Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Isaac Asimov’s ‘Caves of Steel’ Getting The Hollywood Treatment

From The Stool Pigeon: Isaac Asimov’s ‘Caves of Steel’ Getting The Hollywood Treatment
20th Century Fox is moving forward with an adaptation of Isaac Asmiov’s ‘The Caves of Steel’ – with the writer/director pair behind the upcoming zombie flick ‘Maggie’ attached to the project.

The literature of sci-fi icon Isaac Asimov has been adapted for the big screen many a time before – though, previous Hollywood big-budget treatments have generally amounted to very loose adaptations, at best (see: Bicentennial Man, I, Robot).

Hence why Asimov fans might have mixed feelings about 2oth Century Fox moving ahead with a film version of The Caves of Steel – a sci-fi/murder mystery novel that was originally published in serial form in 1953.

Deadline says that John Scott 3 and Henry Hobson – the writing/directing duo behind the upcoming low-budget zombie drama, Maggie – have been recruited to realize Caves of Steel on the big screen. Simon Kinberg (X-Men: First Class, Elysium) is onboard to produce the project.

Caves of Steel is an interesting specimen, seeing how Asimov reportedly wrote the novel in part to demonstrate that science fiction genre tropes could be mixed with other genres. That’s not exactly a revolutionary concept today – seeing how sci-fi elements have been combined with those from genres ranging from Film Noir (Blade Runner) to even the classic western (Cowboys & Aliens) – but it was a fairly innovative concept for writers, back in the mid-20th Century.

Asimov’s original book revolves around the murder of Roj Nemmenuh Sarton – a space ambassador who has long struggled to convince the futuristic governments of Earth to do away with anti-robot legislation. When Roj is discovered dead, human detective Elijah Baley is recruited by the New York police department to solve the crime – with the assistance of the humanoid robot R. Daneel Olivaw. Those two questing characters (who would also be featured in later Asimov stories) struggle to discover the identity of Sarton’s killer – partly, due to Elijah’s own prejudices towards his mechanized partner.

If there are plot points in that synopsis that seem more than a bit reminiscent of the I, Robot adaptation… don’t worry, it’s not just you.

Hobson has previously worked as a visual artist – serving as the effects director on Julie Taymor’s The Tempest adaptation – and designing the stylized credits in films such as Sherlock Holmes and the Fright Night remake (not to mention, the Walking Dead TV series). Scott, by comparison, works for NASA and develops command systems for the organization’s flagship X-ray satellite.

In other words: the two are anything but tried-and-true filmmakers, but they certainly have the ability to realize Caves of Steel as a visually creative – and scientifically sound – piece of cinematic art. Perhaps some fresh blood is exactly what this project needs, given its overt similarities to other sci-fi titles.

We will keep you posted on the status of The Caves of Steel as more information is released.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Robot small talk: Humans need not fear progress in artificial intelligence

The author below references Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov, but clearly has never read their work. They have no "doomsday scenarios" in their work, at least as regards artificial intelligence! At least, not as a constant theme.

From the Financial Times: Robot small talk: Humans need not fear progress in artificial intelligence

Forget the doomsday scenarios of science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, or the optimism of Marvin Minsky, a founding father of artificial intelligence. Woody Allen turns out to have predicted most accurately the development of robot brains, and the good news is that we humans have little to fear.

An experiment by two Cornell University PhD students has revealed the shortcomings of computer intelligence – and they are distinctly human. Two chatbots – online computers designed to hold plausible conversations with humans – were asked to talk to each other. Within minutes, these screen-bound avatars engaged in a match of infantile argument, in scenes remarkably similar to the ill-tempered exchange between Mr Allen’s robotic Jewish tailors in his classic 1973 comedy Sleeper.

A rapid acceleration in the power of computing may have led to huge advances in artificial intelligence. But researchers have not yet found solutions to address the human weaknesses that we inevitably hand on to our creations. These robots are, after all, merely a mirror of their masters.

By 2008 personal computers were able to handle 10bn instructions per second, on a par with the brain of a guppy. Experts estimate that within 30 years robots will be capable of processing roughly 100 trillion instructions per second – about the same as the human brain. And when robot brains begin to rival human intelligence, the theory is that the era of post-human evolution will begin. Technology will develop at an exponential rate, taking human knowledge to places never dreamt of.

That may be true. But only if we overcome our own flaws. Otherwise Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator may be too busy rowing with his wife either to overthrow the human race or to deliver the answer to life, the universe and everything. To paraphrase Woody Allen’s bickering robots: “We got simple. We got complicated.” And we got just plain human.

