Oct 1, 2016

Neurochemical Electromathematics

Biochemistry and Human Metabolism
"It is enough for a Psychohistorian, as such, to know his Biostatistics and his Neurochemical Electromathematics. Some know nothing else and are fit only to be statistical technicians." (source)

The quote above is my destination for this blog post. How did science fiction fans receive such a wild and extravagant gift of imaginary science? From what divine and mystical source did such a flight of science fictional fancy originate?

"The people here, in the Final Reality, will not be allowed to believe as true history what we did in the Ekcolir Reality. However, it is for us, the artificial life remnants of that past Reality, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which the investigative science fiction writers of past Realities so nobly advanced. We must remain dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that science fiction about Deep Time, crafted by replicoids, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." -Asimov's replicoid

In the Ekcolir Reality
The Way We Were
A. I like to imagine that in another Reality, Isaac Asimov attended medical school and participated in the biomedical research revolution of the 20th century (see The Asimov Reality).

B. In some other Reality, I imagine that Asimov was an investigative science writer who revealed hidden facts about secret government technology development projects. 

C. And in yet another Reality, Asimov lived a second life as an artificial life form during which he investigated the process by which humans were genetically altered and equipped with femtobots that allowed some humans to control the Bimanoid Interface.

active site of tyrosinase
The Final Reality
In our universe, Asimov did none of those things (A - C, above). Instead, he went to graduate school and did biochemical research on the enzyme tyrosinase. With his Ph.D. in hand, Asimov moved on to take a faculty position and he helped write a rather conventional textbook, then he completed his rebellion against obscurity.

Fitzpatrick scale
Asimov was much more interested in writing than doing research. I like to imagine that there was a powerful temporal momentum pushing, prodding and forcing Asimov towards science fiction. But to feed himself, he had to also write non-fiction.

Asimov: molecule man
The Day Job. Tyrosinase is a key enzyme in the biochemical process of melanin production. When humans spread around the world, isolated populations evolved distinctive sets of genes that gave them different levels of tyrosinase activity in their melanocytes and distinctive pigmentation patterns. Natural human variation in pigmentation has long played an important role in conceptualizations of race.


in the Ekcolir Reality
In our Reality, Asimov helped write a book called "Races and People" (published in 1955). Sadly for Asimov, the paracrine and autocrine control signals that regulate tyrosinase activity and skin pigmentation in response to ultraviolet light exposure were not understood when he was doing research on tyrosinase and writing about the concept of race.

In the Ekcolir Reality, Asimov had more on his plate than just human phenotypic variations. The Asimov analogue in that Reality made use of science fiction story writing as a convenient way to prepare Earthlings for First Contact with the alien Fru'wu. In the fanciful book cover to the right, we see the fertile imagination of science fiction story makers turned loose to create colorful alien creatures with non-human patterns of skin pigmentation.

in the Ekcolir Reality
Isaac Asimov had a personal professional interest in the chemistry of life that extended to the neurochemicals of the brain. Asimov's 1963 book The Human Brain was oddly constructed. The first five chapters had nothing to do with the nervous system; they concerned hormones and the endocrine system.

In The Human Brain, when Asimov finally turned his attention to the nervous system, he described the electrical nature of the rapid signals that are used by the nervous system, contrasting them with slower and less precisely targeted hormonal signals of the endocrine system. Hormones are relevant to brain function for several reasons, the most important being that neurotransmitters provide chemical signals at synapses. Neurotransmitters act through receptor proteins that are analogous to hormone receptor proteins.

Sadly, for Asimov in 1963, the molecular basis for "animal electricity" was still mysterious. Asimov attributed nerve electricity to "the sodium pump" and stated, "As yet no one knows precisely how the sodium pump works." In 1997, Jens Skou was given a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on "the sodium pump", which had been shown to move both sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) ions across cell surface membranes. In 1965, Skou published a review article that correctly described the "sodium pump" as an enzyme that used chemical energy from ATP to move both sodium and potassium ions across cell membranes. However, at that time, nobody had any idea how proteins like the sodium pump functioned as components of cell membranes.

membrane model (1972)
Finally, in the 1970s, Singer and Nicolson popularized a reasonably good molecular model of cell membranes. Integral membrane proteins such as the sodium pump (as well as cell surface receptors for hormones and neurotransmitters) could be hypothesized to extend all the way across the lipid bilayer membrane. Transport proteins such as the sodium pump could be imagined to form an ion-selective pore through which ions could pass, providing a way for charged ions like Na+ to cross the lipid barrier. Finally, after much effort, the molecular structures of integral membrane proteins were finally determined (see the molecular model of the sodium pump (now often called the Na+/K+-ATPase), above and to the right on this page).

in the Ekcolir Reality
Two other types of integral membrane proteins that are important for brain function are the ion channels and the neurotransmitter receptors. Asimov completely ignored the existence of receptor proteins and ion channels in The Human Brain. Asimov can be forgiven for these omissions because ion channels and receptor proteins were fairly new concepts in biology.

