The Isaac Asimov Archives - Isaac Asimov - E-Book

The Isaac Asimov Archives E-Book

Isaac Asimov

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Isaac Asimov is one of the most famous science fiction authors. Besides fiction, he wrote several scientific texts, that you'll find in this collection.

This collection contains all volumes of Worlds Within Worlds, The Genetic Effect of Radiation, and the short story Youth. 

The Story of Nuclear Energy: Worlds Within Worlds covers the entire story of nuclear energy from a basic explanation of atomic weights, energy and electricity to nuclear fission and fusion. 

The Genetic Effect of Radiation is a booklet initially provided by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, with the following statement : "Nuclear energy is playing a vital role in the life of every man, woman, and child in the United States today. In the years ahead, it will affect increasingly all the people of the Earth. It is essential that all Americans gain an understanding of this vital force if they are to discharge thoughtfully their responsibilities as citizens and if they are to realize fully the myriad benefits that nuclear energy offers them. The United States Atomic Energy Commission provides this booklet to help you achieve such understanding". -- Edward J. Brunenkant, Director, Division of Technical Information.

This edition will please every lover of science and of science fiction. 

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The Isaac Asimov's Archives

(Worlds Within Worlds: The Story of Nuclear Energy vol. 1 to 3 ; The Genetic Effects of Radiation ; Youth)

by Isaac Asimov

Copyright © Orpheus Editions 2020.

Worlds Within Worlds: The Story of Nuclear Energy Volume 1 Atomic Weights · Energy · Electricity

Nothing in the history of mankind has opened our eyes to the possibilities of science as has the development of atomic power. In the last 200 years, people have seen the coming of the steam engine, the steamboat, the railroad locomotive, the automobile, the airplane, radio, motion pictures, television, the machine age in general. Yet none of it seemed quite so fantastic, quite so unbelievable, as what man has done since 1939 with the atom ... there seem to be almost no limits to what may lie ahead: inexhaustible energy, new worlds, ever-widening knowledge of the physical universe. Isaac Asimov

The U. S. Energy Research and Development Administration publishes a series of booklets for the general public.

Please write to the following address for a title list or for information on a specific subject:

USERDA—Technical Information Center

P. O. Box 62

Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830

ISAAC ASIMOV received his academic degrees from Columbia University and is Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. He is a prolific author who has written over 150 books in the past 20 years, including about 20 science fiction works, and books for children. His many excellent science books for the public cover subjects in mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology, such as The Genetic Code, Inside the Atom, Building Blocks of the Universe, Understanding Physics, The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, and Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology.

In 1965 Dr. Asimov received the James T. Grady Award of the American Chemical Society for his major contribution in reporting science progress to the public.

A total eclipse of the sun.


In a way, nuclear energy has been serving man as long as he has existed. It has served all of life; it has flooded the earth for billions of years. The sun, you see, is a vast nuclear engine, and the warmth and light that the sun radiates is the product of nuclear energy.

In order for man to learn to produce and control nuclear energy himself, however (something that did not take place until this century), three lines of investigation—atoms, electricity, and energy—had to develop and meet.

We will begin with atoms.



Units of Electricity

Through the 18th century, scientists had been fascinated by the properties of electricity. Electricity seemed, at the time, to be a very fine fluid that could extend through ordinary matter without taking up any room.

Electricity did more than radiate through matter, however. It also produced important changes in matter. In the first years of the 19th century, it was found that a current of electricity could cause different atoms or different groups of atoms to move in opposite directions through a liquid in which they were dissolved.

The English scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) noted in 1832 that a given quantity of electricity seemed to liberate the same number of atoms of a variety of different elements. In some cases, though, it liberated just half the expected number of atoms; or even, in a few cases, just a third.

Scientists began to speculate that electricity, like matter, might consist of tiny units. When electricity broke up a molecule, perhaps a unit of electricity attached itself to each atom. In that case, the same quantity of electricity, containing the same number of units, would liberate the same number of atoms.

In the case of some elements, each atom could attach 2 units of electricity to itself, or perhaps even 3. When that happened a given quantity of electricity would liberate only one-half, or only one-third, the usual number of atoms. (Thus, 18 units of electricity would liberate 18 atoms if distributed 1 to an atom; only 9 atoms if distributed 2 to an atom; and only 6 atoms if distributed 3 to an atom.)

It was understood at the time that electricity existed in two varieties, which were called positive and negative. It appeared that if an atom attached a positive unit of electricity to itself it would be pulled in one direction through the solution by the voltage. If it attached a negative unit of electricity to itself it would be pulled in the other direction.

Michael Faraday

The units of electricity were a great deal more difficult to study than the atomic units of matter, and throughout the 19th century they remained elusive. In 1891, though, the Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) suggested that the supposed unit of electricity be given a name at least. He called the unit an “electron”.

Cathode Rays

An electric current flows through a closed circuit of some conducting material, such as metal wires. It starts at one pole of a battery, or of some other electricity generating device, and ends at the other. The two poles are the positive pole or “anode” and the negative pole or “cathode”.

