Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Tragedy of the Moon

The Tragedy of the Moon
© Isaac Asimov 1978
224 pages

The Tragedy of the Moon collects seventeen sundry Asimovian essays  which will prove a delight to most Asimov fans.  The essays were originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, but have been edited and arranged specially for the book. This is one of his more diverse collections: while science is a common element of most of the essays, only two are pure or 'hard' science. The rest combine science and culture, as when Asimov writes on the history of calenders and the week in western culture. I'd never really wondered why the week has seven days, at least not enough to look up the answer.  As Asimov deftly explains in "Moon over Babylon", it comes from lunar festivities which occurred every seventh day. This also has some bearing on the Jewish 'Sabbath', and this essay is rich in history and etymology. While the good doctor's nonfiction output is generally fascinating, I liked this collection most for including more of Asimov's informality:  some collections tend to be staid and to the point, but Asimov's winsome personality shines through the pages here as he constantly kids and charms the reader, both in-text and in footnotes.

If "It's by Asimov!" isn't enough for you, the list of essays follows.
  1. "The Tragedy of the Moon" Asimov reflects on how the absence of a moon rotating the earth may have sped up humanity's acceptance of heliocentrism and hastened the growth of scientific progress in general.
  2. "The Triumph of the Moon" examines how the moon has been a boon to humanity, though his three triumphs listed are more indirect than I'd imagined. 
  3. "Moon Over Babylon" concerns the history of the week as a timekeeping period, and is one of my favorites.
  4. "The Week Excuse" sees Asimov argue for a more sensible calender (and make a terrible pun, for he is "not ashamed of myself in the slightest").
  5. "The World Ceres" is both explanatory and speculative, as Asimov ponders how humanity might use Ceres for mining and tourism
  6. "The Clock in the Sky" regales the reader with the story of how humanity figured out the speed of light.
  7. "The One and Only" focuses on carbon's unique suitability for becoming the backbone of life.
  8. "The Unlikely Twins" tackle two very different manifestations of carbon: graphite and diamond, and explain how they can be so different and yet consist solely of the same element.
  9. "Through the Microglass" focuses on the discovery of microscopic beings like bacteria and their importance in the fields of medicine and biology.
  10. "Down from the Amoeba" struggles with the concept of "life": are viruses, sperm,  and red bloodcells 'alive'?
  11. "The Cinderalla Compound" builds on this and addresses the discovery of nucleic acid and DNA. 
  12. "Doctor, Doctor, Cut my Throat" features Asimov reducing his surgeon into a laughing fit and lecturing on hormones.
  13. "Lost in Translation", which also appears either Gold or Magic, is an interesting departure from the rest of the book,  stressing the importance of social and cultural context when translating or reading literature from eras past. He uses the Book of Ruth as his prime example, seeing it as not just a love story, but a triumphant endorsement of universal brotherhood. 
  14. "The Ancient and the Ultimate" sees Asimov slyly defend books while pretending to lecture on the supremacy of cassettes (heh) in the future of communication. 
  15. "By the Numbers" addresses both hypocrisy -- people complaining about technological societies and taxes while freely enjoying the benefits of both -- and the need for a society in which computers manage things. (Such societies often appear in Asimov's works, often using a global computer  called  MULTIVAC.)
  16. "The Cruise and I" relates the story of Asimov's cruise off the Florida coast, where he watched the last Apollo takeoff -- which happened to be the first nighttime launch. Asimov usually avoided travel, so I relished this humorous take which ended in splendor as humanity reached out for the moon yet one more time.  Carl Sagan was on that very same cruise, and he appears in the essay twice.
  17. "Academe and I" sees Asimov look back on his careers as an author and professor of biochemistry, giving a minibiography of himself along the way.

I for one enjoyed myself tremendously reading this.

My own copy, purchased in used condition (obviously so) last week. 


  1. I remember learning a lot from Asimov's science books in my teens. They're very easy ways to get into science for those out there who think its too much for them to understand or are in any way science averse.

  2. Ah, yes -- my first Asimov was from my teen years, as well! I dimly remember it being a book on astronomy. It was the first time I'd ever read a serious science book, I think.


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