Study and Discussion questions for Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" [1941]

While each of the stories we will discuss next week addresses conflicts between spiritual and scientific ways of knowing, thereby engaging historical and cultural tensions between institutionalized religion and the scientific community, each also invokes a more abstract set of issues.  To some extent, I think we can see that these conflicts also investigate record keeping and the limitations of human knowledge.  That is, each of these stories seems to frame religious and scientific ways of knowing and dissemination of knowledge over time as alternative methods of confronting the inconceivable, of defining the nature of physical reality and human experience, of the order of things in a universe that is, ultimately, too vast and complex to be fully explained, given the limitations of human understanding.  While reading "Nightfall," consider some of the following issues:

  1. To what extent is this story an address to hubris, to our arrogance concerning the state of our own knowledge?  Recall T.H. Huxley and Wells's notion that scientific inquiry functions in part to exhaust human knowledge by demonstrating its limits.  Is the Asimov story yet another example of derivative SF, of a story that is inspired by earlier SF and that extends a tradition within a genre?
  2. Why does Asimov create an opportunity to discuss the basic instinctive fear of human beings?  That is, how does this idea function in the story?
  3. Why does the experiment engaged in by Yimot 70 and Faro 24 fail?  What is it that they fail to take into account while constructing their experiment
  4. At the Jonglor Centennial Exhibition, 1 out of every 10 people who rode in darkness for 15 minutes went mad.  Why?  What fixation did they develop?
  5. At story's end, why do the cultists--who are proven right--go mad?
  6. At story's end, why do the scientists--who are also proven right--go mad?
  7. While considering #6 & #7, investigate how Asimov's story directly addresses the limitations of record keeping [either religious or scientific] and the similar functions of these two ways of knowing.  What commentary on the limitations of human knowledge does Asimov make here?