Reading material

Here you go, a few links with promises of interesting reading. Much more so than you'll find here, where I'm buried beneath efforts to finish up my Seed column, prepare for a lecture tomorrow, get a lab organized for Wednesday, write an entry for an encyclopedia, and shovel through piles of administrative paperwork of various sorts…

  • Some good news for the upcoming Darwin Year of 2009 — Steve Jones will be publishing a new book, Darwin's Garden, on time for the celebration. I have to say, though, that PR from publishers is a little disturbing: "Jones, who moved to Little, Brown from Transworld with c.e.o. Ursula Mackenzie" makes it sound like he's had some very peculiar addresses and opens completely inappropriate speculation about his relationship with Ms. Mackenzie. It should be good anyway.

  • Other good fun can be had on the blog, Prehistoric Pulp. If you want to keep up with the latest books and games that involve primeval creatures, paleontology, and evolution, it's a great source.

  • I was sent a link to Asimov's The Last Question. I swear, I've got to have read a few dozen science fiction stories that have pretty much the same plot, and I suspect sf editors must get this one over and over. So now I'm wondering…was Asimov the first to unleash this cliche on us all (in which case, it wasn't a cliche when he wrote it), or has it got antecedents?

More like this

Once again, my sheep-like characteristics manifest themselves and I find myself dutifully following Orac, PZ, Bora, Joseph, John, Rob, and Afarensis in listing (in bold) those of the "Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years" that I have read. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.…
So many wonderful books! I was surprised. As much as I love science fiction, I've only read about a quarter of books on this "most significant science fiction" list that's been floating around. No bother, though... that's just more that I get to read at some later date. Here's the list, with ones I…
Tikistitch has put up a list of the "Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years" (hey, as old as I am!). Put the ones you've read in bold — I've put my list below the fold. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov Dune, Frank Herbert Stranger in a…
Books recently removed from the queue. "Mathematicians in Love" by Rudy Rucker, "An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets" by Donald Mackenzie, "Financial Calculus : An Introduction to Derivative Pricing" by Martin Baxter and Andrew Rennie. "109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer…

I read an introduction to this by Asimov in a collection of his short stories, in which I believe he says that he was the first to come up with it (so far as he knows). It's a fun little story, anyway.

I hope you won't mind me reposting a comment I left on an older thread which I think no one's reading.

For fans of crackpot ideas: to those of you who can read Spanish, El PaleoFreak introduces a quite extraordinary guy named Francesc Fígols, who was interviewed in La Vanguardia. I won't spoil it by trying to summarize it, I'll just highlight : "reino mineral"...

For fans of crackpot ideas: to those of you who can read Spanish, El PaleoFreak introduces a quite extraordinary guy named Francesc Fígols, who was interviewed in La Vanguardia. I won't spoil it by trying to summarize it, I'll just highlight : "reino mineral"...

Awesome! Such wackiness actually seems apropos of the Asimov story (which I do remember having read once upon a time).

By August Pamplona (not verified) on 03 Sep 2007 #permalink

I read the Last Question recently, and was totally underwhelmed. I think people might find it insightful if they don't understand any physics at all and really think that "hyperspace" is somehow possible. I thought it was shallow and stupid, but am frankly unsurprised that there are tons of stories like it (scifi is nothing if not derivative).

Asimov has said in several places also that "The Last Question" is his favorite short story that he wrote. Not one of my favorites (didn't read until the mid 80s), but probably at the time he wrote it it had more of an impact...

I always liked "The Last Question" though like a lot of Asimov's early work it is hamstrung by the fact that he wrote it in the 50's and he wasn't very good at predicting the future. I much prefer the book "The Five Ages of the Universe" by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin now. It has what appears to me, a knowledgeable layman, pretty good science and some interesting speculation.

By BennyAbelard (not verified) on 03 Sep 2007 #permalink

Stuart Coleman: Asimov wasn't a hard sci-fi author, he wrote speculative fiction. The point of this story, as of his others, has very little to do with the specific features of the technology. Hyperspace shows up a lot in Asimov, like in the Foundation series, but never as anything other than a useful instrument of the plot.

Yeah, "hyperspace" is just a gobbledegook word here, as a stand in for some sort of physics that hasn't even been imagined yet. It's not completely unreasonable to suppose that our understanding of the universe might change so completely. However, I find Asimov's depiction of the future history of humankind implausible for reasons that have nothing to do with physics.

It's testament to just how little sci-fi I've read that this story didn't strike me as all that familiar. The only thing I can connect it to is talk by Holger Bech Nielsen I saw part of about a decade ago by now it must be.

I think he was going on about the mass of the Higgs boson, vacuum-bombs and how it might be humanity's destiny to build one such in order to further increase the total entropy of the universe -- but I wouldn't trust my memory.

