I recommend The Age of the Earth to anyone with a strong general science background who is interested in radiometric dating methods and/or in debunkiI recommend The Age of the Earth to anyone with a strong general science background who is interested in radiometric dating methods and/or in debunking creationist arguments for a young earth.
This book will be more valuable to me as a reference than it was as pleasure reading. The author presents an airtight case for the age of the Earth, ca. 4.55 billion years, citing several major lines of evidence, including Moon rocks and meteorites. His discussion is perhaps too technical for the average reader, but excellent for anyone who wishes to understand the radiometric assays in depth. I was fascinated by Dalrymple's historical accounts of previous attempts to measure the Earth's age, both scientific and religious. The central chapters—the "meat" of the evidence—drag on seriously, but I don't fault the author for this, as he clearly aims to present an ironclad argument. Some of the information is rather dated; for example, at the time of writing, geologists were still searching for the Chicxulub impact crater (the remnant of the meteor strike that may have caused the mass extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous).
I do wish he had explicitly addressed some of the creationist claims that radiometric dating isn't reliable, although from the care with which he describes how the assays are controlled for contamination and original isotopic composition, I expect that the relevant counterarguments are presented....more
A fascinating and sobering introduction to Amerian history from the viewpoint of those with no political power: common laborers, slaves and sharecroppA fascinating and sobering introduction to Amerian history from the viewpoint of those with no political power: common laborers, slaves and sharecroppers, Native Americans, women. Zinn presents a scathing indictment of unfettered capitalism as the source of America's social and economic difficulties of yesterday and today. At times, Zinn relies too heavily on anecdotal evidence—as a a statistician, I was most impressed by his reports of large trends, such as the huge number of striking workers during World War II—but overall, A People's History is very powerfully written, and is full of shocking revelations for Americans who learned history in public schools. Reading this book puts the outrageous excesses of the current Administration into context. GWB has not, in actuality, charted a fundamentally new course in US wartime policy; primarily, he is guilty of piling on the same old bullshit to an unusual depth....more
A curious mystery set in an alternate universe where classical literature reigns supreme: entire religions, for example, have been spawned over who reA curious mystery set in an alternate universe where classical literature reigns supreme: entire religions, for example, have been spawned over who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Thursday Next works in "LiteraTec"—a special police force dedicated to preserving manuscripts, tracking down forgers, and solving other literature-related crimes. She is charged with apprehending the notorious Acheron Hades: a fiendish criminal with supernatural powers of persuasion. Persuing her arch-nemesis, Next discovers that the lines between our reality and the worlds that reside within books are more finely drawn than we expected.
I really liked the setting for this book; too bad I've forgotten most of my classic English fiction. I found the story engaging but not gripping in the read-it-in-one-sitting manner. While I really enjoyed the universe in which the book is set, I took off an entire star because the author, for some inexplicable reason, felt the need to throw werewolves and vampires in with the literary elements....more
The print companion to [http://maddox.xmission.com] contains a few laugh-out-loud Maddox gems, but overall, he doesn't seem quite at home with his subThe print companion to [http://maddox.xmission.com] contains a few laugh-out-loud Maddox gems, but overall, he doesn't seem quite at home with his subject. The unrelenting misogyny, not all that prominent on the Web site, is rather forced in places, and may offend some readers....more
An excellent, albeit highly technical, introduction to the processes going on in stars, and to the origin of most of the elements present in the univeAn excellent, albeit highly technical, introduction to the processes going on in stars, and to the origin of most of the elements present in the universe. My only major criticism concerns the book's antiquity (originally published 1968); I'd love to find a contemporary work at the same introductory level....more
Biographies usually hold no interest for me, but this one is worth reading, mostly for the account of Armstrong's relatively unknown life before enterBiographies usually hold no interest for me, but this one is worth reading, mostly for the account of Armstrong's relatively unknown life before entering the astronaut corps, as an engineer, Korean War fighter pilot and test pilot, replete with hair-raising combat missions and dramatic test flights of a number of rocket-propelled aircraft to the edge of space. Reading this book, the only officially sanctioned biography of Neil Armstrong, I gained considerable appreciation for why NASA took care to hire hotshot test pilots as the first astronauts.
