The Age of the Atom

The focus of twentieth-century physics has been on the infinitesimally small—and the infinitely powerful. The theory of atomism, the study of atomic structure, the subatomic physics of radio activity and fission, the still unsolved problems that constitute the frontier of physics today, all have opened up a new universe to man. In The Electron, Proton, and Neutron, Isaac Asimov gives a brilliant picture of the men and ideas that have given our world the laser beam and the H-bomb, with their mixed legacy of promise and fear.

The two companion volumes to Isaac Asimov’s The Electron, Proton, and NeutronMotion, Sound, and Heat and Light, Magnetism, and Electricity—are also available in Signet Science editions. Each book can be enjoyed independently. Together they form a major contribution by an author acclaimed by the Saturday Review as “one of the few scientists who has the gift of being able to simplify the complext,” and by the Los Angeles Times as “the type of writer needed in our time.…[His books] bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists.”

This third volume of Understanding Physics is not quite up to the level of quality set by Understanding Physics, volume one and Understanding Physics, volume two.

The problem here is that, by even by this point in Asimov’s writing career, discussions of the inner structure of atoms are pretty old hat owing to books like Inside the Atom , The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, and The Neutrino. There’s little Asimov says here that he doesn’t say elsewhere.

In and of itself, that’s not so bad. The presentation isn’t bad, and the coverage is pretty thorough, particularly in terms of electron shells and other concepts that get pretty short shrift in other books.

The real problem here is that the book is so incredibly focused on the electron, proton, and neutron and the nature of elements (from a physicist’s standpoint). (Indeed, the subtitle of the paperback edition from Signet is The Electron, Proton, and Neutron.) We get detailed descriptions of radioactivity, nuclear series, and so on—which are generally not covered as thoroughly elsewhere among Asimov’s works. This aspect of it is good.

It does, however, have a downside: it means that you’re in chapter 13 (of 14 chapters) before antiparticles are mentioned, and chapter 14 (of 14 chapters) before any subatomic particle other than the electron, proton, neutron, and their antiparticles are mentioned. The rich, rich veins of information available even in the mid-1960’s on things like muons, pions, and their ilk, the strong and weak interactions—all these are squeezed into an incredibly short space and barely mentioned.

So the book is very good, but not quite as good as it might be and a slightly disappointing climax to one of Asimov’s best non-fiction works in his entire career.

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