Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Scientifiction: Dr. Hackensaw's Secrets #2: The Secret of the Atom

We've met Dr. Hackensaw before, and as then, this story is "scientifiction" in the original Gernsbackian sense of fiction about the possibilities of science. The specifics of Hackensaw's inventions may be a bit absurd, but they're meant to be thought-provoking and inspiring for the science practitioners and enthusiasts who were the readership of Science and Invention magazine.

Last time, author Clement Fezandié speculated about television several years before it existed, and about magnetic recording of television about three decades ahead. This time, he has Hackensaw look into the structure of the atom, and produces this fairly startling notion for 1921:

“My idea is—and careful study of these microscopic enlargements convince me of the truth of my views—my idea is that there is only one element, considerably lighter than hydrogen, and that all the other elements are composed of two or more atoms of this original element.”

“And what is that element?”

“I don’t know. I call it ‘Proton’ because it is the first or original element. Every element known to man is a compound of several or many atoms of this proton, and the atomic weight of any of our elements shows how many atoms of proton it contains. Thus hydrogen, whose atomic weight is low, contains very few atoms of proton, while radium, whose atomic weight is high, contains many atoms of proton crowded into each atom of radium.”

Ernest Rutherford had already discovered, in 1919, that other atoms contain hydrogen nuclei (that nucleus turning out to be an individual proton). Langenscheidt's New College Merriam-Webster English Dictionary has a date of 1920 for the word "proton." But I have the feeling Fezandié didn't know about it yet, or he wouldn't have Hackensaw claim to invent the word.

Of course, Fezandié wasn't exactly right about protons. Hydrogen, of course, has one proton, not "few." He would have been exactly right had he related the number of protons to the atomic number. As far as atomic weight goes, it naturally goes up with the number of protons, but not directly. Fezandié was missing out on neutrons. Of course, so was everyone else until Rutherford conceptualized the particles the same year this story was published.

Neutrons carry the nuclear force that holds atomic nuclei together against the mutually repulsive positive charge of their protons. Fezandié had a different theory of what keeps the nucleus together, which also explained wherein the valence of an element lies. I was about to quote it, but heck, read the story; that's what it's there for.

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