Sunday, January 29, 2012

It never ends

My mom is having some major health issues...so much so that I'm not going to be able to post here for another couple of days while we get it straightened out.

Note to all my readers: If you have high blood pressure, make damn sure you take your medication or 20 years later you'll have congestive heart failure and wham, bam goes your quality of life.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Did Isaac Asimov “Tell me why”?

From:Religion & Spirituality Examiner: Did Isaac Asimov “Tell me why”?

There is a song titled “Tell me why” which consists of the following lyrics:

Tell me why the stars do shine
Tell me why the ivy twines
Tell me why the sky's so blue

And then I'll tell you just why I love you

Because God made the stars to shine
Because God made the ivy twine
Because God made the sky's so blue
Because God made you, that's why I love you

Tell me why the stars do shine
Tell me why the ivy twines

Because God made the sky's so blue
Because God made you, that's why I love you

The atheist, Isaac Asimov, responded thusly:

Nuclear fusion makes stars to shine,
Tropisms make the ivy twine,
Raleigh scattering make skies so blue,
Testicular hormones are why I love you.

Leave it to an atheist to turn love into, or misinterpret love as, the result of testicular hormones. Can you imagine that Saint Valentine’s Day card?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Our writing shouldn’t be allowed to just disappear

From the Ottawa Citizen: Our writing shouldn’t be allowed to just disappear
As children return to school following winter holidays, most of us in Canada have a comforting sense of security that they will receive the best of education. But should we assume it will always be that way?

To the south, most U.S. states have adopted the new Common Core State Standards for English. This allows schools in each state to stop teaching kids how to write cursively. The rationale is that with the prevalence of computers and cellphones there is no longer a need for children to learn how to write. Sound incredible? In Indiana for example, Grade 2 students will no longer be asked to move from printing to writing. Time can be spent doing more important teaching.

Decades ago, Isaac Asimov wrote a prescient short story about a sensation who mystified his community because he had the ability to do simple arithmetic without the aid of a calculator. The notion being that humans had lost memory of any capacity to do such brain calculating. His point was, “What are we coming to?” Well, now we’re there.

There is something troubling if not downright scary about kids growing up without being able to write. An adult society that no longer writes, where no one knows how to do it.

Weird idea, isn’t it? But it’s more than that. It reveals how slavishly and uncritically we embrace every technological development and all the consequent ramifications. New instantly equates to better. New means “gotta have it.” The younger generations have been born into this normative thinking and awareness. Those 40 and older know different times and different understandings of life. They can compare.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the iconic 92-year-old American poet from the Beat Generation of the ’50s and ’60s reflects that back then the emerging ethos was to “Be here now.” The idea being to be present in one’s mind and body and fully aware of life around and within self. Now, Ferlinghetti observes it is “Be some place else” as he sees drivers, pedestrians, couples at dinner all engrossed in cellphone activity.

So, what does cursive writing contribute that makes it valuable? Well, it slows us down and makes us concentrate. It puts physical texture into our communication. The letters and words and sentences, the paragraphs and pages flow from our minds to fingers to the page and our ideas and souls stay in the ink on the paper and then find their way to someone else’s hands and eyes and mind and soul. We open letters with our hands, touch the paper, let the words and feelings soak into us. We connect with the being who wrote to us. We read and re-read, we fold the paper and keep it for later, maybe for life. We keep that communication, the intentions of the writer, and it retains meaning for us. It makes us more than what we are. It is the tangible and tactile antidote to aloneness. The soldier in a foxhole or a bunk clutching the paper holding his sweetheart’s love words.

With technological communication — emails, text messages, we read quickly, gather in only a fraction of the import and move on to the next item in our inbox. There is no intimacy, no deep pondering or absorption. It’s all flat and quick. It disappears.

When my uncle died 10 years ago, we went through his things and found a suitcase of old letters. Writing from his mother, his sisters, his brothers. And I keep them now. No one will go through all the old computer files even if they haven’t been deleted. No one will keep them. They are machine ilk, not flesh and blood ilk.

