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Science Fiction Does Not Mean Spaceship Cowboys

Speculative Society Here Does Creative Thinking

By Andrew W. Bingham and Robert H. Neuman

In the early days of 1944, a story entitled "Deadline" appeared in the magazine, Astounding Science Fiction. It included a detailed description of an atomic bomb explosion. FBI agents at once paid a visit to the magazine's editor, John W. Campbell, Jr. The description of the bomb was so accurate and came so far in advance of any public pronouncement about the A-bomb, that the government feared a security leak.

But there wasn't any. As Campbell now explains, "Science fiction writers were talking about atomic bombs years before the government was. I finally convinced the FBI agents of this. They asked me not to print anything more about atomic explosions, but I told them that the absence of such descriptions would be more noticeable than their continued inclusion."

To non-science fiction fans, this story must sound incredible. The popular image of science fiction revolves around such spaceship cowboys as Captain Video or Buck Rogers. A true devotee of the field, however, would deny all connection with such comics. For him, science fiction can be, and often is, not only interesting but also stimulating.

At the annual World Science Fiction Convention this September, for instance, a sizeable portion of time at the three-day meeting was given over to the Glenn L. Martin Company for a discussion of Project Vanguard, next year's launching of an Earth Satellite. No one mentioned--or watched--Captain Video.

Not Very Positive

Strangely enough, while all science fiction enthusiasts are unanimous in their derision of "popular" science fiction, they disagree on just what the field does include.

The real fans are indeed a curious bunch. H. L. Gold, the editor of Galaxy--he describes himself as one of the few objective people in the field--talks about them like this: "All of them are to be avoided. They hinder more than they help. They're non-judicious, non-objective screwballs. They can't see any other point of view." Gold admits that he personally has viewpoints. "But I'm not dogmatic about them," he adds.

Dogmatic or not, Gold does represent one of the three leading positions on the purpose of science fiction. He emphasizes ideas in his magazine, not facts. (Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penecillin, "should have been horsewhipped," according to Gold. By using the "plodding scientific method," Fleming delayed for more than a decade the application of his discovery to medicine, he maintains.)

Anthony Boucher, the editor of Fantasy in Science Fiction, represents the second important viewpoint. As he maintains, "Non-slice-of-life fiction gives the author a chance to spotlight and to examine in greater detail certain aspects of human behavior." This could rightly be called the literary viewpoint. Boucher, it might be added, is the mystery book editor for the New York Times.

No 'Well-Worn Pattern'

There is a third viewpoint, and this one is unquestionably the most valid and the most reasonable. Campbell is a leading exponent of it. For him, science fiction is speculative philosophy. It is a means of training people in creative thinking. As he states it, "People like security. They like the well-tested ideas. But anything we know exactly how to do can be better done by machines. What we want to do is show people that it is possible to view things in different ways, without relying on well-worn patterns of thought."

Campbell actually likes facts. He prints stories, for instance, which present a basic pattern of facts and then view them in new, provocative ways. That, indeed, is just what the author of "Deadline" did. He used certain known bits of science information about the nature of the atom, put them all together, and came up with the A-bomb.

For the most part, advocates of this viewpoint are far from being "screwballs." Many are scientists. They are seriously interested in this variety of science fiction because it gives them a chance to view established facts in new, imaginative combinations. In dealing with science fiction, they are not bound by any old, tried and true concepts. They can let themselves go and actually have some fun. And, occasionally, they may come up with a valuable new idea. Through creative thinking they may not get answers but, as Campbell states, "They will get a sense of security from knowing that they will be able to solve new problems as they arise."

This may be carrying things a little too far. But there is here at Harvard a group of scientists who do hold to Campbell's basic views. They are all somewhat loosely bound together in the "Speculative Society," a fictitious title for a non-existent organization facetiously applied by Dwight Wayne Batteau '48, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering, to its informal meetings. A closer look at this "Society" may show more clearly what Campbell means when he talks about creative thinking. It also may illustrate the value of his particular variety of science fiction.

Just Speculating

The story begins back in 1948 when Batteau and Warren Seaman, now Assistant Director of the Harvard Computation Lab, used to spend their spare time poring over reams of science fiction. The two, along with a few other avid fans, would speculate on the feasibility of such fanciful things as computing machines, automatic "brains," space rockets, and other amusing "toys." Campbell often joined in the "bull sessions," as Batteau calls them.

