John McAfee is a Heinlein hero

December 10, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

“A small group of mathematicians”

Jenny Davidson points to this article by Krugman on Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Given the silliness of the topic, Krugman’s piece is disappointingly serious (“Maybe the first thing to say about Foundation is that it’s not exactly science fiction – not really. Yes, it’s set in the future, there’s interstellar travel, people shoot each other with blasters instead of pistols and so on. But these are superficial details . . . the story can sound arid and didactic. . . . you’ll also be disappointed if you’re looking for shoot-em-up action scenes, in which Han Solo and Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star in the nick of time. . . .”). What really jumped out at me from Krugman’s piece, though, was this line:

In Foundation, we learn that a small group of mathematicians have developed “psychohistory”, the aforementioned rigorous science of society.

Like Davidson (and Krugman), I read the Foundation books as a child. I remember the “psychohistory” part, of course, but not that it was invented by mathematicians. That seems so retro! Back in the day, there were only a few sorts of technical academic fields, and one of these was mathematics. Thus you had Mandelbrot inventing fractals, Turing inventing computer science, and Ulam inventing the H-bomb.

Nowadays, I think of mathematicians as a sort of eccentric band of specialists, working for decades on problems that only they care about, while earning money teaching intro calc and training graduate students to work for Steven A. Cohen. I’m not saying that’s a fair impression—it would be just as correct for a mathematician to describe statisticians as an eccentric band of mathematical plodders who make a virtue of their mediocrity and call it practicality—but it’s the impression I get. If I were writing a novel about an exciting new science, I might have it be invented by a biologist or a computer scientist or even a rogue economist, but I probably wouldn’t think that something so applied would come out of the minds of a band of mathematicians.

A modern Heinlein hero

Perhaps Krugman will next write something on Robert Heinlein, whose writings, like Asimov’s, provide endless retro amusement (for those of us who are amused by such things), with the characteristic Heinlein hero being someone like a garage mechanic who develops a faster-than-light space drive in his basement workshop. Updating that to the present day, we’d end up with someone like John McAfee, that internet zillionaire who turned up in Guatemala the other day. Actually, McAfee sounds like a perfect Heinlein hero: a super-rich retired businessman with a fascination with airplanes, guns, and drugs, and a 20-year-old girlfriend.

Of course, if we were really living in a Heinlein story, McAfee would actually have a time machine in his backyard, and that girlfriend would be a reincarnation of McAfee’s cat.

P.S. At the very end of the Krugman article:

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, introduced by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, is published by The Folio Society priced £75.00.

I know the British economy hasn’t been doing so well lately, but £75 is still a good chunka change, no? What I wonder is, how many people who buy this book will really want to read it all the way through. Reading about the Foundation trilogy can be fun, but I can’t imagine the book itself can be very easy or pleasant to read at this point. I just feel that at this point I’ve read so many smooth works of fiction and journalism over the years, that it might be difficult to read something that wooden in style. (Heinlein would be much more readable, I’d think.)

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