A wide-ranging conversation with astrophysicist Stephen Webb, owner of all the canonical works of Isaac Asimov save for a couple of wall charts. Dr. Webb talks about Asimov the teacher, speculations on the distant future of humanity in the galaxy, the pla
Ed Seiler's canonical list of Asimov titles (the one Stephen claims to have all of in his library save for a few wall charts)
David Kuhns' even larger list of Asimovia (including videotapes, computer and board games)
Asimov Online (the ultimate Asimov site)
Where is Everybody? (Stephen's TED talk on the Fermi Paradox)
Where is Everybody? (Second Edition of Stephen's book on the Fermi Paradox)
End of the World with Josh Clark (podcast on Fermi Paradox and various existential risks)
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Joel: Welcome back everyone to Seldon Crisis, for a very special episode and the first featuring a guest since my interview of Nathaniel Goldberg on the Philosophy of Foundation. Today we’re going to talk about another pretty important element of this awesome series, science!
My guest today, Stephen Webb, studied physics at the University of Bristol in England, and went on to gain a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Manchester. He is well known for his work on the Fermi paradox, and his TED talk exploring the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence has been viewed more than 6 million times. Stephen is also a lifelong fan of science fiction. He enjoys science fiction in general, and Asimov in particular - he's the proud owner of over 500 of Asimov's books. Few authors can match the Good Doctor's prolific output, but Stephen is soon to submit his tenth book for publication.
Hello Stephen! It’s great to have you on the podcast!
Stephen: It’s great to talk to you Joel. It’s getting to the end of another hard year - for all of us - so it’s nice to wind down and talk about something we both enjoy!
Joel: Yes, indeed! First I have to inform our listeners that I did a video call earlier with you and you showed me your bookshelf full of Asimov and I thought I was dreaming. It’s a great collection and it shows how deep your appreciation is for his work. Can you describe how you came to love science fiction and Asimov in particular?
Stephen: Yeah, I do have a large collection of Asimoviana on display - much to my long-suffering wife’s dismay, I have to add. It takes up quite a bit of room. I own all the books on Ed Seiler’s canonical list, apart from the wallcharts - “History of biology”, “History of mathematics” - they aren’t really books and I guess they’d have been pinned to classroom walls, so I doubt I’ll be able to find them now. But if any of your listeners have spares they’d like to sell … I’m in the market!
Getting back to your question. I discovered Asimov books in the public library, as a kid, and his works have had a huge influence on me.
I grew up in a science fictional time. The Apollo program was reaching for the Moon; a lot of stuff on TV was science fiction; a lot of movies were science fiction. So the stuff I wanted to read was science fiction. I remember loving the Danny Dunn books by Ray Abrashkin and Jay Williams and the Chris Godfrey books by Hugh Walters. I can’t remember the first Asimov book I read, but it was probably one of his non-fiction books for children.
My home town had a great public library back then, and I noticed Asimov’s name popping up whenever I visited it. It’s a quirky name. And I eventually found his science fiction and fell in love with it. Foundation especially, of course. But also the robot stories and novels. Great short stories such as The Last Question, Nightfall, The Dead Past. Standalone novels such as The End of Eternity.
Martin Rees, Lord Rees, our Astronomer Royal, likes to say that you can learn more from first-rate SF than you can from third-rate science - and I learned a lot from Asimov’s science fiction.
If you liked Asimov then you tended to like Clarke and Heinlein - the “Big 3”. And I did like those authors too. But there is something about Asimov’s voice in particular - it’s cool, it’s rational, it’s considered - that really appealed to me above other writers.
And then I fell in love with the non-fiction he poured out. The monthly science columns in F&SF, the science books, the history books. I got an education from him. And I’m really grateful, because my family had no history of higher education; the school I attended, although the teachers were great, didn’t really have a reputation for progression through to university. So I feel I owe a lot to Asimov, and his writings.
Of everything he wrote, though, I think the Foundation series means the most to me. That humans-only galaxy, that mix of ordinary, everyday people - characters like Onum Barr, and Arkady Darrell - living their lives against this backdrop of a vast, distant-future, galaxy-spanning civilisation … well, it just resonated with me. As it seems to have done with countless other people!
