Saturday, March 20, 2010

Asimov and his fight for Associate Professor

Asimov details his battle with the administration of Boston University in the first few chapters of the second volume of his autobiography. He begins it in th is way.

On July 1, 1954, my salary was still six thousand dollars per year, but it was entirely out of the school budget now and there was no obligation to teach student nurses. This was what I wanted and I was, for the time, satisfied.

My next ambition, though, was to be promoted to associate professor. It was only at the associate professor level, according to a book of university regulations that someone had given me, that tenure was obtained. With tenure, one could only be fired for cause, and cause was not easy to get. With associate professorship, therefore, I would finally have job security.

It might seem strange that I should want job security or attach any importance to it when I already made considerably more money through my writing than at my job, but it made sense. I could write with greater ease and peace if my rear were secure; if I didn't have to spend time and nervous energy justifying my actions, if I could fulfill my teaching duties and spend all the rest of my time (some 80 percent of the whole) doing exactly as I pleased, protected by tenure.

One wonders if that is the case with most university professors these days who have tenure, they work 20% of the time, and do their own thing the remaining 80% of the time, and still get paid a humongous salary as if they were working 100% of the time? Or is it only politicians that get that sweet deal these days?

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Planets Have An Air About Them" (Only A Trillion)

According to Isaac Asimov's Essays, (a site that lists them and what books they are collected in, and reviews them, but doesn't go in-depth as ths blog does), "Planets Have A Air About Them" first appeared in the March, 1957 issue of Astounding, and anthologized for the first and only time in 1957 in Only A Trillion.

The Quotable Asimov
None in this essay.

First Paragraph
Ever since it was recognized that other planets existed besides our own, there has been considerable speculation concerning the possibility of life on these planets
and on the kind of life that could be possible on them. Intimately bound up with such speculation are considerations of the kind of atmosphere that might be expected to surround a given planet. What do we actually know, or what can we reasonably speculate concerning planetary atmosphere?

Asimov discusses the planets and the types of elements that could exist in their atmosphere. As with all his essays for Astounding, published in this anthology, they are long, and full of mathematics, and tables, such as "Atom abundances in the universe," "Surface temperature of the planets in the solar sytstem," "Boiling point of the common elements in degrees above absolute zero," "Boiling points of the common compounds in degrees above absolute zero," and so on.

Final Paragraph
Imagine a planet the size of Uranus in the position of Mars. It has just managed to hang onto enough hydrogen to allow it to be a major component of the atmosphere, along with ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide, and yet the planet is just warm enough to allow the presence of liquid water.

Plant life on such a world might split water to hydrogen and oxygen. It would then combine oxygen and methane (which it breathes) to form starch, liberating the hydrogen into the atmosphere. The methane would be replaced by hydrogen; the carbon dioxide would be reduced to methane and then replaced by hydrogen, the ammonia would sty put. The atmosphere of the world would end as only hydrogen and ammonia.

Animals would eat the starch, breathe the hydrogen, recombine the oxygen of the starch with the hydrogen to form water, and breathe out methane gas.

Our situation exactly, but in reverse.

With which thought, and with my head humming slightly, I'll step out into the back yard to take a deep, invigorating breath of oxygen and stare fondly at the grass which is so busy making more of it.

Asimov comments that in the 20 years since this article was written, the launching of satellites and probes had enabled scientists to learn more about the atmospheres of other planets than ever before, but that the material in this article remains essentially correct..

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Abnormality of Being Normal" (Only A Trillion)

According to Isaac Asimov's Essays, (a site that lists them and what books they are collected in, and reviews them, but doesn't go in-depth as ths blog does), "The Abnormality of Being Normal" first appeared in the May, 1956 issue of Astounding, and anthologized for the first and only time in 1957 in Only A Trillion.

The Quotable Asimov
None in this essay.

First Paragraph
A common catch-phrase is the one that goes, "There is no such thing as a normal person."

The question, though, is this: Why is there no such thing as a normal person?

Another essay, like most of the ones in this anthology, that deal strictly with Asimov's fascination with numbers. In this instance, he discusses the types of atoms found in the human body.

Final Paragraph
In fact, any statistical abstraction involving something as complex as the human being is suspect. However handy such may be in computing actuarial tables and predicting elections, it can give rise to great and unneccesary greif through misconstruction by ordinary people in the ordinary business of life.

Still, as long as psychologists use the words "normal" and "abnormal" in the way that they do, we will always be able to make statements like: "It is normal to be a little abnormal" and "It is highly abnormal to be completely normal."

