Book Review: Only a Trillion

Only A Trillion by Isaac Asimov.

Only a Trillion predates Asimov’s more numerous F&SF essay collections (the first of which being Fact and Fancy which I recently reviewed) and has a focus on large numbers, nuclear physics, and biochemistry. The title itself bespeaks the colossal numbers involved in the atomic and molecular world, where numbers familiar to us humans at least in passing like a trillion are laughable trivialities. One relevant part I found particularly memorable was in the detective story in figuring out the structure of molecules like insulin and hemoglobin, where the number of possible configurations of a not-too-great number of atoms vastly exceeds the computational capacity of even an entire universe dedicated to the task.

The chapter “The Sound of Panting” is about how the modern institution of science produces information on such a vast scale that keeping up with only a fraction of the volume is an incredibly labor-intensive task, and he was writing about biochemistry in the 1950s. You have the individual researchers and research teams writing papers, which are collected in journals, which are summarized in reviews, on and on to the textbooks that are written (what Asimov was engaged in) to bring students up to speed (and always necessarily being out of date). To say that the amount of information is being produced on an industrial scale seems like a gross underestimate.

The penultimate chapter comprised two spoof articles that mock the writing style used in scientific papers that is overly turgid and bland, like the reading equivalent of a disinfectant. Under investigation is thiotimoline, which dissolves before water is added and the creation of a solution, moreover, is affected by the experimenter’s mental state. I think this attitude is gradually shifting, with a greater emphasis on readability gradually pushing aside the verbal diarrhea typical of academic prose (at least on the time-scale of centuries: Compare Newton’s Principia and something like Taylor’s Classical Mechanics).

The final essay is a fun little piece that touches on both biochemistry and nuclear physics, nicely rounding off the book. At issue is the discovery of a true Goose that Lays the Golden Egg, and the succeeding investigation. A ridiculous premise followed by an entirely plausible series of experiments, nicely showing how fiction can emphasize the essentials of non-fiction (for example, I’m more likely to recall the relative abundance of oxygen-18 [say 0.2 – 0.4%] because of this little story than I had just come across it as a fact).

For an alternative review, see here.

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