Great Book: Asimov on Numbers

A collection of seventeen essays about numbers and mathematics from that great polymath of the twentieth century, Isaac Asimov.

The Master has a way of explaining complicated concepts compellingly by relating them to common experiences, and he doesn't fail to deliver when it comes to numbers. But this isn't any kind of coherent treatise; instead it's a collection of separate explorations of our numeric quirks.

These essays were originally published in the 1960's and they are charmingly dated both scientifically and culturally. Some astronomical information is now out of date. Asimov cheerfully and unapologetically uses the Western names for places (when's the last time you heard someone refer to 'Formosa') and the term 'Mohammadans'.

Asimov is an easy and amusing prose writer. It's easy to see why this ended up on the list of good books to read on vacation. On one level I am a little disappointed that my first 'great book' by a great science fiction writer is neither science fiction nore particularly substantial. On other levels I must be satisfied that Asimov is represented by what he does best, an engaging work of popular science.

I grew up with the man; I have some small affection for him. If I had to pick authors who served as 'mentors' to me, as referred to in that article in the Guardian about men's favorite books, Asimov would probably be on the list. I didn't just read his seminal science fiction works (short and long) but also (over and over) his edited collections of short YA stories, his joke collectionsm his guide to the Bible, and so on, and so on.

But like all of those great male science fiction authors I grew up with (excepted Larry Niven) he died before I could get around to telling him how awesome he was.

A couple years ago I found out the proximate cause of his death. He died of AIDS, contracted from a blood transfusion during a bypass operation. His family didn't reveal his condition until ten years after his death. An interesting, and no doubt agonizing, choice.

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