Gazing into crystal ball

What's in store? Predictions have made the course of history more interesting

If we could tell what’s going to happen the next minute, tomorrow, the next year or 10 years from now, would it make us happier? Probably not, is my prediction. Oh, initially, we would be thrilled. We can prepare for both the delights and disasters that await us. But soon, the novelty would wear off, and we’d find ourselves bored. Unpredictability is the spice of life without which life would become too unexciting.

However, the unpredictable can be terrifying. All our lives, we constantly step into the gaping maws of the unknown future. Therefore, it is no surprise that we crave knowledge of the future. If we knew what was going to happen — not every little thing, but a few events here and there — wouldn’t it be fun to anticipate the event and then have it happen?

Of course, it would, and that is why the media goes on a prediction spree every time a new calendar goes up on the wall.

Okay, so we can study weather charts and patterns, and predict if India will have an adequate monsoon this year. This is a prediction that is based on facts and study of patterns. But then, there are some wild and weird predictions.

In 1735, author Jonathan Swift gave planet Mars two moons in his book Gulliver’s Travels. In 1877, 142 years later, American astronomer Asaph Hall observed the presence of two moons around Mars. There are many accounts of the victims of the 9/11 attacks having premonitions of the disaster headed their way.

Dreamers of a kind

One man even talked about the possibility of an attack on the World Trade Center towers and ways to evacuate them. And Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own death at the hands of an assassin a few days before it actually happened.

Why, in the 1957 multilingual movie Mayabazar, directed by Kadiri Venkata Reddy, there is a shot of people opening a box in which Ghatotkacha appears and talks to them. This was 47 years before Skype came out, and 50 years before Apple released the first iPad.

So, how do we explain these predictions? Is time a chaotic slot machine with events happening based on how things shake together almost randomly? In that case, predictions could only be shots in the dark. Or, is time a fixed continuum, like a rope perhaps, with predictions manifesting through omens and premonitions like loops on the rope? And what of people who are able to foretell events through spiritual connections and utter prophecies?

To make one thing clear, a prophecy is a foretelling of the future with spiritual connections, while a prediction is just a person’s opinion of the future. Prophecies have been known from time immemorial, and the best known among them is the Oracle of Delphi.

In the 7th century BCE (Before Common Era), a woman in Greece held immense power over the whole world. She was the Pythia, the Oracle, a person who could communicate with the god Apollo and answer questions, even about events that would happen in the future. Pythia was chosen from among the priestesses who served at the Apollo Temple at Delphi in Greece. She would fast, drink holy water and bathe in the sacred Castalian spring and then, holding laurel reeds in one hand and a dish of spring water in the other, sit on a tripod positioned over a gaping fissure in the earth. Then the vapours of the spirit of the huge serpent, Python, who had been slain by Apollo’s arrows and thrown into that fissure, would wash over her and she would start to speak, or rather ‘rave’. Her ravings were ‘translated’ by the priests of the temple into elegant hexameters.

People would gather from around the world and pay to ask her questions. Delphi was so busy at the times when the oracles spoke that queues would form, and several oracular priestesses would operate at the same time. The consultants included individuals, cities and kings from all around the world. Their questions could be anything from: “Who stole my sheep?” and “Is the child my wife is carrying, mine?” to “Should I invade the neighbouring country?”

However, the translators or interpreters became adept at giving intentionally vague answers that covered all contingencies. One famous response given by an oracle to a person enquiring if he should go on a military campaign was: “You will go you will return never in war will you perish.” Depending on where commas are placed, this could either read: “You will go, you will return, never in war will you perish” — a good result; or “You will go, you will return never, in war you will perish,” — a distinctly unfavourable answer.

There were some famous ‘clients’ at Delphi, not all of whom got the benefit of doubt. When Socrates’s friend Chaerephon asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates, the answer was “No one is.” To this, Socrates said that, if so, it was because he was the only man aware of his own ignorance. When Croesus, the fabulously rich King of Lydia, wanted to know if he should fight against the mighty King Cyrus of Persia, the oracle stated that if Croesus went to war, then a great empire would surely fall. Reassured by this, Croesus took on the Persians, but was himself routed. The oracle proved to be true: a mighty empire did fall, only it was that of Croesus himself.

Alexander of Macedonia too had many connections with Delphi. At his birth, his father, King Philip, was told by the oracle that his son would be a great ruler. She also predicted that whoever tamed and rode the horse Bucephalus would be king of the world; it was Alexander who accomplished it. But the most interesting story is that of Alexander himself. It was in November that Alexander went to Delphi. No prophesying would take place between November and February since the god Apollo was said to leave the temple during winter. The oracle told him to return in February. Displeased, Alexander began dragging the oracle Pythia towards the sacred altar by her hair, when she screamed, “Let go of me! You are invincible.” Hearing the answer he wanted, Alexander left in high spirits. Now, did the oracle really mean it or did she do it to save her own skin? Either way, she proved to be right.

That the people believed in the oracles is obvious from the play Oedipus Rex written by Sophocles. Oedipus was told by an oracle that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. The play shows this prophecy coming true, though he desperately tries to avoid this fate.

