Category: science

Isaac Asimov, Data Journalist?

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.

  1.  F&SF, October 1959. Also, View from a Height, Doubleday, 1963.
  2.  F&SF, May 1969. Also The Stars in their Courses, Doubleday, 1971.
  3.  F&SF, April 1966. Also From Earth to Heaven, Doubleday 1966.

Thoughts on the New Cosmos

Last night I watched something extraordinary. The new Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson premiered on FOX. I rarely watch TV these day, let alone live TV, but I was eager to watch this new show, knowing how rare it is for a good science program to appear on network television. And I wasn’t disappointed.

I was impressed from the start, when President Obama provided a brief introduction, stressing the importance of science in our lives. I was further impressed when I saw just who was involved in the show during the opening credits. And the show itself was nothing short of spectacular. Neil deGrasse Tyson did a fantastic job at making science accessible to a popular audience.

From the very beginning of the show, he delineated the scientific method and its tenets, creating a framework for how we learn about the universe. He then took viewers on a tour of the cosmos, working outward from earth to each line in our “cosmic address.” With some history mixed in, the show then transitioned to Sagan’s famous “cosmic calendar” in which Tyson tried to give a sense of the enormous amounts of time that have passed.

Despite have read Sagan’s original book and seen the original series; despite growing up with a  passion for science, and astronomy in particular, I found myself glued to the show, utterly engrossed in it. I felt the same sense of wonder that I felt when I was a kid in kindergarten, repeatedly checking out The Nine Planets from the library, and looking at Saturn’s rings through the Tasco telescope that my parents got for me. If my reaction is any reflection of the general reaction to the show, then I think Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brannon Braga, Seth Macfarlane, and others involved have done an amazing thing for popular science.

For me, the most poignant moment of the show came toward the end, when, after describing many of Carl Sagan’s scientific achievements, Tyson described a personal one, in which Sagan invited a then-seventeen-year-old Tyson up to Cornell and gave him a personal tour of the school.

The show reminded me how wonderful the sense of discovery is. I can’t wait to show it to the Little Man and get  sense of what he thinks of it. And, of course, I can hardly wait for next Sunday, when I can watch the next installment of Cosmos.


R.I.P Neil Armstrong: “One Giant Leap for Mankind”


I just found out that Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, has died at 82. It was odd. I read the words and it seemed unreal. It was only when it started to sink in that the first person to set foot on the moon had died, did the tears start to come. I’ve read a lot of history. Humans have managed a lot of outstanding achievements. Empires, feats of engineering like the Pyramids. The Great Wall of China. Double-entry bookkeeping (as L. Sprague de Camp might offer). But the moon?

I was born in March of 1972. The Gene Cernan left his footprints on the moon in December 1972, when I was an infant of nine months. Since then, in nearly 40 years, we have not been back to the moon. It not only makes me sad, as a fan of science fiction, it seems almost inconceivable.

The Golden Age of science fiction is ripe with stories about humanity heading off to the moon. Or Mars. Most of the stories were pessimistic, predicting the first moon landings in the 1980s or 1990s. We ended up doing it in 1969. It is incredible to me. I wasn’t even born yet, and people 10 people had walked on the moon. Sometimes, when I think about it, it boggles the mind. The not only went into orbit around the Earth; they left orbit, went to the moon, landed on the surface and walked around. In all of human history, in all of the countless billions of human beings whoever lived or died, only 12 people ever walked on the moon. Compared to those odds, throwing a perfect game in baseball looks easy.

There was an optimism during the Second World War and immediately after, that we could do just about anything. Certainly, the Soviet Union putting up Sputnik stirred us in ways that have never quite been replicated since. But it seems to me that science fiction writers of the 1940s and 1950s felt that the moon was an obvious and easy target (Mars, of course, was second in line), and most seemed to feel that we’d be living on the moon before the turn of the century. And perhaps we should have.

Beginning in about 1998, I grew obsessed with the Apollo missions. I had decided–a little late–that I wanted to be an astronaut, and I read every book on the subject that had ever been written. I just so happened that HBO came out with its fantastic (and to this day, in my opinion, its best) miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, and I was hooked. I was living in Studio City, a suburb of Los Angeles at the time, and I really imagined for a while that I could stand on the moon one day. I took flying lessons, and earned my private pilot license in April 2000 in large part because I thought it would help me in my quest to fly in space.

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RETRO POST: (Almost) Everything I Learned About Science I Learned from Isaac Asimov

I am on an Internet Vacation this week. I promised one old post and one new post each day while I was on vacation. This is the first of my old posts. It was originally posted back on December 16, 2010. I brought this one back because, frankly, I think it is a good post.