And after all, such statements, while confusing, are also comforting.

No note included for this article.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Asimov on this and that

From the book, Yours, Isaac Asimov.

The worst of writing and publishing 20,000,000 words is that I often don't recognize quotations attributed to me.

I routinely make a lunch date on Yom Kippur. I don't intend to qualify for any heaven.

I hate this system of having holidays come on Monday so that non-working bums can have three-day weekends. It means that I am forever running into Mondays when there is no mail pickup. I work seven days a week and take no holidays-like you're supposed to. If America wants to be "competitive," we h ad all better do it, grumble grumble.

I know it's un-American, perhaps, to love one's work, but I can't help it.

Uncle SAm takes 40 percent of my income, but he's welcome to it. He provides me with a nice country in exchange. If he could only figure out some way to stop with the Vietnam thing and put it all into the war on poverty, into unpolluting the environment and beautifying and conserving the countryside-he could have 50 percent.

At least 95 percent of all successful writers (who sell books) do not make a living at it. Then why should anyone write?
As nearly as I can make out, people write because they are impelled to, because it gives them pleasure. It's like playing bridge or chess or golf, or going hiking or skiing. You don't make a living in by far the majority of cases. You do it because you want to.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Isaac Asimov: On His Writing

Yours, Isaac Asomiv: A Lifetime of Letters, edited by Stanley Asimov. Doubleday. 1995

Isaac Asimov donated his correspondence to the Boston University library (at their request in 1964 - they were compiling the correspondence of every author who'd attended Boston University). His brother, younger than Asimov by 9 years, edited some of the correspondence into a book.

Asimov didn't write long letters - indeed, more than half his correspondence with fans took place via postrcard - he saved his energy for writing his articles, stories and books, but there are some interesting letters here.

Here's what Asimov said about why he wrote his non-fiction work:

I write in order to teach and in order to make people feel good (for I am wedded to the theory that learning is the most enduring pleasure.) However, my chief reason for writing is to please myself, because I myself learn by writing.


I start work every day (including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays) at 7.30 am. I stop work every evening at 10:30 pm. The work is continuous except for interruptions which are numerous (telephone, business lunches, social engagements, biological functions, talking to my wife) and which are resented. I work in my apartment and interruptions don't slow me down since at the conclusion of the interruption I begin, full speed, at the point I left off.


(Regarding his non-fiction)

Rightly or wrongly, I rarely wade through primary material. My references are generally a wide variety of encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, etc - in other words, predigested stuff, secondary material.

This would hurt my conscience if I ever pretended to be contributing anything to scholarship, but I don't. I cheerfully admit that I never present anything new. What I have to sell is arrangement and style.

And speaking of hard ecnomic times...
In the 1980s, however, I returned to novels and have turned out seven of them in eight years. The money has just poured in, in a vast flood. Why did I change? I don't need the money. I have nothing to spend it for. My needs and wants are very few.

However, I realized that I was approaching the end of my life. I will leave behind, as survivors, a wife and two children. Consequently, in the 1980s [he wrote this on 31 October 1990] I bade farewell to ease and happiness [of writing nonfiction] and applied myself to laying up financial fat so that my survivors can live through the hard economic times I saw coming as soon as Raagan became President.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Isaac Asimov's science fiction and fantasy short stories


1. Marooned off Vesta (Mar 1939)
2. The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use (May 1939)
3. Trends (Ad Astra) (Jul 1939)

4. Half-Breed (Feb 1940)
5. Ring Around the Sun (Mar 1940)
6. The Callistan Menace (Stowaway) (Apr 1940)
7. The Magnificent Possession (Ammonium) (Jul 1940)
8. Homo Sol (Sep 1940)
9. Robbie (Strange Playfellow) (Sep 1940)
10. Half-Breeds on Venus (Dec 1940)

11. The Secret Sense (Mar 1941)
12. History (Mar 1941)
13. Heredity (Twins) (Apr 1941)
14. Reason (Apr 1941)
15. Liar! (May 1941)
16. Super-Neutron (Sep 1941)
17. Nightfall (Sep 1941)
18. Not Final! (Oct 1941)

19. Christmas on Ganymede (Jan 1942)
20. Robot AL-76 Goes Astray (Feb 1942)
21. Runaround (Mar 1942)
22. Time Pussy (Apr 1942)
23. The Weapon (May 1942)
24. Black Friar of the Flame (Spring 1942)
25. Victory Unintentional (Aug 1942)
26. The Hazing (Oct 1942)
27. The Imaginary (Nov 1942)

