Alternative Scientific History

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Science asked its readers what one piece of scientific knowledge from today they would share, if they could go back in time, and how might it change the course of history?

The responses show an almost laughable ignorance of the real world:

If I could travel back in time, I would transport to Syracuse, Sicily, in 222 B.C.E. to introduce the fundamental theorem of calculus to Archimedes 10 years before his death. As the great mathematical genius of his era, he would have been most poised to understand and disseminate the knowledge of linking the concept of a derivate of a function with the concept of the integral.… So much technology of today, from the internal combustion engine to the principles of economics, has been made possible due to calculus.

The internal combustion engine was made possible due to calculus?

As the future scientific envoy, I have an audience with Emperor Qin and present my gift: Women are capable of doing the same thing as men; they even can do better. Certainly, with adequate data, glorious accomplishment stories, and plenty of examples, such as Madame Curie, Mrs. Thatcher, Deng Yaping, and Oprah Winfrey, I can convince Emperor Qin to give women more chances to receive education and give full play to their talent in science and technology, culture, politics, and the military. In that way, more than 2000 years later, China would surely be a super power stronger than today.…


I would go back to ancient Rome on the morning of 15 March, 44 B.C.E., to the steps of the Roman Senate, and share Bayes’ Theorem with Julius Caesar. In the days leading up to his assassination, Rome was awash with rumors of an assassination plot. According to legend, an old soothsayer had forewarned Caesar himself of a great danger that threatened him on the Ides of March, and Caesar’s own wife Calpurnia had a premonition of her husband’s murder and tried to warn him of the danger. But were these dark forebodings and dire prophecies just idle gossip (noise) or a credible forecast of the future (signal)? Given this uncertainty, I would advise Caesar to guess the prior probability of an assassination plot and then update his prior based on the sundry rumors swirling around Rome. Had Caesar applied Bayesian reasoning, it is likely he would have followed his wife’s advice and stayed home on that fateful day. Had he done so, Bayes’ Rule might have changed the course of history, for the Roman Republic might have yet been saved, and perhaps we would all still be speaking Latin.


In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia outlining the fundamentals of what quickly became called Newtonian mechanics. I would travel back to Cambridge, England, 5 years before this date and teach Einstein’s, theory of relativity to Isaac Newton. The obvious change in history resulting from this action would of course be a massive head start for the field of modern physics.… However, I would argue that a less obvious but possibly more important consequence of this historical change would be its effect on how we teach science. Currently, high school students and first year undergraduates are taught the limited version of physics discovered by Newton. Only students who choose to continue in the discipline learn Einstein’s more generalized form of mechanics and how classical mechanics is encompassed in this modern understanding. If Newton had discovered both his and Einstein’s contributions at the same time, the result would be an educational system that introduces a more complete view of physics to a wider audience of people from an earlier age.…

You see, more people would move beyond simple Newtonian physics, if only Newton had understood relativity! Clearly!

Instead of a piece of technical knowledge, I would share something that would provide perspective: the photo of Earth taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972. “The Blue Marble,” as it is often called, shows both the unity and finitude of the planet and its resources. The photo is emblematic of the modern environmental movement’s birth in the 1970s. I would bring this photo to early 19th-century Britain, during the Industrial Revolution, when consumption of Earth’s resources began to increase dramatically. Providing this information 150 years earlier would be an opportunity for the soon-to-be industrialized culture of western Europe to reconsider its relationship with the planet.

I’m sure early 19th-century Britain would react to the photo in the exact same way as late 20th-century America.

“Hello, Professors [Svante Arrhenius and Arvid Högbom], I travel back in time from 2013 to tell you that…since the early 20th century, Earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by about 0.8°C. The primary cause is greenhouse gases produced by human activities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that during the 21st century the global surface temperature is likely to rise another 1.1°C to 2.9°C, even for their lowest emissions scenario. Global warming isn’t just about things getting hotter; other changes include stormier, drier, and even colder conditions.” The next day, they wrote to the government and the scientific associations to call people’s attention to global warming and adaptations to eliminate it. Actions like reducing fossil fuel use, planting trees, and conserving water were known by people all over the world. Instead of destroying the planet, every single man on Earth began to protect and sustain it in their daily life.

