Following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, Russian-born American Isaac Asimov (1920 — 1992) turned from focusing on fiction to a lengthy and extremely diverse series of non-fiction works. To quote Wikipedia, “Asimov’s books span all major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification except for category 100, philosophy and psychology” (and he had essays and introductions that ventured into category 100).
As I once pointed out, this prodigious and sustained output of non-fiction for the layperson gives Asimov a leg up over Heinlein in the endless war for shelf-space at local libraries: Asimov’s non-fiction is far more likely to be deemed worthy of keeping than aging SF novels and indeed, if one checks, Kitchener Public Library has 20 Heinlein books in their catalog (actually 19, because they list the execrable Spider Robinson novel Variable Star as a Heinlein) to 71 works by Asimov. Over at Waterloo Public Library, we see 34 Heinlein (as author) entries to 81 for Asimov. Asimov might have cared more about his rival Clarke’s numbers: Clarke gets 44 entries at KPL and 38 at WPL.
Part of this effort involved the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for whom he penned 399 essays on various subjects between 1958 and 1992. From time to time, he would collect and publish these essays, ultimately publishing almost two dozen F&SF Essay Collections. The Planet That Wasn’t is the 12th such collection, almost exactly mid-way through the series.
I admit I approached this book with a little trepidation because as recent online conversations have illuminated, Asimov was the sort of Big Name Author who was quite keen on exploiting his supposed prerogatives regarding women unfortunate enough to pass into his view at cons, disinterested in demonstrating the slightest bit of self-control in this matter and seemingly incapable of any perception the women might want a say in whether they got mauled by him. That he was facilitated in this behavior by fawning acolytes does not excuse him. As it turns out, this was a lot less egregiously sexist than I had feared it could be and there’s even one or two essays that hint if he’d sat back and thought about what he was doing, he could have seen that it was wrong, which I guess just makes his serial groping of women that much worse.
Asimov’s prose in this is straight-forward and easy to follow; interestingly (at least to me), he often goes out of his way to underline areas of uncertainty at the time of writing. My one gripe is that Discus didn’t see fit to include an index, although I seem to recall these collections were not big earners for them or their parent company and perhaps the extra cost wasn’t seen as worthwhile.
[added later, after I fixed the title] Whoever did the back cover copy of this was a bit confused about their Big Moons of the Solar System because they call Titan a Jovian satellite. Ah, well. I wonder what Asimov thought?
I am pretty sure this is very much out of print.
Comments on individual essays follow.
Brief and to the point, this outlines the strategy he used in arranging the essays: from least controversial to most.
The Planet That Wasn’t
Asimov uses the suggestion that parallels between the way Saturn’s rings appear and disappear from the perspective of Earth and the myths about the god Saturn suggest the ancients knew about Saturn’s rings – parallels Asimov sees as a meaningless coincidence – to launch to a discuss of the hypothetical planet Vulcan, invoked to make Mercury’s orbital dynamics work out correctly in the Newtonian model. Einstein’s new models rendered Vulcan unnecessary, which is handy because Vulcan does not appear to exist at all.
The Olympian Snows
Asimov begins with a complaint about how Clarke big-footed the title Asimov wanted to use for this essay and then launches into a discussion of the process of mapping Mars, for a long time the only other planet in the Solar System humans on Earth could hope to map (The Moon had been mapped but the Moon is not a planet).
At the time of printing, space probes had provided more detailed maps of the Moon, Mercury and Mars, with Venus relegated to radar mapping due to its clouds. Pioneer 10 had just provided a fuzzy image of Ganymede, one of two moons of Jupiter known in the early 1970s to be icy in nature.
Science marches ever onwards: we now have detailed maps of many bodies orbiting our sun and even rudimentary maps of worlds orbiting other suns.
Following revelations about Jupiter that make an earlier essay of his obsolete, Asimov sorts the various bodies of the Solar System into classes based on multiples of the Moon’s mass. He notes an odd gap between 1000M and 100M, which possibly due to 100M being large enough to trigger runaway accretion up to Ice Giant masses (or, as it turns out, lack of information; there are exoplanets in that mass range).
He settles on Titan as the most promising possible abode of life, largely due to its atmosphere and likely supply of complex organic molecules.
He also speculates that the surface could prove invisible due to thick orange clouds, which as we all know turned out to be the case.
Interestingly there seem to be no hint that Titan could have a large supply of nitrogen. I hate to admit to ignorance here but does peering out through a dense soup of N2 make it harder to detect nitrogen elsewhere?
