In my readings of science fiction I’ve come across a persistent concept that was very popular in the twentieth century, and that is the future evolution of psychology into a “hard” science. I’ve already said something that is bound to offend lots of people, so let’s take a step back and lower the pitchforks.
The commonly accepted definition of a “hard” science is that it strives to understand the fundamental mechanical workings of the Universe. Some examples are physics, chemistry, geology, and even biology. “Soft” sciences use the scientific method to try to understand more intangible human aspects of the world, such as in psychology, sociology, and some aspects of anthropology. (“Biological anthropology” is much more of a “hard” science.) A more practical definition (and one that will serve us in the present discussion) is that “hard” sciences can make predictions based on established physical laws. For instance, if you stand in your kitchen and drop an apple, physic predicts that the apple will not only fall but that it will do so at a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters per second per second. That is true because you are standing on Earth, which has a known gravitational field per Isaac Newton’s equations (or if you want to get fancy you can use Einstein’s Relativity). Fields like psychology are quite a bit different. Though psychology aims to use statistical methods (i.e. mathematics), it does not truly offer predictions. That is not to say that psychologists can’t make predictions; indeed when people design experiments they often expect it to show a certain result (that’s the hypothesis part of the scientific method). It is more that psychologists tend not to make predictions because their predictions are less grounded in “known laws” than physicists’ predictions are. Of course, once upon a time the field that we would now call physics wasn’t good at making predictions either. That’s because those “known laws” weren’t yet known. Indeed, psychology is at the stage where scientists are trying to uncover “laws of psychology.” Do such laws even exist? Are humans governed solely by complex behavioral laws? The truth is that we don’t know yet, same as physicists didn’t know two thousand years ago how the Sun produced energy. (Basically all the theories back then were indistinguishable from magic because the key physical mechanism of the Sun’s energy production – atomic fusion – was a complete mystery.) Maybe there are laws that govern human behavior, laws that can be written down mathematically the same way we can describe the motion of planets orbiting a star. It’s not hard to understand why such scientific speculation is ripe for sci-fi pickings.
The most prominent science fiction example of psychology as a “hard” science is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is built upon the fictional concept of psychohistory. The laws of psychohistory state that large enough groups of humans behave in ways that can be predicted by fundamental behavioral laws. How large is “large enough”? Tens of billions. Meaning that Earth today could not be predicted by psychohistory, but the human population of the fully colonized Milky Way galaxy in the time of the Foundation books counts humans in the hundreds of billions, meaning that the motions of the Galactic Empire can be predicted with definable precision. And what future does Harry Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, predict for the galaxy? The complete collapse of the Galactic Empire followed by a 30,000 year brutal dark age. Only by establishing the Foundation can they shorten the dark age to merely 1,000 years. That is the basic premise of the Foundation series, and it is entirely predicated on the idea that psychology can evolve into a “hard” science.
Foundation isn’t alone though, and I’ve encountered numerous examples of this concept in science fiction. Another prominent example is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though not a central idea, Starship Troopers explores the concept that psychology (or perhaps more appropriately, sociology) has evolved into a mathematical science. Here it is possible to mathematically prove that certain systems of government are better than others, finding mathematical optimizations. Though not a central concept, this imbues the militarist government of Earth with a moral certainty. “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus.” (Tangentially, if you’ve only ever seen the 1997 film then the book is not what you think it is. The book is essentially a philosophical treatise in monologue about militarism, war, obligation, responsibility, and maturity, with two action sequences as bookends. As such, it’s classic Heinlein and worth a read.)
To leave you with one final example. The television series Lie to Me exploits the idea of biological-based psychology. In the show, behavioral psychologist Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) has invented the science of microexpressions to read emotional responses, which he uses to consult with police departments to solve crimes. (Yes, Lie to Me is yet another 1990’s science-based crime drama.) Interestingly, the character of Lightman is based on a real psychologist, professor Paul Ekman, who has actually created the field that Lightman has in the show. Ekman has consulted extensively with the TSA to develop techniques to screen airline passengers, and if the idea of teaching TSA agents to read tiny muscle spasms in people’s faces to infer suspicious behavior sounds dubious that’s because it very much is. We should be skeptical any time a real world discovery sounds like science fiction, but when governments embrace science fiction sounding psychology to identify “threats” we should all run the other way. Perhaps that’s the moral we should take from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as well: “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus. If the math doesn’t work out then you did the math wrong.”
I’ve written about how Star Trek struggles to handle the concept of religion, but that doesn’t mean that Star Trek can’t be interpreted through the language of religion. In fact, the greatest messianic figure in all of Trek lore is undoubtedly Zefram Cochrane.
First off, we should establish that Star Trek can be interpreted as a system of mythology, with myth being defined as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people,” with those “people” being devout Star Trek fans – Trekkies or Trekkers. The idea being that the future-history of Star Trek shows us where our world can go if we put aside our hate; a future of racial integration, and a world without poverty or hunger. An alternative definition of myth is as a synonym for parable, being “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude,” which is a good description of how a lot of fans I grew up with thought about individual episodes of Star Trek.
According to Trek mythology, Zefram Cochrane was the human being that invented warp drive. He accomplished this task in a post-World War III apocalyptic waste, and almost single handed, with only the help of a Black woman that future-history has largely forgotten (which says a lot more than I can unpack here). As the story goes, Cochrane piloted the human race’s first faster-than-light spaceship, which attracted the attention of a passing Vulcan spacecraft. The Vulcans, learning that humans had discovered warp travel, land on Earth to introduce themselves.
