This collection of short essays—fully 37 articles averaging merely eight pages each—is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in general sc...moreThis collection of short essays—fully 37 articles averaging merely eight pages each—is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in general science but fearful of long-winded, dry or overly technical writing. Asimov writes clearly and simply, engaging the reader with his expertise on practically any subject. Unlike most of his essay compilations, Is Anyone There? is not distilled from Asimov's column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but rather from various periodicals (including Mademoiselle!), lectures and papers.
Also atypical is the large proportion of speculation: in the second section "Concerning the More or Less Unknown," seven essays are devoted entirely to predicting some aspect of the future, and five more concern extraterrestrial life. Regrettably, Asimov's vision of the future, as sampled in these works, seems far too optimistic. Intriguingly, he hits much closer to the mark extrapolating from current knowledge in the beginning section, "Concerning the More or Less Known."
Several essays stand out as highly memorable (ironically, I include this list to help me remember them). "A Pinch of Life" is at its core a simple catalog of the essential elements of the human body, arranged in decreasing order of proportion of the total atoms. How Asimov manages to make this interesting eludes me, but somehow he does. "The Ocean Mine" does the same for the contents of the ocean (did you know that our oceans contain six million tons of gold?). In "The Cult of Ignorance," the Good Doctor decries American anti-intellectualism—one year before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I. Finally, "Constructing a Man" magnificently summarizes the mechanics of modern DNA technology, fifteen years before the Human Genome Project was even conceived.(less)
If this book hadn't followed on the heels of The Gallery of Regrettable Food, I'd have given it four stars. But the rib-splitting perfection of the pr...moreIf this book hadn't followed on the heels of The Gallery of Regrettable Food, I'd have given it four stars. But the rib-splitting perfection of the predecessor has set the bar somewhere in the ionosphere, and thus I found Gastroanomalies painfully disappointing. Oh, the pictures themselves showed great promise, especially for second-run material: the molds and aspics glistened hideously, and the mere sight of the Lard-basted Lard Logs constricted my arteries. Yet the presentation as a whole seemed rather uneven, almost fragmented. Worse, Lileks just wasn't on form: the drop-dead-funny hyperbole and comedic timing that have made Regrettable Food and Interior Desecrations timeless classics were largely lacking in Gastroanomalies. He seemed to be trying too hard, as if driven by a contractual obligation. Or perhaps Lileks has recently been expending too much of his creative energy into fruitless apologia for the Iraq War. (How such a creative and perceptive mind can waste so much time on chickenhawk drivel is one of the great modern mysteries.)
That said, this sequel did have its laugh-out-loud moments, and overall I considerate worthy of being placed alongside A Gallery of Regrettable Food. Nonetheless, I suggest that only a serious fan of Lileks' satirical gags (no pun intended) would really appreciate the somewhat strained humor in Gastroanomalies.(less)
Unfortunately, Depression Is Fun mostly represents the "bitter ex" facet of Nina Paley's artwork; she is much better known for her incisive and acidl...moreUnfortunately, Depression Is Fun mostly represents the "bitter ex" facet of Nina Paley's artwork; she is much better known for her incisive and acidly sarcastic commentary on overpopulation and American commercialism. However, given that the latter topics would utterly destroy the sales potential of any comic collection, I should try to keep my expectations under control, and instead praise this rare find for its hilarious parody of 1990s American culture. There is plenty of material there, ripe for the poking fun at, and Paley--who drew heavily from her brief life in Santa Cruz in this collection--gives it the skewering it deserves. The final page alone, a not-so-subtle swipe at Cathy Guisewite's undeserved fame, makes the entire book worthwhile for fans of Paley's humor.(less)
The latest story in Larry Niven's "Known Space" universe, a collaboration between Niven and fellow SF veteran Edward M. Lerner, follows the migration...moreThe latest story in Larry Niven's "Known Space" universe, a collaboration between Niven and fellow SF veteran Edward M. Lerner, follows the migration of the Pierson's puppeteer world ahead of the deadly explosion of the galactic core. Although the story fits nicely within the "Known Space" canon, this long-awaited glimpse into puppeteer society falls well short of expectation. Overall, the story line is not as enthralling as are the Known Space classics. Worse, the puppeteers, by and large, are cast as human actors who experience severe pangs of guilt for participating in activities both unexceptional of and essential to life as puppeteers. Despite its faults, however, Fleet of Worlds is well worth reading. Its limitations are perhaps unfairly exaggerated by the august company it keeps in Larry Niven's masterworks.(less)
Before reading this book, I knew very little about "the Communist takeover" in Russia and its dependent states. Yet it is clear that A People's Traged...moreBefore reading this book, I knew very little about "the Communist takeover" in Russia and its dependent states. Yet it is clear that A People's Tragedy provides a comprehensive and immaculately researched account of the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the subsequent chaos as numerous political parties vied for power.