As for antecedents I'd say Alphonse Karr: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Asimov might have come up with the idea independently, but it had been floating around for a while... One example would be Teilhard's Omega Point theory from the 1920's.

By chaos_engineer (not verified) on 03 Sep 2007 #permalink

Glad to see that Steve Jones is putting out a new book. Back in October or November he was giving a lecture about evolution and ID as part of University College, London's free 'Lunchtime Lectures' series (or something to that effect).

I got there pretty early, and there were lines already stretching almost a block in each direction, as people weren't sure exactly where to queue (as they say). Mind, this was after the lecture hall had filled and none of those people (myself included) got in. UCL seem to have MILDLY underestimated the popularity of that talk!

The title of this book sounds a bit milder than the rather pointedly anti-ID title of his lecture, but it should be a good read regardless of that.

Part of "Cities in Flight", by James Blish, also dealt with entropy. I won't spoil the story by saying how.. I liked the books, even though both the science and the fiction seem very outdated now.

I think it was first published in the same period as Asimov's story, give or take a year (judging from the date mentioned in the link).

Oh, dear. I suspect I know what work you mean, but being a shallow critic ignorant of the foundations of my culture, I don't think I've read it.

In one of his numerous essays, Asimov said something like (very roughly paraphrased): 'There's no reason to believe anything like hyperdrive could ever work, and there are good reasons to believe it couldn't. I'm not quite sure why readers accept it - but large galactic empires of ordinary humans seem to require some sort of faster-than-light travel, so I use hyperdrive. Perhaps readers accept it because they want to read about galaxy-spanning empires.'
Love it or hate it, there's never been any good reason to view SF as anything other than a subset of fantasy.
As for Asimov's The Last Question , it no longer seems like the work of genius that it once did, but I'm not eight anymore, and I still love it. Its most amusing aspect is the implication that man created god. I don't know the history of that idea, but I'm fairly sure it's much, much older than Asimov. Also amusing is the implication that the power to 'reverse entropy' is the power to create a universe. Speaking of which, why are people whining about the relatively trivial infraction of hyperspace?

Asimov was an atheist, and an optimist (read his Foundation and Robot novels) which is rather a difficult feat to accomplish.

You are correct in that he wrote science fantasy, but that doesn't diminish the importance of his work. Science fiction of any variety is much harder to write well than standard fiction. Deus Ex Machina is much, much harder to avoid when dealing with a fantastical setting. He was a brilliant man, and a prolific writer, who invented at least one sub-genre (the sci-fi detective story - an almost impossible feat of creative writing) and his Laws of Robotics have completely framed any discussion of AI.

His literary style is incredibly easy on both the eyes and mind. You should take a look at Understanding Physics if you ever need to point a struggling student to a work that will let them understand what exactly you're talking about when you start bandying about words like 'force', 'momentum' & 'impulse'.

He was truly a Renaissance man.

By Roger, FCD (not verified) on 03 Sep 2007 #permalink

Love it or hate it, there's never been any good reason to view SF as anything other than a subset of fantasy.

Only, I think, when it comes to their shared fiction. I've always thought they are remarkably distinct - SF is defined by its overriding theme of speculative technology, while fantasy deals with imaginary worlds.

As the MS Word dictionary (:P) puts it: a form of fiction, usually set in the future, that deals with imaginary scientific and technological developments and contact with other worlds

Fantasy, on the other hand, is defined as: a type of fiction featuring imaginary worlds and magical or supernatural events

So they are both fiction, meaning that SF's content might (and probably is) complete crap in literal terms; but when has SF claimed to deal with the literal? It's speculation, certainly, and that's what makes it so fun to read. It's also where it differs strongly from fantasy. For the most part fantasy does not deal with possible futures, and it never deals with (possible) technology as an overriding theme.

Anyway, I think the above definitions make the distinction clear. That's why I think it's unnecessarily disparaging to call SF a "subset of fantasy". I see them as subsets of fiction, but otherwise distinct and equally valid.

Stuart Coleman wrote:

...I think people might find it insightful if they don't understand any physics at all and really think that "hyperspace" is somehow possible. I thought it was shallow and stupid...

You'd have to be shallow and stupid to dismiss science fiction just because it doesn't fit hard-nosed reality ;). Believe it or not, SF of this nature isn't written to be taken literally. "Hyperspace" is just a word, used here in the loosest sense; I'm glad you can accurately judge what will or won't be possible thousands of years from now (based purely on our current knowledge), but some of us like a good speculative read, however wildly improbable.