Asimov's 1963 account of the rapid ion movements that account for the transmission of electrical signals along axons reads like the description of a magic potion in a fantasy story. Equally mystical is his provided account of synaptic neurotransmission. He suggested that acetylcholine functions by "coating the membrane and altering its properties" and that it "alters the working of the sodium pump so that depolarization takes place and the nerve impulse is initiated". Sadly this nonsense  is still in the 1994 "updated" version of The Human Brain.

acetylcholine receptor
In his discussion of electroencephalography, Asimov used an analogy. He suggested that the data from an electroencephalogram was similar to simultaneously listening to all the many human voices of a large population: by doing so there is no way that you could hope to hear an individual conversation. Still, in Asimov's time, electroencephalography was the only available method for "looking into" the working human brain of a living person. Looking back at The Human Brain from 50 years in the future, it is clear that in 1963, Asimov had only the foggiest notion about how neurochemicals produced electrical signals in the brain and available tools such as electroencephalography were poor windows into the mysterious brain.

I like to imagine that in an alternate Reality, Asimov led a more interesting scientific life and he was involved in the isolation and molecular analysis of acetylcholine receptors from the brain. These acetylcholine receptors are also the nicotine receptors.

In the Ekcolir Reality
For the Exode saga, I pretend that the chemical interactions of nicotine with receptor proteins in the brain can make it possible for humans to take control of their zeptite endosymbiont. Earthlings can then start to use the Bimanoid Interface and have contacts with people who reside in the Hierion Domain.

New Physics
Hierions allow for the creation of devices that have structural components far smaller than anything we could possibly make with hadrons. Similarly, sedrons allow for zeptites that have component parts that are even smaller than the hierions.

"No component of any device can be smaller than a subatomic particle..." (source)

in the telastid membrane
In our Reality, Asimov wrote an early account of the genetic code for laymen. In the Ekcolir Reality, Asimov published an account of how femtobots and modified human genes can make it possible for humans to escape from constraints on human behavior that are normally imposed by our zeptite endosymbionts.

In another Reality, rather than study tyrosinase while in graduate school, Asimov was able to explore the biochemistry of telastids and how "T particles" (later shown to be hierions) interacted with the iron and copper atoms of telastid reaction center III.

In the Ekcolir Reality, the pace of scientific discovery was quicker, as was the rate of rise in atmospheric carbon monoxide. Asimov was interested in both scientific research and keeping the public informed about issues like global warming.

Climate Fiction
climate fiction
Here in our Reality, one of the serious science/technology issues that remained of interest to Asimov was global warming. In the 1960s, there was a new appreciation for how technological advances had made possible a dramatic rise in the population of humans on Earth and greatly increased rates of resource exploitation and production of pollution. Asimov, like many, was concerned with how to feed the growing world population and how to deal with the waste greenhouse gas problem.

The United States' position on environment

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. — H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 1920

"Unless we continue with science and gather knowledge, whether or not it seems useful on the spot, we will be buried under our problems and find no way out. Today's science is tomorrow's solution-and tomorrow's problems, too-and, most of all it is mankind's greatest adventure, now and forever." (source)

In addition to Asimov's interests in science fiction, biochemistry research and explaining scientific topics to the public, he was a lover of Gilbert and Sullivan plays.

Neurochemical Electromathematics
At the top of this blog post, I placed a line from Asimov's Foundation series. The original Foundation Trilogy was the second work from Asimov that I read when I was in my personal and impressionable golden age of science fiction. I immediately fell in love with Asimov's style of science fiction and his skill at imagining fictional future science.

It was many long years before I learned the story behind the "Foundation" and how Asimov came up with the idea of psychohistory. Asimov was 21 years old in 1941, and he was eager to sell more science fiction short stories to Astounding editor John Campbell. The fictional science of Psychohistory became a marketing angle that helped sell Campbell on the idea that Asimov would write a new series of stories for publication in Astounding.

Finding the Foundation
While searching for a new science fiction story idea that he could sell to Campbell, Asimov entered into a train of thought that began with a Gilbert and Sullivan play and an image of the Fairy Queen and Private Willis.

Galactic Patrol
That image of a soldier led Asimov to think about a Galactic Empire. Asimov had read Galactic Patrol and Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His imagination leaped to a far future Galactic Empire that would be in decline, a science fictional setting in which a whole series of related science fiction stories could be set and sold to Campbell for publication in Astounding.

However, Asimov had to argue and struggled with Campbell over how to depict alien beings from exoplanets. Asimov finally solved that dispute by imagining that in the whole galaxy, only humans existed as an advanced life form; there were 25,000,000 Earth-like worlds in the galaxy just waiting for human colonists to arrive. Aliens need not even be mentioned in Asimov's vast Galactic Empire.