Could you really predict crime with a computer program?

From Io9: Could you really predict crime with a computer program?
In new JJ Abrams show Person of Interest, airing tomorrow night on CBS, a mysterious man named Finch (Lost's Michael Emerson) has become disenchanted with his government job designing a system that sifts through massive amounts of data to find terrorism suspects. Now Finch is a rogue outsider with a backdoor to the system he created — nicknamed "the Machine." He's able to pilfer hints about upcoming (non-terrorist) crimes from his Big Data creation when it feeds him the social security numbers of people who are soon to be at the center of a crime. Along with his partner Reese (Jim Caviezel), Finch tries to stop these crimes before they happen.

The Machine is based on real Big Data technologies, software that can sift through huge volumes of information from security cameras, social networks, credit records, or anything else to find patterns. But could a software program, even a really sophisticated one, actually spit out the social security number of a person at the heart of a future crime?

We asked Arnab Gupta, CEO of Opera Solutions, a Big Data company that designs software for the government and industry that in some ways resembles what Finch creates in Person of Interest. Gupta said the idea for his company came from reading about "trying to find patterns in human behavior" in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. And in some ways, Asimov's dream in those novels has come true: datamining tools can already predict some kinds of future events. But they don't do it the way Finch's Machine does.

Gupta's company helps intelligence agencies discover what he calls "a signal," or pattern, in publicly-available data from social networks and other sources. That data is then combined with the government's classified data, from surveillance or communication records. Then his company's software looks for what he calls "anomalous patterns." Gupta elaborated:

How do you know if a threat is emerging if you don't know what the threat is? We look for pattern anomalies, after we've established what typical patterns are from a dataset. We can say if something is off kilter.

For example, software like Gupta's might be able to predict social unrest before a series of events like Arab Spring. But, Gupta cautions:

The machine alone cannot predict what's going to happen. Only a human can draw that conclusion. You have to have human insight to understand that signal we're getting from the data.

So could Finch's machine exist in real life? Gupta says no. Certainly there are programs that can predict crime, but not at the granular level we'll see on Person of Interest. You'd never have a program that could offer a specific person's social security number as a clue to a future crime. And, says Gupta, you can't forget the human factor. "This kind of data analysis will become more and more powerful, as we integrate our data sources," he says. "But in the end you'll always need a human analyzing the patterns you find. A machine couldn't do it on its own."

In other words, Person of Interest is doing what science fiction has always done. Show creators Jonathan Nolan (Memento, Dark Knight Rises) and JJ Abrams are taking an existing technology and extrapolating what it might do sometime in the future, or in a parallel present

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Isaac Asimov's Row-buts

Another Video from Youtube.

For my kindle readers - sorry, but you'll have to go to your computer to view this.

Basically it's just a young Asimov saying the three laws of Robotics...but he pronounces Robot (row-bot) as Row-but.

I myself prefer the Robot pronunciation...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Space Exploration and the Mind

From Government Book Talk, 9/13/2011: Space Exploration and the Mind
by Jim Cameron
Many years ago I read “Ideas Die Hard,” a memorable story (at least to me) by Isaac Asimov. In the story, a crew of astronauts is on a flight to the moon under very tense circumstances. They go too far and see the dark side of the moon. SPOILER AHEAD: When they view the dark side, it’s a gigantic wood-and-paper stage set, the sight of which causes the crew to have a collective mental breakdown. At the end of the story, it’s revealed that the flight was a simulation and the simulator went just a bit further than intended. I think the story has stayed with me because it addresses the psychological dimensions of space exploration – an aspect I haven’t really seen addressed in news accounts or books.

NASA has filled this gap quite nicely with Psychology of Space Exploration, an engrossing new collection of articles on this theme. After an initial focus on the psychological effects of space travel, for many years the American space program paid only minimal attention to them, perhaps because the military background of the astronauts militated against what they perceived as the possibly career-retarding discussions of such matters. Interestingly, theSoviet Union paid much more attention to the psychological health of its cosmonauts during the same period. These days, however, NASA is more cognizant of the importance of mood, morale, the psychological effects of weightlessness, and other mind-body issues.

As a history buff, I was intrigued to read about the comparison of voyages in space to the epic journeys of Arctic explorers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even now, wintering over inAntarctica is a kind of model of the prolonged stays in close quarters that characterize the International Space Station.

