In a Science Center lecture hall at Harvard, anthropologist Rowan Flad heats a hot metal poker and touches it to a goat scapula.
The ancient Chinese, he explains, used a ritual similar to this as a means of divination. As early as 4000 B.C., they attempted to predict the future by reading the patterns created after the bone cracked from the poker’s heat.
Part of what makes us human is our desire to learn our own future. Throughout recorded history, people have sought ever-more-powerful methods of Prediction. In ancient times, sheep were sacrificed and priests read signs from the gods in their entrails; revered oracles were consulted; and astrologers read the future in the heavens. Great scholars began to debate determinism vs. free will–is there a pre-ordained future, or do our own actions affect the future?–and that debate has never really ended. Today’s arguments over whether...
Alyssa Goodman is the Robert Wheeler Willson Professor of Applied Astronomy at Harvard University, and a Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution. Goodman's research and teaching interests span astronomy, data visualization, and online systems for research and education.