At times, Hansen goes into painstaking detail about minor issues. The biography would not have suffered without a listing every grade Armstrong received at Purdue, for instance, or the score from every one of Neil's flights during Navy air training; but in the author's defense, one can hardly fill 750 pages without dipping into the trivia barrel now and then. I definitely could have done without the frequent appearance of Neil's mother, Viola, yammering on with glassy eyes about God's intimate involvement in every facet of the family's existence—except insofar as it suggests, by direct contrast to Neil himself, that the First Man was a closet agnostic.
I would not recommend Hansen's biography to someone who wants to read primarily about Apollo 11, as that is covered much more thoroughly elsewhere, with more balanced coverage of all aspects of the mission....more
A sweet, fanciful story about a real cat belonging to the author. In real life, the cat, Tom Jones, spent a year zonked out in Vladimir Nabokov's lapA sweet, fanciful story about a real cat belonging to the author. In real life, the cat, Tom Jones, spent a year zonked out in Vladimir Nabokov's lap while the latter stayed at the author's house during a sabbatical. Too bad that isn't in the story....more
A useful compendium of quotes from American historical figures and documents to refute the silly notion that the Founding Fathers envisioned or intendA useful compendium of quotes from American historical figures and documents to refute the silly notion that the Founding Fathers envisioned or intended a theocratic America. The Introduction--an exposé on the encroachment of religion into contemporary American government and law--is chilling and infuriating in its accuracy. Perhaps the single most useful reference here is the Treaty of Tripoli, penned by George Washington. I really wish the book were longer. The chapter on the words of the religious Right doesn't go far enough: it could be far more damning than it is....more
An entertaining and fascinating look at some of Nazi Germany's futuristic and/or bizarre weapons projects that never quite made it to deployment. WritAn entertaining and fascinating look at some of Nazi Germany's futuristic and/or bizarre weapons projects that never quite made it to deployment. Written in a surprisingly scholarly and restrained hand for someone whose name is usually connected with [http://www.somethingawful.com/]. I'm extremely skeptical about the claim that any German researcher had completed and tested a nuclear weapon, much less a tritium-boosted implosion device. It took the USSR until 1949 to test such a device, despite having received detailed descriptions of the device courtesy of Klaus Fuchs and other Soviet spies. The "What Fight Have Been" story segments are amusing but rather farfetched on the whole....more
A look back at products for babies and children from early 20th-century America through skeptical, modern-age lenses. These folks had their children'sA look back at products for babies and children from early 20th-century America through skeptical, modern-age lenses. These folks had their children's best interests at heart, but what they did to the poor tykes leaves 21st-century parents aghast. Done in the same style as The Gallery of Regrettable Food and Interior Desecrations. I have to say I was disappointed with this one. The book has a few classic moments, such as the magical baby-flinging car seat, but overall the material here was far weaker than in Lileks's previous satire of post-war Americana. Even the section on laxatives let me down; he has a completely different—and far more hilarious—example of the 1950s obsession with juvenile regularity on his Web site: [http://www.lileks.com/comics/misc/ind...]. Perhaps the author, recently inducted to parenthood himself, was trying a little too hard to integrate his new hobby with his old one. Nevertheless, if you laughed yourself to near-asphyxiation reading The Gallery of Regrettable Food as I did, you'll find this one worth owning, as well, especially if you have a young child....more
One of my favorite books from childhood, and still one of my very favorite children's books. Bill Peet, Disney artist and author & illustrator ofOne 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....more
Georgie Anne Geyer, a foreign correspondent with vast knowledge of world affairs, lends some of her globe-trotting expertise and connections around thGeorgie 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....more
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 magiciPerhaps 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.)...more
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 aA 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....more
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,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, 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....more
When I first read this story, serialized in Analog beginning October 1967*, I was completely enthralled—right up to Lessa's Impression. After that, thWhen 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. ...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 masterp(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....more
The sixth book in the Harry Potter focuses on Voldemort's life. Considerably darker than the previous installments, the latest chapter in the Harry PoThe 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....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 h 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.)...more
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 decIsaac 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)....more
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.
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. HowePlease 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...."). ...more
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.
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....more
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....more
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.
While the characterization in these six tales from the dawn of short science fiction may bemuse the modern reader—the stalwart, square-jawed hero andWhile 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....more
J. K. Rowling wrapped up the Harry Potter heptalogy with a very satisfactory, engaging story. I have no substantive comments; I just like saying "heptJ. K. Rowling wrapped up the Harry Potter heptalogy with a very satisfactory, engaging story. I have no substantive comments; I just like saying "heptalogy."...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 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....more
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....more