In a section on the interplay of astronauts from different countries working together, I was amused to learn that Soviet cosmonauts were not totally enthralled the space cuisine enjoyed by a French counterpart: “one of them later expressed his relief at going back to black bread and borscht after a menu of canned French delicacies, including compote of pigeon with dates and dried raisins, duck with artichokes, boeuf bourguignon, and more.”

Another fascinating essay described a space flight simulation experience in which people who knew that they were not really in space still got great enjoyment from their “trip.” It sounded so interesting that I was ready to sign up myself. Also, the special effects sound much better than those in Isaac Asimov’s story!

I really enjoyed reading Psychology of Space Exploration – I had no idea of the range of psychological issues that can crop up in space travel and the ways in which NASA has tackled them. Space buffs and students of the human mind will find much to ponder in this book. You can read it here, get your own copy, or find it in a library.

Has Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy science finally come true?

From BlastR: Has Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy science finally come true?
Sci-fi has predicted reality before (think Star Trek's communicators and The Prisoner's ubiquitious surveillance). But now there's a science fiction concept that we never thought we'd see in real life: psychohistory.

Psychohistory is a concept found in Isaac Asimov's epic series Foundation—which beat out Lord of the Rings in 1965 for the Hugo award for best all-time series—about using sociology, history and statistics to predict the future of large groups.

Now the BBC reports that "Feeding a supercomputer with news stories could help predict major world events."

Could it help? Actually, it already has. Believe it or not, a computer predicted the revolutions in Libya and Egypt, as well as the approximate location of Osama bin Laden.

Kalev Leetaru, senior research scientist of the University of Illinois' Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science, first had to gather more than 100 million articles and feed them into an SGI Altix supercomputer. "The machine's 1024 Intel Nehalem cores have a total processing power of 8.2 teraflops (trillion floating point operations per second)," the BBC writes.

According to the BBC:

Mood detection, or "automated sentiment mining" searched for words such as "terrible", "horrific" or "nice".
Location, or "geocoding" took mentions of specific places, such as "Cairo" and converted them in to coordinates that could be plotted on a map....

Based on specific queries, Nautilus generated graphs for different countries which experienced the "Arab Spring".

In each case, the aggregated results of thousands of news stories showed a notable dip in sentiment ahead of time - both inside the country, and as reported from outside.


And as for bin Laden:

While many believed the al-Qaeda leader to be hiding in Afghanistan, geographic information extracted from media reports consistently identified him with Northern Pakistan.
Only one report mentioned the town of Abbottabad prior to Bin Laden's discovery by US forces in April 2011.

However, the geo-analysis narrowed him down to within 200km, said Mr Leetaru.


Leetaru told the BBC that his prediction system works better than the one the U.S. government was working with. He is currently working on fine-tuning his analysis, particularly when it comes to geographic location and individual groups.

In the first book of the Foundation series, psychohistorian Hari Seldon predicts the galaxy-wide collapse of civilization. Knowing that this event—which will lead to 30,000 years of barbarism—cannot be averted, Seldon seeks to reduce the collapse to a mere 1,000 years.

Whether or not Leetaru will manipulate events for the benefit of civilization, or even to predict the rise and fall of his stocks and bonds, remains to be seen.

But he'll probably be the first to see it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Isaac Asimov on Changes in Science Fiction After 1949



For my Kindle readers, you'll need to get on a computer and go to Youtube and do a search on "Isaac Asimov on Changes in Science Fiction after 1949".

(Or indeed, just on Isaac Asimov - there are a handful of videos featuirng him there.)

They are fun to watch and listen to, not the least because of his Brooklyn accent!

Asimov or George Lucas?

I've got a Google Alerts set up for Isaac Asimov, but sometimes it acts kind of wonky. For example, I got an alert that says that Asimov had been referenced in a story about the recent finding of a planet with two suns, but when I click on the link, the story is focusing on Star Wars' Tatooine with its double sun.

Well, I'll share it anyway.

From UK Daily Mail: 'Science fiction has turned into reality': Astronomers hail extraordinary discovery of 'Star Wars' planet with two suns
It is one of the most memorable images from Star Wars, Luke Skywalker gazing into the distance while walking on Tatooine, a planet with two suns.
And more than three decades after the movies came out the real life version has been discovered - a freezing cold planet named Kepler-16b, which is about the size of Saturn and 200 light years away.
American researchers using observations from NASA's Kepler spacecraft detected the distant planet, which is treated to a double sunset every evening.