Orlando Figes assumes some familiarity with Russian history, and therefore focuses more on broad social and political trends than on specific events, entirely omitting a few pivotal points (such as the initial formation of the "White Army" opposing the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War). Thus, The People's Tragedy is not an ideal introduction to the Russian Revolution. However, for anyone with a solid background in European history, this book would serve well as a definitive reference. And although I had difficulty in places due to my lack of prior knowledge, I found it engrossing and quite enjoyable.(less)
Why Darwin Matters, by well-known skeptic author Michael Shermer, is an excellent introduction to the science, and lack thereof, behind the "controve...more Why Darwin Matters, by well-known skeptic author Michael Shermer, is an excellent introduction to the science, and lack thereof, behind the "controversy" between evolution and "Intelligent Design" (ID) creationism that has jeopardized science education in the USA. Those who are seeking an in-depth criticism of current ID arguments, however, will find this book lacking in particulars.
Shermer begins with a concise survey of what evolution really is, and masterfully sets the historical stage in which evolution is pitted against Christian fundamentalism. He accurately pinpoints the major logical fallacies characteristic of ID creationists' arguments, and briefly surveys the "best" arguments put forth in favor of ID, touching on the flaws in each. Finally, he reveals some disturbing facts about the true motives of the ID movement. All in all, the book is beautifully organized and extremely well written.
Nonetheless, it is not until the Coda—after the Epilogue—that Shermer drives home the central argument against ID, that it is scientifically vacuous: "The problem with the supernatural explanations of Intelligent Design is that there is nothing we can do with supernatural explanations. They lead to no data collection, no testable hypotheses, no quantifiable theories: therefore, no science." Moreover, Shermer does an admirable job explaining the key role of evolution in modern biology, yet somehow fails to mention its enormous potential to improve human health, as geneticists and molecular biologists have already begun to unravel the secrets of the human genome, drawing crucial information from the genomes of the chimpanzee and other animals. To the average American, that's why Darwin matters.
The battle-hardened scientist or science teacher already embroiled in the "controversy" will learn little from Why Darwin Matters—but will still enjoy reading it. And for any up-and-coming defender of science, this book makes a perfect springboard from which to explore the politico-religious phenomenon of ID in greater depth. (less)
The Sun Shines Bright is the fifteenth compilation of Isaac Asimov's essays from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, covering the period from March 1979 through August 1980. All in all I thought this collection was below average, given the field. None of the essays really stands out as a classic, though there are several engaging ones. The pick of this particular crop are a trio of columns on the history of nuclear power, with the particular focus on uranium. In "The Useless Metal," "Neutrality!" and "The Finger of God," Dr. Asimov traces the story of the famous, then dull, then infamous element from its discovery in the 18th Century through the detonation of a uranium bomb over the city of Nagasaki. On the way he provides a concise, yet highly informative, summary of the development of nuclear physics.
Dr. Asimov also shines in "Alas, All Human," a survey of some of the shadier, but not outright unethical, moments of science. Finally, he explains, in "The Unsecret Weapon," the profound effect of the English longbow on European military history, before the development of effective artillery.
Other essays in this book include (and if you're still reading, you can stop now—I'm doing this to catalog my collection of Asimov, and not to inform or entice potential readers) columns on sunspots (and how they relate to Louis XIV), solar fusion and the famous neutrino-insufficiency paradox (which has since been solved), the puzzle of the unexpected iridium band in late-Cretaceous rocks (which has since been solved—see Chicxulub Crater), three on stars (including one of Asimov's worst essays, a twelve-page rant about a negative reviewer of one of his works disguised as a lecture on stellar coordinates), thirty years' worth of advances in astronomy (now, thirty years later, hopelessly dated), two on changes in the Moon's orbit (done better in another collection), a strangely prescient speculative piece on cloning, the usual cautionary tale on the population explosion, and a bit on the evolutionary advantages of cooperation.(less)
Although the Introduction fails to mention it, I'm pretty sure that this compendium of 17 science essays was drawn from Asimov's monthly contributions to The Magazine and Science Fiction during the early 1960s. (In fact, it is the second such collection.) They focus on three general areas of science: four on biology, three on chemistry, and five each on physics and astronomy.
Especially strong essays in this collection include two of the three on chemistry: "The Weighting Game," an explanation of atomic weights and why we adopted the current carbon-12 = 12.0 standard; and "The Evens Have It," a description of the huge parity bias in the number of protons and neutrons in stable nuclei (alas, with no explanation for this phenomenon, although one probably existed even in 1960). Also very enjoyable is "Hot Stuff," in which Asimov speculates on the role of neutrino production in the death of very large stars (whether this hypothesis is still considered accurate, I don't know for sure).
