The future isn’t what it used to be

The future isn’t what it used to be. When I was a boy it was really something. I was born in 1956 when buildings were black and children played out. Other things were different too. I remember visiting my grandparents when I was very young. They lived in a small terraced house in Gorton, Manchester, near Belle Vue Zoo and the red rec and a massive factory called Peacocks. I followed the cat up the steep narrow stairs and saw the chamber pot under the high-legged bed. I was curious, I lifted the lid and saw the shock-horror contents. I remember charging back downstairs unable to speak. In the back room Granny Duffield leaned forward in her chair to poke the fire whilst my mother and father drank their tea at the gate-leg table. The carpet was so dirty it had blackened my knees, and it was covered in dog hairs to boot. It was not a great house. The only hot water was from a geyser in the lean-to kitchen, which had a basic gas cooker and not much else. The bath was galvanised, and was usually in the back yard between the coal bunker and the toilet, which had newspaper on a nail. The front room was the parlour, all very nice, but they never used it. Even when they had four children at home they all slept in the two rooms upstairs. Granny Heywood’s house was similar but different. It was in Bradford, Manchester, near the gas works and the coal mine and the power station:

Aerial picture of Bradford, Manchester, unattributed, see

Her house was a cut above, faced with glazed brick. It had a donkey-stoned doorstep, and was spick and span inside with a kitchen range you could eat off. They used their front room all the time, but there were five children not four, and still only two bedrooms upstairs. It must have been cramped.

We were going places

I suppose that’s one of the reasons my parents married young. They escaped the terraced houses of their parents to buy a terraced house of their own. It cost £100 and it had no electricity. It had bed bugs instead, and gas lamps with mantles. What with the rats in the back alley it was not the best place to raise two young children. But in a way that was a good thing, because soon thereafter they were rehoused, and had their dream home. It was a three-bedroomed council house with electric lights and a bathroom, plus hot and cold running water and gardens front and rear. No more jerries for them, and no more dirty carpets either, because we had a hoover. We still had a coal fire, with a hook for the back boiler that you pulled down with a poker. I remember our coal hole in the scullery, and the coalman with his dirty face and white teeth and the hundredweight sacks on his flatbed truck. But times they were a-changing. Beloved children were no longer given a bath in front of the fire, it was all done up upstairs. Then they’d come down in their clean pyjamas with wet hair to sit on the rug in front of the fire and the coffee table. We’d have tinned salmon on Vienna bread with a salad of lettuce tomato and cucumber, then Victoria sponge and tinned peaches with evaporated milk, all followed by The Avengers. I remember that music like it was yesterday.

And not just to Blackpool

I also remember going on a family holiday to Blackpool. I remember the big black steam engine huffing smoke as it came out from under the bridge whilst we waited on the platform. But I also remember the diesel locomotives that were just coming in, all big and blue and bull-nosed. We had trolley buses too, and lots of ordinary buses, all double-deckers, all red. On Sunday visits we used to get a 121 then a 53 to travel the seven miles between Middleton and Gorton, or the slightly lesser distance to Bradford. But not for long. Soon my father had a car. His first was a rather dilapidated green Morris Oxford Traveller. He didn’t have it for long, because he was going places. I remember I must have been about five when he came home one day with a beautiful brand new Ford Consul. It was yellow and black, and it looked so good. It smelt good too. He took us for a spin to see the CIS building under construction. That was the first time I ever saw a skyscraper, it was huge, and so impressive. Yes, there was a definite feeling that things could only get better. Especially since I was now too big for my pedal car, and I could read too. I grew out of Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben and the Woodentops, because I was introduced to the Playhour and the Beano and the Dandy. And the Rover and Wizard and the Eagle. That’s where I met Dan Dare. Soon I was reading about Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and more.

