Age of Radiance
Craig Nelson, a polymath author whose subjects range from the Space Program to Tom Paine, has managed to write a history of the Atomic Age, from its humble beginnings in a Parisian shed where Pierre and Marie Curie discovered uranium out of pitchblende, to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, that is not only readable, but also not-putdownable.
"The Age of Radiance" has the trajectory of a novel: Humble beginnings; the height of power, the atomic bomb; a tragic fall, the nuclear arms race and disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, finally, Japan in our own time.
At times the science can be a bit of heavy sledding, such as Otto Frisch’s description of his experiments to split the uranium atom: "The easiest was to look at electrical effects in an ionization chamber, using an amplifier and oscilloscope."
But stay with it, because he gives all this advanced physics the drama it deserves. Nelson humanizes his history by concentrating on the personalities that conducted the experiments, obtained the funding, stole each other’s research, made great discoveries.
Some of these people, like Marie Curie, stirring pitchblend in a great pot like a Parisian laundress, were humble giants. Others, like Edward Teller, who urged the United States to spend ruinous sums on weapons when he knew the Soviet Union had neither the stomach nor capacity for such a competition, were evil geniuses.
The most touching story involves Lise Meitner, a German-Jewish physicist who was one of the many scientists hounded out of the Third Reich, and her betrayal by her mentor Otto Hahn, one of the few who chose to remain and compromise with the Nazis.
Meitner’s real tragedy is that homesickness and a fatal inability to adapt to new surroundings doomed her to obscurity. Had she followed so many of her compatriots to America, she probably would have flourished.