State Science Institute

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The State Science Institute (fl. 2004-2020), in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, was the government-run laboratory nominally directed by Robert Stadler but actually directed, in Machiavellian fashion, by Floyd Ferris. It figures most prominently in three connections: a meretricious report on the merits of Rearden Metal, the construction of the infamous Project X, and finally the construction of Project F, essentially a torture chamber where John Galt was briefly examined under duress until its electroshock generator failed.

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

Contents

Background

In the novel, the State Science Institute was the brainchild of Robert Stadler, who at the time held the chair of the Physics Department at Patrick Henry University, Cleveland, Ohio. Stadler believed in the separation of "pure" science from applied science, and wanted a guaranteed source of funding so that no scientist would ever have to be beholden, as it were, to purely commercial interests.

The Institute was established in 2004. This provoked a confrontation between Dr. Stadler and his most prized pupil, John Galt, concerning the propriety of such an Institute. John Galt, of course, did not recognize any legitimate divide between pure and applied science, nor that any government had any legitimate reason to fund scientific research.

Robert Stadler, of course, became Director of the Institute, a post he held until his death. But very soon he lost a key part of his power to his Associate Director and Top Co-ordinator, Floyd Ferris. While Stadler was the "pure scientist," Ferris was a politician par excellence, and used his political abilities to change the Institute's entire mission in a manner that Stadler found himself powerless to stop or control.

Probable location

The State Science Institute was located in New Hampshire, in a cold region, and near enough to a major river to see it. The only river that could qualify is the Connecticut River, and specifically that part of it that separates New Hampshire from Vermont. And the most likely location is therefore the reservation that, in real life, holds the United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, located along the two-lane highway (Highway Ten, known as the Lyme Road at that point), about a twenty-minute walk north of Dartmouth College in Hanover. Hence it would be close enough to offer fellowships at a major Ivy League university, and even long-standing relationships with several faculty departments at that university.

Physical structure

The Institute campus was laid out like a park. At the center stood its main building, a simple rectilinear structure with white marble elevations on all sides, and marble-enhanced interiors. The architect carved this motto into a marble plate set in the transom of the main entrance:

To the fearless mind. To the inviolate truth.

The Rearden Metal Controversy

The first episode in which the State Science Institute plays a part is the controversy surrounding the introduction of Rearden Metal, in 2017. On the flimsiest of evidence, the Institute said that Rearden Metal represented an unproved technology, and that its response when carrying tremendous loads, or bearing great structural stresses, was impossible to predict.

How Stadler would have handled the controversy is impossible to determine. But Ferris had a political motive for issuing a report that was, essentially, filled with Orwellian doubletalk. He was attempting to curry favor with an industry lobby that stood to lose a great deal if Rearden Metal was accepted.

But after the opening of the John Galt Railway Line (July 22, 2017), which included a track and even an entire bridge of Rearden Metal, the Institute's report was forgotten. Ferris saw to it that the Institute's egregious miscall of the potential of Rearden Metal would never redound to the discredit of the Institute or of himself.

Project X

Main Article: Project X

Floyd Ferris' next effort was Project X, a project that built upon Robert Stadler's earlier work on the physics of sound to produce a device, called the Xylophone or the "Thompson Harmonizer," that could pulverize objects of any size within a very large radius. Ironically (and hypocritically), Ferris sought to use Rearden Metal to build the Xylophone. But Henry Rearden refused ever to deal with the State Science Institute "for any purpose whatever, good or bad, secret or open," and so Ferris had to settle for ordinary steel.

Nevertheless, Ferris succeeded in building the Xylophone and (on June 29, 2019) in demonstrating it to a group of dignitaries who, while clearly horrified, nevertheless praised it as "an instrument of peace."

The ultimate irony would come later, however: in the last year of John Galt's strike, Robert Stadler attempted to seize direct control of the Xylophone and ended up struggling violently with another faction leader over its controls. The result was its premature detonation and the destruction, among other things, of the Taggart Bridge. That single event precipitated the final collapse of the United States into anarchy.

Project F

Ferris had one other project to his credit (or discredit): Project F. This was a study of the use of electric shock to inflict pain. The chief product of this "project" was an electroshock torture device that Ferris tried to use on John Galt after his capture and refusal to cooperate with the government on solving the economic crisis that had been building for twelve years.

Two things went wrong on that fateful occasion. First, the electroshock generator failed, and the only man who knew how to repair it turned out to be John Galt himself. Galt's calm and careful proposal for repair of the very device that had been causing him pain, caused the generator's operating technician to flee the project site, and then caused one of Ferris' two witnesses, James Taggart, to suffer a complete nervous breakdown.

The second thing happened while Ferris and Wesley Mouch were transporting Jim Taggart to the nearest hospital (presumably the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, then in Lebanon). A militia commando force led by Ragnar Danneskjöld liberated John Galt from the project site and killed several of its guards in the process.

Aftermath

The novel does not state directly what became of the Institute after the final collapse. But one can only assume that the State Science Institute was denounced as unconstitutional and dissolved, and its records used as evidence in a civil trial of Ferris by the new post-anarchical authority. Robert Stadler, of course, died in the Project X detonation.


Spoilers end here.


Typology

Ayn Rand stated repeatedly that the government had no business funding scientific research of any kind. The three controversies in which the Institute was involved each illustrated the two things that Rand feared most from such an Institute:

  1. The perversion of scientific inquiry to serve purely political ends. If religiously motivated obscurantism annoyed her, then politically motivated obscurantism infuriated her.
  2. The exploitation of scientific talent to the end of using brute force against a nation-state's subjects. Projects F and X illustrate this point. Governments do not create, but they can and do destroy. And when the government funds scientific research that is divorced from the production of things that people can use, that research will inevitably take a destructive direction.

But most of all, Rand used the Institute as the symbol of the mind-body dichotomy, the notion that the mind and the body ought to be separate. The artificial divide between "pure" and applied science is one illustration of this. Robert Stadler believes that a "scientific mind" should be above commercial or "practical" concerns. He forgot that scientific discoveries will always find a practical use, and if those discoveries belong to a government, then they will inevitably serve a purpose of destruction, not construction.

In sharp and not-often-appreciated contrast, John Galt ran a laboratory at his own expense, and published its work product for a price, in the form of lectures to industrialists who could benefit most from access to cutting-edge physics research and discoveries. Thus the problems that John Galt worked on, were those having the widest possible practical application. John Galt made no distinction between science and technology, or between "pure" and "applied" science, or between "science" and "engineering."

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