Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Gods Themselves

 Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

This resonant quotation from Schiller ("Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain") provides the title for one of Isaac Asimov's best sci-fi novels, which I recently reread.

The core idea: On a future earth, the discovery of a new and apparently "impossible" material leads to the development of what seems to be an inexhaustible source of free energy - the "Electron Pump" - leading to fame and fortune for the discoverer, and a renewal of global prosperity.

But one scientist suspects that things are not as rosy as they seem.  In fact, the "waste product" of the Electron Pump - a local change in the laws of physics - may be disrupting the internal equilibrium of the Sun, heating it up and possibly turning it into a supernova.

He goes to a senior politician, Senator Burt, to explain his fears.  The senator responds:

“It is a mistake to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not encourage cancer. When it became clear that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines. Now then, young man, don’t ask me to stop the Pumping. The economy and comfort of the entire planet depend on it. Tell me, instead, how to keep the Pumping from exploding the Sun.” (Asimov, Isaac (2011-05-04). The Gods Themselves (Kindle Locations 894-899). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

We do not like predicaments - problems which come without an obvious solution.  In the novel, Asimov manages to get the planet out of its predicament (after a long and highly imaginative detour into trivalent alien sex).  But are we going to find a way out of the predicament that the waste products of our favored energy source are producing?

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