‘Scanners Live in Vain’ as realistic SF

Discussion of Cordwainer Smith SF story, arguing that the pain-of-space is based on forgotten psychological issues in air travel, and concerns about worse ones in space travel, which were partially vindicated by the existence of interesting psychological changes in astronauts.
sociology, criticism, SF, cats
2013-06-282019-06-05 finished certainty: possible importance: 3

Cord­wainer Smith’s clas­sic SF short story “Scan­ners Live in Vain” is re­mem­bered in part for its use of the space-mad­ness trope, “the Great Pain of Space”, usu­ally in­ter­preted sym­bol­i­cal­ly/psy­cho­log­i­cally by crit­ics. I dis­cuss the state of aero­space med­i­cine in 1945 and sub­se­quent re­search on “the break­away effect”, “the overview effect”, and other un­usual psy­cho­log­i­cal states in­duced by air & space trav­el, and sug­gest Smith’s “the pain of space” is more founded on SF-style spec­u­la­tion & ex­trap­o­la­tion of con­tem­po­rary sci­ence/tech­nol­ogy and anx­i­eties than is ap­pre­ci­ated due to the ob­scu­rity of the effects and the rel­a­tive be­nig­nity of the sub­se­quent best doc­u­mented effects.

One of the clas­sic sto­ries of SF au­thor was his in­ven­tive 19451 short story “” (full­text; TvTropes), set in Smith’s “In­stru­men­tal­ity of Mankind” fic­tion uni­verse. The story de­picts a mem­ber of a guild of men sur­gi­cally mod­i­fied to sever their brains from their senses and who con­trol their body me­chan­i­cal­ly, through ob­ser­va­tion; the pur­pose of their guild is to en­able in­ter­stel­lar travel as oth­er­wise outer space dri­ves hu­mans in­sane & sui­ci­dal (the “Great Pain of Space”); and how the mem­ber deals with a tech­no­log­i­cal break­through which de­feats the pain of space and ren­ders ob­so­lete the guild & all its sac­ri­fices.

I have no­ticed that SF au­thors seem to re­ceive too lit­tle credit for the “sci­ence” part of SF and that crit­ics tend to down­play or ig­nore how con­cepts or themes are rooted in sci­ence & tech­nol­o­gy; a SF au­thor does­n’t have to pro­vide de­tailed proofs and equa­tions, like does for his tril­o­gy, or de­tailed bib­li­ogra­phies of spe­cific sources, like , for this to be the case, as even “soft” SF au­thors, like (as I give sev­eral ex­am­ples of in ), draw more on con­tem­po­rary thought than is typ­i­cally ap­pre­ci­at­ed, es­pe­cially as time passes and the ideas (often wrong be­cause spec­u­la­tive or pseu­do­science) fall into ob­scu­ri­ty.

The “pain of space” is in­ter­preted psy­cho­log­i­cally by all lit­er­ary crit­ics, but I am not con­vinced. Look­ing back on the early Space Age, it may be an­other ex­am­ple of a SF idea be­com­ing sym­bol­ized by ig­no­rance.

“Scanners Live in Vain”

The Great Pain of Space was dis­cov­ered by early space ex­plor­ers go­ing out into deep space, and never re­turn­ing, hav­ing been dri­ven mad and sui­ci­dal by the void in­flict­ing agony on the hu­man body, re­quir­ing to­tal de­pri­va­tion:

“. . . and when the first men to go Up and Out went to the Moon, what did they find?”

“Noth­ing”, re­sponded the silent cho­rus of lips.

“There­fore they went fur­ther, to Mars and to Venus. The ships went out year by year, but they did not come back un­til the Year One of Space. Then did a ship come back with the First Effect. Scan­ners, I ask you, what is the First Effect?”

“No one knows. No one knows.”

“No one will ever know. Too many are the vari­ables. By what do we know the First Effect?”

“By the Great Pain of Space”, came the cho­rus.

“And by what fur­ther sign?”

“By the need, oh the need for death.”

Vo­mact again: “And who stopped the need for death?”

“Henry Haber­man con­quered the first effect, in the Year 3 of Space.”

“And, Scan­ners, I ask you, what did he do?”

“He made the haber­mans.”

“How, O Scan­ners, are haber­mans made?”

“They are made with the cuts. The brain is cut from the heart, the lungs. The brain is cut from the ears, the nose. The brain is cut from the mouth, the bel­ly. The brain is cut from de­sire, and pain. The brain is cut from the world. Save for the eyes. Save for the con­trol of the liv­ing flesh…They live in the Great Pain while or­di­nary men sleep in the cold cold sleep of the tran­sit…They make men live in the place where men need des­per­ately to die.”

…What could any Other know of the Up­-and-Out? What Other could look at the bit­ing acid beauty of the stars in open Space? What could they tell of the Great Pain, which started qui­etly in the mar­row, like an ache, and pro­ceeded by the fa­tigue and nau­sea of each sep­a­rate nerve cell, brain cell, touch­point in the body, un­til life it­self be­came a ter­ri­ble aching hunger for si­lence and for death?

…“Is it true that you have con­quered the Great Pain?”

Stone hes­i­tat­ed, seek­ing words for an an­swer.

“Quick, can you tell me how you have done it, so that I may be­lieve you?”

“I have loaded ships with life.”


“Life. I don’t know what the Great Pain is, but I did find that in the ex­per­i­ments, when I sent out masses of an­i­mals or plants, the life in the cen­ter of the mass lived longest. I built ship­s—s­mall ones, of course—and sent them out with rab­bits, with mon­keys—”

“Those are Beasts?”

“Yes. With small Beasts. And the Beasts came back un­hurt. They came back be­cause the walls of the ships were filled with life. I tried many kinds, and fi­nally found a sort of life which lives in the wa­ters. Oys­ters. Oys­terbeds. The out­er­most oys­ters died in the great pain. The in­ner ones lived. The pas­sen­gers were un­hurt.”

“But they were Beasts?”

“Not only Beasts. My­self.”


“I came through Space alone. Through what you call the Up­-and-Out, alone. Awake and sleep­ing. I am un­hurt.”

It is an ex­am­ple of the gothic & sur­real fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments with an al­most vi­sual in­ten­sity that ren­der Smith’s SF unique, and earned de­scrip­tions like “sheer orig­i­nal­ity of con­cept” for the pain of space and the guild founded to deal with it (and lat­er, spec­u­la­tion that Smith was also “” & de­rived story el­e­ments from hal­lu­ci­na­tions of fu­ture lives).

The pain of space is gen­er­ally in­ter­preted as reify­ing a metaphor­i­cal or philo­soph­i­cal re­ac­tion to space or Smith’s own life at the time (a theme that would ap­pear in other works as well, see TvTropes’s “Space Mad­ness”), due to the over­all theme that the other mem­bers of the guild had them­selves be­come in­sane (in a moral sense) due to hav­ing been sev­ered from their senses in a clas­sic ‘mind vs body/­heart’ con­flict. The SF En­cy­clo­pe­dia de­scribes the surgery as “with an effect on their be­hav­iour that re­sem­bles se­vere autism”, and D’Am­mas­sa’s En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion (pg324) com­ments “Smith ex­am­ines a va­ri­ety of themes in the sto­ry: the con­flict be­tween duty to a small group as op­posed to so­ci­ety at large, the un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences of di­vorc­ing emo­tion from rea­son and com­pas­sion from ac­tion.” Hellek­son (The Sci­ence Fic­tion of Cord­wainer Smith, pg87):

The Great Pain of Space and Martel’s per­sonal feel­ings of panic and de­spair are more ma­ture ex­pres­sions of the young Paul Linebarg­er’s [Cord­wainer Smith] ter­ror, when Smith’s self­-un­der­stand­ing and ma­tu­rity al­lowed him to write of the thing that as an ado­les­cent he sim­ply feared. Most crit­ics have read the Great Pain of Space as a metaphor­i­cal work­ing of the au­thor’s psy­cho­log­i­cal de­spair, though I would also link it to the ter­ror of death that Paul Linebarger ex­pressed six­teen years be­fore he wrote “Scan­ners”. Per­haps Smith’s fun­da­men­tal fear of the com­pre­hen­sion of death drove this psy­cho­log­i­cal de­spair, which was likely ex­ac­er­bated by his en­demic health prob­lems. Elms, in his en­try on Cord­wainer Smith in New En­cy­clo­pe­dia of sci­ence Fic­tion (1988), notes that “Scan­ners” is a “story re­mark­able for its de­pic­tion of the des­per­ate steps nec­es­sary to con­trol the psy­cho­log­i­cal pain in­duced by long-dis­tance space travel” (422), al­though I would note that in “Scan­ners”, the pain un­pro­tected space­far­ers ex­pe­ri­ence is real and phys­i­cal; this real pain is read as psy­cho­log­i­cal. Gary K. Wolfe, in his analy­sis of “2, notes that “the ‘pain-of-space’ it­self…and hu­man vul­ner­a­bil­ity to the drag­ons are fur­ther ev­i­dences of man’s phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­ity and alien­ation in space” (“Mythic Struc­tures”, 148).3

These seem like rea­son­able in­ter­pre­ta­tions. After all, every­one is well aware that hu­mans can go to space with­out prob­lem & spend years in or­bit: while there are like weak­ened bones or car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tems (re­duced blood), and oc­ca­sional acute is­sues like un­der high ac­cel­er­a­tion or mo­tion sick­ness, or psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues re­lated to stress & con­fine­ment & lack of na­ture, and well-un­der­stood is­sues of or­di­nary ra­di­a­tion from cos­mic rays or the sun, there is cer­tainly no “Great Pain of Space”. It is a fan­tasy el­e­ment, a ro­man­tic SF metaphor in­tended to be re­flec­tive of prim­i­tive fears of the un­known & per­sonal iso­la­tion. Or is it?

Leprechaun hunting and historical context

There may be a for­got­ten his­tor­i­cal con­text here—this would not be the first time I have run into claims about the past which turn out to be rea­son­able in their orig­i­nal con­text, ex­ag­ger­at­ed, or false, which have been called “lep­rechauns” or “aca­d­e­mic ur­ban leg­ends” for how, when scouted to the source, they dis­ap­pear or the ap­par­ent gold of a re­mark­able fact turns out to be fool’s gold. (Not to be con­fused with -style is­sues, where claims dis­ap­pear all the time, but be­cause they were based on mis­lead­ing data/­analy­ses or de­lib­er­ate fraud; with lep­rechauns and ur­ban leg­ends, it’s more the cu­mu­la­tive effect of care­less­ness and ‘game of tele­phone’ effects, pos­si­bly with some bias as the seed of a du­bi­ous out­lier claim which is .) A list of ex­am­ples of pop­u­lar claims which, on closer in­ves­ti­ga­tion, turned out to evap­o­rate with the dawn:

  • is cited as an ex­am­ple of the An­te­bel­lum South’s med­ical­iza­tion of slaves the bet­ter to op­press them, ig­nor­ing the fact that it was sup­ported by only its in­ven­tor, was mocked, had no prac­ti­cal con­se­quences, and was of less im­por­tance to its time than is to our own.

  • The British sci­ence writer sup­pos­edly scoffed at the idea of fast trains, claim­ing “Rail travel at high speed is not pos­si­ble be­cause pas­sen­gers, un­able to breathe, would die of as­phyxia”; but there is no good source that he ever said that, and it seems to have been made up in 1980 by some­one who could­n’t spell his first name right.