The Wrong Turning
Starting with a model of stellar and planetary formation that has lesser bodies being formed from a central bulge of a coalescing central mass, Asimov looks at the various planets and their moons to see how they fit this model. Aside from bodies believed to be captured worlds, most of the moons seem to fit. Four exceptions are Hyperion, which Asimov dismisses because it almost fits, our Moon, which he believes was captured, Iapetus, which as he points out is an odd duck in many ways and the great moon of Neptune, Triton. Triton is particularly perplexing to Asimov because it does not seem to fit the characteristics of either a captured body or one that formed in orbit around its parent world.
Currently our Moon is thought to have formed from debris cast off the Earth following a titanic collision, while Triton seems almost certainly to be a large Kuiper Belt object akin to Pluto that Neptune managed to snaffle up during its peregrinations through the outer Solar System.
The Bridge of the Gods
A discussion of rainbows leads into a discussion of the history of the study of refraction, with a digression into the Hooke (for whom Asimov has sharp words) and Newton ( for whom Asimov has different sharp words) slap-fight.
The Third Liquid
Asimov expounds on the history and properties of the alkali metals.
A discussion of cholesterol, and its health effects as they were understood in the early 1970s. Asimov uses his wife Janet’s concern over his diet to provide a humorous frame for the article, the humor is undermined somewhat if one knows Asimov would have a heart attack in 1977 and that the bypass surgery he had in 1983 would leave him infected with the HIV whose complications eventually killed him in 1992.
The Smell of Electricity
A discussion of ozone, in the laboratory and in nature.
Building on the previous essay, Asimov discusses the history of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. He touches on something that certainly looks like the Great Oxygen Catastrophe, possibly the greatest mass extinction in Earth’s history (or looking at it from the point of view of descendents of the survivors, a grand event that made the modern world possible). Oddly Asimov seems to date it to 700 million years ago, not the 2,300 million years ago; either I am confused, Science has Marched On or he’s referring specifically to a later stage in the oxygenation of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Change of Air
Asimov discusses the history of fluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons, which thanks to their tendency to destroy the apparatus used to study them provided much needed employment for the doctors of the researchers involved. Eventually safer and cheaper methods of studying and creating these substances were discovered, which in turn allowed the materials to be used for commercial and domestic purposes. It then turned out that as side effect, chlorine was being transported to the upper atmosphere, where it catalyzed the destruction of the Ozone Layer upon whose protection from ultraviolet light so much complex life depends.
Rather shockingly, when faced with a choice between prosperity and the continued existence of most complex life, Asimov oddly opted for the latter. The possibility that the Earth might see an exciting new ecosystem of complex lifeforms adapted to light rich in UV isn’t even touched upon!
The Wicked Witch is Dead
What begins as a discussion of witchcraft, superstition and religion in general evolves into a denunciation of the way women, particularly older women, were treated by the patriarchal societies around them.
Yeah, he pretty much failed to generalize his arguments here to extend to his own behavior. Motes and beams, I guess.
The Nightfall Effect
Asimov was a big booster of Gerard K. O’Neill’s space colonies. In this he angrily denounces people for their skepticism in the desirability and practicality of the idea. He also provides assurances that the space colonies would not just be more white flight, this time into space, but would involve the whole of the world.
Asimov does not promise space colonies can help with overpopulation on Earth but otherwise he pretty much drank the Koolaid on this. This was sadly rich in appeals to authority. Like a lot of his contemporaries, he frames the then-future as a choice between Space! (and low birth rates and global peace) or Doom! Doom! Doooom! As it turned out, we’ve seen a decline in deaths due to warfare since the early 1990s and as we all know with a few exceptions birthrates have declined around the planet but thus far O’Neill’s ideas about and justifications of space colonies have not managed to overcome the problem that they were pretty stupid.
The Rocketing Dutchmen
Asimov looks at the question of UFOs, putting forth a case to be skeptical without good proof that they are alien space craft.
Best Foot Backward
Asimov is justly skeptical about the idea the Old Days were better.
Thinking About Thinking
Asimov gets into the IQ controversy of the 1970s, pointing out that not only are intelligence tests often designed to privilege certain classes of knowledge and cognition over others in ways calculated to place their designers in lofty positions. He also discusses the way the same people who would, for example, denigrate entire races for their supposed lack of intelligence then turn across and attack other races for being too intelligent.
I wonder if Asimov ever reviewed Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man?
Star in the East
Asimov comes up with a variety of real world explanations for the Christian myth about the Star of Bethlehem; in the end he expresses a belief like the other miracles in the Bible, the Star reflects no real world event.
The Judo Argument
Asimov examines various lines of evidence to see if there is any need for God in the standard models. He concludes that thus far there is not.
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