# Astronomy Today: Chapter 1

I mentioned a few weeks ago how, in my copious spare time, I’m trying to brush up on astronomy. I ordered a text book that came highly recommended, Astronomy Today, 7th edition, put out by Pearson, and so far, I’ve found the time to get through exactly one chapter of that text book. But it was a lot of fun. As it turns out, the text book is designed for people without much of a science background. I was a physics major when I started college (not when I finished) and so I have more of background than is needed for the book, but it was still refreshing to read an astronomy text that starts at the very beginning.

The first chapter covered the foundations of astronomy, with a lot of emphasis on how scientists know what they know about things that they cannot actually go and visit. How do we know how big the sun is, or how far away the stars are? This was all familiar to me, but it was nice to have the refresher, particularly on some of the basic geometry and trigonometry required for computing parallax and angular diameter. The chapters also covered things like why we have seasons on Earth, the phases of the moon and lunar and solar eclipses (including the difference between full eclipses and annular eclipses).

All told, it was a good review of the very basics. I’ve been trying to find the time to jump into the second chapter which covers the law of motion, among other things. Probably not this weekend, but maybe sometime next week.

# WolframAlpha for science fiction writers

Any science fiction writer who tries their hand at hard science fiction usually ends up doing some back-of-the-envelope calculating and figuring. It comes with the territory. Having a background in astronomy or physics often helps. It can be fun, calculating the acceleration of a spacecraft, figuring how long it will take to get from point A to point B. But for someone like me, who is mostly self-taught in these disciplines, the figuring and calculating don’t always come naturally and I get itching just to write. Still, I want the stories to ring true even to those who do have science backgrounds, so there is a balance that I have to strike: time spent on the research and calculating and time spent writing.

That’s where WolframAlpha comes in. For those who don’t know, WolframAlpha is a computational knowledge engine based on the technology developed in Mathematica. Since it was released more than two years ago, I find myself using it more and more in place of those stray envelopes. It comes in hands for a number of reasons:

# The pinnacle of science fiction nerdiness

My astronomy text book arrived today and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I am entered the part of my story that requires some information on Pluto, as well as some calculations of spacecraft orbits and other little tidbits like that, and I can put the new text book to use for at least part of that.

As I said in an earlier post, I don’t have a background in astronomy and it was suggested to me by a science fiction editor I trust that I could benefit from brushing up. Ordering the textbook, and ultimately reading through its pages is the first step on that brush up. Plus, it provides a nice counterpoint to the stories and articles I’m reading in Astounding.

I’m eagerly looking forward to going through the book, cover-to-cover, in a careful way, in the hopes that I can establish a more solid astronomical foundation for myself. Kind of nerdy, I know, but what can I say, it’s something I enjoy. It reminds me of those days when I was a six-year old boy, just discovering astronomy, amazed that the stars were all giant suns, far, far, away, and dazzled when I looked through the Tasco telescope my parents got for me, and saw the rings of Saturn for the first time.

# Brushing up on astronomy

The first astronomy book I ever read was The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley when I was six years old. What caught my interest in astronomy at that young age were the pictures in the newspaper of Jupiter as the Voyager spacecraft made its flyby. My parents got me a telescope and I started looking at stars and planets in my backyard. I was hooked.

I learned a lot about astronomy since then, almost all of it from Isaac Asimov. But I have never taken a formal astronomy class.

Recently, however, I discovered that I needed to bone up on this subject. Many science fiction writers are also working scientists and in writing their stories, they have a clear advantage of a lifetime of familiarity with their area of expertise. I am not a scientist and I sometimes make amateur (and silly) mistakes in a story. Editors have been exceedingly kind and helpful in pointing these out to me. And since I want to learn from my mistakes, especially when editors prompt me to do so, I felt it was time that I really brushed up on my astronomy–a crucial skill for a science fiction writer to have.

So I contacted my friend Michael A. Burstein–who does have a science background, who has taught science and edited science texts (to say nothing of having written outstanding science fiction)–and asked him to suggest a good text for me to start with.