  • was claimed by an en­cy­clo­pe­dia and a few other fem­i­nist books to be a dis­or­der pushed by the Eng­lish med­ical es­tab­lish­ment to dis­cour­age women from bi­cy­cling & keep them un­der con­trol; but the scanty pri­mary sources barely sup­ported its ex­is­tence as an ob­scure con­cept known from a few news­pa­per columns, and cer­tainly not the misog­y­nist tool of op­pres­sion it was de­picted as. (There ap­pear to be sim­i­lar prob­lems with Rachel Maines’s claims about Vic­to­rian doc­tors’ use of vi­bra­tors, in that the sources sim­ply do not sup­port her claims: “A Fail­ure of Aca­d­e­mic Qual­ity Con­trol: The Tech­nol­ogy of Or­gasm”, Lieber­man & Schatzberg 2018.)

  • A fem­i­nist wrote that ‘This was a time be­fore women had the right to vote. If they did at­tend col­lege at all, it was at the risk of con­tract­ing “neu­ral­gia, uter­ine dis­ease, hys­te­ria, and other de­range­ments of the ner­vous sys­tem” (ac­cord­ing to Har­vard gy­ne­col­o­gist Ed­ward H. Clarke)’; this was a grossly out­-of-con­text quote which li­beled a man with no­ble & pro­gres­sive be­liefs, as I pointed out in my com­ment.

  • There are many at­tri­bu­tions to the great physi­cist of a line which runs “X-rays are prob­a­bly a hoax” or “X-rays are frauds” or some­such; a closer in­ves­ti­ga­tion shows that there are no pri­mary quo­ta­tions, and that the real con­text seems to have been his re­ac­tion to sen­sa­tion­al­ized news­pa­per ar­ti­cles on the dis­cov­ery of X-rays and that in any case, he ac­cepted X-rays as soon as he read the sci­en­tific pa­per de­scrib­ing their dis­cov­ery.

  • We all know spinach has lots of iron—or does it not, or does it not not have lots of iron?. Let’s go deep­er:

    re­veals that the wide­ly-held be­lief that Pop­eye eats spinach be­cause it con­tains lots of iron is a myth, and spinach has nor­mal iron amounts; a myth ul­ti­mately caused by sloppy Ger­man chemists ty­po­ing a dec­i­mal point and un­crit­i­cally re­peated since then, as an ex­am­ple of lep­rechauns/ur­ban leg­end­s/er­rors in sci­ence…

    Which Sut­ton 2010 traces the ver­sions of, ul­ti­mately find­ing the spinach myth to be a myth and no dec­i­mal point in­volved at all at any point, and the myth com­ing to Ham­blin, as Ham­blin agrees, via Read­er’s Di­gest

    Ex­cept Rek­dal 2014 points out that the story was in­deed pub­lished in Read­er’s Di­gest - but 8 years after­ward…

    And Joachim Dagg in 2015 finds a dec­i­mal point er­ror else­where for the iron con­tent of beans, which was de­bunked by a Ben­der, and the de­bunk­ing passed onto Ham­lin with a con­fu­sion into spinach…

    But Sut­ton, in 2018, ac­cuses Dagg and an­other of be­ing ob­ses­sive cy­ber­stalk­ers out to dis­credit Sut­ton’s work - propos­ing that Dar­win pla­gia­rized evo­lu­tion, a rev­e­la­tion cov­ered up by “Dar­win cultists” - and that Dag­g’s in­ter­est in the spinach myth-myth is merely part of an epic mul­ti­-year ha­rass­ment cam­paign:

    Mean­while, in 2018, Dagg, who like Derry cy­ber­stalks me ob­ses­sively around the In­ter­net e.g. post­ing ob­ses­sive ju­ve­nile com­ments on the Ama­zon book re­views that I write etc (e.g. here), writes in the Lin­nean So­ci­ety pa­per in which he jeal­ously pla­gia­rises what he proves in his own words he prior knew (e.g. in 2014 and later here) to be my orig­i­nal Big Data IDD “Selby cited Matthew” dis­cov­ery, thanks the ma­li­cious and jeal­ous in­tim­i­dat­ing cy­ber­stalker Derry and his friend Mike Weale. No­tably, Weale cited my orig­i­nal (Sut­ton 2014) (Selby and six other nat­u­ral­ists cited Matthew pre-1858) pri­or-pub­lished peer re­viewed jour­nal bomb­shell dis­cov­ery in his 2015 Lin­nean So­ci­ety pa­per and openly thanks me for as­sist­ing him with that pa­per. He also thanks Dagg in the same pa­per. As fur­ther proof of his ab­solute weird ob­ses­sion with me, Dagg (here) also jeal­ously re­traces all my pri­or-pub­lished steps in my orig­i­nal and now world-fa­mous spinach, dec­i­mal point er­ror su­permyth bust. I think he was try­ing - but once gain fail­ing (here ob­sess­ing most des­per­ately about me and my re­search once again) - to dis­credit me any­way he could, which is the usual be­hav­iour of ob­sessed stalk­ing cultists, un­able to deal with the ver­i­fi­able new cult-bust­ing facts they de­spise, so go­ing des­per­ately after the rep­u­ta­tion of their dis­cov­erer in­stead. His Lin­nean So­ci­ety Jour­nal friend Derry is to­tally ob­sessed with me for the very same rea­son. He too, for ap­par­ently the very same rea­son, tries but also fails to dis­credit the spinach su­permyth­bust on his des­per­ate pseudo-schol­arly ob­ses­sive stalker site (here). What a pair of jeal­ous and ob­ses­sive sad clowns they are.

    So, can we re­ally trust Dagg or Sut­ton…?

  • pla­gia­rist claims that pro­hi­bi­tion­ist sur­veyed 30 sci­en­tific ex­perts about the safety of mar­i­juana and ig­nored the 29 telling him it was safe and based his an­ti-mar­i­juana cam­paign on that 1 sci­en­tist; each point there is false.

    In ac­tu­al­ity after check­ing Har­i’s sources, Anslinger did not sur­vey them but they had been de­bat­ing the ban pro­posal in­ter­nally & the AMA pro­vided Anslinger ex­cerpts of their opin­ions, they were gen­er­ally not em­i­nent sci­en­tists but phar­ma­cists & drug in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the hold­out did not say it was dan­ger­ous but merely de­scribed a doc­tor of his ac­quain­tance who had been se­verely ad­dicted to mar­i­juana & noted that “This may be an ex­cep­tional case”, and Anslinger did­n’t base his cam­paign on it—or even men­tion it pub­licly—although he did save the ex­cep­tion to the Bu­reau files on mar­i­juana (which is where Hari found it).

  • In his book , David Grae­ber claims Nazi ral­lies were “in­spired by” Har­vard pep ral­lies, but with­out any sources; I in­ves­ti­gated this in more depth and con­cluded that the con­nec­tion was real but far more ten­u­ous than Grae­ber’s sum­mary. (Grae­ber’s books make a num­ber of in­cor­rect claim­s.)

  • The Wikipedia ar­ti­cle on sham­poo cited pop­u­lar sci­ence writer Mary Roach as sum­ma­riz­ing NASA & So­viet re­search as in­di­cat­ing sham­poo is nec­es­sary, while the rel­e­vant pas­sage seems to say the op­po­site.

  • CS the­o­reti­cian is known for a quote that “Com­puter Sci­ence is no more about com­put­ers than as­tron­omy is about tele­scopes”, but it’s un­clear he ever said it and it may have ac­tu­ally been said by ei­ther or one of 3 ob­scure writ­ers.

  • The “” is the claim that a large vol­ume of out­put pre­dicts a lower prob­a­bil­ity of ter­mi­nat­ing soon & more fu­ture out­put eg writ­ing nov­els, as hap­pens un­der cer­tain sta­tis­ti­cal dis­tri­b­u­tions, which was cred­ited as orig­i­nat­ing in a 1964 The New Re­pub­lic mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle by Al­bert Gold­man; ob­tain­ing a copy, how­ev­er, I learn that Gold­man’s ac­tual ob­ser­va­tion of “Lindy’s Law” was that co­me­di­ans ap­peared to have fixed amounts of ma­te­ri­al, and so the more out­put from a co­me­di­an, the more likely his TV ca­reer is about to ter­mi­nate—that is, the op­po­site of the “Lindy effect” as de­fined by Nicholas Taleb.

  • AI re­searchers like to tell the cau­tion­ary story of a neural net­work learn­ing not to rec­og­nize tanks but time of day which hap­pened to cor­re­late with tank type in that set of pho­tographs; un­sur­pris­ing­ly, this

  • A more con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ple comes cour­tesy of : every­one ‘knew’ it was started to be an ex­change for trad­ing Mag­ic: the Gath­er­ing cards, un­til I ob­served that my thor­ough on­line re­search turned up no hard ev­i­dence of it but rather end­less Chi­nese whis­pers; the truth, turned out to be rather stranger.

  • re­search­ing , I learned that Netscape founder in­fa­mous boast that web browsers would de­stroy the Mi­crosoft Win­dows OS mo­nop­oly by re­duc­ing Win­dows to a “poorly de­bugged set of de­vice dri­vers” is as­cribed by An­dreessen to

  • More mi­nor­ly, I’ve cor­rected a New York Times movie re­view & an ars tech­nica com­puter crime ar­ti­cle.

  • “Lit­tle­wood’s Law of Mir­a­cles” ap­pears to have not been by Lit­tle­wood but Free­man Dyson

  • Fi­nal­ly, I might men­tion that most dis­cus­sions of are er­ro­neous and show the speaker has not ac­tu­ally read An Es­say.

Citogenesis: How often do researchers not read the papers they cite?

One fer­tile source of lep­rechauns seems to be the ob­ser­va­tion that re­searchers do not read many of the pa­pers that they cite in their own pa­pers. The fre­quency of this can be in­ferred from pre-dig­i­tal pa­pers, based on bib­li­o­graphic er­rors: if a ci­ta­tion has mis­takes in it, such that one could not have ac­tu­ally looked up the pa­per in a li­brary or data­base, and those mis­takes were copied from an­other pa­per, then the au­thors al­most cer­tainly did not read the pa­per (other­wise they would have fixed the mis­takes when they found them out the hard way) and sim­ply copied the ci­ta­tion. The em­pir­i­cal­ly-mea­sured spread of bib­li­o­graphic er­rors sug­gest that re­searchers fre­quently do not read the pa­pers they cite. The fre­quency can be fur­ther con­firmed by ex­am­in­ing ci­ta­tions to see when the citers mis­de­scribe the orig­i­nal pa­per, “quo­ta­tion er­rors”, show­ing that the er­rors in­volved are sub­stan­tial and not merely bib­li­o­graph­ic.

In read­ing pa­pers and check­ing ci­ta­tions (often while hunt­ing lep­rechauns or trac­ing epigraph­s), one quickly re­al­izes that not every au­thor is dili­gent about pro­vid­ing cor­rect ci­ta­tion data, or even read­ing the things they cite; not too in­fre­quent­ly, a ci­ta­tion is far less im­pres­sive than it sounds when de­scribed, or even, once you read the orig­i­nal, ac­tu­ally shows the op­po­site of what it is cited for. This process will be ex­tremely fa­mil­iar to any­one factcheck­ing stuff on so­cial me­dia. This helps myths prop­a­gate and makes claims seem far bet­ter sup­ported than they re­ally are. Since er­rors tend to be in the di­rec­tion of im­pres­sive or cool or coun­ter­in­tu­itive claims, this process and other sys­temic bi­ases pref­er­en­tially se­lect for wrong claims (par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cally con­ve­nient ones or ex­treme ones). As al­ways, there is no sub­sti­tute for de­mand­ing & full­text and read­ing the orig­i­nal source for a claim rather than de­riv­a­tive ones.