I can imagine the swift Swedish reaction to the threat of mildly warmer temperatures.

I would choose Thomas Edison in the beginning of the year 1900 in New York City. I would describe the events of the future and how he and I could help keep our environment cleaner. I would give him designs to solar panels and hope that the future of solar technology would make America and other countries independent of oil production. Thomas Edison’s name alone could create Edison Panels that would be on every Victorian home in the world, especially in hard-to-reach locations…. Fewer trees would be cut, and the world would remain more rural and yet prosper from a new power source.

Edison supposedly did recommend harnessing the sun’s energy, for what it’s worth. Solar-thermal energy might be practical early in the Industrial Revolution, but photovoltaic would be a long, long way off.

I would be inclined to bring the Romans knowledge of movable type and paper, or maybe glasswork and lenses. I’m not sure that you can do much with an understanding of the heliocentric solar system, the periodic table, evolution, etc.


  1. Spandrell says:

    People should shut up and just read Lest Darkness Fall. Most fun novel I’ve ever read.

  2. Isegoria says:

    By the way, I’ve discussed ideas behind their time before.

  3. CMOT says:

    I’d go back to about 600 BC or so and see if I could get the germ theory of disease (and how to put it into practice) hardcoded into the Bible, early Buddhist texts, and into Lao Tsu’s (Laozi’s) writing.

  4. Don says:

    The topic reminds me of R.A. Lafferty’s tall tale “Rainbird“.

  5. William Newman says:

    Not all societies seem to jump on printing and movable type: look how slowly the mass publishing culture spread into places like the Near East. You might have a better chance introducing it in Greece a few hundred years earlier, or possibly in Islam in the early freewheeling decades before they started locking things down.

    A little book, Things Y’All Will Find Surprisingly Obvious In Hindsight, on Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations, the tricks of magnetic compass and knitting and the stirrup, the germ theory of disease, Mendelian genetics, trade for comparative advantage, and temporal stability of small oscillations might or might not make a big difference. Reasonable people can disagree about how much difference theory makes without a lot of hands-on expertise to transfer real-world knowledge; my guess is that would tend to make a big difference, but I’m not 100% sure.

  6. Toddy Cat says:

    Some of this stuff is just beyond belief. I mean, if the Emperor Qin could have seen Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Thatcher, he probably would have killed every literate woman in his empire, and forbidden women to so much as look at a book…

  7. Space Nookie says:

    I liked the combination of naked ethno-nationalism and clueless credulity shown by the chinese guy who was going to travel back to ancient China and deliver political correctness so that China could be a more powerful super power today. That kind of combination is hard to think of and shows a really special mind.

    Also, I’m pretty sure that if you wanted to travel back to 1935 to deliver A-bomb plans to Hitler, your response would not be published. I mean, I suspect whoever put this collection together had some pretty specific stuff they were looking for.

  8. James James says:

    “I’m not sure that you can do much with an understanding of the heliocentric solar system, the periodic table, evolution, etc.”

    Periodic table as part of an understanding of chemistry would be useful, no? Neal Stephenson has Enoch Root introduce quicksilver to the natural philosophers in The Baroque Cycle.

  9. James James says:

    William Newman makes a good suggestion about Mendelian genetics.

    CMOT, good suggestion about germs.

    Re: “the stirrup”: the real question is whom to introduce the knowledge to?

  10. Buckethead says:

    For maximum effect, give the stirrup to the Indo-European tribes at the start of their expansion.

  11. Alrenous says:

    I would go tell Hero of Alexandria to attach a drive train to his aeolipile. Anyone for an industrial revolution 1800 years ahead of schedule? Actually it wouldn’t be immediate. I might have to tell them about coal too, and wait for a labour shortage. Little point making an engine that costs more in wood to power than it can put out.

