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of unrelated anecdotes, journalism, memoir, and history, the book has the feel of an author clearing his files of unpublished material, but most readers will forgive him due to the entertaining tales.