Joel: One of the footnotes to your book on the Fermi paradox, Where is Everybody, says that Asimov created a galaxy without aliens for Foundation as a reaction against being told by his publisher, the great John Campbell, not to write any stories where the aliens win against humans. Asimov thought that was absurd because the aliens would be so advanced compared to us. His solution was to pretend there just wouldn’t be any aliens, though he thought there most likely would be. I wonder what he would think today about this question?
What do you think about the likelihood of humans filling the galaxy eventually and establishing a galactic empire, aliens or not?
Stephen: First thing to say is that Asimov wasn’t trying to predict the future in Foundation, or provide a roadmap for us to follow. He was just a young man, trying to sell some stories to John Campbell. Asimov tired of writing the Foundation stories rather quickly, and had to be cajoled by Campbell into continuing to write them. So we shouldn’t look upon the books as some sort of prognostication. Foundation is just a story. But it is a really interesting question you raise - suppose for the moment that there aren’t any aliens: would humans be able to create a galaxy-spanning empire?
I think to discuss that question sensibly, we have to agree on two things.
First, we have to agree to allow a place for imagination when it comes to technology. We have to be imaginative. Scientists are sometimes suspicious of that, because it can sound like fantasy. But the technology of 100 years from now, or 1000 years, or 10,000 years will be incredibly powerful. Just think what has happened in the eight decades since Asimov wrote “The Psychohistorians”. We each of us carry around a device, a mobile phone, or cell phone, that has a functionality that Hari Seldon would kill for. The idea that a single device can provide directions, provide music, provide movies, provide a camera, provide instant personalised news, and on and on and on - back then, that would have seemed as magical as a flying carpet. So we have to allow for huge technological development over these long timescales.
Second, we have to agree that whatever we imagine follows the laws of physics as we currently understand them. We know that our understanding of physics is incomplete, but it is also pretty impressive - it allows us to construct mobile phones, for example. If we simply disregard the laws of physics then it’s like playing tennis with the net down - anything is allowed. And if anything is allowed, nothing makes any sense. So that constrains what we are allowed to imagine.
Well, that second point tends to rule out the sort of civilisation, a single galaxy-spanning Empire, described in Foundation.
The problem is that the universe contains a local speed limit: the speed of light. You can’t transmit information faster than the speed of light. And that’s the killer, because although light travels quickly, the galaxy is big! Suppose the Emperor sits at Trantor, which is at the galactic centre, and we are sitting on Anacreaon, which we’ll suppose is close to use here on Earth. The Emperor sends out a message “How fare my loyal subjects on Anacreaon?” The question takes 25,000 years to reach Anacreaon. The local imperial officer answers: “Things aren’t too good, Your Highness.” And that takes 25,000 years to reach Cleon, the Emperor. He replies: “Would you like me to send reinforcements?” Another 25,000 years. “Yes, please” - that’s another 25,000 years. It’s 100,000 years before the troops arrive.
So you can’t maintain that central control - that notion of Trantor running the business of the galaxy - in a universe where there’s that speed limit. So Foundation, as Asimov described it, couldn’t work.
Joel: Asimov got around that problem in Foundation with the notion of the hyperspace jump. Is that a reasonable approach to faster than light technology?
Stephen: I’m told someone once asked at a science fiction conference how the “hyperspace jump” works, and the answer was: “it works very well, thank you”. And it does work well - for a science fiction story. But that’s all.
Asimov was very good at giving simple names to difficult concepts, not explaining the nuts and bolts, allowing the reader’s imagination to take over, and then getting on with the story. And sometimes he gave a science-fictional name to everyday items, just to give that sheen of strangeness. So men will smoke cigars while they talk politics around a conference table - which now seems incredibly old-fashioned - and instead of putting stubs into an ashtray they drop them in a disruptor. The disruptor is just a throwaway word, no nuts and bolts given or needed. And ultimately “hyperspace jump” is just words. It just enables the plot to move forward.
I can only think of two serious suggestions for faster than light travel based on physics as we currently understand it.
We have two deep, fundamental pillars of physics: general relativity and quantum theory. General relativity is our theory of gravity, gives us our best understanding of the universe on a large scale. Quantum physics describes the universe on small distance scales.
