Letters to Asimov

asimov

Isaac Asimov

[Part 1 of 2]

If you were to explore Linus Pauling’s extensive personal library, which covers everything from ancient philosophy to the life and times of Joseph Priestley to novels authored by John Grisham, you would find a large and dog-eared section dedicated to science fiction. Pauling was an avid reader of the genre and one of his favorite authors was Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation Trilogy and Pebble in the Sky were left a little weak in the binding by Pauling from repeated reads. Pauling was so taken with these and other sci-fi works that he even briefly considered writing a novel himself, though he never found the time amidst all of his other pursuits.

Pauling’s connection to the world of science fiction remained especially tied to a periodical called Fantasy and Science Fiction, which he read thoroughly and often, and in which Isaac Asimov frequently published. Initially through this joint association with the periodical, Pauling and Asimov developed a robust correspondence that lasted for many years. The duo’s relationship evolved accordingly, with Pauling often serving as a volunteer editor, a sometimes royal “pain in the Asimov,” and always a steadfast friend.


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Ever watchful and equipped with a critical eye, Pauling regularly expressed qualms with multiple science fiction writers, including some of his favorites, like Asimov. Pauling’s correspondence with Asimov began in 1959 with a fan letter of sorts, which Asimov later praised for, “the gracious way in which [it] referred to my work,” as well as the pride that it had bestowed upon him to feel that he had, “however tangentially and distantly,” been an inspiration to Linus Pauling.  Asimov considered Pauling to be one of the greatest scientists alive, and in 1963 he listed him in Fantasy and Science Fiction as being among the top 72 scientists of all time.

Naturally, Pauling was pleased to be viewed in this way and quickly wrote to Asimov to thank him for the plaudit. However, being something of a perfectionist, he also suggested a slightly altered description of his work for increased accuracy, in the event that Asimov might use the sketch for future publications.

Pauling’s “first round of edits” on Asimov’s work didn’t stop there, as he had noticed a far more egregious error in Asimov’s list of great scientists: namely, quantum theorist Louis de Broglie was listed as having died, but Pauling assured Asimov that de Broglie was most definitely still alive. In his reply, Asimov identified the source of his error: he had accidentally looked up Louis’ brother Maurice, who had died in 1960, in a careless perusal of Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. “I am quite embarrassed at having mistakenly killed poor de Broglie,” Asimov wrote, adding, “I can assure you that I have unkilled him.”


Their correspondence continued, and a year later Pauling wrote with more corrections on some calculations that Asimov had published concerning the mass of electrons replacing the sun and the mass of electrons replacing the Earth – proportional to the true masses of the sun and the Earth – required to produce a force of electrostatic repulsion equal to the gravitational force of attraction between the sun and the Earth at the same distance. Pauling explained that, upon review, he found the two masses that Asimov had given to be rather a bit too small:

The factor needed to correct each of them is a large number: it is 1 followed by 21 zeros. From time to time teachers and students write to me to point out errors in my books College Chemistry and General Chemistry. So far, I think, no one has reported an error in these books quite so large as this one.

Asimov replied that the figures had seemed small to him as well but that, in writing the original piece, he had gone over the mathematics and, believing the reasoning to be sound, had convinced himself that common sense and intuition on the matter were irrelevant. He admitted

when I got your letter, my heart sank for I knew I was wrong if you said I was. Thank you, Professor Pauling, for taking the trouble and time to save me from my own stupidity… For heavens’ sake, please don’t stop reading my articles. I need someone to catch these points.

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In retrospect, it would appear that Asimov had opened Pandora’s Box as, after inviting Pauling to pay close attention to his science fiction writing, the letters correcting his work became far more frequent.

A characteristic example came about by way of a 1978 submission to Fantasy and Science Fiction. In it, Asimov claimed that the French scientists Guillaume Amontons and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac had observed that if a gas at the freezing point of water was decreased in temperature to -1 C, then both the volume and the pressure of the gas would decline by 1/273 of the temperature. Pauling declared in no uncertain terms that, “This statement and the rest of the discussion on this page are wrong.”

What Asimov should have said, Pauling explained, was that if the volume is constant, the pressure decreases by 1/273. Likewise, if pressure is kept constant, then volume decreases by 1/273. As such, “if for some reason the fractional decrease in volume were kept the same as the fractional decrease in pressure, each of them would be 1/546.”

Asimov responded courteously. “It is always with mingled pride and apprehension that I realize you have your eye on me,” he wrote. “You remain my favorite scientist, and may you continue to flourish for seven more decades at least.”


Pauling did indeed continue to flourish, and even as he neared the twilight of his life the letters to Asimov still showed up. To wit: in a 1986 piece, Asimov had claimed that the curvature of the Earth was 0.000012 miles to the mile. This, Pauling alerted him, would make curvature dimensionless. “The usual definition of curvature is that it is the reciprocal of the radius of curvature, which for the earth is 4,000 miles,” he corrected. “Accordingly, the curvature of the earth is 0.00025 reciprocal miles.”

The quantity that Asimov gave for the curvature, according to Pauling, yielded the correct answer only by ignoring his error in dimensions and only at a distance of 3.3 miles from a given point on the surface of the Earth, but not at any other distance. Asimov replied with dismay: he had done some “quick back of the envelope calculations and was, of course, egregiously wrong.”

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