I recently finished reading the book ‘Today and Tomorrow and’ by Isaac Asimov. Asimov needs no introduction to Science Fiction fans – he has been immortalised by his series of Science Fiction novels (none of which I have read, by the way).
This book is a collection of essays Asimov wrote about scientific facts, during the years 1971 to 1975, that were published in various magazines and newspapers. These essays are easy and lucid to read, even for non-scientists. They cover a range of topics from taxonomy to space research to thermodynamics to the SI unit system. What intrigued me most about the book was the awe I felt while reading each essay. Some topics were familiar to me – being a long-time student of Chemistry – and some were new, however all of them made an interesting read.
While reading, it dawned on me that I was not only interested in the subject matter, but also the way it was written. This realisation led me to list out the characteristics of the writing that I most admired.
When a scientist writes about science (even in a non-academic forum), there is an inherent sense of authenticity to the topic written about. Compulsive that I am, I would have had the urge to constantly doubt the accuracy of every fact, if it was otherwise. Because I implicitly trusted the accuracy of what was written about, I was left free to admire the nuances of writing style.
Each article is written in simple language with no accompanying equations or scientific notations. Even though the topics are purely scientific, the discourse is conveyed in a way that anyone reading it can follow the logic of thought, it is especially a treat to those who are verbal-linguistically inclined. All of this, without losing depth or accuracy of the science being explained.
Every piece of writing is filled with a sense of innate curiosity that the writer exhibits in exploring his thoughts and asking question after question, whether the answer is found or not. This quality alone makes the reading intriguing and even thrilling at times.
“All we can say is that the biological clock exists and is of key importance in all organisms. But what it is, where it is, how it is set in motion, how it is regulated – we still don’t know.” – P28
Picking a simple (or not) topic and examining it through various straight forward and convoluted angles is a talent that is liberally exhibited all through the book. A historical account of tracing the understanding of the ancient ‘elements’ of nature to the chemical ‘elements’ as we know them today was an illuminating read because of the perspective it brings by making connections between research over a few centuries, in a few pages.
“There is no astronomical reason why distance and size should match so as to give us the chance of a perfect eclipse, just in the place and time of man’s existence. It is pure chance, but a very lucky chance too, for it is the perfect fit that makes the eclipse the gorgeous spectacle that it is.” – P30
There is humour sprinkled all over the book, be it in the choice of titles or the comments in parentheses. It makes the overall reading light and engaging.
“And so, a hundred seventy years after zoologists began to puzzle out the queer mixture of characteristics that go to make up the duckbill platypus – there is still argument as to what to call it. Is the duckbill platypus a mammal? A reptile? Or just a duckbill platypus?” – P19
The topics are universal and the questions relevant even today. Although some questions he has raised in the book have been answered since, many of them are still open and there is ample opportunity for young scientists to explore and discover the answers to these. One especially close to my heart – why do only L-amino acids occur predominantly in nature and are preferred by living systems?
“Knowledge, you see, is wherever we find it, and it would be foolish to inhibit the search for knowledge in any direction. The use we make of knowledge is another thing. One or another particular application of new knowledge may seem useless, wasteful, or even downright harmful. We may use a knife to prepare a meal or kill a man. To avoid killing, must we abolish all knives – or cut off all the hands that might hold knives?” – P58
Having listed these, I can only say that I wish I had read this book two decades earlier, when I was a college student. Especially when Thermodynamics was such a hard nut to crack. I don’t think I would have mastered Thermodynamics, but it would have seemed less menacing.
It is for solely this reason that I think it is imperative for scientists and researchers to write for the public eye, in addition to writing for technical and academic journals. At the same time, it is important that youngsters read such books to trigger and/or enhance their interest in science. For those youngsters that don’t need motivation to do science, it is still interesting to read different perspectives.
My parting shot to readers – if you are a scientist, please start writing for the public. Who knows which future genius might get inspired by your writing! If you are a student, please read popular science books, written by scientists. Who knows in which pages you might find a new hero!