Other works in the collection include three on cells as the basic unit of life; one discussing possible systems of complex molecules (and, therefore, life) not based on carbon, hydrogen and oxygen; one on the discovery and uses of helium; one on echolocation; one on the infinitesimal scale of time at the atomic level; two on entropy; and one each on motion and temperature, the nature of the Sun's core, the chemical composition of the Earth, the Lagrange points of a two-body orbital system, the relative quantities of atmosphere surrounding the planets of the solar system, and why asteroids should be far more habitable than the Moon, in the long term.
The Exploding Suns is Isaac Asimov's thorough treatment of the occasionally, and spectacularly, violent nature of the Universe. Beginning with humanit...moreThe Exploding Suns is Isaac Asimov's thorough treatment of the occasionally, and spectacularly, violent nature of the Universe. Beginning with humanity's first sighting of "guest stars," he first traces the study of novae and supernovae through the present day (i.e., the early 1980s), and then expands to consider both the context and consequences of stellar explosions. The chapters on life and evolution seem out of place here, but are relevant in the sense that the Earth, and human beings, are composed almost entirely of atoms spewed forth during supernova explosions.
The Exploding Suns demonstrates clearly why Asimov's science writing is ideal for readers who normally shy away from science fact, fearing dry discussions seemingly ripped from college textbooks. As always, Asimov covers the subject from a historical viewpoint, weaving fact and discovery together into an informative but entertaining narrative.
This book, like Asimov's other true-science output, is somewhat dated—especially the Big Bang and Expanding Universe sections. And no discussion of black holes seems complete without a nod to Hawking. Nonetheless, The Exploding Suns is a perfect springboard from which to explore the cataclysmic side of astronomy.(less)
This collection, Far as the Human Eye Can See, includes seventeen of Asimov's essays from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, spanning the period from November 1984 through March 1986. As always, the articles cover a variety of subjects, but by coincidence all fall within the general subjects of chemistry and astronomy.
The strength of this compilation lies in a trio of articles concerning early research on vitamins. The first, "Poison in the Negative," is a delightful history of the earliest discoveries that all food is not equal, and that to stay in good health we need particular chemical substances in our diet, albeit in small amounts. "Tracing the Traces" explains the chemical structures and function of some of the vitamins, as well as the history of how the vitamins were assigned their letters. Finally, in "The Goblin Element" Asimov focuses on a particular vitamin, B12, and goes into detail about the Nobel Prize-winning research on its properties.
Among the essays in the collection may also be found one article on artifical chemical elements; a series of three on chemical batteries; one on solar cells; two on the first experiments in enzymology; one on the constituents of the Earth's interior; one on the analemma; two on chemical reactions in outer space; one (somewhat dated) on the distribution of various types of stars and planets in the Galaxy; and one (also out of date, but quite entertaining nonetheless) on the distant future—say, 10^100 years from now!(less)
Of Matters Great and Small comprises Isaac Asimov's column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from August 1973 through September 1974, plus one essay from the June 1974 Science Digest. It is not an exceptional collection, but does contain a couple of top-flight essays. In "Constant as the Northern Star," Asimov explains one of Shakespeare's most glaring factual errors. "Skewered!," the final essay in the anthology, is an attempt to grasp the number of greatest magnitude ever to appear in a mathematical proof (up to publication of the article).
In other articles in this collection, the Good Doctor traces the history of humankind's endeavors to measure the speed of light and the size of the universe; demonstrates just how little astrological signs have to do with their respective constellations, especially in modern times; recounts his viewing of a total eclipse and explains why there are at least two solar eclipses a year, and occasionally as many as five; extrapolates the inevitability of life from the organic chemistry of space; rebuts creationist claims that Homo sapiens is unrelated to the (other) great apes; muses upon his successful and mistaken predictions about the future when he was a young science fiction writer; relates the history of the "mispronounced metal," aluminum; describes, in intricate mathematical detail, which are the most important radionuclides remaining in the Earth's crust; decries, prophetically, the willful ignorance of American industry and the American public to the limitations of fossil fuels; and, not so prophetically, makes a very optimistic prediction about the timeline for developing nuclear fusion as an alternative energy source.(less)
Flatland is often touted as a fascinating lesson in spatial dimensions, but to me the story is substantially more effective as a scathing commentary...more Flatland is often touted as a fascinating lesson in spatial dimensions, but to me the story is substantially more effective as a scathing commentary on the rigidity of class distinctions and on the stifling of scientific progress by religious orthodoxy.