Does it matter if we stop teaching kids to write? It’s another detachment from being human with one another. Another detachment from developing awareness and power within self and it’s a diffusion of intimacy. It’s a message that exposes the shallowness and ignorance prevailing in educational leadership. A message which draws kids farther into the abbreviated world of emoticons and consumerism.

Cursive writing is connected to the same area of the brain as art. It’s expressive. The very image of a kid in class passing a note to someone else without the teacher seeing suggests the personal, human world of touch. Yes, printing letters is still physical on paper. But it’s more cumbersome, less individualistic, and surely printing will be next on the list of deletions from school curricula.

Gandhi and the wisest of those who followed in his footsteps spoke about technology. They saw how it needed to be understood — as a tool to make one’s life easier and advance efficiency but not to detract from humanity. They saw technology that replaced human workers as negative because all need jobs. They saw technology which improves the worker’s plight as positive.

They might have thought similarly about the devices which help our communication to be quicker but less deep, less complex, less personal and human.

Calvin White is a former high school counsellor and author of The Secret Lives of Teenagers, due in 2013 from Key Publishing Company.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Asimov in Italy


Someone uploaded a photo they'd taken in Rome, Italy. It's graffitti on a wall somewhere - and a large centrepiece (i doubt if it was done by a graffiti artist, but at least those vandals spared it) features Asimov.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Isaac Asimov and Relative Insanity

From John C. Wright's Journal: Isaac Asimov and Relative Insanity
I was pondering Isaac Asimov’s NIGHTFALL the other night, and meditating on how odd is the assumption on which it is based. The same assumption appears in a number of other Asimov stories

I will not summarize the tale, nor will I avoid spoilers, as I assume you know it (If not, rush right out and buy a copy of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Bob Silverberg, in order to repair your deficiency in Sci-Fi street cred).

According to Asimov, John W Campbell Jr prompted Asimov to write the story after discussing a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

Campbell’s contrariwise opinion was: “I think men would go mad.”

The story itself is well-constructed as a mystery yarn, as each separate scientist, a psychologist, an archeologist, and an astronomer, discovers disturbing clues: man has an innate fear of darkness; the civilization of planet Lagash suffers regular and periodic collapses; that Lagash is a multiple star system which, only once in the thousand years, has all her suns set or eclipsed. The ending is a climax of what can only be called Lovecraftian despair: as the last light dies in the sky of a world which has never known nightfall, the scientists (going mad themselves from the horror of the darkness) see the buildings and monuments of their great city being lit afire by panicked mobs seeking some source of light in a world where no lamp has ever been invented.

Brilliant story, and all the more disturbing because it is based on an assumption never explicitly mentioned by Asimov, nor by Campbell, but which, once named, cannot be denied is present in their thoughts.

Mr Asimov enjoyed great success with this short story, and the theme is one he revisits again. In CAVES OF STEEL, for example, overpopulation on Earth requires the mass of the population to crowd into buried warrens, and the main character, as most Earthmen, having never seen the sky, are subject to agoraphobia. In THE NAKED SUN, the natives of Solaria are raised by robots and born in test tubes, and so are subject to a phobia against human contact, or even being in the same room as a living person.

In a less obvious way, even as story like ‘Its Such a Nice Day’ affirms the unspoken assumption, even though the story itself resolves itself differently.

In that story, in a society where all travel is done by instantaneous teleportation, a little boy discovers by accident that he enjoys walking outside. His mother, fearing for his sanity, calls in a psychologist who is something of a curmudgeon, not enamored of the impositions of allegedly useful technology into life, goes for a walk with the boy, and is dazed to see running water, beasts and butterflies, and the outside of his own house. He tells the mother not to fret, and he joins the boy in an act of nonconformity by deciding himself to walk from time to time.

All of them are good stories, solidly built, well crafted. Let no one say otherwise.

But, like any story no matter how well built, when you get up from your comfy reading chair after and are poking around in the fridge looking for leftovers, certain distracting thoughts must intrude. Did no one in the world of inexpensive teleportation go big-game hunting? No one hiked or biked or wanted to frolic in the flowers with a blushing maiden? No one owned a window, or had one of those calendars showing snow scenes or waterfalls? No one?

