Sir Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

--Of Studies--

Second Foundation - Physics versus Psychics

~1100 words

New Interesting Words!

Licentious - adj - Unconcerned with law or moral standards, especially a lack of sexual restraint

Crinoline - noun - a type of petticoat resembling a hoop skirt (19th century fasion)

For the past few years I have made it my business to familiarize myself with the important authors of science fiction. I have read selections from the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Orson Scott Card, and I am currently puttering my way through Issac Asimov's Foundation series.

In case you are not familiar with Asimov, he wrote a number of influential works, including the foundation series (naturally), the "greater" foundation series, which includes the foundation, robot and galactic empire series, and some of his works were made into fairly famous movies. You might remember "I, Robot" starring Will Smith, and "Bicentennial Man" starring Robin Williams. He established his reputation in the pulp science fiction magazines writing short stories, and by the age of 21 he wrote 'Nightfall', a work of social science fiction that brought him to the forefront of science fiction.

Some weeks ago now I finished Second Foundation, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The thing that amused me was not so much his wry wit (which was also very funny) as his deft and shameless plot contortions.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the the series, the Foundation, after which the series of books is named, is a scientific society dedicated to the physical sciences, planted at the end of the galaxy. The Galactic Empire, which has held for thousands of years, is crumbling, and this one beacon of enlightenment will shorten the thirty thousand years of barbarism after the fall of the empire to a mere millennium. All of this is based in a predictive, statistical science called "psychohistory", which can predict social trends for large groups thousands of years into the future. Somewhere in the middle of the second book (Second Foundation is the third ironically enough), a mutant, unpredictable by statistical methods, conquers the Foundation. That being done, the only thing left to do is to chase the rumor of a second foundation, which was concealed upon its inception. It's almost an underworld of intergalactic politics, a concealed organization dedicated to the preservation of "mental science", which includes psychohistory.

They communicate with their minds, inferring entire sentences from small facial gestures. At least that's the first theory. Later on Asimov seems almost to change his mind, relying the a latent psychic ability of the human animal.

The first Foundation is dedicated to the physical sciences. Anti-gravity ships, hand held nuclear devices, ray guns, that sort of standard sci-fi fare. These are all natural extensions of the sorts of things we have today. In these instances I always find it more interesting what a sci-fi author doesn't predict, as opposed to what he does.

For example, the Foundation universe is analog. People still use paper, data is stored strictly in read/write devices, and people do their math by hand. This is the future before the pocket calculator. Somewhere near the end he goes on for a whole paragraph about this device he has that is so much better than it's primitive ancient-earth version. The device? the logarithmic slide rule.

Completely analog. Also fantastic. The slide rule (in the right hands) can calculate multiplication, division, trigonometric ratios, square roots, logarithms, and more, depending on the model. They used these all the time in the days before the scientific calculator. Reading about slide rules sixty gazillion years in the future made me giggle like a little girl.

The physicists are pitted against the psychics, who are guardians of the "Seldon Plan", a map through history of the Foundation's sociopolitical status. The idea is that today's encephalographic analysis plus the then burgeoning science of psychology yields scientific control over the mind. Once the first foundation re-establishes centralized galactic government, the second foundation will swoop in and become the ultra-intelligent ruling class that, by virtue of their powers over the minds of their proletariat, will rule indefinitely. Most of these mind games, interestingly enough, concern not blatant thought control, idea implanting or mind reading, but emotional control. That is, control over a subject's emotional state. Best way to stop rebellion? Give your troops an artificial loyalty to the cause. Best way to conceal your existence? Make everyone in the vicinity completely unconcerned with you.

Mind powers, unfortunately, have fallen into disfavour (even ill repute) in most science fiction these days. Having read this book, I can hypothesize a few theories which my commenters are more than welcome to prove false if they so desire. First, psychic powers are not scientific enough for science fiction. The whole "latent ability" argument doesn't really hold water because if it were true we would never have invented manual communication. Dolphins are a possibility though. Second, it is more difficult for a reader to sympathize with a character that is fundamentally distinct from normal human experience. You can't just say, "your brain is not capable of understanding this exchange", and expect the reader to say "wow! that's pretty awesome". They are more likely to say "wow! Now I don't know what to think." Third, the science of biochemistry and molecular biology has more or less demystified many of the gray areas authors of all sorts liked to play in. I would love to digress into how neurology has killed the ghost in the machine, but I'll save that for another post..

The Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Definitely worth the read.

PS: I noticed as I was writing this, the words "physics" and "Psychics" are almost anagrams of one another. All "physics" needs is another 'c'.

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