Few reviews I have seen mention that Flatland echoes the scientific community's attitude, at the time of the book's publication (second edition, 1884), on the biological basis of the superiority of certain races and economic classes over others. (See The Mismeasure of Man for an enthralling and shocking history of "race science.") Amazingly, those who argued for a biological hierarchy of human races were considered liberal, because a belief that certain groups of people couldn't help being inferior was viewed as (excessively, to some) sympathetic.(less)
J. K. Rowling wrapped up the Harry Potter heptalogy with a very satisfactory, engaging story. I have no substantive comments; I just like saying "hept...moreJ. K. Rowling wrapped up the Harry Potter heptalogy with a very satisfactory, engaging story. I have no substantive comments; I just like saying "heptalogy."(less)
While the characterization in these six tales from the dawn of short science fiction may bemuse the modern reader—the stalwart, square-jawed hero and...moreWhile the characterization in these six tales from the dawn of short science fiction may bemuse the modern reader—the stalwart, square-jawed hero and his damsel-who-must-be-protected seemed to be de rigeur in those days—and the futuristic technology unintentionally hilarious, I am happy to report that the stories have weathered the passage of time almost unscathed, despite these quirks. The plots are not too farfetched, and the characters believable. In several instances the authors guessed amazingly well how science would advance decades hence, and what challenges would face future society, especially concerning our dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and other natural resources.(less)
The great strength of this collection of essays, from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1970 through February 1972, is the opening series of five essays culminating in a hypothesis for why living organisms synthesize and use almost exclusively the L-isomers of amino acids. Asimov begins with a survey of laws of "parity" in physics, in "Odds and Evens." Next, in the eponymous article, he describes an asymmetry in the electron. In an apparent tangent, he then talks about the problem of double refraction, which long tormented physicists ("Seeing Double"). But he ties this problem in with asymmetry in one of his all-time great short essays, "The 3-D Molecule." Here, he recounts Louis Pasteur's greatest discovery outside of medicine. (Did you know that Pasteur was trained as a biochemist, and not as a physician?) Finally, Asimov applies the principle of three-dimensional asymmetry to the origin of life ("The Asymmetry of Life").
Another notable series of essays, three in number, offers due respect to water—an essential prerequisite for Earth life, and perhaps for any life anywhere. Asimov begins with a survey of possible ocean-forming compounds ("The Thalassogens"), and continues with the unique properties of water that are favorable to life ("Hot Water", "Cold Water").
Three essays on mathematics deal with prime numbers ("Prime Quality"), Euclid's fifth axiom (the "parallel postulate," "Euclid's Fifth"; he treats this topic with clearer explanation elsewhere), and the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries by way of attempting to prove the fifth axiom ("The Plane Truth").
The collection finishes off with two eerily prescient articles on population control. "Stop!", as you might expect, calls for immediate population control and examines methods by which it may be achived, voluntary of otherwise. A wonderfully perceptive bit of commentary, "...But How?" presents a biological explanation for Biblical taboos on homosexuality and other sexual practices still considered immoral with no justification.
On the subject of history, "Pompey and Circumstance," another of my all-time favorite Asimov essays, traces the near-ballistic rise and fall of a Roman general, with emphasis on the exact moment of apogee.
In other, "also-ran" essays, Dr. Asimov writes about the earliest mammals (by way of the "therapsid" reptiles), the "Eureka!" phenomenon and Shakespeare.
The Planet That Wasn't, a collection of essays from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction spanning December 1974 through April 1976, is on the whole, surprisingly mediocre, given the high proportion of skeptical essays criticizing, and occasionally lampooning, pseudoscience and religious enforcement of ignorance. Three notable essays stand out, and in all three Asimov highlights the beginnings of currently well-established environmental concerns. "All Gall" relates the history and properties of cholesterol, with a footnote including what little was known about the effects of dietary lipid intake on atherosclerosis. In "The Smell of Electricity," the topic is ozone—a highly toxic yet useful substance. Asimov then seems to change subjects with "Change of Air," describing the history and properties of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but then connects them with ozone in reporting some preliminary findings that CFCs may degrade the ozone layer high in the atmosphere (at the time, this effect was little more than speculation), thereby increasing our exposure to nasty UV rays sleeting down from the Sun.