Well, general relativity pictures spacetime as a sort of fabric. And that fabric can be distorted by the presence of mass and energy. Movement through that distortion is what we experience as gravity. So you can imagine maybe punching a hole in the fabric at one point and stitching it together at some other point. You’d have a hole you might be able to travel through, which would take you from one point to another. I guess that might class as a hyperspace jump. Another option is to have a spacecraft and warp space in a particular way just in front of the craft, and warp it in a particular way just behind the craft, and you can get a ripple in space that can move arbitrarily quickly. In the spacecraft itself you wouldn’t experience anything different. You still couldn’t move faster than light, for example. But the whole system - the warped space at the front, the flat space in the middle, the warped space at the back - that moves as fast as you want.
The trouble is - these suggestions require something called exotic matter. And it’s really not clear whether exotic matter can exist in the universe. So building a warp drive isn’t just a matter of engineering. There may be reasons why you just can’t do it.
Quantum theory, on the other hand, allows for something called entanglement. If you bring two particles close together then the properties of the particles can become intimately linked, or entangled. And if you then send one of the particles away - you can separate them by as big a distance as you wish - it turns out that measurements made on the particle here affect what can be measured on the particle there. It’s as if some instantaneous signal flashes between them, with one particle saying “I’ve just been measured to have this property - you’d better make sure you have that property when you get measured.” Well, entanglement certainly exists. It’s a property of quantum physics. But it doesn’t allow you to send a signal, unfortunately. It’s a strange observation of how the world works, and it’s not intuitive, but it does not give us a method of sending information faster than light.
The only glimmer of hope I can see is that general relativity and quantum physics don’t work well together. So we know that our understanding is incomplete. Maybe, if we had a theory of quantum gravity, we might figure out some clever way of making a jump through hyperspace. But as things stand, we are stuck with that slower-than-light trek to the stars.
Joel: In the AppleTV series on Foundation they have very cool looking jump ships that create their own black hole to presumably let them fold space somehow. I assume that is completely implausible from what I know of black holes. Any thoughts on that?
Stephen: So those jump ships are using that first type of idea I mentioned: the idea that you can somehow warp space in a way that permits travel. And if you are going to warp space then something like a black hole is probably going to be necessary. The singularity of a black hole seems to be a place where the fabric of spacetime gets punctured. Maybe.
Now, if you are a science fiction writer, or the producer of a science fiction television series, and you need some faster-than-light craft for your plot, then I think the best you can do in terms of known science is to use something like a jump drive. I’d certainly cut those people some slack if they use that device. And you could argue that in the absence of a theory of quantum gravity it’s not unreasonable to say a jump drive might be possible. But I really wouldn’t put any money on it!
Joel: If the speed of light does turn out to be a hard limit, does that rule out the possibility of a humans-only galaxy? Or of any other species spreading out through the galaxy?
Stephen: No - I don’t think it does! If we allow our imagination to roam we can think of lots of ways that a civilisation could spread through the Galaxy.
For example: you can imagine creating a Dyson swarm, maybe by dismantling Mercury, and then you have essentially the Sun’s entire power output to play with. You send out self-replicating probes to the nearest stars, travelling fast but at sunlight speeds, and they are programmed to do the same thing when they reach that star system - create a Dyson swarm, send out probes, and so on. Rinse and repeat. And maybe they can terraform a planet in the habitable zone for later colonisation by biological beings. The civilization could spread through the galaxy really quickly. It would take an achingly long time on the timescale of individual beings, of course, but it would be very, very quick on a geological timescale or a cosmic timescale.
It wouldn’t be an Empire as we see in Foundation, because you can’t maintain that central power structure. The speed of light doesn’t allow it. But it would be a humans-only galaxy, if you like. Or an aliens-only galaxy, if some other species did it first.
And I think that leads on to an interesting question: why don’t we see any evidence of that attempt at reaching out into the galaxy?
Joel: From your book I learned that Enrico Fermi asked that question. He, and a lot of other people who understood how old and how large the galaxy was, thought that there should be aliens among us by now, or at least that they should have signalled their presence somehow. One day while he and his super genius friends were at lunch taking a break from building super powerful nuclear weapons at Los Alamos he asked out of the blue, “Where is Everybody?” I think it’s kind of funny they all knew what he meant immediately.
Stephen: That’s right. Fermi had this reputation of being able to calculate things in his head, incredibly quickly, and when they were having this conversation about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence I think his colleagues knew that he’d asked a profound question.
