Asimov: Natures that Change Most Slowly - Have the Oldest Ideas


(George Brooks) #1

A long time ago I got to meet Isaac Asimov. I was the only college reporter there at the Boston Museum of Science. Asimov was there to receive an award and he hated flying. He drove in from New York. The weather was bad. Bad enough that I was the only college reporter to show. In fact, bad enough I was the only reporter to show!

For 20 minutes I got to ask Asimov all my private little questions about the future and the Earth, and Asimov was on a roll! He summed up a large part of his view that if the Earth was already exceeding its carrying capacity in total human population, then math would provide the answer: either the Birth Rate goes down, or the Death Rate will go up. Hooooo… that was a lot for a college boy to hear on a messy weather day. (Modern day pundits believe global human population will peak some time around 2050-2060 CE, and then slowly begin an awkward descent down to who knows where.)

Finally the reporter from the Boston Globe showed up and I let him catch up with Asimov as I jotted down notes from what Asimov said, and how he said it. The Globe reporter would eventually write an article about Asimov’s lamb chop sideburns. My treatment would ponder Asimov’s grim predictions and some of the sociological remedies that could help us grapple with the future.

I submitted the write up to the school paper at Eastern Nazarene College. Even though I didn’t attend there, I felt honor bound to give them an article … after all, it was ENC’s school editor who asked me to run out to Boston to do the interview for the paper!

About 10 years later, Asimov wrote this text (below) regarding this group’s favorite topic: Evolution vs. Creationism!

The article, “The Relativity of Wrong” (The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, Vol. 14, No. 1, Pp. 35-44), does an elegant job of explaining just why some bad ideas last a very long time:

The Relativity of Wrong, by Isaac Asimov

“. . . . what actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.”

"This can be pointed out in many cases other than just the shape of the earth. Even when a new theory seems to represent a revolution, it usually arises out of small refinements. If something more than a small refinement were needed, then the old theory would never have endured. "

"Copernicus switched from an earth-centered planetary system to a sun-centered one. In doing so, he switched from something that was obvious to something that was apparently ridiculous. However, it was a matter of finding better ways of calculating the motion of the planets in the sky, and eventually the geocentric theory was just left behind. It was precisely because the old theory gave results that were fairly good by the measurement standards of the time that kept it in being so long. "

"Again, it is because the geological formations of the earth change so slowly and the living things upon it evolve so slowly that it seemed reasonable at first to suppose that there was no change and that the earth and life always existed as they do today. If that were so, it would make no difference whether the earth and life were billions of years old or thousands. Thousands were easier to grasp. "

"But when careful observation showed that the earth and life were changing at a rate that was very tiny but not zero, then it became clear that the earth and life had to be very old. Modern geology came into being, and so did the notion of biological evolution. "

"If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly. "

The full article is reproduced here:
http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm