Isaac Asimov and Bunk


Two Short Essays, Loosely Connected

Asimov

I have had a lifelong ambition to have Isaac Asimov’s job (which Carl Sagan more or less took over at one point.)

One wonderful thing about Asimov was his discipline, no matter what else befell him, to write a monthly science tutorial of some sort for Fantasy and Science Fiction. For most of my teenage years I read these faithfully and diligently.

So I just picked up one of the old F&SF issues I managed to hold onto, and did an approximate word count. It seems the essay was about 3500 words.

Perhaps 800 or 900 words a week. That really isn’t very much for a not entirely failed techno-bunny. Yet the teenage me was very grateful for it, as I recall.

Thoughts of Isaac Asimov came up today as I worked my way through the very accessible introduction to ocean acidification at Skeptical Science, in no less than 18 parts of about 500 words each. These seemed exasperatingly small chunks to me, but the whole collection amounts to perhaps a double or triple a standard Asimov pop science article.

But what does the web want? I’m thinking a science piece of 1000-1200 words might be long enough to advance an argument and short enough to avoid too much “tl;dr”, and that 1/3 of an Asimov piece should be our target pop science article size.

So anyone wanting to make an extended argument (based on high-school level maths) around here should plan on writing say three pieces a month of 1000-1200 words and a few equations and diagrams.

I am looking into these articles because of a specific question. If CO2 has been so much higher than today, why is ocean acidification a problem now? I know most of the answer but I haven’t seen an accessible version of it anywhere. I am not sure the answer will be clear enough for my taste in the SkS piece. I’ll report back on this, one way or the other. Any assistance would be welcome.

Bunk

Amusingly, (given that I think the climate community spends way too much time on the defensive), the Asimov piece that I picked up was specifically about debunking a pernicious piece of nonsense of the time. This bunk is something which a few of my fellow boomers will recollect and everyone else has duly forgotten, as is the fate of all bunk.

The piece was about the work of one Immanuel Velikovsky, a fundamentalist and a pseudoscientific crank, whose thesis was basically that all of the miracles reported in the bible were a consequence of the erratic orbit of Venus and its interaction with a passing comet, or something of the sort. One of Velikovsky’s tomes was called “Worlds in Collision” and Asimov’s essay (in the October 1969 issue) was called “Worlds in Confusion”.

Among the ruefully familiar observations:

I said… “the reaction of astronomers varied from amusement to anger, and the Velikofskian theory has never, for one moment, been taken seriously either by scientists or by Biblical scholars.” That’s all I said, and it seems to me that I spoke gently and without undue heat. Nevertheless the vials of wrath were opened upon me and I received a number of letters from ardent Velikofskians denouncing my innocent statement with a great deal of emotional fervor.

Which just goes to bear out my feeling that there is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.

It isn’t even difficult to see why Velikofskianism would be attractive to certain groups. Velikofsky uses his theories to try to show that certain of the miracle tales in the Bible …are more or less true. To be sure, he removes those events from the miraculous by taking away the hand of God and substituting a set of weird natural phenomena instead, but that makes no difference.

Velikofsky’s book made the headlines as the work of a “scientist” (which Velikofsky is not). It was ballyhooed as demonstrating that “science” was proving the Bible true – though the amount of real science in the book could be placed in the eye of a needle without making it more difficult to thread.

Still, to all those who were brought up with traditional beliefs concerning the Bible, it was a great relief that science (the great enemy) had finally “proved” all those miracles, and the book became a best-seller.

Secondly, Velikofsky’s views tended to make orthodox astronomers look foolish. Imagine those stupid professors not seeing all those things that Velikofsky presented so plainly!

There is always something pleasant about seeing any portion of the “establishment” come a cropper, and the Scientific Establishment in particular. Scientists, these days, are so influential, so far out of the ordinary clay, so supreme in their self-confidence, and (to put it in a nub) so “smarty-pants” that it is a particular pleasure to see them stub their toes and go flat on their faces.

Image licensed under GFDL by the artist, Rowena Morrill; via Wikipedia.

Comments:

  1. Probably I learned at first from Asimov that carbon dioxide may cause global warming and melting of polar ice sheets. The story was titled "Our evolving atmosphere", and contained in a book called "Is Anyone There" (1967; I read its Japanese edition translated by Akira Yamataka and published in 1968). The essay was originally published in 1966 (according to "A Guide to Isaac Asimov's Essays" by Edward Seiler and Richard Hatcher http://www.asimovonline.com/oldsite/essay_guide.html).

    This may be surprise to readers of William Connolley's "Was an imminent Ice Age predicted in the '70's? No". It contains "Comments by Isaac Asimov, from a lecture in 1974" http://www.wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/asimov.html . Asimov said "The air is going to stay dusty, and it's going to continue getting a little colder." in the lecture. The link from that page to the link is no longer valid, but the source page is found at http://www.asimovonline.com/oldsite/future_of_humanity.html .

    It seems almost sure that Asimov's story in 1974 is communication of science of Reid Bryson. I am not sure whether he forgot the issue of carbon dioxide, or he thought he did not need to other factors when talking about an interesting piece of science.

    I wonder who was the main source of Asimov's story in 1967. (He first talked about geological carbon cycle, and formation of fossil fuel, then human activities.) That might be Roger Revelle, a professor at Harvard then. Asimov was at Boston University.

  2. While I never really developed a liking for science fiction (and was incensed when, in an essay, Asimov proposed that the criterion for being placed in "gifted" programs be a liking for sf), I was an ardent reader of his essays when collected in book form. Not being an sf reader, I didn't see them in the magazine.

    Interestingly, in a recent post at my blog on the arrogance of engineers, Velikovsky's name came up. An author quoted by Burt Rutan (whom I'd selected as my exemplar of an arrogant engineer) devotes a chapter to "The Case for Taking Velikovsky Seriously" in his book entitled "Kicking the Sacred Cow." Of course the author, one James P. Hogan, now deceased, also devotes a chapter to "Environmentalist Fantasies."

    • '...Of course the author, one James P. Hogan, now deceased, also devotes a chapter to “Environmentalist Fantasies.”'

      You must have been gratified to discover that James P. Hogan was a science fiction author.

  3. mt: "If CO2 has been so much higher than today, why is ocean acidification a problem now?" Of course, to some extent the answer is the same as for this question regarding AGW: If temperatures have been higher than this before, why is global warming/ climate change/ climate disruption a problem now?
    You're right to want a nice clear answer. But it's complicated. Part of the answer is rate of change, part of the answer is peculiar to current spatial distributions and patterns of resource extraction by humans, part of the answer is that we're not worried about 'now' but about the future, and part of the answer is that things weren't really okay when conditions were much more extreme.
    I look forward to updates on what you think about ocean acidification.

    • It turns out that while the temperatures we are approaching have not been approached for a very long time, the ocean pH we are approaching is likely to set an all-time record; the ocean will be more acidic than at any time since life on earth began. This is not commonly understood.

    • Indeed, I don't think I understood that. I guess I should be doing some research. Is it because the surface will be acidifying (due to the long time required for mixing) and the source of the buffering occurs at depth and pressure?

  4. "No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be." -- Isaac Asimov

  5. George Harrison says:
    November 13, 2011 at 9:53 pm
    ‘…Of course the author, one James P. Hogan, now deceased, also devotes a chapter to “Environmentalist Fantasies.”’

    You must have been gratified to discover that James P. Hogan was a science fiction author.

    So was L Ron Hubbard...so what? There have been many literary frauds promoting themselves as scientists. Not directly but instead searching for their readers (most not versed well in Science) to make that inference. Eric Von Danekin (as an archeologist), Peter Kolosimo (same), Immanual Velikovsky, chemist, astronomer, physisist) and the list goes on.


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