The story mentions ‘Africans’ who do not possess this technology, so the implication is we are dealing with an insular gated community, the suburbanites who are the subject of such scorn by lovers of progress, but (as we bend into the fridge seeing if there is a frosty can of beer left behind the ungainly open can of Spaghetti-Os ) the thought must strike us: wait. Really? They hold boot camp indoors in this world? Robots do all the outdoor maintenance work?

The same stray thoughts will perturb the placid science fiction reader at the close of any tale, merely because, once the drama and glamor of the suspension of disbelief fades, the dream seems more dreamlike. The image of a world burning itself to death while shrieking in fear at the fall of night is magnificent and terrifying. Only when you are wondering, head in the fridge, if that but of stray cheese is still good will you stop and think: wait. Did they have no mines on the world of Lagash, or miners who went underground to work them? Were there no window shutters and no bed curtains? No one ever put a bag over his head? Or closed his eyes?

Now, it is an open question in any of these stories, or any science fiction story at all, how seriously the author means for the reader to take the conceit of the story. Are we actually supposed to believe, for example, in THE SLEEPER WAKES by H.G. Wells that mesmerism can place a man in suspended animation for decades without aging, and that compound interest on his bank account would one day consume the entire economy?

Like most yarns, I think the conceit made at the beginning of any tale of speculative fiction is something the reader takes on faith, like the conceit of a hypothetical question. The reader says tacitly, “Yes, I will accept the false-to-facts conceit of the hypo if you can spin out an entertaining yarn that keeps faith with the conceit!” For the moment the writer shows he is not keeping faith with the conceit, the story breaks like glass.

But when Campbell says “I think men would go mad” he is not spinning out a hypothetical conceit, he is criticizing the view of human nature of Emerson.

Campbell is backhanding what he sees as a saccharine piety in Emerson. Campbell thinks man is not, after all, a rational animal, but is the product of the evolution and environment of his birth and upbringing. Man is not the crown of creation, but a blind by-product of atomic and electrochemical forces in motion since the Big Bang. Man is plastic.

Any man who believes in God, who believes Man is made in the image of God, thinks man has a human nature, and, absent the disaster of Eden, a permanent nature.

This is blasphemy to the the zealous technocrat who preaches Better Living Through Technology, of which John W Campbell Jr was not merely an exemplar but a paragon. Nothing was clearer in his editorial policy than his thought that Man should conquer nature, and put the stars is his grasp and the future under his feet, through Yankee ingenuity, elbow grease, mother wit, grit and the occasional flash of genius, and working that slipstick.

Tales of techno-optimism take progress for the driver of the theme, and anything commonly thought to impede progress becomes what the lazy (or efficient) writer will wrap in the cloak of the antagonist.

This is more clear in Heinlein than in Asimov or Clarke, perhaps because he was a more efficient (or lazier) writer than Asimov, and more often had recourse to lazy stereotypes. The stereotyped foes of progress include the folly of the common man (or “chumps” as Michael Valentine Smith calls us); of religious leaders (who range from gross hucksters like Foster to scary theocrats like Nehemiah Scudder); or of bureaucrats or politicians or high-ranking military officers. (Indeed, the only bureaucrat on the whole canon of Heinlein’s work I can call sympathetic is Mr Kiku, the undersecretary of Spatial Affairs, from STAR BEAST).

However, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke have their share of two-dimensional stereotypes fitting these categories. They don’t like commoners, godbotherers, and politicos.

Anyone who thinks the ills of Man are permanent, and the institutions (traditions of the commoners, faith of the godbotherers, laws and wars of the politicos) is a foe him who thinks the ills of man can be solved by a shiny new panacea.

There are exceptions, to be sure. I am thinking of THE GRAY PRINCE by Jack Vance, which contains the most bald-faced denunciation of any misgivings Caucasians owe conquered and displaced natives I have ever read. STARSHIP TROOPERS likewise announces the powerful theme that there will always be war, and therefore one must always be ready to fight it.

