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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