TCS Daily

Ahead of Their Time

By Kenneth Silber - May 4, 2005 12:00 AM

It is not uncommon for people to make important intellectual or artistic achievements and be recognized for them only long after the fact -- indeed, sometimes long after their own lives. Johannes Kepler formulated the laws of planetary motion, but died in relative poverty and obscurity in 1631. Friedrich Nietzsche was a little-known philosopher during his career, starting to gain notice only after he was too mentally ill to know it. Edgar Allan Poe died in complete obscurity. Herman Melville was a popular writer early in his career but was largely forgotten by the time of his death, as was his novel Moby Dick.

There is no reason to think this pattern of belated recognition has ended. More likely, various people active during the past century will be seen in coming decades (or centuries) as having made contributions of an importance and value not fully appreciated at first. It is an interesting, albeit speculative, exercise to think about who such people might be. Below I offer some candidates: four people (living or dead) whose ideas could have a major impact in the 21st century and beyond, such that they will be seen as having been ahead of their time:

Peter E. Glaser (1923-). Glaser pioneered the field of space solar power, which may become a crucial solution to the world's energy problems. Born in Czechoslovakia, Glaser came to the United States in 1948 and worked most of his career at consulting firm Arthur D. Little. In 1968, he published a paper in the journal Science explaining how solar power satellites would work: orbiting arrays would capture solar energy unimpeded by Earth's atmosphere and transmit it to ground stations as usable electricity. The possibility of such an abundant, pollution-free power supply received attention during the 1970s energy crises, but was largely dismissed as too costly. However, improving technology and lower launch costs, combined with rising energy demand, promise to change that equation. Revived interest in space solar power has included variations such as placing solar panels on the moon.

Alexander Luria (1902-1977). Luria was a Russian psychologist who believed human cognition could be understood only by looking at multiple levels -- the workings of the brain, combined with the social and cultural environment. His early work on perception, along with his Jewish background, forced him to keep a low profile under Stalin's regime. (Luria's telegram that "tribesman have no illusions," meaning Uzbek tribesmen did not perceive the same optical illusions as Russians, was seen as possibly having a veiled political meaning.) In the West, meanwhile, psychology was dominated by Freudian psychodynamics or the behaviorist view of humans as automatons. Luria's approach ultimately helped give rise to modern neuropsychology, and his influence could play out further as scientists and philosophers grapple with the nature of the mind.

René Dubos (1901-1982). A microbiologist and author, Dubos was an early innovator of antibiotics (and early to recognize that their overuse could lead to drug resistance). His work on soil bacteria in the 1930s led to the development of tyrothricin, the first commercially manufactured antibiotic. In later decades, Dubos turned increasingly to environmental issues, emphasizing that people and technology could improve the environment. Dubos pointed to ecological success stories such as the transformation of New York City's Jamaica Bay from garbage dump to bird sanctuary. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his book So Human an Animal, and his phrase "Think globally, act locally" was widely quoted, but its suggestion of decentralized decision-making was often lost on environmental regulators and activists. Dubos' optimism was a discordant note in 20th-century environmentalism, but may find new resonance in the 21st century.

Valerie L. Thomas (1943-). During her career at NASA from 1964 to 1995, Thomas developed and managed systems for transmitting data and images from space. She worked on projects including Landsat, the first civilian satellites to image the Earth. Intrigued by a science exhibit that used mirrors to show a light bulb that was seemingly lit but unplugged, Thomas set out to research the possibilities for creating and transmitting three-dimensional images. In 1980, she received a patent for her "illusion transmitter," a device that uses concave mirrors to produce realistic, 3D scenes (like watching television but with the characters standing in your living room). Such technology may prove useful in fields ranging from entertainment to surgery. And if anything like the Star Trek holodeck ever comes into existence, Thomas' illusion transmitter will be celebrated as an early precursor.


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