'This discovery is stunning,' Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science Department of Terrestrial Magnetism said.
'Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality.'

Binary stars -- two suns turning around each other -- have been seen before, and astronomers have suspected planets exist around them, but Kepler's observations are the first to confirm it.

The gravitational pull of two stars, even stars like the relatively small ones at the heart of this stellar system, would be quite different from the gravity exerted by just one star, Mr Boss said.

Kepler's mission is to scour our section of the Milky Way galaxy for Earth-like planets in the so-called 'habitable zone' that is not too close and not too far away from the stars they orbit.
The spacecraft does this by finding stars whose light periodically gets dimmer, which means there is a planet passing between the star and Kepler's instruments. This is known as a planetary transit

What made this find so eye-popping was that the stars were eclipsing each other as first one and then the other got in the way. And then a third eclipse indicated a planet was part of the system.
If the notion of a planet with two suns was displayed in the earliest Star Wars film on the fictional planet Tatooine, home of Luke Skywalker.
Tatooine was a rocky, desert planet, but Kepler-16b is a cool gas giant, Boss and other researchers said.
Because both of its suns are smaller and cooler than our sun, Kepler-16b would be quite cold, with a surface temperature of around minus 100 to minus 150F (minus 73 to minus 101C).

Kepler-16b is similar to Saturn in size and mass, a cold gas giant that orbits its two suns every 229 days at a distance of 65 million miles (104.6 million km).

That is roughly the same distance as Venus's orbit, compared to Earth's 365-day orbit around the sun at a distance of about 93 million miles (149.7 million km).
The newly detected planet is 200 light-years from Earth and is not thought to harbour life. A light-year is about six trillion miles (10 trillion km).
'Kepler-16b is the first confirmed, unambiguous example of a circumbinary planet - a planet orbiting not one, but two stars,' said co-author Josh Carter.
'Once again, we're finding that our solar system is only one example of the variety of planetary systems nature can create.'

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

December, 1961: "The Trojan Hearse"

After an anecdote in two straight months, Aug and Sept, Asimov skips Oct and Nov and we get an anecdote in December 1961.

"The very first story I ever had published (never mind how long ago that was) concerned a spaceship that had come to grief in the asteroid zone. In it, I had a character comment on the foolhardiness of the captain in not moving out of the plane of the ecliptic (ie the plane of the earth's orbit, which is close to that in which virtually all the components of the solar system move) in order to go over or under the zone and avoid almost certain collidion.

The picture I had in mind at that time was of an asteroidal zone as thickly strewn with asteroids as a beach is with pebbles. This is the same picture that exists, I believe, in the mind of almost all science-fiction writers and readers. Individual miners, one imagines, can easily hop from one peice of rubble to the next in search of valuable minerals. Vacationers can pitch their tents on one world and wave at vacationers on neighboring worlds. And so on."

He then goes on to debunk this picture.



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Monday, September 12, 2011

September 1961: "Not As We Know It"

"Even unpleasant experiences can be inspiring.

For instance, my children once conned me into taking them to a mobster-movie they had seen advertised on TV.

"It's science fiction," they explained. They don't exactly know what science fiction is, but they have gathered it's something daddy writes, so the argument is considered very powerful.

I tried to explain that it wasn't science fiction by my definition, but although I had logic on my side, they had decibels on theirs.

So I joined a two-block line consisting of every kid for miles around with an occasional grown-up who spent his time miserably pretending he was waiting for a bus and would leave momentarily. It was a typical early spring day in New England - nasty drizzle whipped into needle-spray by a howling east wind - and we inched slowly forward.

Finally, when we were in six feet of the ticket sellers and I, personally, within six inches of pneumonia, my guardian angel smiled and I had my narrow escape. They hung up the SOLD OUT sign.

I said, with a merrylaugh, "Oh, what a dirty shame," and drove my howlingly indignant children home."

He then goes on to talk about "life as we don't know it" and how it might develop on other planets.



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Sunday, September 11, 2011

August 1961: The Evens Have It

Asimov's next anecdote will come in the August 1961 issue. They are coming more frequently now, but they are not yet used in every essay.

"Some time ago I was asked (by phone) to write an article on the use of radioisotopes in industry. The gentleman doing he asking waxed enthusiastic on the importance of isotopes, but after a while I could stand it no more, for he kept pronouncing it ISS-o-topes, with a very short "i."

Finally, I said, in the most diffident manner I could muster, "EYE-so-topes, sir," giving it a very long "i".

