From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov
Another while goes by, another Asimov F&SF collection of science essays goes up. These books aren’t particularly long, as each chapter only takes me maybe 15 to 20 minutes to read and there’s typically only ~17 chapters to a collection. I consider them like a fine wine though, something to be stretched out, enjoyed, and savored. What’s more, given the voluminous quantity of essays, there is plenty to forget and return to enjoy again the future. If I haven’t made the case implicitly, I’ll explicitly suggest that if you see any of these books out in the wild grab them up and enjoy an intellectual meal.
In From Earth to Heaven, we have three overarching sections with no particularly good organizational structure, so I’ll ignore them. The first four chapters deal with the geography of Earth with particular emphasis on the extremes, covering latitude and longitude, the oceans, mountains and depths, and islands and continents. Then there’s a chapter called “Future? Tense!” about the important points in predicting the future: What is the social impact of new technologies rather than the particular nuts and bolts of the technology. The sixth chapter is a long list of science Nobel prize winners and some attendant statistics.
The next few chapters are on mathematics, chemistry, and particle physics: one on factorials (with a similar type of computation with regards to a deck of cards that I did recently), a chapter on fluorine and the reason it took so long to make a compound with a noble gas, another chemistry chapter on Avogadro’s number, then two physics chapters on the uncertainty principle, and finally a chapter on muons (at the time it was wrongly thought to be a meson, or rather the definition of a meson hadn’t been fully fleshed out yet).
The last few chapters are on astronomy and the universe at large. We have a chapter on tides and a comparison of the tidal effects of various moons in the solar system. Celestial mechanics continues to be the theme in the next two chapters on near-Earth asteroids and Kepler’s Third Law. The penultimate chapter is another one looking at extremes, this time in terms of density where neutron stars and black holes make an appearance, though he gets the physics of black holes pretty wrong (but this was the ’60s and therefore an ancient time, so we can forgive him).
The last chapter is a modern take on Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner, in a new guise as Asimov’s “The Proton-Reckoner”. In the original Greek text, Archimedes tried to figure out how many grains of sand would fit in the universe. He was of course hampered by their limited knowledge of the cosmological scale, but his heart was in the right place, and Asimov clearly has great love for the old mathematician. With a more modern estimate for the size of the universe, he (as you might have expected) sees how many protons would fit in such a volume and, just for kicks, estimates how many there actually are.