28. Death Sentence (Nov 1943)

29. Catch That Rabbit (Feb 1944)

30. Blind Alley (Mar 1945)
31. Escape! (Paradoxical Escape) (Aug 1945)

32. Evidence (Sep 1946)

33. Little Lost Robot (Mar 1947)

34. The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline (Mar 1948)
35. No Connection (Jun 1948)

36. The Red Queen's Race (Jan 1949)
37. Mother Earth (May 1949)

38. The Little Man on the Subway (1950)
39. The Evitable Conflict (Jun 1950)
40. Legal Rites (Sep 1950)
41. Darwinian Poolroom (Oct 1950)
42. Day of the Hunters (Nov 1950)
43. Green Patches (Misbegotten Missionary) (Nov 1950)

44. In a Good Cause - (1951)
45. Satisfaction Guaranteed (Apr 1951)
46. Hostess (May 1951)
47. Breeds There a Man ... ? (Jun 1951)
48. C-Chute (Greater Love) (Oct 1951)
49. Shah Guido G. (Nov 1951)
50. The Fun They Had (Dec 1 1951)

51. Youth (May 1952)
52. What If - ? (Summer 1952)
53. The Martian Way (Nov 1952)
54. The Deep (Dec 1952)

55. Nobody Here But - (1953)
56. Button, Button (Jan 1953)
57. The Monkey's Finger (Feb 1953)
58. Sally (May-Jun 1953)
59. Flies (Jun 1953)
60. Kid Stuff (Sep 1953)
61. Belief (Oct 1953)
62. Everest (Dec 1953)
63. The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline (Dec 1953)

64. The Pause (1954)
65. It's Such a Beautiful Day (1954)
66. Sucker Bait (Feb and Mar 1954)
67. The Immortal Bard (May 1954)
68. Let's Not (Dec 1954)

69. The Singing Bell (Jan 1955)
70. Risk (May 1955)
71. The Last Trump (Jun 1955)
72. Franchise (Aug 1955)
73. The Talking Stone (Oct 1955)
74. Dreamworld (Nov 1955)
75. Dreaming Is a Private Thing (Dec 1955)
76. The Portable Star (Winter 1955)

77. The Message (Feb 1956)
78. The Dead Past (Apr 1956)
79. Hell-Fire (May 1956)
80. Living Space (May 1956)
81. What's in a Name? (Death of a Honey-Blonde) (Jun 1956)
82. The Dying Night (Jul 1956)
83. Someday (Aug 1956)
84. Pate de Foie Gras (Sep 1956)
85. First Law (Oct 1956)
86. The Watery Place (Oct 1956)
87. Each an Explorer (1956)
88. The Last Question (Nov 1956)
89. Gimmicks Three (The Brazen Locked Room) (Nov 1956)
90. Jokester (Dec 1956)

91. The Dust of Death (Jan 1957)
92. Strikebreaker (Male Strikebreaker) (Jan 1957)
93. Let's Get Together (Feb 1957)
94. Blank! (Jun 1957)
95. Does a Bee Care? (Jun 1957)
96. A Woman's Heart (Jun 1957)
97. Profession (Jul 1957)
98. A Loint of Paw (Aug 1957)
99. Ideas Die Hard (Oct 1957)
100. I'm in Marsport Without Hilda (Nov 1957)
101. The Gentle Vultures (Dec 1957)
102. Galley Slave (Dec 1957)
103. Insert Knob A in Hole B (Dec 1957)

104. Spell My Name with an "S" (S, as in Zebatinsky) (Jan 1958)
105. Lenny (Jan 1958)
106. The Feeling of Power (Feb 1958)
107. The Story Machine (Feb 1958)
108. Silly Asses (Feb 1958)
109. All the Troubles of the World (Apr 1958)
110. Buy Jupiter (May 1958)
111. The Up-to-Date Sorcerer (Jul 1958)
112. The Ugly Little Boy (Lastborn) (Sep 1958)

113. A Statue For Father (Benefactor of Humanity) (Feb 1959)
114. Anniversary (Mar 1959)
115. Unto the Fourth Generation (Apr 1959)
116. Obituary (Aug 1959)
117. Rain, Rain, Go Away (Sep 1959)