The Campbell brand of techno-optimism faded sharply in the late 60′s, but, oddly enough, the underlying assumptions did not fade in the popular mind, but took deeper root, until they seemed not assumptions but eternal truths.

One such assumption that hardened into an allegedly eternal truth is that human nature is infinitely plastic. Men are malleable. What is wrong in man can be fixed.

Human Nature, if it were only infinitely malleable, can be cured through Yankee ingenuity, elbow grease, mother wit, grit and the occasional flash of genius, and working that slipstick: such is the optimistic cry echoing through too much modern writing, both science fiction and writing that perhaps does not realize it is science fiction, or rather, pure fantasy.

Stately baldly, the conceit is absurd. The same technician who cannot free my computer of spam is going to reach into my infinitely more complex human brain and cure my various and vicious addictions to pride, envy, greed, sloth, malice, ire and lust? Really? Some clever new method of counting votes or deciding civil broils will curb the ambitions of demagogues and dictators, and sooth the deep seating malice of ancient wrongs?

Step aside, if you can, dear reader, from Campbell’s simplistic BF Skinner assumptions about what drives men mad.

Think instead of men born blind who are, through some miracle or miracle of science, cured. Are they driven mad by their first sight of stars? Or think of some mountain villager who has never seen the sea. Is he driven mad at his first sight of the ocean? Or think of someone who has never been underground. Is he certain to be bereft of his wits the moment he realized a cave roof is above him?

Do not get me wrong. I am not claiming that there are no agoraphobes or thalassaphobes or claustrophobes. I am not claiming a man who never saw rainfall in his life would not be frightened by a storm. But would he go mad? If you say he would, what does that say about your faith in the sanity of your fellow man, or of you yourself?

The conceit that the flaws innate in human nature can be cured by human ingenuity is as absurd as Campbell’s smirking backhanded slap at Emerson. What does it say about the techno-optimism of Campbell that he thinks a man would not be awed and full of wonder and touched with an intimation of the divine at his first sight of stars?

Now, as a story conceit, the malleability of human nature is of prime interest to the science fiction reader. How much indeed can be changed if our technology changes, or our laws, manners and customs?

I suggest that any story addressing that theme is science fiction, and that science fiction is not simply confined to those relatively few stories that propose all things in man’s nature are subject to change.

Can any creature who is not awed at the sight of stars really be called a human being?

—————————

ADDED LATER: I was describing ‘Nightfall’ to my thirteen year old son when it came up in the conversation turned to other things, unexpected, unthinkable, which human beings had never seen before or imagined but which science revealed. I told him about the invention of the microscope, and how, up until then, no one had even suspected the existence of ‘animacules’.

I will point out that if Leeuwenhoek had been from Lagash, upon seeing microscopic life that swarms in every drop of water, living beings too small to see, all around us, everywhere, instead of being awed at the intricacy and bounty of the natural world, he would have run in circle screaming ‘Get them off me! Get them off me!’

Had he been from Lagash, Carl Sagan would have said, “Observe the splendor of the cosmos! It is billions and billions of — AAAAAaaaargghh!”

Honestly, Campbell’s wry little joke shows very little faith in his science. Everyone I know is awed, rather than terrified, to discover there is more to Creation than he once thought, greater deeps and higher heights.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Isaac Asimov helped me embrace atheism

From Mad Mike's America: How Isaac Asimov helped me embrace atheism
I have long been an admirer of Isaac Asimov. I knew of his fiction for years, first being introduced to him through his brilliant short story Nightfall. Here is a memorable Asimov quote to start out our story:

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually disrespectful to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that god doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” –Isaac Asimov

It wasn’t until a few years later that I encountered one of his books on religion. The book, In The Beginning, pulled me in and I soon found I could not get enough. In it, Asimov took the book of Genesis and looked at it from three different angles: how the religious see it, how such writings came to be as they are now, and what science says about the idea in question.

