Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Age of Radiance

The Age of Radiance
by Craig Nelson
Scribner, 2014.  437 pgs.  Nonfiction

One could be forgiven for giving a miss to Craig Nelson's The Age of Radiance, a longish book with an indifferent cover had it not cropped up on so many of 2014's Best Books of the Year lists. And rightly so. A comprehensive but accessible, readable, and even fascinating history of the Atomic Era, Nelson's book is filled with bigger than life personalities, almost inconceivable scientific accomplishment, and a world poised at the edge of mutually-assured destruction. From Wilhelm R├Ântgen's 1895 discovery of X-rays to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, Nelson tells the tales of radiation tamed and run amok: who knew that the meltdown at Chernobyl happened during a test to see whether safety measures were adequate (apparently not), or that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were most likely cautionary exhibitions of power meant for the Soviets' consideration, rather than a necessary means for ending the war sooner. And what a cast of characters:  Enrico Fermi, what a remarkable person as well as scientist, and what a terrible driver. Edward Teller, brilliant, but also something of a chowderhead. One of my favorite parts was when the first nuclear reactor was built in an abandoned squash court at the University of Chicago and Russian agents translated the site as "pumpkin patch." Great, enlightening reading, The Age of Radiance is a fabulous companion to another classic description of the time, Dr. Strangelove.

LW

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