118. The Covenant (Jul 1960)
119. Thiotimoline and the Space Age (Oct 1960)

120. What Is This Thing Called Love? (Playboy and the Slime God) (Mar 1961)
121. The Machine that Won the War (Oct 1961)

122. My Son, the Physicist (Feb 1962)
123. Star Light (Oct 1962)

124. Author! Author! (1964)

125. Eyes Do More Than See (Apr 1965)
126. The Man Who Made the 21st Century (Oct 1965)
127. Founding Father (Oct 1965)

128. Segregationist (1967)
129. The Billiard Ball (Mar 1967)

130. Exile to Hell (May 1968)
131. Key Item (The Computer That Went On Strike) (Jul 1968)
132. The Proper Study (Sep 1968)
133. The Holmes-Ginsbook Device (Dec 1968)

134. Feminine Intuition (Oct 1969)

135. Waterclap (May 1970)
136. 2430 A.D. - Too Late For the Space Ark (Oct 1970)

137. The Greatest Asset (Jan 1972)
138. Take a Match (1972)
139. Mirror Image (May 1972)

140. Thiotimoline to the Stars (1973)
141. Light Verse (Sep-Oct 1973)

142. Big Game (1974)
143. Half-Baked Publisher's Delight (1974)
144. The Dream (Jan-Feb 1974)
145. Benjamin's Dream (Apr 1974)
146. That Thou Art Mindful of Him (May 1974)
147. Party By Satellite (May 1974)
148. Stranger in Paradise (May-Jun 1974)
149. Benjamin's Bicentennial Blast (Jun-Jul 1974)
150. The Heavenly Host (Dec 1974)

151. The Life and Times of Multivac (Jan 5, 1975)
152. A Boy's Best Friend (Mar 1975)
153. Point of View (Jul 1975)

154. The Bicentennial Man (1976)
155. Good Taste (1976)
156. Old-fashioned (Jan-Feb 1976)
157. The Winnowing (Feb 1976)
158. Marching In (May 1976)
159. Birth of a Notion (Jun 1976)
160. The Tercentenary Incident (Aug 1976)

161. To Tell at a Glance (Feb 1977)
162. True Love (Feb 1977)
163. Think! (Spring 1977)
164. Sure Thing (Summer 1977)
165. About Nothing (Summer 1977)
166. Science Fiction Convention (Fall 1977)

167. Found! (Oct 1978)

168. It is Coming (1979)
169. Strike! (Jan 1979)
170. Nothing for Nothing (Feb 1979)
171. How It Happened (Spring 1979)
172. Fair Exchange? (Fall 1979)

173. The Last Answer (Jan 1980)
174. For the Birds (May 1980)
175. Death of a Foy (Oct 1980)

176. Ignition Point! (1981)
177. A Perfect Fit (1981)
178. The Last Shuttle (Apr 10, 1981)

179. The Winds of Change (1982)
180. Lest We Remember (Feb 1982)
181. The Super Runner (Oct 1982)

182. Potential (Feb 1983)

183. The Ten-Second Election (Nov 1984)

184. Hallucination (Feb, Mar, Apr 1985)

185. Feghoot and the Courts (1986)
186. Robot Dreams (1986)

187. Left to Right (Jan 1987)
188. Left to Right, and Beyond (Jul 1987)
189. The Fable of the Three Princes (Nov 1987)

190. The Smile of the Chipper (Man as the Ultimate Gadget) (1988)
191. Christmas Without Rodney (mid-Dec 1988)

192. The Instability (Jan 1989)
193. Good-bye to Earth (Jan 1989)
194. Too Bad! (Nov 1989)

195. Robot Visions (Apr 1990)
196. Fault-Intolerant (May 1990)
197. In the Canyon (Jul 1990)
198. Kid Brother (mid-Dec 1990)

199. Gold (Sep 1991)
200. Cal (1991)
201. Prince Delightful and the Flameless Dragon (1991)
202. Frustration (1991)

Date Unknown
203. Alexander the God (?)
204. Battle-Hymn (?)
205. The Nations in Space (?)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Victory on Paper" (Only A Trillion)

According to Isaac Asimov's Essays, (a site that lists them and what books they are collected in, and reviews them, but doesn't go in-depth as ths blog does), "Victory on Paper" first appeared in the September, 1955 issue of Astounding, and anthologized for the first and only time in 1957 in Only A Trillion.

It is a continuation from his essay which appeared in the February 1955 issue, "Hemoglobin and the Universe."

The Quotable Asimov
None in this essay.

First Paragraph
The key to the answer to the problem of protein structure was found by a Russian. This was Michael Tawett.

