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Amazon Review of Isaac Asimov, Life and Energy, 1962

Isaac Asimov’s book on life and energy is one of the most impressive I have ever read. Although slightly dated, having been written in 1962, it provides a fascinating history of mankind’s development of energy related science. Our society now depends on this knowledge to enhance almost every aspect of our lives.

The first half of the book begins by contemplating the differences between life and non-life. It proceeds through all the great energy related scientific discoveries to the beginnings of human endeavors to extract useful energy from the atom. In between we are provided an opportunity to revisit energy related physics and chemistry from basic principles of work and energy to heat transfer, thermodynamics, and the kinetic theory of gases. I found my energy related education from grade school to PhD in mechanical engineering covered in a very concise and understandable way.Asimov then goes on to discuss the chemistry and physics of life related energy driven processes in great detail. This goes well beyond my education and is impressive in telling just how much we have learned about energy and its role in the lives of all living things.

One aspect of this book I found most refreshing is that it is totally uncluttered by the climate change issue. The role of carbon dioxide in photosynthesis is discussed in depth, but nary a mention of any possible effect on atmospheric heat transfer. Of course that omission is probably due to the publication date in 1962, before climate change talk became fashionable. A disappointment arises on page 236 where Asimov mentions that the possibility of “helical protein structures is accepted by most biochemists.” Perhaps a later publication date would have allowed for more discussion of discoveries related to that.Finally, Asimov identifies the sun as the major source of energy for life to date and concludes his book including the following passage.

“And the human mind, which is the most elaborately intricate manifestation of life on earth, has a potentiality that has never yet been placed fully to the test. If man is, and always will be, a slave to the laws of thermodynamics, he need not be an entirely helpless one. If he cannot subvert those laws, he can at least guide himself in such a way as to exact the utmost they will yield. With the advent of nuclear power, man has taken a step that is comparable to the discovery of fire (with the discussion of which I began this book). Fire made man no longer directly dependent on the sun for energy and the atom may make man no longer even indirectly dependent on the sun.”

There are the words of a true visionary. Perhaps Amazon could consider publishing a freely available Kindle edition of this book for the benefit of mankind.

(DRP 15/03/09)


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