Looking Back at Isaac Asimov’s Oil Prediction

Isaac Asimov’s oil prediction shows up in what Stephen King calls “club stories.” You know the trope: A group of people sitting around in a club, talking of this and that, and suddenly Col. Arbuthnot, or Jenkins the journalist, or Robards the scientist chap says, “that reminds me. Did I ever tell you the time I–?”

And we’re off.

asimov black widowersIsaac Asimov used that trope for his Black Widowers series of mystery stories, but with some interesting twists. A group of guys get together once a month for a private dinner at a fancy restaurant, served by their faithful waiter, Henry. One of them brings a guest, who eats for free but must submit to questioning during dessert. The opening question is always, “How do you justify your existence?” The guest then brings up a mystery which everyone gets a shot at solving. At the end of the story, it’s always Henry who comes up with the correct solution.

I love these stories. They’re brain teasers, and in rereading one of them I’m reminded that while Asimov was a bright guy, he had his limits, particularly when predicting the future.

(If you want to get into them, look at the last, posthumous book, “The Return of the Black Widowers.” It contains the last six stories he wrote, the 10 best from the other books, plus essays from Asimov’s friends. It appears Asimov’s publishers aren’t doing his heirs any good these days. None of them have an ebook version. There’s not even a complete collection of the 66 stories. Criminal!)

Fusion and Oil

Anyway, in “The Three Numbers,” from “More Tales of the Black Widowers,” Asimov uses the story to discuss one of his favorite subjects, fusion research, which he advocated as a solution for our energy needs. A scientist comes to the Black Widowers with a problem concerning an insane colleague’s safe that may hold the secret to creating fusion energy. He feels especially rushed to solve the mystery in time to replace oil before it runs out.

Here’s where Asimov fell short:

“That sounds as though you don’t think we can wait for the twenty-first century.”

“I see. I wish I could be optimistic on this point, sir,” said Puntsch gravely, “but I can’t. At the rate we’re going, our petroleum will be pretty much used up by 2000. Going back to coal will present us with a lot of problems and leaning on breeder fission reactors will involve the getting ride of enormous quantities of radioactive wastes. I would certainly feel uncomfortable if we don’t end up with working fusion reactors by, say, 2010.”

Or, to put it snarkily:

asimov oil prediction“The Three Numbers” was written in 1974, a time when hopes for a better future began to curdle. Along the way, we got the Arab oil embargo, which revealed to many how much we rely on the black stuff, and hopes that solar and fusion power (which Asimov also wrote about, optimistically) would eventually replace our need for oil.

Well, Asimov’s been gone for many years, and technological advances and new discoveries have pushed back his pessimistic date by many, many years. Fusion is still a pipe dream, and solar’s promises have yet to be fulfilled, at least not without massive government intervention.

The Problem With Predictions

The point is not to laugh at Isaac. He wasn’t alone in making predictions like this, so he’s in good company. This is to point out something about the nature of predictions. We tend to make them as if what happens today will always happen in the future. The future is expert at hiding new discoveries and different ways of thinking. Anyone who’s hung around and watched the news stream for the past 30 years or so can point to a number of predictions that have never come to pass, and damn few that have.

In fact, Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky published a book on this very subject. “The Experts Speak” is filled with authoritative predictions that never came to pass.

Be careful of any expert who claims to know the future, especially if they think laws should be based on them.

Like Clint Eastwood said, a man’s got to know his limits.

I like to think even Asimov would agree with that. Although he’d add that he should be the one to define his limits.