"No, no," he said impatiently, "I'm talking about ISS-o-topes."

And so he did, to the very end, and on subsequent phone calls, too. But I fooled him. I eventually wrote an article about EYE-so-topes.

Yet it left a sore spot, for having agreed to do the article, I was forced to deal with only the practical applications of isotopes, a necessity which saddened me. There is much that is impractical about isotpes that I would like to discuss, and I will do here."

And he goes on to do so.


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Saturday, September 10, 2011

May 1961: Heaven on Earth

It would not be for another 4 months that Asimov would use another anecdote, in "Heaven on Earth."

"The nicest thing about writing these essays is the constant mental exercise it gives me. Unceasingly, I must keep my eyes and ears open for anything that will spark something that will, im my opinion, be of interest to the reader.

For instance, a letter arrived today, asking about the duodecimal system, where one counts by twelves rather than by tens, and this set up a mental chain reaction that ended in astronomy and, what's more, gave me a notion which, as far as I know, 12 has never been used as the base for a number system, except by mathematicians in play."

He then goes on to talk about numbering systems.


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Friday, September 9, 2011

January 1961: "Here it Comes, There it Goes"

The next time Asimov employs a personal anecdote ddoesn't come until several months later, January, 1961.

"There's a rumor abroad that I never read any books but my own, but of course that is only a canard. For instance, I have recently read a book called Towards a Unified Cosmology, by Reginald O. Kapp (Basic Books, 1960) which I enjoyed every bit as much as one of my own."

Asaimov then goes on to talk about a unified cosmology. This is the first time, and the only time, in which Asimov talks about someone else's book and then exands on it.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Space Songs album, released 1959


Space Songs is an album in the "Ballads For The Age of Science" or "Singing Science" series of scientific music for children from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Songs were written by Hy Zaret (lyrics) and Lou Singer (music). "Space Songs" was released in 1959 by Hy Zaret's label "Motivation Records," and was performed by Tom Glazer and Dottie Evans.



Some of the songs from this album - and the early scientific music records - are available to listen to at YouTube.

Other albums in the "Ballads for the Age of Science" series were: "Energy and Motion Songs," performed by Tom Glazer and Dottie Evans; "Weather Songs," performed by Tom Glazer and The Weathervanes; "Experiment Songs," performed by Dorothy Collins; "Nature Songs," and "More Nature Songs," both performed by Marais and Miranda.

Track listing"Zoom A Little Zoom"
"What Is The Milky Way?"
"Constellation Jig"
"Beep, Beep"
"Why Does The Sun Shine?"
"What Is A Shooting Star?"
"Longitude And Latitude"
"It's A Scientific Fact"
"Ballad Of Sir Isaac Newton"
"Friction"
"Why Are Stars Of Different Colors?"
"Why Do Stars Twinkle?"
"What Is Gravity?"
"Planet Minuet"
"Why Go Up There?"

Space Songs in Popular Media
The song "Zoom a Little Zoom" has notably been used in the popular online vlog Rocketboom as its theme song.

On September 27, 2005 episode of Rocketboom featured the songs "Why Do Stars Twinkle?" and "Beep,Beep".

The band They Might Be Giants has recorded cover versions of two Space Songs, "Why Does The Sun Shine?", and "What Is A Shooting Star? (A Shooting Star Is Not A Star)", as well as a reply to the former called "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?" which corrects scientific errors in the original.

In 2008 Chloé Leloup, Miss LaLaVox und Achim Treu reworked the album under the title "The Space Songs - Ballads for the Age of Science". The album was released on the label Sopot Records.

The lyrics of the first stanza of "Why Does the Sun Shine?" also appear verbatim in the book Stars: A Golden Guide, apart from the omission of "its core is" before "a gigantic nuclear furnace.



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Sir Philip Sidney

Asimov references Sir Philip Sidney in this quote from "Catskills in the Skies":

"Realizing, unlike Sir Philip Sidney, that my need was greater than theirs, I quietly added it to my own record collection..."

Sir Philip Sidney was a soldier, and during one battle was shot in the thigh. While waiting for rescue he gave his water bottle to a fellow wounded soldier, saying, "Thy need is greater than mine."

Sidney would be rescued and receive medical treatment, but would die 21 days later.
Sir Philip Sidney (30 November 1554 – 17 October 1586) was an English poet, courtier and soldier, and is remembered as one of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan Age. His works include Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poetry (also known as The Defence of Poesy or An Apology for Poetry), and The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.

