From Aborigines to Zircons: Science Facts by the Asimovs

Article excerpt

SCIENCE doesn't sit still, and neither did Isaac Asimov. During his 72 years on this planet, Asimov published nearly 500 books of science fiction and science fact, with everything from instructions on how to use the slide rule to Bible criticism. On a good day, Asimov could produce 3,000 words of finished prose. But despite his frenetic pace, nearly everything that Asimov wrote was a polished gem: clear and concise, easy to understand, and a good story to boot.

Asimov's last book, "Frontiers II: More Recent Discoveries About Life, Earth, Space, and the Universe," is a collection of his weekly science columns distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. In its pages are reports sent back from the edge of human exploration - tales of research that is happening right now and approachable explanations of why scientists do what they do, all told by one of the world's masters of science storytelling.

The power of these stories is that they show science as a process, rather than as a sequence of finished results. On more than one occasion, Asimov writes about mistakes that have been corrected, formerly accepted "facts" that have been found untrue, and theories that have gone out of vogue - sometimes to return again with more force. Taken together, these columns paint a picture of humanity slowly discovering more about itself, its past and its future.

Readers of Asimov's weekly column never knew what to expect: biology, geology, anthropology, chemistry, space science, or computers - Asimov made everything understandable.

"Saturn's rings are the most beautiful objects in the solar system," he writes of that planet's slowly vanishing rings. "While the other outer planets have rings, those that Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune possess are thin, dark, and unimportant in appearance. Saturn's rings are large, bright, and glorious."

In this book, Asimov also explains how scientists have been able to make diamonds that are harder than those made by nature, describes how anthropologists date findings at archaeological digs, and lays waste to the notion that somebody might grow rich one day by figuring out how to extract gold from seawater (two Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemists discovered that there simply isn't enough). …