Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"The Explosions Within Us" (Only A Trillion)

According to Isaac Asimov's Essays, (a site that lists them and what books they are collected in, and reviews them, but doesn't go in-depth as ths blog does), "The Explosions Within Us" first appeared in Only A Trillion , in other words it was written specifically for the book, and published for the first and only time in 1957.

The Quotable Asimov
All mathematical treatment of radioactive breakdown is statistical in nature and statistics work more poorly as the numbers grow smaller.

First Paragraph
It is all very well to speak of radioactive atoms that occur in the soil, as I have been doing in the previous chapter. There is something objective and detached about atoms exploding within rocks and soil. But plants grow in the soil and animals live on plants. Is it possible that radioactive atoms may find their way into living tissue and even into our own bodies?

It is not only possible, it is certain.

Asimov discusses the trace elements in our body, broken down by atom. (We need only a trace of cobalt to survive, but that trace actually consists of several million atoms.)

He also talks about the existence of the radioactive potassium-40 in our bodies. There is three times as much potassium-40 in our bodies as iodine.

"There is always a chance" Asimov comments "...that the unfortunate molecule that finds itself in the path of a free radical (a water molecule with a piece knocked off by a beta particle) may be one of the nucleo-protein molecules called "genes". There are several thousand genes in each cell, each gene controlling some particular facet of the cell's chemistry. If one of those genes is damaged or altered as a result of a collision with a free radical, the cell's chemical is also altered to some extent...this change is called a mutation."

He then moves on to discuss carbon-14, and how much of that is in our bodies, and why that enables us to date dead bodies (as in mummies).

Final Paragraph
This is the same as saying that if you live to be 70, the chances that a particular cell in your body will ever have experienced even a single carbon-14 breakdown in its genes is only one in 260.

So sleep in comfort!

A note
Asimov has a note at the end of this article, pointing out he''d wriiten it in November 1956. He'd wriiten an article on the same topic that had appeared in the February 1955 issue of Journal of Chemical Education. "That, I believe, was the first mention in print of the relationship of carbon-14 to genetics." He goes on to say, "In 1958, when atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs still went on wholesale, Linus Pauling published a paper in Science (Nov 14, 1958) which commented that the increase in carbon-14 content in the atmosphere would increase the incidence of undesirable mutations. Asimov states he received a letter from Pauling "which refers in most kindly fashion to my article." But he doesn't say exactly what Linus said (and if you read Yours, Isaac Asimov, a collection of Asimov's correspondence, typically Linus only wrote when he was pointing out an error in on of Asimov's articles.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Atoms That Vanish (Only A Trillion)

I'm not sure in what magazine or periodical "The Atoms That Vanish" first appeared. Wikipedia, a useful resource but one that must be verified by outside sources, says it was "first published in Change!, 1957".

But the Asimov Online site says that it was "First Published In: 1957, The Tyrannasaurus Prescription (collection #37)"

All I know for sure is that it appeared in Asimov's first collection of essays, Only A Trillion, which was published in 1957, and has not been included in any other collection since then.

Asimov discusses radioactive half-life, and gives data on the half-life of various isotopes. (All this information is still valid today.)

First paragraph
I think I can assume that the readers of this book all know that there are atoms which are unstable and which break down by ejecting particles from within their nuclei. Sometimes the ejection of one particle is sufficient to allow what remains of the nucleus to be stable. Sometimes a dozen or more particles must be ejected one after the other in order for stability to be attained.

First, Asimov makes a point of talking about percentages and statistics.

Dealing with a large group of objects, however, is not the same as dealing with only one object. Once you have a large group, you can use statistics to predict the future, The larger the group, the more accurate (percentage -wise) the prediction. (My bolding.)

I mention this paragraph because today, in September 2008 we are undergoing are Presidential Election Cycle, and not a day passes that some article, based on the results of a poll, is published. And within the body of the article, sweeping statements are made about an entire group of people, for example: 67% of all White Democrates won't vote for Obama because he's black. 90% of all White Democrats think blacks are lazy. (Those aren't the actual numbers from the article, I'm just making them up, but the gist is the same.)

And yet, if you do down to the very bottom paragraph of the article, you're told how many people participated. In the case I'm referring to above, it was 2,227 people, but typically generalizations are categorically stated to be true, based on a poll sampling of 1,000 people.

And to me, a poll sampling of 1,000 people, when it's a question of what 300 Million people will do, is way too small a sample size to be saying so postively, ALL people think this. ALL people think that. Sure, opinion polls have their place, but the way the poll data is stated is done so in such a way as to sway people to believe something. Otherwise, the sample size would be revealed in the first paragraph, and instead of saying, "All Democrats think that.." they would stay "All Democrats who participated in this poll think that..."

(And, as an aside, Asimov was a Democrat. I'm a Republican.)

But enough of that digression. Back to the essay.

Half-life of Isotopes
Asimov mentions throughout the article some of the isotopes and their half-lifes. There are also several tables which illustrate his comments, (and explains how scientists have come to date the existence of the Universe, and the Big Bang Theory - though he doesn't mention it by that name.)

