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Age of Radiance

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Wednesday Apr 9, 2014
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Craig Nelson, a polymath author whose subjects range from the Space Program to Tom Paine, has managed to write a history of the Atomic Age, from its humble beginnings in a Parisian shed where Pierre and Marie Curie discovered uranium out of pitchblende, to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, that is not only readable, but also not-putdownable.

"The Age of Radiance" has the trajectory of a novel: Humble beginnings; the height of power, the atomic bomb; a tragic fall, the nuclear arms race and disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, finally, Japan in our own time.

At times the science can be a bit of heavy sledding, such as Otto Frisch’s description of his experiments to split the uranium atom: "The easiest was to look at electrical effects in an ionization chamber, using an amplifier and oscilloscope."

But stay with it, because he gives all this advanced physics the drama it deserves. Nelson humanizes his history by concentrating on the personalities that conducted the experiments, obtained the funding, stole each other’s research, made great discoveries.

Some of these people, like Marie Curie, stirring pitchblend in a great pot like a Parisian laundress, were humble giants. Others, like Edward Teller, who urged the United States to spend ruinous sums on weapons when he knew the Soviet Union had neither the stomach nor capacity for such a competition, were evil geniuses.

The most touching story involves Lise Meitner, a German-Jewish physicist who was one of the many scientists hounded out of the Third Reich, and her betrayal by her mentor Otto Hahn, one of the few who chose to remain and compromise with the Nazis.

Meitner’s real tragedy is that homesickness and a fatal inability to adapt to new surroundings doomed her to obscurity. Had she followed so many of her compatriots to America, she probably would have flourished.

Hitler, it turns out, was the best thing that ever happened to American science. The flood of refugees transformed what had been a scientific backwater into the world’s leading center for advanced research.

All of the great discoveries of the early part of the century would come together in the Manhattan Project, the enormous effort during World War II to develop the atomic bomb that would only be used in warfare twice, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The public’s fascination with atomic science briefly made it a pop star, until the reality of what nuclear war would mean sank into the popular imagination. Nelson’s description of the cost of the nuclear arms race -- the waste, environmentally, politically and economically -- is what really staggers the imagination.

When Eisenhower delivered his famous valedictory address warning of the might of the military-industrial complex, it was also a veiled apology for encouraging this ridiculous expenditure of money, manpower and time that could have been spent developing a safe and reliable source of power that could have weaned the country from a dependence on fossil fuels.

Instead, thanks to bureaucratic incompetency in the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and finally and most fatally, Japan, nuclear power is unlikely to become a major player in our energy supply.

Meanwhile, the madness continues unabated. "Today," Nelson writes, "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 10 years, and even then the Pentagon would have 14 times as many warheads as the nearest competitor."

Depressing as hell, but knowledge is power. It’s also interesting and even fun in the hands of a narrator as skilled as Nelson.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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