    William Newmann:

    The cost of Chinese printing is higher than European, 2000 characters minimum versus ~100. Further, they have to be bigger, since finer details need to be resolved. For printing to get into economic escape velocity, that is, self-sufficiency, the peasants need to be able to afford it, which puts a hard ceiling on how expensive the books can be. During the time China was figuring out printing, peasant wages were falling and possibly already lower than European wages.

  12. Spandrell says:

    China had woodblock printing since the 9th century. They developed movable type in the 11th century, but it was never economical as Alrenous says (it’s more like 10k characters, and woodblock carvers were plenty), so woodblock was mainstream up to recently.

    As a descendant of farmers I’m not sure inventing the stirrup before time would have been a good idea. Horse riders killed and harassed hundreds of millions of farmers, until effective gunpowder rifles were invented. If anything let us show gunpowder to the Egyptians or the Greeks.

  13. AAB says:

    The Greeks didn’t really need an internal combustion engine because they already had a steam-powered engine, the aeolipile that Aerenous mentioned.

    The crucial element that the academic people in the article seem to be totally ignorant of is human enjoyment in the particular theory or invention, the proverbial novelty factor. If people find a thing interesting or enjoyable then they’ll experiment and develop it. I guess that’s the reason why academics have the “dry academic” label stuck on them: because they lack awareness and experience of emotions.

  14. Isegoria says:

    The problem with a boon like germ theory is that it increases Malthusian pressure. The ideal boon would be something that increases the rate of innovation, so that productivity can increase faster than the population. You want to reach Malthusian Escape Velocity.

    If you introduce movable type to a large population with a shared (alphabetic) language, you can get somewhere.

  15. This is the result of decades of internalized propaganda about the superiority and victory of theoretical science over practical engineering. Nassim Taleb has shown over and over that most practical improvements in life have come from tinkering and engineering instead of the standard theory → practice we have been accustomed to believe.

  16. Marc Pisco says:

    By modern standards even the ancient Athenians were violent savages. None of those ancient maniacs would have done anything good with modern technology.

    On the other hand, they’d have used Oprah and Margaret Thatcher to pull a cart.

  17. Marc Pisco says:

    Maybe the ancients could have found a use for SJWs though, as field hands. Or food.

  18. Cassander says:

    If you’re going to give the Romans something, giving Augustus gunpowder is probably your best bet. They had the metallurgy to make guns, but it would be a 1000 or so years before anyone would accidentally trip over the chemistry to make powder. Guns were what eventually made it impossible for barbarian horse people to overrun settled peoples, so the entire history of late antiquity and the subsequent 1000 years goes out the window. And guns and gunpowder warfare were likely a significant catalyst for the Industrial Revolution.

  19. Buckethead says:

    Ideally, you’d want to maximize production and innovation and minimize increases to population growth. Then you’d have lots of rich people.

    Simple changes like the steel plows, three-field crop rotation systems, and maybe some techniques for crop hybridization. Wind and water power. Gears.

    Make research into medicine taboo. Discourage bathing. Make the rat a sacred animal. Import disease-bearing mosquitoes from the more unsavory parts of the world.

  20. Mike in Boston says:

    I guess it’s not surprising that the (modern urbanite) respondents are so completely out of touch with anything remotely practical. But geez, didn’t they read sci-fi as kids? Specifically:

    You know the old story– suppose you gave a radio to Aristotle? What would he do with it? Where would he find power? And what would he receive with no one to send? (Howard Fast, “The Large Ant”, 1960.)

    Sadder thing is, English monasteries were not all that far from producing cast iron on an industrial scale when Henry VIII stamped them out. It was true both then, and now: what’s needed is not miracle tech from the future, but just a less destructive political order.

  21. Lesser Bull says:

    I’m with CMOT. The extra Malthusian pressure may produce a more fit humanity, or at least lead to more interesting wars.

  22. Toddy Cat says:

    “Maybe the ancients could have found a use for SJWs though, as field hands. Or food”

    That’s a disgusting thought! I mean, have you ever seen SJWs?

  23. Marc Pisco says:

    Toddy Cat:

    The Spartans weren’t picky, but I see your point in general. There are limits to savagery.

