Comments On Views of the Late Isaac Asimov

asimovLike society in general, science needs a variety of both skills and viewpoints to survive. Some of its devotees have been ingenious experimentalists; others have devised elegant theories solely from their desks. Some combine both skills and manage research teams.  Many scientists, like natural philosophers of yesteryear, remain focused on providing humanity with insight into the universe. Others want to assist engineers and investors to derive more practical benefits. Since the pursuit of convenience is accompanied by costs to culture, health and the environment, we are also lucky to have scientists who focus on providing checks and balances.

We all tend to gravitate towards people with similar viewpoints, which is probably why I have always looked up to the late Isaac Asimov. He was a biochemistry specialist but abandoned a career path that would have blocked off the beautiful branches of what he called the “orchard of science.” Instead he devoted the rest of his life to science fiction and science popularization, reminding us that science’s survival also depends on generalists and educators.

Through a series of developments of absorbing lack of interest (as far as these pages are concerned), I found myself doing research on a biochemical topic. In that area of study I obtained my Ph.D., and in no time at all I was teaching biochemistry at a medical school.

But even that was too wide a subject. From books to nonfiction, to science, to chemistry, to biochemistry—and not yet enough. The orchard had to be narrowed down further. To do research, I had to find myself a niche within biochemistry, so I began work on nucleic acids

And at about that point, I rebelled! I could not stand the claustrophobia that clamped down upon me. I looked with horror, backward and forward across the years, at a horizon that was narrowing down and narrowing down to so petty a portion of the orchard. What I wanted was all the orchard, or as much of it as I could cover in a lifetime of running…

I have never been sorry for my stubborn advance toward generalization. To be sure, I can’t wander in detail through all the orchard, any more than anyone else can, no matter how stupidly determined I may be to do so. Life is far too short and the mind is far too limited. But I can float over the orchard as in a balloon.

As a voting citizen, a scientist can never isolate himself from politics. Leaders serve us well if they do their best to address a variety of society’s selfless pursuits. But it’s all too easy to pretend and deceive while in a position of power. Asimov often complained that while a good scientist will be ruined professionally by being dishonest, many politicians and businessmen thrive on purposely distorting the truth.

Having said that, young scientists should not fall into the trap of thinking that the world would be better off if power was all in the hands of scientists. Being human they can easily be biased by self-interest and shallow ideologies. The world has had leaders who had a science background, but from a utilitarian point of view, they fall on various spots on a spectrum of quality.  What we need is for leaders to tap the best qualities of a variety of people. And honesty is not only the mark of a good scientist, but it’s essential in all occupations, from plumber to president. When that quality was lacking in a President, Asimov was never shy to speak out:

Asimov vehemently opposed Richard Nixon, considering him “a crook and a liar”. He closely followed Watergate, and was pleased when the president was forced to resign. But Asimov was dismayed over the pardon extended to Nixon by his successor: “I was not impressed by the argument that it has spared the nation an ordeal. To my way of thinking, the ordeal was necessary to make certain it would never happen again.”[205]

high-angle-view-of-crowd-waiting-at-crosswalk-to-cross-road-556706617-58d0377f5f9b581d72f70c90The more we crowd ourselves on the planet, the more likely we are to communicate diseases amongst ourselves, take ourselves for granted, and stress our planet for the resources we need to survive. Asimov, who was usually very optimistic, felt strongly about this serious problem which we have mostly ignored after a surge of interest in the 1960s and 1970s.

Overpopulation is going to destroy it all… if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears.[214]

 

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Green Grass Without Synthetics

There are benefits to having grass in parks and residential properties. When taken care of, grass becomes a natural carpet on which one can easily rest, play or walk. But to keep Poa pratensis green and thus in a juvenile state requires an investment of energy, an amount that is exaggerated by our questionable habits.

The typical high maintenance option involves buying synthetic fertilizer for spring and autumn applications, herbicide for weeds and pesticides for grubs. Some hire a company to drive around the neighbourhood to periodically spray lawns with the necessary concoction. To avoid the nuisance of a long electrical wire, people buy  gas-powered mowers.  And to prevent leaves and tree seeds from accumulating on lawn, blowers come to the rescue.

Even if people with such habits are aware that making fertilizer is an expensive  process partly because nitrogen does not spontaneously react with molecular hydrogen; even if they know that some fertilizer-pellets inevitably get sprayed onto sidewalks where they damage concrete, induce diarrhea in dogs and end up in storm drains and eventually into waterways and contribute to eutrophication; even if they suspect that the use of pesticides has ecological consequences;  even if they are aware of  the carbon footprint of synthetics and mowers and of the noise pollution of blowers, there is a possibility that they persist with their habits because they believe there is no alternative.

But when there is a will to change, there are always other options. One reason people turn to mass-maintenance techniques is that they plant more grass they can handle. City parks or residents can instead plant more trees, shrubs and cultivate gardens, which is what we did with 2/3 of the lawn we originally had in our backyard. I never spray any of our fruit trees or apply any pesticides to our garden. Instead of synthetic fertilizer, we rely on  a combination of household compost and composted chicken manure.  Grass cannot be eaten, but from July to October we have not needed to buy any tomatoes, garlic, parsley, basil, thyme or Swiss chard. We still have frozen cherries from our tree and we’ve also enjoyed arugula, fresh beans, onions and Mexican peppers, most of which were grown from seed.

P1150783.JPGA city bylaw prevents us from cultivating the front yard, but I manage to sneak in some oregano and bird’s-foot trefoil. They require less water and nitrogen than Kentucky bluegrass and displace  weeds. Since our city does not use pesticides on the grass between our sidewalk and road, dandelions, crabgrass and plantains find their way into our property. But I just pull them out with a hand tool. As an alternative to synthetic fertilizer, mulch from the electric mower is left on the lawn so that essential elements like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can be recycled. To supplement the lawn with more natural fertilizer, we let the dog pee on it and then immediately add collected rainwater to prevent “burning”. Due to their carnivorous diets, dogs’ urea is highly concentrated so it easily creates a hypertonic solution that needs to be diluted. In the spring the melting ice and snow takes care of that. Spots that don’t receive their share of dog pee get coffee grounds, which also keep the lawn green.

Abating the effects global warming involves more than reducing the use of fossil fuels for transportation and electricity-generation. They only account for a combined 45% of greenhouse gases(see pie chart below). Just about everything else ranging from reproduction to growing grass and food also impacts climate change. To solve the problem, regardless of the field of human activity, green or technical, we have to conserve and act more benignly towards ourselves and our surroundings.

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AFOLU is an acronym for agriculture, forestry(deforestation) and other land uses. Its large contribution to greenhouse gases is often ignored in media reports about climate change. Source: www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

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