Feynman, Waldo and the Wickedest Man in the World

By Richard Jones

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).”