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I'm looking for the title of a short science fiction story, probably published in a Hugo winner collection 30 years ago. In the story, scientists have developed an extremely efficient rocket fuel that has one dangerous side-effect: it oxidizes iron. A man takes off in a rocket powered by this fuel but returns to find the earth completely devoid of life. His subsequent investigation reveals that a single drop of the fuel began a domino effect, as the substance oxidized all iron it came into contact with. In the end, the man is dying. He drags himself to the ocean, believing that if he can get his living cells into the water they will restart the primordial soup.

  • I'm probably just displaying my ignorance here, but: why would oxidising iron destroy all life on earth? – Rand al'Thor Sep 30 '16 at 1:21
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    According to the story, iron is in everything: from soil to human blood. So, your blood turns to liquid rust. – Arlen Sep 30 '16 at 1:23
  • User14111 you are brilliant! Thank you! – Arlen Sep 30 '16 at 1:26
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    @Randal'Thor Well, for one, it would release tremendous amounts of energy. If all of Earth's iron oxidised in a few years, it would probably boil the oceans. Of course, almost all iron on Earth is oxidised already, but you could say that this would oxidise it further, or replace the oxygen (and sulphur etc.) in the usual molecules with something more electronegative. And the core has lots of metallic iron. And if this were unstable (likely), it might explain how everything would go back to normal in a few thousand years on its own (well, except for the part where it killed almost all life). – Luaan Sep 30 '16 at 7:44
  • Not a short story, but the Lensman series of books by E E Doc Smith includes ships using iron as a fuel source, and has at least one incident where an alien ship takes all the iron around it, including that in the blood of nearby humans. It's been a long time since I read it though, so I'm not going to be able to find the passage to quote it for you. – Simba Sep 30 '16 at 9:34
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I'm looking for the title of a short science fiction story,

"Adam and No Eve", a short story by Alfred Bester, also the answer to this question. First published in Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1941, which is available at the Internet Archive (click here for download options).

probably published in a Hugo winner collection 30 years ago.

No Hugo award (they hadn't been invented yet) but it has been reprinted in many anthologies and collections. Any of these covers look familiar?

In the story, scientists have developed an extremely efficient rocket fuel that has one dangerous side-effect: it oxidizes iron.

Crane looked at the tight-written equations and then at Hallmyer's bloodshot eyes. The man was half mad with fear.

"For the last time," Hallmyer went on, "You're using your new catalyst on iron solution. All right. I grant that it's a miraculous discovery. I give you credit for that."

Miraculous was hardly the word for it. Crane knew that without conceit, for he realized he'd only stumbled on it. You had to stumble on a catalyst that would induce atomic disintegration of iron and given 10 × 1010 foot-pounds of energy for every gram of fuel. No man was smart enough to think all that up by himself.

"You don't think I'll make it?" Crane asked.

"To the Moon? Around the Moon? Maybe. You've got a fifty-fifty chance." Hallmyer ran fingers through his lank hair. "But for God's sake, Stephen, I'm not worried about you. If you want to kill yourself, that's your own affair. It's the Earth I'm worried about—"

"Nonsense. Go home and sleep it off."

"Look"—Hallmyer pointed to the sheets of paper with a shaky hand—"no matter how you work the feed and mixing system you can't get one hundred percent efficiency in the mixing and discharge."

"That's what makes it a fifty-fifty chance," Crane said. "So what's bothering you?"

"The catalyst that will escape through the rocket tubes. Do you realize what it'll do if a drop hits the Earth? It'll start a chain of iron disintegration that'll envelope the globe. It'll reach out to every iron atom—and there's iron everywhere. There won't be any Earth left for you to return to—"

A man takes off in a rocket powered by this fuel but returns to find the earth completely devoid of life.

It was no longer a coast; there was no longer any sea. Only the faint line of what had been a cliff, stretching north and south for endless miles. A line of gray ash. The same gray ash and cinders that lay behind him; the same gray ash that stretched before him. Fine silt, knee-deep, that swirled up at every motion and choked him. Cinders that scudded in dense mighty clouds when the mad winds blew. Cinders that were churned to viscous mud when the frequent rains fell.

The sky was jet overhead. The black clouds rode high and were pierced with shafts of sunlight that marched swiftly over the Earth. Where the light struck a cinder storm, it was filled with gusts of dancing, gleaming particles. Where it played through rain it brought the arches of rainbows into being. Rain fell; cinder-storms blew; light thrust down—together, alternately and continually in a jigsaw of black and white violence. So it had been for months. So it was over every mile of the broad Earth.

His subsequent investigation reveals that a single drop of the fuel began a domino effect, as the substance oxidized all iron it came into contact with.

There was no subsequent investigation. His friend Hallmyer told him ahead of time what was going to happen, but Crane didn't believe him. And it was atomic disintegration, not oxidation.

In the end, the man is dying.

Crane passed the edge of the ashen cliffs and began crawling down the even slope that had once been the ocean bed. He had been traveling so long that all sense of pain had left him. He braced elbows and dragged his body forward. Then he brought his right knee under him and reached forward with elbows again. Elbows, knee, elbows, knee—He had forgotten what it was to walk.

He drags himself to the ocean,

There was an instinct that drove him on. He had to get somewhere. It was associated, he knew, with the sea—with the edge of the sea. At the shore of the sea something waited for him. Something that would help him understand all this. He had to get to the sea—that is, if there were a sea any more.

believing that if he can get his living cells into the water they will restart the primordial soup.

Then he knew. This was not the end of life. There could never be an end to life. Within his body, within the rotting tissues that were rocking gently in the sea was the source of ten million-million lives. Cells—tissues—bacteria—endamœba—Countless infinities of life that would take root in the waters and live long after he was gone.

They would live on his rotting remains. They would feed on each other. They would adapt themselves to the new environment and feed on the minerals and sediments washed into this new sea. They would grow, burgeon, evolve. Life would reach out to the lands once more. It would begin again the same old re-repeated cycle that had begun perhaps with the rotting corpse of some last survivor of interstellar travel. It would happen over and over in the future ages.

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    Alfred Bester was a good writer, not a scientist. I'm no scientist either, but 10 × 10^{10} and :foot-pounds per gram and the atomic disintegration of iron sound fishy to me. – user14111 Sep 30 '16 at 4:36
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    Well, 1E11 foot-pounds corresponds to about 1 mg of mass-energy. Well outside the bounds for any chemical reaction, and there's no mechanism we know of that would release the nuclear energy (much less e.g. the colour potential energy), but there is certainly plenty of energy left after this "disintegration" takes place. Of course, he forgets a very important bit - all that energy released has to go somewhere. If we assume all the iron in the Earth crust was "disintegrated", it would release about 1E32 J of energy - almost enough to overcome the gravitational binding energy of Earth. – Luaan Sep 30 '16 at 8:04
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    It's also about 12 days of the Sun's entire energy production. And that's with just the crust. Only a tiny portion of the Earth's iron mass is in the crust. Really, the magical catalyst would propel itself into space long before it could do any significant harm. If it magically "infected" all the iron in the Earth at once, it would melt the whole planet and send the superheated chunks all over the universe. It's just yet another egregious case of Science-fiction Writers Have No Sense of Scale :)) – Luaan Sep 30 '16 at 8:08
  • Why didn't Hallmyer kill him to stop him from using it? (Other than to justify writing the story and having vivid descriptions of a dead Earth) – Random832 Sep 30 '16 at 14:24
  • The Stars My Destination is my favorite Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge fantasy work. – Mark Rogers Sep 30 '16 at 14:42

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