Feynman, Waldo and the Wickedest Man in the World

It’s been more than fifty years since Richard Feynman delivered his lecture “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, regarded by many as the founding vision statement of nanotechnology. That foundational status has been questioned, most notably by Chris Tuomey in his article Apostolic Succession (PDF). In another line of attack, Colin Milburn, in his book Nanovision, argues against the idea that the ideas of nanotechnology emerged from Feynman’s lecture as the original products of his genius; instead, according to Milburn, Feynman articulated and developed a set of ideas that were already current in science fiction. And, as I briefly mentioned in my report from September’s SNET meeting, according to Milburn, the intellectual milieu from which these ideas emerged had some very weird aspects.

Milburn describes some of science fiction antecedents of the ideas in “Plenty of Room” in his book. Perhaps the most direct link can be traced for Feynman’s notion of remote control robot hands, which make smaller sets of hands, which can be used to be made yet smaller ones, and so on. The immediate source of this idea is Robert Heinlein’s 1942 novella “Waldo”, in which the eponymous hero devises just such an arrangement to carry out surgery on the sub-cellular level. There’s no evidence that Feynman had read “Waldo” himself, but Feynman’s friend Al Hibbs certainly had. Hibbs worked at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he had been so taken by Heinlein’s idea of robot hands as a tool for space exploration that he wrote up a patent application for it (dated 8 February 1958). Ed Regis, in his book “Nano”, tells the story, and makes the connection to Feynman, quoting Hibbs as follows: “It was in this period, December 1958 to January 1959, that I talked it over with Feynman. Our conversations went beyond my “remote manipulator” into the notion of making things smaller … I suggested a miniature surgeon robot…. He was delighted with the notion.”

“Waldo” is set in a near future, where nuclear derived energy is abundant, and people and goods fly around in vessels powered by energy beams. The protagonist, Waldo Jones, is a severely disabled mechanical genius (“Fat, ugly and hopelessly crippled” as it says on the back of my 1970 paperback edition) who lives permanently in an orbiting satellite, sustained by the technologies he’s developed to overcome his bodily weaknesses. The most effective of these technologies are the remote controlled robot arms, named “waldos” after their inventor. The plot revolves around a mysterious breakdown of the energy transmission system, which Waldo Jones solves, assisted by the sub-cellular surgery he carries out with his miniaturised waldos.

The novella is dressed up in the apparatus of hard science fiction – long didactic digressions, complete with plausible-sounding technical details and references to the most up-to-date science, creating the impression of that its predictions of future technologies are based on science. But, to my surprise, the plot revolves around, not science, but magic. The fault in the flying machines is diagnosed by a back-country witch-doctor, and involves a failure of will by the operators (itself a consequence of the amount of energy being beamed about the world). And the fault can itself be fixed by an act of will, by which energy in a parallel, shadow universe can be directed into our own world. Waldo Jones himself learns how to access the energy of this unseen world, and in this way overcomes his disabilities and fulfills his full potential as a brain surgeon, dancer and all round, truly human genius.

Heinlein’s background as a radio engineer explains where his science came from, but what was the source of this magical thinking? The answer seems to be the strange figure of Jack Parsons. Parsons was a self-taught rocket scientist, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a key figure in the early days of the USA’s rocket program (his story is told in George Pendle’s biography “Strange Angel”). But he was also deeply interested in magic, and was a devotee of the English occultist Aleister Crowley. Crowley, aka The Great Beast, was notorious for his transgressive interest in ritual magic – particularly sexual magic – and attracted the title “the wickedest man in the world” from the English newspapers in between the wars. He had founded a religion of his own, whose organisation, the Ordo Templi Orientis, promulgated his creed, summarised as “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”. Parsons was inititated into the Hollywood branch of the OTO in 1941; in 1942 Parsons, now a leading figure in the OTO, moved the whole commune into a large house in Pasadena, where they lived according to Crowley’s transgressive law. Also in 1942, Parsons met Robert Heinlein at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, and the two men became good friends. Waldo was published that year.

The subsequent history of Jack Parsons was colourful, but deeply unhappy. He became close to another member of the circle of LA science fiction writers, L. Ron Hubbard, who moved into the Pasadena house in 1945 with catastrophic effects for Parsons. In 1952, Parsons died in a mysterious explosives accident in his basement. Hubbard, of course, went on to found a religion of his own, Scientology.

