Astounding Stories #17: The Thiotimoline Papers
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
In May of 1947, Isaac Asimov, who was then a graduate student in organic chemistry at Columbia University, was hard at work in the lab. As part of the research he was conducting for his doctorate, he had to dissolve a compound called catechol in an enzyme solution and time the reaction with a stopwatch. As he describes it in his memoir In Memory Yet Green:
Catechol, as it happens, is very readily soluble, especially when it exists as fluffy crystals that present a large surface to the water. The result is that as soon as the catechol touches the surface of the water it dissolves. It just seems to vanish without ever penetrating the water’s skin.
As I watched it one morning I thought idly: What if it dissolves just before it hits the water?
Asimov saw immediately that this would be a good idea for a science fiction story, and he had the additional inspiration to write it up as a spoof article for a scientific journal about this imaginary compound. He was dreading the process of writing his dissertation in a dry academic style, and he thought that composing a parody would allow him to blow off some steam. Asimov proposed the idea to the editor John W. Campbell, who loved it, and the result, “The Endochronic Properties of Resubliminated Thiotimoline,” was published in the March 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
The article was a big hit with readers, and it remains a minor classic. At a time when many of us dread the unfunny fake press releases that appear on every April Fool’s Day, it can be hard to appreciate the impression that it made. Unlike most stories in the same vein, it keeps a poker face throughout, and it evidently fooled a lot of readers, at least at first glance: Campbell later claimed that the New York Public Library was flooded with requests for the fictitious papers listed in its bibliography. It inspired letters from fans describing their own experiments, including one on “neurotic thiotimoline”—in which the dissolution of thiotimoline activated a mechanism that prevented the water from being added, creating a paradox—and another on a “prediction machine” built from a chain of thiotimoline reactors. (The second letter criticized the first as “a pack of lies,” saying: “I strongly suspect that it was a cheap publicity trick for some sort of new religious cult [the writer] is planning to start which will involve the worship of a thiotimoline god.”) A second gag article along the same lines, “The Aphrodite Project” by Philip Latham, took the form of an abstract of a government report on an unmanned probe to Venus. This one caused a fair amount of bewilderment as well, and Campbell even got a few phone calls about it, prompting him to clarify that it was fictional in an editor’s note, and to warn readers that an upcoming piece, “Progress Report” by John Pomeroy, would have “gags at all levels.” He ultimately instituted an informal editorial policy that such articles could only appear once every eighteen months or so, clearly labeled as “Special Features,” and by that point, much of the fun was gone.
This much of the story, at least, is familiar to many science fiction fans. What isn’t as well known is how the thiotimoline gag complicated Campbell’s plans for a more significant project: the introduction of dianetics. In the December 1949 issue, Campbell wrote: “But the item that most interests me at the moment is an article on the most important subject imaginable. This is not a hoax article. It is an article on the science of the mind, of human thought.” Campbell, in other words, realized that a lot of readers might think that the dianetics article was just another parody, and I suspect that his attempts to flag all spoof articles more explicitly going forward was an attempt to head off any confusion. When the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” appeared the following year, Dr. Joseph Winter, the endocrinologist who collaborated with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard on its development, drew the distinction even more emphatically in his introduction:
[Campbell] wanted to make certain that you readers would not confuse dianetics with thiotimoline or any other bit of scientific sporting. This is too important to be misunderstood.
Anecdotally, it seems that more than a few readers did think that the article was a spoof of the language of psychiatry. And while this probably would have happened anyway, it isn’t hard to believe that thiotimoline made it all the more difficult for many people to take it seriously.
But that isn’t quite the end of the story. In 1953, after Campbell had broken away from Hubbard, he published a sequel to the original thiotimoline paper, titled “The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline.” In the article, Asimov writes that he has received funding from the American Association for the Advancement of Quantitative Psychiatry, which believes that thiotimoline can be used to quantify mental disorders: “It is the purpose of the present paper, in part, to show that by use of thiotimoline, certain mental disorders can be quantitated and their diagnosis converted from an uncertain art to an exact science.” The time at which thiotimoline dissolves depends on the willpower of the person adding it to the solution, which means that it can provide a benchmark for measuring the strength of the human will, in a new science that Asimov calls “willometry.” Observing that subjects with multiple personalities cause a sample of thiotimoline to dissolve at different times, he uses this fact to establish ten “grades” of deviations, as well as to classify schizophrenics into “levo” and “dextro” varieties. Asimov concludes:
The value of such a subdivision of schizophrenia may well be said to be of incalculable potentialities and, indeed, to found new science of quantitative micropsychiatry. How much more useful is it to say of a patient that he is a vertical schizophrenic, levo variety, Grade 3, than simply to say that he is schizophrenic.
It’s a conscious parody of dianetics, with its tone scale, its elaborate pseudoscientific vocabulary, and its claim to have transformed psychiatry into an exact science. Campbell would have seen this, too—and I’d like to believe that he published it as a small act of revenge on Hubbard, long after their partnership had dissolved.