Robert Heinlein, “Waldo”

Heinlein’s 1942 novella prefigures (and according to Colin Milburn, partially determines) the scientific field of nanotechnology. It chronicles a series of strange happenings that seem to defy scientific understanding, and the attempts by the titular character to account for, and control, them.

Set in the future, the text posits a time ruled by absolute scientific rationality. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has been explained away; physics is back on course as an exact science, able to explain physical phenomena at all scales without encountering any indeterminability. This thematic move on Heinlein’s part is interesting, for it is precisely at the subatomic level—the level that nanotechnology is concerned with—that we currently understand matter to behave in indeterminable ways: our observations alter the object being observed, the Uncertainty Principle limits what we can determine about any given particle. Heinlein’s story posits a future that has essentially returned to a Newtonian model of physics, in spirit if not in detail, in order to better contrast with the novella’s real subject: magic.

In the world of the novella, energy is transmitted in the open air (Heinlein calls is “radiant power”), and vehicles of all kinds harness it via basic devices known as deKalb receptors. Lately, some of these receptors have been failing, causing catastrophic crashes and severe worry among the executives and scientists of NAPA, the company that owns the licenses the underlying technology. Frustrated and baffled (for the malfunctioning units seem to have nothing wrong with them), they call upon Waldo, a misanthrope inventor living in a private house in outer space. Waldo suffers from myasthenia gravis, a real neurological disease that causes one’s muscles to become extremely weak. Like the deKalb receptors, myasthenia gravis patients don’t appear to have anything wrong with them, and yet cannot function normally. Their healthy muscles cannot be utilized (the condition is now recognized as an autoimmune disease). Waldo, who bears nothing but contempt for his fellow humans (“smooth apes”), has made a lucrative career out of manufacturing remote manipulation devices, or “Waldos.” He can control these through a “primary Waldo,” a set of gloves that manipulates other arms of different sizes, endowing him with the strength that his body lacks.

When Waldo finally agrees to help NAPA (for a hefty fee, but essentially for the egoistic challenge of solving a problem the smooth apes cannot), he engages a very old man, Grandpa Schneider, who refuses to use modern technology (forcing Waldo to fly all the way to Earth to see him in person) and babbles on and on about magic. Yet he appears to be the only one who has successfully repaired a failed deKalb receptor. For that reason, Waldo is lead finally to take him seriously, hypothesizing that all of his babblings about the “Other World” actually refer to another plane or dimension that maps, point-for-point, onto the one we inhabit, though it may be quite different (even in scale: Waldo notes that the entire other world may be the size and shape of an ostrich egg, and yet still correspond directly with our own world, correspondence not being constrained by scale or shape). Because Grandpa Schneider has supposedly tapped into the abundant energy of the Other World simply by harnessing it through thought, Waldo hypothesizes that the nervous system acts as the interface between these dimensions; that is, it inhabits both worlds.

Eventually this leads Waldo to fabricate a nanomanipulator through an ingenious method: he uses his Waldo to manufacture a smaller Waldo, which manufactures a smaller Waldo, right on down to at least the cellular level, so that Waldo can study and manipulate neurons using his bare hands. Colin Milburn notes in “Nanovision” that the entire field of nanotechnology is born out of this vision, borrowed by Richard Feynman for his catalyzing 1959 lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he describes “a set of master and slave hands, so that by operating a set of levers here, you control the ‘hands’ there…” (Milburn 48) Thus Feynman draws directly on “Waldo” for his primary vision of nanotechnology, which launched the scientific field.

In Heinlein’s story, Waldo never accomplishes much at the nanolevel, because as soon as he starts this work he becomes obsessed with his own strength, and immediately switches from his nano-Waldos to his oversized ones, grabbing a nearby steel I-beam and bending it until it breaks the Waldos. Soon after that he concentrates all of his thought on the Other World and gains a healthy level of strength back in his own muscles. Heinlein here moves from nano-manipulation to macro-manipulation to “magical” self-manipulation in a provocative way: he seems to suggest both a continuum of scale in relation to the dream of manipulation (prefigured by the collapse of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, paving the way for phenomena at the subatomic and cosmological levels to behave according to the same laws), and a similar co-extension between the rationally explained and the unfathomable. Magic, for Heinlein, becomes both scientifically possible and inherently unexplainable. By pairing this with the nervous system, a liminal and emergent system that already occupies the space between the analog and the digital (considered as an information system), the material and consciousness itself, deterministic and seemingly the site of free will, Heinlein—through Feynman—essentially mythologizes a new science of scale, which we now call nanotechnology. Here the dream of manipulating matter at the atomic level actually yokes together instrumentalizing Enlightenment rationality (or science more generally) and the dream of magic—the power of thought as a material element of causation decoupled from the observer’s own body. Indeed, nanotechnology yokes the two together, imaging a future in which matter can be reconstructed from the ground up, to take the form we imagine it to.

An the deKalb receptors? They are fixed by thought: scientists need only believe that they work, and they will.


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