[Warning: Sith spoilers!]

Whenever I meet a promising new graduate student, it isn’t long before I mention the practical importance of backwards induction. (For a short definition, see here; for a longer treatment, check this out).

“What’s your career goal?” I ask. Unless I’ve overestimated the student, the answer is of course “To be a professor, just like you.” And then the conversation goes something like this:

Me: “When do you want to start your job?”

Promising New Grad Student (PNGS): “Uh, Fall 2010.”

Me: “Then you’ll be interviewing in January 2010, and will need to have an accepted article to make the cut. That means you need to start working on your revise & resubmit by January 2009. To do that, you need to submit your article by January 2008. That means you need to start writing by January 2007. That means you need to start becoming an expert on your topic by January 2006. Which means you need to figure out your topic by, say, TODAY! Hurry, there’s still time to catch up!!!”

Sad to say, even promising students usually fail to take my sermon on backwards induction to heart. They think it’s some kind of joke. But as Homer Simpson says, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

Since I obviously lack the charisma to convince, I’m thinking of redirecting PGNGs to Chancellor Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious, Sith Lord. Whatever the aesthetic flaws of the Stars Wars prequels, they do provide what is arguably the most impressive example of backwards induction in fiction. When Palpatine first appears in Episode I, he is a mere Senator from Naboo. When Episode III ends, he is the totalitarian ruler of the galaxy. So how did he do it? At the risk of offending fans with the digest version, here are the steps in reverse order.

[Episode III]

1. To become and remain Emperor, Palpatine needs a powerful but obedient apprentice, a rubber-stamp Senate, no external enemies, and no Jedi.

2. Since the external enemies are his main rationalization for amassing power, he kills them last using his powerful but obedient apprentice.

3. To push the Senate to vote him absolute power, he needs to survive an attempted Jedi coup.

4. To survive the coup, he has to trick the Jedi into attacking him when they are weak, then retaliate with a massive sneak attack. This also solves his Jedi problem.

5. To recruit his new apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, he has to trick him into preventing the Jedi coup.

6. To trick Anakin into preventing the Jedi coup, he has to do many things: offer to help him save his pregnant wife, build up friendship and trust with flattery over the years, manipulate the Jedi into bruising his ego by denying him the rank of Master, pretend to be a helpless victim of the Jedi, etc.

7. To make room for his new apprentice, and help push him towards the Dark Side, Palpatine arranges for him to kill his old apprentice, Count Dooku.

[Episode II]

7. To weaken the Jedi and continue amassing power, Palpatine needs a massive civil war. The best way to do that is to command both sides. His apprentice runs the Separatist movement, while Palpatine leads the Republic’s crusade against the Separatists.

8. To lead the Republic’s crusades, he needs an army of docile but effective soldiers. Clones are the obvious choice.

9. So the Jedi do not question his motives, Palpatine arranges for Obi-Wan to discover the clones’ existence.

10. Palpatine also arranges for Anakin to serve as Padme’s bodyguard, foreseeing that they will fall in love. Attachment is a path to the Dark Side, after all.

11. It takes ten years to grow an army of clones, so Palpatine covertly places an order with the cloners of Kamino ten years before he’ll need them.

[Episode I]

12. Palpatine befriends his future apprentice, Anakin, when he is a boy.

13. Palpatine gets himself voted Chancellor by promising to protect Naboo against the Trade Federation.

14. To make this happen, Palpatine covertly orders the Trade Federation to blockade and invade Naboo.

15. Years before Episode I begins, Palpatine arguably uses his powers to cause the birth of his future apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, by immaculate conception. That way he’ll have Darth Vader when he needs him decades later!

Admittedly, this outline fails to do justice to Palpatine’s machinations. But every graduate student – indeed, every person – can learn from his methodical movement from his initial position to his ultimate goal.

Of course, this leaves unanswered the question of why Palpatine’s power of foresight is so feeble in the original trilogy. Get your bitter apprentice and his idealistic son alone with you in a room, and think you’ll come out on top? Come on!

P.S. Frederick Ochsenhirt sketched a similar analysis in a comment on my earlier post on the Sith. It’s excellent.