This is a fascinating story, but I’m not sure what it signifies, if anything. Colin Milburn wonders whether “it is tempting to see nanotech’s aura of the magical, the impossible made real, as carried through the Parsons-Heinlein-Hibbs-Feynman genealogy”. Sober scientists working in nanotechnology would argue that their work is as far away from magical thinking as one can get. But amongst those groups on the fringes of the science that cheer nanotechnology on – the singularitarians and transhumanists – I’m not sure that magic is so distant. Universal abundance through nanotechnology, universal wisdom through artificial intelligence, and immortal life through the defeat of ageing – these sound very much like the traditional aims of magic – these are parallels that Dale Carrico has repeatedly drawn attention to. And in place of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (and no doubt without some of the OTO’s more colourful practises), transhumanists have their very own Order of Cosmic Engineers, to “engineer ‘magic’ into a universe presently devoid of God(s).”

6 thoughts on “Feynman, Waldo and the Wickedest Man in the World”

  1. I was amused, not long after reading this article, to come
    across a post on Melody Maxim’s “Cryonics Meets Medicine”
    blog containing the following remark:

    Sunday, October 24, 2010
    The Newest Cryonics Con Artist – EUCRIO’s
    David Styles

    There’a a new kid on the cryonics block…”Church of Satan”
    member, and “Temple of Vampire” member, David Styles. Oh,
    and he’s not just a kid being brainwashed by those organizations;
    according to his MySpace page, he holds the position of “Warlock”
    in the Church of Satan, and the grade of “Adept” in the Temple
    of Vampires, (I’m told that is the highest possible rank). . .

    Do I really think David Styles is a devil-worshipper, or that
    he believes he’s an immortal vampire? No…I think he’s an
    attention-seeking scam artist, plain and simple. . .

    The same gentleman, not surprisingly, turns up at transhumanist

    David Styles at TransVision 2010:
    A new development in cryonics standby,
    stabilisation, and transport capabilities
    in Europe

    Whatever the significance of the connection between
    transhumanism and “magic”, it isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring.

  2. Richard,

    I just ordered a copy of your book. Hopefully, it will answer a few questions that I have about nanotechnology.

    BTW, I don’t read much SF.

  3. Jim, how interesting. The transhumanists certainly seem to run a broad church.

    I hope you enjoy the book, Kurt. To be honest I haven’t read a lot of SF since I was a teenager, so it was interesting for me to read Waldo.

  4. i wonder if jet printers or descedants could print out PPE giving stored special substrate cartridges. loves, face shields, shields with eyes, head shields, full body; all would be useful assuming cheap enough paper/textile.

  5. Richard,

    I read your book and found it quite good. I think that your conclusion is right as I have been long skeptical about the potential for “dry” nanotech. Your arguments about “wet” nanotechnology are very similar to those made by Thomas Donaldson in the late 80’s in the cryonics publications.

    Like yourself, Donaldson had a background in chemistry and chemical engineering. His arguments were also based on issues of brownian motion (thermal noise), steric stability and control of the reaction site, and self-assembly. He had a further argument, which was scalability, that the proponents of “dry” nanotech have never adequately addressed. Biological systems have a hierarchy of self-organization that is based on the components of the smaller level system that ranges from the bio-molecules themselves, celullar components, the cells, and eventually multi-cellular systems. Any artificial nanotechnology would have to have a similar system of scale-up.

    I do disagree with one point in your book. I think bionanotechnology is the only way to go to develop real nanotechnology. This is the way the synthetic biology people (like Craig Ventor) as well as many Asian researchers are going about it.

  6. I don’t see why this deserves to be treated any differently from any other imaginative blending of science and magic for literary purposes. Practically *every* Heinlein story does this. He was no great rationalist — and his cremated remains ought to show how seriously he took his transhumanism.

    It ought not surprise us if (despite his… freakishly… odd… affiliations) David Styles has a much more scientific viewpoint than Robert Heinlein ever did. It’s not a high bar to clear. And sure there are lots more fly-by-night so-called transhumanists out there. Most of them haven’t even taken the elementary step of signing up for Cryonics, much less gone to the trouble of starting a badly-needed stabilization organization.

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