Life and family
Born at Penshurst Place, Kent, he was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley. His mother was the eldest daughter of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and the sister of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. His younger sister, Mary Sidney, married Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Mary Sidney, who upon her marriage became the Countess of Pembroke, was a writer, translator and literary patron. Sidney dedicated his longest work, the Arcadia, to her. After her brother's death, Mary Sidney Herbert reworked the Arcadia, now known as The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.

Philip was educated at Shrewsbury School and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1572, he travelled to France as part of the embassy to negotiate a marriage between Elizabeth I and the Duc D'Alençon. He spent the next several years in mainland Europe, moving through Germany, Italy, Poland, the Kingdom of Hungary and Austria. On these travels, he met a number of prominent European intellectuals and politicians.

Returning to England in 1575, Sidney met Penelope Devereux, the future Lady Rich; though much younger, she would inspire his famous sonnet sequence of the 1580s, Astrophel and Stella. Her father, the Earl of Essex, is said to have planned to marry his daughter to Sidney, but he died in 1576. In England, Sidney occupied himself with politics and art. He defended his father's administration of Ireland in a lengthy document. More seriously, he quarrelled with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, probably because of Sidney's opposition to the French marriage, which de Vere championed. In the aftermath of this episode, Sidney challenged de Vere to a duel, which Elizabeth forbade. He then wrote a lengthy letter to the Queen detailing the foolishness of the French marriage. Characteristically, Elizabeth bristled at his presumption, and Sidney prudently retired from court.

His artistic contacts were more peaceful and more significant for his lasting fame. During his absence from court, he wrote Astrophel and Stella and the first draft of The Arcadia and A Defense of Poetry. Somewhat earlier, he had met Edmund Spenser, who dedicated the Shepheardes Calendar to him. Other literary contacts included membership, along with his friends and fellow poets Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer, Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey, of the (possibly fictitious) 'Areopagus', a humanist endeavour to classicise English verse.

Sidney had returned to court by the middle of 1581 and was MP for Kent. That same year Penelope Devereux was married, apparently against her will, to Lord Rich. Sidney was knighted in 1583. An early arrangement to marry Anne Cecil, daughter of Sir William Cecil and eventual wife of de Vere, had fallen through in 1571. In 1583, he married Frances, teenage daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. In the same year, he made a visit to Oxford University with Giordano Bruno, who subsequently dedicated two books to Sidney.

Both through his family heritage and his personal experience (he was in Walsingham's house in Paris during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre), Sidney was a keenly militant Protestant. In the 1570s, he had persuaded John Casimir to consider proposals for a united Protestant effort against the Roman Catholic Church and Spain. In the early 1580s, he argued unsuccessfully for an assault on Spain itself. In 1585, his enthusiasm for the Protestant struggle was given a free rein when he was appointed governor of Flushing in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, he consistently urged boldness on his superior, his uncle the Earl of Leicester. He conducted a successful raid on Spanish forces near Axel in July, 1586.

Later that year, he joined Sir John Norris in the Battle of Zutphen. During the siege, he was shot in the thigh and died twenty-six days later, at the age of 31. According to the story, while lying wounded he gave his water-bottle to another wounded soldier, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine". This became possibly the most famous story about Sir Phillip, intended to illustrate his noble character.

Sidney's body was returned to London and interred in St. Paul's Cathedral on 16 February 1587. Already during his own lifetime, but even more after his death, he had become for many English people the very epitome of a courtier: learned and politic, but at the same time generous, brave, and impulsive. Never more than a marginal figure in the politics of his time, he was memorialised as the flower of English manhood in Edmund Spenser's Astrophel, one of the greatest English Renaissance elegies.

In Zutphen, the Netherlands, a street has been named after Sir Philip. A statue for him can be found in the park at the Coehoornsingel, where in the harsh winter of 1795 English and Hanoverian soldiers were buried who had died while on retreat for advancing French troops. A memorial at the location where he was mortally wounded by the Spanish can be found at the entrance of a footpath at the Warnsveldseweg, southeast of the Catholic cemetery.

August 1960: Catskills in the Sky

Asimov shares this anecdote:

Once I received, as a gift, a record entitled "Space Songs." It was intended for my children and so I called them both to my record player and we listened. They liked it, but as it happened, I liked it even more than they did. Realizing, unlike Sir Philip Sydney, that my need was greater than theirs, I quietly added it to my own record collection and have listened to it periodically ever since.