In 1906, Tswett submitted a paper to a German botanical journal in which he described a series of experiments involving a new, and, as it turned out, revolutionary technique. Tswett was a botanist who was interested in the colored pigments one could soak out of plant leaves by using various solvents. Among those pigments is xhlorophyl which plants use to concvert solar energy into food and without which life on Earth -- except for certain micro-organisms, would quickly become impossible. Naturally, biochemists were yearning at the time to get at those plant pigments, separate one from another and figure out the structure of each. But how was one to go about separating the unholy mess into individual components? Ordinary chemical procedures simply didn't come close to doing the job.

Michael Tswett, a Russian, invents chromtography, which separates out the pigments of plants. However, because he's a Russian writing in Russian, and a botanist rather than a biochemist, allowed German biochemists - the biochemists of the age, to dismiss his work. In 1931, German biochemists adopted his method, however.

It was by using chromatography that scientists discovered the structure of protein molecules. Once the structure of these various proteins were known, they could, in theory, be synthesized in the lab. Asimov mentions the work in synthesizing insulin, for exmaple.

Who knew Novacaine is a synthetic form of coacaine??]

Final Paragraph
It took Sanger and his men eight years to solve the "impossible" problem of finding one arrangement out of several googols of possible arrangments. We shoundn't object to giving biochemists a few more years to see what other impossibilities they can knock off.

The anthology, Only a Trillion, was published in 1957 with new material - the Notes, written in 1976. In his Note for this essay, Asimov points out:

Since this article was first written, in March 1955, the various methods for working out the intimate structure of protein molecules have advanced to the point where they have become routine - even automated.... In addition, chemists have been working out the intimately detailed structure of various nucleic acids, the only othr group of compounds to compare in complexity and importance to the proteins.

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Asimov and the Science Essay

As I've pointed out in earlier entries in this blog, Isaac Asimov wrote hundreds of essays on science (and other topcs) and most hof them have been gathered together in anthologies. Before they were published in anthologies, they appeared in a variety of the science fiction pulp magazines of the 1950s, as well as in other, general interest magazines like American Way (the in-flight magazine of American Airways) and so on.

Asimov's role model in this regard was Willy Ley.

(Heinz Haber, Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley)

Willy Ley was born in Germany on December 2, 1906. He grew up in Berlin, and studied astronomy, physics, zoology, and paleontology at the University of Berlin.
After reading Hermann Oberth's book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket into Interplanetary Space). He himself published Die Fahrt in den Weltraum (Travel in Outer Space) in 1926, and became one of the first members of Germany's amateur rocket group, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR - "Spaceflight Society") in 1927. He contributed many articles to its journal, Die Rakete (The Rocket).

In 1935, Ley left Nazi Germany. He first went to Great Britain, but finally settled in the United States. In 1936, he supervised operations of two rocket planes carrying mail at Greenwood Lake, NY.

An avid reader of science fiction, he began publishing scientific articles in American science fiction magazines, beginning with "The Dawn of the Conquest of Space" in the March 1937 issue of Astounding Stories. Ley had a regular science column called "For Your Information" in Galaxy Magazine from its premiere in October, 1950 until his death.

The young Isaac Asimov, therefore, read Ley's articles. His own stories written during the late 1930s were science fiction, but after the war, and after he'd earned his degree, he began trying his hand at non-fiction essays. He wanted to have a regular column, like Ley.

He got his chance in 1957.

A little before September, 1957, Bob Mills, editor of the science fiction magazine Venture (a sistermagazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) decided he wanted to do a science column, and asked Asimov to write it.

I agrred enthusiastically, for this was just the sort of thing I wanted. I was to make each column 1200 words long and I was to be paid $50 for each column. What's more, I was to have an absolutely free hand on subject matter.

I sat down immediately and wrote "Fecundity Unlimited" my first article on the population problem. I sent it in on September 19, and it was taken at once.

The article appeared in the January 1958 issue of Venture.

The July, 1958 issue of Venture was the tenth and the last. The last issue contained Asimov's fourth science article written for it, "The Clash of Cymbals," about colliding galaxies.

To be sure, Asimov was writing science articles for a variety of other magazines, but he didn't have his own column.

On August 12, 1958, Asimov visited Bob Mills in New York. Mills asked Asimov if he would continue to write his science column for Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov said yes. His first column to appear in F & SF was "Dust of Ages," in the November, 1958 issue...and he never missed another issue until he passed away. Originally the articles continued to be 1200 words, but by the fifth article they had settled at 4,000 words per essay. For each one, Asimov was to receive $100.

