BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A certain glow ...

As I have previously noted, I rely on the dollar store for an on-going injection of serendipity in my to-be-read piles, connecting me with interesting titles that I might not otherwise have considered. However, every now and again, I'll hit something there which is clearly “something that I'd have picked up anyway”, and this is an example of this later group. Craig Nelson's The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era is the sort of thing I'd have snagged to increase my knowledge in a particular area, and so it's a “win” getting it for a buck!

While interesting and informative, this is also a bit of an odd book … tracing an arc from the early days of discovery of radioactive elements straight on through the Fukushima disaster … which means this is a relatively new title (it came out not quite two years ago at this point). The author is a publishing industry pro, with a number of notable books to his credit. This might explain one of the things I found uncomfortable here … in many reviews I've wished that somebody had applied a firmer editorial hand to a book … here, I get the feeling that a lot of opinions of the author have been relegated to something like a snide comment hiding in a cough. Although the book only has a few places where an “anti-nuclear” vibe rises to the surface, I get the feeling that this might have had a prior iteration that verged into a bit of polemic that got scrubbed from the final version. Again, this is just the sense I got in reading through this, but it makes me wonder if the book as it stands is how it was initially envisioned by the author.

Also, for a science book, this is remarkably well written, with nearly poetic descriptions of everything from an individual's facial hair to the environs of an improvised laboratory. While evidently extraordinarily well researched, it presents a tale of discovery which is engaging in the telling, rarely drifting off into dry regurgitation of historical factoids. The book is in four sections, essentially pre-WW2, WW2, the Cold War, and civilian Nuclear.

It begins with a chapter centering on the Curies and how the first concepts on radioactive materials were developed. However, the story isn't just a lab-bench journal, but looks at the personal background of Marie Curie, from when she was a governess of a Polish family, whose son wished to, but was forbade to marry her … hardly the standard Science textbook material. However, lest you think this veers too much into biographies of the main players, it is counter-balanced with fascinating items like the route that Uranium-238 takes to end up as Lead-206. I have been back-and-forth on whether I should block-quote that whole piece for you here, but it's fifteen steps, with various isotopes of Uranium, Thorium, Protactinium, Radium, Radon, Polonium, Bismuth, and Lead, involved … including their half lifes, ranging from U-238's 4.5 billion year half life to Po-214's minuscule 0.164 microsecond half life (and on to stable Pb-206) … which seemed a bit excessive.

The next chapter looks at Enrico Fermi, who Carl Sagan noted (after rattling off 16 specifics) “It's hard to think of another physicist of the twentieth century who's had so many things named after him.”, and like the Curies, there is a lot of background material here as well. The “gathering storm” in Europe is a major factor in the first part of the book, and one of the stories about Fermi was how he and his family arranged things to depart from mainland Europe (to England then to the U.S.) directly following his trip to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in 1938. Others were not so lucky to get out early. The next chapter shifts the focus to Budapest, with Leo Szilard, Otto Han, and Lise Meitner, the latter ending up needing to be all but “abducted” by Niels Bohr to get her safely to Copenhagen.

The second section of the book is several chapters detailing the war-time development of atomic science, featuring familiar names such as Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, and John von Neumann, and perhaps less-known names such as Colonel Leslie Groves, who was the military's main contact with the scientists … first looking at the events leading up to the breakthrough sustained reaction under University of Chicago's Stagg Field, December 2, 1942, then the “Manhattan Project” leading to the development of atomic bombs our at Los Alamos, New Mexico. One of the sub-themes in this part was the infiltration of Soviet spies, especially physicist Klaus Fuchs, in the very heart of the U.S. atomic program. One interesting side note here is the suggestion that the only reason Fuchs had the access he had was that Teller was unwilling to work on some of his assigned projects, and Fuchs was brought in to supplement him. This may have saved the U.S.S.R. a decade or more in their development of nuclear weapons.

One point raised here was that the U.S. did what Germany failed to do … one of the physicists suggested that the Nazis were unlikely to succeed with atomic science because they kept most of the scientists in separate locations, where all the top players in the Allied program were in isolation off in Los Alamos. Also, it's noted that the U.S. spent billions on developing multiple approaches to obtaining advanced radioactive materials, with major research centers in several locations … essentially trying every option rather than picking one … which also led to being able to provide key ingredients to the bombs when it got to that point.

