Saturday, September 5, 2009

Robert Heinlein had this one pegged in 1952

No, this isn't a Heinlein as libertarian prophet post, it's a connection that came to me when I read a new story at Science Daily.

In 1952, Heinlein wrote a short story entitled Year of the Jackpot which had, as its main character, a statisician named Potiphar Breen. Breen collected statistical curves on everything, in an increasingly crazy world.

Minus some really good writing, here is the basic premise from a plot summary:

Breen is a statistician. Working mostly for insurance companies, he advises them on probability and trends. In his spare time, he studies cycles. Human behavior seems to run in cycles, with prices, wages, hemlines, fashions, and entire economies crashing and rising again for no reason, except that each was following the ups and downs of a cycle. Three big cycles bottomed out in 1929, causing the Crash of 1929. It is now 1952, and every cycle he tracks will either trough or crest simultaneously in about six months.

In the end [and I literally mean in the end] statistics like the hemlines of women's dresses and corn blight in Arkansas predict sudden, abrupt calamity for the entire human race.

Now today's post from Science Daily suggests that Breen [and therefore Heinlein] was way ahead of his time:

ScienceDaily (Sep. 5, 2009) — What do abrupt changes in ocean circulation and Earth's climate, shifts in wildlife populations and ecosystems, the global finance market and its system-wide crashes, and asthma attacks and epileptic seizures have in common?

According to a paper published this week in the journal Nature, all share generic early-warning signals that indicate a critical threshold of change dead ahead.

In the paper, Martin Scheffer of Wageningen University in The Netherlands and co-authors, including William Brock and Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., found that similar symptoms occur in many systems as they approach a critical state of transition.

"It's increasingly clear that many complex systems have critical thresholds -- 'tipping points' -- at which these systems shift abruptly from one state to another," write the scientists in their paper.

Especially relevant, they discovered, is that "catastrophic bifurcations," a diverging of the ways, propel a system toward a new state once a certain threshold is exceeded.

The distinction between this post and Heinlein's story is an interesting one: RAH went one significant step further than these scientists, suggesting that seemingly completely unrelated phenomena--like sunspots and women's fashion--do in fact have something in common in a predictive sense.

Which may boil down either to astrology or quantum non-locality, but is worth thinking about.

The most interesting paragraph in SD is the one that suggests that the whole issue of climate change may not lead quite where many of our pundits are suggesting:

The increasing climate variability of recent times, state the paper's authors, may be interpreted as a signal that the near-term future could bring a transition from glacial and interglacial oscillations to a new state -- one with permanent Northern Hemisphere glaciation in Earth's mid-latitudes.

Heinlein once wrote: Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get.


Miko said...

That's the strangest Heinlein story I've ever read. He seems to take position that humans are mystically forced into acting in a way that fits Breen's models, rather than suggesting that Breen designed the models to fit observed behavior.

Hube said...

Sounds a bit like Hari Seldon's psychohistory ...

Rigel Kent said...

Interesting post. Heinlein's been one of my favorite author's since the first time I read him more than 20 years ago now.

I've always been a very firm believer in free will and self-determination, and I always felt that Heinlein was as well. Which is why I was so bothered the first time I read "Year of the Jackpot".

It seemed to imply just the opposite. But in the years since I first read it I've come to another conclusion. One quote Heinlein used a lot was from Frederick Douglas, "A slave can not be freed, save he free himself." I think in a way it applies to this story.

You see if you don't understand the forces around you, then you can in effect become a "slave" to them. Being driven to make decisions you don't understand and which consequences you can't foresee. I think this story was one of Heinlein's attempts to help people understand that.

Of course how much of this is me projecting my own viewpoint onto Heinlein's words is as open to interpretation as the story itself.