Bob Mills also gave Asimov his most well-known nickname, The Good Doctor.

It was in 1958 that Asimov quit (or was rather forced out) of his job as Associate Professor of the Boston University's School of Medicine, and began writing full time.

As Asimov had told one of the men involved in forcing him out of the school, it was his goal to become the greatest living science writer.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Hemoglobin and the Universe" (Only A Trillion)

According to Isaac Asimov's Essays, (a site that lists them and what books they are collected in, and reviews them, but doesn't go in-depth as ths blog does), "Hemoglobin and the Universe" first appeared in the February, 1955 issue of Astounding, and anthologized for the first and only time in 1957 in Only A Trillion.

The Quotable Asimov
Even the purest and most high-minded scientist finds it expedient sometimes to assault the fortress of truth with the blunt weapon of trial and error.

There is no question but that most or all of the secrets of life lie hidden in the details of protein structure.

First Paragraph
Even the purest and most high-minded scientist finds it expedient sometimes to assault the fortress of truth with the blunt weapon of trial and error. Sometimes it works beautifully. As evidence and as a case in point, let us bring to the front of the stage the hemoglobin molecule.

Hemoglobin is the chief protein component of the red blood cells.

Asimov goes on to tell of how the hemoglobin molecule is constructed - consisting of a heme fraction and a globin fraction. The heme fraction consists of an iron atom surrounded by twenty carbon atoms and four nitrogen atoms. The atoms are arranged in a "porphyrin ring."

Asimov explains how the structure of the porphyrin rings and their sidechains were discovered. (Asimov confinesa himself to simple arithmetic in his explanations, not chemistry.)

The discovery of the poryphirin ring construction for heme was done by trial and error - there were only 15 possible choices it could be. Asimov explains how German chemist Hans Fischer did it.

But what about for the protein, hemoglobin?

The rest of the essay is all mathematics, as Asimov explains why it would have been impossible to discover the structure of hemoglobin by the same trial and error method that had worked for heme.

Final Paragraph
How did the biochemists do it?

The fact is that straight trial-and-error technique would have been an unbearable trial and a colossal error. So they used other medthods. There are other methods, you know.

The anthology, Only a Trillion, was published in 1957 with new material - the Notes, written in 1976. In his Note for this essay, Asimov points out:

Since this article was first written in July, 1954, chemists have discovered msany details about the hemoglobin molecule.


There is no longer any basic mystery as to how the body manufactures hemoglobin molecules, with all the amino acids correctly in place. In 1953, the year before this article was first written, James Watson and Francis Crick worked out the way in which the nucleic acid molecules of the chromosomes duplicated themselves. Other chemists went on to discover how the structure of the nucleic acids was used to guide the formation of chains of amino acids in a particular order. The basic details of all this you can find in my book The Genetic Code.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"The Explosions Within Us" (Only A Trillion)

According to Isaac Asimov's Essays, (a site that lists them and what books they are collected in, and reviews them, but doesn't go in-depth as ths blog does), "The Explosions Within Us" first appeared in Only A Trillion , in other words it was written specifically for the book, and published for the first and only time in 1957.

The Quotable Asimov
All mathematical treatment of radioactive breakdown is statistical in nature and statistics work more poorly as the numbers grow smaller.

First Paragraph
It is all very well to speak of radioactive atoms that occur in the soil, as I have been doing in the previous chapter. There is something objective and detached about atoms exploding within rocks and soil. But plants grow in the soil and animals live on plants. Is it possible that radioactive atoms may find their way into living tissue and even into our own bodies?

It is not only possible, it is certain.

Asimov discusses the trace elements in our body, broken down by atom. (We need only a trace of cobalt to survive, but that trace actually consists of several million atoms.)

He also talks about the existence of the radioactive potassium-40 in our bodies. There is three times as much potassium-40 in our bodies as iodine.

"There is always a chance" Asimov comments "...that the unfortunate molecule that finds itself in the path of a free radical (a water molecule with a piece knocked off by a beta particle) may be one of the nucleo-protein molecules called "genes". There are several thousand genes in each cell, each gene controlling some particular facet of the cell's chemistry. If one of those genes is damaged or altered as a result of a collision with a free radical, the cell's chemical is also altered to some extent...this change is called a mutation."

He then moves on to discuss carbon-14, and how much of that is in our bodies, and why that enables us to date dead bodies (as in mummies).

Final Paragraph
This is the same as saying that if you live to be 70, the chances that a particular cell in your body will ever have experienced even a single carbon-14 breakdown in its genes is only one in 260.