Incidentally, I first came across the notion of the Fermi question, or the Fermi paradox, in Asimov’s science fiction magazine. So that’s yet another way that Asimov has influenced me. Because I’ve thought about that question - where is everybody - I’ve thought about it a lot.
People have come up with lots of solutions over the years. For many people, actually, there isn’t a problem - they’d point to UFOs or UAPs as they are often called now - and say that the aliens are here. But those are just some lights in the sky. It’s not evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Most scientists would say that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, but we just haven’t detected signs of it yet.
Asimov himself wrote a book called Extraterrestrial Civilisations, and he concluded that there are 530,000 planets in our galaxy on which a technological civilisation is now in being. Personally I think Asimov got this number wildly wrong - but most astronomers would agree that there are advanced civilizations out there, possibly thousands of them.
Joel: In which case we have to ask again, where is everybody? Why don’t we see them or hear from them?
Stephen: Indeed. And we could spend hours discussing the various answers people have given. Maybe the galaxy is just too big, and it turns out civilisations can’t disturb the universe in a way that others can detect. Maybe intelligence is a self-limiting phenomenon, and snuffs itself out through war, or environmental destruction, or some grand technological error. Or maybe everyone is listening, too scared of coming to the attention of other civilisations that might be more advanced and potentially malevolent. Lots and lots of possibilities.
But there’s also the possibility that we are alone. Maybe it’s difficult for life to start in the first place. Even if life starts, perhaps the transition from simple unicellular life to more complex lifeforms is difficult. Even if complex life arises – on a planet with the sorts of resources you need for technology; and that has a stable climate that can support evolution over billions of years – would that necessarily lead to beings that are intelligent, technologically sophisticated, interested in space travel?
Personally, I think we’re alone. And it’s a chilling thought. But if you think that way it does put extra responsibility on us not to mess up this planet.
Joel: I’ve been a huge fan of sci fi all my life and love things like Star Trek, where there are countless humanoid species roaming around with lots of dramatic interactions. I’ve kind of come to accept we won’t find anything remotely like that out there, but it would be nice to at least find signs of life in the solar system or beyond, even if only microbial.
So, if we want to get anything like Foundation, I guess it’s up to us to expand beyond the solar system eventually. Let’s just pretend things would play out largely like Asimov presented it in the story, and there are one day quadrillions of humans on trillions of inhabited planets. Given that kind of a context, how plausible would psychohistory be as it’s described in the novels?
Stephen: The social science aspect of this is not something I’m expert in. I think it was a stroke of genius by Asimov to think about human interactions statistically in the same way that physicists look at molecular interactions statistically. We don’t know what an individual molecule might do, but when you have quadrillions of them you know with certainty what’s going to happen. We have the laws of thermodynamics. And thermodynamics was obviously an inspiration for Asimov – one of his best ever stories, The Last Question, is about thermodynamics. And it is a profound story, about what humanity might become. I won’t give any spoilers – except to say you have to read it.
That idea of psychohistory inspired at least two people to take up economics, and use mathematics to try and predict future behaviour, and go on to win the Nobel Prize. That’s Roger Myerson and Paul Krugman. So Asimov clearly struck a chord.
Whether it’s possible, though, I don’t know. I don’t think economists, right now, understand how people act in the real world. The mathematics they used ten, twelve years ago didn’t help them understand the financial crash. The models they were using probably made it worse.
And you can think of psychohistory in terms of politics, maybe. Salvor Hardin says something along the lines of “I wanted to be a psychohistorian but we didn’t have the facilities. So I went into politics. It’s the same thing.” But again, if you look at politics over the past few years – we have politicians that seem unable to predict what they are going to have for dinner tonight, let alone what might happen next week, or next month.
On the other hand, you look at the developers of social media platforms – and they seem to know exactly how to get people to behave in particular ways. They seem to know exactly what buttons to push.
So I don’t know! I’d be interested to know what you think!
