Did you know that Magnesium Diboride (MgB2) was first synthesized in 1953 and that it was discovered that it superconducts at a temperature of 39K in 2001? So what you might think. It’s just an obscure compound of little interest. However, it could have been made, and this property discovered, over 100 years ago. The fact that up until the 1980s the temperature record holder for any superconducting material was about half that of MgB2 makes it rather interesting. Something rather important to science was missed for decades. What else has been overlooked?
Well, in the superconductor arena the biggie was the discovery in the 1980s of the Yttrium Barium Copper Oxide superconductors whose transition temperature was higher than 77K, which was revolutionary. However, we can let off those careless physicists for missing these because it took a dedicated almost random search to find them. Nevertheless, there is one HUGE oversight for which there is no excuse – Buckeyballs, aka Fullerenes.
These are a unique form of carbon, probably the most studied element in all of chemistry. Up until it was discovered, again in the mid 1980s, everyone was taught that there were three forms of carbon – amorphous (eg charcoal), graphite and diamond. So, it must be difficult to make? Well… no. Just create an arc between carbon rods in an inert atmosphere and dissolve the soot in one of several possible common solvents. It could have been done anytime after 1840 or thereabouts. Of course, they could not have determined its structure but they would certainly have known it was a new form of carbon. By the 1930s they would probably have used X-ray crystallography to find out that they were built like spherical cages. As in modern times, it is likely that carbon nanotubes would have been found next. By the 1960s we might have been as advanced as we are now. Fifty years lost – at least!
Which raises two obvious questions. The first being:
What exists now that could have come earlier?
Things like, for example, the pulse jet engine of V1 Flying Bomb fame which could have been created anytime after 1840 (in its valveless incarnation). Along with powered flight arriving in 1860 instead of some forty years later.
Or perhaps someone might have created a hybrid rocket motor using rubber, or pitch, and liquid Nitrous Oxide by 1870 and we would have seen short range ballistic missiles being used in the Franco-Prussian War. Not quite V2 standard, but maybe a bit more like the old Soviet Frog 7 with a range of 70km and a warhead of half a tonne.
That’s assuming V1 style cruise missiles had not yet been created from the pulse jets… The downside would have been that firing it from a horse drawn carriage might have frightened the animals.
Even this would not have been as amazing as the real historical 1779 design of a Hydrogen-Oxygen rocket engine by Erasmus Darwin, which was ignored for quite some time…
There is even some speculation that when Faraday was experimenting with high voltage electrical discharges in gasses that he might have created a laser, but failed to recognize it. That was the 1830s. The most likely candidate would have been a Nitrogen laser that emits in pulses in the ultraviolet. Of course, he would needed to have got lucky and have the beam impinge on something that fluoresces, so we can probably forgive him for that one. That latter lucky accident was incidentally how X-rays were discovered. How would the world be different if the laser than been invented one hundred years earlier than it was?
There is in fact an amusing series of stories of a Victorian super-inventor who does all kinds of experiments way ahead of their time, usually with disastrous results. The Ernest Glitch Chronicles are well worth a read.
Moving on to medicine there are a whole slew of beneficial things that were missed, usually because nobody bothered to investigate or ignored people who did. This is especially true of drugs and some once common diseases.
One famous example is the scourge of advertising executives in US sitcoms set in the 50s and 60s – the peptic ulcer. It supposedly came as one of the side effects of a high powered, high flying and stressful lifestyle, which caused an acid buildup that painfully attacked the stomach lining. Naturally Big Pharma was on to it immediately, so widespread was the problem. They came up with a whole range of profitable drugs designed to lower acid levels, if taken over a long and costly period of time. It was only in 1982 that Barry Marshall and Robin Warren made the heretical suggestion that it was not lifestyle that caused the problem but a common bacterium named Helicobacter Pylori and that up to ninety percent of ulcers could be cured by a simple one-off course of antibiotics. In the end, they got a Nobel Prize and the pharmaceutical industry got a drop in profits.
Another example is the use of aspirin to both treat and prevent myocardial infarction (heart attacks).
Lawrence Craven had published several papers on its efficacy in the late 1940s but it took more than forty years before this became common knowledge. Just the single fact that if you are having a heart attack you should chew an aspirin could have saved tens of thousands of lives in the meantime. Indeed, another fact “overlooked” until recently would seem to be that aspirin is a potent anti-cancer drug.
Moving on a bit, let’s look at the reverse of the above stories. Namely, inventions that arrived ahead of their time sometimes with equally unpleasant consequences both direct and indirect. The classic examples are nuclear power and manned spaceflight.
The basic knowledge of nuclear fission involving Uranium were in place in the 1930s and had it not been for WW2 and the Manhattan Project the development would likely have gone considerably more slowly. Arguably, the first experimental reactors might have appeared in the 1950s based upon graphite and heavy water. These would have been commercialized for power generation while the properties of the Plutonium generated in the process was examined. At that point several nations might have made Plutonium fission weapons using explosive lenses designed to create the necessary rapid implosion, and probably succeeded around 1970. However, at that point commercial reactor design would not have made Plutonium breeding a priority objective as happened in our timeline. As a result, we might have ended up with safer nuclear power which was not linked in the public mind to weapons and images of mushroom clouds.
The argument about manned spaceflight is somewhat different, where our starting point was a missing Kennedy speech about landing on the moon, and where the space race did not exist. In that case we might have seen the logical progression almost all scientists, engineers and science fiction authors initially envisaged. First, the work on hypersonic flight undertaken in the 1950s would have resulted in a viable spaceplane perhaps as early as 1975. From there a space station would have been constructed by the mid 90s and a moon landing attempted around 2000. There would have been no rush to the moon with one shot throwaway hardware, nor would there have been an effective halt to interplanetary manned flight as happened after the last moon landing in 1972. Indeed, in our alternate reality nuclear rocket programs like NERVA would not have been canceled and by now we would be on our way to Mars. Instead we wasted forty years.
What does not exist now that could have come earlier?
This is obviously a much more difficult “what if”, since it needs a knowledge we do not yet possess. However, I would like to offer a candidate – practical controlled nuclear fusion.
As the saying goes, commercial nuclear fusion is fifty years away, and has been for the past fifty years. It is clearly a difficult problem and we are only now getting to the point where ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is schedule to beginning test burns in 2020. Real commercial reactors are expected to come twenty or more years later.
The problem is that we have put nearly all our eggs in the basket labeled “Tokamak”, the configuration upon which almost all the billions of R&D money has been spent. Just from an engineering point of view it is a nightmare of complexity and many engineers believe that if such Tokamak reactors are built the cost of electricity they generate will be excessive. Which begs the question: what alternatives might have been better? It’s not that there is a shortage of fusion schemes. One of the best alternatives is probably the Bussard Polywell device which is a derivative of the Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor . The latter was originally constructed in 1964 and because of its simplicity can be built by hobbyists. Unfortunately only a tiny fraction of the money being poured into Tokamak designs is available for the alternatives – possibly one of the greatest mistakes in history.
What could exist now except we do not have a clue…?
This is a variant of the question facing all time travelers – what anachronistic super-science device could I build using only the primitive technology of 2014? Any ideas?