Mahaffey writes delightfully witty prose, delivers clear explanations of technical problems and takes no prisoners in his...

A surprisingly entertaining history of nuclear power.

Georgia Tech Research Institute senior scientist Mahaffey begins with the discovery of radiation in the 1890s but concentrates on the period after World War II, when the great powers took time out from building bombs to explore peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The narrative’s hero is U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” whose reactor design for the nuclear submarine emphasized safety and sturdiness over cost. Aside from nations that wanted to build cheaply, such as the Soviet Union, Rickover’s design became the standard. Ending around 1963, the “Age of Wild Experimentation” included failed attempts to dig canals, drive spaceships (a good idea, according to the author) and propel jet bombers (a horrifying radiation-drenched Air Force project narrated by Mahaffey with laugh-out-loud irony). The author emphasizes that, in the absence of a breakthrough in solar, wind or fusion technology, nuclear power remains the sole practical source of clean energy. While France generates 87.5 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, the United States reached 20 percent in the late ’70s and stalled—money, not fear of radiation, was largely responsible. Despite enthusiastic claims after WWII, generating electricity from the atom is no bargain, and once the U.S. government stopped subsidizing nuclear plants, utilities companies remembered that American coal is the world’s cheapest source of power. Global warming and rising hydrocarbon costs took their toll, and in 2007, after a 30-year absence, U.S. regulators received the first of a stream of applications to build a nuclear plant.

Mahaffey writes delightfully witty prose, delivers clear explanations of technical problems and takes no prisoners in his description of clueless politicians, technology-challenged military leaders, madcap engineers and self-righteous antinuclear activists.

Pub Date: July 22, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-60598-040-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2009



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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020


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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Close Quickview