The Chemistry of Science Fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Chemical Tales

Science fiction is a genre based on the impacts of science (including chemistry) and technology on society and individuals. However, no science fiction author understood the beauty and wonder of chemistry better than Isaac Asimov, a biochemist by training, who used basic chemical principles to put a new spin on an old fairy tale and to imagine incredible new elements.

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Aesop’s moral fable, The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs, is famous for teaching moral lessons to children. Asimov updated this well-known fable, using his passion for chemistry, into a scientific puzzle. The story is called Pate de Foie Gras and it was published in 1956 in a science fiction magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. Although you might get moral lessons from the story, it is mainly focused on chemistry. The story deals with the investigation of a goose that lays golden eggs. In it, biochemists and nuclear physicists analyze the goose’s eggs, blood, liver, bedding — almost every single molecule connected to the goose. They even take samples from the shell of the eggs and compare it with eggshell proteins. A biopsy conducted on the goose’s liver leads the scientists to discover an enzyme that catalyzes a reaction that converts something in the goose’s diet into gold. With the help of a physicist, they discover that the goose is a natural nuclear reactor that converts unstable isotopes to stable ones. Unfortunately, there is only one goose that lays these golden eggs — and the eggs don’t hatch! So, if the goose dies, they will never be able to understand the unusual mechanism. The biopsy and other methods conducted do not give any significant answers. Here, Isaac Asimov turns to his readers and asks them to analyze the problem and send him answers. Think you can figure it out? Read the story to learn more!

One of Asimov’s stories was based on his own experience as a chemist. While preparing for his degree’s oral examination, he performed experiments using catechol, a chemical that dissolved almost instantly in water. He thought if this compound were more soluble, it would dissolve before mixing with the solvent. So, he decided to write a short story about an imaginary compound called “thiotimoline,” which dissolves before the solvent touches it. Instead of writing a traditional story, he thought it would be better to write an imitation of a scientific research paper. He finished his story with a title that is similar to a research paper: “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline.

Thiotimoline dissolves 1.12 seconds before the solvent is added and depends on the “mental state of the experimenter.” Adding to the research paper feel of his story, Asimov was clever enough to give fake references, tables, and figures to support the incredible properties of thiotimoline (Figures 1 and 2).

Throughout the paper, Asimov discusses the physical and chemical properties of thiotimoline as if his paper were from a scientific journal. Moreover, he cites seven references, which contributed to the plausibility of the article. Asimov also invents a device, called an “endochronometer,” to measure thiotimoline’s solubility without human interference (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The diagram of the “endochronic filter” from “The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline”

Figure 3. The diagram of the “endochronic filter” from “The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline”

Because he was worried about his Ph.D. examining committee’s attitude towards a science fiction story, Asimov asked his publisher to use a pseudonym. He thought he might not get his degree if his committee thought he was making fun of their research. Despite his request, the story was published with Asimov’s name attached. The story was a success, and almost every chemist at Cornell University, including those in his department, read it. It even came up at his Ph.D. defense! Thankfully, his committee liked the story, and even asked him a question about it before his defense was complete.

Asimov went on to write more about thiotimoline. He wrote a second fake article (“The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline”) discussing the possibility of detecting the mental state of a person using thiotimoline. The third one (“Thiotimoline and the Space Age”) came in 1960 in a speech format addressed to the “American Chronochemical Society” about the recent progress of thiotimoline research. In 1973, he wrote his final story about his imaginary compound “Thiotimoline to the Stars.” This is a purely science fiction story in which a space commander addresses a group of students about the properties and benefits of thiotimoline.

Asimov was able to transform his area of expertise into short stories with great success. He was even awarded the James T. Grady–James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public by the American Chemical Society in 1965 for the attention his stories brought to science.

Gursu Culcu is a senior at Bridgewater State University majoring in chemistry.

This post references two great science fiction stories involving chemistry. But are there more? If you know any chemistry-based science fiction works or chemical stories, please feel free to share them with us in the comments below.


5 thoughts on “The Chemistry of Science Fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Chemical Tales

  1. Pingback: 2013, End of the Year Wrap Up |

  2. How about Bob Shaw’s ‘Other days, Other eyes’? It’s about the invention of a type of glass with a refractive index such that it takes time (sometimes years) for the light to pass through and the societal impact of this in areas such as surveillance.

  3. Pingback: When You Can't Tell The Difference Between Science And Science Fiction - FunaGram

  4. Pingback: Science in Fiction | ACS ChemClub Happenings

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