I do hope he updates Y: The Descent of Man before it's 'repackaging', he got that one so horribly wrong. it came out just before the research showing that the Y consists of multiple repeats of its genes, meaning error correction is internal and his idea that the Y is doomed is therefore shown not to be so.

His Almost Like a Whale deserves to be in constant print though. It is one of my favourite ever books.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 04 Sep 2007 #permalink

Peter Ashby:
It is unfortunately the case that The Good Doctor died about 15 years ago, so he won't be updating much of anything.

fusilier, who met him at Noreascon II, almost three decades ago.
James 2:24

fusilier-I believe he was talking about Steve Jones (very much alive), not Asimov, in his post.

Indeed I was speaking of Steve Jones. Sorry for not being clear enough.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 04 Sep 2007 #permalink

Roger, #18, says,

"[Asimov] was truly a Renaissance man."

Indeed he was. A biochemist (by training, at least) and prolific as hell in his writings (fiction AND non-fiction - my favorite science fiction story of his remains "Nightfall").

Carl Sagan called him the greatest explainer of the age.

But what I miss most was his humor (see his book, "Lecherous Limericks") - his frequent mock references to his super-inflated ego were thunderously hilarious.

He was a good man as well as smart.

By Arnosium Upinarum (not verified) on 04 Sep 2007 #permalink

Admittedly, Im not an expert on the subject, but if energy and matter can neither really be created, nor really be destroyed, then how can entropy be general? What I mean is, loss of energy is really only the transfer of energy from one place to another, otherwise the law of conservation of energy and mass is violated; the universe doesn't have a leak. So, if the universe is closed, then entropy cannot continue to dissipate to zero for the simple fact that the amount of space for energy to dissipate through is not infinite, and even if it were open, the energy will still be there, just spread incredibly thin. All life runs through the gathering of energy; in other words, life forms feed off of the entropy of some other object. Much of our technology is dedicated to the same goal; recycling another object's chaos into order for us. If we ever find a way to manipulate the fundamental forces of the universe, isn't it reasonable to assume we'd figure out how to gather up that dissipated energy? But then I guess you'd just be left with a 100% efficient energy scoop that spends all its time gathering up the energy its using, and thats not a very interesting universe at all.

Admittedly, Im not an expert on the subject, but if energy and matter can neither really be created, nor really be destroyed, then how can entropy be general? What I mean is, loss of energy is really only the transfer of energy from one place to another, otherwise the law of conservation of energy and mass is violated; the universe doesn't have a leak. So, if the universe is closed, then entropy cannot continue to dissipate to zero for the simple fact that the amount of space for energy to dissipate through is not infinite, and even if it were open, the energy will still be there, just spread incredibly thin. All life runs through the gathering of energy; in other words, life forms feed off of the entropy of some other object. Much of our technology is dedicated to the same goal; recycling another object's chaos into order for us. If we ever find a way to manipulate the fundamental forces of the universe, isn't it reasonable to assume we'd figure out how to gather up that dissipated energy? But then I guess you'd just be left with a 100% efficient energy scoop that spends all its time gathering up the energy its using, and thats not a very interesting universe at all.

Admittedly, Im not an expert on the subject, but if energy and matter can neither really be created, nor really be destroyed, then how can entropy be general? What I mean is, loss of energy is really only the transfer of energy from one place to another, otherwise the law of conservation of energy and mass is violated; the universe doesn't have a leak. So, if the universe is closed, then entropy cannot continue to dissipate to zero for the simple fact that the amount of space for energy to dissipate through is not infinite, and even if it were open, the energy will still be there, just spread incredibly thin. All life runs through the gathering of energy; in other words, life forms feed off of the entropy of some other object. Much of our technology is dedicated to the same goal; recycling another object's chaos into order for us. If we ever find a way to manipulate the fundamental forces of the universe, isn't it reasonable to assume we'd figure out how to gather up that dissipated energy? But then I guess you'd just be left with a 100% efficient energy scoop that spends all its time gathering up the energy its using, and thats not a very interesting universe at all.

errr... oops. I only posted that once. I think I might have erred in some way I'm not privy too....

Julian the thing about entropy in the universe is that at the moment the enthalpy is very clumpy, all those discrete stars with big, like really big vacuum between them clumped into galaxies with even more vacuum between them, clumped into galaxy clusters etc. Now at heat death you take that clumpy energy and you smear it out evenly over the whole of the universe. I don't have at my fingertips a measure of stuff over no stuff but if you are a bit mischevious you can in essence prove for all practical purposes that, statistically, the universe is empty. So all that enthalpy smeared everywhere leads to only a very, very small increase in temperature of the vacuum.

These things are very hard for us poor semi evolved simians to grasp, which is why we invented mathematics to help us think about them as intuition simply is not up to the job.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 04 Sep 2007 #permalink