Analysis

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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.

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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 blood blue.

Three implicit themes in this book are of value to young readers. The first is that science is multifaceted, both in the way in which it is carried out and in its effects. Asimov shows that the classic image of science as the confirmation of a hypothesis by means of an experiment—exemplified by Mendelev’s successful prediction that three new elements would be discovered to fill the holes in his table of elements—is only one part of the picture. Another part is that science sometimes advances by happenstance, as when Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered the vulcanization process for making rubber by spilling a mixture of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove. Asimov also shows that the results of science are as varied as its processes; an example is that sulfur atoms are found both in mustard gas, a lethal weapon used during World War I, and in life-saving penicillin.

The second valuable theme explored indirectly in Building Blocks of the Universe is that science is an ever-evolving body of knowledge, not a static collection of facts. Asimov makes this point by taking a historical approach, recounting how humankind’s understanding and/or use of a given element changes over time; such is the case with aluminum, which was once so hard to obtain and therefore so valuable that only the most wealthy could afford to use aluminum tableware. Asimov also takes a future-oriented approach, depicting areas of science in which discoveries have yet to be made. His statement that “we haven’t the glimmer of a notion yet” how to use liquid fluorine in rocket fuel might have inspired young readers of the day to think about careers in chemistry.

The third important theme is that science is not an isolated endeavor pursued for other than typically human reasons; it is an integral part of human culture, and scientists are as human as everyone else. Asimov shows the interrelatedness of science and culture by describing the influence of science on language, as in the adoption of the term “bromide,” sometimes used as a sedative, to apply to dull people or statements. He also describes the influence of mythology on science, as in the naming, by a chemist with “a streak of poetry” in him, of the element selenium after Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, because of its similarity to tellurium, recently named after Tellus, the Roman goddess of the earth. Asimov shows scientists as human by mentioning all of their characteristics—their intelligence and their good works, as well as their frailties, exemplified by the scientist who may have surrendered to his ego and found a tricky way to name the element gallium after himself.

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Critical Context