Two nights ago I braved the bitterly cold weather to check the mail. When I got outside, I looked up into a midnight blue sky, crystal clear in the cold air with stars shimmering brightly, and immediately saw a meteor disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. I remembered then that it was about the time of the Germinid meteor shower. I craned my neck back hoping to catch sight of another meteor, but that was it, the only one I saw. I was too cold to stand out there looking any longer. I ran to the mailbox, grabbed the mail, and came back into the warm house, stamping the cold out of my feet.

Looking up into that night sky reminded me of the sense of wonder that I felt when I looked up into a similar sky three decades earlier and realized for the first time that those lights in the sky I was seeing were actually distant suns, and that some of them were even planets. I was six or seven at the time. My parents bought me a telescope and I frustrated the librarians of the Franklin Township Public Library by repeatedly checking out the same book over and over again, The Nine Planets by Franklyn Mansfield Branley. It was my introduction to science.

I never learned about the Germinid meteor shower in any of my schooling. Instead, I learned about it and about meteor showers in general through Isaac Asimov’s science essays that appeared monthly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first of Asimov’s science essays appeared in the November 1958 issue (of which I happen to posses a copy).


Those monthly science columns continued unabated for 399 consecutive months. (And eventually, Isaac’s wife, Janet, put together a 400th column after his death.) The essays were collected in more than two dozen books. The columns themselves ranged through all realms of science, and occasionally into philosophy and humanities. They were written in Asimov’s familiar colloquial style, making it easy for anyone to approach even arcane subjects. I devoured every one of those essays and it is from those essays that I truly believe that I learned nearly everything I know about science today.

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Just another beautiful morning on Mars

There was no way that I could stay up to watch the dramatic events unfold as the Mars Science Lab‘s rover, Curiosity arrive on Mars. But when I woke up this morning, bleary-eyed, I grabbed my phone and checked Twitter and knew at once that Curiosity had arrived safely. I knew because Twitter looked different. Instead of the usual political commentary; instead of Olympic dramatics, or reports from writer-friends of progress or frustrations with various projects, my entire Twitter feed read like a resounding, stadium-shattering cheer for the Mars Science Lab and for Curiosity.

Once again, we have reached Mars.

Saying it that way makes it seem almost routine, but reaching Mars is anything but. And Curiosity is bigger and packed with more instruments than its predecessors. Shortly after skimming through all of the congratulations and thoughts on the landing, the Little Man came wandering into our room, still only half-awake. “Guess what happened last night?” I said to him.

“What, daddy?”

“A robot landed on Mars.”

“Whoa!” he said.

I explained to him that Mars was another planet and that we sent the robot there to go explore. He asked if it went through outer space on a rocket and I told him that it did. I wasn’t sure how impressed he was by the fact until I dropped him off at school, and he said to his teacher, “A robot landed on Mars!” It is really rather extraordinary to live in times in which you can tell your kids something like that.

Glancing up at the bookshelf next to my desk are scores of issues of Astounding Science Fiction, going back to May 1939. In these issue are stories about space exploration, wars with alien life forms, all kinds of interplanetary adventures that must have seemed so exciting to a twelve-year old–say a kid born in 1927 or so–when he or she flipped through the magazine on the newsstands. The stories read a little dated today but are nonetheless packed with action and adventure–and occasionally some valiant efforts at real science. But the real thing seems so much more exciting. No, we are not fighting wars with aliens (thank goodness). No, there doesn’t appear to be any life on Mars. But we are no longer describing it in terms of just imagination. We’ve been there. We’ve taken pictures and video. We’ve seen the sun rise and set from the surface of the red planet. And I have to think that some of our willingness to make it so stemmed from sense of wonder stirred up inside those twelve year olds reading Astounding.

Astounding sometimes seems like an overly dramatic name for a science fiction magazine (perhaps that’s why the name was changed to Analog in 1960), but not on a morning like today. Curiosity‘s journey to Mars and its dramatic descent through the thin Martian atmosphere to its landing site are perhaps best described as astounding.

It represents exactly what we are capable of when we put our minds to it.

Science literacy

The Christian Science Monitor has a quiz going around that allows you to test your science literacy. The 50-question quiz was not a particularly easy one. It covered a wide range of sciences including biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and mathematics. I took the quiz and ended up answering 43 out of 50 questions correctly. Here are the 7 questions that I got wrong (I won’t tell you the correct answers in case you want to take the quiz yourself):

  • How many nanometers are there in a centimeter? (I was off by 1 order of magnitude.)
  • What is the heaviest noble gas? (I should have known this one.)
  • Named for the 19th century English physicist, what unit of measurement is defined as the energy exerted by the force of one newton acting to move an object through a distance of one meter. (I mistook the nationality of the scientist I selected.)
  • If you were to apply a net force of one Newton on a 200 gram object, what would be the acceleration of the object? (Forgot the formula.)
  • Geologists categorize rocks into three types: Igneous, sedimentary, and what? (Guessed.)
  • Over half the world’s supply of what element, which gets its name from the epithet of the Greek goddess Athena, is used in catalytic converters. (In hindsight, I should have known this based on the Greek epithet hint alone.)
  • In quantum mechanics, the physical constant used to describe the size of quanta–denoted as h–is named after what German physicist.

