Building Blocks of the Universe Critical Essays

Isaac Asimov


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

In the introduction, Asimov states that his goal is to “tell a little about every element.” He achieves this simple goal, but, in doing so, he also achieves a more difficult goal: to tell much about chemistry in particular and science in general, especially as it relates to human society.

Asimov employs a variety of techniques to make potentially difficult material understandable and potentially dry material interesting. For example, to help readers understand how atoms group together to form different kinds of molecules, he uses the analogy of men and women grouping to form different kinds of families. To affix a new idea in the reader’s mind, he attaches the new idea to something already familiar to the readers. An example is his explanation of how lungs take oxygen from the air, in which he mentions the time that President Dwight Eisenhower had to be put in an oxygen tent so he could breathe easier, a fact that was known well by most young readers when the book was first published. Asimov also makes use of personification, such as his explanation of nitrogen’s lack of reaction with most other elements by describing the element as “standoffish.”

To describe the similarities of liquid ammonia to water in an interesting way, Asimov briefly mentions the intriguing speculation that on other planets, there may be a system of chemistry and even a form of life based on ammonia. Asimov uses humor to enliven his account of how bismuth can be mixed with other elements to form substances that melt at low temperatures by noting a practical joke that can be played with it. In addition, Asimov makes some of his points more vivid by citing facts that are unusual or colorful. To emphasize the importance of copper as a trace element in living tissue, Asimov reveals that some animals, such as squids, have a copper-containing compound in their blood to carry oxygen, making their...

(The entire section is 775 words.)