So, were the oracles really prescient? Studies seem to show that the oracles were really in a trance, but it was caused not by the gods, but by nature. Greece is volcanic, and two volcanic faults cross beneath the temple. Due to friction caused by tectonic movements, light hydrocarbons like methane, ethane and ethylene gas might have emanated from the vents under the sacred altar. Combined with the spring water they bubbled through, they could have risen out of the earth, ascending directly to the maiden sitting at the altar, causing trance-like symptoms. Remember, it was the priests who interpreted her ravings. All in all, the oracles could have been just the perfect set-up.

But there are other prophecies that cannot be explained away so neatly. Nearly 900 years ago, the king of Java, called Jayabaya, predicted that his country would be dominated by white men for three centuries before being run by Asians for a very short period of time. In the 1600s, the Netherlands conquered the kingdom and ran it for three centuries. In the middle of the Second World War, the Japanese took over, before surrendering in three years’ time.

Of course, no talk of prophets is complete without a mention of Nostradamus. Born Michel de Nostredame in France in 1503, Nostradamus was a French physician who is best known for his book Les Propheties, a collection of 942 quatrains. Over the years, many of his predictions came true, including the rise of Hitler, Charles de Gaulle, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the election of Donald Trump.

Or did they? Since 1980, academics in France have substantiated through research that not one of the claims of Nostradamus’s prophecies coming true was backed by any documented facts. It has been argued that his reputation as a modern day prophet has been manufactured by some supporters who fit his words, which are extremely vague, to fit events that have already occurred, a process known as ‘postdiction’ as opposed to prediction. Therefore, even though it can be interesting to read various interpretations of his work, it is a good idea to keep some salt at the ready, to ingest, pinch by pinch.

In India, there are prophecies mentioned in the ancient palm-leaf writings or Naadi. Some readings from Brighu Naadi seem to have predicted the 9/11 disaster, the tsunami of 2004, and the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe. They also predict that in 2049, people will know that they are not alone in the universe.

Unlike prophecies, predictions have some basis in logic and some grounding in reality. And one of the best examples of a prediction made with scientific reasoning that came true in a spectacular way is the Periodic Table of Elements.

Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, was a systematic and methodical man. In the 1860s, 63 elements were known to exist. However, there was no clear system for classifying them based on relationships that existed between them. Mendeleev tried to winkle out such a system using the card game Solitaire or Patience.

Mendeleev wrote out the atomic weight and properties of each element on a card. Then he worked at organising the elements with his cards, continually arranging and rearranging the cards in various sequences. The story goes that on February 17, 1869, he set to work and carried on for three days and nights, until he fell asleep, exhausted. In a dream that night, he saw a table where all the elements ‘fell into place’.

Good sleep did this

On waking up, he immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper. He named this table the Periodic Table, because when arranged in order of increasing atomic mass, properties were repeated.

In this chart, he found some blank spaces. Using the patterns in his table, he predicted the properties of these elements which he thought must exist but were yet undiscovered. He even named the elements with the Sanskrit prefix for one — eka. This way, he located the element eka-aluminum below the known element aluminum. Later, it was identified as gallium. Germanium and Scandium were also discovered after Mendeleev had guessed at their atomic masses and properties.

Today, the element with atomic number 101 bears the name Mendelevium to honour the periodic table’s perceptive architect.

Swami Vivekananda was not just a spiritual leader, he was a seer too. Though he died in 1902, he predicted that India would be free ‘within the next 50 years’. Though it did not really exist in his time, he foresaw that the urban middle class would rise to such an extent that it would control the development of our country. He also foretold of revolutions in China and Russia, and predicted the rise of materialism in India. He also believed that science has the power to revolutionise the country and help people fight poverty. These prognostications seem to be more outcomes of logical thinking than shots in the dark.

And then there are other predictions that give us pause. In a story, Robert Heinlein, a science fiction author, depicted the United States as the only superpower and at the head of the race to develop a nuclear bomb. This is exactly what happened at the end of World War II. But Heinlein’s story was written in 1940, before the States even joined the war. Weirdly, Heinlein also described a waterbed, years before it came to be, so accurately, that when it was eventually invented, the inventor had trouble getting it patented.

Another man whose predictions did come true was John Elfreth Watkins, Jr, a civil engineer who became a curator at the Smithsonian Institute. In 1900, he contributed an article called ‘What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years’ to the Ladies’ Home Journal. In it, he predicted satellite television, the internet, electric refrigerators, packaged ready meals, digital photography and wireless communication.

Among current visionaries, one man stands heads above the others — Raymond Kurzweil. The current Director of Engineering at Google, he is an inventor himself. A whopping 86% of his predictions have come true. Not only does he predict events accurately, he also predicts when they will come true. He predicted the fall of the Soviet Union by 1991, a computer beating a human at chess by 2000, and wireless Internet becoming widely prevalent by early 21st century. By 2009, 89 out of his 108 predictions were entirely correct. As for the future, he has predicted that humans will conquer death altogether… before long. Hmm, sounds a little like a Delphi oracle, doesn’t it?

On a side note, let us not forget the non-human seer who became famous a few years ago. It would be Paul, the psychic octopus, which correctly predicted the outcomes of Germany’s 2010 World Cup matches. Unfortunately, it confined its clairvoyance to sports events only, and died before its ‘abilities’ could be further studied.

Finally, setting modesty aside, I have to confess that I, too, am psychic. I predict that you will like this article… enough to finish it… You like it… more or less… You will have a wonderful Sunday… with a few glitches maybe…

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