Krugman's Foundation

This Newsweek article about Nobel Prize-winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman contained an interesting biographical detail:

Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the “Foundation” series—”It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, ‘See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism’.”

His Yale was “not George Bush’s Yale,” he says—no boola-boola, no frats or secret societies, rather “drinking coffee in the Economics Department lounge.” Social science, he says, offered the promise of what he dreamed of in science fiction—”the beauty of pushing a button to solve problems. Sometimes there really are simple solutions: you really can have a grand idea.”

This struck me because I read Asimov’s original three foundation novels several times when I was in high school, yet the one thing that always really bothered me about the books was the idea that Hari Seldon and his psychohistorians could calculate out with precision everything that would happen for centuries. And even granted this determinist vision, it bothered me even more that the one great unpredictable factor was the character named The Mule, whom Seldon’s equations could not predict the actions of because the Mule was a mutant and thus inherently a creature of randomness rather than predictability. The absurd premise and the absurd exception to it gnawed at me, though the great virtue of the books is that they are among the small number of science fiction books with the sort of grant historical sweep which a devotee of history cannot help but enjoy.

It’s interesting to me that it was precisely the element of Foundation which I always disliked which attracted Krugman. And perhaps allows me to claim that my political aversion to the idea of the centralized technocratic view of politics is a philosophy that runs fairly deep.

6 Responses to Krugman's Foundation

  • I remember finding this aspect of the Foundation series ridiculous as well (in fact, it was one of the main reasons I didn’t read beyond the first book).

    It’s probably not a coincidence that the first Foundation stories were written just as the Socialist Calculation Debate was winding down. A lot of economists back then really did believe that they could do something kind of like what Seldon did, if only they had enough computing power.

  • I read the Foundation series, the original trilogy, in High School back in the seventies. I enjoyed the broad sweep of History in the books, but I found prediction of History via math preposterous in the extreme. Purportedly Asimov was inspired by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, a book I have devoured footnotes, the best part, and all. Gibbon is the best bad historian of all time in my opionion. His style is a take it or leave it affair: I take it and love it. His erudition for his time was immense. His history however was his biases against religion and “barbarism” writ into a fairly mechanistic formula that does injustice to the actual facts.

  • I also read the Foundation trilogy and the two that followed after a long hiatus and I enjoyed them all (thought the original 3 were the best).

    Reading about the Mule and how Hari Seldon mathematically calculated the demise of the Galactic Empire with the fall of Trantor mesmerized me as a high school student.

    As far as Gibbon, I just started reading the Rise and Fall recently and it’s good so far. Though I’m biased towards Warren Carroll (just finished reading the Last Crusade… magnificent)!

  • Tito, if you like The Last Crusade, you should try reading Jose Maria Gironella’s trilogy on the Spanish Civil War: Cypresses Believe in God; One Million Dead and Peace After War. Gironella fought on the side of the Nationalist’s in the Spanish Civil War, but his novels are remarkably even-handed and give a view from the inside of the war on the ground level among ordinary people. His books are suffused with a strong love of Catholicism and of Spain.

  • Donald,

    Thanks! I am simply enthralled with the Spanish Civil War and I’m wary of getting anti-Christian leftist authored history books.

    You have just made my next book purchasing decision on Amazon!

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