Another thing the author notes is that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, while certainly horrific, far less so than the fire bomb attack on Tokyo several months before, in which over 100,000 Japanese died. In terms of attacking targets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been destroyed by similar fire bomb attacks. This sets up one of the books “subtle” messages, that nuclear weapons are not particularly practical, and that the entire atomic arms race was more a psychological conflict that a military one.

The next section is all about the Cold War, and how both sides kept ratcheting up the stakes. Actually, it turns out that, at least early on, the Soviets had a very minimal atomic arsenal. They were aware that we were running spy flights over their territory, so kept most of their missiles on flatbed trucks that could be re-located to look like there were a lot more of them than was actually the case! However, there was a lot of paranoia on both sides of the conflict, and where the U.S. had about 400 atomic bombs in 1950 (realistically enough to destroy the Soviet Union), by 1955 that number was up to 2,280 (which turns out to be 20x what the USSR had at that time), and by 1967 the U.S. nuclear arsenal was up to a staggering 32,500 weapons.

The madness (as ironically spelled out as actual acronyms MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction and NUTS – Nuclear Utilization Target Selection) evident in that spiral of expansion, is paralleled with things, only coming to light now, that are almost comic, if they weren't so serious … a remarkable example detailed here deals with the “secret unlock codes”, which in numerous movies and TV shows were closely guarded parts of the nuclear launch sequence, which, in reality, were set to “00000000” – with an item on the launch checklist being “ensure that no digits other than zero had inadvertently been dialed into the panel”! The author also paints the famed RAND Corporation think-tank (founded by Air Force Generals Hap Arnold and Curtis LeMay) as something out of Dr. Strangelove (which he also credits with being closer to the reality of how things were in the 50's and 60's than anybody wants to admit) with items like:
In 1961, RAND created the Single Integrated Operational Plan or SIOP-62, a revision of Massive Retaliation/Sunday Punch, as it would release the whole of the American nuclear arsenal if the country was provoked. One billion people would eventually die from fire and radiation, with 285 million in the ellipsoidal target from China to Eastern Europe perishing in the initial blast.
All of this almost came into play in 1962, with the U.S. and the Soviets coming close to realizing MAD.

The final section of the book is primarily about nuclear power – or, more precisely, nuclear power disasters (Nelson is seemingly no fan of even the concept of nuclear power), with chapters on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, with an odd look at Regan's “Star Wars” in the middle of that (in which the author notes:
Today America continues to spend $55 billion a year on atomic weapons that have never and will never be used. Cutting this arsenal in half would save $80 billion over the next ten years, and even then the Pentagon would have fourteen times as many warheads as the nearest competitor, China.)
The stories of the three well-known nuclear disasters are pretty bizarre, largely in how much they're based on serious human stupidity (one gets the feeling from this that Homer Simpson is a fairly accurate representative of the industry), and have some deeply disturbing parts to them. One factoid that really stood out was this: “Chernobyl was merely the fourteenth most lethal nuclear accident in USSR history, with the other thirteen kept classified until the empire fell.”. Whuh? It appears that we only know about Chernobyl because it spread a cloud of radiation across all of Europe … but there were thirteen worse accidents? That's not a nice thing to think about.

Needless to say, a book that starts with the first discoveries of radiating materials, and ends up with the near-evacuation of Tokyo (because nobody checked local fishing lore about the historical certainty of tsunamis where they built the nuclear power plant), is not a simple read, but, as noted above, the writing is engaging, the information quite illuminating, and one comes out of it feeling as though one has actually learned something. I am glad that The Age of Radiance did not end up floating off into polemics against all things nuclear, although by the end, you can sort of tell that the author “is against it” (he summarily dismisses the safe, small, and recycling GenIV reactors – despite that India is in full development mode on these). If this sounds like something you'd like to get, it's available – still in print in hardcover, paperback, and ebook versions – plus the new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping). I've not seen any more copies at the dollar store since I picked this up (last November), so you've probably missed the $1 deal … but I'm glad I got this, and you'd probably be happy with it as well.

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Tags: book review
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