working in space.
  • The first children are born in a space colony orbiting Earth.
  • An interplanetary ship beings back to Earth an alien virus that kills a tenth of the world’s population.


  • If caught in the early stages, every type of cancer is now curable.


  • All the walls of your living room are video screens. You can activate Dial-an-Environment and have the interior of the Taj Mahal projected on the screen so that you will feel you are inside the mausoleum.


  • A robot can now cross a busy highway without being hit.
  • Football coaches still direct their teams from the bench, but their teams consist of robots.
  • Because of worsening inflation, the United States issues a new currency to soften the impact of high prices. Many realistic people turn to barter.
  • There is an open market for used and reconditioned human body parts.
  • An artificial brain – as complex as the the human brain – proves to have conscious thoughts and emotions.
  • Authoritarian governments in various nations are using mind- and behavior-control chemicals on their subjects to suppress dissent.
  • The USSR attempts to change its history by using tachyons, particles that can carry information backwards in time.
  • The black pope of Rome transfers the central seat of the church to the holy city of Jerusalem.
  • International terrorists, employing nuclear weapons, destroy a major world capital. This leads to police repression, which in turns leads to a worldwide disarmament conference. As a result, all nuclear-weapon systems are scrapped.
  • One million people are living permanently in space colonies.


  • Japanese investors open factories in the South Bronx, New York City.
  • The United States passes laws banning the indiscriminate use of sugar, white flour, salt, artificial colorings, flavorings, and all additives in food.
  • Polio has been totally eradicated in all Western countries.
  • In South Africa, black revolutionary developments provoke the intervention of the superpowers; this development will ultimately lead to minority rule.
  • Following the collapse of the U.S. Economy, there is a civil war in the United States.
  • The majority of people leaving Earth for permanent jobs in outer space are no longer male, but female.
  • The first hominid with upright posture, almost 8 million years old, is found near the Swailik Hills, in India.


  • The Roman Catholic Church ends its opposition to contraception. The church also permits a married clergy.


  • The American Medical Association is disbanded.


  • **The first total eclipse of the sun since 1979 is observed by the people of the United States and Canada.
  • A U.S. Spacecraft reaches Mars, moves over the planet, and picks up samples of soil, which are examined in an orbiting Spacelab to avoid contamination of Earth. A sensational discovery – the fossil of a tiny creature – is made, proving that Mars once possessed life.


  • Newly married couples are spending their honeymoon on the moon.
  • More than 65 percent of all married woman and 75 percent of married men have committed adultery during their married lives.
  • A robot is developed with an IQ above 100.
  • Earthquakes are prevented by injecting water into wells along fault lines.
  • Nighttime is eliminated from the earth. Through the use of solar satellites, which store the sun’s rays, nights are fully illuminated. For the first time in history, people enjoy 24 hours of daylight.


  • During the winter of this year an unidentified and particularly lethal influenza virus appears in India, leapfrogs to Southeast Asia, and attacks Europe and the United States. Thousands die. The virus burns out in six months. The only people spared are those living in Argentina, Chile and sub-Saharan Africa.


  • **Sealed in the U.S. National Archives for more than 50 years, the secret tapes made of Martin Luther King, Jr., by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI are finally released to the public. These tapes – made by FBI bugging devices and wiretaps placed in King’s home, office and hotel rooms – sought to compromise him by exposing alleged sexual activities.


  • Solar-powered satellites supply 90 percent of the world’s energy.


  • The average secretary earns over $600,000 a year, but $10 will hardly buy a cup of coffee.
  • Computers and robots have become more intelligent than human beings, and they make major economic, social and technical decisions using reasoning that is beyond human comprehension.
  • Antarctic icebergs are being melted to relieve water shortages.
  • Advances in human understanding of crystal structures enable us to grow buildings.
  • The average consumer is able to trade in his or her body for a custom-built model.
  • People under 21 years of age are no longer deformed, sick, stupid, neurotic, undernourished, or ugly.
  • The average human being lives to an age of 120 or more.
  • Despite decades of experimental work, scientists have failed – thus far – to see inside the atom and to demonstrate the existence of gravity waves.
  • A democratic United States of the World is established. All wars are outlawed.
  • Nuclear weapons stockpiled by the world’s armies are sent into space to capture asteroids and bring them into orbit around the earth. The asteroids are used as raw materials for the industrialization of space.
  • More than 250 million people are living on High-Orbital Mini-Earths (HOMEs). Of these, 100 million were born on the new worlds.
  • Spacekind issues a Declaration of Independence from Earthkind.


  • A young physicist develops a unified-field theory (first proposed by Einstein150 years before) that provides the theoretical basis for faster-than-light travel.


  • More people are living in space than on Earth
Now tick off the ones which haven’t. If there’s one thing that my Time Machine proved beyond doubt, it’s the truth of J.B.S. Haldane’s dictum from Possible Worlds:
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
MOORE, P. (1979) The Guinness Book of Astronomy Facts and Feats. (Enfield: Guinness Superlatives Ltd.)