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The Nitrogen Fix

The Nitrogen Fix

First mass market paperback edition of The Nitrogen Fix
Author Hal Clement
Illustrator Janet Aulisio
Cover artist David B. Mattingly
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction
Publisher Ace Books
Publication date September 1980
Media type Print (paperback)
Pages 289
ISBN 0-441-58117-X

The Nitrogen Fix is a 1980 science fiction novel by Hal Clement. The plot revolves around a nomadic family in a future where all oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere has combined with nitrogen, so the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen with traces of water, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, and the seas are very dilute nitric acid.


The family is allied with an alien, an octopus-like being who can survive in the new atmosphere. Humans must live in shelters with oxygen-generating plants, or use suitable breathing equipment. Some of Earth's original life forms have mutated to survive in the changed atmosphere. Since almost no metals can exist in the corrosive atmosphere, any technology is based on ceramics or glass.

Some humans are suspicious of the aliens, and even blame them for the change to the atmosphere, since they seem to be adapted for it. The family have an almost fatal encounter with a group of such people, who are holding another alien hostage. However, the two aliens are able to pool memories biochemically, so that they become the same personality in two bodies. Their combined knowledge and skills help the humans to escape.

At the end the aliens reveal that they are basically tourists or scientists, and they travel from one system to another over thousands of years. Atmospheres "mature" when the nitrogen absorbs all the oxygen, the cause being the inevitable evolution of bacteria that use gold to catalyze the reaction. It is hinted, but not stated outright, that human mining of gold triggered this reaction.

Note on chemistry

Molecular nitrogen is the second most stable species of molecule known, after carbon monoxide. Over time an atmosphere consisting of compounds of nitrogen will tend to molecular nitrogen, unless there are vast excesses of other components, such as hydrogen. In these situations nitrogen will be present as ammonia, as in the atmospheres of the giant planets.

This is the reason that nitrogen and oxygen have co-existed in the atmosphere of Earth for billions of years, although the oxygen itself must be continually renewed by plants. In the novel scenario, it must be assumed that the bacteria are continuously mopping up any free oxygen released by plants, atmospheric breakdown of nitrogen oxides, etc.thus we see that nitrogen is so important.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "The_Nitrogen_Fix". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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