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james_nicoll
Paul Krugman has noticed the same curious thing about Trantor that I did years ago: Trantor's population density is laughably tiny.

Which is another case of the trouble with very large numbers, ie as soon as you have to choose some very large number relevant to an unfamiliar domain, you are likely to pick a too small number. The corollary of this is that one million deaths is viewed as a statistic.

I'd expect Asimov to be willing an capable of a quick BOTEC to get the right order of magnitude, though.

The thing here is to discover the need for the BOTEC, or having the experience to do it no matter what.

Given that Asimov was less than 30 while most of the Foundation works were written, I think it's quite possible that he lacked the experience to see the need for a BOTEC.

I would be willing to bet that when Asimov first gave Trantor's population --- it was in one of the early Foundation stories, at least, possibly the very first --- he suffered a simple failure of intuition. I'm not sure he had ever even been outside New York City by that time, and may have just supposed the whole world was about as population-dense. (Don't laugh; I grew up in New Jersey, and can not get used to how in other states there are these big unoccupied nothings between cities, whereas a friend from Michigan didn't realize how long we were driving because we never passed into the regions of empty space and so instinctively felt we had just left even though we'd been driving an hour.) So therefore, someplace which was about twenty times the world's then-current population would be a really quite populated place indeed, with the surface being twenty Brooklyns stacked atop each other.

And then once given, the number would tend to stick whether it made sense or not, despite one point in I want to say Foundation and Empire where the population's accidentally listed as being ten times as great.

Still, it's odd he never turned to working out the population density of Great Science Fiction Planets, particularly in the 70s when he was doing science essays on most population-dense places in the world. Maybe he felt that'd be too far outside the science column domain.


Shh. Do you really want Krugman in the running for Best Fan Writer in 2011? I bet he thinks a rocketship would look nice next to that medallion.

On the other hand, he might split the Pohl vote. Hmm.

Some of the rest of us might think the same way.

What if you cut the problem the other way? Trantor really is densely populated, but there's some reason the number has been wrongly reported.

Or in the future people will just be bigger.

Of course the real justificaiton is that most of the space on trantor is taken up by bottomless pits, like on coruscant, but with a few more safety railings.

Or endless filing cabinets.

Filing cabinets. Definitely filing cabinets.

And then they fall on people, keeping the population within control.

It is only my fear of imminent dolphin based reprisals that stops me from making a joke about how, as most of the population would be employed as electricians who's jobs it would be to constantly change the vacuum tubes on the giant computers that underpinned the galactic bureaucracy, the population growth rates would be quite low anyway.

The bottomless pits ARE the filing system!

Retrieval would be a problem.

Except I'll bet there's a class of--call them "undersecretaries" because I like the pun--of bottomless-pit spelunkers whose job is to retrieve documents. Brave souls on spider-silk ropes as thick as your thigh (no, I haven't done the calculations!).

Except of the pits were really bottomless, they'd pass right through the planet, and anything thrown into the pits would oscillate (kind of like the subways in The Word For World Is Round) and it's the job of the undersecretaries to keep track of the tossed papers and retrieve them at the peak of their amplitude. ("Ms. Johns, get me paper X42-A3 stat!" "Sir, that document is on the other side of the planet! It will require an undersecretary!")

You could of course explain the low population density by saying that 95% of Trantor's buildings and sub basements are devoted to all the endless filing cabinets, data storage, and computers required to run the Imperial bureaucracy. Once you put all that paperwork on one planet, there's very little room left over for people or for agriculture.

That sounds more like a Douglas Adams planet than an Asimov one.

Although I suppose it's explicit in-universe that the Empire wasn't big on miniaturization.

Unmentioned oceans? If the land surface is (say) 5-10% that of Earth, and the people don't (for whatever reason) live on the seabed or floating islands, the density suddenly becomes a lot higher.

I'm doing this off the top of my head; no idea if anything was actually said about the land area of Trantor, either as a percentage of the total or in some unit like hectares or thousands of square miles. (We seem to be assuming an Earth-sized world, rather than a Mars-sized one. Is that stated, or implied by mentions of surface gravity?)

The land surface of Trantor is "75,000,000 square miles in extent", so somewhat more than Earth.

is that number and the population number from the original foundation story, or the later prequals?

The original. I don't think I own any of the later ones.

Planetary ecologists laugh and point.

I wonder if it was ever pointed out to Asimov while he was alive - or better yet close to the time Foundation was published. It's not the type of insight that requires advanced knowledge they didn't have at the time of writing - just some basic math.

The moles who work underground in the atomic oxygen factories don't count as people, just the bureaucrats.

Perhaps he was talking British Billions rather than American ones.

Perhaps an unlikely lapse for the guy who wrote Only a Trillion on the theme of... the magnitude of the 'British Billion'.

I doubt one Brit in fifty knows what a British billion was anymore anyhow: our journalists long ago decided that a billion was a US-style gig, since that gave them headlines three orders of magnitude shockier. Their victory has long since been complete, and even I can't be bothered to lament it.

It's a shame how after 'meg' and 'gig', for a trillion/GBBillion we get the much-less-catchy alternatives of 'tera' or 'ter' - neither of which I've ever heard even a fellow-geek use in cold blood. I wonder if 'trill' would stick, now we've got hard discs whose capacity could reasonably provoke a casual plural?

I know people who use "terabyte" all the time. And "petabyte". And they're not dealing in hypotheticals, either.

Yes, even I have a 1TB backup drive these days, and I'm kind of cheap. But that wasn't what I was talking about. People have always talked about 'megs' (megaohms, megabytes, whatever) as generic-colloquial for 'million $UNITs'. 'Megs' is good: 'megs' has word-nature. So now we have not only gigabytes, but gigabytes as a sufficiently ubiquitous concept to be called 'gigs' - which also generalizes to a giga-anything. 'Gigs' is good too.

'Pets' will be alright when it comes to it. But 'ters' is ridiculous, and even 'teras' doesn't have particularly impressive word-nature; though I expect it'll be the familiar form of choice in the end. It's a shame. 'Trills' would be so much more euphonious!

I'm guessing "Ts"? I certainly talked about K in the old days, not kilos.

Ah, yes - Ks were and are for kilos, and Ts might easily do as well for teras in future. I ought to have thought of that!

Perhaps "tera-" could borrow a "g" from one of its sisters, and become "tergs."

Myself, for example -- since the Spouse and I actually use 1.5 TB drives on a regular basis.