Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson

Would you call The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson a microhistory? In this book, Nelson recounts a bit more than a century of discovery and application of atomic science, in a sense a narrow topic, but one that has had so much impact on politics, the economy, the environment, and all of our lives. Applying this science has come close to killing us.

Like an epic novel, Nelson's history has many characters, and like great novelists, the author has made many of them memorable. These are famous atomic physicists, names that most of us already know, but I will wager many of us really could not identify them in a pop quiz. Nelson knows them well.

About Pierre and Marie Curie, he wrote, "When the couple pressed glowing radium against their eyelids, they saw fireworks and meteors flashing across the retinas." (p. 31)

About Enrico Fermi,  he quotes Nobel prize winner Hans Bethe, "Fermi seemed to me at the time like bright Italian sunshine. Clarity appeared wherever his mind took hold ..." (p. 61)

"Niels Bohr was both a famed soccer player in his youth and Ping-Pong champion as an adult, while Werner Heisenberg spent his life downhill racing, at one time clocked at an alarming fifty miles an hour." (p. 66)

Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and on and on. It helps to keep a scorecard. It also helps to take the book slowly and let the story steep. It took me 9 or 10 days to pass from the early days of atomic discovery, past the World War II race to build a weapon, through the Cold War, to the present, when keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states is a top concern.

Passing through the decades, I felt many moods while reading. I enjoyed the scientific discovery period, futilely rued weapons development (hopelessly hoping the bomb would never work), and cursed the decades of senseless proliferation of bigger and deadlier weapons. The author makes clear the cost of atomic power and weapons to individuals and society. I am not certain the author state his opinion this way (the age of atomic science is a complicated story), but my take is that money, lives, and the integrity of our governments have often been wasted on systems that have failed to benefit humankind. The Age of Radiance is a sad but important story. I hope it generates will for positive changes.

Nelson, Craig. The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era. Scribner, 2014. 448p. ISBN 9781451660432.

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