In an attempt to periodically provoke discussion on various issues, our overlords at Seed plan on posing questions to us ScienceBloggers. The first question, which some of us have already answered is this:
If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?
At first, I was going to go with RPM‘s answer (and Razib’s almost answer), nuclear weapons. But then I thought about it again, and changed my mind. For one thing, it is unlikely that nuclear power would have been invented without the prior development of nuclear weapons. But, more importantly, it is very likely that there would have been a World War III that would have been even bloodier than World War II had mutually assured destruction not stayed the hands of the leaders of both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. And let us not forget that conventional bombing during World War II was quite capable of leveling cities and killing tens of thousands in a single night, with, for example, the firebombing of Tokyo killing more people than the bomb did at Hiroshima. There’s no reason to think that the destructive capacity of warfare wouldn’t have continued to increase, even without nuclear weapons.
So what would I choose now?
I’m tempted to choose the internal combustion engine, in the naive hope that, had it not been invented, some other form of power for transportation might have been developed that does not rely on a non-renewable resource that requires us to be dependent on despotic regimes in unstable parts of the world and leads us into wars that we almost certainly would not engage in if we didn’t need oil so much; cause so much pollution; and so radically alter our cities.
Of course, that takes the risk that a suitable substitute wouldn’t have been developed by the time I was born. (And I like driving.) It also takes the risk that whatever substitute that would have been developed wouldn’t have been worse than vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.
Ah, hell. I think I’m with PZ on this one. It’s a hypothetical question that no answer to is likely to sound plausible.