June 24, 2009

1. Asimov

Isaac Asimov is best known for his science fiction, such as The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation); this trilogy has been called the best science fiction ever written. It deals with a dying civilization (Asimov said he drew on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), and an attempt to preserve key elements of this civilization, so it could be resurrected. It raises questions like, What is civilization? What are the key elements of a civilization? What would you preserve from our civilization if you could only preserve a few things? While these questions may pertain to the humanities, the focus of The Foundation Trilogy is doubtless the sciences (Asimov’s science fiction is classified as “hard science fiction”).

The first novel in the trilogy, Foundation, was originally a series of short stories that Asimov published in a science-fiction magazine. He began writing these stories when he was 21 (he published his first short story when he was 19). By the time he was 22, Asimov had published more than 30 stories. Perhaps his most famous story, written when he was 21, is “Nightfall,” which is often called the best science-fiction short story ever written.1

Asimov also wrote many non-fiction books about science, such as A Short History of Biology and Asimov’s New Guide To Science. Asimov’s writing is clear and readable; he makes science interesting, without sugar-coating it with loads of anecdotes. Asimov wrote many books for young readers. He also wrote many historical works, such as The Greeks and The Shaping of North America; some of his historical works are suitable for young readers.

I recently read Asimov’s Short History of Chemistry. Excellent. Asimov brings us along on a serious pursuit of truth, and makes this pursuit enjoyable. Today’s books, like Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, seem to be more interested in amusing anecdotes than truth. Do we now insist that truth must be entertaining, must be sugar-coated with anecdotes? Do we respect truth now as it was respected fifty years ago, when Asimov was writing?

Asimov doesn’t just give us the answers, he brings us back to a time when the answers weren’t yet known. He makes skillful use of rhetorical questions:

The increasing interest from 1650 onward in the possibility of turning fire to new uses and, by way of the steam engine, making it do the heavy work of the world, brought to chemists a new awareness of fire. Why do some things burn and others not? What is the nature of combustion?2

Asimov calls combustion “the great chemical problem of the eighteenth century.”3 Around 1700, a German chemist named Stahl said that wood, and other flammable things, contained what he called “phlogiston.” The word “phlogiston” is from the Greek meaning “to set on fire.”4 Mind you, no one had seen phlogiston, or measured it, it was just a word, but The Phlogiston Theory filled a hole in chemistry, and explained various phenomena, so it gained wide acceptance. One couldn’t write a chemistry textbook without mentioning phlogiston on almost every page. Who could possibly doubt the existence of phlogiston? Even leading scientists of a later generation, like Cavendish and Priestley, accepted Stahl’s Phlogiston Theory.

The Phlogiston Theory was discredited around 1800 by Lavoisier, but in the literary world, a similar theory is very much alive. The Stratford Theory is embedded in English Departments as The Phlogiston Theory was embedded in scientific thinking. Many books have been written about The Stratford Theory, and many renowned professors have spent their careers studying it. Nothing is known about the Stratford man that would connect him with Hamlet or Macbeth, but he lives on nonetheless, he’s mentioned in every textbook. The world’s greatest poet, Mr. Phlogiston.

Asimov knows that history is embedded in language, that words reveal how people once thought; he has a keen interest in etymology. He tells us that the word “gas” comes from the Greek word “chaos,” since gases reminded an early scientist (the Flemish scientist Van Helmont) of “the original material, unshaped and unordered, out of which the Universe (according to Greek myth) was created.”5 The word “hydrogen” was coined by the French chemist Lavoisier; it means “water-producer.”6 (Imagine the thrill of being the first person to discover the nature of water — to discover that water isn’t an element, but rather a combination of oxygen and hydrogen!)

Asimov tells us the origin of the name Paracelsus: A Swiss alchemist-doctor, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, decided that he knew more about medicine than the famous Roman writer, Celsus, so he dubbed himself “Para Celsus,” meaning “beyond Celsus.”7 Asimov discusses a later alchemist, Libavius, who made a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. Since this mixture was capable of dissolving gold, it was called aqua regia, “royal water.”8

The ancients had difficulty isolating gases, and called all of them “air”. But they did manage to identify some metals, and alchemists matched metals with planets:


This sort of matching is part of the broader Hermetic view that everything in the universe is inter-connected — there are “matches,” affinities, throughout the universe. As sun is matched with gold, so king is matched with both, hence Shakespeare uses sun and gold as king-symbols. Joyce’s Ulysses contains numerous “matches” or connections, but for Joyce, such matches were merely literary decoration, not an attempt to capture reality itself.

