Asimov’s Psychohistory and Physics

Celebrated Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov came up with a very intriguing premise for his classic Foundation Series. The character who sets off the events of the series, Hari Seldon, is a Professor of Mathematics who develops a statistical method – the creatively named psychohistory – to predict the future course of “humanity” which is now spread across billions of planets in a Galaxy and is of the order of one quintillion. Using his methods, he predicts that the Galactic Empire will fail (inspired by Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He predicted that the dark age following this event would last thirty thousand years. Presumably using his model’s predictive powers, he creates a plan of interventions (the “Seldon Plan”) that would limit this to a thousand years instead and puts it in action. The method is explained to be a marriage of statistics and sociology assuming a huge population and some sociological precepts like Mass Action.

What has this got to do with Physics? I recently read a few interesting popular science books – In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin, Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory and Cycles of Time by Roger Penrose. The first was written in very simple language and left me with a decent grasp of the ideas of Quantum Theory without delving into the Math. The relevant point to this topic from this book was the fact that the mathematics told us weird things like an electron moving forward in time was equivalent to a positron moving backward in time! What meaning then does time have? The second was a surprisingly lucid book as well and provided a good understanding of Relativity theory. The third I suspect is a brilliant book but I barely understood it. The concept was that Entropy increases with time and ultimately the Universe is filled with mass-less red-shifted photons where distance loses all meaning and this state can become the starting point of a new Big Bang (which is supposed to be a very low entropy state). Gravity plays a huge part in these sequence of events (like smashing black-holes together for example). The mathematics and the geometry were easily beyond me. But what I learned using these readings is that apparently Entropy is the only physical concept that gives meaning to the concept of time.

Further to this I came across an interesting article – A New Physics Theory of Life – from about a year ago on research by Jeremy England from MIT. I then read the original paper that triggered the media hype – Statistical Physics of Self-replication – which basically tries to explain that a biological process like self-replication is inevitable if we follow through with the ideas of Entropy and Thermodynamics in a statistical sense. It seems to say that, in its inexorable march towards higher and higher entropy, the Universe inevitably gives rise to life because life is a system that can work very close to perfect thermodynamic efficiency and give rise to disorder much more effectively! The questions this research raises are several. Intelligent life is capable of increasing entropy much faster than the lazy mammals! Is that why we evolved? Where then do we go from here? Can we predict the broad contours of our future using the statistics of entropy and thermodynamics? Especially with billions on humans on our planet and may be several other intelligent species across other planets in our galaxy? Is Interstellar travel then fated to happen! Wars between planets, the power to harness the energy of several stars, all ensuring that the march towards a high entropy state continues and is probably even sped up!

Now try telling me this doesn’t sound a bit like Asimov’s psychohistory!