The fake chemical compound Isaac Asimov invented to punk science writers

By 1947, Isaac Asimov was already an established scifi author, but he had to leave scifi temporarily to get his biochemistry PhD. Before he left, he wrote a hilariously turgid spoof of scientific papers about a time-hopping compound called thiotimoline.

The then 27-year-old Asimov had already written some of the most iconic short stories of his career, including "Nightfall", several of the robot stories that would later comprise I, Robot, and most of the initial round of Foundation stories. He had proven that he could write more than well enough to be paid for his trouble, and that, as far as he was concerned, was exactly the problem. The Good Doctor explained his rather unusual conundrum in his 1972 collection The Early Asimov:

I was in the homestretch and beginning to think forward to writing my Ph.D. dissertation. I rather dreaded that, since the obligatory style of disserations is turgid in the extreme, and I had by now spent nine years trying to write well and was afraid I simply might not be able to write badly enough to qualify for my degree.

The fake chemical compound Isaac Asimov invented to punk science writersS

It was during the course of his biochemical experiments that Asimov came up with a solution to this most particular of problems. His work involved dissolving an organic compound called catechol into water. This particular compound dissolves almost instantly when it hits the water, and it occurred to Asimov that the only way for the compound to be more soluble than it already was would be if it dissolved before it came in contact with the water. He decided this would be a good basis for another short story, and then realized this represented the perfect way to deal with his concerns about scientific writing:

It occurred to me, however, that instead of writing an actual story based on the idea, I might write up a fake research paper on the subject and get a little practice in turgid writing. I did the job on June 8, 1947, even giving it the kind of long-winded title that research papers so often have — "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" — and added tables, graphs, and fake references to non-existent journals.

John Campbell, the longtime editor of Astounding Science Fiction, bought the story immediately. The magazine was as natural a fit as there could be for the parody paper, as Campbell liked to mix in the occasional serious scientific article alongside all the science fiction. Asimov's contribution, then, worked as a sort of hybrid of the two. "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" appeared in the March 1948 issue of the magazine.

With its dry tone, scholarly references, and handy graphs, Asimov's work appears indistinguishable from any other reasonably important, definitely boring scientific paper detailing the latest research on some chemical compound. It's only when you actually read the thing that you realize just how ridiculous it all is, as Asimov explains how he tried to "trick" the thiotimoline by removing the water after the compound dissolved but before the water was ever actually added:

This, fortunately for the law of Conservation of Mass-Energy, never succeeded since solution never took place unless the water was eventually added. The question is, of course, instantly raised as to how the thiotimoline can 'know' in advance whether the water will ultimtaely be added or not. Though this is not properly within our province as physical chemists, much recent material has been published with the last year upon the psychological and philosophical problems thereby posed.

Nevertheless, the chemical difficulties involved rest in the fact that the time of solution varies enormously with the exact mental state of the experimenter. A period of even slight hesitation in adding the water reduces the negative time of solution, not infrequently wiping it out below the limits of detection.

To circumvent this problem, Asimov wrote, it was necessary to create a device that would deal with adding the thiotimoline to the water and accurately measure just how long before this the compound dissolved. This device was called the endochronometer, and indeed Asimov referred to thiotimilone's time-jumping abilities simply as its "endochronic properties." Never at any point is any of this considered strange or worth remarking upon beyond simple description of the experiments, which is part of what makes the gag so effective.

Indeed, Asimov made sure to include multiple fake references to earlier thiotimoline research, just to make it clear that no chemist actually considered this particularly amazing. It wasn't until his 1953 followup paper, "The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline", that Asimov even attempts a fake explanation of how the carbon-based compound manages to dissolve before water is added. He points out that the four available chemical bonds of a carbon atom are arranged in 3D space like a tetrahedron, rather than like a 2D square. I'd go into more detail on that point, but really the ensuing explanation is going to be wonderful gibberish either way, so I don't think it matters much:

Now once more we can broaden our scope. We can pass from the 'tetrahedral carbon atom' to the 'endochronic carbon atom', in which the two planes of carbon valence bonds are not both spatial in the ordinary sense. One, instead, is temporal. It extends in time, that is. In the temporal plane, one bond extends toward yesterday and one toward tomorrow. Such a carbon atom cannot be presented on paper in the ordinary way and no effort will be made to do so.

Such an endochronic carbon atom is obviously very unstable and can occur only rarely, in fact only within the molecule of thiotimoline as far as we know. What there is in thiotimoline structure to cause this, what sort of super steric hindrance is as yet unknown, but the endochronic atom undoubtedly exists. As a result of its existence, a small portion of the thiotimoline molecule exists in the past and another small portion in the future. It is this small portion of the molecule existing the future which is dissolved by water which also exists in the future. The remainder of the molecule is dragged into solution in the process and thus 'dissolves' in water which to all appearances is not there.

