In the spring of 1979, a Free Press reporter struck out west on the Trans-Canada highway. He’d gotten a tip, about a Brandon University physicist who had secured a federal grant to build a new laboratory; he wanted to check it out.
At the time, Manfred Jager had been at the newspaper for nearly a decade and had worked as a reporter almost 20 years. He often covered science stories, and was accustomed to researchers explaining the bright horizons of their field.
So when he met physicist Ronald Dong, and listened to the professor describe his work on liquid crystal technology, Jager nodded along. The practical applications Dong described sounded "perfectly reasonable," Jager recalls.
When Jager returned to the Free Press office, he began typing out the story. On May 1, 1979, the story appeared under the headline: "Some day slim TV set will be hung on wall."
In retrospect, the story reads almost like prophecy, but no magic was involved. In the future, Dong told Jager, colour television screens would be big, but lightweight. The images they showed would be clear and bright, even in sunlight.
Most fantastical of all, Dong said, was that while the screen would be wide, everything else about the television sets would be very small: "As flat as the oil painting or reproduction now on your living room wall," Jager wrote.
At the time, this all sounded like a wild prediction. In the late 1970s, televisions were bulky contraptions, burdened by cathode-ray tubes. When Dong described the future of television sets to laypeople, they didn’t always believe him.
"They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re dreaming on,’" he says now with a laugh. "But that’s how science develops, right?"
Well, we all know by now his vision of ubiquitous flat-screen TVs was no dream. Yet that story ran almost 10 years before the first LCD television was introduced to market, and 27 years before the format became dominant.
So that gap, that time elapsed between what researchers such as Dong knew and what the rest of the world only dreamed: that is the power of science to build a crystal-clear image of a future that most of us cannot see.
More than 38 years after that story ran, both Jager and Dong were surprised to hear from a Free Press reporter; a colleague had unearthed the story while doing a routine search of the paper’s digitized archives.
Dong retired from Brandon University in 2007 and returned to Vancouver, where he’d earned his PhD. (As with many academics, the word "retired" is relative; he still helps lead research as an honorary professor at the University of British Columbia.)
Yet he remembers well those early years at Brandon. He landed there in 1978 as an assistant professor and soon clinched a $71,500 grant to help build a nuclear magnetic resonance lab (the impetus for Jager’s story).
By then, Dong had a special interest in liquid crystal research. He fell into the field almost by accident: shortly after he finished his PhD in 1969, a UBC professor returned from sabbatical in Switzerland bearing an unusual yellow liquid.
The professor asked a colleague if they could get someone in the nuclear magnetic resonance lab to examine it. So Dong’s supervisor presented him with the liquid and asked him to take a look: the fluid was a type of liquid crystal.
It wasn’t a new concept back then; scientists had been aware of liquid crystals since the beginning of the 20th century. It remained a scientific curiosity, but largely under-studied for decades. Researchers played with it, but saw few practical applications.
But in the 1960s, researchers began looking at liquid crystal with renewed interest; by 1962, electronics giant RCA began investigating it as a potential base for future flat-panel displays. Still, much work had to be done to get there.
That is where scientists like Dong came in.
Alongside thousands of other scientists around the globe, Dong’s research team worked to better understand how liquid crystals operate and how their power can be harnessed.
(Dong, by the way, remembers when LCD televisions first hit the market: it was exciting to see the concept explode into the real world. "I wanted to buy one," he says with a laugh. "But when it came out, they were too expensive.")
Today, that research is still ongoing. The holy grails now, Dong says, include liquid crystals that can be used in smart materials or that can be switched at a higher rate, to produce even sharper and more dynamic images.
For some of us, it’s hard to imagine how television images could be sharper than today’s high-definition pictures. They’re already so vibrant and clearly-defined. Yet where our imagination reaches its limits, science keeps rolling.
"It’s always possible," Dong says. "That’s the dream of scientists, they always want to help people to enjoy life better, to understand the world better... all scientists have insight. Sometimes the insight works, sometimes it doesn’t."
Or consider this: today, Jager remembers another story he wrote, when an MTS employee explained a new "cellular telephone" technology. After listening to the man’s explanation, Jager returned to his desk in the old Free Press building on Carlton Street.
"I started writing my story, and told all those around me within earshot that this was the craziest idea I had ever encountered," Jager recalls. "I told them that this would never work, that there just wouldn’t be any takers."
Not long after, he was in England, sitting on a bench in London’s Trafalgar Square. A man sat down next to him, holding a massive contraption to his ear. The thing was nearly a foot long, it seemed.
"Is that a walkie-talkie?" Jager asked.
The man shook his head. "No, it’s a cellphone," he said, and placed the heavy object in Jager’s hand.
Humans have always been transfixed by prediction. Prophecy and clairvoyance has long found its way into myth, spiritual practice and fiction. We ache for the ability to look into the future and discover where we are going.
Yet that power is already with us, in a sense. Over and over again, science shows us that it has the power to see future worlds and incoming ways of human life, long before they have been wrangled into everyday existence.
What else is science trying to tell us — that we should be listening to carefully — about the future?