How often do au­thors not read their cites? One way to check is to look at sus­pi­ciously high ci­ta­tion rates of diffi­cult-to-ac­cess things; if a the­sis or book is not avail­able on­line or is not avail­able in many li­braries, but it has racked up hun­dreds or thou­sands of ci­ta­tions, is it more likely that so many time-pressed lazy aca­d­e­mics took the time to in­ter­li­brary loan it from one of the only hold­ing li­braries rather than sim­ply car­go-cult­ing a ci­ta­tion? For ex­am­ple, , one of the most cited psy­chol­o­gists of the 20th cen­tury & critic of stan­dard­ized test­ing such as IQ, self­-pub­lished through his con­sult­ing com­pany a num­ber of books4, which he cites in high­ly-pop­u­lar ar­ti­cles of his (eg //); sev­eral of these books have since racked up hun­dreds of ci­ta­tions, and yet, have never been re­pub­lished, can­not be found any­where on­line in Ama­zon / Google Books / Lib­gen / used book sell­ers, and do not even ap­pear in (!) which sug­gests that no li­braries have copies of them—one rather won­ders how all of these citers man­aged to ob­tain copies to read… But in­di­vid­ual anec­dotes, how­ever strik­ing, don’t pro­vide an over­all an­swer; per­haps “Achieve­ment Mo­ti­va­tion The­ory” fans are sloppy (// notes that if you ac­tu­ally read the books, Mc­Clel­land’s meth­ods clearly don’t work), but that does­n’t mean all re­searchers are slop­py.

This might seem near-im­pos­si­ble to an­swer, but bib­li­o­graphic analy­sis offers a cute trick. In olden times, ci­ta­tions and bib­li­ogra­phies had to be com­piled by hand; this is an er­ror-prone process, but one may make a differ­ent er­ror from an­other au­thor cit­ing the same pa­per, and one might cor­rect any er­ror on read­ing the orig­i­nal. On the other hand, if you cite a pa­per be­cause you blindly copied the ci­ta­tion from an­other pa­per and never get around to read­ing it, you may in­tro­duce ad­di­tional er­rors but you defi­nitely won’t fix any er­ror in what you copied. So one can get an idea of how fre­quent non-reads are by trac­ing lin­eages of bib­li­o­graphic er­rors: the more peo­ple copy around the same wrong ver­sion of a ci­ta­tion (out of the to­tal set of ci­ta­tions for that cite), the fewer of them must be ac­tu­ally read­ing it.

Such copied er­rors turn out to be quite com­mon and rep­re­sent a large frac­tion of ci­ta­tions, and thus sug­gests that many pa­per are be­ing cited with­out be­ing read. (This would ex­plain not only why re­tracted stud­ies keep get­ting cited by new au­thors, but also the preva­lence of mis­quo­ta­tion/mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of re­search, and why lep­rechauns per­sist so long.) Simkin & Roy­chowd­hury ven­ture a guess that as many as 80% of au­thors cit­ing a pa­per have not ac­tu­ally read the orig­i­nal (which I feel is too high but I also can’t strongly ar­gue with given how often I see quote er­rors or omis­sions when I check cites). From “Ci­ta­tion Analy­sis”, Nico­laisen 2007:

Garfield (1990, p. 40) re­viewed a num­ber of stud­ies deal­ing with bib­li­o­graphic er­rors and con­clud­ed, that “to err bib­li­o­graph­i­cally is hu­man.” For in­stance, in a study of the in­ci­dence and va­ri­ety of bib­li­o­graphic er­rors in six med­ical jour­nals, De Lacey, Record, and Wade (1985) found that al­most a quar­ter of the ref­er­ences con­tained at least one mis­take and 8 per­cent of these were judged se­ri­ous enough to pre­vent re­trieval of the ar­ti­cle. Moed and Vriens (1989) ex­am­ined dis­crep­an­cies be­tween 4,500 pa­pers from five sci­en­tific jour­nals and ap­prox­i­mately 25,000 ar­ti­cles that cited these pa­pers, find­ing that al­most 10 per­cent of the ci­ta­tions in the cited ref­er­ence dataset showed a dis­crep­ancy in ei­ther the ti­tle, the au­thor name, or the page num­ber. They con­cluded that one cause for the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of er­rors seemed to be au­thors’ copy­ing of er­ro­neous ref­er­ences from other ar­ti­cles. Broadus (1983) came to the same con­clu­sion in a study of a 1975 text­book on so­cio­bi­ol­ogy that in­cluded among its ref­er­ences an er­ro­neous ref­er­ence to a 1964 ar­ti­cle (one word was in­cor­rectly sub­sti­tuted in the ti­tle). By ex­am­in­ing 148 sub­se­quent pa­pers that cited both the book and the ar­ti­cle, Broadus could see how many au­thors re­peated the book’s mis­taken ref­er­ence. He found that 23 per­cent of the cit­ing au­thors also listed the faulty ti­tle. A sim­i­lar study by Simkin and Roy­chowd­hury (2003) re­ported an al­most 80-per­cent rep­e­ti­tion of mis­prints.

One might hope that with mod­ern tech­nol­ogy like search en­gines and Lib­gen, this prob­lem would be less­ened since it is so much eas­ier to ac­cess full­text and bib­li­o­graphic er­rors are so much less im­por­tant when no one is ac­tu­ally look­ing up pa­pers by page num­bers in a row of bound vol­umes, but I sus­pect that if this was re­done, the er­ror rate would go down re­gard­less of any im­prove­ments in read­ing rates, sim­ply be­cause re­searchers now can use tools like Zotero or Cross­ref to au­to­mat­i­cally re­trieve bib­li­o­graphic data, so the true non-read­ing rate sim­ply be­comes masked. And while full­text is eas­ier to read now, aca­d­e­mic pres­sures are even stronger now, and vol­umes of pub­li­ca­tions have only ac­cel­er­ated since the ci­ta­tion data in all of these stud­ies, mak­ing it even more diffi­cult for a re­searcher to read every­thing they know they should. So while these fig­ures may be out­dat­ed, they may not be ob­so­lete as all that.

(And my­self? Well, I can hon­estly say that I do not link any pa­per on Gw­ern.net with­out hav­ing read it; how­ev­er, I have read most but not all pa­pers I host, and I have not read most of the books I host or some­times cite—it just takes too much time to read en­tire book­s.)

In­di­vid­ual pa­pers:

“An in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the va­lid­ity of bib­li­o­graphic ci­ta­tions”, Broadus 1983:

Ed­ward O. Wilson, in his fa­mous work, So­cio­bi­ol­o­gy, The New Syn­the­sis [9], makes ref­er­ence to a pair of ar­ti­cles by W. D. Hamil­ton, but mis­quotes the ar­ti­cles’ ti­tle. No less than 148 later pa­pers make ref­er­ence to both Wilson’s book and Hamil­ton’s ar­ti­cles, by ti­tle. Thus, there is pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to test the charge, made by some crit­ics, that writ­ers fre­quently lift their bib­li­o­graphic ref­er­ences from other pub­li­ca­tions with­out con­sult­ing the orig­i­nal sources. Al­though 23% of these cit­ing pa­pers made the same er­ror as did Wilson, a fur­ther pe­rusal of the ev­i­dence raises con­sid­er­able doubt as to whether fraud­u­lent use was in­tend­ed.

(By ‘fraud­u­lent use’, Broadus seems to mean that au­thors did not seem to broadly copy ref­er­ences in­dis­crim­i­nately in “whole­sale bor­row­ing” to pad out their bib­li­og­ra­phy, eg au­thors who copied the er­ro­neous ci­ta­tion could have, but gen­er­ally did­n’t, copy ci­ta­tions to a bunch of other Hamil­ton ar­ti­cles. He does­n’t try to ar­gue that they all read the orig­i­nal Hamil­ton pa­per de­spite their copy­ing of the er­ror.)

“Pos­si­ble in­ac­cu­ra­cies oc­cur­ring in ci­ta­tion analy­sis”, Moed & Vriens 1989:

Ci­ta­tion analy­sis of sci­en­tific ar­ti­cles con­sti­tutes an im­por­tant tool in quan­ti­ta­tive stud­ies of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. More­over, ci­ta­tion in­dexes are used fre­quently in searches for rel­e­vant sci­en­tific doc­u­ments. In this ar­ti­cle we fo­cus on the is­sue of re­li­a­bil­ity of ci­ta­tion analy­sis. How ac­cu­rate are ci­ta­tion counts to in­di­vid­ual sci­en­tific ar­ti­cles? What pit­falls might oc­cur in the process of data col­lec­tion? To what ex­tent do ‘ran­dom’ or ‘sys­tem­atic’ er­rors affect the re­sults of the ci­ta­tion analy­sis? We present a de­tailed analy­sis of dis­crep­an­cies be­tween tar­get ar­ti­cles and cited ref­er­ences with re­spect to au­thor names, pub­li­ca­tion year, vol­ume num­ber, and start­ing page num­ber. Our data con­sist of some 4500 tar­get ar­ti­cles pub­lished in five sci­en­tific jour­nals, and 25000 ci­ta­tions to these ar­ti­cles. Both tar­get and ci­ta­tion data were ob­tained from the Sci­ence Ci­ta­tion In­dex, pro­duced by the In­sti­tute for Sci­en­tific In­for­ma­tion. It ap­pears that in many cases a spe­cific er­ror in a ci­ta­tion to a par­tic­u­lar tar­get ar­ti­cle oc­curs in more than one cit­ing pub­li­ca­tion. We present ev­i­dence that au­thors in com­pil­ing ref­er­ence lists, may copy ref­er­ences from ref­er­ence lists in other ar­ti­cles, and that this may be one of the mech­a­nisms un­der­ly­ing this phe­nom­e­non of mul­ti­ple’ vari­a­tion­s/er­rors.

, Simkin & Roy­chowd­hury 2002 (fur­ther dis­cus­sion: Simkin & Roy­chowd­hury 2006):

We re­port a method of es­ti­mat­ing what per­cent­age of peo­ple who cited a pa­per had ac­tu­ally read it. The method is based on a sto­chas­tic mod­el­ing of the ci­ta­tion process that ex­plains em­pir­i­cal stud­ies of mis­print dis­tri­b­u­tions in ci­ta­tions (which we show fol­lows a Zipf law). Our es­ti­mate is only about 20% of citers read the orig­i­nal…In prin­ci­ple, one can ar­gue that an au­thor might copy a ci­ta­tion from an un­re­li­able ref­er­ence list, but still read the pa­per. A mod­est re­flec­tion would con­vince one that this is rel­a­tively rare, and can­not ap­ply to the ma­jor­i­ty. Sure­ly, in the pre-in­ter­net era it took al­most equal effort to copy a ref­er­ence as to type in one’s own based on the orig­i­nal, thus pro­vid­ing lit­tle in­cen­tive to copy if some­one has in­deed read, or at the very least has pro­cured ac­cess to the orig­i­nal. More­over, if some­one ac­cesses the orig­i­nal by trac­ing it from the ref­er­ence list of a pa­per with a mis­print, then with a high like­li­hood, the mis­print has been iden­ti­fied and will not be prop­a­gat­ed. In the past decade with the ad­vent of the In­ter­net, the ease with which would-be non-read­ers can copy from un­re­li­able sources, as well as would-be read­ers can ac­cess the orig­i­nal has be­come equally con­ve­nient, but there is no in­creased in­cen­tive for those who read the orig­i­nal to also make ver­ba­tim copies, es­pe­cially from un­re­li­able re­sources2.

, Simkin & Roy­chowd­hury 2004:

We present em­pir­i­cal data on fre­quency and pat­tern of mis­prints in ci­ta­tions to twelve high­-pro­file pa­pers. We find that the dis­tri­b­u­tion of mis­prints, ranked by fre­quency of their rep­e­ti­tion, fol­lows Zipf’s law. We pro­pose a sto­chas­tic model of ci­ta­tion process, which ex­plains these find­ings, and leads to the con­clu­sion that 70-90% of sci­en­tific ci­ta­tions are copied from the lists of ref­er­ences used in other pa­pers.

(Simkin & Roy­chowd­hury have some other pa­pers which don’t seem to do fur­ther em­pir­i­cal work on the non-read­ing ques­tion: , 2003; , , 2007; “The­ory of Cit­ing”, 2011.)

