Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Layman's Guide to the Atom

One of my very favourite books is Atomic Energy for All: A Layman's Guide to the Atom and its Uses, published in 1960.

"Nuclear fission has many by-products" says Chapman in the cover blurb. "Some are harmful, but the gravest of all is fear".


Here are some more snippets of Chapman's inimitably avuncular and cheery style.

What has helium in common with neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon? All are notoriously independent, proud and indifferent to their surroundings.

If we could isolate a single helium atom, magnify it enormously and flatten it out on the page like a wild flower pressed in a book, it would look like this..

It is from this that [scientists] deduce that the bonding of atoms into molecules is due to the interplay of electrons with insufficient work to do in their own spheres—just as a man playing in the outfield in a slow cricket match might strike up an acquaintance with the onlookers.

Atoms of U235 may be thought of as quarrelsome people. While they are widely separated over the district, or, better still, the whole country, all is well. But put enough of them together in the same neighbourhood and trouble is inevitable.

The trouble with atomic energy is the bombs. How nice if nobody had any; if we could tap the atom for industrial and research projects, but couldn't use it as an explosive. ... Or would it?

And there are pictures, too! Click for larger versions...

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