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From Aborigines to Zircons: Science Facts by the Asimovs

SCIENCE doesn't sit still, and neither did Isaac Asimov. During his 72 years on this planet, Asimov published nearly 500 books of science fiction and science fact, with everything from instructions on how to use the slide rule to Bible criticism. On a good day, Asimov could produce 3,000 words of finished prose. But despite his frenetic pace, nearly everything that Asimov wrote was a polished gem: clear and concise, easy to understand, and a good story to boot.

Asimov's last book, "Frontiers II: More Recent Discoveries About Life, Earth, Space, and the Universe," is a collection of his weekly science columns distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. In its pages are reports sent back from the edge of human exploration - tales of research that is happening right now and approachable explanations of why scientists do what they do, all told by one of the world's masters of science storytelling.

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The power of these stories is that they show science as a process, rather than as a sequence of finished results. On more than one occasion, Asimov writes about mistakes that have been corrected, formerly accepted "facts" that have been found untrue, and theories that have gone out of vogue - sometimes to return again with more force. Taken together, these columns paint a picture of humanity slowly discovering more about itself, its past and its future.

Readers of Asimov's weekly column never knew what to expect: biology, geology, anthropology, chemistry, space science, or computers - Asimov made everything understandable.

"Saturn's rings are the most beautiful objects in the solar system," he writes of that planet's slowly vanishing rings. "While the other outer planets have rings, those that Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune possess are thin, dark, and unimportant in appearance. Saturn's rings are large, bright, and glorious."

In this book, Asimov also explains how scientists have been able to make diamonds that are harder than those made by nature, describes how anthropologists date findings at archaeological digs, and lays waste to the notion that somebody might grow rich one day by figuring out how to extract gold from seawater (two Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemists discovered that there simply isn't enough). He writes about new findings that shed light on the origins of the human brain and intellect and wonder s why Europeans missed the supernova of 1054 when the event was recorded by both Chinese and native American astronomers.

When Isaac Asimov became ill in the winter of 1991-92, he began sharing the work of writing his columns with his second wife, Janet. After Isaac's death, Janet Asimov continued the series on her own. A quarter of the stories in "Frontiers II" are her work, and they make equally good reading.

Comparing the work of the two Asimovs makes an interesting project. Isaac is an unquestioned technological optimist, ready to have mankind create colonies in space if we should happen to make Earth uninhabitable.

Janet has a much more cautious tone toward the supposed benefits of technology. Perhaps this is a result of her training as a psychiatrist: She seems more worried about humanity's self-destructive tendencies - especially where the environment is at issue.

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Janet is also far more cautious about presenting her own opinions as fact - especially opinions about the importance of scientific exploration. For Isaac, the discovery of new knowledge was an end in itself: there was no need to justify spending money to find out the makeup of matter, the history of mankind, or the geology of Mars. Janet is much more concerned at placing scientific work within a social context. It's a refreshing point of view that is all too often missing from science journalists.

The problem with collections such as "Frontiers II," of course, is that each of the columns was designed to stand on its own, rather than to be published as a unified body of work.

In the first quarter of the book, which collects the stories about the life sciences, many of the columns repeat the same basic facts: that organic life began in the sea, that it started 3 billion years ago, that animals are relative latecomers to this world, and so on. Although "Frontiers II" is an easy book to pick up and dive into, it's also an easy book to put down.

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