THE DEADLY ELEMENT: The Saga of Uranium by Lennard Bickel

THE DEADLY ELEMENT: The Saga of Uranium

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More light on nuclear explosions -- remarkably, there's still more to be said -- by an Australian writer who has interviewed many of the principals and: read the extant histories. Bickel's foil for his treatment of atomic history is the element uranium itself. He starts with the discovery of the element by an 18th-century German, Martin Klaproth, who named it after the recently discovered planet Uranus (and then there came neptunium and plutonium). And though Bickel initially seems drearily effusive in the ""little-did-he-know' style, as he approaches the present he gets caught up in the telling of events which need no embellishment. So, too, the reader is carried along, moving inexorably to the climax at the Trinity site in the New Mexico desert and the first atomic detonations. Bickel's text has more of an international perspective than most. He was able to interview Mark Oliphant, the Australian physicist who worked under Rutherford, later acted as a courier between England and the U.S., and eventually joined the Manhattan project. Another focal figure is Otto Frisch, who emerges as a loner, an idealist, and a modest man disillusioned with nuclear power. Frisch was on a holiday visit to his aunt, Lise Meitner (smuggled out of Germany and then in Sweden), at the moment she received a letter from long-term Berlin colleague Otto Hahn reporting his puzzling finding of barium as a by-product of uranium bombardment. Meitner and Frisch theorized that the uranium atom had been split -- the process that would be called ""fission."" Bickel explains the science more than adequately as he goes, but he dwells as much on the personal and political events, making extensive use of quotes. The anecdotal gems as well as the particulars of life at the Cavendish lab, the College de France, and Los Alamos make the book a welcome addition to the atomic annals.

Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 1979
Publisher: Stein & Day