Though I enjoyed Asimov’s Short History of Chemistry, I can’t recommend it without qualification. Since it was written in 1965, it no longer represents current thinking. For example, it credits Thomas Midgley with developing Freon and other CFCs, and says nothing about their harmful effects on the environment. Instead of Asimov’s Short History of Chemistry, you might try Asimov on Chemistry, which is more up-to-date. The history of any science must be continually updated. Perhaps we need an Asimov for our time.

When I finished Asimov’s Short History, I started Asimov’s New Guide to Science, which is much longer, more comprehensive, and more up-to-date, hence I can recommend it without qualification. It deals with the biological sciences as well as the physical sciences; one might describe it as a review of all the sciences, intended for the general reader. It was published in 1984; it’s a revised version of The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, which was published in 1960. Since science has developed since 1984, perhaps the book should be revised and re-published yet again (if Asimov’s heirs would allow that).

Not surprisingly, Asimov is a hard-headed scientist, a blockhead rationalist, blind to the occult, blind to the non-rational. He uses “mystical” as a pejorative term. The Greek city of Alexandria is the birthplace of much Gnostic and Hermetic writing. Asimov laments the fusion of Greek and Egyptian culture, the fusion of religious and scientific thinking: “The old Ionian philosophers had divorced religion and science. This new union in Egypt seriously interfered with further advance in knowledge.”9 So in Asimov’s view, the Hermetic tradition is nothing but error and superstition. Asimov is unaware of the psychological aspect of alchemy, and regards alchemy as immature chemistry. And he may be unaware of the “quantum occult” — that is, The Case of Paired Particles. (There’s a good description of the quantum occult in Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything.) Is it possible that a future Asimov will write about science in a way that respects the occult dimension?

Asimov has a certain aversion for what he calls “fringe theories.” As a famous science writer, he was probably bombarded by people who thought they had made scientific breakthroughs, and accused him of resisting new ideas. In his New Guide to Science, Asimov admits that, in an earlier edition of the book, he dismissed Wegener’s theory of continental drift. Asimov says that proponents of fringe theories point to Wegener’s theory, and say “Look! An important breakthrough rejected by the establishment!” Asimov insists that it was proper to dismiss Wegener’s theory when he did so. In my view, the evidence for a new theory is often scanty, or at least ambiguous. One must smell the truth, intuit the truth, and Asimov failed to do that in the case of Wegener’s theory. Instead of admitting his blind spot, Asimov petulantly insists that he was right.

Do Asimov’s books have any bearing on philosophy? Much as I enjoyed Asimov’s Short History of Chemistry, it doesn’t have the sort of direct relevance to philosophy that quantum physics has. The history of chemistry may help one to understand physics, and science in general, and the universe in general. And it’s interesting as intellectual history — where new ideas come from, how they gain acceptance, etc. But it doesn’t bring us to the cutting edge of philosophy — the mystery edge, the occult edge — as quantum physics does. And if the occult is part of our worldview (as it is for me), chemistry doesn’t prompt us to question our worldview; in short, chemistry neither confirms our worldview (as quantum physics does), nor disturbs it. It may, however, help us to understand why many scientists (including Asimov) reject the occult out of hand; chemistry seems to offer solid knowledge, compared to which the occult might seem vague, obscure, superstitious.

As for Asimov’s New Guide to Science, it begins by discussing astronomy, and this may have more relevance to philosophy than chemistry. Astronomy seems to lead us away from monotheism, away from traditional religion. The traditional view of the universe was that it was made by a Creator, a rational being, and therefore it must have been made for a reason (see our Lovejoy discussion). According to this view, planets and stars were probably populated, otherwise they wouldn’t exist — there would be no reason for them to exist.

Modern astronomy, however, argues that stars exist in enormous numbers, and in general they’re uninhabited — indeed, they seem profoundly hostile to life. Most stars have temperatures and pressures in which life couldn’t last a moment. Our worst nightmares about Hell can’t compare to the inhospitable environments that modern astronomy describes. Again, this may help us to understand the mind-set that most scientists have — may help us to understand why most scientists are atheists. But it doesn’t affect what I call The Philosophy of Today, since this philosophy has already broken with traditional monotheism. As for the occult, non-rational aspect of The Philosophy of Today, astronomy has no more relevance here than chemistry has; astronomy neither confirms our worldview, nor disturbs it.