I had known for a long time that something was seriously wrong about religion; that it didn’t fit quite with reality, but I was still something of a deist bordering on agnostic. But this book helped me along the road to leaving belief in the past. Finally someone else who saw what I did and didn’t try to give some lame excuse as to why religion didn’t match up with reality.

Years later I discovered that not only was the whole thing ridiculous, but it could actually be damaging and rather terrifying. It was not just for the harm it does to the vulnerable mind, but how it views those who do not believe in their specific brand of magic. Not to mention the often downright rage they would express to those who dared to actually doubt the concept all together!

These people had made not believing in an invisible man in the sky such a terrible thing that to consider it openly was one of the deepest of taboos. It was so strong that someone who had such a powerful mind and, through much of his life, was such an open atheist, was pushed to hide his own views. Views that he knew made sense, that were the only ones that really did make sense in light of the evidence. But still he hid them because they were frowned upon.

If someone such as Isaac Asimov could be bullied into such a belief then what does it mean about so many others, including myself?

But instead of the ‘dangerous’ view that far too many often claim it is, atheism is, to me, as it was to Asimov, freeing. It was the universe laid open for us to scrutinize and wonder over. It was finally no longer being afraid of one’s lack of belief and openly saying “there isn’t enough evidence to support the view and it isn’t one that is important enough to waste any more time considering further”. It is finally being able to look at religious belief in the same way one does believers in the Loch Ness Monster and not think that one has to suppress such views.

The quote that I offered is a prime example of these views. It is his looking back and realizing that he had been silly the whole time and should have just been open with himself from the very start.

To be clear, when Isaac Asimov says that he is an “emotional atheist,” he is not meaning what so many theists claim. He is not someone who ‘believes’ atheism is accurate like a theist believes in their particular patented version of a deity. It is the feeling of elation you feel when you realize that the universe works without the need for a ‘man behind the curtain.’

It is seeing the workings of a cell or the life cycles of stars and realizing “I can understand this!” followed soon after by “Wait…what? I can understand this?” A critter that evolved as an overly complex way of replicating strands of amino acids can look at the universe and say, “OK, I see how that works!” If that does not instill within you a sense of awe then I pity you.

Some theists may cling to the end of the quote where Asimov says “I don’t have the evidence to prove that god doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” They point their finger and go “Aha! You don’t have any evidence and you still believe there is no god? Where is your science now!” Then feel rather pleased with themselves and wager Jesus would give them a high five.

We then go on to ask whether they have evidence that the tooth fairy does not exist. Our imaginary theist might respond saying the idea is absurd, they have never seen a tooth fairy and that parents are the ones who hoard discarded dentition.

“Exactly” is the only needed response. The believer might not see it, but I do. It is obvious to the point of absurdity and to paraphrase Asimov, to waste any further time with it seems like an exercise in futility.

So here is to you religious extremists. You are the reason we have to step away from the adult conversations and deal with such silly ideas as invisible sky daddies. Let’s get to talking about things like evolution, stellar formation, the big bang, quantum physics, and the possibilities for xenobiology. Not to mention other things more important than whether their deity exists or what I’m going to have for breakfast.

Evoking Isaac Asimov, scientists unveil hydrogen-propelled microrockets capable of navigating the stomach

Whoever wrote this article evoked Asimov in the headline, and he's not mentioned in the rest of the article. Nevertheless...

From Knovel.com: Evoking Isaac Asimov, scientists unveil hydrogen-propelled microrockets capable of navigating the stomach
Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, are developing miniature machines capable of entering and moving throughout the bloodstream – without fuel.

Researchers from the California university said that they had designed "microrockets" that could easily travel in acidic environments without the need for a fuel source. They noted that physicians and other medical professionals could one day use such microrockets to more thoroughly study a patient's digestive tract, among other potential uses.

The breakthrough technology does not need a fuel supply to operate, Popular Science reports. It moves, rather, by manipulating hydrogen bubbles produced by a chemical reaction. The microrockets are made from zinc, and they react naturally with acidic solutions, which are naturally present in the stomach.

