That unforgettable Sci Fi story about a man who rediscovers how to perform calculations by hand

One of those works of fiction that I read innumerable years ago but I’ve never been able to forget was Isaac Asimov’s 1957 short story, “The Feeling of Power.” Set in the distant future when computers perform all calculations and design new technology without further input from man, it is the story of a humble technician who rediscovers the process of doing math on paper, by hand.

I had forgotten its author and the title, and was delighted to come across it in an old Science Fiction anthology I packed for pleasure reading on a trip.

While the narrative gist of a handful of stories and novels linger on in my memory, very few titles do the same. I’m one of those annoying people who says:

“You know, it’s that book about the guy who…”

Sometimes I follow up that gem with:

“I think the cover might have been blue?”

I may intrigue you, but I’m unlikely to be an efficient resource for putting the work into your hands. Unlikely, that is, unless I still own the hard copy, and the cover is, in fact, blue! If I find it (probably while you’re sitting at my dinner table), I’ll send it home with you, then promptly forget to whom I’ve loaned the book.

Returning to “The Feeling of Power,” I recommend it. It’s a short ten pages, and a quick read. I can see why it stuck in my mind so many years ago, but I also found much more to appreciate this time around. I remembered very strongly the tone of the ending, but had forgotten many details of the narrative.

It should be particularly appealing to anyone who loves math–or perhaps to those who find it hateful who would like to imagine it forgotten!–and to anyone who likes Sci Fi in general and Asimov in particular.

Here’s the particular anthology I brought on vacation. It was published in 1985.

Asimov was a prolific writer, and I’m certain “The Feeling of Power” appeared elsewhere in print. I actually thought I’d originally read this story in one of those elementary school reading textbooks full of disjointed works by a variety of authors. If anyone knows whether Asimov ever published in such volumes, I’d love to hear about it!

Does poetry offer the best analogy for humanity’s greatest scientific breakthroughs?

In the novel The Robots of Dawn, third in Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy, a preeminent scientist, the best on his or any other world in his field, says:

“You know it always bothers some of my colleagues when I tell them that, if a conclusion is not poetically balanced, it cannot be scientifically true. They tell me they don’t know what that means.”

Baley said, “I’m afraid I don’t, either.”book Asimov Robot novels - 1

“But I know what it means, I can’t explain it, but I feel the explanation without being able to put it into words, which may be why I have achieved results my colleagues have not. …”

I made note of the quote as I re-read this classic novel last week because it echoes so closely something I myself have struggled to put into words for my entire adult life.

As a teenager, I chose the identical comparison for explaining my delight with certain physics experiments:

[The experiment’s demonstration of the concept] is so perfect. It just sings. It’s like poetry.

I know I’ve repeated the phrase, “it’s like poetry,” many times in conversation about great ideas. I have yet to find a better expression for “the intuitive sense of the rightness” of a theory. It’s definitely something to do with harmony and balance.

Having devoured Asimov’s Robot novels in middle school*, it is now obvious to me that I’d read the quote with which I began this post well before I myself used the poetry simile. I’m now begging the question, did I get this idea from Asimov, leaving it to quietly percolate for another half dozen or so years before I re-expressed it, taking a distant memory for my own idea?

Or is this notion a truth, existing in the intellectual universe, waiting to be uncovered by one likely mind after another?

Does anyone else find herself using this expression to express a certain balanced perfection in knowledge?**

If you do, did you also read Asimov at a formative age?

Is poetry as distillation of language from the prosaic to the artistic a fundamentally apt metaphor for great leaps in scientific discovery and the expression thereof, or does the comparison only resonate with creative writers? Pardon me, please, for lumping my humble efforts with the greatness of Asimov in this respect!

Finally, as an aside, I want to shout to the world that the Robot series holds up well for revisiting decades after their impressive effect on a young reader. Asimov was a genius, and these books remain a fantastic diversion.

*roughly age 12

**Here’s a person writing about science and poetry in a literary journal. She maintains that the disciplines aren’t mutually exclusive, though they might seem so to less perceptive thinkers. A search also shows me that someone once had an e-zine at poetryandscience.com, but the link appears to be broken so I can only wonder at what took place there.