2. Other Sci-Fi Writers

Asimov dedicates A Short History of Chemistry “To Catherine and Sprague de Camp who in twenty-five years have not aged a day.” This was written in 1965, and it seems that the de Camps did indeed age slowly: they both died in 2000, at the age of 92.

Doubtless the de Camps shared Asimov’s blockhead rationalism; Wikipedia describes Sprague de Camp as a materialist. Like Asimov, the de Camps were equally fond of hard facts and wild fantasies, and like Asimov, they were prolific science-fiction writers. Sprague de Camp also wrote non-fiction, such as The Ancient Engineers, which Wikipedia calls “an exhaustive account of practical science through the ages prior to the modern era.” And he wrote historical fiction, such as The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate, which draws on his knowledge of ancient engineering, and tries to be historically accurate. The de Camps wrote a biography of fantasy writer Robert E. Howard, and drew on Howard’s work to create books like Conan the Adventurer.

Asimov tells us that half the moon is always turned away from the earth. But when rockets began exploring the moon, this “other side” became known. In 1970, craters and other features on this side were given names. One crater was named after Hugo Gernsback, a publisher of science-fiction magazines (in his honor, awards for science-fiction books are called “Hugos”, as awards for mysteries are called “Edgars” in honor of Edgar Allan Poe). Another crater was named after Willy Ley, who wrote about rockets and other scientific topics; according to Wikipedia, several of Ley’s books are “regarded as classics of popular science.” One of Ley’s books is Watchers of the Sky: an Informal History of Astronomy From Babylon to the Space Age.

Asimov has been called one of the science-fiction Big Three, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. Clarke was born and raised in England, but spent much of his adult life in Sri Lanka, to which his love of scuba diving drew him. Clarke is best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is both a novel and a movie; he’s also known as the host of science shows on British TV. Among Clarke’s most admired novels are Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama. In his fiction, Clarke speculates about the evolution of a higher race, as a result of contact with an advanced, alien civilization. Clarke also wrote some non-fiction books, such as The Promise of Space. Clarke was interested in Buddhism, and in the paranormal (though Wikipedia assures us that “he eventually dismissed... nearly all pseudoscience”!).

Robert Heinlein is a giant in the sci-fi world, praised for his scientific knowledge, his literary ability, and his innovative ideas. Heinlein grew up in Missouri, and spent most of his adult life in California. Older than Clarke and Asimov, he was the first to explore many sci-fi themes. Among his best-known works are Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough For Love. Heinlein was a nudist and an advocate of free love; his work was popular with the hippies of the 1960s. He was a pioneer of social science fiction, which mixed social theories with hard science. His libertarian thinking and his critical attitude toward organized religion remind one of Ayn Rand. According to Wikipedia, Heinlein had a knack for anticipating the impact of technology on society; he “foresaw Interstate Highways (The Roads Must Roll), concern over nuclear power generation (Blowups Happen), international nuclear stalemate (Solution Unsatisfactory — i.e., the Cold War) as well as numerous other lesser examples.” Heinlein wrote many books for young readers. Some American astronauts read Heinlein as youngsters, and quoted him when they were on the moon.

Ray Bradbury was a prolific writer of fantasy, science fiction, etc. Among his best-known works are Fahrenheit 451 (described as a “dystopian novel”), The Martian Chronicles (a series of short stories woven into a novel), and Dandelion Wine (a fictionalized account of Bradbury’s childhood in Illinois). All three of these novels were published in the 1950s. Bradbury didn’t attend college; he said,

Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities.... When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.

3. Robert Goddard, Rocket Man

In his New Guide to Science, Asimov discusses Robert Goddard. Goddard was born, raised, and educated in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in 1926, he became the first person to launch a liquid-fueled rocket.

Born in 1882, Goddard had an early interest in kites, balloons, and flying. He recorded his experiments in a diary (Asimov also kept a diary, which proved useful to him when he wrote his autobiography). When he was 16, Goddard read H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and became interested in space travel (later, when Goddard became widely known as a rocket experimenter, he communicated with Wells). Soon after reading Wells’ book, Goddard had a “mystical moment,” which he later described thus:

On the afternoon of October 19, 1899, I climbed a tall cherry tree and, armed with a saw which I still have, and a hatchet, started to trim the dead limbs from the cherry tree. It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked towards the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars. I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended for existence at last seemed very purposive.