, Šigut et al 2017:

The Shan­non–Wiener in­dex is a pop­u­lar non­para­met­ric met­ric widely used in eco­log­i­cal re­search as a mea­sure of species di­ver­si­ty. We used the Web of Sci­ence data­base to ex­am­ine cases where pa­pers pub­lished from 1990 to 2015 mis­la­beled this in­dex. We pro­vide de­tailed in­sights into causes po­ten­tially affect­ing use of the wrong name ‘Weaver’ in­stead of the cor­rect ‘Wiener’. Ba­sic sci­ence serves as a fun­da­men­tal in­for­ma­tion source for ap­plied re­search, so we em­pha­size the effect of the type of re­search (ap­plied or ba­sic) on the in­ci­dence of the er­ror. Bi­o­log­i­cal re­search, es­pe­cially ap­plied stud­ies, in­creas­ingly uses in­dices, even though some re­searchers have strongly crit­i­cized their use. Ap­plied re­search pa­pers had a higher fre­quency of the wrong in­dex name than did ba­sic re­search pa­pers. The mis­la­bel­ing fre­quency de­creased in both cat­e­gories over the 25-year pe­ri­od, al­though the de­crease lagged in ap­plied re­search. More­over, the in­dex use and mis­take pro­por­tion differed by re­gion and au­thors’ coun­tries of ori­gin. Our study also pro­vides in­sight into ci­ta­tion cul­ture, and re­sults sug­gest that al­most 50% of au­thors have not ac­tu­ally read their cited sources. Ap­plied re­search sci­en­tists in par­tic­u­lar should be more cau­tious dur­ing man­u­script prepa­ra­tion, care­fully se­lect sources from ba­sic re­search, and read the­o­ret­i­cal back­ground ar­ti­cles be­fore they ap­ply the the­o­ries to their re­search. More­over, the­o­ret­i­cal ecol­o­gists should li­aise with ap­plied re­searchers and present their re­search for the broader sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ty. Re­searchers should point out known, often-re­peated er­rors and phe­nom­ena not only in spe­cial­ized books and jour­nals but also in widely used and fun­da­men­tal lit­er­a­ture.

A few pa­pers I found on the way, which touch on the ques­tion of how often a ci­ta­tion is cor­rectly de­scribed/in­ter­pret­ed:

  • , de Lacey et al 1985

    The ac­cu­racy of quo­ta­tions and ref­er­ences in six med­ical jour­nals pub­lished dur­ing Jan­u­ary 1984 was as­sessed. The orig­i­nal au­thor was mis­quoted in 15% of all ref­er­ences, and most of the er­rors would have mis­led read­ers. Er­rors in ci­ta­tion of ref­er­ences oc­curred in 24%, of which 8% were ma­jor er­rors—that is, they pre­vented im­me­di­ate iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the source of the ref­er­ence. In­ac­cu­rate quo­ta­tions and ci­ta­tions are dis­pleas­ing for the orig­i­nal au­thor, mis­lead­ing for the read­er, and mean that un­truths be­come “ac­cepted fact.” …

  • “Do Au­thors Check Their Ref­er­ences? A Sur­vey of Ac­cu­racy of Ref­er­ences in Three Pub­lic Health Jour­nals”, Ei­chorn & Yankauer 1987:

    We ver­i­fied a ran­dom sam­ple of 50 ref­er­ences in the May 1986 is­sue of each of three pub­lic health jour­nals. Thir­ty-one per­cent of the 150 ref­er­ences had ci­ta­tion er­rors, one out of 10 be­ing a ma­jor er­ror (ref­er­ence not lo­cat­able). Thirty per­cent of the ref­er­ences differed from au­thors’ use of them with half be­ing a ma­jor er­ror (cited pa­per not re­lated to au­thor’s con­tention).

  • “Ac­cu­racy of ref­er­ences in psy­chi­atric lit­er­a­ture: a sur­vey of three jour­nals”, Law­son & Fos­ker 1999:

    Aims and method: The preva­lence of er­rors in ref­er­ence ci­ta­tions and use in the psy­chi­atric lit­er­a­ture has not been re­ported as it has in other sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture. Fifty ref­er­ences ran­domly se­lected from each of three psy­chi­atric jour­nals were ex­am­ined for ac­cu­racy and ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of use by val­i­dat­ing them against the orig­i­nal sources.

    Re­sults: A high preva­lence of er­rors was found, the most com­mon be­ing mi­nor er­rors in the ac­cu­racy of ci­ta­tions. Ma­jor ci­ta­tion er­rors, de­layed ac­cess to two orig­i­nal ar­ti­cles and three could not be traced. Eight of the ref­er­ences had ma­jor er­rors with the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of use of their quo­ta­tions.

    Clin­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions: Er­rors in ac­cu­racy of ref­er­ences im­pair the processes of re­search and ev­i­dence-based med­i­cine, quo­ta­tion er­rors could mis­lead clin­i­cians into mak­ing wrong treat­ment de­ci­sions.

  • “Sec­ondary and Ter­tiary Cit­ing: A Study of Ref­er­enc­ing Be­hav­ior in the Lit­er­a­ture of Ci­ta­tion Analy­sis De­riv­ing from the Or­tega Hy­poth­e­sis of Cole and Cole”, Ho­er­man & Now­icke 1995:

    This study ex­am­ines a com­plex net­work of doc­u­ments and ci­ta­tions re­lat­ing to the lit­er­a­ture of the Or­tega Hy­poth­e­sis (as de­fined by Jonathan R. Cole and Stephen Cole), demon­strat­ing the tenac­ity of er­rors in de­tails of and mean­ing at­trib­uted to in­di­vid­ual ci­ta­tions. These er­rors pro­vide ev­i­dence that sec­ondary and ter­tiary cit­ing oc­curs in the lit­er­a­ture that as­sesses in­di­vid­ual in­flu­ence through the use of ci­ta­tions. Sec­ondary and ter­tiary cit­ing is de­fined as the in­clu­sion of a ci­ta­tion in a ref­er­ence list with­out ex­am­in­ing the doc­u­ment be­ing cit­ed. The au­thors sug­gest that, in the ab­sence of er­ror, it is diffi­cult to de­ter­mine the amount of sec­ondary and ter­tiary cit­ing con­sid­ered nor­ma­tive. There­fore, to in­crease un­der­stand­ing of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ci­ta­tions and pat­terns of in­flu­ence, it is rec­om­mended that large-s­cale stud­ies ex­am­ine ad­di­tional in­stances of ci­ta­tion er­ror.

  • , Mak­ing Sense of Her­i­tabil­ity (pg135):

    …In my opin­ion, this kind of de­lib­er­ate mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in at­tacks on hered­i­tar­i­an­ism is less fre­quent than sheer ig­no­rance. But why is it that a num­ber of peo­ple who pub­licly at­tack “Jensenism” are so poorly in­formed about Jensen’s real views? Given the mag­ni­tude of their dis­tor­tions and the ease with which these mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions spread, one is alerted to the pos­si­bil­ity that at least some of these an­ti-hered­i­tar­i­ans did not get their in­for­ma­tion about hered­i­tar­i­an­ism first hand, from pri­mary sources, but only in­di­rect­ly, from the texts of un­sym­pa­thetic and some­times quite bi­ased crit­ics.8 In this con­nec­tion, it is in­ter­est­ing to note that sev­eral au­thors who strongly dis­agree with Jensen (Longino 1990; Bowler 1989; Allen 1990; Billings et al. 1992; McIn­er­ney 1996; Beck­with 1993; Kas­sim 2002) re­fer to his clas­sic pa­per from 1969 by cit­ing the vol­ume of the Har­vard Ed­u­ca­tional Re­view in­cor­rectly as “33” (in­stead of “39”). What makes this mis­-c­i­ta­tion note­wor­thy is that the very same mis­take is to be found in Gould’s Mis­mea­sure of Man (in both edi­tion­s). Now the fact that Gould’s idio­syn­cratic lap­sus calami gets re­peated in the later sources is ei­ther an ex­tremely un­likely co­in­ci­dence or else it re­veals that these au­thors’ ref­er­ences to Jensen’s pa­per ac­tu­ally orig­i­nate from their con­tact with Gould’s text, not Jensen’s.

  • , Green­berg 2009:

    …A com­plete ci­ta­tion net­work was con­structed from all PubMed in­dexed Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture pa­pers ad­dress­ing the be­lief that β amy­loid, a pro­tein ac­cu­mu­lated in the brain in Alzheimer’s dis­ease, is pro­duced by and in­jures skele­tal mus­cle of pa­tients with in­clu­sion body myosi­tis… The net­work con­tained 242 pa­pers and 675 ci­ta­tions ad­dress­ing the be­lief, with 220 553 ci­ta­tion paths sup­port­ing it. Un­founded au­thor­ity was es­tab­lished by ci­ta­tion bias against pa­pers that re­futed or weak­ened the be­lief; am­pli­fi­ca­tion, the marked ex­pan­sion of the be­lief sys­tem by pa­pers pre­sent­ing no data ad­dress­ing it; and forms of in­ven­tion such as the con­ver­sion of hy­poth­e­sis into fact through ci­ta­tion alone. Ex­ten­sion of this net­work into text within grants funded by the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health and ob­tained through the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act showed the same phe­nom­ena present and some­times used to jus­tify re­quests for fund­ing.

  • , Pavlovic et al 2020:

    …Find­ings from fea­si­bil­ity study, where we col­lected and re­viewed 1,540 ar­ti­cles con­tain­ing 2,526 ci­ta­tions of 14 most cited ar­ti­cles in which the 1st au­thors were affil­i­ated with the Fac­ulty of Med­i­cine Uni­ver­sity of Bel­grade, were fur­ther eval­u­ated for ex­ter­nal con­fir­ma­tion in an in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion set of ar­ti­cles. Ver­i­fi­ca­tion set in­cluded 4,912 ci­ta­tions iden­ti­fied in 2,995 ar­ti­cles that cited 13 most cited ar­ti­cles pub­lished by au­thors affil­i­ated with the Mayo Clinic Di­vi­sion of Nephrol­ogy and Hy­per­ten­sion (Rochester, Min­neso­ta, USA), whose re­search fo­cus is hy­per­ten­sion and pe­riph­eral vas­cu­lar dis­ease. Most cited ar­ti­cles and their ci­ta­tions were de­ter­mined ac­cord­ing to SCOPUS data­base search. A ci­ta­tion was de­fined as be­ing ac­cu­rate if the cited ar­ti­cle sup­ported or was in ac­cor­dance with the state­ment by cit­ing au­thors. A mul­ti­level re­gres­sion model for bi­nary data was used to de­ter­mine pre­dic­tors of in­ac­cu­rate ci­ta­tions. At least one in­ac­cu­rate ci­ta­tion was found in 11% and 15% of ar­ti­cles in the fea­si­bil­ity study and ver­i­fi­ca­tion set, re­spec­tive­ly, sug­gest­ing that in­ac­cu­rate ci­ta­tions are com­mon in bio­med­ical lit­er­a­ture. The main find­ings were sim­i­lar in both sets. The most com­mon prob­lem was the ci­ta­tion of nonex­is­tent find­ings (38.4%), fol­lowed by an in­cor­rect in­ter­pre­ta­tion of find­ings (15.4%). One fifth of in­ac­cu­rate ci­ta­tions were due to “chains of in­ac­cu­rate ci­ta­tions,” in which in­ac­cu­rate ci­ta­tions ap­peared to have been copied from pre­vi­ous pa­pers. Re­views, longer time elapsed from pub­li­ca­tion to ci­ta­tion, and mul­ti­ple ci­ta­tions were as­so­ci­ated with higher chance of ci­ta­tion be­ing in­ac­cu­rate….