Overall, however, 43 out of 50 isn’t too bad for someone without a degree in a physical or biological science. It amounts to an 86%, or a solid B. That I could manage a solid B in science literacy without having majored in a science is due to three things, I think:

  1. A good science foundation in high school. I took AP biology and AP physics in high school. I took the standard chemistry course. That AP physics course was taught by an outstanding teacher, Dr. Goldman. It was my first introduction to physics and it left a real impression on me.
  2. Isaac Asimov’s science essays. After graduating from college, I gradually made my way through all 399 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) from 1958 through his death in 1992. These essays taught me science in a way that I never learned it in high school or college–from a cumulative, historical perspective. This perspective made many of the concepts much easier to understand because you always started at the beginning, when nobody knew anything about a subject. You could also see the mistakes scientists made along the way and how they recognized them as such and corrected them. I was able to answer a good number of the questions on the quiz because I’d read Asimov’s essays.
  3. Keeping up with science through magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, and Discover. Science is constantly evolving and there is no way for any one person to keep up with all of it. But my intent in reading these magazines (aside from the enjoyment I get from them) is to do my best to stay current with the trends and discoveries in all branches of science.

I wonder what the average score on the science literacy test is, but I am almost afraid to ask. I fear that an number I chose that seemed sufficiently low, would turn out to be not low enough.

Promoting science: where is the next Asimov, Sagan and Gardner?

With the 2012 Presidential campaigns moving into high gear, we find that science is once again under attack. There are a few voices out there making attempts to defend science. There are people calling the Republican candidates anti-science, and the Republican party the party of anti-science. But science is not Republican or Democrat. Science policy might need defending, but science is science. As I see it, two things are needed in our current political environment:

  1. Science needs vigorous promotion
  2. Pseudoscience needs vigorous denouncing

For many decades we had three champions of science here in the United States:

Isaac Asimov is well-known as a science fiction writer. He was also a professor of biochemistry and from the early 1950s to his death in 1992, he wrote hundreds of book and thousands of essay on science. He made all kinds of appearances in support of science and science eduction. And several of his books and many of his essays vigorously denounced pseudoscience. He made science easy for anyone to understand (including me) and made a clear distinction between science and pseudoscience. He loved the former and would not tolerate the latter.

Carl Sagan was perhaps the most recognizable astronomer in the second half of the Twentieth century. He wrote some extraordinary books on science including Cosmos, on which the TV series was based, and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Dragons of Eden. He also wrote books debunking pseudoscience like his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

Martin Gardner wrote the Mathematical Recreations column for Scientific American for 25 years. He also wrote numerous books shining a light onto pseudoscience and exposing its follies.

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Writing science fiction as a non-scientist

Unlike many of my science fiction-writing friends, I am not a scientist by trade or by training. I don’t think you have to be a scientist to be a science fiction writer, but I do think you have to have a good understanding of the science that underlies the stories that you write. Not all science fiction stories have a scientific grounding (there are “soft” and “social” science fiction stories, for instance) but for those that do, an effort has to be made make that science feel like a legitimate part of the story. That is what I try to do with my own stories.

Not being a trained scientist, I work at a disadvantage, particularly for the types of stories that I write, which generally involve some type of hard science fiction. Hard SF stories are those in which the science is based on our understanding of the universe today, but allowing for an important assumption. For example, a story that involved interplanetary space travel might assume a propulsion technology that we don’t have today (an antimatter drive?) but all of the other science would be based on what we know. Inhabitants of such a ship would still have to content with living in a reduced gravity environment. Trips between the planets would be very long. Solar radiation would present a hazard. Incorporating these things into a science fiction story helps to give it a feeling of verisimilitude, but they can also help raise plot problems and make the stories more interesting. But doing so also requires a basic understanding of the science involved and for a non-scientist, that can be a daunting task.

Despite being a non-scientist, I have always been fascinated by science. I took AP science classes in high school (biology and physics; I took regular chemistry) and I took some additional science classes in college (when I thought I would be a physics major). But my biggest lessons about science, scientific method and the evoluti0n of our knowledge of the universe came from reading Isaac Asimov’s science essays.

