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How Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” highlights the value of science fiction

Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series helped inspire the field of social physics, which uses math to understand crowd behavior.
Space settlement illustration. (Credit: John Conrad Berkey)
Key Takeaways
  • Being a nerd means you have to spend a lot of time explaining to people why you love the stuff you love. That’s the case with Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation”, which Apple TV recently adapted into a TV series.
  • “Foundation” was the first science fiction story to establish the archetype of the galactic empire.
  • Great science fiction can inspire people to create new things in the real world, as seen in how the practice of psychohistory in “Foundation” was a fictional forerunner of today’s “social physics”.

It’s hard to be a nerd in non-nerd culture. You spend a lot of time explaining to people (who generally don’t care) why the comics and sci-fi stories you cherish are…well…really, really important! Such is the case with Foundation, Isaac Asimov’s novel of a failing galactic empire that has just been released as a series on Apple TV.  I want to take a moment to unpack why Foundation fits squarely into nerd culture, on which it ended up having a big impact.

The first book of the Foundation series was written in 1951. It was not just a story of a galactic empire — it was the first story of a galactic empire. Never before had anyone thought seriously about the dynamics of a polity consisting of millions of worlds containing trillions of humans spread across the Milky Way. Asimov was also a “hard science fiction” writer, meaning he took science seriously enough to build his story by extrapolating what was known about physics at the time. (You can see this in his use of “hyperspace” ships that travel across the stars in discrete jumps, shifting out of, and back into, normal spacetime.) By exploring the hypothetical dynamics of a vast interstellar civilization, and by making it plausible through science-based world-building, Asimov established the archetype. Every subsequent story that tried to imagine civilizations on interstellar scales — Dune, Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 — owe their genesis to Asimov’s Foundation.   

But Foundation did more than just invent a genre.

Truly great science fiction goes beyond just world-building. As a genre, science fiction allows writers to explore possibilities, and sometimes create new ones in the process. At the center of the Foundation series is Hari Seldon, a brilliant mathematician who creates the field of “psychohistory” and runs afoul of the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire in the process. Psychohistory is basically statistical physics applied to societies. In other words, it’s a form of mathematics that can accurately predict the future for large collections of human beings. Seldon’s equations point definitively to an end of the Empire and much of the story revolves around the scientists’ attempts to cushion civilization against the coming fall.

Psychohistory is a great device for the novelist to use in launching his story, but it also turned out to be a lot more. Readers of Asimov’s books took the idea seriously and dreamed of becoming a real version of Hari Seldon. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has written about how he entered his profession hoping that it would prove to have the predictive capacities of Asimov’s imaginary branch of mathematics. I, too, have dreamed this dream. My co-blogger Marcelo Gleiser, and I, along with a handful of other scholars, have recently begun some work on “social physics” and we’ve named our little group “The Psychohistorians.” Even though Asimov was writing a novel set tens of thousands of years in the future, he clearly had a vision of something important that others could pick up on and try to make a reality.

These are the reasons I’m watching the Foundation series with so much nerdy excitement. This story, which has meant so much to me and legions of others, really mattered in ways that extend all the way to the development of real science. Now through the AppleTV series, it’s finally getting a chance to be realized in a visual medium. Unlike Dune, a science fiction classic of equal stature, no one has ever tried to bring the Foundation to the screen before. I’ve watched the first three episodes and overall, I am pretty happy with what I’ve seen. So, I recommend you give the show a chance. And certainly, read the books.  

Why? Because they matter!


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