Over salami sandwiches and coffee, talk of logic machines and rocket fuels filled the evenings of the members of the "Speculative Society." During the succeeding years, the Society met now and then, here and there, discussing this and that.

The talk was pure speculation, but the "members" were all men of serious scientific background who thought, on the basis of their knowledge, that there might be an outside chance of their speculations materializing. They were not interested in the practical possibilities--they wanted to build things to see if they could be built; to discuss things that no one else was discussing; to think thoughts that had never been thought.

Out of one session, for example, came Batteau's idea for a "logic toy," a gadget that would respond to the rules of formal logic and produce a correct answer to any logical problem fed it. Batteau, who had taken logic courses with Professor Quine and others, felt that all the rules could be set up in electronic circuits. He proceeded to construct the machine, "just for fun," and today a small box in Batteau's office can answer simple logical propositions fed into it.

Satisfied Scientific Grins

But products other than "toys" came out of the meetings. Often, Campbell would come to town, the "Society" would meet, and the following month Astounding Science Fiction would contain a story about robot brains and thinking machines. Once, Ted Kalin, who now works for Project "Lincoln," and Bill Burkhardt, regular "members" at large, actually built a large logic computer which could tackle intricate logical problems with great ease. Nothing much came of the thing, except that several scientists wore satisfied grins for a few months.

There are many reasons for indulging one's time and energy in pure, abstract speculation. As Batteau points out, professional scientific papers have no raw, unfinished ideas. They contain no wild flights of imagination, no daring expeditions into the trackless and lush jungles of scientific possibility. There must be outlets for pure speculative activity--and that is the raison d'etre behind the Society. "Bull sessions and science fiction are market places for half-baked ideas," explains Batteau.

Speculation doesn't have to be practical. It is enough that it is intellectually interesting and satisfying. And there is always the chance that something may come of it--like the metal image of the mathematical concept of a mobius strip that Batteau built "for the heck of it," and which is currently being seriously studied for its properties. It may shed some light on the effects of chromosome aberrations in genes.

Batteau's special interest is "information machines," computers and the like. Electronic gadgets can be built which can handle information fed into them, like the clock radio and the electronic "brain." Batteau, who teaches Engineering 200, affectionately called "Applied Science Fiction" by its devotees, has great hopes for the future of information machines. But, he cautions, the information which humans handle is so large that he doubts whether an anthropomorphic robot will ever be built. There is however, just the chance that....

For instance, at MIT an experimenter has built a machine that can "reproduce" the work of any artist, whose style is distinctly recognizable. By giving the machine an electronic "character," the builder can make it paint a Rembrandt or a van Gogh that stumps the experts. But there are definite limits to these potentialities. As Batteau points out, three months of human experience is enough information to saturate a computer the size of the Earth for as long as the machine could last.

The speculator, however wild his imagination may be, must be careful always to criticize his own speculations. That is why the Speculative Society spends as much time criticizing its fanciful ideas as it does creating them. There must be "signals," the speculator's term for actual scientific fact, as well as "noise," the vague and indefinite element of speculation, in order for an idea to have any validity. Ordinary science has a high signal-to-noise ratio; speculation is mostly noise, Batteau admits, but not entirely.

Doesn't Watch the Ground

In ordinary science, the explorer walks along with his eyes on his feet and measures every step. The speculator, however, "lifts his eyes off the ground" and gives his imagination free play, grounded in scientific fact, to concoct the possibilities of the future.

As Campbell--whom Batteau claims has "more ideas per cubic inch than any man I've ever known"--says, "the necessity for philosophic speculation is not being met in out society. The old tools of thought are wearing thin, and new ones have to be developed. Old thoughts are beginning to yield diminishing returns. The job of the speculator is to develop these new tools of thought, so vital to progress."

Thinking the Unthinkable

Realizing this necessity, the Speculative Society continues to meet, now and then, here and there, dreaming of rockets and robots and rectifiers, thinking of the unthinkable.

To some, its efforts may seem pointless. But these people are probably the very ones who could most use some creative thinking. Although hard to believe, ideas do occasionally wear out. And when they do, they are as likely as not replaced with ideas formulated by individuals who belong to speculative societies of their own. Whenever and whereever science fiction encourages this type of creative thinking, it is performing a valuable service.A stock-in-trade of science fiction magazines, good or bad, is the colorful cover.

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