Michael suggested Astronomy Today (7th edition) by Chaisson and McMillan and this evening, I placed an order for that text book. When it arrives, I plan to go through it at a nice steady pace (on weekends, during my “research time”) in order to make sure that I am really understanding what I am reading, not just whipping through it. It is my hope that not only will I come away with a better understanding and appreciation of astronomy, but that it will help to make me a better science fiction writer.

# The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley

One of the awesome gifts I got for Christmas this year from my in-laws was a copy of the The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I’ve mentioned this book numerous times over the years on this blog. It is the book that turned me onto science back when I was a first-grader. I discovered the book in the library of McAfee Road School back in 1978. There was also a copy in the Franklin Township Public Library and I checked the book out repeatedly from that library, probably much to the annoyance of the librarian there.  (I like to think I’ve paid them back over the years, as that is one of two libraries to which I’ve donated money year after year.)  Now, 32 years later, I finally have my own copy of this wonderful book:

As I have said before, this is the book that first introduced me to science and the universe at large. If it wasn’t for this book, I may never have grown interested in science, may never have discovered science fiction and may never have become a science fiction writer. It installed in me the idea of scientific method and scientific discovery and taught me how to understand the universe in all of its glory through observation, experiment and reason. I found it amusing, therefore, to find the following label pasted into the very back of my new book (a former library book):

For those who can’t make out the somewhat blurry image, here is what it says:

NOTICE to all STUDENTS and PARENTS

Redwood Christian Schools does not necessarily endorse the content of this book from the standpoint of morals, philosophy, theology, or scientific hypothesis. We have searched diligently for the the best books that are available and we feel this is the best we could purchase at the time. We are grateful when others find better books and then pass the information on to us.

Redwood Christian Schools

It makes me wonder what my 6 year-old self would have made of this statement had it appeared when I checked the book out of the library. And I find it an ironic statement to appear in a book that taught me to understand and love science, astronomy, cosmology and the universe around me. Who knew at the time that I was reading a “dangerous” book.

I love that idea as much as I love my new book.

# The Bridge of the Gods

Okay, someone really needs to reprint Isaac Asimov’s excellent essay, “The Bridge of the Gods” which is all about light and rainbows. I’ve been seeing stuff all over about remarkable “double-rainbows” as if this is a new or even a rare phenomenon, but as Asimov explains in his essay, there is a very good explanation not only for the formation of a double-rainbow, but the geometry behind it.

# Carl, Isaac, and Martin

14 years ago today, I began reading Carl Sagan‘s book, The Demon-Haunted World, after reading an excerpt of it in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Three days later, I learned that Sagan had died and it was a sad day for me and for the cause of science and rationality as a whole. I wrote about this a few years ago, but I was thinking about it this morning, especially in light of my recent post on Isaac Asimov’s science essays.

Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Martin Gardner formed a kind of intellectual triad for me, people who I admired for many reasons, but especially for their promotion and defense of reason, rationality and science in an increasingly scientifically-illiterate world. (Stephen Jay Gould and James Randi formed a kind of second tier to this list as well.) It’s rather depressing to think that of the five men, only one of them (Randi) lives on. It’s even sadder to me when I realize that there really hasn’t been anyone of equal intellectual courage to take up their fight.

# (Almost) Everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov

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.

Don’t get me wrong: I did learn some science in school. Prior to junior high school, I have little memory of any specific science lessons. In high school, I took AP biology, chemistry (for some reason the AP version was not offered), and AP physics. In biology, I learned about things like the Krebs cycle and the basics of genetics and inheritance, and cellular anatomy. This was essentially rote memorization and despite being an “advanced placement” class, I was more or less taking the teacher’s word on these things. From Isaac Asimov, I learned much more. I learned, for instance, how the Krebs cycle was discovered, which fixed it much more clearly in my mind. I learned the fascinating story of Gregor Mendel and how he discovered the laws of inheritance and how they were then lost to science for another generation.