Hari Seldon in the time vault
Asimov imagined the galaxy-spanning Empire as being not very different in terms of technology from what we had here on Earth in the 20th century. Of course, there was a faster-than-light spaceship drive technology and atomic power, but as soon as the Galactic Empire collapsed, planets went back to using fossil fuels.

As a graduate student in chemistry, Asimov was familiar with statistical thermodynamics. By analogy to predicting properties of gases from statistical analysis of the movements of gas molecules, Asimov imagined that there might be statistical laws by which the behavior of large populations of people could be predicted.

In the later years of the 20th century, chaos theory demolished the idea that complex systems like human society can have a predictable future, but in 1941, Asimov had invented a provocative fictional future science (called "Psychohistory") that could be weaved into his Galactic Empire saga.

Second Foundation
What did Asimov hope to accomplish with his wild talk of "Neurochemical Electromathematics"? Certainly no other science fiction story teller would have written those provocative words.

I've previously described the importance of constraints in science fiction. We can view science fiction as a sub-genre of fantasy where story tellers must restrain their imaginations and pay due respect to the constraints that are imposed upon us by the physical laws of the universe.

By mentioning "neurochemical electromathematics", Asimov was taking pains to elaborate upon the kind of technical problems that were confronting the Second Foundationers. Right from Asimov's initial invention of Psychohistory, he had purposefully imposed important limitations on this fictional science.

Second Foundationers
First, in analogy to the situation for statistical mechanics of gas molecules, Psychohistory could only predict the future if there were vast numbers of "particles" (human beings). These were provided by the 25 million inhabited planets of the Galactic Empire.

Second, Asimov wanted to assure that human behavior would remain "random", much like the bouncing molecules in a bottle of gas. In particular, it was important that the people of the galaxy be kept ignorant of the existence of Second Foundation, otherwise they would resent having their lives managed and directed by a secret and unseen cabal of telepaths.

In my previous blog post, I described how telepathy came to dominate both Asimov's great saga of positronic robots and his Foundation Fictional Universe. Asimov introduced telepathy into the Foundation series when he created the Mule. Rather than view the Mule as a freak mutant, I like to imagine that the Mule must have arisen from the same source as the Second Foundationers. And it really only makes sense that the Second Foundation arose just when Psychohistory arrived because they shared the same source and cause: the telepathic robot Daneel.

With a tribe of telepathic Second Foundationers secretly guiding the galaxy into the future, Asimov had to tell the story of what would happen if some resentful First Foundationers became aware of the existence of the Second Foundation as a hidden cabal of mind-manipulators.

mind static
A key tool for the First Foundation in their struggle against the unseen and resented Second Foundation was electroencephalography. Using electroencephalography, they could detect alterations to the minds of First Foundation citizens. The First Foundation then needed to create a "mind static" defense that would protect First Foundationers against mind control. As part of the supporting back story for that electroneural warfare, Asimov had the First Speaker state in an off handed way the fact that a foundational element of Psychohistory was "Neurochemical Electromathematics".

time travel
Neurochemical Electromathematics, as a fictional sub-discipline of Psychohistory, was used by the First Speaker to make a pedagogic point to a student. It was necessary for Speakers to be able to think creatively at the highest level of abstraction with respect to Psychohistory and the ability of Second Foundationers to use mind control and predict the future.

Time Travel
In my opinion, the best way to make sense of Psychohistory is to accept the fact that Daneel was at work in the shadows behind the Second Foundation. The Prime Radiant was the key to Daneel's control of the Second Foundation.

Prime Radiant
I imagine that the Prime Radiant was a kind of "telepathic amplifier" that Daneel used to create a powerful illusion for the Second Foundationers: they believed in their ability to mathematically predict the future, but the predictions were, in fact, made possible only by hidden technology that allowed Daneel to view the future. Neurochemical Electromathematics might have been an invention of Daneel, part of his smoke screen for hiding the existence of time travel technology from the Second Foundationers.

Foundations of Eternity
Asimov could not bring himself to insert either aliens or time travel into the Foundation saga. It was left for us to take those steps in our fan fiction extensions of Asimov's fictional universe.

In some sense, Asimov might have put too many constraints on himself back in the 1940s when he wrote his original Foundation stories. When he returned to the saga and wrote Foundation's Edge, Asimov allowed himself to abandon the "all human galaxy" that had been forced on him by Campbell. Asimov added in robots.

In the Ekcolir Reality. Original
cover art by Edmund Emshwiller
and see this cover also.
Had Asimov lived longer, he might have further relaxed his constraints. At the end of Foundation and Earth, Asimov raised the specter of aliens who might soon arrive from another galaxy. Asimov had also suggested that the "all human galaxy" had been engineered by the application of time travel technology. These possibilities, only hinted at by Asimov, are explored in my fan fictional Exode saga.

Special thanks to Miranda Hedman ( for the DeviantArt stock photograph "Black Cat 9 - stock" that I used to create the  "sedronite" shown in the image to the left.

Related Reading: Science in Science Fiction

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