Joel: My take is that people tend to dismiss it too easily. I suspect that psychohistory as Asimov describes it wouldn’t exactly work, but he was also careful not to describe it too well. I think that, if the datasets are large enough, enough human beings and enough knowledge of the patterns of human nature, we could get pretty high probabilities of certain events playing out in certain ways, and isn’t that essentially psychohistory? Skeptics like to speak of chaos theory and think that’s enough to debunk it, and maybe it is, but the way I think of it is that the unpredictable things can be assigned a probability of happening and that affects the total probability of any given prediction coming true. We tend to look at the Mule as an example of a failure of Seldon’s psychohistorical plan, but that was why there was always a percentage of likelihood given.
Let me switch gears for a minute and ask about an entirely different feature of Asimov’s universe which he left out of Foundation at first, but eventually brought in and that’s robots. He postulated positronic brains for robots and three inviolable laws of robotics:
Later he added a “zeroth law” which says a robot can break any of the other laws if it’s in service of protecting humanity as a whole.
Are “positronic brains” remotely possible and would it be possible to bake in the three laws?
Stephen: I don’t think “positronic brains” are remotely possible, but this was just another of his phrases – like “hyperspace jump” – where Asimov left the reader to fill in the gaps. If you strip away the nuts and bolts, and look at the fundamental idea he was concerned with – that humans would develop machines that can act for themselves, and interact with people – then I think he was really modern in his thinking.
The robots before Asimov tended to be machines that turned on their creators. But Asimov once said that whenever people invent anything, they invent safeguards. When they invented a sword, they invented a hilt - so the fingers didn’t go slithering off when you thrust at someone. Same with robots, however they manifest themselves physically. We’ll want to bake in some safeguards.
What those safeguards should be - well, that’s a really interesting question, isn’t it? The three laws make sense, but they are ambiguous. And that was great for Asimov. As he said, when he wanted an idea for a new robot story he just had to look at the three laws and look for complications. A robot shouldn’t harm a man? Well, what is man that thou art mindful of him? If harming one person saves two people from harm, is that OK? Does psychological harm count the same as physical harm? How could a robot understand psychological harm anyway? And isn’t engaging in dangerous activity something we need to do occasionally? (I think the best robot story that Asimov didn’t write was “With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson, which is about robots taking those laws too seriously.) And so on and so on.
I don’t think we’ll see an entity like Daneel Olivaw any time soon. But advances in machine learning means we’ll see computers that are really, really powerful. And I think - as a society - what safeguards we need to put in place to handle that technology. We need philosophers and ethicists and computer scientists to think about this. But as a society we need to think about what those laws of behaviour should be. We don’t have very long to wait. We should be thinking about this now. In some ways I’d have preferred it if AppleTV not filmed Foundation but filmed the Caves of Steel, and the Naked Sun, instead. It might have helped kickstart that conversation.
Joel: Speaking of the TV show, what’s your reaction to it?
Stephen: I loved the visuals. There were certain scenes that were like a Chris Foss painting come to life. That was wonderful.
But I’m not sure who the series was aimed at. There’ll be people like me who think it deviated too much from the book. I understand why the producers of a TV show might need to do that. And heaven knows, some of the attitudes to women needed to be updated. But for me - and I know for others - something was lost in the translation. I liked the actors, I liked some of the additions to the story. It wasn’t bad - it was just a bit, meh. I was thinking about this last night, and I think one of the reasons I was disappointed was that it was all so serious, so portentous. But the stories were actually quite light in parts; Asimov was often quite ironic. And that lightness of touch just didn’t come across in the show.
For people who haven’t read Foundation, and are coming to this fresh, well - I can imagine it being quite confusing. All I can say is that my wife, who isn’t a science fiction fan, didn’t enjoy it!
Joel: I seem to be in the rare group of book lovers who also loved the show. When it was announced I remember thinking that it was very likely to depart significantly from the original plotline due to the changes in the society that would be receiving it, so I accepted all of that in advance. I also didn’t want it to be identical because then it would hardly be worth watching as entertainment. I enjoy being surprised by the unexpected, which is a core part of what makes the original story so great for me. Fortunately, there were plenty of new elements and surprises, and I’ve found it to be pretty exhilarating to watch at times. Not everything worked and I have my gripes with it, but nothing too major. It doesn’t surprise me that your wife wouldn’t like it if she’s not into sci fi. My wife is the same. It appears we are both drawn to these same kind of mysterious beings.
Back to another core premise in Foundation, Asimov presumed normal human lifetimes in the distant future. Do you think we will find ways of extending human lifetime significantly beyond what we have today?
