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Author Heinlein's Chart Can Guide Our Wellbeing

Author Heinlein's Chart Can Guide Our Wellbeing

A stamp printed in Republic of Djibouti (circa 2010) shows Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). (Dreamstime)

Wednesday, 09 May 2018 01:18 PM Current | Bio | Archive

When I discovered Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction as a youngster, his chart of "future history," published in collections of his short stories, fascinated me.

Heinlein's chart extended from about 1940, when he began writing intensively, until some time after the year 2100. It included possible stories to be written, characters, technical advances, and socio-political developments. Many of Heinlein's early short stories fit into the future contemplated by this chart, a large copy of which hung on his study's wall.

Heinlein later started writing novels, but his short stories earned him the reputation and experience ensuring his later success as a novelist. Though most of his novels don't fit into this chart, it was the very foundation of his long career.

Unlike Heinlein's, the large wall chart hanging in my own study doesn't represent the foundation of my work. Instead, it represents the culmination of my main work as a political scientist. It classifies and summarizes the relationships between the ideas that I developed in trying to think systematically about law and politics.

Heinlein's chart, first published in 1941, depicted one possible concept of future history which he had apparently knocked together in a rather short period of time. My chart only acquired its final form 15 years after I joined the Adrian College faculty. It represents years of groping for systematic concepts, starting with a rather trivial Venn diagram and going on from there.

It would have been presumptuous to have aimed at developing any such thing when I first arrived at Adrian, but after my chart took its final form it became obvious to me that it was nothing less than a "periodic table" of human associations. The analogy, of course, was to Dmitri Mendelyeev's famous periodic table of the chemical elements announced in 1869.

At mid-career, then, my periodic table became for me more like Heinlein's future history was for him at the beginning of his career. I have since worked to demonstrate its utility as a tool for analyzing history, political developments, and current events.

My first two books, including a college textbook in 1981, introduced my work to students and fellow political scientists. My newspaper columns have employed the concepts embodied in this periodic table to analyze national and world developments. Once in a while these concepts even suggest reforms that could improve the world.

Every body of knowledge has at least a few basic words that students had better understand in the fullest possible sense. For the physicist, "force" must equal mass times acceleration. Accountants must understand that "assets" are equal to liabilities plus owners' equity (capital) and must be able to classify particular transactions into the proper categories. Music theorists must know the difference between a second inversion and a secondary dominant. Political science is no exception to this general need for fundamental concepts.

Unfortunately, mainstream political scientists and lawyers — the two main professions concerned with analyzing government — have never identified a small set of simple, core concepts whose permutations and combinations get to the essence of the matter. Instead, both professions have been blessed (or cursed!) with a great multiplicity of terms and concepts, all of roughly equal importance, whose mutual relations and meanings are extremely complex.

As a result of its lack of fundamental conceptual clarity, political science increasingly suffers from an inferiority complex. Chemistry and physics have produced a continuous and accelerating stream of spectacular achievements which are reflected, for better or for worse, in the everyday material environment: computers, synthetic fabrics, lasers, microwave ovens, atomic bombs, pesticides, cell phones.   . . . A similar takeoff in biological science has been shaping up more recently.

But where do we see any signs that political science is having an impact on the world?

It is true that in the political sphere, too, many new techniques and institutions have appeared, but our professional inferiority complex is nevertheless based on an embarrassing fact.

Major innovations in 20th and 21st century government have not originated in political science. The pattern is quite unlike that in the natural sciences, where breakthroughs in fundamental analysis (e.g., Einstein's e = mc squared) are placed on a practical basis by the engineers (e.g., the Manhattan Project).

In public life, by contrast, the breakthroughs are made by the "engineers" (active politicians: elective officials, administrators, revolutionaries) and later, often much later, political scientists get around to noticing them, describing them, and criticizing them.

I hope that the carefully defined terms and concepts incorporated in my periodic table of human associations ultimately will help political science become more like chemistry, a progressive force suggesting new ways to organize societies in ways that promote the general well-being.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Heinlein's chart extended from about 1940, when he began writing intensively, until some time after the year 2100. It included possible stories to be written, characters, technical advances, and socio-political developments.
chemistry, einstein, manhattan
Wednesday, 09 May 2018 01:18 PM
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