James Joyce’s Ulysses? The Great Gatsby?  Something challenging by Thomas Pynchon? Something whimsical by P.G. Wodehouse?

No, the smart vote  goes to Isaac Asimov’s Foundations Trilogy.

The latest fan to come out in public is Hal Varian.  In a Wired interview, he says:

“In Isaac Asimov’s first Foundation Trilogy, there was a character who basically constructed mathematical models of society, and I thought this was a really exciting idea. When I went to college, I looked around for that subject. It turned out to be economics.”

The first time I saw a reference to the books was in an interview with Roger Myerson in 2002.  And he repeated the fact that he was influenced by Foundation in an answer to a  question after he got the Nobel Prize in 2007.  And finally, Paul Krugman also credits the books with inspiring him to become an economist.   A distinguished trio of endorsements!

Asimov’s stories revolve around the plan of Hari Seldon a “psychohistorian” to influence the political and economic course of the universe.   Seldon uses mathematical methodology to predict the end of the current Empire.  He sets up two “Foundations” or colonies of knowledge to reduce the length of the dark age that will follow the end of empire.  The first Foundation is defeated by a weird mutant called the Mule.  But the Mule fails to locate and kill the Second Foundation. So, Seldon manages to preserve human knowledge and perhaps even predicted the Mule using psychohistory.  Seldon also has a keen sense of portfolio diversification – two Foundations rather than one – and also the law of large numbers – psychohistory is good at predicting events involving a large number of agents but not at forecasting individual actions.

As the above discussion reveals, I did take a stab at reading these books after I saw the Myerson inteview (though I admit I used Wikipedia liberally to jog my memory for this post!).  And you can also see how Myerson’s “mechanism design” theory might have come out reading Asimov.  I enjoyed reading the first book in the trilogy and it’s clear how it might excite a teenage boy with an aptitude for maths.  The next two books are much worse.  I struggled through them just to find out how it all ended.  Perhaps I read them when I was too old to appreciate them.

The Lord of the Rings is probably wooden to someone who reads it in their forties.  It still sparkles for me.

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