Anyway, to get to the point, one of the songs on the record is entitled "Why Go Up There?" and the words are:

Why do we all want to be
up there - up there?
What is there to do or see
up there - up there?

Outer space
Is a place
Where we'll trace the future

There's a lot
Of who knows what
away - up there.

As you see, the reasons given to go up there are a bit vague, and I intend to correct that now."

And he goes on to list the reasons why we need to get out into space.



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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Jan 1960: Those Crazy Ideas

The next essay in which Asimov tells a personal anecdote doesn't come until 7 months later, with "Those Crazy Ideas" in the Jan 1960 F & SF.

"Time and time again I have been asked (and I'm sure others who have, in their time, written science fiction have been asked too): "Where do you get your crazy ideas?"

Over the years, my answers have sunk from flattered confusion to a shrug and a feeble smile. Actually, I don't really know, and the lack of knowledge doesn't really worry me, either, as long as the ideas keep coming.

But then some time ago, a consultant firm in Boston, engaged in a sophisticated space-age project for the government, got in touch with me.

What they needed, it seemed, to bring their project to a successful conclusion were novel suggestions, startling new principles, conceptual breakthroughs. To put it in a nutshell of a well-turned phrase, they need "crazy ideas."

Unfortunately, they didn't know how to go about getting crazy ideas, but some among them had read my science fiction, so they looked me up in the phone book and called me to ask (in essence), "Dr. Asimov, where do you get your crazy ideas?"

Alas, I still didn't know, but as speculation is my profession, I am perfectly willing to think about the matter and share my thoughts with you.

The question before the house, then, is: How does one go about creating or inventing or dreaming up or stumbling over a new and revolutionary scientific principle?"

He then goes on to give the history of a few such scientists who discovered these principles, like Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

August 1959: The Ultimate Split of the Second

After his July 1959 anecdote, he gives an anecdote in the August 1959 essay as well...but this does not indicate that he's going to be doing it every time, as the next anecdote won't show up until Jan 1960.

"Occasionally, I get an idea for something new in science; not necessarily something important, of course, but new anyway. One of these ideas is what I will devote this chapter to.

The notion came to me some time ago, when the news broke that a subatomic particle called xi-zero (with "xi" pronounced "ksee" if you speak Greek and "zigh" if you speak Engish) had been detected for the first time. Like other particles of its general nature, it is strangely stable, having a half-life of fully a ten billionth (10 to the 10th power) of a second or so.

...

My idea is intended to make split-seconds more visualizable, and I got it from the device used in a realm of measurement that is also grotesque and outside the range of all common experience - that of astronomical distances."

And he goes on to explain his idea.


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Monday, September 5, 2011

December, 1960: "Now Hear This"

Asimvo's next anecdote comes in the December 1960 issue of F & SF:

"The ancient Greeks weren't always wrong.

I am taking the trouble to say this strictly for my own good, for when I trace back the history of some scientific concept, I generally start with the Greeks, then go to great pains to show how their wrong guesses had to be slowly and painfully corrected by the great scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries, usually against the strenuous opposition of traditionalists. By the time I had done this on several dozen occasions, I began, as a matter of autohypnosis, to think that the only function served by the ancient philosophers was to put everyone on the wrong track.

And yet, not entirely so."

Asimov then goes on to talk about dolphins and porpoises, and the then new research going on with them.


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Asimov on Education, part 2

Yesterday I talked about Asimov's essay, "Battle of the Eggheads."

His comments in this 1959 essay are pretty prescient, when you look at the status of American education today, and the view of Americans toward intellectuals. (The only TV show that has scientists is a sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. And of course the scientists are all men - the female character, while not a "dumb blond" will nevertheless drive a car even thought the engine light is on and not comprehend why she shouldn't do it...)

Anyway, Asimov continues in this essay to point out that the literati have always looked down on the scientists, and some scientists have bought into this as well, viewing themselves as uncultured if they've never read the "classics."

(Although that, too, is dying out. Very few folks in the US have read the classics these days.)

Asimov, writing in 1959 over the backlash against an "over-emphasis" on the sciences:

"And what would happe to a man, a really cultured man, who had read Proust in the original French and Dostievski in the original Russian, but who had never quite sullied himself with calculus and protons and things like that. Was he to be a mere layman? Was he to be a person with a second-class education?"

Now we get to today, 2011, and we (the US) lag behind most countries in math and the sciences. Those folks who are excelling in our schools in those topics are immigrants from other countries - typically the Asian countries where education in the sciences is highly valued.

