I am really enjoying what they are doing over at FiveThirtyEight, what Nate Silver is calling “data journalism.” Everything from elections, to batting order, to an analysis of how much material is left for the Game of Thrones TV show, it is all based on looking at data in new and interesting ways to seek out insights that might otherwise be missed. Reading many of these posts, I can’t help but think that this is often what Isaac Asimov did in many of the 399 science essays he wrote for F&SF from 1958 – 1992.
A classic example of this would be Asimov’s essay “The Height of Up1” in which Asimov ponders what the maximum achievable temperature in nature might be. Beginning with well known quantities, like the average surface temperature of the sun, Asimov works his way backward through colder and colder temperatures to find the coldest possible temperature in nature, which turns out to be a fraction above absolute zero. He then works up through hotter and hotter things (the center of the sun, the center of larger stars, supernova, etc.). In doing so, he discusses temperature scales, both hot and cold, and the units that measure temperature, as well as what temperature actually is–a measure of energy. Asimov was always colloquial in his essays, which is one thing that made them broadly approachable.
Reading an Asimov essay like “The Height of Up” I could almost see a similar (modern?) version written by a FiveThirtyEight staffer, wondering what the hottest temperature in the universe might be. There would be fancier visualizations, but the core data analysis and clear, colloquial exposition would be at its center.
Asimov wrote many essays on the population problem. In his essay, “The Power of Progression2” Asimov explores the consequences of an exponential progression of population increase, and demonstrates that at such a rate it will only take 4200 years until the entire known universe is crammed with the mass of humanity.
Lists are popular in blog posts and articles these days, but this is nothing new. In “The Noblemen of Science3“, Asimov does an analysis of Noble Prize winners, breaking them down by both category and country and drawing some interesting conclusions from the results of those lists. This is something that has probably been done dozens of times since, but it is also the very kind of thing I could see being done by data journalists at blogs like FiveThirtyEight or the Upshot.
It reminds me that very little is really new. Techniques and technology improves, making it easier to calculate and display the data in useful and interesting ways. But data journalism, at least in an informal sense, has been going on for decades. I like the concept behind data journalism, something which will surprise no one who reads my posts, but and I find it both comforting and amusing that Asimov had been doing this kind of thing in his essays for decades.
The XKCD creator has been running a similar column, “What-If” for the last year or so. His are a little more jocular (what speed would you have to be going for a raindrop to shatter your windshield?) (https://what-if.xkcd.com), but sound like they’re of the same vein.
I almost cited the What If? column, which I enjoy. And then my mind got sidetracked by something shiny and I forgot. So thanks for mentioning it.