Uranium-238 - 4 and a half billion years
Uranium-235 - 700 Million years
Thorium-232 - 14 billion years
Potassium 40 - 1 and a 5th billion years
Rubidium-87 - 62 billion years

Riddle me this, gentle reader. (And use the Comment section to explain it to me and other readers.) How do we know that Rubidium-87 has a half-life of 62 billion years?
If the Universe has been in existence for only 5 billion years, how can we deduce how long Rubidium-87 takes to break down?

Final Paragraph
The chances, however, would be 30 to 1 against there being even a single atom of astatine-215 present.

And then there's Wikipedia...
I just checked Rubidium at Wikipedia, and the author of the very detailed article there says that it has a half-life of 49 billion years (not the 62 billion Asimov says.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Only A Trillion (1957)

Only A Trillion (1957) is the first collection of essays that Asimov ever had published. They are not from his Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction essays, which starts with Fact and Fancy (1962).

Only A Trillion consists of 10 essays and two faux science articles.

Here's the table of contents, and I'll start by discussing the very first essay, The Atoms That Vanish, tomoroow.

1. The Atoms That Vanish
2. The Explosions Within Us
3. Hemoglobin and the University
4. Victory on Paper
5. The Abnormality of Being Normal
6. Planets Have an Air About Them
7. The Unblind Workings of Chance
8. The Trapping of the Sun
9. The Sea-Urchin and We
10. The Sound of Panting
11. The Marvelous Properties of Thiotimoline
12. Pate De Foix Gras

Entire Set of Asimov's essays

The Complete set of his essays. Don't have the Copyright dates for some - will update when they arrive.

1. Only A Trillion (1957)
2. Fact and Fancy (1962)
3. View from a Height (1963)
4. Adding a Dimension (1964)
5. Of Time, Space & Other Things (1965)
6. From Earth to Heaven (1966)
7. Is Anybody There? (1967)
8. Today and Tomorrow and--
9. Please Explain
10. Science Past - Science Future
11. The Beginning and the End
12. Life and Time
13. Change!
14. The Roving Mind
15. The Dangers of Intelligence
16. Science, Numbers and I (1968)
17. The Solar System and Back (1970)
18. The Stars in Their Courses (1971)
19. Left Hand of the Electron (1972)
20. The Tragedy of the Moon (1973)
21. Asimov on Astronomy
22. Asimon on Chemistry
23. Of Matters Great & Small (1975)
24. Asimov on Physics
25. The Planet That Wasn't (1976)
26. Asimov on Numbers
27. Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1977)
28. The Road to Infinity (1979)
29. The Sun Shines Bright (1981)
30. Asimov on Science Fiction (1982)
31. Counting the Eons (1983)
32. X Stands for Unknown (1984)
33. The Subatomic Monster (1985)
34. Far as Human Eye Could See (1987)
35. Past, Present and Future
36. The Relativity of Wrong (1988)
37. Out of Everywhere (1990)
38. The Secret of The Universe (1990)
39. Robot Visions (1990)

The F & SF Essay Collection

Isaac Asimov's Essays Written for Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine

22 volumes, plus 4 "retreads".

1. Fact and Fancy (1962)
2. View from a Height (1963)
3. Adding a Dimension (1964)
4. Of Time, Space & Other Things (1965)
5. From Earth to Heaven (1966)
6. Science, Numbers and I (1968)
7. The Solar System and Back (1970)
8. The Stars in Their Courses (1971)
9. The Left Hand of the Electron (1972)
10. The Tragedy of the Moon (1973)
11. Asimov on Astronomy (1974) - republished from other collections
12. Asimov on Chemistry - republished from other collections
13. Of Matters Great & Small (1975)
14. Asimov on Physics - republished from other collections
15. The Planet That Wasn't (1976)
16. Asimov on Numbers - republished from other collections
17. Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1977)
18. The Road to Infinity (1979)
19. The Sun Shines Bright (1981)
20. Counting the Eons (1983)
21. X Stands for Unknown (1984)
22. The Subatomic Monster (1985)
23. Far as Human Eye Could See (1987)
24. The Relativity of Wrong (1988)
25. Out of Everywhere (1990)
26. The Secret of The Universe (1990)


Over the last couple of months, I have been compiling a collection of all of Asimov's essay collections. There's more than 26 of them (he wrote 26 volumes worth for Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, and several more collections worth of essays for other magazines).

I'm not looking for first editions, and so it has been very easy to do, using Amazon's used book feature. I'm sad to report that most of these books are selling for 1 cent! (It's the postage where they make their money, everybody charges $3.99 for postage.)

What's even sadder is that most of these books have been "de-accessioned" from libraries.

And that just bugs me! Asimov is one of the greatest science populizers, his books, while between 40 and 10 years old, deal with many topics that are still relevant today. And yet today's generation will never be able to "accidentally" come across an Asimov book and be introduced in easy stages to practically every subject in the world!

So, in this blog, I'm going to discuss each and every one of Asimov's essays (at least, those collected in anthologies...there may yet be a few that remain uncollected, though I doubt it.)