The Gods Themselves


Paul Krugman, making a point about financial regulation, quotes Friedrich Schiller, “against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.” I know Krugman’s an Isaac Asimov fan so I wonder if he, like me, first met that line in Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves. It’s a book I’ve been thinking about more lately.

To summarize the plot briefly, it’s the story of a man named Frederick Hallam who makes contact with “para-men” living in an alternate dimension. The laws of physics run differently in that dimension, and the ability to pass some matter trans-dimensionally thus opens up the possibility of a kind of physics arbitrage resulting in the invention of an “electron pump” which provides an unlimited source of cheap energy. Unfortunately, another scientist named Lamont reveals that the electron pump process is actually increasing the strong nuclear force inside the sun and thus dooming the planet to extinction by drastically increasing the rate at which the sun will go nova.

Needless to say, rather than being hailed as a hero Lamont is ignored and villified since people prefer to believe in the possibility of a free lunch. Eventually things reach a happy ending when a different scientist named Denison discovers a process that will allow for the creation of even cheaper energy without the environmental impact. Thus, people are ultimately willing to trade an apparently free lunch for an actually free lunch.

In an unrelated development, all the cutting edge public opinion research indicates that you can’t talk about global warming or environmental risks of any kind when talking about energy policy.