Dec 12 2012 11:00am

The Science of Future Past: Did Asimov’s Foundation Predict Wikipedia?

The Science of Future Past: Did Asimov’s Foundation Predict Wikipedia?

When I read classic science fiction stories and see technologies described which have later appeared in real life, I sometimes wonder whether these early writers were predicting the future, or defining it.

In other words, did they see the trends of science and technology and follow them to their logical conclusions, or have modern scientists and inventors been so inspired by the writings of such authors as Asimov, Heinlein, and Jules Verne, that they seek to bring to life the visions so vividly described by these authors? Regardless of which way they inspiration flowed, I find it interesting to compare the technologies described in these works of the past with their modern counterparts.

One of the first classic science fiction books that I remember reading was the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. So to begin this series, let’s look at a few ideas from the first two parts of Foundation, the Psychohistorians and the Encyclopedists.

Encyclopedia Galactica

The very first new technology we’re presented with in the text are the brief epigrams from the Encyclopedia Galactica. Hari Seldon describes the work as “a giant summary of all knowledge.” It doesn’t take much searching to consider Wikipedia as a modern-day equivalent of this work. Interestingly, at the height of the Encyclopedia Galatica’s influence, we’re told that that around a 150,000 people were involved in its production, whereas Wikipedia states that it has around 270,000 active participants.

Scientists on Trial

The first few chapters of Foundation revolve around Hari Seldon being on trial for his use of psychohistory to predict the coming fall of the empire. Perhaps as Asimov wrote this he was thinking of the trial Galileo suffered when he dared to publish his findings refuting the belief that the earth was the center of the universe. Unfortunately we don’t have to look far to find a more recent case of scientists on trial, but this time for allegedly not warning enough, rather than for warning too much.


No discussion of the science of the Foundation trilogy would be complete without a look at psychohistory. Gall Dornick defined it as “that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli….”

The closest modern equivalent of Asmiov’s psychohistory is macroeconomics, which the Oxford Dictionary of English defines as “the branch of economics concerned with large-scale or general economic factors, such as interest rates and national productivity.”

In fact, Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008, famously stated that Hari Seldon was his inspiration for studying economics. Sadly, just as politicians in Asimov’s Foundation failed to give heed to psycohistorians, modern day politicians often fail to give heed to economists.

Conclusion and Homework

Another interesting branch of science that is significant in the first part of the book is the symbolic logic to decipher political statements. Your homework is to find the best modern day equivalent of this technique and leave it in the comments.

Dr. Lee Falin is a Bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute, the host of the Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and the author of the “Science Fictioned” series, in which he takes scientific research articles and turns them into science fiction and fantasy short stories for middle grade and young adult readers.

1. olethros
Daily Show infographics are the closest to the symbolic logic, I think.

Also, the iPhone is the Hitchhiker's Guide.
2. yannhuei
I think those poll statisticians that we heard about right after the u.s. election are also pretty close to psychohistory. Predicting behavior from demographic information. And before the actual election results, relatively few people knew or believed their predictions, which might have otherwised inspired more of one side to vote, or the other side to slack off (knowing predictions changes results).

A big difference though is that the politicians leading Dr. Seldon's trial supposedly had an instinctive grasp of the truths of psychohistory, whereas the political pundits of modern day seemed surprised that math was correct.
3. Nicholas Winter
Olethros, I'd argue for the iPad as the actual realization of the Guide as it's big enough to serve as an actual information tool. Though in another sense, the Net itself is the ultimate real life version of the Guide.
4. Gerry__Quinn
I find psychohistory similar to a science-fictional version of Marxism in that the conceit is that the development of society moves along predictable lines towards a predefined conclusion (barring extraordinary events such as the advent of the Mule). The difference is that in Asimov's stories psychohistory actually works. Marxism is similarly predictive, but its predictions have of course been rather less successful (even if its adherents still like to hail every stumble of free enterprise as a harbinger of its inevitable collapse).