Psychology of Space Travel, circa 1945

“This is Ma­jor Tom to Ground Con­trol,
I’m step­ping through the door
And I’m float­ing in a most pe­cu­liar way
And the stars look very differ­ent to­day,
For here
Am I sit­ting in a tin can
Far above the world.
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s noth­ing I can do.”

, “” (1969)

In 1945, knowl­edge of outer space was scant. No one had gone to outer space and re­turned alive, nei­ther man nor ape nor dog. The US and Russ­ian pro­grams were only just start­ing up and com­pet­ing for the prod­ucts of the Nazi rock­etry pro­gram. Pic­tures taken from space would not be avail­able un­til a year later in 1946 us­ing a V-2 (and ver­i­fy­ing that at least some ma­chin­ery would work in space), and any life form would not be launched un­til fruit flies sur­vived a trip up on a in 1947, 2 years lat­er; would not be launched for 3 years. (The roll call of US an­i­mal ex­per­i­ments is in­struc­tive: Al­bert I in June 1948, who died of suffo­ca­tion; II died of para­chute fail­ure, III died in an ex­plo­sion, IV & V after more para­chute fail­ure, VI 2 hours after land­ing as did 2 of the ac­com­pa­ny­ing mice likely from heat, Gordo an­other para­chute fail­ure, Able of botched surgery—leav­ing Able’s com­pan­ion the first mon­key to travel to space in 1959, 11 years after Al­bert I, and live out a nor­mal lifes­pan.) And phe­nom­ena re­lated to , “ring cur­rents”, had been hy­poth­e­sized for decades (Stern 1989) but the belt would not be mea­sured for an­other 13 years.

And there was prece­dent for un­pre­dictable, chaotic, psy­cho­log­i­cal effects.

The Breakaway Effect

I was fas­ci­nated to read in the chap­ter “Star Crazy” of Roach’s 2010 Pack­ing for Mars (re­view) a lengthy dis­cus­sion of how even up the ’60s there were se­ri­ous con­cern­s—­like in Smith’s sto­ry—about whether as­tro­nauts could re­main sane in space rather than sui­ci­dal, and this was not fringe spec­u­la­tion but main­stream & rea­son­able ex­trap­o­la­tion from dis­turb­ing dat­a­points in avi­a­tion about the break-off phe­nom­e­non in air­plane pi­lots at high al­ti­tude:

There was a great deal of con­jec­ture at the time—both at the So­viet space agency and at NASA—about the unique psy­cho­log­i­cal con­se­quences of breach­ing the cos­mos. Would hurtling into “the black”, as pi­lots used to call it, blow the as­tro­naut’s mind? Hear the omi­nous words of psy­chi­a­trist Eu­gene Brody, speak­ing at the 1959 Sym­po­sium on Space Psy­chi­a­try: “Sep­a­ra­tion from the earth with all of its un­con­scious sym­bolic sig­nifi­cance for man,…might in the­ory at least be ex­pect­ed…to pro­duce—even in a well-s­e­lected and trained pi­lot—­some­thing akin to the panic of schiz­o­phre­nia.”

There was worry that might come un­hinged and sab­o­tage the his­to­ry-mak­ing mis­sion. It was enough of a worry that the pow­er­s-that-be locked the man­ual con­trols of the Vos­tok cap­sule be­fore liftoff. What if some­thing went awry and com­mu­ni­ca­tions went dead and Pi­lot-Cos­mo­naut #1 needed to take con­trol of the cap­sule? His su­pe­ri­ors had thought about that too, and seem­ingly turned to game show hosts for ad­vice. Gagarin was given a sealed en­ve­lope con­tain­ing the se­cret com­bi­na­tion to un­lock the con­trols.

The con­cerns were not al­to­gether fatu­ous. In a study pub­lished in the April 1957 is­sue of Avi­a­tion Med­i­cine, 35% of 137 pi­lots in­ter­viewed re­ported hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced a strange feel­ing of de­tach­ment from Earth while fly­ing at high al­ti­tudes, al­most al­ways dur­ing a solo flight. “I feel like I have bro­ken the bonds from the ter­res­trial sphere”, said one pi­lot.

The phe­nom­e­non was per­va­sive enough for psy­chol­o­gists to give it a name: the “break­away effect”. For a ma­jor­ity of these pi­lots, the feel­ing was­n’t one of pan­ic, but of eu­pho­ria. Only 18 of the 137 char­ac­ter­ized their feel­ings as fear or anx­i­ety. “It seems so peace­ful, it seems like you are in an­other world.” “I feel like a gi­ant.” “A king”, said an­oth­er. Three com­mented that they felt nearer to God. A pi­lot named Mal Ross, who set a se­ries of al­ti­tude records in ex­per­i­men­tal air­craft in the late 1950s, twice re­ported an eerie “feel­ing of ex­ul­ta­tion, of want­ing to fly on and on.”

The year the Avi­a­tion Med­i­cine ar­ti­cle ran, Colonel in an up­right, phone-booth-sized sealed cap­sule sus­pended be­neath a he­lium bal­loon. With his oxy­gen dan­ger­ously low, Kit­tinger was or­dered by his su­pe­ri­or, David Si­mons, to be­gin his de­scent. “COME AND GET ME”, replied Kit­tinger, let­ter by let­ter in Morse code. Kit­tinger says it was a joke, but Si­mons did­n’t take it that way. (Morse code has al­ways been a tough medium for hu­mor.) In his mem­oir Man High, Si­mons re­calls think­ing that “the weird and lit­tle un­der­stood break­away phe­nom­e­non could be tak­ing hold of Kit­tinger’s mind,…that he…was gripped in this strange reverie and was hell­bent on fly­ing on and on with­out re­gard for the con­se­quences.”

Si­mons com­pared the break­away phe­nom­e­non to “the deadly rap­tures of the deep.” “Rap­ture of the deep” is a med­ical con­di­tion—a feel­ing of calm and in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity that can steal over a di­ver, usu­ally at depths be­low 100 feet. It is more pro­saically known as , or as the Mar­tini Effect (one drink for every 33 feet be­low 65 feet). Si­mons spec­u­lated that one day soon aero­space physi­cians would be talk­ing about a con­di­tion “known as the deadly rap­ture of space.”

These break­away effects do not in­clude all the other psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of air trav­el, such as , , hal­lu­ci­nated s (re­ported by many pi­lots, such as on his transat­lantic flight5, who also re­ported hal­lu­ci­nat­ing en­tire land­masses6), sen­sory de­pri­va­tion, UFOs, or out­comes of the crash (eg is often con­nected to his post-crash hal­lu­ci­na­tions in the Sa­hara re­counted in ).

Space Euphoria & Overview Effect

Roach 2010, con­tin­ued, on the :

He was right, though NASA pre­ferred the less flow­ery term “space eu­pho­ria.” “Some NASA shrinks”, wrote as­tro­naut in his mem­oir, “had warned that when I looked down and saw the Earth speed­ing past so far be­low, I might be swamped by space eu­pho­ria.” [see also the “overview effect”] Cer­nan would soon be un­der­tak­ing a space­walk—his­to­ry’s third—­dur­ing . The psy­chol­o­gists were ner­vous be­cause the first two space­walk­ers had ex­pressed not only an odd eu­pho­ria but a wor­ri­some dis­in­cli­na­tion to go back in­side the cap­sule. “I felt ex­cel­lent and in a cheer­ful mood and re­luc­tant to leave free space”, wrote , the first hu­man to, in 1965, float freely in the vac­uum of space, at­tached to his by an air hose. “As for the so-called psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­rier that was sup­posed to be in­sur­mount­able by man prepar­ing to con­front the cos­mic abyss alone, I not only did not sense any bar­ri­er, but even for­got that there could be one.”

Four min­utes into NASA’s first space­walk, as­tro­naut gushed that he felt “like a mil­lion dol­lars.” He strug­gled to find the words for it. “I’ve…it’s just tremen­dous.” There are mo­ments when the mis­sion tran­script reads like the tran­script of a 1970s en­counter group. Here are White and his com­man­der, James Mc­Di­vitt, a cou­ple of Air Force guys, after it’s over:

WHITE: That was the most nat­ural feel­ing, Jim.
McDIVITT: …You looked like you were in your moth­er’s womb.

NASA’s con­cern was not that their as­tro­naut was eu­phoric, but that eu­pho­ria might have over­taken good sense. Dur­ing White’s twenty min­utes of bliss, Mis­sion Con­trol re­peat­edly tries to break in. Fi­nally the cap­sule com­mu­ni­ca­tor, , gets through to Mc­Di­vitt.

GRISSOM: Gem­ini 4, get back in!
McDIVITT: They want you to come back in now.
WHITE: Back in?
McDIVITT: Back in.
GRISSOM: Roger, we’ve been try­ing to talk to you for awhile here.
WHITE: Aw, Cape, let me just [take] a few pic­tures.
McDIVITT: No, back in. Come on.
WHITE: …Lis­ten, you could al­most not drag me in, but I’m com­ing.

But he was­n’t. Two more min­utes passed. Mc­Di­vitt starts to plead.

McDIVITT: Just come on in…
WHITE: Ac­tu­al­ly, I’m try­ing to get a bet­ter pic­ture.
McDIVITT: No, come on in.
WHITE: I’m try­ing to get a pic­ture of the space­craft now.
McDIVITT: Ed, come on in here!

An­other minute passes be­fore White makes a move to­ward the hatch, say­ing, “This is the sad­dest mo­ment of my life.” Rather than wor­ry­ing about as­tro­nauts not want­ing to come back in, the space agen­cies should have been wor­ry­ing about them not be­ing able to. It took White twen­ty-five min­utes to get back through the hatch and safely in.

…After Ed White’s space­walk, re­ports of space eu­pho­ria were rare, and soon the psy­chol­o­gists stopped wor­ry­ing. They had some­thing new to worry on: “ height ver­ti­go.” (EVA is short for “ex­trave­hic­u­lar ac­tiv­ity”, mean­ing space­walk­ing.) The im­age of Earth rush­ing by some 200 miles be­low can cause par­a­lyz­ing fear. as­tro­naut wrote in his mem­oir about the “dread­ful and per­sis­tent” feel­ing that he was “plum­met­ing earth­ward…at ten times or a hun­dred times faster” than he’d ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing para­chute free falls. Which he was. (The differ­ence, of course, is that the as­tro­naut is falling in a huge cir­cle around Earth and does­n’t hit the ground.)

“White-knuck­led, I gripped the handrail…”, wrote Linenger of his ag­o­nized mo­ments on the end of Mir’s 50-foot tele­scop­ing arm, “forc­ing my­self to keep my eyes open and not scream.” I once lis­tened to a suit en­gi­neer tell the story of an un­named space­walker ex­it­ing the hatch and then turn­ing to wrap both space­suited arms around a col­league’s legs.

…Aero­space bi­ol­o­gists had es­tab­lished that hu­mans can func­tion for a few sec­onds with­out grav­i­ty. But what about an hour, a day, a week? “Peo­ple ask, Why?” says Britz of the era of the space­far­ing chimp. “Mary, we just did­n’t know.” What were the longer-term effects of space trav­el—not only of weight­less­ness, but of ? (High­-en­ergy atomic par­ti­cles have been zing­ing through space at fe­ro­cious speeds since the Big Bang. Earth’s mag­netic field pro­tects us by de­flect­ing cos­mic rays, but in space, these in­vis­i­ble bul­lets smash unim­peded through cells, caus­ing mu­ta­tions. It’s se­ri­ous enough that as­tro­nauts are clas­si­fied as ra­di­a­tion work­er­s.)