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The Universe: Season 1

I finished watching Season 1 of the History Channel series The Universe a few days ago and I enjoyed it for the most part. The episodes were interesting and the computer graphics helped to illustrate concepts that might not otherwise be clear to a layperson. As a popular program on science, it does a good job. I think my favorite part of the show was seeing all of the scientists interviewed in each episode. I think there is a lot of value to hear about astronomy and physics and biology and chemistry from the people who actually do it and the scientists interviewed (some of them quite famous) seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

If I had one criticism of the show, it was that there was too much anthropomorphism in the writing. Galaxies were waging violent battles with one another. Black holes were swallowing matter as if they were living being with a consciousness. Ever present gravity always seemed to be “lurking” like some hidden beast, just out of sight. I understand the need for dramatics in a show on science, but it has been my experience that astronomy and astrophysics is exciting in its own right. It doesn’t need to be puffed up into something with humanlike characteristics. Toning down the writing in parts of the show might make it feel a bit more natural.

That said, the show is currently in its fifth season so it must be doing something right. At the time of this writing (last night) I am about to watch the first episode of the 18-episode second season.

And there is another positive side-effect of the show, from a science fiction writer’s perspective: from the first fourteen episodes, I got one solid story idea.

On black holes and WordPress

One of the cool things about being a science fiction writer is the cool stuff you learn in the name of “research.” I’ve been doing a lot of reading up on black holes, in particular, “subatomic” black holes and it is a fascinating subject. Some of what I have been reading are academic papers, which can be mathematically dense at times, often going well beyond my meager abilities to differentiate and integrate, but by reading some secondary sources, I’m beginning to get the drift and some of this stuff is actually starting to make sense. What’s more, the story for which I am doing the research hinges in part on the properties of these special black holes, and some of what I learned today helps make for an interesting plot problem.

Related to this (as you will see in a moment) is that fact that one of the new features of WordPress 3.1 is that it supports LaTeX. Non-geek friends will most certainly make plenty of jokes about LaTex, but LaTex is actually a really cool markup language that evolved from TeX and allows for the rendering of arbitrarily complex mathematical formulas. Back in the day, I used to write up my calculus lecture notes in LaTex because I could render all the equations and their intermediary states. Combing this functionality with what I’ve been learning about black holes, I could tell you for instance, that for a black hole with a mass M, its effective radius, R is

R = \frac{2GM}{c^2}

Isn’t that just the coolest thing ever? I’m so impressed that WordPress now includes this capability. I could go on and tell you that the temperature T of a black hole with an effective radius R is

T = \frac{hc}{4\pi kR'}

Of course, I can render any arbitrarily complex equation with relative ease using LaTeX’s markup language directly in WordPress, but you get the point. I’ve been taking lots of notes on these black holes, incidentally, and if I can validate my understanding of these properties with some friends with backgrounds in physics, then I think I’ll have the foundation for a pretty good hard SF story. Stay tuned.

I have discovered the Universe

I’m talking, of course, about the History Channel series that apparently started in 2007. I bought the first season and watched the first episode, about the Sun last night before bed and it was fantastic. I enjoyed it so much that I was a little sad that there were only 14 episodes. But then I discovered that there are 5 seasons and somewhere between 60-70 episodes. This makes me very happy and you can bet I will have more to say on the program once I’ve seen more of it.


Finally caught up on science news!

New Scientist.jpg

I have been behind on my science reading since late last year. In part this has been due to other demands on my time. My Vacation in the Golden Age has crowded out most of my other reading, for instance, including keeping up with my science magazines. But over the weekend, I glanced at the stack of more than a dozen accumulated issues of New Scientist and Scientific American and decided that something had to be done about it. I knew there was no way I could read each issue cover-to-cover the way I used to. So what I did was this:

I went through the table of contents for each issue, and checked off one or two feature articles that caught my eye. I then paged quickly through the issue and looked for any short news or opinion items that I might be interested in and marked those off. I did this for each of the issues that had piled up. Then I turned back to the first issue in the pile and read only those items that I had checked off. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

At lunch today, I finished going through the April 2011 Scientific American and as of this moment, I am completely caught up.

I imagine this won’t last very long. I suspect I’ll get home to find the April 2 issue of New Scientist in my mailbox. I’m afraid that for the duration, I’ll have to continue using this technique to “keep up” because I have too many other commitments. To some extent, this is unfortunate. I am not necessarily interested in every article in every issue, but reading them cover to cover forces me to learn things that I might not otherwise learn–about medicine, or biochemistry for instance. In weeding out articles, I tend to weed these out first which gives me an unbalanced view of all of the physical sciences, but that’s just something I have to live with for a while.

As it turned out, there were several interesting articles that I did read and I was glad I did. For instance:

I should mention that I subscribe to both these magazines and have access to their online content. If you click on the above links you may be limited by a pay-wall.