So sleep in comfort!

A note
Asimov has a note at the end of this article, pointing out he''d written it in November 1956. He'd written an article on the same topic that had appeared in the February 1955 issue of Journal of Chemical Education. "That, I believe, was the first mention in print of the relationship of carbon-14 to genetics."

He goes on to say, "In 1958, when atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs still went on wholesale, Linus Pauling published a paper in Science (Nov 14, 1958) which commented that the increase in carbon-14 content in the atmosphere would increase the incidence of undesirable mutations. Asimov states he received a letter from Pauling "which refers in most kindly fashion to my article." But he doesn't say exactly what Linus said (and if you read Yours, Isaac Asimov, a collection of Asimov's correspondence, typically Linus only wrote when he was pointing out an error in on of Asimov's articles.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Atoms That Vanish (Only A Trillion) 1957

There are conflicting data on in what magazine or periodical "The Atoms That Vanish" first appeared. Wikipedia, a useful resource but one that must be verified by outside sources, says it was "first published in Change!, 1957".

But the Asimov Online site says that it was "First Published In: 1957, The Tyrannasaurus Prescription (collection #37)"

All I know for sure is that it appeared in Asimov's first collection of essays, Only A Trillion, which was published in 1957, and has not been included in any other collection since then.

Asimov discusses radioactive half-life, and gives data on the half-life of various isotopes. (All this information is still valid today.)

First paragraph
I think I can assume that the readers of this book all know that there are atoms which are unstable and which break down by ejecting particles from within their nuclei. Sometimes the ejection of one particle is sufficient to allow what remains of the nucleus to be stable. Sometimes a dozen or more particles must be ejected one after the other in order for stability to be attained.

First, Asimov makes a point of talking about percentages and statistics.

Dealing with a large group of objects, however, is not the same as dealing with only one object. Once you have a large group, you can use statistics to predict the future, The larger the group, the more accurate (percentage -wise) the prediction. (My bolding.)

I mention this paragraph because today, in September 2008 we are undergoing are Presidential Election Cycle, and not a day passes that some article, based on the results of a poll, is published. And within the body of the article, sweeping statements are made about an entire group of people, for example: 67% of all White Democrates won't vote for Obama because he's black. 90% of all White Democrats think blacks are lazy. (Those aren't the actual numbers from the article, I'm just making them up, but the gist is the same.)

And yet, if you do down to the very bottom paragraph of the article, you're told how many people participated. In the case I'm referring to above, it was 2,227 people, but typically generalizations are categorically stated to be true, based on a poll sampling of 1,000 people.

And to me, a poll sampling of 1,000 people, when it's a question of what 300 Million people will do, is way too small a sample size to be saying so postively, ALL people think this. ALL people think that. Sure, opinion polls have their place, but the way the poll data is stated is done so in such a way as to sway people to believe something. Otherwise, the sample size would be revealed in the first paragraph, and instead of saying, "All Democrats think that.." they would stay "All Democrats who participated in this poll think that..."

(And, as an aside, Asimov was a Democrat. I'm a Republican.)

But enough of that digression. Back to the essay.

Half-life of Isotopes
Asimov mentions throughout the article some of the isotopes and their half-lifes. There are also several tables which illustrate his comments, (and explains how scientists have come to date the existence of the Universe, and the Big Bang Theory - though he doesn't mention it by that name.)

Uranium-238 - 4 and a half billion years
Uranium-235 - 700 Million years
Thorium-232 - 14 billion years
Potassium 40 - 1 and a 5th billion years
Rubidium-87 - 62 billion years

Riddle me this, gentle reader. (And use the Comment section to explain it to me and other readers.) How do we know that Rubidium-87 has a half-life of 62 billion years?
If the Universe has been in existence for only 5 billion years, how can we deduce how long Rubidium-87 takes to break down?

Final Paragraph
The chances, however, would be 30 to 1 against there being even a single atom of astatine-215 present.

And then there's Wikipedia...
I just checked Rubidium at Wikipedia, and the author of the very detailed article says that it has a half-life of 49 billion years (not the 62 billion Asimov says.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Only A Trillion (1957)

Only A Trillion (1957) is the first collection of essays that Asimov ever had published. They are not from his Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction essays, which starts with Fact and Fancy (1962).

Only A Trillion
consists of 10 essays and two faux science articles.

Here's the table of contents, and I'll start by discussing the very first essay, "The Atoms That Vanish", tomorrow.

