Book Review: Science, Numbers, and I

Science, Numbers, And I by Isaac Asimov

This is the 6th collection of Asimov science essays taken from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, bringing us to about the years 1966-67. Its chapters are divided into three sections: 9 in Science, 7 in Numbers, and 1 in And I.

The essays in the Science section cover: the conservation laws of physics (electron number, lepton number, baryon number), two fairly dated pieces on the origin of the universe, the impossibility of exceeding the speed of light, trying to make sense of the scale of the universe, a piece I particularly enjoyed about the moons of Mars and how they would appear from its surface, atomic symbols, geological ages and the Cambrian fossils, and finally “Knock Plastic” about popular misconceptions (I think Asimov would have been a major figure in the modern skeptical movement were he still alive).

The Numbers section covers a looser variety of topics, from the musical scale and the piano key layout, typical Asimov fair of comparing the Earth’s rivers and cities (hopelessly dated since they’re sorted by population), antipodes (or why you wouldn’t end up in China if you dug straight down [presuming you’re in North America]), two chapters on time zones and meridians, and finally a fun chapter entitled “Twelve Point Three Six Nine” about how easy it is to concoct elaborate fantasies if you freely manipulate numbers (he doesn’t address it, but it made me think about the cottage industry built around the supposed prophecies of Nostradamus; “If you take his name and reverse all the letters and replace the letter A with an E, you get this name that has recently been in the news…” etc).

The final section just has the chapter “Portrait of the Writer as a Boy” which isn’t about science but rather an autobiographical short on Asimov’s beginnings as a science fiction writer taken from, as I understand it, a special Asimov issue of F&SF. It sounds like it would be dry, since it’s the things he writes that you’re interested in rather than how he came to write them, but that’s far from the truth. I found it immensely entertaining, and have in my collection as-yet-unreads like Opus 100 and In Memory Yet Green which would be further elaborations on this theme, and now I have an invigorated interested in getting to them sooner rather than later.

For an alternate review, try here.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Science, Numbers, and I

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    Asimov wrote a good number of essays that were built around these tables of data he constructed. There’s something exciting about coming across these discoveries, particularly when you’re at the right age to be impressed by having the world organized into data tables. I wonder what his writing would be like these days now that it’s much easier to gather data into tables, and to form complicated formulas parsing them.

    It shouldn’t have surprised me so that he had a minor case of baseball fandom and collated statistics on baseball players until he had more pressing things on his time.

    • Lee Pavelich says:

      It is interesting how different the world of 50 years ago was in terms of access to information. Writing an essay about the largest rivers or enumerating the great cities would have had utility simply because that data was not readily available (unless you stumbled across an almanac at the library).

      I imagine Asimov, were he alive today, would spend many, many hours on Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha reading through lists and playing with data sets.

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