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5.10 In his story "Pate de Foie Gras", Isaac Asimov presented a puzzle, but did not provide a solution to that puzzle...




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This article is from the Isaac Asimov FAQ, by Edward J. Seiler ejseiler@earthlink.net and John H. Jenkins jenkins@mac.com with numerous contributions by others.

5.10 In his story "Pate de Foie Gras", Isaac Asimov presented a puzzle, but did not provide a solution to that puzzle...

...He stated that some people wrote him
with an answer immediately after the story's publication, and as science
advanced he eventually began receiving letters with another possible
solution. But he doesn't say what those solutions were. Did he ever
provide the solutions, and if so, what are they?

In each of Asimov's collections that included the story, whenever there
was a foreword or an afterword, he avoided giving away the answer. In
later years, he complained jokingly that because of the advance of
science, there was at least one new way that would probably be even better
than his original solution.

The problem presented in the story is that the goose lays golden eggs, and
through careful scientific analysis, it is discovered that the goose is a
living nuclear reactor that utilizes the isotope oxygen-18 to convert the
isotope iron-56 to the isotope gold-197. The gold production goes up if
the goose is provided with water enriched in oxygen-18. Further
investigation shows that the something in the goose's liver converts any
radioactive isotope into a stable isotope, so if the mechanism could be
discovered, it would provide a method to dispose of radioactive waste.
The problem is that there is only the one goose, whose eggs will not
hatch, and if the goose dies, they will never be able to use its secret.
The scientists are able to perform a biopsy of the liver, but the small
amount of cells extracted are insufficient to produce the effect. How
then, can they determine the mechanism and not have it disappear forever
once the goose dies?

The story, written in 1956, leaves the solution as an exercise for the reader.

An abridged version of the story titled "A Very Special Goose" appeared in
the September 25, 1958 issue of Science World, a magazine for high school
students published by Street and Smith, the publishers of Astounding. In
the teacher's edition, a solution is provided in the form of a letter from
Don A. Stuart, which is a pseudonym used by Astounding editor John W.
Campbell. Spoilers follow!

That solution explains that the best way to produce an environment free of
oxygen-18 is to put the goose in a sealed greenhouse, together with a
gander. The greenhouse is supplied with a sufficient quantity of plants
and water for the geese to feed upon, and sunlight will keep the plants
growing. Eventually the goose will process all of the O-18 from the air,
food, and water, turning it into gold. Once the level of O-18 is
sufficiently reduced, the goose will start laying gold-free eggs, and
goslings will soon hatch. If enough goslings survive, they can be studied
to determine the mechanism of the conversion process. The male goslings
will then have to be studied to see if they can survive in an O-18 rich
environment, since if they convert it to gold, they will not be able to
get rid of it by laying eggs.

Here are some of the other solutions presented in the
alt.books.isaac-asimov newsgroup in the past.

Since it is the liver of the goose that is of interest, if there was a way
available to grow copies of the goose's liver, the mechanism might be
studied in that way. Thanks to modern science, it should be possible to
take the cells extracted by the liver biopsy and grow such livers in the
laboratory.

Because of advances in in-vitro fertilization, it might be possible to
extract egg cells from the goose's ovary, fertilize them, and implant them
in a normal goose. This assumes that the egg that grows in the surrogate
mother goose is not a golden one, and enough chicks that hatch are
genetically capable of developing the mechanism.

Now that various other farm animals have been cloned, it might be possible
to create clones of the goose, once again assuming that the egg can grow
in a normal fashion. The advantage here is that the chicks will certainly
have the same genetic capabilities as mother goose.

 

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previous page: 5.9 What is the title of the essay that Isaac Asimov wrote concerning the ultimate self-contained, portable, high-tech reading device of the future which turns out to be a book? Where can I find it?
  
page up: Isaac Asimov FAQ
  
next page: 5.11 Did you know that Isaac Asimov is the only author to have published books in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal System?