The microrockets have a lifespan ranging between 10 seconds and two minutes, according to the scientists. They affirmed that their lifespan varied depending on the rate of zinc dissolution. They are tiny tubes approximately 10 micrometers in length, but their diameters range from two to five micrometers. The researchers affirmed they crafted the tubes out of polymer polyaniline, inserting a thin layer of zinc in their inside surface.

While the microrockets currently navigate throughout acidic environments autonomously, the team of scientists contended it is possible to control their trajectory. What's more, they said they could program them to pick up and drop off "cargo" through the use of magnets.

The tiny vessels react readily in the hyper acidic environment of the stomach, creating hydrogen bubbles that form inside the rocket. Eventually, the hydrogen bubbles reach a critical mass, propelling the microrockets at speeds surpassing 100 body lengths per second, roughly equivalent to 1,050 micrometers per second.

PhysOrg reports that the scientists, Wei Gao, Aysegul Uygun and Joseph Wang, noted the microrockets could have far-reaching applications in both biomedical and industrial engineering research. They said that they envision physicians and engineers utilizing the devices in the future, molding them to perform specific tasks.

"This is the first reported example of chemically-powered microrockets that can be self-propelled without an external fuel," Wang asserted. "Such acid-powered microrockets could greatly expand the scope of applications of nano and microscale motors toward new extreme environments, and could thus lead to diverse new biomedical or industrial applications ranging from targeted drug delivery or nanoimaging to the monitoring of industrial processes."

They published their findings, "Hydrogen-Bubble-Propelled Zinc-Based Microrockets in Strongly Acidic Media," in the journal of the American Chemical Society.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Isaac Asimov's Five Best Short Stories

This is a blog entry from Jan 2, 2012

From Forbes.com: Isaac Asimov's Five Best Short Stories
by Alex Knapp
My colleague Erik Kain reminds us that today is Isaac Asimov’s birthday – and I’m wholly on board with renaming January 2nd Asimov Day. Isaac Asimov is one of my all-time favorite writers. I love his science-fiction , his mysteries, and above all, his science writing. I’m personally of the opinion that he’s the greatest writer about science who has ever lived. My copy of Asimov on Science, which collects his best essays on science, is what I read to teach myself how to make my own writing accessible and clear. He was a master at it.

When it comes to his fame, however, I daresay that most people think of Asimov as a science-fiction writer. And while I love his novels, even better are his short stories. So in honor of Asimov Day, let me present the Good Doctor’s five best short stories. (And one honorable mention.) Asimov mystery fans may note that these are all sci-fi stories – and that’s true. I’m a huge Black Widowers fan, but his mysteries are clever, not powerful. I just couldn’t think of one that made the cut.

At any rate, without further ado, here are the stories.

Honorable Mention – “A Feeling of Power”

“A Feeling of Power” isn’t nearly as well-written as some great stories that didn’t make this list, but it’s near and dear to my heart for its central conceit. “A Feeling of Power” takes place in a future where pocket calculators are so handy that people don’t even bother to learn basic math skills anymore because the calculator does just fine. So when someone “reverse engineers” math so he can do it with a pencil and paper, it’s a revelation. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve generally preferred to do most of my math in my head. (And I’ve amused students in the past by solving problems more quickly than they could type them into their calculators.) I think having a solid grasp of math is essential for understanding the world, and so this story has always appealed to me.

5. “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”

Okay, so this isn’t a short story so much as it is a fake scientific research paper. But it’s awesome. In this journal article, Asimov discusses the the chemical properties of thiotimoline, a water soluble organic molecule that actually dissolves one second before it makes contact with water. The tone, discussion of the research, and everything else is dead on. It reads just like any other journal article of the period. But it discusses, in an interesting way, something about the physics and chemistry of time, which makes it worth reading.

4. “Nightfall”

One of the classics, and for good reason. The conceit is terrific – taking place on a world orbiting six suns, it turns out that once every 2,049 years, none of the suns appear in the sky at all. And so people see darkness and the stars for the first time in their lives. The result? They go mad, of course. But it’s the getting there that’s fascinating. And the religious antagonists themselves are fascinating – not the single-minded ignoramuses you so often encounter in this type of story.

