Nelson (Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, 2009, etc.) returns with a survey of mankind's use of radioactive materials.
Beginning with the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and ending with the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the author examines the discovery of radium (used for a while in everything from watches to toothpaste), the development of nuclear fission and fusion, and the use of the resulting new elements in nuclear weapons, medicine and power generation. Nelson’s coverage of the science underlying this saga is admirably thorough and accessible, but this is no impersonal "march of science" story. The author also shows how the development of nuclear physics was deeply influenced by contemporary politics and the interplay of the personalities involved. He includes lively biographies of the men—Wilhelm Roentgen, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and others—who created this new age and of two remarkable women: the celebrated Polish-born Marie Curie and the almost forgotten Austrian Lise Meitner. Nelson characterizes nuclear science as a "two-faced god," a blessing and a curse, and its history as irrational, confusing and conflicted. For example, nuclear weapons are so dreadful that they have effectively prevented war between superpowers, but their production and maintenance have been a staggering waste of resources. The author’s gripping narratives of the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima simply scream that fallible humans should not be messing around with this technology, and yet he argues that nuclear power is still the safest and best option for environmentally responsible power generation. Nevertheless, Nelson contends that the nuclear era is now drawing to a close, as the acquisition of nuclear weapons is viewed only as the mark of a pariah regime, and the dishonesty of governments and industry has ruined the prospects for further development of nuclear power.
An engaging history that raises provocative questions about the future of nuclear science.