These events are shown in the film Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Next Generation crew have to travel back in time to make sure the aforementioned first contact event happens as it is supposed to. Events force the crew to confront Zefram Cochrane and tell him who they are and what he has to do to bring about the human utopia portrayed in the rest of Star Trek lore. But the man they meet does not match up with the historical figure. This is not the visionary scientist they learn about in school. This man is a womanizer and an alcoholic. Cochrane later admits that he never built the ship for the reasons future generations think he did.
"I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity… I built this ship so that I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women. That’s Zefram Cochrane. That’s his vision. This other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will."
Cochrane clearly asserts that he is not a saint, and from our perspective he certainly isn’t. But according to the parable of first contact that’s okay, because he hasn’t yet been spiritually transformed.
Star Trek is fairly unique among science fiction stories in that it portrays first contact with an alien race as an almost universally positive societal transformation. A lot of science fiction views first contact as a threat leading to annihilation, drawing parallels to historical “first contacts” between societies on Earth (i.e. Native American Indians and Columbus, or almost any country and the British). Still more science fiction views first contact in more mundane terms, being just another amazing thing that happens to technologically advanced societies that they learn to live with (the television series Babylon 5 comes to mind). First contact is different in Star Trek. At least for humanity, the knowledge that we are not alone in the Universe sparked a spiritual awakening and a golden age. The crew of the Enterprise tell Cochrane that his warp flight will “change everything.”
"It is one of the pivotal moments in human history, doctor! You get to make first contact with an alien race, and after you do, everything begins to change… It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible when they realize they’re not alone in the Universe. Poverty, disease, war, they’ll all be gone within the next fifty years. But unless you make that warp flight… none of it will happen."
Warp drive is a transformative technology in Star Trek. It is the point in a species’ technological development where it becomes okay for other alien races to introduce themselves. In the same way that the atom bomb resulted in mass societal change, faster-than-light travel magically unites a species for the common good. As a result, Zefram Cochrane is a messianic figure for the humans of Star Trek. Once a man consumed by hedonism, alcohol, and greed, when he became the first human to shake an alien’s hand he was spiritually transformed. Within him resides all of humanity, because they too will set aside their petty conflicts and stand together to feed the hungry, sooth the poor, and bring about true peace on Earth. They can do this not because of some technological advancement, but simply because they choose to. News of first contact triggers a global spiritual awakening and transforms our species in a few short decades. In a way, this is Star Trek’s origin myth, because through this one event the story world that we watch is made possible.
At least, that’s one way to look at it.
If I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan of photography as an art form. I’m not saying that it’s not an art form, I’m just saying that for the most part it’s not for me. One strong exception is photomicrography, or the art of taking photographs of insanely tiny things, generally through a microscope. One of the best outlets for this work is the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition which announced its 2020 winners a few months ago.
These microscale photographs capture images of our world beyond our natural perception. A fly’s head becomes a nuanced structure of ridges, hairs, and texture that you could almost reach out and touch. An image of a beetle’s leg can be used to illustrate convergent evolution with a crab’s leg. Your mind can be blown by the size of the scales of a butterfly’s wing, or, like me, you can simply marvel at the size of hairs on a fuzzy beetle.
Astronomy asks us to look up and marvel at the immense scale of the Universe that dwarfs our everyday lives. Microscopy asks us to look down, and see the beauty of an entirely different universe all around us.
Adrienne LaFrance has a new article on The Atlantic today arguing that Facebook is a doomsday machine. Like, a Doctor Strangelove style doomsday machine. I admit that the metaphor is a bit over the top, but if 2016 did anything to me – and you can be certain that it did a lot to me – it was to make me question the value of social media as a whole. My day-to-day feelings toward social media are as favorable as you might expect from an aspiring writer with a blog. I definitely feel a love for social media since I’ve made so many great friends through it, and some of those friendships have outlasted my more “traditional” friendships by a decade or more. So to say that my relationship status with social media is complicated is a bit of an understatement.
As a result of my musings on science fiction I’ve recently developed a profound hope that the age of social media will be short lived. I dream that one day we’ll talk of social media in the “when I was your age” style of reminiscing reserved for holiday gatherings when it’s just too rude to completely ignore grandpa as he rambles on in his favorite recliner. You may think that social media is too big, too ingrained in our culture to disappear, but I submit that when a substantial segment of active users are questioning its value then the ground is readying for a shift. Former executives of both Google and Facebook have expressed regret over their role in social media corporations. They have said that social media serves as “amplifiers for idiots and crazy people” and are places where “no civil discourse, no cooperation” exist. They are clear to point out that this is “not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.” These are the same people that built these tech juggernauts pointing at their product and advising people not to use it. That’s more than a bit unusual, and as a result I think we should seriously listen to them.
As an avid reader of science fiction I’ve noticed that a surprisingly small amount of stories involve social media. Most often the evolution of smart phone technology is used for texting or encrypted communications, which is undoubtedly a direction that we’re heading. Very few of the stories I’ve read in the last few years have had anything like Facebook or Twitter, and when they do they are a primary focus of the story in order to comment (unfavorably) on the concept of social media; thus is the nature of science fiction at its best.
This general lack of social media in contemporary science fiction stories leads me back to The Nerdwriter’s excellent video on smart phones in blockbuster movies. Obviously, the presence of smart phones and social media are tightly coupled, but in his video (which I highly recommend) he argues that smart phones don’t show up in films whose primary goal is wide spread entertainment appeal because we resent these devices and what they’ve done to us. Similarly, I’d like to believe that speculative fiction authors leave out social media because they aren’t happy with what it has done to us.
Whether or not I’m correct that social media is just a wild phase of the adolescent internet, the article by LaFrance is thought provoking and has a lot of good linked articles for a deeper dive. After reading that maybe give that Nerdwriter video a watch and think for yourself about why smart phones often do nothing but serve as flip phones in blockbuster movies. As for me… I need to put links to this blog post on all my social media.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.