Book Review: Atom

Issac Asimov was a prolific author of science fiction, but also of popular science books. I picked up his Atom: journey across the subatomic cosmos years ago as an optional text for a chemistry class, and promptly didn’t read it until after I’d graduated. After reading, I immediately regretted my delay, as the book is truly wonderful.

"Atom: journey across the subatomic cosmos" by Isaac Asimov

Atom is technically a history of the science of discovering and understanding the atom, a story of the evolution of particle physics, but cutting through the camouflaging story, I found it was actually a guide for budding scientists. The science content is clear with beautiful analogies to explain concepts, and the story accurately describes the state-of-the-art with descriptions of the types of questions still outstanding at the time of publication (1992, before the Large Hadron Collider came online), but what I found absolutely enchanting were the parenthetical asides. Through direct commentary to the reader, Asimov reveals what it means to be a scientist by sharing his opinions, advice, and even pure snark, carefully separated from the facts of his story. His criticism of the naming of specific particles is particularly hilarious.

The one place this book disappoints is with the illustrations. The illustrations are often simplistic to the point of bafflement, adding confusion instead of clarity. The image captioned with “Taken at the highest level of magnification, the substance of the Universe is grainy, not smooth” (page 117 from the original printing) stands out for being totally unnecessary, not adding anything to the discussion, while the illustration of Victor Fran Hess’ 1911 experiment is just surreal (page 208-209).

Although valuable and fun to read as a full-fledged scientist, I wish I’d read this book when I was a budding geek, learning about the practice of science and trying to figure out how people actually did research on a day-to-day basis, discovering new things about the universe. If you’re stocking your library to encourage geeks, include this book and a copy of the Feynman Lectures.

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