Thursday, June 11, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Psychohistory

Isaac AsimovIsaac Asimov via

Psychohistory (n.) - A field of study that uses advanced mathematics to accurately predict the future. Specifically, it's the use of sociological statistics to predict the collective behavior of large groups of people, like galaxy-spanning empires. Isaac Asimov is credited with coining this connotation of the term in 1951 with his Foundation series, which itself is considered required reading by most traditional sci-fi fans. There is a real field of study called psychohistory, which is about analyzing the psychological motivations behind historical events, but most sci-fi fans are either ignorant of this fact, or simply curse its existence when it muddles up their Asimov-related Google search results.

I bring it up because: A mere 58 years ago this week, the first UNIVAC I was dedicated into service at the U.S. Census Bureau -- June 14, 1951. (1951, coincidentally, was also the first year that Asimov's original Foundation stories were collected into book form.) UNIVAC was America's first successful commercial computer, and it made famous the notion of statistical prediction of major events when the fifth UNIVAC I unit successfully predicted the outcome of 1952 U.S. Presidential election based on early poll returns. This practice is now common, and is in some ways the real-world analogue of Asimov's psychohistorical notions. Asimov, in turn, took the UNIVAC name and ran with it, creating the Multivac series of stories about a perpetually evolving supercomputer. The most famous of these is the short story "The Last Question," which Asimov described as perhaps the favorite of his own works, wherein Multivac is asked to "solve" the heat-death of the universe.

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