Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Norbert Wiener

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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If there’s a single theme that runs throughout my book Astounding, it’s the two sides of the editor John W. Campbell. These days, Campbell tends to be associated with highly technical “hard” science fiction with an emphasis on physics and engineering, but he had an equally dominant mystical side, and from the beginning, you often see the same basic impulses deployed in both directions. (After the memory of his career had faded, much of this history was quietly revised, as Algis Burdrys notes in Benchmarks Revisited: “The strong mystical bent displayed among even the coarsest cigar-chewing technists is conveniently overlooked, and Campbell’s subsequent preoccupation with psionics is seen as an inexplicable deviation from a life of hitherto unswerving straight devotion to what we all agree is reasonability.”) As an undergraduate at M.I.T. and Duke, Campbell was drawn successively to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and Joseph Rhine, the psychologist best known for his statistical studies of telepathy. Both professors fed into his fascination with a possible science of the mind, but along strikingly different lines, and he later pursued both dianetics, which he originally saw as a kind of practical cybernetics, and explorations of psychic powers. Much the same holds true of his other great obsession—the problem of foreseeing the future. As I discuss today in an essay in the New York Times, its most famous manifestation was the notion of psychohistory, the fictional science of prediction in Asimov’s Foundation series. But at a time of global uncertainty, it wasn’t the method of forecasting that counted, but the accuracy of the results, and even as Campbell was collaborating with Asimov, his interest in prophecy was taking him to even stranger places.

The vehicle for the editor’s more mystical explorations was Unknown, the landmark fantasy pulp that briefly channeled these inclinations away from the pages of Astounding. (In my book, I argue that the simultaneous existence of these two titles purified science fiction at a crucial moment, and that the entire genre might have evolved in altogether different ways if Campbell had been forced to express all sides of his personality in a single magazine.) As I noted here the other day, in an attempt to attract a wider audience, Campbell removed the cover paintings from Unknown, hoping to make it look like a more mainstream publication. The first issue with the revised design was dated July 1940, and in his editor’s note, Campbell explicitly addressed the “new discoverers” who were reading the magazine for the first time. He grandly asserted that fantasy represented “a completely untrammeled literary medium,” and as an illustration of the kinds of subjects that he intended to explore in his stories, he offered a revealing example:

Until somebody satisfactorily explains away the unquestionable masses of evidence showing that people do have visions of things yet to come, or of things occurring at far-distant points—until someone explains how Nostradamus, the prophet, predicted things centuries before they happened with such minute detail (as to names of people not to be born for half a dozen generations or so!) that no vague “Oh, vague generalities—things are always happening that can be twisted to fit!” can possibly explain them away—until the time those are docketed and labeled and nearly filed—they belong to The Unknown.

It was Campbell’s first mention in print of Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French prophet, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Campbell alluded in another editorial to the Moberly-Jourdain incident, in which two women claimed to have traveled over a century back in time on a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The editor continued: “If it happens one way—how about the other? How about someone slipping from the past to the future? It is known—and don’t condemn till you’ve read a fair analysis of the old man’s works—that Nostradamus, the famous French prophet, did not guess at what might happen; he recorded what did happen—before it happened. His accuracy of prophecy runs considerably better, actually, than the United States government crop forecasts, in percentage, and the latter are certainly used as a basis for business.” Campbell then drew a revealing connection between Nostradamus and the war in Europe:

Incidentally, to avoid disappointment, Nostradamus did not go into much detail about this period. He was writing several hundred years ago, for people of that time—and principally for Parisians. He predicted in some detail the French Revolution, predicted several destructions of Paris—which have come off on schedule, to date—and did not predict destruction of Paris for 1940. He did, however, for 1999—by a “rain of fire from the East.” Presumably he didn’t have any adequate terms for airplane bombs, so that may mean thermite incendiaries. But the present period, too many centuries from his own times, would be of minor interest to him, and details are sketchy. The prophecy goes up to about the thirty-fifth century.