The fake chemical compound Isaac Asimov invented to punk science writersS

This explanation, Asimov claimed, made all the "mystery and apparent paradox" surrounding thiotimoline disappear and make the entire subject "quite prosaic and amenable to mathematical analysis." Asimov went on to write two more thiotimoline stories after this, though he abandoned the fake scientific paper format after this second effort. The 1960 story "Thiotimoline and the Space Age" is written as an address to the 12th annual meeting of the American Chronochemical Society, in which he bemoans the relative lack of interest in thiotimoline among Americans and points to how serious the Soviets are taking the subject, building an entire city in the Urals just for experiments.

He also explains his efforts to create what he dubs a "Heisenberg failure", in which he tried to get the thiotimoline to dissolve but then tries to ensure water is never added. To do this, he used a telechronic battery, which links together 77,000 endochronometers to allow up to a day between when thiotimoline dissolves and when water is added, between which time he placed the dissolved thiotimoline inside a safe and welded it shut, so that no water could ever get inside. This, he explains, caused a series of devastating hurricanes to hit New England, just to ensure water got in at the appointed time, which may explain why the Americans are now wary of his experiments. Asimov draws another conclusion altogether:

As a result of all this, I can evisage what I can only call a "peace bomb." Enemy agents working within a particular nation, can assemble telechronic batteries, operate them until a case occurs in which the final unit dissolves. That battery can then be encased in a steel capsule and placed near a stream well above high-water mark. Twenty-four hours later, a disastrous flood is bound to occur, since only so can water reach the container. This will be accompanied by high winds since only so can the container be smashed.

Damage will undoubtedly be as great in its way as would result from an H-Bomb blast and yet the telechronic battery would be a "peace bomb" for its use will not bring on retaliation and war. There would be no reason to suspect anything but an act of God. Such a bomb requires little in the way of technology or expense. The smallest nation, the smallest of revolutionary or dissident groups could manage it.

Asimov adds that he wonders whether Noah's flood was really the result of thiotimoline experiments in ancient Sumer, which seems as likely as any other possibility, really. Asimov's final thiotimoline story, "Thiotimoline and the Stars", is set in the far future and explains how thiotimoline ultimately led to the creation of endochronic starships, which allows sufficiently talented pilots to match the endochronocity of the ship's building materials with relativistic time dilation, allowing ships to travel interstellar distances and age at the same rate as the rest of the universe. By this time, the original discoverer of thiotimoline has been lost to history, though a legendary scientist named something like Azimuth or Asymptote is generally given the credit.

The fake chemical compound Isaac Asimov invented to punk science writersS

But what about the original reason that Asimov wrote the first spoof paper, as a way to practice turgid writing for his biochemical PhD? This might actually be the best story of the bunch, so we'll end with Asimov's account of it. When he sold the story to John Campbell, he had asked that it be published under a pseudonym so that he not run afoul of the stodgier members of the chemistry faculty at Columbia, where he was completing his PhD work.

To his horror, Campbell ignored this stipulation entirely, and soon he saw that copies of the story - with his name very much attached - were circulating around the department. As he prepared for his oral examinations, Asimov became terrified that he had completely sabotaged his chances of passing by seemingly making a mockery of his entire chosen field. As it turns out, he needn't have worried:

On May 20, 1948, I had my orals. The examining board had seen the article. After I had been on the grill for an hour and twenty minutes, the last question (asked by Professor Ralph S. Halford) was, "Mr. Asimov, tell us something about the thermodynamic properties of the compound thiotimoline."

I broke into hysterical laughter out of sheer relief, for it struck me instantly that they wouldn't play good-natured jokes with me (Professor Halford sounded jovial and everyone else was smiling) if they were going to flunk me. I was led out, still laughing, and after a twenty-minute wait, the examiners emerged, shook my hand, and said, "Congratulations, Dr. Asimov."

My fellow students insisted on forcing five Manhattans down my throat that afternoon and, since I am a teetotaler under normal conditions and have no tolerance for alcohol, I was royally drunk at once. It took them three hours to sober me up. After the official ceremonies, on June 1, 1948, I was Isaac Asimov, Ph.D.

As he pointed out in The Early Asimov, his thiotimoline story made him famous among chemists and scientists in general in a way that his science fiction never did. It also suggested to him the possibilities of writing more on actual science topics, and he credited this story with launching his second career as a science writer, one that actually ended up far outstripping his science fiction career, in sheer volume of work if not necessarily in renown.

That said, there is probably at least one group for whom the word "thiotimoline" dredges up nothing but bad memories. That group, of course, is the poor librarians of New York City:

But what amused me most was that a surprising number of readers actually took the article seriously. I was told that in the weeks after its appearance the librarians at the New York Public Library were driven out of their minds by hordes of eager youngsters who demanded to see copies of the fake journals I had used as pseudo references.

Sources

"The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" and Asimov's notes appear in The Early Asimov, Volume 2.
"The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" and "The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline" appear together as "The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline" in Only a Trillion.
"Thiotimoline and the Space Age" appears in Opus 100.
"Thiotimoline to the Stars" appears in Buy Jupiter and Other Stories.

Image Credits

Top image by Darth Far via Deviantart.
Covers of March 1948 and December 1953 issues of Astounding.
Photo of Isaac Asimov via Wikimedia.