How the eyes of Nostradamus saw the future

Nostradamus, who died on July 2nd, 1566, was an apothecary and a physician before he turned his attention to predicting the future. From 1550 he wrote at least one Almanac a year, containing between them nearly 6.500 prophecies. He is remembered today mostly for “The Prophecies” (1555), which is cast as a series of French quatrains (verses) that claim to predict how world events will unfold.

The reception was mixed, in that some thought him a servant of Satan, while others hailed his divine insights. Catherine de' Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, was an admirer, and bestowed royal favour upon him. Many of his prophecies are lifted from other authors, including classical texts, in an age when plagiarism was not regarded as abnormal, or even unethical. His language is so obscure, couched in ambiguous terms, that to modern eyes it reads more like the astrology columns in newspapers than it resembles serious futurology.

While popular culture thrives upon his alleged foretelling of major events subsequent to his own life, academics have revealed that most of the copies and translations of his works are spurious, altered after the fact to make them seem better and clearer than they were. At a scientific level he is not thought to have had any prophetic powers.

His prophecies mostly dealt with natural or human disasters such as earthquakes and outbreaks of plague, or of wars and conquests. He is alleged to have predicted the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, and Donald Trump, plus both world wars, and the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Usually people look at the events of their own time, and interpret Nostradamus in ways that make it seem he predicted them. Thus he is credited with foretelling the moon landing in 1969, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, and the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. He didn’t.

None of his quatrains has been interpreted to predict a specific event before it occurred, except than in ambiguous terms that could equally apply to any number of other events. To gain a genuine reputation, the prophet or futurologist has to be more specific.

My own method of predicting future progress is largely based on looking to what people want to achieve, and estimating if people are prepared to commit the resources and the effort. Because, like Julian Simon, I think human creativity is the ultimate limitless resource, I think humanity will usually achieve the things it wants badly enough.

In “Britain and the World in 2050,” I list specific achievements I think likely to be accomplished, many of them much sooner than that. It is a world of cheap energy, abundant water and food, many diseases conquered, pilotless aerial taxis, and with enviable opportunities and choices. Of course, the media went to town on the mammoths, dodos and dinosaurs, as I knew they would.