Asimov ends his essay with a slogan that we need today more than ever, "Eggheads Unite!"

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Asimov''s Life As Revealed in His Essays: July 1959

One of Asimov's signatures in his non-fiction was that he would open up his essays with a paragraph or two featuring a personal anecdote.

He did not always do this. He wrote at least a dozen articles for Amazing, and about a dozen for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, before he began using that personal touch.

The first essay of his that I can find in which he started with a personal anecdote was:

"Battle of the Eggheads," F&SF, July 1959.

However, this particular telling of a personal anecdote did not start the trend. It woudl be several more months before he started doing it on a regular basis.

Asimov starts out "Battle of the Eggheads" by saying:

"After the Soviet Union placed Sputnik I into orbit on October 4, 1957, the egghead (to use a term invented by a blockhead) gained a sudden, unaccustomed respect here in the United States. Suddenly everyone was viewing American anti-intellectualism with wildalarm.

It has therefore always tickled my vanity that I wrote an article deploring anti-intellectualism in America a year and a half before Sputnik.*

*"The By-Product of Science Fiction," Chemical and Engineering News, August 13, 1956.

In it, I disapproved vehemently of those factors in American culture which seemed to me to be equating lack of education with virtue and to be making it difficult for young people to reveal intelligence without finding themselves penalized for it.

I said all this without mentioning missiles or satellites, without any talk of a "scientific race" with any nation. In fact, I never mentioned the Soviet Union at all. As I said, this was one and a half years before Sputnik I, and before the flood of Monday-morning quarterbacks, wise after the event, that followed hard upon Sputnik I's launching.

Of course, I must hastily disavow any intention of trying to imply that I'm smarter or more prescient than the next fellow. I did not foresee Sputnik I. An astronomer I know warned me in the spring of 1957 that the Soviet Union might beat us to the punch and I laughed heartily and confidently. "Never," I said.

But that only means I never thought intelligence was important just because we had to keep ahead of the Soviet Union. I thought intelligence was important for various other good and sufficient reasons, and sounded the trumpets on its behalf even when I was convinced that the United States was safely ahead of all comers in all branches of science.

So after I recovered from my amazement that October day, I sat back to marvel at the sudden prestige that brains fell heir yo; and to wonder at the spectacle of congressmen discussing spaceflight learnedly, just as if they had been reading up on science ever since they kissed their first baby. For a while, it seemed to me that brains had grown so respectable that I thought I could detect congressmen trying to speak grammatically, even though that meant losing their All-American flavor of rough-hewn backwoods virtue.

In those days everyone talked about revising our system of education, and introducing the revolutionary system of actually encouraging the brighter schoolboys and paying them some attention.

But then, initial panic subsided. We sent up a number of satellites of our own and "Yankee know-how" was a phrase to conjure with again. That left room for the thought that, after all, better schools cost money and who can afford to throw money away by paying teachers full-scale janitorial type salaries?

What's more, something else was added. Complacency and false economy are nothing over which to be shocked, for anyone who is surprised by theexistence of either had better turn in his sense of cynicism for a sharper edged model.

The "something else" to which I refer (and which is shocking) is a definite counter-attack against any changes in our basic educational philosophy and against the whole notion of increasing emphasis on science on the part of some of the eggheads themselves.

After all, there are eggheads and eggheads, in a variety of genera and species. We can make a broad classification, however, and divide them up into the humanists and the scientists (which doesn't mean, of course, that one man can't be a member of both groups."

Asimov then continues his essay in impersonal style, by giving the history of the search for knowledge, starting with the Greeks who worked only by theory, not soiling their hands by doing any actual work to see if their observations were correct.

As Asimov stated: "Perhaps this was because Greece was a society founded on human slavery, so that there grew to be something disgraceful about manual labor. Experimentation, after all, was a kind of manual labor and therefore fit only for slaves, really. Applied science meant bending the glories of the universe to those things that should interest slaves. The very expression "liberal arts" comes from the Latin liberi meaning "free men." The liberal arts were suitable for free men, the mechanical and technical arts for slaves.

A great thinker such as Archimedes, who couldn't resist working in applied sciences (and doing it superlatively well, too) was nevertheless ashamed of himself and would publish only his theoretical work.

... And the attitude persists today, even among the experimental scientists themselves. The more theoretical a science, the higher it is in the scientist's social scale.

TO BE CONTINUED







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