Stephen: Possibly. Probably. I’m sure that biologists and doctors will make tremendous strides in the future. For example, those nanobots depicted in the TV show – I suspect they’ll be available within decades, and they’ll be able to help maintain health and delay aging. We’ll have better and better gene therapies. And there’ll be improvements in medicine that we haven’t even imagined.
In terms of the Foundation series, though, Asimov was using the future to ask questions about the past, about the forces of history, about politics, about how we should live today. An extended human lifespan would presumably lead to very different social structures, social attitudes, and so on. So I think he was right not to introduce that idea into Foundation. It would have been a very different series of stories.
It’s the same with various other aspects of Foundation. I’ve recently listened to your recent episodes on “The Mule”, for example. You mention Bayta and Toran getting married. In the book it’s emphasised that marriage is an archaic institution, few people bother with it. But Asimov doesn’t tell us what has replaced it, or what institutions are in place for raising children. And he doesn’t tell us because it’s not relevant to understanding Seldon’s plan, or the two Foundations, or the Empire.
But going back to your question, it’s also worth saying that the increased life expectancy we’ve seen in recent years isn’t down to an increase in lifespan. It’s because of the introduction of basic public health measures, a reduction in infant mortality, and so on. Increasing the human lifespan rather than life expectancy is a problem that biologists still have to solve. But - yes - I think they probably will solve it. And that will bring its own problems…
Joel: Can you tell me about any other favorite science fiction novels and stories that relate to distant human history - as Asimov conceived of it in Foundation?
Stephen: Books about distant human history. That’s a hard question.
If you haven’t read it, I can recommend “The City and the Stars” by Arthur Clarke. That gives a quite different take on the future of humanity. But it’s very clever.
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter Miller looks at how history repeats itself. That’s a haunting story.
We shouldn’t forget “The Time Machine” by HG Wells. And Asimov’s own “The End of Eternity” – it’s quite different from Foundation, but it’s a very impressive novel.
“Hyperion” by Dan Simmons, and “The Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe – are very different in style to Asimov.
A more recent trilogy is “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin. That’s very good.
There’s lots. I could go on for ages.
Joel: I’ve read a couple of those and still have many to get to, which is a nice thought. In my youth I loved the Big Three and read a lot of Clarke and Heinlein. Another of my favorites I just had a chance to revisit was Robert Sheckley. I’d read an amazingly imaginative and hilarious novel he’d written called Mindswap when I was in my teens. I found it again recently in a book of five of his novels and they were all absolutely wonderful.
The biggest contemporary science fiction writer I love reading is Kim Stanley Robinson, and I’ve been fortunate to get to know him personally. His Mars trilogy was enormously influential to me, but I just love his vision of humanity’s spread throughout the solar system as described in a couple of his other novels. The latest I read by him is entirely Earthbound, The Ministry for the Future, and attempts to describe a realistic path forward through possibly the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced as a species in climate change. It’s a powerful book I highly recommend.
I’m curious how you came across Seldon Crisis. Do you have any favorite episodes?
Stephen: Before I answer that, I just want to say I agree with your estimation of Kim Stanley Robinson. He’s a terrific writer. He can do light-hearted stories, too, as well as the serious stuff. I can recommend “Escape from Kathmandu” if you want something to cheer you up.
About podcasts - I got into podcast listening only recently. Someone recommended “The History of English Podcast” by Kevin Stroud. It’s about the history of the English language, starting right back with the proto-Indo-European language of thousands of years ago. I can highly recommend it. Anyway, I downloaded a podcast player and did a search on Asimov and Foundation, and “Seldon Crisis” came up!
My favourite episodes have been the Mule. But I’ve enjoyed all of them, because they’ve brought the stories back to life for me in a way that the TV show, for example, didn’t. So I hope you’ll continue! And once you’ve gone through the prequels and the sequels, then there are the robot stories to cover. Lots to keep you busy!
Joel: I’m afraid I might disappoint you on that score. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere or I’ll be living with Asimov for the rest of my life - OTOH, that doesn’t sound too horrible. Somebody on Twitter recently mentioned they might emulate what I’m doing and take on the Robots series and I said, please - go for it!
