“Essays that stretch the mind and delight the intellect. As in his many collections, Asimov deals with pure science in a bright and clarifying way, always looking at the obverse side of the coin at hand—be it a time zone, the speed of light, population figures or the size of rivers. Until you’ve read a collection of his, you can’t appreciate the real beauty of a scientific mind at play, probing unabashedly through some seemingly mundane facts to get at a nugget of truth.”—Charlotte Observer
“Thoroughly refreshing, stimulating, and delightful.”—Choice
This is among my very favorite of Asimov’s F&SF essay collections, largely because of the last two essays: “Twelve Point Three Six Nine,” and “Portrait of the Writer as a Boy.” (The latter is was written for the special “Isaac Asimov” issue of F&SF published in late 1966.)
The book actually gets off to a slow start—the essays on cosmogeny (“Balancing the Books,” “BB or Not BB, That is the Question,” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover”) are a bit dated, and “Impossible, That’s All!” on the speed of light isn’t bad so much as a little overly dogmatic. The speed of light, of course, was a sore spot with Asimov, who was incessantly pestered with people who don’t know much about science and why the speed of light in a vacuum is considered an ultimate speed limit, so one may forgive him his dogmatism here.
Things start to warm up, however. “Kaleidoscope in the Sky” is interesting if plodding. “Knock Plastic!” however is a lot of fun and (I think) one of Asimov’s more significant essays in terms of understanding his perspectives on humanity, and religion in particular. “Music to My Ears” treats well the musical scale, something which Asimov doesn’t seem to spend an awful lot of time talking about otherwise. “Right Beneath Your Feet,” “The Times of Our Lives,” and “Non-Time Travel” are a good solid set of geography lessons, as is “Crowded!”
Bit it’s “Twelve Point Three Six Nine” and “Portrait of the Writer as a Boy” that grab my attention by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go. The former is a hilarious and much-needed puncturing of mystics of all sorts who read a special significance into simple coincidences (and anyone who deals with even moderately large numbers of the devout of any variety of devotion runs into these). The latter, Asimov’s earliest and pithiest recounting of the events which led to his becoming a writer, material which would later be covered in greater detail in The Early Asimov, Before the Golden Age, In Memory Yet Green, and I. Asimov. And yet, it is this description which holds the greatest meaning, the greatest nostalgic value for me, and the one which I enjoy rereading the most.