Book Review: View from a Height

View from a Height by Isaac Asimov.

The second science essay collection taken from Asimov’s column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), View from a Height is divided into four sections dealing with biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Details of each chapter can be found here, I’ll just touch on the highlights. Generally, these essays continue to be an enjoyable read, combining explanations of natural phenomenon, the history of science, evocative prose, and the dreams of science fiction.

In the biology section, “The Egg and Wee” and “That’s Life!” address the issue of: What exactly is life? When does non-living matter become life? Crucially, they reduce entropy locally (entropy is dealt with later in the physics section) and are comprised of proteins. But why proteins? In “Not as We Know It”, to me perhaps the most intriguing of the chapters, Asimov investigates the potential for life that doesn’t fit our Terran prejudices for liquid water and carbon-based proteins. These possibilities include the likes of fluorocarbons in sulfur and lipids in methane.

The three chemistry chapters deal with the history of the discovery of helium and its superfluid properties near absolute zero, the argument between the physicists and chemists about how to define atomic weight (settled shortly before his writing, in 1961), and some numbers games with isotopes. I enjoyed the middle of those, called “The Weighting Game”, since legitimate scientific controversies are fascinating to watch unfold (as opposed to illegitimate “controversies” like creationism vs evolution or Expanding Earth vs all of science).

As mentioned before, the physics section includes two chapters discussing the nature of entropy, which is a subtle concept and oft-misunderstood. “Now Hear This!” is about sound and light waves, ultrasound and sonar, and the purported intelligence of dolphins and porpoises. Leading into the next section, there’s “The Height of Up” where Asimov speculates as to the maximum temperature possible.

That essay sparked the interest of the physicist Hong Yee Chui to do research into the maximum temperature of supernovae (spoiler alert: He gets a value of about 6 billion degrees). This, along with some background on neutrinos, forms “Hot Stuff”, the first chapter in the astronomy section. Also in this section is an exploration of the nature of Earth’s core (perhaps there should have been a geology section?), a discussion on Lagrangian points and Trojan asteroids, speculation on the possibility of life on Jupiter (inspired by Carl Sagan no less!), and calculations on how much possible real estate there is in the solar system for future human settlement (does not include trans-Neptunian objects [Pluto is estimated at being Earth-sized, which is interesting] and includes the nifty fact that the surface area of the Moon is about 4 USA equivalents).

Next up: Adding a Dimension. For an alternative review, go here.

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