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Book Title: Asimov's New Guide To Science|
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 872 KB
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The author of the book: Isaac Asimov
Edition: Basic Books (NY)
Date of issue: October 1st 1985
ISBN 13: 9780465004737
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Reader ratings: 4.8
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I was a biological secret weapon, or, what did you do in the Cold War Daddy?
It occurred to me yesterday that, while still a teen, I acted as a guinea-pig in two large social engineering experiments. One of them started when I was about 14, and was concerned with chess. Paul was asking the other day, apropos a Kasparov review, what would have happened if other countries had tried to organise a chess infrastructure similar to the one the Soviet Union built up, and systematically nurtured young talents. In fact, this is exactly what Leonard Barden tried to do between about 1970 and 1980. He studied the Soviet model, and copied it to the best of his ability; there were regular training weekends in London, where all the top British junior players took part. We played a six-round tournament, and between the games you got free coaching from International Master level players. (In those days, an International Master title was worth something; now, if you aren't a Grandmaster you aren't anything). There were lists on the walls, written in green marker pen, showing the top players in each age bracket. After a while, we noticed a young Azerbaijani called Kasparov, who was working his way up the ladder with incredible speed. Even at age 10, he was already on our radar.
Barden was a strange, shy, nerdy kind of person, and we all laughed at him behind his back, but I have to give him credit: the program was a stunning success, and made Britain one of the top chess countries throughout the 80s and early 90s. In 1986, England took silver in the Chess Olympiad (the world team championship), and had an excellent shot at gold. Then, in 1993, Nigel Short played Kasparov for the world title. He got creamed, but it was the first time in more than a century that a British player had reached the final.
Before I ever got seriously interested in chess, though, I realise now that I was part of another experiment. This time, the key person was Isaac Asimov, like Barden a strange, geeky guy who simply refused to acknowledge what he was up against. In 1957, Asimov was one of the US's most successful science-fiction writers; he'd abandoned a promising career in biochemistry to devote himself to writing SF, and was making more from that than he ever had as an academic. Then Sputnik happened. Asimov saw what he regarded as proof that the US was falling behind in the science race, and decided it was his patriotic duty to help. You could view it as a mild version of Ayn Rand syndrome; Asimov was also born in the Soviet Union and moved to the US, but he did it much younger than Rand, and his hatred for all things Communist was correspondingly less vitriolic. Instead of writing Atlas Shrugged, he decided that he would help educate the next generation of American scientists. He had a simple and effective strategy: he knew about science, and he was a good writer, so he'd use his skills to make science accessible and exciting to young hopefuls.
I think he did a good job. I discovered his books around age 9 and I just devoured them, both the science-fiction and the popular science. The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science was one of my favourites, and I read it two or three times. The book has many things that a geeky, precocious kid is going to find seriously cool: for example, he tells you what "E = mc2" means, and gives you a reasonable explanation of how to derive the formula. I loved that. But, in retrospect, the most important thing was the way he described the history of science, and how scientific method works. I still vividly recall how impressed I was by his explanation of the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, probably the most important experiment done in physics since Newton. If you don't know about it, Michelson and Morley had a clever idea: they would measure the Earth's velocity through space by comparing how quickly light travels in different directions. When light is being beamed in the direction the Earth is moving, its speed should be different from when it's being beamed in the opposite direction. They set up instruments ingeniously calibrated to be able to measure the tiny differences, but came to a shocking conclusion: light always travels at exactly the same speed, regardless of direction. It made no sense, but they were honest enough to report their "failure", and it led directly to Einstein's theory of relativity. I wanted to get involved in this story too, and I'm sure Asimov helped nudge me into a scientific career
Putting it together, I am kind of shocked that two weird geeks, Barden and Asimov, were able to recruit me and thousands of other impressionable kids in their bizarre schemes. I must admit that, personally, I didn't turn out to be a very good cold warrior. In chess, I played three top Russians, and lost all three games; at least my loss against former World Champion Smyslov was interesting enough that you'll find it on the Web if you look around. In science, I did end up doing something moderately cool for NASA, but by then the cold war was over, and the US and Russian space programs had merged.
However, other people in my cohort were much more successful; basically, I would say that both programs worked, and, if you want to change the world, there's a lesson in this story. Barden and Asimov had very limited resources, but they used them imaginatively and made a difference. The key idea is well-known, but no less effective for that: get them when they're young.
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Read information about the authorIsaac Asimov was a Russian-born, American author, a professor of biochemistry, and a highly successful writer, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.
Professor Asimov is generally considered one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. He has works published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System (lacking only an entry in the 100s category of Philosophy).
Asimov is widely considered a master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered one of the "Big Three" science-fiction writers during his lifetime. Asimov's most famous work is the Foundation Series; his other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series, both of which he later tied into the same fictional universe as the Foundation Series to create a unified "future history" for his stories much like those pioneered by Robert A. Heinlein and previously produced by Cordwainer Smith and Poul Anderson. He penned numerous short stories, among them "Nightfall", which in 1964 was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America the best short science fiction story of all time, a title many still honor. He also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as a great amount of nonfiction. Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels using the pen name Paul French.
Most of Asimov's popularized science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms. Examples include his Guide to Science, the three volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery.
Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs" He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association. The asteroid 5020 Asimov, the magazine Asimov's Science Fiction, a Brooklyn, NY elementary school, and two different Isaac Asimov Awards are named in his honor.
Isaac Asimov. (2007, November 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:50, November 29, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_As...
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