Feb 18, 2017


Previously I posted some comments on Part 1 of Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves and here I want to finish up with the task of gazing back at the first science fiction novel that I ever read. I use the the word "task" because after 40 years I had the same reaction to Part 2 of the story today as I did when I first read it: waiting rather impatiently for Asimov to stop writing about alien orgasms and tell us how the aliens managed to contact Earthlings across the barrier between our universe and the parallel universe of the aliens.

Hard Ones
If the universe of the aliens has a stronger strong nuclear force than what we experience here in our universe, would that mean that the alien life forms should have "more empty space" in the material of their bodies than we do? Asimov's aliens can "attenuate" and then merge the material structure of their bodies with each-other.

alien orgasm
In The Gods Themselves, Asimov described two types of aliens: 1) the soft ones and the hard ones. The soft ones can merge their bodies. While doing so, they can become pregnant and then generate offspring: new soft ones. After producing one or two "batches" of new soft ones, they merge their bodies one last time and are then transformed into a new life form: a hard one. Part 2 of The Gods Themselves is the story of the origins of the new hard one who discovers how to make contact with humans.

Asimov suspected that many of his own story ideas could be traced back to roots among the pulp magazines he read during the 1930s. In 1932, "The Dimension of Chance" was published in Wonder Stories. Imagine the young Isaac Asimov trying to make sense of such stories in which people would "cross over" into alternative universes where the laws of physics (as known to us) did not apply.

Physicists started talking seriously about parallel universes in the 1950s. Andrei Sakharov's life ran parallel to that of Asimov. After his work developing nuclear bombs, Sakharov did some theoretical work on parallel universes in an attempt to account for the apparent imbalance between matter and antimatter in our universe.

In the mid-1950s Hugh Everett first imagined and published the central idea of what became the "many worlds"  interpretation of the mathematical theory of quantum states. In these interpretations, each quantum state with a non-zero probability is assumed to be equally real, even if not observed.

image source
Mathematicians and physicists have always been susceptible to Platonic thinking. They often don't make a distinction between using mathematics to understand reality and assuming that reality is a mathematical abstraction.

Asimov was mostly a science popularizer during the 1960s. Asimov's big (three volumes) book on physics (Understanding Physics) was written not too long before The Gods Themselves. In the third volume of Understanding Physics, published in 1966, Asimov provided an account of how physicists had discovered particles such as protons, neutrinos and pions. Pions are mediators of the strong force that holds together nucleons. He briefly mentioned that physicists were interested in the possibility of "parallel realities".

In 1968, Larry Niven had published  "All the Myriad ways", a story that assumes the discovery of a technology that allows Earthlings to start visiting other parallel universes that arise spontaneously at each "branch point" of our historical timeline. As a student of mathematics who started writing science fiction in the 1960s, Niven became one of the popularizers of physics and the "many worlds"  interpretation of the wave function.

The Exode Saga
In his science fiction novel Contact, Carl Sagan imagined that aliens might use advanced technology to create new universes with precisely tuned natural laws. For the Exode Saga, I imagine that the Huaoshy are able to alter the physical laws of the universe, but I've never tried to imagine how that might be done.

In The Gods Themselves, Asimov used an imaginary future technology, the "pionizer", to open connections between parallel universes. When the pionizer was used, that allowed leakage and mixing  of the physical properties of the connected universes.

In Part 2 of  The Gods Themselves, Asimov imagined that the alien "emotional" named Dua could attenuate and spread out and collect information like an antenna. Was Selena (in Part 3) able to do something similar? Were Dua and Selena telepathically in contact with each other? Once a "pionizer" existed in one universe, was it inevitable that another would be made in our universe?

"Sense from Thought Divide"
Before moving to India in 1974, Rupert Sheldrake began thinking about the idea of "morphic resonance". He was influenced by the book Matter and Memory. In the early 1970s, when Asimov wrote The Gods Themselves, all sorts of strange attempts were being made to link particle physics to various ancient philosophical traditions and religious beliefs such as the widespread belief in non-material souls.

Foundation and Earth
As another example of the "weird" speculative climate in the 1970s, former astronaut Edgar Mitchell helped found the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Mitchell claimed to have had a mystical experience during his flight to the Moon in 1971.

I've long been puzzled by the prominent role that Asimov gave to intuition in some of his stories. Back in 2010 I blogged about the purported intuition of Golan Trevize at the end of Asimov's Foundation saga.

It is a basic fact of human brain physiology that we can know things without understanding how we know them. Still, it is endlessly tempting for science fiction writers to imagine future science that would account for mysteries like telepathy or intuition. Asimov was audacious in suggesting that it might be possible to genetically engineer humans to be "intutionists".

Weibliche Intuition
Related reading: "Feminine Intuition" (1969). Asimov manages to combine his fear of flying, interstellar space travel and his obsession with robots in a Susan Calvin short story. What is the role of randomness in human creativity? Could creative robots be manufactured if an element of random chance were allowed to influence their positronic pathways? Could such "intuition" be super-sized and result in abilities that we might call "genius"? Should we call such a robot "intuitive" even if that is only a "feel good" label meant to disguise the fact that a mechanical genius was made, a thinking device that can out-think humans? Can bumbling humans recognize the difference between clear-headed thinking and reasoning and what people are tempted to call "intuition"?

1985 edition
In 1969, Asimov imagined that there might be a way for astronomers to predict which stars host a habitable planet. As early as 1952 it was realized that in principle exoplanets could be detected by 1) measuring periodic decreases in the amount of light arriving from distant stars (transit method) or 2) by wavelength shifts in a star's light (Doppler spectroscopy) and 3) by direct visualization of light reflecting off an exoplanet (with a giant telescope). Technological limitations delayed exoplanet detection until the 1990s, shortly after Asimov's death.

Did Asimov take seriously his depiction of how to create a "genius" robot by giving it "intuition"? In the 1984 book Machines that Think, Asimov wrote: "If insight, intuition, creativity, the ability to view a problem as a whole and guess the answer by the 'feel' of the situation is a measure of intelligence, computers are very unintelligent indeed. Nor can we see right now how this deficiency in computers can be easily remedied, since human beings cannot program a computer to be intuitive or creative for the very good reason that we do not know what we ourselves do when we exercise these qualities."

Next: Isaac Asimov's novel: The Caves of Steel
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