Every mode of travel has its sig­na­ture men­tal aber­ra­tion. Es­kimo hunters trav­el­ing alone on still, glassy wa­ters are some­times stricken by “kayak angst”—delu­sions that their boat is flood­ing or that the front end is ei­ther sink­ing or ris­ing up out of the wa­ter. Of re­lated in­ter­est: [see also Amer­ing & Katschnig 1990] in­cludes a dis­cus­sion of Es­kimo sui­cide mo­tives and notes that 4 out of the 50 sui­cides in­ves­ti­gated were el­derly Es­ki­mos who “took their lives as a di­rect re­sult of use­less­ness due to old age.” No men­tion was made of whether they cast them­selves adrift on ice floes, as you some­times hear, and whether travel by ice floe has its own unique anx­i­ety syn­drome.

In Moon Dust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (re­view), Smith 2005, Smith was able to in­ter­view al­most all of the sur­viv­ing Apollo as­tro­nauts and dis­cussed with them the psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences & effects of space trav­el, rang­ing from eu­pho­ria to re­li­gious epipha­nies to mu­si­cal hal­lu­ci­na­tions to di­vorce:

On the flight from Eng­land, I was lost in a bril­liant col­lec­tion of short sto­ries called . Writ­ten be­tween 1962 and 1988, most of them re­volve around the , and in par­tic­u­lar, which is where the space pro­gram­me’s hu­man cargo lived in the run-up to mis­sions. Bal­lard’s thrillingly jaun­diced view of the Space Age is that it con­sti­tuted a crime against evo­lu­tion, a blind, hubris­tic leap into a realm where we do not be­long, where all we can do is sow our dis­ease and spread the hu­man stain ever more thinly across the Uni­verse. Ac­cord­ing­ly, in his sto­ries we find the Cape aban­doned, laid waste by mi­crobes from Mars as dead as­tro­nauts cir­cle the earth in their cap­sule coffins, or serv­ing as a bea­con for falling space de­bris, roamed only by ir­ra­di­ated scav­engers seek­ing icons in man­gled bits of space­ship or space­man bones. We find space ex­plor­ers go­ing in­sane mid­flight, haunt­ing a whole world with their “night­mare ram­blings.” In “A Ques­tion of Re-En­try”, Bal­lard’s pro­tag­o­nist hunts for a cap­sule lost in the Ama­zon forest, amid grow­ing anx­i­ety that “the en­tire space pro­gramme was a symp­tom of some in­ner un­con­scious malaise afflict­ing mankind, and in par­tic­u­lar the West­ern tech­noc­ra­cies … the miss­ing cap­sule [was] it­self a frag­ment of a huge dis­in­te­grat­ing fan­ta­sy.” In “News from the Sun”, I find: “Cer­tain­ly, the un­happy lives of the as­tro­nauts bore all the signs of a deep­en­ing sense of guilt. The re­lapse into al­co­holism, si­lence, and pseudo-mys­ti­cism, and the men­tal break­downs, sug­gested pro­found anx­i­eties about the moral and bi­o­log­i­cal right­ness of space ex­plo­ration.”

…Swad­dled in the cos­mos on the way back from the Moon, had what he de­scribes as an “epiphany”, in which he glimpsed an in­tel­li­gence in the Uni­verse and felt con­nected to it, like a lamp sud­denly plugged in and switched on after an age hid­den in dark­ness. In that mo­ment, the void seemed to him alive and his de­scrip­tion of it re­minds me of the Eng­lish po­et­-artist William Blake’s ec­sta­tic vi­sion of a Uni­verse in which “every par­ti­cle of dust breathes forth its joy.” And what he said to him­self was, pre­cise­ly: Wow.

He was fas­ci­nated with it, with this feel­ing of tran­scen­dence, which he in­tu­itively re­lated to the eu­phoric states other civ­i­liza­tions have con­jured with rit­u­al, drugs, con­tem­pla­tion—­god­s—and when he got back, he left NASA and founded the (IONS), named for the Greek-derived word mean­ing “of, re­lat­ing to or based on the in­tel­lect.” His aim was to rec­on­cile sci­ence with re­li­gion—and the point at which they met, or at least the bridge be­tween them, he pos­tu­lat­ed, con­sists in that great­est of all mys­ter­ies, con­scious­ness it­self. Thus, the key to the Uni­verse is con­tained in our own minds, and vice ver­sa, the re­sult be­ing that for 32 years now, the Moon­walker Dr. Mitchell, who has two bach­e­lor of sci­ence de­grees to add to his doc­tor­ate from MIT, has been search­ing for this key. Peo­ple who pass through his grav­ity field fre­quently char­ac­ter­ize IONS as a kind of New Age cult, with Mitchell the Space Age Colonel Kurtz, the hero who en­tered into the heart of a dark­ness even Con­rad and Cop­pola could­n’t con­ceive, and never came back.

He did­n’t ex­pe­ri­ence the “come­down” that some of the other Moon­walk­ers did?

“No, I tend to think that what I’ve done in the thirty years since is more im­por­tant than go­ing to the Moon. The Moon—okay, that was pow­er­ful, it’s his­to­ry, ground­break­ing stuff of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. But for me per­son­al­ly, I think pi­o­neer­ing what I’ve done here with noet­ics will in the long run be a more im­por­tant ad­vance­ment.”

Strange, I ob­serve: says the same thing about his church work. Edgar Mitchel­l’s eyes light up.

“See, the point is, , Char­lie Duke, my­self and oth­ers had the same ex­pe­ri­ence, I think. But you ex­press it in terms of your own be­lief sys­tem, your own ex­pe­ri­ence and your train­ing. And me be­ing more of a philoso­pher and sci­en­tist, I looked be­yond the easy ex­pla­na­tion of re­li­gion. —a lovely fel­la—he ex­pressed his in his art­work. And even the ones who haven’t shown out­ward signs of change”—he leans for­ward and jabs a fin­ger at the space just be­yond my right el­bow—“that does­n’t mean they did­n’t feel it, too.”

Test pi­lots, he goes on to note with a smirk, “have never been noted for in­tro­spec­tion or spon­ta­neous elo­quent ex­pres­sion”, but he does be­lieve that “it’s sig­nifi­cant that many of the men pi­o­neer­ing space flight be­gan to ex­press more openly a more sub­tle side of their per­son­al­i­ties after re­turn­ing home.” Even Shep­ard loos­ened and a LM deputy pro­gramme man­ager is also on record as say­ing that the lu­nar as­tro­nauts did change; be­came less out­go­ing, more pen­sive. Would­n’t their train­ing as test pi­lots, with its em­pha­sis on self­-con­trol, have mil­i­tated against be­ing affected by what was hap­pen­ing around them? Mitchell thinks this is a mis­con­cep­tion, say­ing:

“My ex­pe­ri­ence taught me to open up my emo­tions, or at least to be­come more aware, to be­come more sen­si­tive to what’s go­ing on in the body. It’s quite true that in that busi­ness you have to learn to man­age your emo­tions. But of course, that’s what the mys­tic dis­ci­plines are about, too. That’s what’s taught by the Ti­betan Bud­dhist­s—and I greatly ad­mire their schol­ar­ship … it is about learn­ing to man­age your emo­tions.”

We talk about fam­ily and the huge di­vorce rate in the As­tro­naut Corps. At the be­gin­ning of the Six­ties, mar­i­tal break­down still came with shame; worse, NASA con­sid­ered it bad for the im­age of the pro­gramme and it was made clear that di­vorces would cost flights. Yet even NASA could­n’t re­sist the so­cial rev­o­lu­tion that was ush­ered in by the con­tra­cep­tive pill. By the end of the 1970s, the di­vorce rate would be five times what it had been in 1961, with the high­est rates in the na­tion set­tling on the Cape Kennedy area of Flori­da.

…As with sub­se­quent flights, Apollo 8 bowled along side­ways, like a sil­ver rolling pin, spin­ning slowly to dis­trib­ute the sun’s in­tense heat. From the craft’s an­gle of ap­proach the Moon was in dark­ness, so for the first two days the as­tro­nauts saw only the Earth shrink­ing be­hind them and a coy black void ahead, bereft of stars and grow­ing, un­til fi­nally they were drift­ing en­gine-first around the far side, prepar­ing for the ‘burn’ that would slow them into lu­nar or­bit. Still they saw noth­ing—un­til sud­denly and with­out warn­ing an im­mense arc of sun-drenched lu­nar sur­face ap­peared in their win­dows and the three men got the shocks of their lives, as the ethe­real disc they and the rest of hu­man­ity had known up to then re­vealed it­self as an awe­some globe, cool and re­mote, with­out sound or mo­tion, mag­is­te­r­ial but is­su­ing no in­vi­ta­tion what­so­ev­er. So shocked were the crew that com­man­der Bor­man was forced to rein in their ex­cite­ment for the sake of the burn, and while the as­tro­nauts have for­got­ten much about the jour­neys they took, none has any trou­ble re­call­ing this dra­matic mo­ment: in­deed, those who are tem­pera­men­tally dis­posed to ac­knowl­edg­ing fear will tell you that it was an eerie and in­tim­i­dat­ing sight, which the crew of Apollo 8 seemed haunted by. Upon their re­turn, they de­scribed a for­bid­ding and in­hos­pitable world. It was the Earth that sang to them from afar.

…The best bit—and this is one of my favourite bits of the whole space pro­gram­me—is when Cap-Com , the voice of Mis­sion Con­trol that day, or­ders back into the craft and the space­walker just can’t bring him­self to go. Broad­cast live to ra­dio at the time, the ex­change cap­ti­vated lis­ten­ers. The third per­son in­volved is Com­man­der Jim Mc­Di­vitt, speak­ing from in­side the space­ship. We come in at the end, which goes like this: [tran­script; some EVA footage; Apollo 11: Flight to the Moon, full al­bum; track “A4: Ed White—Walks In Space”, 4m56s-7m30s: ]

  • GRISSOM: “—get back in!”
  • (White pre­tends he has­n’t heard. He’s look­ing at the Earth.)
  • WHITE: “What are we over now, Jim?”
  • MCDIVITT: “I don’t know, we’re com­ing over the west now, and they want you to come back in.”
  • WHITE: “Aw, Cape, let me just find a few pic­tures.”
  • MCDIVITT: “No, back in. Come on.”
  • (Pause.)
  • WHITE: “Com­ing in. Lis­ten, you could al­most not drag me in, but I’m com­ing …”
  • (A few more min­utes of stalling by the re­luc­tant space­walk­er, who fi­nally re­lents.)
  • WHITE: “This is the sad­dest mo­ment of my life.”
  • MCDIVITT: “Well, you’re go­ing to find a sad­der one when we have to come down from this whole thing.”
  • WHITE: “I’m com­ing.”
  • (Not com­ing.)
  • MCDIVITT: “Okay … Come on now.”

The sad­dest mo­ment of his life! Who would­n’t feel for him? But he had to go back in, be­cause NASA did­n’t yet know what float­ing in space would do to a hu­man be­ing. That he and Gris­som had the breath snatched from their lungs in only months later gives his words an added poignan­cy. He did­n’t have long to live, but he had this, and that it should be­come mu­sic is not so very sur­pris­ing: , the ex­pe­ri­enced shut­tle as­tro­naut who trained with the Apollo crews and de­vel­oped a mys­ti­cal bent after­wards, claims to have heard mu­sic up there. “It was a no­ble, mag­nifi­cent mu­sic”, he told a Space.­com re­porter in Feb­ru­ary 2000. “I was a lit­tle on the mar­gin … I was walk­ing the edge.”