I want to get back to the topic of the Fermi paradox for a minute. I read the first edition of “Where is Everybody?” where you present 50 proposed solutions to the question. I then discovered there’s a later edition with another 25 and of course I’m interested in what those are and if you find any of them compelling.
There’s one intriguing one I heard about recently on an excellent podcast, The End of the World with Josh Clark, in which he discusses the paradox and a lot of existential risks for humanity. He described something called the Estivation Hypothesis. This is really out there, but it says that aliens would eventually reach a stage at which they would get so advanced, they would become post-biological and that they would run up against serious problems with waste heat, and their ideal solution would be to set up Dyson spheres harvesting a large part of the galaxy’s energy and then estivate - essentially go to sleep - to await a cooler future in a few billion years where they could process information more efficiently. It seems pretty whacky to me but I wondered if that was among the 25 new solutions in your later book and what you thought of it.
It seems to me that a post-biological civilization would have an entirely different relationship to time and space than we do, unconstrained by our mortal lifespans. Maybe they wouldn’t crave advancement in territory and knowledge the way we do?
Stephen: So this is a really fast-moving field! The second edition of “Where is Everybody?” was published in 2015, and the Aestivation Hypothesis, which is an idea of Anders Sandberg and some of his colleagues from Oxford, was out in preprint just as I was finalising the book - so I could only mention the hypothesis in passing. There’s actually some debate about whether the physics of the idea stacks up - whether it’s worth storing your energy for when the universe cools, so that you can do more efficient computing. It’s not clear that the proposal works. But it does demonstrate that people are still thinking about this problem.
One of the ideas I covered in the second edition is the notion that advanced civilisations, if they wanted to transmit their “Encyclopedia Galactica”, would find it energetically favourable to write it down, encode it physically in a small volume, and then send billions of copies out into space. They’d shield the message, to guard against cosmic rays and other degradations, and send it out by probe. A sort of message in a bottle. And a couple of years ago we saw something that fit the bill: Oumuamua! The first visitor from interstellar space to visit the solar system. Now, I think Oumuamua was actually a natural object - maybe a fragment of nitrogen ice - but it shows that it’s worth looking for these things.
I think one of the really important questions in science is the role that biology plays in the universe. You know, what sort of universe do we live in? Is Earth the only planet in the galaxy that gave rise to life? Is primitive life common, but complex life rare? Or are there other intelligences out there? If there are, have they become post-biological in some way?
And the really interesting thing is that we will soon have some incredible new observatories that will help us find the answers. The James Webb Space Telescope. The Vera Rubin Observatory. These are exciting times!
Joel: Before I ask my last question – no Asimovian pun intended – I just want to say that if Ouamuamua was a message in a bottle it’s a crying shame we weren’t ready to intercept it. Just another few decades of development and we might have had the capability. Oh well…
So, Stephen, What are you working on now?
Stephen: Well, I’m finalising a project I started during lockdown. It’s a bit of a departure for me. It’s called “Around the World in 80 Ways”, and it’s essentially a collection of 80 world maps that illustrate some topic of interest - well, a topic that I found interesting and I could find data about - along with a one or two page commentary. So that’s been fun.
I had another lockdown project that I put on hold. It’s an exploration of the year 1956 - what happened in the real world along with what happened in science fiction. Because this was, I think, one of the best years in the history of science fiction. Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke were all producing great work. The science fiction magazines were still strong. There were some terrific movies - Forbidden Planet, my favourite, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and others. So I thought it would be fun to explore that time, which looking back seems like an entirely different world.
I’d put the idea on hold, but listening to your podcast has reawakened that urge to look at some classic science fiction. So that will be the next project for me!
Joel: It’s been a blast having you on the podcast and I wish you well in your future projects. Thanks so much for offering your perspectives on Foundation and Asimov, as well as the amazing concepts he and other writers have presented.
Stephen: It’s been fun, Joel. Thank you.
Joel: To all of our listeners out there – we still have one more special episode coming before we get into season three of Seldon Crisis. Next up is another guest episode with a different perspective on Foundation. I’ll be speaking with TCA Achintya, a historian who studies the British Empire and happens to be another big fan of Asimov and Foundation. We’ll be getting into some of his insights into the story and it’s genesis in Asimov’s passion for history.
Happy holidays and see you soon for History and Foundation, here on Seldon Crisis!