During one of the more tense phases of the Cold War in 1969, unknown astrophysicist and Harvard graduate J Richard Gott III visited the Berlin Wall. Standing before this bleak monument to totalitarianism, the young Gott wondered idly how long it would be before it was demolished. On the spot, he devised a simple equation, the outcome of which was his prediction that the Wall would stand for at least another 2.66 years, but would no longer be with us in 24 years. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan told the Russians to “tear down this wall” and by 1992 it was demolished - 23 years after Gott’s prediction. Gott was right.
Gott had devised the ‘Delta T argument’, a simple trick of mental maths that can be applied to predicting virtually anything, from how long your marriage will last to how long the Simpsons will continue to run. It inspires and infuriates in equal measure because, while ‘Delta T’ is almost certainly pseudo-maths, it’s also very accurate - at least, when it works. In 1999, The New Yorker ran a profile on Gott, who was by now a minor celebrity, under the headline ‘How to Predict Everything’. This in turn provides William Poundstone with the title for his new book (OneWorld, £12.99, ISBN 9781786075710), in which he examines the maths behind telling the future, including the median birth-clock Copernican prediction which, if applied to current population estimates, states that our civilisation has only another 760 years before we become extinct. He assesses how to predict the notoriously unpredictable stock markets, citing John Burr Williams, the Harvard economist who devised the formula that future dividend payments are equal to current dividend-paying stock. The book is full of powerful statements and anecdotes such as these. Where it gets really interesting is when Poundstone turns his attention to the mathematics behind an arcane paper written by an unknown clergyman of Tunbridge Wells by the name of Thomas Bayes – a paper that remained unpublished in his lifetime. Even after the 18th-century minister’s ideas were rescued from obscurity and tidied up by more orderly mathematicians they gained little traction, due to the fact that the iterative process of making inverse probability adjustments required too much work. That was until computers came along, after which Bayes’ discoveries became the bedrock of the modern maths that goes into predicting which of our emails are spam and much more besides. Given that Poundstone is a renowned sceptic, it should come as no surprise to find chapters such as ‘Twelve Reasons why the Doomsday Argument is Wrong’ and readers will discover that the author’s ability to argue against the probability theories he investigates is one of his key strengths. Above all, ‘How To Predict Everything’ is thoroughly entertaining reading and it’s not hard to foresee a future in which readers everywhere will find it impossible to put down. engineering and technology in society history of technology reviews books mathematics forecasting futurology Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered direct to your inbox every day. Related stories The accuracy of Asimov: 2019, as predicted in 1983 Mechanical Development Engineers Didcot, Oxfordshire £33,000 - £50,000 Mechanical Design Engineer Didcot, Oxfordshire £33,297 - £39,172 per annum (Discretionary range to £45,048) Why it pays to be a male tech entrepreneur Are you too old to be an engineer? Boaty McBoatface discovers Antarctic wind climate change evidence on maiden voyage Out, proud and at ease in the workplace Domino’s to trial autonomous pizza delivery in Houston Review Book review: ‘YouTubers’ by Chris Stokel-Walker Review ‘Driverless: who is in control?’ at the Science Museum Recent articles Graphene: what is it good for? Comment Facebook’s Libra, porn-filter delay, diversity benefits and more: best of the week’s news SpaceX to launch ‘sun sail’ spacecraft UK renewables overtake fossil fuels; 720km electricity cable laid between UK and Norway 'Pete the plant' to take selfies to help monitor its environment Huawei filed patent for revamped foldable phone Comment Bizarre Tech: SPIN fire tube, RelaxoPet and self-solving Rubik’s cube Can Big Data help curb the opioid crisis? TL,DR: Robot blood; Sino-British AI; camera plants; zero-carbon electricity Comment Buzzwords: Doctor Who, ‘Spidey sense’, AI pet care and football fan interactivity