Isaac Asimov is best-known as a science fiction writer—I understand his Foundation series is to be filmed by Roland Emmerich—but the majority of his more than 500 books were actually nonfiction. Indeed, from the 1950s through the end of the ’80s, Asimov was virtually a one-man Book of the Month Club, issuing well-regarded tomes on everything from subatomic physics to Shakespeare.
Some of those books remain in print, but many have gone by the wayside. I’d particularly like to see Asimov’s science essays brought back into print. Carl Sagan once called Asimov “the greatest explainer of the age,” and Asimov’s series of essays originally written for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and later reprinted in a couple of dozen volumes by Doubleday & Co. are masterpieces of the science writer’s craft.
Of course, some of those essays are dated now, but the step-by-step historical approach Asimov took to explaining scientific subjects means that many are just as valid now as when they were written 40 years ago.
Take, for instance, his 1971 collection of F&SF essays, The Stars in Their Courses, which I recently re-read. Asimov’s discussions of Newton’s laws of motion and how the mass of the earth was first measured are models of how to explain difficult concepts simply and engagingly. The book also includes a couple of insightful essays on the sociology of science (“The Fateful Lightning,” on Ben Franklin and the lightning rod; and “The Sin of the Scientist,” where Asimov argues that the development of poison gas warfare during World War I permanently altered social attitudes toward science for the worse).
These essays (and hundreds more that he wrote during a career spanning half-a-century) deserve a new lease on life. Asimov’s ability to render even difficult concepts easy—indeed, deceptively easy—to understand remains, in my opinion, unmatched by any other popularizer of science.