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One of the most prolific authors of all time, Isaac Asimov was influential both in science fiction and in the popularization of science during the twentieth century, but he is also justly famous for the scope of his interests. Although the common claim that Asimov is the only author to have written a book in every category of the Dewey decimal system is untrue, its spirit provides an accurate picture of the man: a dedicated humanist who lauded the far-reaching power of reason. His most famous work, the Foundation trilogy, can be read as an illustration of Asimov’s belief in reason and science, but even while he expressed that belief, science itself was
calling it into question.
Foundation describes a time in which a vast Empire spanning the galaxy is on the verge of collapse. Its inevitable doom is a consequence not of its size, but of the shortsightedness of its leaders. In this environment, a scientist named Hari Seldon devises an all encompassing plan to help human civilization recover from the trauma of the Empire’s coming collapse. Using mathematics, Seldon is able to predict the future course of history for thousands of years, and he takes steps that are geared toward guiding that future in a beneficial direction. The trope of the benevolent and paternalistic scientist shaping existence from behind the scenes, present in much of Asimov’s fiction, is never more explicit than in the Foundation series, which describes with an epic sweep the course and progress of the Seldon Plan.
As naive and, perhaps, self-serving as the conceit of Foundation may seem to contemporary readers, it retains to some degree its ability of comfort by offering an antidote to the complex and unpredictable nature of experience. Science in Asimov’s time was, in popular conceptions, engaged in just this pursuit: discerning immutable laws that operate beneath a surface appearance of contingency, inexplicability, and change. But even while Asimov wrote, science itself was changing. In Physics, the study of matter at the subatomic level showed that indeterminacy was not a transitory difficulty to be overcome, but an essential physical principle. In Biology, the sense of evolution as a steady progress toward better adapted forms was being disturbed by proof of a past large-scale evolution taking place in brief explosions, of frantic change. At the time of Asimov’s death, even Mathematics was gaining popular notice for its interest in chaos and inexplicability. Usually summarized in terms of the so-called ‘butterfly effect’, chaos theory showed that perfect prediction could take place only on the basis of perfect information, which was by nature impossible to obtain. Science had dispensed with the very assumptions that motivated Asimov’s idealization of it in the Seldon Plan. Indeed, it was possible to see chaos at work in Foundation itself: as sequels multiplied and began to be tied into narrative threads from Asimov’s other novels, the urge to weave one grand narrative spawned myriad internal inconsistencies that were never resolved.
1. Which one of the following most accurately expresses the main point of the passage?
(A) Isaac Asimov’s greatest work, the Foundation trilogy, is an expression of the common trope of the benevolent and paternalistic scientist
(B) Popularizations of science are always to some degree dependent idealizations and simplifications of that science, as Isaac Asimov’s work demonstrates
(C) The impossibility of the conceit on which Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is based demonstrates that Asimov’s fiction was based on imperfect understandings of science.
(D) Isaac Asimov’s idealization of science as revealed in his Foundation series was called into question by the science of his time, which was increasingly focused on Chaos and indeterminacy
2. Which one of the following statements most accurately expresses the purpose of the final paragraph?
(A) The ultimate failure of the Foundation series as a coherent scientific narrative is discussed
(B) A claim is made about the purpose of Asimov’s writing and then is finally rejected
(C) A key theme of Asimov’s Foundation series is described and discoveries in science that seem contrary to that theme are outlined
(D) The history of science is used to demonstrate the falsity of a widely believed claim
about the power of human reason
3. The author’s reference to a common claim made about Isaac Asimov, serves to
(A) Demonstrate that many untrue beliefs are held about him
(B) Illustrate the broad scope of his interests and writings
(C) Undermine the claim that he was prolific writer
(D) Substantiate his belief in the power of human reason
4. With respect of the Seldon Plan, the author’s attitude can most properly be described as
(A) Amused at the naive conception of history it implies
(B) Uncertain of the practical impossibility of its application
(C) Ambivalent because of the reliance on human reason it requires
(D) Convinced that it illustrates Asimov’s attitude toward science
5. Which one of the following statements best illustrates the “butterfly effect” as it is described in the passage’s third paragraph?
(A) A system implemented to predict the weather worldwide for the next century is soon found to be inaccurate because it was supplied with the incomplete data
(B) Efforts to predict the result of a nuclear reaction fail because of indeterminacy inherent in the behavior of subatomic particles
(C) The fossil record indicates that certain adaptations found in many organisms appeared soon after a past catastrophic event
(D) Scientific predictions about the future course of human history are found to be reasonably accurate once existing social theories are reconciled.
ans. key 5.a, 3. b, 1. b, 4. d, 2. c