An engaging if technically dense memoir by a pioneer of the nuclear age.
Seaborg (1912–99), whose final work was completed by his son, led a remarkable scientific life. A child of a first-generation Swedish immigrant family, he depicts an idyllic childhood in pre-boom California, darkened by the Depression. Fortunately, he was a quick study in the nascent field of atomic chemistry; at Berkeley in 1934, a series of fellowships saved him from abject poverty and he participated in the earliest advances in nuclear science with Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence, who had just built the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory cyclotron. Despite the ominous implications of their work, Seaborg’s depiction of the 1930s scientific community is wholesome, centered on his courtship of his eventual wife and communal dining with future Nobel laureates. WWII transformed this insular universe: Seaborg’s scientific circle, including European refugees like Enrico Fermi, was rapidly absorbed by the Army’s top-secret “Manhattan Engineer District.” Depicting the war years, Seaborg recalls the era when Axis victory seemed possible, provoking an unprecedented collaboration between scientists and the military. He conveys the great scale of such projects as the Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos laboratories, all of which contributed to atomic arms development. Seaborg himself was in the vanguard in such dangerous realms as plutonium production (following his team’s virtual invention of it). He also details the convulsions of the Cold War, noting that he and his colleagues anticipated the arms race in 1945. While scientists like Oppenheimer renounced nuclear weaponry (and then stripped of their security clearances), the author’s career followed a more conservative course. He received the Nobel Prize in 1951, and was later recruited by President Kennedy to chair the Atomic Energy Commission, where his attempts to slow the US-Soviet buildup culminated in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He concludes with sober advocacy of nuclear power, noting with typical dryness, “The public tends to be illogical in evaluating risks.”
A deftly balanced memoir, depicting both grand-scale breakthroughs, and one grateful citizen-scientist’s immersion in the tumultuous postwar geopolitical landscape.