…One of J. G. Bal­lard’s sto­ries [“News From The Sun”] con­tains the strik­ing line: “The best as­tro­nauts, Franklin had no­ticed dur­ing his work for NASA, never dreamed …” But be­fore his flight, Char­lie had a dream that he and were dri­ving the rover across the lu­nar sur­face, when they found an­other set of tracks. They asked Hous­ton if they could fol­low them and wound up con­fronted by an­other rover, in which sat two peo­ple who looked ex­actly like them, but had been there for thou­sands of years. The dream was so pure and so vivid that Char­lie is apt to call it “one of the most real ex­pe­ri­ences of my life.” In the event, how­ev­er, the re­al­ity was ex­cit­ing for Duke but not mys­ti­cal or spir­i­tual as it was for some. On the flight be­fore (Apollo 15), Jim Ir­win had found the crys­talline “”, a 4.15-bil­lion-year-old relic of pri­mor­dial crust formed in the Moon’s in­fan­cy—in ge­o­logic terms, mere mo­ments after the so­lar sys­tem it­self was born. It just sat there on a rocky pul­pit at the edge of a crater, as if it had been wait­ing for him all that time and he said he felt the pres­ence of God then, heard His voice, and upon re­turn­ing, he quit NASA to found the High Flight min­istry. A year lat­er, he em­barked on the first of sev­eral ex­pe­di­tions to search for Noah’s Ark on in Turkey, which the nov­el­ist used as a tem­plate for one of the short sto­ries [“Project Ararat”] in his book . He al­most died after a bad fall on Ararat’s slopes in 1982, but lived on un­til 1991, when a sec­ond mas­sive heart at­tack fi­nally took him. The thing was, every­one had known this was com­ing, be­cause NASA medics dis­cov­ered alarm­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in his heart­beat while he was on the lu­nar sur­face. De­spite all the mon­i­tor­ing and all the tests, these had never shown up be­fore. It seemed that the Moon, with her bardic sense of mis­chief, was play­ing the equiv­o­ca­tor again, re­veal­ing Ir­win’s call­ing while si­mul­ta­ne­ously fore­telling his death.

…I ask whether thinks that go­ing to the Moon changed him, re­peat­ing Alan Bean’s view that all the Moon­walk­ers came back “more like they al­ready were”, and his face lights up. He says he did­n’t know that Bean had said that, but it’s ex­actly what he, too, has felt for the last thirty years. The only one who went in a di­rec­tion no one could have imag­ined, he sug­gests, was the Apollo 15 com­man­der, , whose lus­trous ca­reer was de­stroyed by the “stamp scan­dal” which over­took him a few months after his re­turn…

“That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion, though, be­cause Jim was deeply affect­ed. For in­stance, be­fore the Moon, he was a good speak­er, but after­wards he was a great one. He re­ally be­lieved. Some­thing real hap­pened to him.”

He then speaks about some­thing which he called his “left seat-right seat” the­o­ry, re­fer­ring to the fact that the com­man­der stood to the left in the lan­der with the Lu­nar Mod­ule pi­lot on his right. He sounds re­flec­tive for the first time as he notes:

“The six guys in the left seat went down paths you’d have ex­pect­ed, but the six in the right seats went off in all kinds of un­ex­pected di­rec­tions.”

And I sud­denly re­call Ed Mitchell say­ing some­thing sim­i­lar. In fact he had a name for it. I’d asked whether he thought some of the Moon­walk­ers had been more open to the ex­pe­ri­ence than oth­ers and he an­swered:

“Well, one thing to note is that most of the guys who were vo­cal about the depth of the ex­pe­ri­ence were Lu­nar Mod­ule pi­lots. It’s known phe­nom­e­non, from mil­i­tary stud­ies, that the guy in the rear seat of a two-seater air­craft and the guy ac­tu­ally do­ing the fly­ing have differ­ent ex­pe­ri­ences, be­cause they’re fo­cussed on differ­ent things. It’s the com­mand phe­nom­e­non. The view of the guy who has to be alert and on top of things is differ­ent from the guy who’s just along for the ride. So those of us com­ing back from the Moon who were LM pi­lots, we weren’t just along for the ride—we had chores—but we did­n’t have ma­jor re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, be­cause the space­craft was func­tion­ing well. We could take it in and con­tem­plate what we were do­ing more thor­ough­ly.”

He fur­ther added:

“I think that was also true for peo­ple back home on Earth, though ob­vi­ously in a differ­ent way. Those pic­tures of the Earth from the Moon are the most pub­lished pic­tures in the world. And so one has to ask the ques­tion: Why is that so? What is that? And to me, it’s be­cause they speak to that spirit of quest that hu­mans have. And to the ques­tion ‘Who are we?’”

Yes. Now Scott is talk­ing about Ed and his noetic quest, and with his post­flight break­down … and Alan Bean with his Close En­coun­ters Moon art … and of course Char­lie Duke and Jim Ir­win, who were di­rectly or in­di­rectly led to their faiths by the Moon. Only Jack Schmitt fol­lowed a straight and nor­mal path, and then only if you con­sider a de­sire to en­ter the Sen­ate nor­mal. And for the first time, I fall to re­flect­ing on my own en­coun­ters with these men; on the LM pi­lots’ ea­ger­ness to com­mu­ni­cate what they’d felt up there and the way it seemed to still live in­side them, as against the by-turns mad­den­ing and amus­ing im­per­vi­ous­ness of the sur­viv­ing mis­sion com­man­ders. Arm­strong, Young, Cer­nan, Scott: I can ad­mire them all in differ­ent ways, but would­n’t want them near me if I were a talk-show host or com­poser of son­nets. After­wards, I go to find Scott, be­cause I want to know whether he thinks this post­flight di­ver­gence is at­trib­ut­able to the differ­ent ex­pe­ri­ences of the Moon­walk­er­s—as he seemed to be im­ply­ing—or whether Deke sim­ply as­signed them roles ac­cord­ing to char­ac­ter type, with fo­cus and sin­gu­lar­ity seen as the stuff of lead­er­ship. Disin­gen­u­ous to the last, he pre­tends not to re­mem­ber me, while be­ing un­able to sup­press the spark of recog­ni­tion in his eye. He nev­er­the­less con­firms the first view straight­away.

“No, char­ac­ter does­n’t come into it”, he says. Re­al­ly? I ask, but he shakes his head firm­ly. “Char­ac­ter was never an is­sue.” So he agrees with Ed Mitchell that there was some­thing pri­mal in the ex­pe­ri­ence, at least for those who had the time and men­tal space to be affected by it? “I think so. Yes.” He leaves a short gap, as though con­sid­er­ing this for the first time.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing, is­n’t it?”

The Context

So what does this amount to? His­tor­i­cal­ly, air and space travel do have a wide va­ri­ety of un­pre­dictable effects, men­tal and phys­i­cal, good and bad, and to some de­gree this was known by 1945. We see clearly here a wide­spread and known fear of the effects of outer space, fears about ra­di­a­tion and sui­ci­dal ac­tions (eg re­fus­ing to re­turn to the space­craft), and par­al­lels in the known ex­tremes of avi­a­tion. While not all of this data & spec­u­la­tion was avail­able to Smith in 1945 (for ex­am­ple, the avi­a­tion sur­vey was pub­lished 12 years lat­er), it is rea­son­able to sup­pose that, a well-trav­eled aca­d­e­mic and in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tive, he could well have had any of this in mind when he de­vised his pain of space and all of it is straight­for­ward to ex­trap­o­late for the pur­pose of his sto­ry.

It is also of pos­si­ble in­ter­est to note that there is long-s­tand­ing spec­u­la­tion that Cord­wainer Smith, like (or per­haps we should men­tion SF and and ?), may well have seen SF as be­ing more than fic­tions and in fact, ‘mem­o­ries’ of his fu­ture lives, and was the “” de­scribed in psy­cho­an­a­lyst 1954 case study “The Jet-Pro­pelled Couch: Part I: The man who trav­eled through space”/“Part II: Re­turn to Earth” (re­pub­lished in the 1955 The Fifty-Minute Hour), which lends in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties to his heavy use of pseu­do­nyms and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “the pain of space” (not to men­tion Elm­s’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Smith talk­ing to his cats & cats in ). And would I go too far in not­ing that Smith’s ini­tial de­gree was in me­dieval Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and the idea of dream­ing of the fu­ture re­calls 1912 far-fu­ture _?

So any in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “Scan­ners Live in Vain” must take this his­tor­i­cal sci­en­tific con­text into con­sid­er­a­tion as a suffi­cient ex­pla­na­tion of the pres­ence of the plot de­vice & its char­ac­ter­is­tics, and not ig­no­rantly jump to a con­clu­sion that the pain of space must nec­es­sar­ily be en­tirely metaphor­i­cal or sym­bolic in some way.


See Also

  1. It was writ­ten some­time be­fore July 1945, but was only pub­lished in 1950 after 4 re­jec­tions (first from As­tound­ing for be­ing “too ex­treme”) and a 2 year de­lay by the 5th pub­lish­er.↩︎

  2. In “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (which briefly men­tions Scan­ners, ap­par­ently post-“Scan­ners Live in Vain” where it refers to nor­mal space pi­lot­s/­cap­tain­s), space is not dan­ger­ous (“There was some­thing un­der­neath space it­self which was alive”) but in the dark­ness be­tween so­lar sys­tems lurk psy­chic mon­sters which turn ships’ pas­sen­gers into “lu­natics, dam­aged be­yond re­pair, to be wak­ened, and fed, and cleaned, and put to sleep, wak­ened and fed again un­til their lives were end­ed.” (The use of cats re­minds me of an­other SF op­era, , specifi­cal­ly, episode 20’s Han­myo, who fights with a pair of pet cats as copi­lot­s.) As in “Scan­ners Live in Vain” and an­other strik­ing Smith sto­ry, “”, the so­lu­tion is an­other form of life (oys­ters, cats, and mink re­spec­tive­ly). An­i­mals and hu­man-an­i­mal hy­brids ap­pear re­peat­edly through­out Smith’s fic­tion. McGuirk 2011 notes the sim­i­lar dy­namic of pain/power in “”, where the “dro­mo­zoans” pro­vide im­mor­tal­ity si­mul­ta­ne­ous with such pain that some pris­on­ers vol­un­teer for lo­bot­o­miz­ing or eye re­moval (while the pro­tag­o­nist en­dures it in his at­tempt to re­form Shay­ol). In “Think Blue, Count Two”, pas­sen­gers aboard a gen­er­a­tion ship are woken out of hi­ber­na­tion to re­pair it after the pi­lot mys­te­ri­ously dies, and the “lit­tle boxes” that pre­vented fight­ing are de­stroyed by a pas­sen­ger cor­rupted by crime and envy in space:

    In whis­pers, in gasps, he told her the story of Old Twen­ty-two. He told her that peo­ple poured out among the stars and that the an­cient things in­side peo­ple woke up, so that the deeps of their minds were more ter­ri­ble that the black­est depth of space. Space never com­mit­ted crimes. It just killed. Na­ture could trans­mit death, but only man could carry crime from world to world. With­out the box­es, they looked into the bot­tom­less depths of their own un­known selves… All in a rush she re­mem­bered what Trece had told her about Old Twen­ty-two, and about what hap­pened to peo­ple when they lost their own out­sides in space and be­gan mak­ing up evil from the peo­ple—in­sides which, after a mil­lion and more years of be­com­ing hu­man, still fol­lowed them every­where—even into space it­self. This was crime come back to man. She man­aged to say it to Ta­latashar, “You are go­ing to com­mit crimes? On this ship? With me?”

    Con­tin­u­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal the­me, the other pas­sen­gers are res­cued by a small pro­tec­tive /chem­i­cal­ly-fix­ated (lam­i­nat­ed) mouse brain as guardian, which can de­stroy hu­mans psy­cho­so­mat­i­cal­ly:

    …“I do not ex­ist”, said he, specifi­cally ad­dress­ing him­self to Ta­latashar, “but if I needed to take out my imag­i­nary pis­tol and to shoot you in the head with it, my con­trol is so strong that your bone would com­ply with my com­mand. The hole would ap­pear in your head and your blood and your brains would pour out, just as much as blood is pour­ing from your hand just now. Look at your hand and be­lieve me, if you wish.”