One giant leap for mankind

In 1960 I’d watched Four Feather Falls, Gerry Anderson’s first Supermarionation TV show. But by 1961 with the help of Sylvia Anderson we had Supercar: it travels in space, or under the sea, it can journey anywhere. Then we had Fireball XL5 in 1962, with Steve Zodiac, Venus, and Robbie the robot. Plus the skyramp takeoff and the great music,  and the detachable nosecone. That’s where I first saw a hoverbike. I loved that program:

Gerry and Silvia Anderson’s Fireball XL5, see Wikipedia

Then came Stingray in 1964, then Thunderbirds in 1965. What a show. They had hoverbikes too, but better. Thunderbird Three was always my favourite, but like any kid I loved Thunderbirds One and Two too. I wasn’t much impressed with Thunderbird Four though, because by then we lived in Barrow-in-Furness where there were more massive factories, and giant shipyard cranes as well. That’s where they built the nuclear submarines. I was a kid in the crowd at the launch of UK’s second Polaris submarine in 1967. It was called HMS Repulse, but the next morning the newspapers were calling it HMS Stick in the Mud. That’s because the drag chains were inadequate. It went straight across the Walney channel and ran aground. Anyway, we had Captain Scarlet in 1967, the Boeing 747 in 1968, then the Moon landings in 1969. I remember Neil Armstrong on the ladder saying that’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. Then I remember going with my family to see Uncle Fred’s brand new colour TV in his nice new house. It was wondrous. The future really was bright. Especially since by then we had a new house too, and my father was driving a beautiful BMW E9 with a lot of glass. It was reddish-orange, and it definitely had a touch of Supercar about it.

The stars my destination

Things were changing, and changing for the better. I grew up with things changing and getting better all the time. Perhaps war had something to do with it, because some of those changes happened quite fast, particularly when you look back. In 1919 we had the Sopwith Camel, and twenty years later in 1939 we had the Supermarine Spitfire. There was also the Lockheed P38 Lightning, and the North American Aviation P51 Mustang, which was soon flying in its unpainted aluminium skin. Then came the Gloster Meteor, the shape of things to come. Twenty years later in 1959 we had the English Electric Lightning. A mere forty years after the Sopwith Camel, we had a silver roaring beast that could stand on its tail and climb at 20,000 feet a minute. It could break the sound barrier on the way up. It could fly so high that the sky was dark and the curvature of the Earth was visible. If you look carefully you might notice that Thunderbird One had the same wings. And a front end like the nacelles of the Lockheed Blackbird that was flying at Mach 3.2 in 1964. It could land horizontally:

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Thunderbird One, see Wikipedia

Speaking of which, by 1964 we already had what was to become the Harrier. The P1127 prototype first flew in 1960, and by 1964 it was flying reliably as the Kestrel. We also had jet liners. Amazingly, the de Havilland Comet first flew in 1949. It entered service in 1952, but then came tragedy and setbacks. There was also the Boeing 707 in 1958, the Douglas DC8 and the Sud Aviation Caravelle in 1959, and the Vickers VC10 and the Hawker Siddeley Trident in 1964. All of a sudden the world was international, a go-getting jet-setting place. It felt even more so when Star Trek came along in 1966. Not long after that in 1968 we had 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then came Concorde in 1969, and it really felt like the Moon landing a few months later was just the first step on the road to the stars. Especially since science fiction was in full swing and I read every book going, including The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. The Andersons gave us UFO and those gorgeous purple wigs in 1970. It was the end of a great decade for them and everybody else. The swinging sixties had taken us from Matt Munro to Led Zeppelin. Queen formed in 1970. Deep Purple wrote Smoke on The Water in 1971. David Bowie released Starman in 1972. When Apollo 17 splashed down in December that year, we didn’t know it was the last mission to the Moon for a while. Instead when Space 1999 was on our colour TVs in 1975, it was credible. We had a whole colony of people on the Moon, in cool uniforms with believable science and good production values. There’d been so much progress in previous years that nobody thought we wouldn’t have a Moonbase Alpha by 1999.

