Wednesday, January 02, 2008

In Memory: Isaac Asimov

Today is Wednesday, 2 January 2008.

Writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov was born on this date in 1920. He died in 1992.

Today's column in his memory is written by HH's old friend, Preem Palver.

If you don’t know Asimov's work, read The Foundation Trilogy, which I read in the early ‘60s in elementary school, and which has had a profound effect on me.

He posited a discipline called “psychohistory”, a combination of sociology, anthropology, history, political economy, and probabilistic mathematics, among others things, which could analyze the dynamics of large human societies, thus introducing the possibility of positive intervention.

On September 25, 1987, Asimov gave an interview to Terry Gross on her National Public Radio program, Fresh Air.

In it, Gross asked him about psychohistory:

Gross: "What did you have in mind when you coined the term and the concept?"

Asimov: "Well, I wanted to write a short story about the fall of the Galactic Empire. I had just finished reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [for] the second time, and I thought I might as well adapt it on a much larger scale to the Galactic Empire and get a story out of it. And my editor John Campbell was much taken with the idea, and said he didn't want it wasted on a short story. He wanted an open-ended series so it lasts forever, perhaps. And so I started doing that. In order to keep the story going from story to story, I was essentially writing future history, and I had to make it sufficiently different from modern history to give it that science fictional touch. And so I assumed that the time would come when there would be a science in which things could be predicted on a probabilistic or statistical basis."

Gross: "Do you think that would be good if there really was such a science?"

Asimov: "Well, I can't help but think it would be good, except that in my stories, I always have opposing views. In other words, people argue all possible... all possible... ways of looking at psychohistory and deciding whether it is good or bad. So you can't really tell. I happen to feel sort of on the optimistic side. I think if we can somehow get across some of the problems that face us now, humanity has a glorious future, and that if we could use the tenets of psychohistory to guide ourselves we might avoid a great many troubles. But on the other hand, it might create troubles. It's impossible to tell in advance."


Anonymous Hari said...

If you are registered at the NY Times, near and dear to HH's (or PP's) heart, you can listen to the Terry Gross interview with Dr. Asimov here. There are also links to article and reviews.

Preen Palaver? Wasn't he a politician?

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Hari said...

The same interview is in MP3 format here.

3:31 AM  

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