In high school chemistry (and later, in college general and organic chemistry), I memorized the periodic table and was taught how to balance chemical formulas. Isaac Asimov taught me how Dmitri Mendeleev developed the period table and how he predicted the properties of elements long before they were ever discovered. The insights this gave me into chemistry went far beyond anything I learned in my formal classes. In his essay “Life’s Bottleneck” (F&SF, April 1959) he taught me biochemistry in a way that showed the precarious balance of nature and how remarkable it was that just the right conditions existed to support life.

I grew to love physics when I took AP physics in high school with Dr. Goldman, who was one of the few good explainers of science I’ve run into. Still, while I learned equations for light and magnetism in his class, Isaac Asimov made such subjects come to life in a practical way for me with essays like  “The Bridge of the Gods” (F&SF, March 1975) about rainbows, refraction and light, and his essay “Four Hundred Octaves” (F&SF, June 1982) on the physics of light. He was the Great Explainer and it was from essays like “The Man Who Massed the Earth” (F&SF, September 1969) that I learned that science was a continually evolving thing. It’s one thing to learn that the Earth weighs 5.9×10^24 kilograms. It’s something else to learn just how scientists figured that out. The former I learned in school; the latter I learned from Isaac Asimov.

Asimov’s essays taught me not only the hows and whys of science, they taught me the history of science. Taken together, anyone who reads all 399 F&SF science essays can’t miss certain patterns in logic and reasoning, can’t miss the evolution of thought and experiment. The essays taught me that scientists were real men and women.  Essays like “The Isaac Winner’s” (July 1963) highlighted the triumphs of some of the most remarkable scientists of all time. Other essays taught me that even scientists can make mistakes, can be wrong, and that a whole premise of the scientific method is to look for holes in theories, and to revise hypotheses as new data is accumulated.

Occasionally, Asimov’s science essayed ventured into the truly remarkable (in my opinion). His essay, “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” (F&SF, September 1966) was a remarkably original (at the time) approach to cosmology.  His essays like “The Height of Up” (F&SF, October 1959) looked at how far away things could be and asked if there were limits.  He had other essays that looked at the smallest possible sizes, or the hottest possible temperature.

His essays on math and numbers fixed certain concepts more firmly in my mind than any trigonometry or algebra class ever did. His essay “Exclamation Point!” (F&SF, 1965) taught me factorials in a far better way than any of my math teachers. Essays like “The Ultimate Split of the Second” and “The Week Excuse” (F&SF, June 1972)  taught me about time and calendars in an original an vivid way.

Sometimes, Asimov’s essays ventured out from the realm of pure science and in most of these cases, the results were among some of the best nonfiction writing I’ve encountered.  His essay “Thinking About Thinking” (F&SF, January 1975) talked about the value (or lack thereof) of intelligence tests.  His essay, “Crowded!” introduced me to the population problem. And one of his most remarkable essays, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” (F&SF, January 1973) looked at the evolution of books.

Reading his essays on quasars and lunar eclipses and the tallest mountains and longest rivers sparked my imagination and my sense of wonder about the universe and probably have as much to do with my love of science fiction as his science fiction does. It was from Isaac Asimov that I learned things like the square-cube law, transfinite math, and compound math, things never covered in any of my high school textbooks.

Today, only a few of these essays are truly dated. Some facts have changed because science evolves, but the core is still valid and the history that these essays provides is an invaluable tool for understanding the cumulative nature of science. Seven of these early essays were never put into any collections, and there were six or seven that Asimov wrote before his death that have not, to my knowledge, been collected either. Perhaps I am a lone voice in the wilderness here, but I think it’s high time that a newly reissued compendium of all of Isaac Asimov’s F&SF science essays be put together and re-released. There is an audience of millions of school-aged children who are not getting adequate science educations out there and such a reissue could provide them (especially those curious ones) the additional nourishment they are lacking. And besides, there are any number of adults who might be interested in such a reissue as well.

There are some good science writers out there today, but none of them, in my opinion, come close to capturing full sweep of science, history, and sense of wonder that the Good Doctor did for more than thirty years in his essays in F&SF. When I say that I learned nearly everything I know about science from Isaac Asimov, I am not kidding.

Shouldn’t we make this knowledge available to kids (and grownups) today?