If there is a break in the circuit, the current will usually not flow at all. If, however, the break is not a large one, and the current is under a high driving force (which is called the “voltage”), then the current may leap across the break. If two ends of a wire, making up part of a broken circuit, are brought close to each other with nothing but air between, a spark may leap across the narrowing gap before they actually meet and, while it persists, the current will flow despite the break.

The light of the spark, and the crackling sound it makes, are the results of the electric current interacting with molecules of air and heating them. Neither the light nor the sound is the electricity itself. In order to detect the electricity, the current ought to be forced across a gap containing nothing, not even air.

In order to do that, wires would have to be sealed into a glass tube from which all (or almost all) the air was withdrawn. This was not easy to do and it was not until 1854 that Heinrich Geissler (1814-1879), a German glass-blower and inventor, accomplished this feat. The wires sealed into such a “Geissler tube” could be attached to the poles of an electric generator, and if enough voltage was built up, the current would leap across the vacuum.

A Geissler tube.

Such experiments were first performed by the German physicist Julius Plücker (1801-1868). In 1858 he noticed that when the current flowed across the vacuum there was a greenish glow about the wire that was attached to the cathode of the generator. Others studied this glow and finally the German physicist Eugen Goldstein (1850-1931) decided in 1876 that there were rays of some sort beginning at the wire attached to the negatively charged cathode and ending at the part of the tube opposite the cathode. He called them “cathode rays”.

These cathode rays, it seemed, might well be the electric current itself, freed from the metal wires that usually carried it. If so, determining the nature of the cathode rays might reveal a great deal about the nature of the electric current. Were cathode rays something like light and were they made up of tiny waves? Or were they a stream of particles possessing mass?

There were physicists on each side of the question. By 1885, however, the English physicist William Crookes (1832-1919) showed that cathode rays could be made to turn a small wheel when they struck that wheel on one side. This seemed to show that the cathode rays possessed mass and were a stream of atom-like particles, rather than a beam of mass-less light. Furthermore, Crookes showed that the cathode rays could be pushed sideways in the presence of a magnet. (This effect, when current flows in a wire, is what makes a motor work.) This meant that, unlike either light or ordinary atoms, the cathode rays carried an electric charge.

J. J. Thomson in his laboratory. On his right are early X-ray pictures.

This view of the cathode rays as consisting of a stream of electrically charged particles was confirmed by another English physicist, Joseph John Thomson (1856-1940). In 1897 he showed that the cathode rays could also be made to take a curved path in the presence of electrically charged objects. The particles making up the cathode rays were charged with negative electricity, judging from the direction in which they were made to curve by electrically charged objects.

Thomson had no hesitation in maintaining that these particles carried the units of electricity that Faraday’s work had hinted at. Eventually, Stoney’s name for the units of electricity was applied to the particles that carried those units. The cathode rays, in other words, were considered to be made up of streams of electrons and Thomson is usually given credit for having discovered the electron.

The extent to which cathode rays curved in the presence of a magnet or electrically charged objects depended on the size of the electric charge on the electrons and on the mass of the electrons. Ordinary atoms could be made to carry an electric charge and by comparing their behavior with those of electrons, some of the properties of electrons could be determined.

There were, for instance, good reasons to suppose that the electron carried a charge of the same size as one that a hydrogen atom could be made to carry. The electrons, however, were much easier to pull out of their straight-line path than the charged hydrogen atom was. The conclusion drawn from this was that the electron had much less mass than the hydrogen atom.

Thomson was able to show, indeed, that the electron was much lighter than the hydrogen atom, which was the lightest of all the atoms. Nowadays we know the relationship quite exactly. We know that it would take 1837.11 electrons to possess the mass of a single hydrogen atom. The electron is therefore a “subatomic particle”; the first of this sort to be discovered.

In 1897, then, two types of mass-containing particles were known. There were the atoms, which made up ordinary matter, and the electrons, which made up electric current.



Was there a connection between these two sets of particles—atoms and electrons? In 1897, when the electron was discovered, a line of research that was to tie the two kinds of particles together had already begun.

In 1895 the German physicist Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen (1845-1923) was working with cathode rays. He found that if he made the cathode rays strike the glass at the other end of the tube, a kind of radiation was produced. This radiation was capable of penetrating glass and other matter. Roentgen had no idea as to the nature of the radiation, and so called it “X rays”. This name, containing “X” for “unknown”, was retained even after physicists worked out the nature of X rays and found them to be light-like radiation made up of waves much shorter than those of ordinary light.

Antoine Henri Becquerel.


At once, physicists became fascinated with X rays and began searching for them everywhere. One of those involved in the search was the French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852-1908). A certain compound, potassium uranyl sulfate, glowed after being exposed to sunlight and Becquerel wondered if this glow, like the glow on the glass in Roentgen’s X-ray tube, contained X rays.