The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science
|Media type||print (Hardback)|
The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science is a general guide to the sciences written by Isaac Asimov. It was first published in 1960 by Basic Books in two volumes, Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences, though some subsequent editions were published as single volumes. A paperback edition was published in 1969 by Washington Square Press in two volumes under the titles The Intelligent Man's Guide to the Physical Sciences and The Intelligent Man's Guide to the Biological Sciences.
Later, updated editions were:
- The New Intelligent Man's Guide to Science (1965)
- Asimov's Guide to Science (1972)
- Asimov's New Guide to Science (1984)
Writing and publication
Asimov was first contacted by Leon Svirsky of Basic Books in 1959 about the possibility of writing a book that would provide an overview of science, and the two met at Asimov's home on 13 May to discuss the details. Six days later, Asimov received a contract for the book, along with a $1500 advance. At this point in his life, it had been just over a year since Asimov had given up his teaching duties at Boston University and taken up writing full-time. He had published 11 nonfiction books, including books on chemistry, physics, astronomy, a college-level biochemistry textbook, and a collection of science essays. However, he was momentarily daunted by the prospect of writing a major book on all of science, and he delayed signing the contract until 15 July, after receiving encouragement from his friend (and future wife) Janet Jeppson.
The book's title was Svirsky's, chosen as a deliberate homage to George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. Asimov feared the title would be seen as elitist and condescending, and he suggested Everyone's Guide to Science as an alternative, but Svirsky refused. Years later, when he was confronted by annoyed feminists who asked why the book was restricted to men, Asimov would claim that the "intelligent man" of the title referred to himself — thus anticipating the title Asimov's Guide to Science adopted for the third edition. Svirsky also wanted the book confined to scientific advances made in the 20th century. Asimov, however, preferred to approach each field in a historical manner, starting with the ancient Greeks or, at the very least, Galileo. As often happened when Asimov was given editorial directions he disagreed with, he ignored them, and wrote the book just as he wanted to. In organizing the various fields of science, Asimov chose to begin with the universe as a whole and work inward in narrowing circles until he was inside the brain at the end.
Asimov began work on the book on 2 October, and found that he had no trouble with it at all, writing anywhere from 6000 to 10,000 words a day without any sense of strain. By 27 January 1958, Asimov was able to deliver the first half of the completed manuscript to Basic Books, but at a meeting a month later, Svirsky suggested cutting the book in half so it could fit in one volume. At that point, Asimov was only two chapters shy of finishing the book, but saw no reason to complete it if it would be subjected to such radical abridgement, and halted work. He resumed work after being informed on 11 March That Svirsky would not try to reduce the book by half, but would instead publish it in two volumes. Svirsky also insisted that the book include an introduction by the geneticist George Wells Beadle. Asimov felt that his work didn't need an introduction by anyone else, and even though he found Beadle's introduction to be very elegant, he still resented its inclusion. Asimov delivered the final chapters to Basic Books on 21 April, and the appendices on 4 May.
When he began proofing the book's galleys, Asimov was horrified to find that Svirsky still cut out some 30% of the book's material. Asimov reinserted as much information into the galley proofs as he could, but he remained unhappy with the book. The book, Asimov's thirty-ninth, was published by Basic Books in October 1960.
- "Here, at last, is something new in popular science writing. For once an author has taken the whole of modern science as his oyster, and he has shown himself equal to the task without patronizing the reader, taking him for a babe-in-arms, or doing devilish damage to the contents by culling his material from thirdhand sources. For at least one reviewer who started with a considerable allergy toward all popularized science, the world will never again be quite the same."
However, John Pfeiffer, in the 13 November 1960 issue of the New York Times, wrote,
- "The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science suffers from trying to cover too much in too little space. Such an ambitious project demands exactly the same standards of writing as any popular-science book of more limited scope. Ideas and analogies must be presented as fully as specific findings. It is a mistake to compress material to a point where the result is almost a listing of developments with inadequate transitions in between, which is the tendency in this book. As a result, we miss the pace and vividness of individual style. Mr. Asimov has prepared a good introduction to modern research, but it would have been better if he had allowed himself more space for the unique, imaginative writing of which he is so obviously capable."
The Guide was nominated for a National Book Award in the nonfiction category, losing to William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Asimov has stated that The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science led to his recognition as a major figure in the field of science writing.