Other essays in the compilation focus on Mercury's noticeably relativistic orbit, how features of the Martian surface acquired their names, the sizes of satellites in the Solar System and the features of their orbits, the optics of rainbows, the only (discovered) element besides bromine and mercury that is liquid at room temperature, the evolution of our atmosphere (which is covered in greater detail elsewhere), the misogyny of witch persecution, the population explosion (in which the author makes a spectacularly wrong prediction that the world's population will have stabilized by 2000 if humankind is to survive that long), UFOs, how science can solve problems that religion cannot, the nature of intelligence, the "Star in the East" cited in the New Testament, and silly arguments for the existence of God.(less)
This collection, Of Time and Space and Other Things, is perhaps the best of all the compilations of Asimov's columns in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Unfortunately, the book does not specify from which issues these essays were selected, but if they are consecutive, as is standard for these anthologies, Asimov was on an incredible roll. (And wouldn't you know it, of all my Asimov collection, this is the book whose binding disintegrated after one reading. Sigh.)
Right off the bat we start with one of my favorite pieces of Asimovian science fact, "The Days of Our Years," a quick history of three calendrical systems now in use (the Gregorian, Jewish and Muslim calendars). He continues this theme in "Begin at the Beginning," as he discusses how various cultures treated the beginning of the day and year, and how years were numbered. Switching to astronomy, Asimov describes the celestial coordinate system in "Ghost Lines in the Sky," and then, in "The Heavenly Zoo," traces the history of the astrological signs, taking an incisive poke at astrology along the way. "Roll Call" is a listing of the planets, satellites and major asteroids of the Solar System, from a historical viewpoint (which, to me, makes the Good Professor's writing especially illuminating, even when the scientific subject is one I know well).
There follows another of Asimov's cleverest essays, "Just Mooning Around," in which he expounds a new system of classifying satellites by comparing the gravitational forces on the satellite from its primary (i.e., planet) and the Sun. The ratio of the two is the "tug-of-war value," and every planetary satellite then known has a tug-of-war value greater than 1 (meaning that the planet pulls harder than the Sun)--except one. (Guess which one!) Continuing Asimov's look at gravity, "First and Rearmost" is a careful comparison of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces.
Asimov then broadens his view, and in "The Black of Night," explains why the current model of the universe is consistent with a very dark nighttime sky on Earth. He speculates about exploding galaxies—a phenomenon that, in the light of more recent findings, I believe he misinterpreted—in "A Galaxy at a Time."
The "...and Other Things" section of the book begins with another classic, "Forget It," in which the author dissects a vast, impenetrable arithmetic book from 1797 (Pike's Arithmetic), and shows us how much useless information we have fortunately lost—mostly in terms of archaic units of measure. Now, if we can only convince America to convert to the metric system, we can get rid of the last of the awkward, useless units.
Next, "Nothing Counts" explains Roman numerals, and why the number zero is so gosh darn useful. "C Is for Celeritas" will make you relive your most uneasy moments in physics class, as it focuses on the dimensionality of energy, with emphasis on the special equality e = mc^2. In a similar vein, "A Piece of the Action" explores the "graininess" of the universe, and concomitantly, the discovery that separates "classical" physics from "modern" physics.
Asimov then turns to chemistry (his area of academic study). How "noble" are the noble gases? Find out in "Welcome, Stranger!" Learn all about chemical catalysts in "The Haste-Makers."
And lastly, another great article, "The Slowly Moving Finger," which relates longevity across the animal kingdom with body size, and formulates the rule that in general, the maximum lifespan of mammals is about one billion heartbeats—with one glaring exception.(less)
The Stars in Their Courses anthologizes Isaac Asimov's science fact articles in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from May 1969 through September 1970. A recurring theme in this collection is the contrast between the process of legitimate scientific investigation and faith-based pseudoscience. This footnote, in the eponymous essay, particularly stands out: "If the early astrologers argued in this fashion [i.e., trying to work out the laws that governed natural phenomena], they were imbued with the spirit of science and I honor them. No scholar can be maligned for being wrong in the light of the knowledge of a later period. If he strives for knowledge in the terms of his own time he is a member of the brotherhood of science."
The content of this collection is, on the whole, average in quality, punctuated with three superb essays on the chemical elements. In "The Multiplying Elements," Asimov relates the discovery of the rare earth elements, including the only two "stable" elements to be named after real persons. The following article, "Bridging the Gaps," describes the challenges this new knowledge posted to the as-yet-incomplete Periodic Table, and how the Periodic Table was developed to incorporate the new elements in a sensible, systematic fashion. Finally, "The Nobel Prize that Wasn't" relates how Henry Gwyn-Jefferys Moseley used X-rays to show, once and for all, how the elements should be arranged, and where new elements remained to be discovered. Tragically, Moseley cut short his own life by volunteering for military duty in World War I at the peak of his creativity, and soon thereafter meeting an untimely end in the Gallipoli campaign.
