January 16, 2007
According to legend, in 6 B.C., the great mathematician Pythagoras was given Apollo’s magic arrow, which would enable him to fly across rivers and mountains, stop outbreaks of disease, and purify cities of toxins. In essence, the arrow gave him the power to predict and control the future.
Fly ahead to the twenty-first century, and the media is dominated by scientists, economic pundits, and more than a few charlatans claiming to have surpassed the abilities of Apollo’s mythical arrow. Allegedly, they can foresee financial trends, flu outbreaks, and even next week’s weather – though often, of course, they get it wrong.
In Apollo’s Arrow, Canadian scientist David Orrell looks back at past prognosticators, from the time of the Oracle at Delphi to the rise of astrology to the advent of the nightly news, showing us how scientists, astrologers, and grifters have attempted to predict the future. Despite centuries of scientific progress and billions of dollars in research, Orrell asks if we are any better now at predicting the future then Pythagoras was centuries ago. Can past events – Hurricane Katrina, bull markets, the SARS outbreak – help us understand what will happen next? Will scientists ever be able to forecast catastrophes, or will we always be at the mercy of randomness, waiting for the next storm, epidemic, or economic crash to thunder through our lives?
In the spirit of Freakonomics and A Short History of Progress, Apollo’s Arrow is a compelling, elegantly written history of our future. Orrell, mathematician and expert in complex systems, strips bare the science of prediction and has even included his own predictions for the year 2100 – guaranteed right or your money back.
David Orrell, Ph.D., received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Oxford. His work in the prediction of complex systems has been featured in New Scientist and the Financial Times, and on BBC Radio, ABC Radio (Australia), and National Public Radio. His theory that errors in weather forecasts are due not to chaos (“the butterfly effect”) but to model error stirred up a storm of debate in meteorological circles. He also does research in the area of systems biology. Orrell lives in Vancouver. Visit him online at www.apollosarrow.ca.