3. “Evidence”

It would be a cardinal sin to not include one of Asimov’s robot stories in this list, but I didn’t have to think hard about which one to include. “Evidence” is by far my favorite of them all, which is the story of a political candidate who’s desperate to prove that his opponent is not human, but is rather a humanoid robot. The problem with proving this, of course, is Asimov’s great Susan Calvin points out, it’s hard to tell the difference between a robot who follows the Three Laws and an exceptionally ethical human being…

2. “The Last Question”

The titular question, of course, being ”How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” Or in other words, how can we stop the universe from ending? How can we conquer death? I get a kick out of the ending every single time.

1. “The Dead Past”

Personally, I think that this is Asimov’s best piece of writing, period. Not only does it feature some great characterization, the conceit is sheer genius. Here are our intrepid heroes, working to strike a blow against the oppressive government which dares to inhibit scientific progress! Except that in the end, we realize that the government was doing its best to make sure civilization itself didn’t collapse… And failed. I love this story.

***

So that’s my personal ranking of best Asimov short stories. What’s yours?

Monday, January 9, 2012

4 new ways to solve the energy challenge

I share only the 3rd of 4 ideas, as it's the one that references Asimov.

From CNN Money: 4 new ways to solve the energy challenge
3. Creating electricity in space

The idea of beaming solar power down to Earth from space was popularized in a 1941 Isaac Asimov short story in which the machinery was controlled by a robot called Cutie. Today, solar space stations still sound far-fetched, but scientists in the U.S. and Japan are pursuing modern versions of the system, which are becoming more feasible as space flight and solar panels promise to become more affordable.

How would it work? The panels would orbit in space -- immune from rain, clouds, and nighttime --gathering solar energy 24/7. The panels would be 43 times more efficient than land-based ones, says Col. M.V. "Coyote" Smith, who has studied the concept for NASA. The satellites would then beam the energy to Earth in the form of microwave radiation. Implausible? John Mankins, the former head of advanced concept studies at NASA, has conducted successful tests in Hawaii, sending wireless electricity between two islands.

The hang-up is cost. Building a big space solar operation would cost billions, Mankins says. While a couple of universities are working on it, skeptics abound. "If a potential investor sat down and penciled out the costs, they would stop returning your phone calls," says Seth Masia, editor of Solar Today magazine. Still, new projects like Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen's aircraft, which one day could affordably launch satellites, and the fact that solar panels are getting cheaper, are making this technology suddenly seem more science than fiction. --A.V.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

March 20, 2012, NY: 2012 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Faster Than the Speed of Light

From the American Museum of Natural History: 2012 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Faster Than the Speed of Light

Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity has been tested with ever-increasing precision since its publication in 1905. One of its key predictions is that only light itself can travel at the speed of light. While the theory does not forbid particles from moving faster, such particles must be traveling backward in time.

Two recent papers by a large consortium of physicists using the world's most powerful accelerator are claiming the discovery of neutrinos moving at speeds slightly in excess of the speed of light. If confirmed, this would be one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of physics. Our understanding of space, time, mass, and energy all hang in the balance until we know who is right.

This year's Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate will pit some of the experimentalists who claim to have discovered faster-than-light neutrinos against their strongest critics, as well as other teams that are racing to replicate or disprove the extraordinary claims.

Café on One will offer refreshments for purchase before the event from 6 to 7:15 pm.

The late Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific and influential authors of our time, was a dear friend and supporter of the American Museum of Natural History. In his memory, the Hayden Planetarium is honored to host the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate-generously endowed by relatives, friends, and admirers of Isaac Asimov and his work-bringing the finest minds in the world to the Museum each year to debate pressing questions on the frontier of scientific discovery. Proceeds from ticket sales of the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate benefit the scientific and educational programs of the Hayden Planetarium.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Isaac Asimov talks about NASA’s Apollo Program and Future of Space Travel

You need to go to Youtube, via a computer as opposed to your Kindle, to see the following Video:

a 22-minute video