The Stars in Their Courses, by Isaac Asimov; Ace Books 1972
Can that date be right? Am I really reviewing a book published in 1972? Yes, I am; you see, this is a very special book. It was the first book by Isaac Asimov that I ever read. Once I read this book, and discovered how well Asimov explained things that I was interested in, I read volume after volume of his science essays: Of Time, Space, and Other Things; Quasar, Quasar Burning Bright; The Universe… the list goes on and on.
But The Stars in Their Courses was the first. How did I happen to read this book? It’s not as though I were an amateur astronomer. Here’s the story:
The year was 1973. I was living in Sacramento, California, and my older brother was getting married in Dresden, Ohio. I was at the airport, waiting to catch a plane to Columbus, when I suddenly realized I had nothing to read on the plane. A state akin to panic began to set in. Four hours on a plane, and nothing to read. I made a beeline for the gift shop and quickly scanned the book rack. Success! The Stars in Their Courses caught my eye. The cover proclaimed, “Isaac Asimov tells all about the Universe, and everything else.” This was intriguing. I harbored a fledgling interest in astronomy, and had at least heard of Isaac Asimov.
Time was short; I bought the book, and headed back to my gate. My heart rate and respiration returned to normal. Long before my plane got to Columbus, I was a confirmed Asimov fan, and have remained one ever since. Though I am not by any stretch of the imagination a scientist, nor even a student of science, I am – thanks to Asimov - a student of science history, and feel like a member of the brotherhood.
This book is a collection of seventeen essays about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and sociology. In the first two chapters, Asimov absolutely destroys astrology. This was significant to me, because at the time I first read this book, I knew someone who was a believer in astrology. He knew a great deal of astrological theory, and in debating with him I always felt at a disadvantage. I was sure astrology was nonsense, but had only my intuition to guide me. Asimov knows not only the history of astrology, but astronomy too, and explains exactly why astrology is nonsense. In so doing, he helped me to feel much more confident in what I believed.
Asimov’s essays are leavened throughout with generous dollops of humor. His discussion of astrology concludes as follows: “To be sure, there may be some among my valued Gentle Readers who will be swayed by this [line of reasoning], and who will wonder whether there isn’t something in this chain of reasoning starting from planetary position, and ending in Aries giving sympathy and Scorpio turning on the distrust. If so, repress the thought. I am quite certain that with very little ingenuity I could invent a chain of reasoning that is just as valid and plausible, connecting the pattern of burping of a herd of hippopotami amid the reeds of the river Nile with the rise and fall of the steel output in the mills of Gary, Indiana.”
In “The Nobel Prize that Wasn’t”, Asimov writes fascinatingly about the English physicist Henry Gwyn-Jeffreys Moseley. “Moseley was simply a streak of brilliance…” Asimov writes, and goes on to show how, through Mosely’s work, “the foundation of the periodic table of elements was made firm as a rock.” He relates how, because of this work, Moseley deserved the Nobel prize of 1916 in either physics or chemistry, and that “it was just as certain as anything could be in such matters that he was going to get it,” that there was, in fact, “no way of avoiding it.” Alas, there was a way of avoiding it. When World War I broke out, Moseley enlisted in the Royal Engineers, and was killed in August 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign. “He had not yet reached his twenty-eighth birthday”, Asimov writes, “and in my opinion, his death was the most expensive individual loss to the human race generally, among all the millions who died in that war.”
In the essay, “Worlds in Confusion”, Asimov completely discredits the ideas espoused by Immanuel Velikovsky in his book Worlds in Collision. In others, he touches on the extraordinary accomplishments of Isaac Newton, tells the fascinating story of the invention of the lightning rod by Benjamin Franklin, the introduction of anesthesia, and the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Isaac Asimov. Much of what I know about science is due to his skill as a “professional explainer”. Although what I don’t know is vastly greater than what I do, what I do know is enough to satisfy me as to the sufficiency of the scientific method of inquiry.
I recommend this book for everyone. This is science for the layperson. Those of you who have an interest in science will meet an old friend between its covers, and those who don’t will still enjoy the essays. If an interest in science is kindled by this book, so much the better. There is a whole world of Asimov waiting for you.