Asimov’s Science Essays
Our plan is to reprint and illustrate every one of Isaac Asimov’s wonderful science essays from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, from the very first one through to the 399th, and introduce each with a commentary and update. We have the good fortune to have Michael Burstein, physicist, science fiction writer, and long-time admirer of Isaac Asimov, to write these commentaries.
The inspiration for this feature originally came from a post written several years ago by science fiction writer Jamie Todd Rubin, about the wonderful learning experience these essays were for him as a boy. His suggestion to reprint them all stayed with me for all the time it took to get to the point of starting this magazine.
At the end of each year we hope to offer that year’s essays, commentary, and illustrations collected in book form. If our luck holds, we will print all 399 of these essays. I have no doubt that the science of 331/4 years from now will call for an update on the update. And, I hope, the cycle will continue indefinitely!
Meanwhile though, we’ll start off with a reprint from the post that first inspired this feature. So here is…
(Almost) Everything I Learned About Science I Learned from Isaac Asimov
by Jamie Todd Rubin
Two nights ago I braved the bitterly cold weather to check the mail. When I got outside, I looked up into a midnight blue sky, crystal clear in the cold air with stars shimmering brightly, and immediately saw a meteor disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. I remembered then that it was about the time of the Geminid meteor showers. I craned my neck back hoping to catch sight of another meteor, but that was the only one. I was too cold to stand out there any longer. I ran to the mailbox, grabbed the mail, and went back into the warm house.
Looking up into that night sky reminded me of the sense of wonder I had felt for a similar sky three decades earlier and realized that those lights were actually distant suns, and some of them were even planets. I was six or seven at the time. My parents bought me a telescope and I frustrated librarians by repeatedly checking out the same book, The Nine Planets by Franklyn Mansfield Branley. It was my introduction to science.
I never learned about the Geminids in any of my schooling. I learned about it and meteor showers in general through Isaac Asimov’s science essays in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first of these appeared in the November 1958 issue (of which I possess a copy).
Those monthly science columns continued unabated for 399 consecutive months. And eventually, Isaac’s wife, Janet, put together a 400th column after his death. The essays have been collected in more than two dozen books. The columns ranged through all the realms of science, and occasionally into philosophy and humanities. They were written in Asimov’s familiar colloquial style, making it easy for anyone to approach even arcane subjects. I devoured every one of those essays and it is from them that I truly believe I learned nearly everything I know about science.
Don’t get me wrong: I did learn some science in school. In biology, I learned about things like the Krebs cycle and the basics of genetics and inheritance, and cellular anatomy. But this was rote memorization. From Isaac Asimov, I learned much more — such as how the Krebs cycle was discovered, and this fixed it much more clearly in my mind. I learned the fascinating story of Gregor Mendel, how he discovered the laws of inheritance, and how these laws were then lost for a generation.
In chemistry I memorized the periodic table and how to balance chemical formulas. But Isaac Asimov taught me how Dmitri Mendeleev developed the periodic table and how he predicted the properties of elements long before they were ever discovered. The insights this gave me into chemistry went far beyond anything I learned in formal classes. In “Life’s Bottleneck” (F&SF, April 1959) he taught me biochemistry in a way that showed the precarious balance of nature and how remarkable it was that just the right conditions existed to support life.
I grew to love physics in high school with Dr. Goldman, one of the few good explainers of science I’ve run into. Still, while I learned equations for light and magnetism in his class, Isaac Asimov made such subjects come to life with essays like “The Bridge of the Gods” (F&SF, March 1975) about rainbows, refraction and light, and his essay “Four Hundred Octaves” (F&SF, June 1982) on the physics of light. He was the Great Explainer and it was from essays like “The Man Who Massed the Earth” (F&SF, September 1969) I learned that science was a continually evolving thing. It’s one thing to memorize the Earth’s weight. It’s something else to learn just how scientists figured that out.
Asimov’s essays taught me not only the hows and whys of science, they taught me the history of science. Taken together, anyone who reads all 399 of them can’t miss certain patterns in logic and reasoning, can’t miss the evolution of thought and experiment. I learned that scientists were real men and women. “The Isaac Winner’s” (July 1963) highlighted the triumphs of some of the most remarkable scientists of all time. Other essays taught me that even scientists can make mistakes, can be wrong, and that a whole premise of the scientific method is to look for holes in theories, and to revise hypotheses as new data is accumulated.
Occasionally, these essays ventured into the truly remarkable. “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” (F&SF, September 1966) was, for the time, a remarkably original approach to cosmology. “The Height of Up” (F&SF, October 1959) looked at how far away things could be and asked if there were limits; other essays looked at the smallest possible sizes, or the hottest possible temperature.
His essays on math and numbers fixed certain concepts more firmly in my mind than any trigonometry or algebra class ever did. “Exclamation Point!” (F&SF, 1965) taught me factorials in a far better way than any of my math teachers. Essays like “The Ultimate Split of the Second” and “The Week Excuse” (F&SF, June 1972) taught me about time and calendars in an original and vivid way.
Sometimes, Asimov’s essays ventured out from the realm of pure science and most of the time, the results were among the best nonfiction writing I’ve encountered. “Thinking About Thinking” (F&SF, January 1975) talked about the value (or lack thereof) of intelligence tests. “Crowded!” introduced me to the population problem. And one of his most remarkable essays, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” (F&SF, January 1973) looked at the evolution of books.
Reading his essays on quasars and lunar eclipses and the tallest mountains and longest rivers sparked my imagination and my sense of wonder about the universe and probably have as much to do with my love of science fiction as his science fiction does. It was from Isaac Asimov that I learned things like the square-cube law, transfinite math, and compound math, things never covered in my high school textbooks.
Today, only a few of these essays are truly dated. Some facts have changed because science evolves, but the core is still valid and the history that these essays provide is an invaluable tool for understanding the cumulative nature of science. Seven of these early essays were never put into any collections, and there are six or seven that Asimov wrote before his death that have not, to my knowledge, been collected either. Perhaps I am a lone voice in the wilderness here, but I think it’s high time a newly reissued compendium of all of Isaac Asimov’s F&SF science essays be put together. There is an audience of millions of school-aged children who are not getting adequate science educations out there and such a reissue could provide them the additional nourishment they are lacking. And there are any number of adults who would be interested as well.
There are some good science writers out there today, but none of them, in my opinion, come close to capturing the full sweep of science, history, and sense of wonder that the Good Doctor did for more than thirty years in his essays in F&SF. When I say I learned nearly everything I know about science from Isaac Asimov, I am not kidding.
Shouldn’t we make this knowledge available to kids (and grownups) today?
Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He is Evernote’s paperless ambassador. He writes about technology, quantified-self, and life on his blog. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.