  24. Isegoria says:

    From a Malthusian point of view, you want threats that kill the weak, like predators, rather than threats that weaken the strong, like malaria and similar diseases.

    Also, any one innovation is just a positive production shock, and the benefits only last until the population catches back up. What you want is an innovation that increases the rate of innovation, like the printing press.

  25. T. Greer says:

    Movable type is a good idea. From the perspective of my narrow historical interests, I wish the Chinese had it (and paper) a 1,000 years earlier.

    GMO seeds or nitrogen fertilizer before any of the catastrophic famines of history.

    The sections that say “metallurgy” and “steam power” in this article — give it to Song China. European society would not become peaceful enough to trust with that stuff for another five centuries anyway.

  26. Aretae says:

    Been thinking for a bit on this. For the Greeks: The watch that permitted open sea navigation? Some effective use of coal for mechanical energy?

    Cannons or other effective firearms to the pre Mongolian invasion Europeans? The industrial revolution seems to have been originally about cotton + coal.

  27. Isegoria says:

    The Greek galleys could only safely sail within sight of land, so measuring longitude wasn’t the real constraint. They might have learned quite a bit from a Portuguese caravel from the 1400s though.

  28. Harold says:

    I would go back to ancient Rome and tell everyone “Wake up sheeple! Lead is poison!”

    (Yes, this is a joke.)

  29. Isegoria says:

    I second Spandrell’s recommendation to read Lest Darkness Fall, which has our time-traveling hero introduce telegraphy without electricity to ancient Rome.

  30. Bruce says:

    I’d third Spandrell’s Lest Darkness Fall, and suggest the edition that came out back to back with David Drake’s, um, prequel. I’d like to see a sword and sandals and velocipedes movie: imagine Brad Pitt grabbing mad air as he swift-footedly spears Hector.

    But giving gunpowder to Rome? Their city gates would be hoist with their own petards. Every roving band of Vikings would carry a black powder keg — there wouldn’t be a grain bin left secure in Western Europe. Everyone starves. All die. O the embarrassment!

  31. Isegoria says:

    My copy included David Drake’s To Bring the Light, in which a later Roman gets transported back to Rome’s founding.

  32. Cargosquid says:

    Principles of sanitation and germ theory AND the pill.

    You get fewer but healthier people, with more children living to adulthood.

  33. Marc Pisco says:


    What are the advantages of all that to a society?

  34. Isegoria says:

    Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court has that “Wake up sheeple!” tone, but in a 19th-century Yankee style. I had always assumed his Yankee was bringing back scientific and technical prowess, when, really, the book is about bringing Democracy, Abolition, and Freedom of (or from) Religion to the oppressed Masses.

  35. Edward M. says:

    On the subject of germ theory, it seems to have been around for longer than we generally realise. Not only is there this passage in Varro, but Anglo-Saxon medical theory attributed some ailments to the activity inside the body of creatures too small to be seen by the naked eye, to which were applied the catch-all Germanic term for creepy-crawlies: “worms.” Toothache was caused by the tooth-worm, pains in the finger joints by the hand-worm, etc. You would almost think that someone had tried to introduce germ theory to the ancients, but that it had slowly been assimilated to the existing cultural context… :)

  36. James James says:

    “Democracy, Abolition, Freedom and T???” (DAFT)

  37. Rollory says:

    The steam engine and the Bessemer process (you need that to make the first worthwhile), and basic hygiene. Of course, to communicate those sorts of engineering concepts, one must first understand them, which most today don’t.

    Here is a very relevant item, the Twilight Zone episode “Of Late I Think Of Cliffordville“.

  38. Isegoria says:

    I don’t think I ever saw that episode as a child. (It’s available in high quality through Hulu, by the way.)

  39. M-16s to Robert E. Lee. No, wait, is that a good idea? Not original to me, of course.

  40. Isegoria says:

    I haven’t read The Guns of the South (yet), but I do recall that the South Africans from the future bring back AK-47s.

    I’d be inclined to bring back an early Maxim gun, which was originally designed for blackpowder — although the North would be in a much better position to produce cartridges for it.

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