1. The Atoms That Vanish
2. The Explosions Within Us
3. Hemoglobin and the University
4. Victory on Paper
5. The Abnormality of Being Normal
6. Planets Have an Air About Them
7. The Unblind Workings of Chance
8. The Trapping of the Sun
9. The Sea-Urchin and We
10. The Sound of Panting
11. The Marvelous Properties of Thiotimoline
12. Pate De Foix Gras

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Asimov's Essays in Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine

Isaac Asimov's essays sritten for Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine began in 1958 and continued until his death. His early essays were straightforward science articles, but after about twelve or so entries, he found his "voice" in which he shared a few personal details before segueing into his essay.

The essays were collected into 22 volumes, plus 4 "retreads" (Asimov on Physics, Asimov on Astronomy, and so on).

1. Fact and Fancy (1962)
2. View from a Height (1963)
3. Adding a Dimension (1964)
4. Of Time, Space & Other Things (1965)
5. From Earth to Heaven (1966)
6. Science, Numbers and I (1968)
7. The Solar System and Back (1970)
8. The Stars in Their Courses (1971)
9. The Left Hand of the Electron (1972)
10. The Tragedy of the Moon (1973)
11. Asimov on Astronomy (1974) - republished from other collections
12. Asimov on Chemistry - republished from other collections
13. Of Matters Great & Small (1975)
14. Asimov on Physics - republished from other collections
15. The Planet That Wasn't (1976)
16. Asimov on Numbers - republished from other collections
17. Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1977)
18. The Road to Infinity (1979)
19. The Sun Shines Bright (1981)
20. Counting the Eons (1983)
21. X Stands for Unknown (1984)
22. The Subatomic Monster (1985)
23. Far as Human Eye Could See (1987)
24. The Relativity of Wrong (1988)
25. Out of Everywhere (1990)
26. The Secret of The Universe (1990)

Complete Anthologies of Asimov's Essays

The complete set of Isaac Asimov's essays.

1. Only A Trillion (1957)
2. Fact and Fancy (1962)
3. View from a Height (1963)
4. Adding a Dimension (1964)
5. Of Time, Space & Other Things (1965)
6. From Earth to Heaven (1966)
7. Is Anybody There? (1967)
16. Science, Numbers and I (1968)
17. The Solar System and Back (1970)
18. The Stars in Their Courses (1971)
19. Left Hand of the Electron (1972)
20. The Tragedy of the Moon (1973)
8. Today and Tomorrow and-- (1973)
9. Please Explain (1973)
21. Asimov on Astronomy (taken from the F& SF wnthologies)
22. Asimon on Chemistry (taken from the F& SF wnthologies)
10. Science Past - Science Future (1975)
23. Of Matters Great & Small (1975)
24. Asimov on Physics (taken from the F& SF wnthologies)
25. The Planet That Wasn't (1976)
26. Asimov on Numbers (taken from the F& SF wnthologies)
27. Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1977)
11. The Beginning and the End (1978)
12. Life and Time (1979)
28. The Road to Infinity (1979)
29. The Sun Shines Bright (1981)
13. Change! (1981)
30. Asimov on Science Fiction (1982)
31. Counting the Eons (1983)
14. The Roving Mind (1983)
32. X Stands for Unknown (1984)
33. The Subatomic Monster (1985)
15. The Dangers of Intelligence (1986)
34. Far as Human Eye Could See (1987)
35. Past, Present and Future (1987)
36. The Relativity of Wrong (1988)
37. Out of Everywhere (1990)
38. The Secret of The Universe (1990)
39. Robot Visions (1990)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov wrote about his life in two books, In Memory Yet Green, 1920-1954, which covers the first 34 years of his lfe. It was published in 1979.

In Joy Still Felt, 1954-1978 which covered the last 24 years of his life up until that time, was published in 1981.

He would go on to live until 1992, when he died at the age of 72, from complications from AIDS, contracted when he had had his heart operation some years before.

Asimov's wife, Janet, apparently felt that these two books suffered from not showing enough of the real Asimov, and persuaded him to write another book of memoirs, entitled I, Asimov in which he would reveal more of himself. (Interestingly, it was when reading I, Asimov that I first conceived a bit of a dislike for him, as it turned out that he had actually cheated on his first wife, something he had not confessed to in his first two autobiographies.)

The Encyclopedia Asimov

In this blog, I will explore every facet of the life of Isaac Asimov, from his personal life to his writings - both fiction and non-fiction.

And because Asimov did not live in a vacuum, I will also discuss his contemporaries here.