The future isn’t what it used to be

Well, I didn’t. By then we’d moved again to Newcastle where there yet more massive factories and giant shipyard cranes. Then before I knew it I was back in Manchester learning about electronics and NAND gates and parallel adders. According to my dad computers were the next big thing, so I did a degree in computer science. The computer science department in Manchester was big and new, all red brick and exposed-aggregate concrete, right next door to the Maths Tower. I used to have some of my lectures up in the Maths Tower, gazing south across tree-lined suburbs as far as Jodrell Bank. I could also gaze at the Whitworth building, now a golden honey sandstone instead of black with soot. If I was in the right room I could also gaze North at the skyscrapers like the CIS and the Sunley building, and to the North East towards the gleaming white concrete buildings of the UMIST campus:

Manchester University Maths tower with UMIST to the right, from Nick Higham’s Mathematics Tower Photo Gallery

My wife went to UMIST. That’s the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and in a very visceral way it represented the white heat of technology. A white heat that soon put an end to hand-cranked calculators, along with teletypes and paper tape and punched cards. Fast forward to the present day, and everybody will agree that computers along with their associated communications have changed the world for the better. Your phone is a computer, and a camera, and a communicator too. But what else has? I didn’t think too much about it until our two teenagers dropped all their science subjects. That’s when I realised that some things hadn’t changed for the better. That’s when I realised that a lot of people think they’re good with technology, but they don’t understand the first thing about how their iPhones work. A lot of people nowadays are hopeless when it comes to making and mending things. There are people who can’t change a tyre, and people who call in an electrician to replace their spotlights. I remember when science was popular, and just about everybody knew about Popular Science. Not any more. When I go out with colleagues it’s noticeable that very few have any interest in science at all. When you ask them about it, they shrug, and say things like “science does nothing for me”. It’s as if the science-led industrial revolution somehow ran out of steam. Things are particularly noticeable in the UK, which once led the world. The University of Manchester demolished the Maths Tower and abolished UMIST. That gleaming white campus will soon be gone. Like Concorde and the Harrier. The massive factories have also gone. Along with the giant shipyard cranes, and shipbuilding. Not just from Barrow and Tyneside, but from Sunderland and Belfast too. It’s hanging on in Merseyside and Clydeside, but only just.

QE2 under construction at the John Brown shipyards in Glasgow 1967, see what happened to British shipbuilding?

Something’s gone wrong, but not just with the UK. There’s something else, something insidious. Something the younger generation don’t notice. Things like the Boeing 747 has been flying for fifty years. Things like Apollo 17 splashed down in December 1972, the thick end of fifty years ago. Things like Neil Armstrong died six years ago in 2012 at the age of eighty two. Something happened, or rather something didn’t. The things we expected to happen, didn’t. And as a result, the future isn’t what it used to be.



This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. That’s the general idea. I’ll see how it goes. I need to get the formatting right first. It’s all too small.

    1. It’s proving tricky finding a wide modern theme that’s suitable for a text-heavy content-rich website. I wanted to avoid CSS editing.

  2. Nice read, and format is just fine! Intro a bit long compared to the claims presented, but works. I agree with most but can you explain why all the Heisenberg uncertainty principle concequences are wrong in your opinion? Feynman would have wondered also…

  3. welcome to the blogosphere! yeah the world is chging rapidly. there are increasing bridges between CS and physics. wheeler invented “it from bit”. think you have some real insights into the nature of reality and admire your tenaciousness. revolutions are not for the fainthearted.

    1. Thanks vzn. It will be interesting to see how things pan out. I hope you like the look and feel of this blog. And of course the content.
      I’ve just posted up an article about time. I think that’s where it all starts. When you understand that a clock isn’t some kind of cosmic gas meter with time flowing through it, it tells you something important about why optical clocks go slower when they’re lower.

  4. You have touched on a topic which is quite important in the study of physics. We can’t ignore some of the details just because they don’t fit popular theory. We only succeed when all the pieces fit.
    Very well presented and informative!!! Thank you for taking the time and effort to shed some light on the facts.
    Keep up the great work!!!

    1. Thanks Chip. Sadly people do ignore the details because they don’t fit popular theory. I’ve been looking into the history of quantum field theory recently, and I would venture to say it’s astonishing. See for example See Hans Ohanian’s 1984 paper What is spin? ( He said Pauli pontificated that spin is a quantum-mechanical property, and that the lack of a concrete picture was a satisfactory state of affairs. He quoted Pauli saying this: “After a brief period of spiritual and human confusion caused by a provisional restriction to ‘Anschaulichkeit’, a general agreement was reached following the substitution of abstract mathematical symbols, as for instance psi, for concrete pictures. Especially the concrete picture of rotation has been replaced by mathematical characteristics of the representations of rotations in three-dimensional space”. Talk about giving up.

