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From Marie Curie to Hiroshima

by Diana Preston

Pub Date: April 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-8027-1445-5
Publisher: Walker

Science is a cumulative and collaborative process, even when it’s put to the job of killing people.

Thus, writes popular historian/biographer Preston (A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, 2004, etc.), “the destructive flash that seared Hiroshima into history was the culmination of fifty years of scientific creativity and more than fifty years of political and military turmoil.” Many of the best scientific minds from many countries had been engaged in coaxing out the secret of the atom ever since Marie and Pierre Curie coined the word radioactivity in 1898. Shortly after the news escaped in 1939—despite Niels Bohr’s efforts to keep it quiet—that expatriate German scientists had discovered how to split an atom’s nucleus, more than a dozen laboratories around the world succeeded in producing nuclear fission. Some classically trained scientists could scarcely believe such reports; Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, protested that fission was an impossibility; all the same, writes Preston, “within days he had changed his mind and was speculating that this ‘could make bombs.’” Preston ably shows the like evolution of thought across the worldwide community of science, as nuclear programs sprang up in the Soviet Union, Japan, Britain, and Nazi Germany. Some failed, she suggests, for political reasons, and some of those for reasons of mere expediency; the Soviet Union could conceivably have had a uranium bomb in WWII, but a leading scientist there argued that while the nuclear bomb was theoretically possible, “the Soviet Union was not ready for such a step; an atom bomb was not a weapon for the war with Germany but a matter for the future.” Whence, of course, the arms race that defined the nascent Cold War, with which Preston closes her narrative, giving readers a where-are-they-now view of some of the high clergy in the church of mutually assured destruction.

A touch narrower than Gerard DeGroot’s indispensable The Bomb: A Life (p. 31), but still a useful, very accessible summary of things atomic.