A hodgepodge of unrelated anecdotes, journalism, memoir, and history, the book has the feel of an author clearing his files...



Further stories of nuclear nuttiness from the physicist and engineer.

After a delightful history of nuclear power in Atomic Awakening (2009) and nuclear mishaps in Atomic Accidents (2014), Mahaffey, a former senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, delivers an expert, equally amusing chronicle of the wide world of nuclear science. Readers will roll their eyes to the point of exhaustion as the author recounts incidents, scientific discoveries, secret military programs, or tax-supported research that seem wacky now but were taken seriously by scientists and government officials. In 1948, Ronald Richter, a charismatic scientist refugee from Nazi Germany, convinced Argentine dictator Juan Perón that he could produce clean energy through nuclear fusion; it was “a match made in heaven, or at least on another planet.” In 1982, another charismatic scientist, Edward Teller, convinced another national leader, President Ronald Reagan, that a space-based X-ray laser would destroy Soviet missiles. Mahaffey does not ignore the parallels between the two ill-conceived projects, including the immense, futile expense. Laboratories around the world, including the author’s, fell over themselves to confirm the spectacular 1989 announcement that two scientists had produced nuclear fusion at room temperature. Mahaffey’s account is not the first but definitely the funniest, surpassing even his history of the nuclear-powered bomber, a massive, radiation-drenched behemoth extensively tested in the 1950s and ’60s. Amusingly gruesome are the innumerable clueless thieves who ignored warnings, smashed locks, bypassed shielding, carried off fiercely radioactive material, and then died horribly. There are fewer laughs in stories of murder by radiation, possible terrorism, and the Pakistani physicist who built his nation’s nuclear bomb and then proceeded to sell the technology to other nations.

A hodgepodge of unrelated anecdotes, journalism, memoir, and history, the book has the feel of an author clearing his files of unpublished material, but most readers will forgive him due to the entertaining tales.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-68177-421-3

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: April 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2017

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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