The Copernicus Method
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott was visiting the Berlin Wall in 1969 when a curious thought occurred to him. His visit occurred at a random moment in the wall’s existence. So it seemed reasonable to assume that there was a 50 percent chance that he was observing it in the middle two quarters of its lifetime. “If I was at the beginning of this interval, then one-quarter of the wall’s life had passed and three-quarters remained,” he wrote later in New Scientist. “On the other hand, if I was at the end of of this interval, then three-quarters had passed and only one-quarter lay in the future. In this way I reckoned that there was a 50 per cent chance the wall would last from 1/3 to 3 times as long as it had already.”

At the time, the wall was 8 years old, so Gott concluded that there was a 50 percent chance that it would last more than 2-2/3 years but fewer than 24. The 24 years would have elapsed in 1993. The wall came down in 1989.

Encouraged, Gott applied the same principle to estimate the lifetime of the human race. In an article published in Nature in 1993, he argued that there was a 95 percent chance that our species would survive for between 5,100 and 7.8 million years.

When and whether the method is valid is still a matter of debate among physicists and philosophers. But it’s worth noting that on the day Gott’s paper was published, he used it to predict the longevities of 44 plays and musicals on and off Broadway. His accuracy rate was more than 90 percent.