For the rest of his life, he observed October 19 as “Anniversary Day.” Perhaps Goddard had an intuition, a glimpse of the future; perhaps he anticipated that he would be a space pioneer.

Goddard was a sickly boy, and often missed school. He fell several years behind his classmates, and didn’t graduate from high school until he was 22. But he read lots of science books in his spare time, and he graduated first in his class. In his valedictory speech, he seemed to anticipate his future: “It is difficult to say what is impossible. It has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.”

After graduating from high school, Goddard attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). In 1909, Goddard started writing about liquid-fueled rockets (rockets fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen). Goddard pretended that his rockets were intended to study the atmosphere, since space flight was laughed at. In 1914, Goddard received a patent for a multi-stage rocket, and another patent for a rocket fueled by gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide.

The principle underlying rocket science is Newton’s old principle of Action and Reaction: if a rocket expels material from behind, it will move forward. The question for rocket pioneers was, Would this principle work in the vacuum of space? In 1915, Goddard proved that a rocket not only would work in a vacuum, it would work better there than it would in Earth’s heavy atmosphere.

During World War I, Goddard worked for the Army, and developed a rocket weapon; he demonstrated this weapon two days before the war ended. The weapon, which became known as the bazooka, was used in World War II (the Russians used a rocket weapon called the Katyusha, and the Germans fired the so-called V-2 rockets at London).

In 1919, Goddard published A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. In this book, he described solid-fuel rockets (rockets that burned nitrocellulose), and he mentioned the possibility of sending an un-manned rocket to the moon. If a rocket were filled with powder that would ignite on impact, Goddard reasoned, and if it were flown into the dark part of a new moon, the flash would be visible from Earth through a powerful telescope, and it would be proven that the rocket had reached the moon.

Goddard’s book was widely publicized and widely ridiculed. The New York Times said that Goddard “does not know of the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react.” Goddard, the Times concluded, “only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” To which Goddard calmly replied, “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.”

Not everyone was laughing: German and Russian scientists were listening and learning. As the years passed, and war clouds began gathering on the horizon, Goddard became increasingly secretive, increasingly aware that his discoveries could fall into the wrong hands.

Even without the help of Goddard’s book, German and Russian scientists would doubtless have made progress in rocket science; it was a science whose time had come.

After one of Goddard’s test flights, a Worcester newspaper carried the headline, “Moon rocket misses target by 238,799 1/2 miles.” But Goddard’s critics eventually had to eat their words. On July 17, 1969, the day after the launch of Apollo 11, the New York Times published a correction of its earlier piece: “Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

In 1926, Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. He wrote in his diary, “The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie’s farm.” The rocket flew for 2.5 seconds, and reached an altitude of 41 feet.

Meanwhile, Charles Lindbergh had been thinking about rockets, and in 1929, when he heard about Goddard’s experiments, Lindbergh went to Worcester to talk with him. Thus began a partnership that lasted the rest of Goddard’s life. When Goddard needed money for his experiments, Lindbergh was able to get it from the Guggenheim family.

In 1930, Goddard moved to New Mexico, which offered more space and privacy for test flights than Massachusetts. He tried to interest the Army in his rockets, but to no avail. By 1939, his rockets reached an altitude of 2.7 km, the highest they ever attained. Goddard died in 1945, just when the U.S. and Russia began large-scale rocket programs. He was buried in Worcester, where he had once dreamed of reaching Mars.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. “Nightfall” can be found in various anthologies, including Nightfall and Other Stories, and The Complete Stories Vol. 1 (both by Asimov). In 1990, Asimov expanded “Nightfall” into a novel, with help from Robert Silverberg. back
2. Ch. 3, “Phlogiston” back
3. Ch. 4, “The Triumph of Measurement” back
4. Ch. 3, “Phlogiston” back
5. Ch. 3, “Measurement” back
6. Ch. 4, “Combustion” back
7. Ch. 2, “The End of Alchemy” back
8. Ch. 2, “The End of Alchemy” back
9. Ch. 2, “Alexandria” back