Of course there is no such grand pattern in history. One reason politicians are interested in economists mainly as tools for justifying their actions may be that they know that.
Lenny Bailes
5. lennyb
Asimov's invention of the Encyclopedia Galactica was appropriately ahead of the time in which he wrote Foundation. His vision was along the lines of a gigantic university library project with degree'd, credentialed scholars pooling knowledge for something loosely affiliated with a linked system of academic institutions. Asimov didn't really predict or envision a global (or galactic), publicly accessible information grid, with all the implications entailed in that assumption.

I think the powerful elements of Foundation that show Ike truly thinking outside the box (and ahead of his time) were: 1) the now-famous notion of Psychohistory, anticipating the integration of mathematical/statistical models into the "soft" disciplines of history and sociology, and 2) his preliminary exploration of the economic implications of matter duplication.

For a stefnal predictor of Wikipedia that's closer to the mark, I'd go with Chip Delaney's publicly accessible, planetary information grid described in Triton. Delany didn't anticipate personal computers, instead having the grid accessible through public telephone booths. This is something that was actually attempted, small scale, concurrently with the appearance of Triton--through Lee Felsenstein's "Community Memory Project" in Berkeley.
Roland of Gilead
6. pKp
"modern day politicians often fail to give heed to economists."

Well, not exactly. They just have pet economists who tell them precisely what they want to hear...
7. Syllabus
“that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli….”

Or, in other words, what the Great and Powerful Wizard Silver does.
Michael Grosberg
8. Michael_GR
I'm sorry but I don't see the connection between Encyclopedia Galactica and Wikipedia, except that both are encyclopedias. Encyclopedias have been in existence for hundreds of years and it was only natural for Asimov to assume a future galactic Empire will have its own version - the name obviously alludes to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the definitive body of knowledge at the time the Foundation stories were written.
9. Fabio Chiusi
Even though I love Isamov's masterpiece, I'd stick with "World Brain" by H.G. Wells ( as the real precursor of Wikipedia.
Nevin Steindam
10. TheNevin
I agree with @Michael_GR: This isn't convincing at all.
For someone to predict Wikipedia, they'd need to predict the idea of crowdsourcing knowledge. Wikipedia has turned the traditional encyclopedia on its head by having 270,000 volunteers (usually VERY part-time) aggregate information from other sources.
Asimov envisioned an encyclopedia of his day, but bigger. So he wrote about 150,000 employees all doing direct research to create a reference book.
That's not predicting Wikipedia. That's predicting that a technology would get bigger but remain fundamentally the same.
11. MiguelD

I have found another contender for the closest present-day similar to Asomov's fictional mathematical psychohistory.

It presents a system of seven "psychohistorical equations", using a new mathematics, discovered by this collective of researchers -- or by their "Pythagoras-like" founder, "Karl Seldon" -- which they describe as being simultaneously a "contra-Boolean algebra of logic", and a "non-standard model of Peano Natural Numbers arithmetic".

The name of this research collective is Foundation Encyclopedia Dialectica , and they, too, advocate the compilation of a Universal Encyclopedia.

However, their Encyclopedia has several unique freatures --

* Every entry in their Encyclopedia is, or includes, a mathematical model of the "entity" covered by that entry, run in a dynamic simulation of the defining phenomenology of that "entity";

* The entries are presented in the order of their entities' historical "order of appearance" in the temporal unfolding of the Universe, and;

* Their preferred mode of presentation of the Universal Encyclopedia is via an "Encyclopedia Holodeck" -- akin to the "holodecks" of "StarTrek, The Next Generation", and of "StarTrek, Deep Space Nine" -- whereby the Encyclopedia's user can "walk around inside" 3-D dynamic-holographic visualizations of the definitions and phenomenology of each Encyclopedia entry for each "entity", via a "3-D holographic meta-planetarium projector", which they call a "Prime Radiant".

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