    Ta­latashar re­fused to look. The stranger went on in a very de­lib­er­ate tone. “No bul­let would come from my pis­tol, no ray, no blast, noth­ing. Noth­ing at all. But your flesh would be­lieve me, even if your thoughts did not. Your bone struc­ture would be­lieve me, whether you thought so or not. I am com­mu­ni­cat­ing to every sep­a­rate sin­gle cell in your body, to every­thing which I feel to be alive. If I think bul­let at you, your bone will pull aside for the imag­i­nary wound. Your skin will part, your blood will pour out, your brains will splash. They will not do it by phys­i­cal force but by com­mu­ni­ca­tion from me. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion di­rect, you fool. That may not be real vi­o­lence, but it serves my pur­pose just as well. Now do you un­der­stand me? Look at your wrist.”

    Ta­latashar did not avert his eyes from the stranger. In an odd cold voice he said, “I be­lieve you. I guess I am crazy. Are you go­ing to kill me?” “I don’t know”, said the stranger.

  3. Cox 2013 (“From the Horse’s Mouth: Speech and Speciesism in Cord­wainer Smith and Sheri S. Tep­per”) ex­pands on this iso­la­tion theme apro­pos “On The Gem Planet”:

    Genevieve nar­rates the horse’s sto­ry. A dy­ing man paid great sums to guar­an­tee pri­vacy even after death, and built a cabin on Pon­top­p­i­dan to “live alone, ex­cept for his non-hu­man friend” (459). This “friend”, an old palomino stal­lion, es­capes after the man’s death, seek­ing the com­pany of peo­ple.9…He cracks a hoof and wakes in a hu­man hos­pi­tal…Through their tele­pathic link, the horse states he is “dy­ing”, de­spite his near-im­mor­tal sta­tus. His state­ment seems para­dox­i­cal, but Su­san Keav­eney clar­i­fies his mean­ing: “Horses are herd an­i­mals: their pri­mary at­tach­ment is to the herd, within which they fit into a strict so­cial hi­er­ar­chy” (445). The horse had been alone with the man for many years, de­prived of any herd. While his phys­i­cal body can­not die, he suffers from deep lone­li­ness, a pos­si­ble ref­er­ence to some of Smith’s ear­lier sto­ries as the “’pain-of-space (a zone of to­tal un­rea­son)” (McGuirk, “Re­dis­cov­ery” 182). Char­ac­ters from “Scan­ners Live in Vain”, and “Think Blue, Count Two” share suffer­ing sim­i­lar to the horse of Pon­top­p­i­dan. Smith’s bi­og­ra­pher, Alan C. Elms, notes these sto­ries ad­dress “how…the pro­tag­o­nist [can] best deal with se­vere psy­cho­log­i­cal pain” (274). Though the pain the pro­tag­o­nist in “Scan­ners” suffers is a side-effect of space trav­el, the symp­toms of pain and lone­li­ness are the same in each sto­ry. Elms notes that “peo­ple are saved from psy­cho­log­i­cal pain…through the in­ter­ven­tion of other liv­ing be­ings” (Ibid.). On Pon­top­p­i­dan, hu­mans and non-hu­mans save each other from the psy­cho­log­i­cal pain of iso­la­tion.

  4. Par­tic­u­lar­ly:

    • Mc­Clel­land & Dai­ley 1972, Im­prov­ing offi­cer se­lec­tion for the For­eign Ser­vice. Boston, MA: Hay/M­cBer.
    • Mc­Clel­land & Dai­ley 1973, Eval­u­at­ing new meth­ods of mea­sur­ing the qual­i­ties needed in su­pe­rior For­eign Ser­vice Offi­cers. Boston: McBer.
    • Mc­Clel­land & Dai­ley 1974, Pro­fes­sional com­pe­ten­cies of hu­man ser­vice work­ers. Boston: McBer and Co.

    Only the first two books ap­pear avail­able in Mc­Clel­land’s posthu­mous Har­vard pa­pers.↩︎

  5. (1953), in de­scrib­ing the 22nd hour of the flight after ~55 hours of sleep de­pri­va­tion:

    …While I’m star­ing at the in­stru­ments, dur­ing an un­earthly age of time, both con­scious and asleep, the fuse­lage be­hind me be­comes filled with ghostly pres­ences—­vaguely out­lined forms, trans­par­ent, mov­ing, rid­ing weight­less with me in the plane. I feel no sur­prise at their com­ing. There’s no sud­den­ness to their ap­pear­ance. With­out turn­ing my head, I see them as clearly as though in my nor­mal field of vi­sion. There’s no limit to my sight—my skull is one great eye, see­ing every­where at once.

    These phan­toms speak with hu­man voic­es—friend­ly, va­por-like shapes, with­out sub­stance, able to van­ish or ap­pear at will, to pass in and out through the walls of the fuse­lage as though no walls were there. Now, many are crowded be­hind me. Now, only a few re­main. First one and then an­other presses for­ward to my shoul­der to speak above the en­gine’s noise, and then draws back among the group be­hind. At times, voices come out of the air it­self, clear yet far away, trav­el­ing through dis­tances that can’t be mea­sured by the scale of hu­man miles; fa­mil­iar voic­es, con­vers­ing and ad­vis­ing on my flight, dis­cussing prob­lems of my nav­i­ga­tion, re­as­sur­ing me, giv­ing me mes­sages of im­por­tance un­at­tain­able in or­di­nary life.

    Ap­pre­hen­sion spreads over time and space un­til their old mean­ings dis­ap­pear. I’m not con­scious of time’s di­rec­tion. Fig­ures of miles from New York and miles to Paris lose their in­ter­est. All sense of sub­stance leaves. There’s no longer weight to my body, no longer hard­ness to the stick. The feel­ing of flesh is gone. I be­come in­de­pen­dent of phys­i­cal laws—of food, of shel­ter, of life. I’m al­most one with these va­por-like forms be­hind me, less tan­gi­ble than air, uni­ver­sal as aether. I’m still at­tached to life; they, not at all; but at any mo­ment some thin band may snap and there’ll be no differ­ence be­tween us. The spir­its have no rigid bod­ies, yet they re­main hu­man in out­line for­m—e­m­a­na­tions from the ex­pe­ri­ence of ages, in­hab­i­tants of a uni­verse closed to mor­tal men. I’m on the bor­der line of life and a greater realm be­yond, as though caught in the field of grav­i­ta­tion be­tween two plan­ets, acted on by forces I can’t con­trol, forces too weak to be mea­sured by any means at my com­mand, yet rep­re­sent­ing pow­ers in­com­pa­ra­bly stronger than I’ve ever known.

    I re­al­ize that val­ues are chang­ing both within and with­out my mind. For twen­ty-five years, it’s been sur­rounded by solid walls of bone, not per­ceiv­ing the lim­it­less ex­panse, the im­mor­tal ex­is­tence that lies out­side. Is this death? Am I cross­ing the bridge which one sees only in last, de­part­ing mo­ments? Am I al­ready be­yond the point from which I can bring my vi­sion back to earth and men? Death no longer seems the fi­nal end it used to be, but rather the en­trance to a new and free ex­is­tence which in­cludes all space, all time. Am I now more man or spir­it? Will I fly my air­plane on to Eu­rope and live in flesh as I have be­fore, feel­ing hunger, pain, and cold, or am I about to join these ghostly forms, be­come a con­scious­ness in space, al­l-see­ing, al­l-know­ing, un­ham­pered by ma­te­ri­al­is­tic fet­ters of the world?

    At an­other time I’d be star­tled by these vi­sions; but on this fan­tas­tic flight, I’m so far sep­a­rated from the earthly life I know that I ac­cept what­ever cir­cum­stance may come. In fact, these emis­saries from a spirit world are quite in keep­ing with the night and day. They’re nei­ther in­trud­ers nor strangers. It’s more like a gath­er­ing of fam­ily and friends after years of sep­a­ra­tion, as though I’ve known all of them be­fore in some past in­car­na­tion. They’re as differ­ent from men, and yet as sim­i­lar, as the night’s cloud moun­tains were to the Rock­ies of the West. They be­long with the tow­er­ing thun­der­heads and moon­lit cor­ri­dors of sky. Did they board my plane, un­seen, as I flew be­tween the tem­ple’s pil­lars? Have they rid­den with me through sun­rise, into day? What strange con­nec­tion ex­ists be­tween us? If they’re so con­cerned with my wel­fare, why did­n’t they in­tro­duce them­selves be­fore?

    I live in the past, the pre­sent, and the fu­ture, here and in differ­ent places, all at once. Around me are old as­so­ci­a­tions, by­gone friend­ships, voices from an­ces­trally dis­tant times. Vis­tas open up be­fore me as chang­ing as those be­tween the clouds I pass. I’m fly­ing in a plane over the At­lantic Ocean; but I’m also liv­ing in years now far away.

  6. Lind­bergh 1953, the 23rd hour:

    …Sun­light flashes as I emerge from a cloud. My eyes are drawn to the north. My dreams are star­tled away. There, un­der my left wing, only five or six miles dis­tant, a coast­line par­al­lels my course—pur­ple, haze-cov­ered hills; clumps of trees; rocky cliffs. Small, wooded is­lands guard the shore. But I’m in mid-At­lantic, nearly a thou­sand miles from land! Half-formed thoughts rush through my mind. Are the com­passes com­pletely wrong? Am I hope­lessly lost? Is it the coast of Labrador or Green­land that I see? Have I been fly­ing north in­stead of east? It’s like wak­ing from a sound sleep in strange sur­round­ings, in a room where you’ve never spent a night be­fore. The wall­pa­per, the bed, the fur­ni­ture, the light com­ing in the win­dow, noth­ing is as you ex­pected it to be. I shake my head and look again. There can be no doubt, now, that I’m awake. But the shore line is still there. Land in mid-At­lantic! Some­thing has gone wrong! I could­n’t have been fly­ing north, re­gard­less of the in­ac­cu­racy of my com­pass­es. The sun and the moon both rose on my left, and stars con­firmed that my gen­eral di­rec­tion was to­ward Eu­rope. I know there’s no land out here in mid-o­cean—noth­ing be­tween Green­land and Ice­land to the north, and the Azores to the south. But I look down at the chart for re­as­sur­ance; for my mind is no longer cer­tain of its knowl­edge. To find new is­lands marked on it would hardly be stranger than the flight it­self.

    No, they must be mi­rages, fog is­lands sprung up along my route; here for an hour only to dis­ap­pear, mush­rooms of the sea. But so ap­par­ently re­al, so cru­elly de­cep­tive! Real clouds cover their higher hills, and pour down into their ravines. How can those bluffs and forests con­sist of noth­ing but fog? No is­lands of the earth could be more per­fect. Did a wind of hur­ri­cane ve­loc­ity blow me on to­ward Eu­rope through the night? Have I been thread­ing a tor­nado’s cor­ri­dors? That may be the coast of Ire­land I’m pass­ing. It would take less than five min­utes to fly over and make sure. It can’t be just fog-the pointed tops of spruce trees rise above the com­mon mass; I can al­most see their branches spread­ing out. How can it be all fog, when there are wisps of fog along the coast, when I can tell the differ­ence be­tween the fog and land? If it’s not Ire­land, it must be the shore line of some At­lantis.

    I bank north­ward; then, be­fore the Spirit of St. Louis turns ten de­grees, I straighten out again. It’s non­sense, pure non­sense, to be lured off course by fog is­lands in the mid­dle of an ocean flight. I’ll not al­low my­self such in­dul­gence. I’ll waste no time and gaso­line on fan­ci­ful ex­cur­sions which can only end in dis­il­lu­sion­ment and ad­di­tional fa­tigue. But if those is­lands aren’t real land, if they are not of earth’s sub­stance, how can I dis­tin­guish land from air? How will I rec­og­nize Eu­rope when I reach it? I see surf on the beaches and trees in the forests, yet my rea­son tells me that it all is fog!