Historians Can Predict the Future

Question: What was your early history education like? 

Niall Ferguson: When I was a schoolboy in Glasgow, I suppose I was treated to the usual smorgasbord of historical subjects that most British school children study. A few weeks of the Romans, a few weeks of ancient Britains, some Scottish history, and then it became a little bit more serious. The Wars of the Roses, the Reign of James the VI and I, what was then called the English Civil War, or Revolution, but these days they call it something much fancier like the British Civil Wars (plural). And I studied the 19th and 20th centuries at school too. I’m not sure all of these different things were terribly well connected, but I did find myself drawn more and more to the subject the older I got. And the turning point, I think was the year—and I’m guessing my age was 15 or 16—when I was studying Hamlet in English Literature, and the 30 Years War in history. Now the study of the play, Hamlet, is something that everybody should undertake, and I still have fond memories of the essay I wrote on the theme of death in Hamlet. 

But when I was studying the 30 Years War, I was encouraged by my history teacher, Bonnie Woods, to go to the Mitchell Library, which is a wonderful library in Glasgow. And I went in, in search of books on the 30 Years War and was absolutely stunned to find an entire shelf of books on the 30 Years War; the first of which was by Friedrich Schiller, the great German sturm und drang dramatist and historian. And it was the realization that there were so many different ways of thinking about the 30 Years War as opposed to the one play of Shakespeare called Hamlet that shifted my attention from English to History. 

Question: What is the value of historical perspective? 

Niall Ferguson: Historical study differs from a great many other things; say the whole realm of the social sciences for two reasons. Firstly, we’re not engaged in model building. We’re not trying to simply the world of human beings into some kind of mathematical model. Historians live and breathe the complexity of the past and we accept that there really is a sample size of one. There’s only one human history and we can’t rerun it in any laboratory, so we can’t be engaged in a scientific endeavor. The second thing that history does is that it encourages that minority of human beings who are alive, I think it’s only 7% of human beings who ever lived who are alive right now, to understand what the other 93% experienced in their time. 

So, historians build a bridge backwards through the generations, and at the heart of our enterprise is the imagination. One has to imagine what it was to be in another time, in another predicament. And that active imagination is at the heart of the historical process. The great philosopher, R.G. Collingwood said, “We are engaged in reconstructing past thought on the basis of those remnants that other civilizations leave behind; the letters, the documents.” That’s really what history is. 

So, this combination of understanding complexity and reimagining past life seems to me to be a tremendously valuable combination of skills. More reliable in my view than more formal forms of social science, as a way of understanding the futures (plural) because there is no such thing as the future singular. There’s just multiple futures, and we all collectively get to choose, or at least we try to choose, and it’s the combination of our decisions that produces the one future that happens. 

I have become more and more convinced with every passing year, that as an historian, I’m in a stronger position to imagine plausible futures than somebody who is trained in another discipline. At least some of which has happened to the last—the dead 93% of humanity just gives me more scenarios to draw from. Trying to think about the futures requires a certain amount of thinking by analogy, and if all you’ve got to go on is your own lifetime experience plus some model, I think you’re likely to get it wrong, whereas with historical understanding of past scenarios, you’re probably going to be better at visualizing the futures than the competition. And that, I think, is an extremely powerful for the study of history, not just by people who want to be professional historians, but also by people who want to be good citizens, good decision-makers, good scenario-builders. 

Question: What is dangerous about saying: “This time is different?” 

Niall Ferguson: My colleague at Harvard, Ken Rogoff, and his co-author, Carmen Reinhart have identified the four most dangerous words in the English language as "this time is different." In their book of that title, which has the subtitle "Eight Centuries of Financial Folly," they show how often human beings have persuaded themselves that they live in a special time and that the rules of the past no longer apply and therefore the price of housing, the price of stocks, you name it, the price of tulips, can rise forever. This illusion in the financial world has all sorts of analogues in other spheres. There are those that will assure you that we live in a unique time with respect to communications, or with respect to military force. 

Now my strong belief is that for all the technological change that has happened over the last 200 or so years, and particularly the technological changes of the very recent past, at this time, is not so different from previous times that we’ve nothing to learn from the past. Just to give one example, I’m having this conversation with an anonymous, to me unidentifiable audience through the miracle of a digital camera and the Internet. Now, that’s certainly very different from the way in which Martin Luther communicated his ideas about Christianity to the German public in the early 16th century. The way that happened was through sermons which, of course, could only be heard by hundreds of people at the time, but were then communicated via the printing press and transcriptions to a much, much larger audience. The reformation came about in the 16th century because of a network effect. There was a viral quality to it and the printing press was to the reformation what the Internet is to our time. 

Understanding how networks operate is a tremendously helpful thing for historians to be able to do. But the thing you learn is that the important thing about a network is not the speed at which the information travels, whether it takes days or nanoseconds is not the important thing. The important thing is that the network should exist and that it should have network properties that it should have network properties that should be positive externalities, if it reaches enough people not matter whether it’s in days or nanoseconds that can change the world. So, for me, the most important thing to recognize is that although technology may speed the world up, and it may make networks much larger than they’ve been in the past, it doesn’t change the essential property of a network. 

Question: How do notions of time affect your work? 

Niall Ferguson: When I was a boy, and in fact to this day, my favorite television superhero was not Superman, or Batman, or Spiderman or any of these people with tremendous physical power, it was a gentleman named Dr. Who. A BBC character, who I think is unique, or perhaps shares the distinction with Sherlock Holmes alone with being an intellectual hero not distinguished by any physical prowess, but distinguished by his intellectual firepower. 

Dr. Who is, and forever shall be, a time lord—that’s his designation. He has the ability to travel through time, and he was my hero because it seemed to me that that ability to travel through time was something far more appealing than the ability to stop a locomotive, or hold up a falling tower, or whatever it was that Superman was able to do. Stop a speeding bullet. So, Dr. Who appealed to me because time seemed to me to be the really interesting thing to have power over. 

The study of history is all about time. For example, in the project that I am currently working on—which is a provisionally titled “History of the West and the Rest," the rise of the west to predominance after around 1500—time plays a key role. The Chinese had clocks, elaborate hydraulic water clocks; well before west Europeans had anything like that. But when west Europeans began to build mechanical clocks, which they initially needed to get the timing of church services right, a revolution began which was characterized by the rapid dissemination of smaller and smaller timepieces. The Chinese had these huge clocks, they were pretty accurate, but they never had watches. They never had clocks that you could just put in your living room. And so, I’m fascinated by the technological revolution of the clock and the watch because, of course, that transformed the precision with which westerners could live their lives. 

David Landes wrote a wonderful book on this, the great Harvard economic historian. But it’s still a neglected classic. I wouldn’t say it was absolutely essential to the way history is studied. But for me, clocks are crucial. I spent some time a few weeks ago in a shop in central London which specializes in antique clocks, grandfather clocks, those big ones that you see in old country houses and this certain kind of old fashioned living room, and had a wonderful time discussing with a clock enthusiast the different styles of clock that came from the different regions of the British Isles in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. 

So, time is something that I have long been obsessed with. And I suppose I’ve come to realize that the power of time was one of the things that made the West ascend to dominate the rest for most of the last half-millennium. 

Recorded on April 19, 2010

Those with historical understanding of past scenarios are likely to be better at visualizing what's to come. After all, at the heart of the historian's enterprise is the imagination

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.