One, Two, Three ... Infinity: Facts & Speculations of Science

By George Gamow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
Modern Alchemy

1. ELEMENTARY PARTICLES

HAVING learned that the atoms of various chemical elements represent rather complicated mechanical systems with a large number of electrons rotating around the central nucleus, we inevitably ask whether these atomic nuclei are the ultimate indivisible structural units of matter, or whether they in turn can be subdivided still farther into smaller and simpler parts. Would it be possible to reduce all the 92 different atomic types to perhaps a couple of really simple particles?

As early as the middle of the last century this desire for simplicity had driven an English chemist, William Prout, to a hypothesis according to which the atoms of all different chemical elements have a common nature representing only various degrees of "concentration" of hydrogen atoms. Prout based his hypothesis on the fact that the chemically determined atomic weights of various elements in respect to hydrogen are in most cases represented very closely by integer numbers. Thus according to Prout, the atoms of oxygen, which are 16 times heavier than those of hydrogen, must be considered as made up from 16 hydrogen atoms stuck together. The atoms of iodine with an atomic weight of 127 must be formed by an aggregate of 127 hydrogen atoms, etc.

However the findings of chemistry were at that time very unfavorable to the acceptance of this bold hypothesis. It was shown, by the exact measurements of atomic weights, that they could not be represented exactly by integer numbers but in most cases only by numbers very close to integers, and in a few cases by numbers that were not even close to integers. (The chemical atomic weight of chlorine, for instance, is 35.5.) These facts, which are seemingly in direct contradiction to Prout's hypothesis, discred-

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One, Two, Three ... Infinity: Facts & Speculations of Science
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Other Books by George Gamow ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Part I - Playing with Numbers 1
  • Chapter I - Big Numbers 3
  • Chapter II - Natural and Artificial Numbers 24
  • Part II - Space, Time: & Einstein 39
  • Chapter III - Unusual Properties of Space 41
  • Chapter IV - The World of Four Dimensions 64
  • Chapter V - Relativity of Space and Time 84
  • Part III - Microcosmos 113
  • Chapter VI - Descending Staircase 115
  • Chapter VII - Modern Alchemy 149
  • Chapter VIII - The Law of Disorder 192
  • Chapter IX - The Riddle of Life 231
  • Part IV - Macrocosmos 267
  • Chapter X - Expanding Horizons 269
  • Chapter XI - The Days of Creation 298
  • Index 336
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