And the timing was highly significant. Earlier that year, Campbell had published the nonfiction piece “The Science of Whithering” by L. Sprague de Camp in Astounding, shortly after German troops marched into Paris. De Camp’s article, which discussed the work of such cyclical historians as Spengler and Toynbee, represented the academic or scientific approach the problem of forecasting, and it would soon find its fictional expression in such stories as Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown” and Asimov’s “Foundation.” As usual, however, Campbell was playing both sides, and he was about to pursue a parallel train of thought in Unknown that has largely been forgotten. Instead of attempting to explain Nostradamus in rational terms, Campbell ventured a theory that was even more fantastic than the idea of clairvoyance:

Occasionally a man—vanishes…And somehow, he falls into another time. Sometimes future—sometimes past. And sometimes he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does come back, there’d be a tendency, and a smart one, to shut up; it’s mighty hard to prove. Of course, if he’s a scholarly gentlemen, he might spend his unintentional sojourn in the future reading histories of his beloved native land. Then, of course, he ought to be pretty accurate at predicting revolutions and destruction of cities. Even be able to name inconsequential details, as Nostradamus did.

To some extent, this might have been just a game that he was playing for his readers—but not completely. Campbell’s interest in Nostradamus was very real, and just as he had used Williamson and Asimov to explore psychohistory, he deployed another immensely talented surrogate to look into the problem of prophecy. His name was Anthony Boucher. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail tomorrow.

Note: Please join me today at 12:00pm ET for a Twitter AMA to celebrate the release of the fantastic new horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads, which includes my short story “Cryptids.”

The boundary regions

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Norbert Wiener

It is these boundary regions of science which offer the richest opportunities to the qualified investigator. They are at the same time the most refractory to the accepted techniques of mass attack and the division of labor. If the difficulty of a physiological problem is mathematical in essence, ten physiologists ignorant of mathematics will get precisely as far as one physiologist ignorant of mathematics, and no further. If a physiologist who knows no mathematics works together with a mathematician who knows no physiology, the one will be unable to state his problem in terms that the other can manipulate, and the second will be unable to put the answers in any form that the first can understand.

Dr. [Arturo] Rosenblueth has always insisted that a proper exploration of these blank spaces on the map of science could only be made by a team of scientists, each a specialist in his own field but each possessing a thoroughly sound and trained acquaintance with the fields of his neighbors; all in the habit of working together, of knowing one another’s intellectual customs, and of recognizing the significance of a colleague’s new suggestion before it has taken on a full formal expression. The mathematician need not have the skill to conduct a physiological experiment, but he must have the skill to understand one, to criticize one, and to suggest one. The physiologist need not be able to prove a certain mathematical theorem, but he must be able to grasp its physiological significance and to tell the mathematician for what he should look.

Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

Beyond cyberspace

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The Human Use of Human Beings

