Nightfall

Nightfall, a short story by Isaac Asimov, is a truly wonderful real if you haven’t read it.  For a quick plot summary check outhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightfall_%28Asimov_short_story_and_novel%29, but really you should just read it.  It’s available around the internet to read for free on lots of different sites.

The one little (very little) discussion that I’ve read from the Guardian (available athttp://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/dec/19/darkness-nightfall-isaac-asimov), primarily focused on the tension that exists in the book between the scientists and the so-called cultists, which I think is really missing the subtler, much more interesting point that science, or at least the process of scientific discovery, is so very dependent on our surroundings and what we can directly experience.  For example, the story is set in the year 2050 of this civilization on the planet Lagash.  Lagash has seven suns, at least one of which is visible at all times, except for once every 2050 years during a total solar eclipse of Beta, one of their suns.  This eclipse is the only time night falls on Lagash and the only time that the people of Lagash experience darkness.  At one point a scientist explains to a reporter how they have recently discovered the law of universal gravitation (Newton’s version) and it explains the motion of the seven suns and Lagash, with the exception that there must be a small perturbation (i.e. another mass orbiting Lagash or in other words the moon that will eventually cause the eclipse).  He then continues on to suggest a “toy-model” where there is only one sun and a planet orbiting that sun, and how ridiculous that would be!  How simple the math would be and how clearly obvious the law of gravitation would seem that humanity would take it as axiom!

Newton’s law of gravitation came in the 1600s; in the story we can roughly assume that it comes either in the 1900s or the 2000s.  Not that big of a difference, eh?  Perhaps statistically significant, but it hardly came as axiom to us and we really do live in the toy model.  Moreover, the thought of deducing the law of universal gravitation in a seven-bodied system when three has no closed-form general solution is insane!  It’s also of note that the society on Lagash does not use electricity and does not appear to have any computational means so numerical analysis isn’t really a consideration.
Gravity to them though is chaotically complex, challenging (check out    ____   for a simulation of the three bodied problem) and probably very non-periodic (well, ok, let’s suspend our disbelief that a seven bodied system would be periodic every 2050 years…).  It’s kind of difficult to tease out patterns that might lead you to some sort of physical underpinnings of the system.

What I think is so great about this is that it really makes us reflects on how many of us, including myself, sometimes forget that science is very “subjective.” I put it in quotes to reflect that I’m not talking about subjective in the sense of opinions, but more subjective in the sense of being biased towards our experiences and surroundings. We tend to discover and research around topics and subjects that we come into contact with nearly every day.  This is both so cool to think about and at the same time so totally tautological to me.

You might be saying to yourself “of course we can’t research things that we don’t come into contact with! How would we know they even exist?!” and yes, that is true.  But here, what Asimov has done, is not made it so foreign to us: Lagash appears entirely subject to the same physics of Earth, and yet, because they merely experience their world differently, their science is wholly different than ours.  Because they have constant light, there has been no need to seek other light sources (torches: smokey, sooty torches, are the “latest technology”); their world stays quite warm because of the proximity of seven suns and as a result they have not needed to develop heating for their buildings (clothing’s not really talked about, but I would assume they’ve gotten somewhere with that…); electricity has not been harnessed for any purposes, perhaps because they have not needed it for anything; because they have never seen the stars, they assume the universe only consists of them, their suns, their moon, and perhaps a couple of other things (remember that they don’t see the stars until the very end of the story).  And even yet, so much of their society has grown up similar to ours.  They have universities, civilization, religion, etc.  It’s a great thought experiment, really: if we could tweak the initial conditions of our solar system and then watch humans develop under those slightly different circumstances, what would be different and what would stay the same?

Then really, it’s completely important to appreciate that while we read lines like “[d]on’t waste time trying to get t-two stars at a time in the scope field. One is enough,” and laugh, we could be saying stuff that thirty years from now people will look back on and wonder how we could have been so barbaric.

Medicine is probably the easiest field to pick on (it shows up in stories more than a lot of other sciences).  I’ll use an example from Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: many of the characters are afraid of the “poisonous night air” and chalk up any illness to that.  This “theory” also appears in The Pearl.  This theory is basically Miasma Theory, which for a while (until the 19th century) dictated that disease was caused by “bad air.”  Now, for a while, this was the latest, greatest medical theory.  It reigned at the forefront, similar also to how bloodletting was thought to cure disease and trepanation was thought to clear your thought and improve your connection to god.  These were all at one time totally hot shit and the doctors practicing based on these theories were at the forefront of “technology.”  Today, we recognize it all as completely ridiculous as well as scientifically unsound and unjustified… but we are wholly biased by what we now have access to.

A more modern example and perhaps a bit prescient (we’ll see): my graduate advisor (when I was in graduate school) believes that in a decade or two we will look back on imaging technology that relies on x-rays and think that it’s ridiculous that we ever exposed ourselves to ionizing radiation for imaging purposes.  I’m not sure where I stand, but I do think that if I had to pick a technology that we will see fall it would probably be x-ray imaging.


To go back to the fascinating theories of miasmas, think about it: if you walk through a field of rotting corpses, it will smell awful, and odds are that you will get some sort of illness from your little trip (why were you walking through a field of rotting corpses?!).  Bingo, supporting evidence for miasma theory.  People all throughout a city have horrible diarrhea and it smells awful (cholera).  We observe MORE people in the area getting sick, more people who are living around the awful smells.  Bingo, more support of miasma theory.  With limited technology, it’s actually pretty natural to assume that bad smells (bad airs) cause disease.  Now, we know about germs, we have microscopes, etc. and much strictly observational science is obsolete.  Hell, it think it’s crucial to argue that our advancements in the scientific method alone are actually advancements in technology.  How we study things is as important as what we study.

With new tools comes new ways to understand and experience things, but our tools and what we’re interested in are both highly intertwined and highly subject to what we can experience (with our tools) and are experiencing (at the edges of what we’re capable of).  If a telescope could only be used to look at one of seven suns shining in the sky, it would probably be deemed pretty useless; cool but limited in its effectiveness (note: telescopes are referenced, but not really addressed in Nightfall; a wag of the finger to you Mr. Asimov…) because it will only serve to burn out your retina.  Nightfall does a really great job of shaking us back awake to the fact that what, how, and why we discover things is totally non-trivial, and totally, wonderfully, beautifully subjective to our human experience.