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What Is Psychohistory In Apple TV+'s Foundation?

The first season of Apple TV+'s "Foundation" is now complete, and another one is confirmed to be on the way. That's great news for fans of the television series — and for the Isaac Asimov fans who have been waiting decades for a live-action version of this universe to come to screens.

That said, the show has deviated quite a bit from its source material in order to create something that modern-day TV audiences will enjoy. It makes sense: the "Foundation" short story series, later placed into novel form, is notable for a lot of things that don't translate well to screens, including a dearth of female characters, a lack of deep characterization, and not a whole lot of action (even Asimov himself confessed this, per The New York Times, after re-reading his own books). But the ideas in Asimov's books, which started with the original "Foundation" tale in 1942, are timeless and fascinating.

One idea, which was translated mostly whole to the TV series, but with some differences, is psychohistory. In the first episode, scientist Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) explains it thusly in one sentence during his tribunal, for the benefit of those trying him for treason: "Psychohistory is a predictive model designed to forecast the behavior of very large populations." 

Basically, Asimov created a "science" that could, in broad strokes, predict the future. Seldon knew what was coming and when, and how people could fix things. In the "Foundation" series, Seldon uses his psychohistorical findings to shorten the interregnum, the period of chaos and barbarism that follows the fall of the Empire, and shepherd humanity into a new and better life. Using his mathematical models, he has predicted that Trantor and the Galactic Empire will cease to exist in less than five centuries. But what, exactly, is psychohistory?

Psychohistory is an imaginary science that combines math, history, and psychology

In the "Foundation" prequel tale titled "The Psychohistorians," the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica says, "Gaal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli." The entry on psychohistory goes on to say that the science depends on a large human conglomerate for "valid statistical treatment" and that these humans must be unaware of psychohistoric analysis. An additional theorem governing psychohistory notes that the time periods dealt with take place in around three generations.

In "Foundation and Empire," Asimov elaborates. "Psychohistory dealt not with man, but with man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a rebound of a billiard ball. The reaction of one man could be forecast by no known mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again."

However, later, the character Ebling Mis added the axioms that there would be no fundamental change in the society, and that human reactions to stimuli would remain constant. And Foundation councilman Golan Trevise added another theorem to reflect events in "Foundation and Earth." It turns out that psychohistory doesn't account for aliens, mutants, and other lifeforms and is thus useless if human beings aren't the only sentient life in the universe.

Psychohistory was based on the laws governing gases

In fact, psychohistory was created in tandem with science fiction legend John W. Campbell, Jr., publisher of Astounding Science Fiction, during the World War 2 era when the idea of knowing what the future would bring was very appealing to many. Asimov himself said, as quoted in The New York Times, "Hitler kept winning victories, and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did, he was doomed to defeat in the end."

In his 1995 book "Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection," Asimov said, "I modeled my concept of psychohistory on the kinetic theory of gases, which I had been beat over the head with in my physical chemistry classes. The molecules making up gases moved in an absolutely random fashion in any direction in three dimensions and in a wide range of speeds. Nevertheless, one could fairly describe what those motions would be on the average and work out the gas laws from those average motions with an enormous degree of precision. In other words, although one couldn't possibly predict what a single molecule would do, one could accurately predict what umptillions of them would do. So I applied that notion to human beings. Each individual human being might have "free will," but a huge mob of them should behave with some sort of predictability, and the analysis of 'mob behavior' was my psychohistory."

Critics and fans (as noted by Clarkesworld Magazine) have also suggested that Asimov's psychohistory is a reformulation of some of Karl Marx's theories, although others postulate that this philosophy comes from the work of 20th-century thinkers like Oswald Spengler, who believed that civilizations rose and fell in cycles and thus their progress was predictable, as well as Arnold Toynbee, who believed that civilizations with stagnate without difficulties to challenge citizens and force innovation, and Pitirim Sorokin, who believed it would be possible to guide humanity through social transformation without war.

Psychohistory has been influential in the real world, too

Whatever psychohistory's origins, this fake discipline has nevertheless been influential for many fans of the genre. In February 2019, when Elon Musk's SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into space, it contained an Arch storage system that had the "Foundation" series inside. The Arch Mission Foundation said it had been inspired to preserve knowledge, much like the Foundation (via The Verge), because of Asimov's works. 

Notable people have also named psychohistory as influences. "If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is," economist Paul Krugman said to the audience at a world science fiction convention (via the New Yorker), "but you don't get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if?"

Meanwhile, historian Ray Smock wrote about politician Newt Gingrich, as reported by The Atlantic, "Newt found his role model not in his stern stepfather, but in a historian from another planet, a great historian and teacher who thought really big galactic-size thoughts" — because he liked he idea of 'one man shaping the destiny of entire civilizations.'"