Recently, I’ve been reading the work of Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and polymath best known as the founder of cybernetics. Wiener plays a small but pivotal role in my book Astounding: he was one of John W. Campbell’s professors at M.I.T., and Campbell later remembered him as the only person there who ever helped him with a story. (He also called Wiener, who always remained one of his intellectual idols, “one of America’s dullest and most incompetent teachers.” According to Campbell, Wiener would write an expression on the blackboard, say “From this, it is clear that…”, and then write another one without explaining any of the intermediate steps. He could also do third-order differential equations in his head, which was very impressive, except for the fact that he expected his students to do the same thing.) I became interested in Wiener because of the role that his ideas played in the development of dianetics: Campbell once wrote a letter to Wiener saying that he thought the latter would be “greatly interested” in his work with L. Ron Hubbard, and Wiener later asked the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to stop using his name in its literature. And much of the terminology of dianetics, including the word “clear,” seems to have been derived directly from Wiener’s work. But after reading both Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings—while skipping most of the mathematics, which even Isaac Asimov admitted he didn’t understand—I’ve started to realize that Wiener’s overall influence was much greater. For much of the fifties, Campbell served as a conduit to bring cybernetic ideas into the mainstream of science fiction. As a result, Wiener’s fingerprints are all over the genre, and from there, they entered all our lives.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words, like “postmodernism,” that can be used to mean just about anything you want, but it originated in a pair of straightforward but profound observations. Wiener, who had worked on computing machines at M.I.T. and laid out the principles of their operation in a famous memo to Vannevar Bush, had grown intrigued by the parallels between computers and the human brain. He also understood that any attempt to explain intelligence in purely mechanical terms was doomed to fail. The mind doesn’t resemble a clock or any other machine, with gears that can run forwards or backwards. It’s more like the weather: a complicated system made up of an countably huge number of components that move only in one direction. Wiener’s first important insight was that the tools of statistical mechanics and information theory could be used to shed light on biological and mental processes, which amount to an island of negative entropy—it’s one of the few places in the universe where matter becomes more organized over time. But how the heck do you control it? In practice, life and intelligence consist of so many variables that they seem impossible to analyze or replicate, and Wiener’s second major contribution related to how such complicated systems could regulate themselves. During the war, he had worked on servomechanisms, like anti-artillery guns, that relied on negative feedback loops to increase their accuracy: the device performed an action, checked the result against its original goal, and then adjusted its performance accordingly. And it seemed to Wiener that many organic and cognitive processes could be modeled in the same way.

Norbert Wiener

This might all seem obvious now, when we’ve unconsciously absorbed so much of Wiener’s thinking, but it’s one of those pivotal insights that opened up a whole new world to explore. When we pick up a pencil—or a cigar, in the example that Wiener, a lifelong smoker, liked to use—we’re engaging in a series of complicated muscular movements that are impossible to consciously control. Instead of explicitly thinking through each step, we rely on feedback: as Wiener puts it, his senses provide him with information about “the amount by which I have yet failed to pick up the cigar,” which is then translated into a revised set of instructions to his muscles. By combining many different feedback loops, we end up with complicated behaviors that couldn’t emerge from any one piece alone. Life, Weiner says, is an attempt to control entropy through feedback. It’s a powerful concept that allows us to look backward, to figure out how we got here, and forward, to think about where we’re going, and it had a considerable impact on such fields as artificial intelligence, anthropology, and game theory. But what fascinates me the most is Wiener’s belief that cybernetics would allow us to solve the problems created by rapid technological change. As he writes in The Human Use of Human Beings:

The whole scale of phenomena has changed sufficiently to preclude any easy transfer to the present time of political, racial, and economic notions derived from earlier stages…We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in our new environment.

This sounds a lot like John W. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of university for turning his readers into the new breed of men who could deal with the changes that the future would bring. And when you read Wiener, you’re constantly confronted with concepts and turns of phrase that Campbell would go on to popularize through his editorials and his ideas for stories. (For instance, Wiener writes: “When we consider a problem of nature such as that of atomic reactions and atomic explosives, the largest single item of information which we can make public is that they exist. Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.” I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that this sentence gave Campbell the premise that was later written up by Raymond F. Jones as “Noise Level.”) Campbell was friendly with Wiener, whom he described fondly as “a crackpot among crackpots,” and cybernetics itself quickly became a buzzword in science fiction stories as different as “Izzard and the Membrane,” the Heinlein juveniles, and The Demolished Man. Over time, its original meaning was lost, and the prefix “cyber-” was reduced to an all-purpose shorthand for an undefined technology, as “positronic” had been a few decades earlier. It would be left to writers like Thomas Pynchon to make real use of it in fiction, while cybernetics itself became, in Gordon Pask’s evocative definition, “the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors.” But perhaps that’s the fate of all truly powerful ideas. As one of our presidential candidates put it so aptly, we have so many things we have to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

Quote of the Day

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Norbert Wiener

It is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2016 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2013 at 7:30 am

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