  5. Hi Duffs,
    Just catching up with your blog.
    Regarding manned space missions, they’re a waste of time, robots do it better. Look at the pointless space shuttle / ISS projects, what did they waste, about a trillion? With virtually no scientific results and a couple of spectacular disasters to show for it.
    Health and safety kills manned space flight, though it looks like Space X will be making astronauts out of billionairs faster than anyone else.
    Regarding computers and space flight – primitive computers were probably the sweet spot – you couldn’t put much software into the apollo missions, so that kept the cost down. Imagine that now, how many lines of code you would need and how much that would cost! But they do seem to cope OK with programming unmanned space probes, Cassini and Juno being the latest triumphs, not to mention the spectacular New Horizons mission.
    Regarding people knowing technology, I was reading an article about a 40 year old trying to learn how to code for the first time. He was astonished, and felt a massive sense of empowerment when he finally managed to design and write a python program. He felt a step closer tounderstaning al the software that runs so much of our lives these days. Although even then he knew that this was still an abtraction away from what the computer is doing and how.
    As for physics, we have the famous quote
    “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong”. Richard P. Feynman
    More on that on another post of yours…

    1. Well shucks Jim, I want manned space flight, and that’s that. As for empowerment, I’ve worked in IT for donkeys years, and I don’t feel empowered at all. In fact I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t float my boat. Or it doesn’t light my fire. Physics does. Feynman helped with that, I’ve read all of his popscience books. But you know, the more I’ve come to understand, the more I think Feynman somehow missed the boat when he said things like nobody understands it, and accepted that state of affairs.

      1. Beware of over-worshipping guys like Feynman and Einstein though, they did get stuff wrong. Feyman’s parton model was beneficial didn’t turn out to be compatible with nucleaer physics and he quietly abandoned it. Einstein follwed a research program that was doomed, but he got stuck in his ways. And be extremely wary of taking stuf seriously said by physics greats before a full theory of quantum mechanics and even the Standard Model came out. Although physicists were as right as they could have been, they were not 100% right.
        Also you have brilliant phyicisists who got married – and still are – to Susy and String Theory – they are so in love with the subjects they can’t give them up – especially when they are financially rewarded to plough on.

        1. You denigrate stuff like the Standard Model, you really shouldn’t. You play down it’s absolute brillance. It explains nearly everything! It does explain everything we see in the LHC. Sure it’s not perfect, but no one is saying it’s perfect. In this blog you imply that physicists are foolish for believing in the Standard Model, but all physicists are aware of gaps that the SM cannot explain. They’re trying to find an improved theory. The problem we have is that the SM is so successful we do not have experimental data yet that can tell us what the theory is like.
          If you’re going to mock the SM, you’d better have a set of testable mathematical equations that improve upon the SM equations!
          The issue with ths blog, as I see them so far, is that you do not understand quantum mechanics, espeically the interaction of photons with matter and force-carrying bosons.

      2. Research the Dirac equation – it explains all the stuff you say is “unexplained” – such as why photons travel at C, yet beams of light can be slowed (due to absorption and re-emmission -causing days – hence slow down. It also predicts (explains) antimatter – viola – you have pair production.
        Dirac was a genius, it’s a shame you do not mention him (that I remember) for Dirac was perhaps the most important phycisist in Quantum Theory.
        The British never promote our own geniuses – Newton and Dirac were true greats: Newton was the greatests of them all. Dirac was up there with Einstein and mathematicaly Dirac was far more naturally talented. Both men influcence mathematics, Newton so much so that, along with Gauss and Archimedese, Newton was in the top 3 of all time.

        1. I think Newton was a genius, see my Mr Newton’s Classroom. But not Dirac. You’ll excuse me if I leave it at that. But I hope when you read more posts you’ll appreciate why I take that view, and why I feel the Standard Model is deficient. Meanwhile if you think the Dirac equation explains why photons travel at c along with antimatter and pair production, I’m afraid you’re indulging in wishful thinking Jim. How can I put it: there are physicists who got married to the Standard Model and can’t give it up.

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