In addition to these jewels, the anthology begins with four essays under the general heading of astronomy, on astrology, sunspots, the names of lunar craters, and the pseudoscientific silliness of Immanuel Velikovsky. Next, three articles on physics focus on gravitation, leading up to the determination of the gravitational constant, and in consequence, the mass of the Earth. Three more physics essays cover the lightspeed barrier, the Doppler effect and how the red shift helped to determine the size of the Universe. Finally, four articles under the heading of "Sociology" discuss the first scientific discovery that directly benefited mankind in an obvious way, the definition of "sin" as it applies to science, the population explosion (Asimov was excessively pessimistic and predicted global population catastrophe by about 2000), and the possibility of international cooperation in matters of worldwide importance.
Please see my review of X Stands for Unknown ([http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/98...]) for general comments on Isaac Asimov's science essays. Howe...morePlease see my review of X Stands for Unknown ([http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/98...]) for general comments on Isaac Asimov's science essays. However, I'll add one more here: One of the joys of reading Asimov's science fact is that he usually takes care to provide a historical context for scientific discoveries. That way, even if the topic itself is outdated (and even wrong, perhaps), the essay is still worth reading, for studying the history and methods of scientific inquiry is always instructive (and, to me, enjoyable).
Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright, the 13th collection of Asimov articles for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, covers the period of May, 1976 through September, 1977. It begins with two essays speculating about properties of superheavy elements. There follows "It's a Wonderful Town," a discussion of New York, the author's home town, and its future given contemporary trends in migration. Three essays chart the rise of the USA to world leadership as a direct result of technological advances and innovation. Asimov outlines the contemporary theory explaining the recent series of Ice Ages (probably not quite correct, though the basic concepts are still relevant) in a series of three essays. Next, he retells the history of the discovery of the three planets (well, two planets and dwarf planet) discovered during historical times—Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Turning to matters of the greater Universe, Asimov writes, in three articles, about the brightest (compact) objects in the Universe (quasars, now called "active galactic nuclei"), and about the densest (i.e., neutron stars and black holes).
Lastly, there appears an excellent diatribe, "Asimov's Corollary," about the American public's extreme skepticism of revolutionary ideas in legitimate science, and simultaneous willing credulity in all forms of crazy pseudoscience. Asimov's Corollary says, "If a scientific heresy is ignored or denounced by the general public, there is a chance it may be right. If a scientific heresy is emotionally supported by the general public, it is almost certainly wrong." He also gives a list of arguments he will automatically, and it is an excellent one. They include arguments from authority ("The Bible says so"); arguments from internal conviction ("I believe it, therefore it's true"); arguments from personal abuse ("You're an athiest, and therefore wrong"); arguments from irrelevance ("Teaching evolution leads to abortion"); and arguments from anecdote ("My cousin's brother-in-law was abducted by aliens...."). (less)
This collection, Only a Trillion, hails from the mid-1950s, and therefore some of the scientific notions are, well, quaint. To me, this isn't necessarily a disadvantage: it is informative as well as intriguing to read about "cutting-edge" science from an earlier time, as it reveals much about how we came to know facts that we now take for granted. The essays herein are not grouped in sets according to a common theme, as is common in Asimov's later work.
The first two chapters deal with the quantities of naturally-occurring radionuclides (radioactive atoms), and which poses the greatest risk to us. These are followed by two chapters on amino-acid sequences in proteins, leading up to the Nobel Prize-winning feat of sequencing the two polypeptides in the insulin molecule. Chapter Five, "The Abnormality of Being Normal," applies statistics to the question of whether someone who is average in every way is truly "normal." Chapter Six deals with likely constituents for planetary atmospheres. Chapter Seven is an early attempt to explain abiogenesis; however, the argument still works today against the creationist belief that life is too complex to have a natural origin.
In Chapter Eight, Asimov presents the basics of photosynthesis. This is followed by a very nice introduction to molecular evolution, "The Sea Urchin and We." Asimov then takes a surprising turn and in Chapter 10, describes the rigors of carrying out a literature search in the 1950s. (Any scientist or student who uses PubMed on line, and anyone who disagrees with the notion that computers are time-saving devices, should read this essay to gain the proper appreciation for modern technology.)
Finally, there appear two humorous vignettes. The first follows up on Asimov's parody paper in Astounding Science Fiction, "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline," and explores the properties of endochronicity—the tendency of thiotimoline to dissolve in water before the water is actually added. The second, actually a mystery of sorts, asks the reader to deduce the mechanism by which the Golden Goose manufactured gold from oxygen-18 atoms obtained from the environment.
Isaac Asimov is best known as a science fiction author, yet nonetheless wrote far more about true science—hundreds of books, in fact. Over several dec...moreIsaac Asimov is best known as a science fiction author, yet nonetheless wrote far more about true science—hundreds of books, in fact. Over several decades Asimov wrote a monthly science column for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Many of these essays were later published in paperback form as collections.
