Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation”: Predicting the future with mathematical sociology

By: April Carson

If you enjoy fantasy and science fiction, it's time to check out Foundation. This series, which premiered on Apple TV on September 24th, has a lot in common with today's blockbusters like Game of Thrones. Some classic features include a varied cast of questionable characters, a detailed world brimming with strange customs and traditions, and volumes upon volumes of history and backstory that make the plot feel authentic and grounded.

While the Foundation resembles Game of Thrones in terms of execution, its real narrative couldn't be more different. Where Game of Thrones focuses on the interactions between individual characters, Foundation enlarges out to take a broader view. The main battle in the series isn't fought between individuals, but rather empires and galaxies. The story of Foundation covers millennia, where as the stories of Daenerys Targaryan and Jon Snow only took a few years to conclude.

The Foundation series has always been among the most massive and comprehensive sci-fi novels ever written, even when compared to other huge space epics such as Star Wars and Frank Herbert's Dune. This is due to the fact that its originator, a renowned sci-fi author and editor named Isaac Asimov, borrowed ideas from a highly debated but fascinating academic concept. Mathematical sociology is a term for this theory. Scholars think it has the potential to help us forecast humanity's future if properly understood and researched.

Asimov and the foundations of psychohistory

Hari Seldon, the protagonist of Foundation, is a mathematically inclined astronomer and mathematician who invents psychohistory as a means to study large groups of people's actions in order to anticipate what they'll do next. When Seldon's most recent study reveals the impending collapse of society in which he resides, he devises a plan that will alter history for millennia.

The novels, on the other hand, are more interested in educating readers about how psychohistory works in practice. Using the core principles of his field, Seldon can produce a number of minor course corrections as cosmic history progresses, eventually spreading out into major developments. The goal is that these changes may prevent his planet from suffering from numerous potentially fatal crises.

The first and most basic principle of psychohistory is that, while individuals' actions are difficult to predict because they are subject to chance and freewill, the activities of groups — often driven by herd mentality and mass hysteria — are easier to quantify. In Asimov's stories, this is compared to the study of gas particles; after all, physicists can only predict the motions of gas particles when they're clumped together.

For psychohistory to function, the general public under examination must be kept ignorant of any predictions since awareness of future events would cause them to modify their conduct and, by extension, the course of history itself. The Foundation begins with the axiom, "A leader's primary job is to destroy." The Mule, a mind-controlling Milky Way invader who appeared in later installments and threatened their big strategy, is an example of how this rule has real-world consequences.

Mathematical sociology for dummies

Asimov drew on real-world events while developing his imaginary world, just like all great fantasy and science fiction writers. Asimov learned of a sociological theory that was gaining traction in the academic community when he began working on Foundation. The mathematical sociology concept was developed in the 1950s. This idea, as previously stated, is referred to as mathematical sociology. Although comparable to psychohistory in that it analyzes the actions of large groups, mathematical sociology is less deterministic and more restricted in its applications.

The development of mathematical sociology was influenced by advances in general sociological research, which utilized mathematical models to quantify and analyze the inner workings of social networks and institutions. Applications of linear algebra, graph theory, game theory, and probability are used to analyze social interactions at various levels. The models produced by this method help sociologists understand how “local” interactions affect “global” ones.

The term was coined in the early 1940s, around the same time that Isaac Asimov published the first installment of Foundation. Nicolas Rashevsky and Anatol Rapoport were its creators, both theoretical physicists. Both men were Russian emigrants who went on to establish illustrious academic careers and produce their most important work in the United States. James S. Coleman, a sociologist whose book Introduction to Mathematical Sociology is regarded as one of the founding works in mathematical sociology, used their ideas to develop them into practices.

Contrary to popular belief, mathematically oriented sociological research never gained much traction in the Soviet Union. While communist leaders sought to micro-manage every aspect of society and private life, they were actually opposed to the mathematization of the social sciences. To them, such fields were more concerned with concepts than statistics. Mathematical sociology fared better in the United States, where it was built on the Taylorist and factory management foundation laid by mathematical sociological research.

From mathematical sociology to cliodynamics

Mathematical sociology is currently used almost exclusively to test and refine theories about how various social groups operate. While future actions may be predicted using deductive reasoning, they can't be "predicted" in the same way that Seldon's psychohistory could. Although a minor area of study in comparison to general sociology, mathematical sociology has continued to develop into the twenty-first century, providing sociologists with a reliable tool for better understanding their surroundings.

Asimov was likewise inspired by trends in the academic world, and his Foundation series has influenced future disciplines. After Asimov's death in 1992, a mathematically inclined evolutionary anthropologist named Peter Turchin created what is now known as "cliodynamics," which derives its name from the Greek muse of history. Rather than examining present behaviors, cliodynamics employs mathematical models to discover patterns in the distant past that can subsequently be utilized to forecast the future.

The study of inflection points in economic, social and political development is the topic of mathematical sociology. Cliodynamics examines social and economic changes, discovering recurrence cycles of decreased productivity, declining salaries, and out-of-proportion birthrates that are not only consistent across individual nations but across the globe. Regardless of their differences, the underlying idea behind mathematical sociology, cliodynamics, and psychohistory is that the future can be seen in history and current events.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

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