Today's Big News Won't Be Known for Years

There's a lot of great news happening right now. We just won't know about it for a while.


Two notable events took place on Oct. 28, 1914. The New York Times reported about the first of them a couple of days later, under the headline "Mosquet Sunk by Emden; Paris Hears the French Destroyer Made a Gallant Fight." The Battle of Penang would go down in history as one of the lesser skirmishes of WWI.

Also on that day, a child was born to an Ashkenazi Jewish couple who had emigrated from Poland to New York. Eventually their son, Jonas Salk, would develop the first polio vaccine—but his birth went unremarked.

Few Americans today may recall the terror polio could instill; the AIDS crisis of the 1980s might be the closest comparison. Polio attacked tens of thousands of children annually. In 1952 the U.S. had 52,000 cases; more than 3,000 victims died of it and more than 21,000 were paralyzed. When the polio vaccine's success was announced, the public reacted as if a war had just been won—which, in a way, it had. (Still, the U.S. would not fully eradicate polio until 1979.)

On Sept. 27, 1960, Americans discussed the big news of the night before: the first televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Meanwhile Robert Noyce, Jay Last and a handful of other scientists were creating the first semiconductor integrated circuit—thereby making possible today's computers, smartphones and countless other digital devices. It was a quantum leap beyond ENIAC, an "advanced" computer that weighed many tons, had 18,000 vacuum tubes and took up as much space as a small house. For ENIAC's 50th anniversary it was replicated on a modern computer chip roughly one inch square.

In 1995, Americans glued themselves to their TV sets—the advent of America Online and Prodigy did not yet permit livestreaming—to watch the O.J. Simpson trial, which started three weeks after the GOP took control of Congress. Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City killed scores; massacres in Rwanda killed thousands. Israelis and Palestinians reached an accord to hand over the West Bank to Arab control, thereby ensuring everlasting peace in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, an unemployed single mother on welfare was pecking away on a manual typewriter, finishing up the first book about a boy named Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling's series eventually would delight nearly the entire world (it has been translated into 74 languages), sell more than 450 million copies, and the movies would outperform even the Star Wars franchise at the box office.

So you never know.

This isn't to say politics and public affairs leave no mark on the world. Of course they do—and the wrong kinds of policies can do catastrophic harm. Who knows how many works of genius died in Treblinka's gas chambers, Russian gulags, Chinese laogai, or the civil war in Congo?

Still. Political history may be cyclical, or random, or teleological, but science and technology move in only one direction: forward. While we're arguing over Donald Trump's verbal flatulations and Hillary Clinton's emails—while Syrian president Bashar Assad and the Islamic State are competing for the title of Worst Butcher in the Islamic World—scientists 300 feet below the border between Switzerland and France are teasing out the secrets of the universe. They are searching for dark matter particles, and evidence of supersymmetry, and other mysteries with the help of the Large Hadron Collider, which, says Discover Magazine, "recreates the energetic environment of the first thousandth of a billionth of a second of the universe's existence." The LHC already has found the Higgs boson, the "God particle," which helps explain mass and whose existence was predicted 50 years ago.

Let that marinate for a moment. Before the first semiconductor integrated circuit was invented, scientists constructed mathematical models that enabled them to predict—correctly!—the existence of a subatomic particle that would be found only with the help of a supercollider whose construction would not begin until 1998. And what did you do at work today?

This week the Nobel Prize for physics went to two scientists few had ever heard of who showed that neutrinos have mass. Late last month scientists announced they had set a new record for quantum teleportation, transmitting photons instantaneously over 60 miles. What do these things mean for the average Joe in the street? Come back in a couple of decades for the answer.

Right now there's a young woman sitting in a Starbucks somewhere, ignoring the dirty looks from the baristas who are mad that she's rented a desk and five hours of free Wi-Fi for the price of an iced latte. But a few months from now she's going to launch the next Uber. Or find a cure for sickle-cell anemia. Or rock the world with a new sound that makes today's music seem like the tinny tune from a jack-in-the-box.

Right now the next Albert Einstein is figuring out cold fusion. The next Faulkner or Orwell or Tolkien is jotting down his big idea. The next Steve Jobs just finished her third-grade spelling test. The Gandhi of the Islamic world just woke up from a nap.

There's a lot of great news happening today. We just won't know about it for a while.