Asimov was one of the all-time greatest explainers of science. He generally wrote for an intelligent audience of non-scientists, and so he usually started at the very beginning and buildt gradually toward the complete idea. It's a delight to see how Asimov develops and explains a particular topic, even—and especially—when I know exactly what the punchline is going to be. Consequently, I greatly enjoy reading his work, even when the science is hopelessly out of date.
I will gradually read, and review, my collection of Asimov's essay compilations, which is very nearly complete. Partly, this is for my benefit, as I have long desired a catalog and handy reference guide to the essays I found particularly illuminating or masterfully written. Thus, these reviews will mostly center on the material itself, and not on the writing, which is uniformly excellent.
X Stands for Unknown includes the MFSF columns from January 1982 through May 1983, fairly late in Asimov's career. Of the seventeen essays, four concern the history of our knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays. Four compare the chemistry of carbon and silicon and show why silicon life is not possible in an Earthlike (or, probably, any other) environment. (This was more powerfully explained in "The One and Only" in The Tragedy of the Moon, 1973.) "Silicon Life after All" contains a very nice explanation of semiconductors and transistors. Two feature Halley's Comet and discuss the historical context of its recorded appearances. Two trace how the Earth has become more and more insignificant within the known universe over the past two thousand years.
In the last two essays, Asimov illustrates the illogic and short-sightedness of Biblical literalism and pseudoscience (mainly astrology), respectively. These both contain great examples of scholarly yet venomously sarcastic wit.
In "Whatzisname's Orbit," he explains geostationary orbits and the generalization, Clarke orbits. "To Gild Unrefinèd Gold" is a subpar discussion on the Golden Ratio. Finally, "Ready and Waiting" presents the history of supernova astronomy (with very little theory).(less)
Time Flies, Bill's retrospective on aging, is replete with wit in the classic Cosby style, but he covers the same topic much more entertainingly in h...more Time Flies, Bill's retrospective on aging, is replete with wit in the classic Cosby style, but he covers the same topic much more entertainingly in his stand-up concert 49. Cosby's humor suffers somewhat without the vocal dimension, since much of his charm is tied up in his timing, sound effects and imitations. (Seeing him in concert is better yet, as his facial expressions add yet another layer to the sophistication of his humor, but such opportunities are rare, and only his Himself video is reliably obtainable, alas.)(less)
The sixth book in the Harry Potter focuses on Voldemort's life. Considerably darker than the previous installments, the latest chapter in the Harry Po...moreThe sixth book in the Harry Potter focuses on Voldemort's life. Considerably darker than the previous installments, the latest chapter in the Harry Potter saga was a godsend for those of us still reeling with disappointment after the plodding whine-fest that was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This is not my favorite book in the series, but it was still an enthralling read.(less)
(The rating is an average: Tom Sawyer Abroad gets 5 stars, and Tom Sawyer, Detective 3.)
Relatively unknown, Tom Sawyer Abroad is an insightful masterp...more(The rating is an average: Tom Sawyer Abroad gets 5 stars, and Tom Sawyer, Detective 3.)
Relatively unknown, Tom Sawyer Abroad is an insightful masterpiece of parody, directed mainly at insufferable know-it-alls, but never forgoing a chance to take a poke at religion or contemporary society. Set after Huckleberry Finn, this novella tells the tale of Tom, Huck and the former slave Jim being whisked across the Atlantic on a dirigible balloon. Time after time, Tom tries to show off his superior knowledge to Huck and Jim, only to be stopped short by an innocent question from one of the latter. My father read this book aloud to the brother and I when I was about eight or nine; and several times we had to call it a night, having been reduced to tears and unable to stop laughing. (The paperback edition I own, on the back cover, lists the principals as "Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim"; I would like very much to know when it was printed, but the title page, on which the publishing date would normally appear, is missing.)
In Tom Sawyer, Detective, Tom solves a murder mystery; his Uncle Silas is the prime suspect. Here, Tom displays a gift for observation and an admirably keen intuition that both starkly contrast with his bumbling storytelling in Tom Sawyer Abroad. This story is worth reading, but is not exceptional Mark Twain.(less)
When I first read this story, serialized in Analog beginning October 1967*, I was completely enthralled—right up to Lessa's Impression. After that, th...moreWhen I first read this story, serialized in Analog beginning October 1967*, I was completely enthralled—right up to Lessa's Impression. After that, the plot began to drag seriously. This novelization is very similar to the original, although a few loose ends are tidied up. The first third of the story is still one hell of a captivating tale.
