Monday, June 13, 2016

Robert Heinlein and Intellectual Fads

I just finished the first volume of William Patterson's massive two-volume biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century. It suffers a bit from the curse of too much information; e.g., "Shortly after selling his second story to Astounding, Heinlein feasted on a breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs. The bacon was crispy, but the eggs were too runny. There was no toast." OK, I just made that up, but you get the picture. I'm being a bit unfair, as the most interesting thing about this book is the detailed picture it paints of pre-WW2 American society, especially Heinlein's life at the Naval Academy and his early career in the U.S. Navy. Like many science fiction readers, I had always thought of Heinlein as a writer with a brief and unimportant stint in the Navy. But Heinlein had planned on a life-long naval career before being forced to retire for health reasons -- I am sure that in a parallel universe somewhere he led the Pacific Fleet to victory against the Japanese.

Patterson also highlights another striking aspect of Heinlein's life -- his tendency to fall for many of the more unusual intellectual fads of his day. While he often presented himself as a hard-bitten empiricist, Heinlein latched onto some of the most bizarre variations of socialism in the 1930s, and he was a big fan of general semantics. What's that? You've never heard of general semantics? But it was all the rage -- or at least it was 80 years ago. Promulgated by "Count" Korzybski, it promoted "non-Aristotelian logic." As far as I can see, its major contribution to Western thought was its use as a basis for A.E. van Vogt's novel, The World of Null-A.

Of course, the 20th century is littered with the corpses of many other intellectual fads. One of my colleagues recently noted that the only people who believe in Freudian psychology anymore are English professors! This leads to an obvious question: which of our current intellectual fashions will disappear by the end of the century? Take your pick.

Patterson's biography has very little to say about the content of Heinlein's fiction -- if you're looking for that, I'd recommend Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin.


Kathy said...

Interesting question. Heinlein did indeed jump onto just about everything (to some extent so did Larry Niven). Offhand I can recall stories featuring ESP-like powers, jumping between dimensions, odd combinations of natural forces (through spectra!), and even conventional wisdom like the inevitability of a future nuclear war.

On the other hand he did a rather interesting take on genetic engineering in his last novel "Friday." BTW, that's one of my all-time favorites.

Back to your question, we can begin by listing today's intellectual fads.

For example, and I may be way off here, the hunt for dark matter reminds me a bit of the hunt for a planet inside Mercury's orbit in the XIX Century. That debacle was solved by Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Will we find dark matter, or will we find we need to further extend our understanding of gravity?

And there has been quite a bit of back and forth in nutritional advice, enough to make just about any food-related fad, from low-fat to low-sodium to low-carb to paleo to vegetarianism and more passé already.

Robert Scherrer said...

Cosmologists have considered the possibility that "dark matter" is really a problem with our theory of gravity, but that's always been a minority point of view. The big problem with that idea now is that observations of the "Bullet Cluster" appear to show the collision of two galaxies, with the ordinary matter "pancaking" like the opposing linemen in a football game, while the dark matter just sails on through. That observation is easy to explain in terms of dark matter, but very difficult to understand with modified theories of gravity.

I agree that nutrition advice has continued to yo-yo over the decades. But I do have some sympathy with medical researchers -- we can't do controlled experiments with people like we can with the physical universe!

Kathy said...

My position is that dark matter is almost certainly some kind of particle or family (or families)of particles, some kind of tangible "stuff." But also that there is much we've yet to find out about gravity.

In the end the hunt isn't for dark matter for its own sake, but to find the explanation for several observations made in recent times, like the spin of galaxies vs the detectable matter they contain.

Of course, finding what dark matter is remains very important. If for no other reason that it seems to me to be wholly unexpected. That is, it wasn't predicted by any theory, but rather we found it by making observations (unlike gravitational lensing or black holes which were predicted before they were observed). So I wonder what else we'll find out when (if!) we are able to study it.