A side note: I've seen several covers for Dragonflight, but all make the dragons too "dragony" and far too small. The cover of the Oct 1967 Analog ([http://www.sfcovers.net/Magazines/ASF...]) much more accurately portrays these birdlike beasts, with their multifaceted eyes, each the size of a man's head, and gigantic clawed feet.
*I didn't actually read it in 1967; through a stroke of fantastic luck I acquired, a few years ago, a used set of Analog, ca. 1967-1975. (less)
In this sequel to A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle serves up another strange but compelling mix of New-Age-like spiritualism, old-time religion,...moreIn this sequel to A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle serves up another strange but compelling mix of New-Age-like spiritualism, old-time religion, and apocalyptic Cold War paranoia with the merest dusting of science sprinkled in for flavor. It is worth reading, but is not overall as strong as its predecessor. However, I find the idea of Naming oddly attractive: "When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be." Again, the theme of individualism runs strong in this story.(less)
A Newbery-award-winning classic, A Wrinkle in Time is at its roots a story of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Reading it for the first time as a...moreA Newbery-award-winning classic, A Wrinkle in Time is at its roots a story of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Reading it for the first time as a child, I strongly identified with Meg, the misfit protagonist who feels like an outcast at school. On rereading, I discovered themes I missed earlier that firmly place this fantasy within the historical context in which it was written. Instead of a simple battle between good and evil, I now see elements of American Cold War propaganda, pitting kind, godly American heroes against a relentless, ever-expanding evil that seeks to replace individuality with unthinking, robotic servitude to a supreme Order (here represented literally by absolute synchronization and routine in every aspect of daily life). On the other hand, I strongly approve of the idea of being true to one's unique self in the face of cultural pressure to conform—especially when the pressure is unremittingly anti-intellectual, as in contemporary America.(less)
Perhaps my all-time favorite work of satire. Frito Bugger, a boggie from the Sty, is charged by his uncle Dildo and Goodgulf Greyteeth, a stage magici...morePerhaps my all-time favorite work of satire. Frito Bugger, a boggie from the Sty, is charged by his uncle Dildo and Goodgulf Greyteeth, a stage magician, to sneak the Ring of Power beyond the clutches of the Dark Lord Sorhed and the evil wizard Serutan and to destroy it in the hellish Zazu Pits of Fordor. This tale offers plenty of belly laughs for Tolkien aficionados and neophytes alike. Every beloved character of the Fellowship is reduced to a grotesque caricature who nevertheless gains the reader's sympathy through his grudging acquiescence to his role in the quest to destroy the Ring. Elven songs become a mishmash of random, bizarre words and product names. Anyone who lived through the 60s will get a much larger proportion of the jokes that younger readers, as both songs and story are replete with subtle allusions to 60s Americana. (Who remembers Mallomars anymore?)
Those sufficiently daunted by the length of the Lord of the Rings trilogy will be delighted by the work's succinctness. While serious Tolkien scholars may be disappointed that the entire plot line of The Return of the King is crammed into the final twenty-five pages, I felt that the warped minds behind the action-packed non-epic properly weighted the story in favor of the Fellowship's exploits and away from the huge battles that drag on through interminable chapters of the second and third books in the trilogy.
(I first read this book ca. 1985; the date above pertains to my umpteenth re-reading.)(less)
Georgie Anne Geyer, a foreign correspondent with vast knowledge of world affairs, lends some of her globe-trotting expertise and connections around th...moreGeorgie Anne Geyer, a foreign correspondent with vast knowledge of world affairs, lends some of her globe-trotting expertise and connections around the world to pursue the origins of the domestic cat. If you care to sift through the author's overly sentimental, fanciful speculation on the history of her pet cats, you'll find some interesting tidbits on the history of domestic cats worldwide. Contains a one- to two-page description of most of the commonly accepted cat breeds, with something about what is known about their history. A startling number of breeds can be traced back to a single mutation discovered in an otherwise unremarkable litter of kittens. I was eager to learn more about the technical aspects of cat breeds, but alas, Geyer's knowledge of genetics is zero to negative, and nearly every time she attempts to describe how characteristic traits are inherited and expressed, she unintentionally gives the science-savvy reader a good chuckle.(less)
One of my favorite books from childhood, and still one of my very favorite children's books. Bill Peet, Disney artist and author & illustrator of...moreOne of my favorite books from childhood, and still one of my very favorite children's books. Bill Peet, Disney artist and author & illustrator of books for children, tells the true story of his son's unusual pet. Bill Jr., a budding naturalist, brings home a baby capybara (a large South American rodent) early one summer. Cappy quickly adjusts to life in the 'burbs, but as he grows into adulthood the family eventually learns that a suburban residence is not the ideal environment for a seventy-five-pound wild rodent. Beautifully illustrated and elegantly told.(less)