Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima

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The Human Chain Reaction That Led To The Atom Bomb

On December 26, 1898, Marie Curie announced the discovery of radium and observed that "radioactivity seems to be an atomic property." A mere 47 years later, "Little Boy"exploded over Hiroshima. Before the Fallout is the epic story of the intervening half century, during which an exhilarating quest to unravel the secrets of the material world revealed how to destroy it, and an open, international, scientific adventure transmuted overnight into a wartime sprint for the bomb.

Weaving together history, science, and biography, Diana Preston chronicles a human chain reaction of scientists and leaders whose discoveries and decisions forever changed our lives. The early decades of the 20th century brought Einstein's relativity theory, Rutherford's discovery of the atomic nucleus, and Heisenberg's quantum mechanics, and scientists of many nations worked together to tease out the secrets of the atom. Only 12 years before Hiroshima, one leading physicist dismissed the idea of harnessing energy from atoms as "moonshine." Then, on the eve of World War II, the power of atomic fission was revealed, alliances were broken, friendships sundered, and science co-opted by world events.

Preston interviewed the surviving scientists, and she offers new insight into the fateful wartime meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr, along with a fascinating conclusion examining what might have happened had any number of events occurred differently. She also provides a rare portrait of Hiroshima before the blast.

As Hiroshima's 60th anniversary approaches, Before the Fallout compels us to consider the threats and moral dilemmas we face in our still dangerous world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The blinding flash that seared Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was the culmination of a half century of scientific creativity and international turmoil. In the aptly titled Before the Fall-Out, author Diana and Michael Preston utilize primary sources to describe the movement toward this defining moment in history. Some aspects of this story are familiar, but the Prestons tell it with unexpected freshness and insight.
Marcia Bartusiak
"History," writes Preston, " . . . is inherently about people, how they thought, what they did with their thoughts, and how they interacted with the individuals immediately around them." With Before the Fallout , she conveys that history with both style and compassion.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
The well-worn saga of the events, circumstances, and personalities that culminated in the detonation of the first atomic bomb has been recounted in several books; yet, the story remains compelling. Historian Preston (A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole) offers an expansive account covering half a century, beginning with Marie and Pierre Curie's 1898 discovery of radium and continuing through other important scientific findings (e.g., Einstein's relativity theory and Heisenberg's quantum mechanics). She draws on numerous primary sources, including interviews with surviving scientists, to offer an insightful, engaging, and surprisingly fast-moving account, although there is little content that can be characterized as groundbreaking. The concluding chapter entertains several intriguing "what if" scenarios. While Preston's book captures the dynamic of an exuberant scientific community against the backdrop of world war, Richard Rhodes's masterful The Making of the Atomic Bomb remains the standard.-Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Science is a cumulative and collaborative process, even when it's put to the job of killing people. Thus, writes popular historian/biographer Preston (A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, 2004, etc.), "the destructive flash that seared Hiroshima into history was the culmination of fifty years of scientific creativity and more than fifty years of political and military turmoil." Many of the best scientific minds from many countries had been engaged in coaxing out the secret of the atom ever since Marie and Pierre Curie coined the word radioactivity in 1898. Shortly after the news escaped in 1939-despite Niels Bohr's efforts to keep it quiet-that expatriate German scientists had discovered how to split an atom's nucleus, more than a dozen laboratories around the world succeeded in producing nuclear fission. Some classically trained scientists could scarcely believe such reports; Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, protested that fission was an impossibility; all the same, writes Preston, "within days he had changed his mind and was speculating that this 'could make bombs.'" Preston ably shows the like evolution of thought across the worldwide community of science, as nuclear programs sprang up in the Soviet Union, Japan, Britain, and Nazi Germany. Some failed, she suggests, for political reasons, and some of those for reasons of mere expediency; the Soviet Union could conceivably have had a uranium bomb in WWII, but a leading scientist there argued that while the nuclear bomb was theoretically possible, "the Soviet Union was not ready for such a step; an atom bomb was not a weapon for the war with Germany but a matter for the future." Whence, of course, the arms race that defined the nascent Cold War,with which Preston closes her narrative, giving readers a where-are-they-now view of some of the high clergy in the church of mutually assured destruction. A touch narrower than Gerard DeGroot's indispensable The Bomb: A Life (p. 31), but still a useful, very accessible summary of things atomic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802714459
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 3/15/2005
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Diana Preston is an acclaimed historian and author of A First Rate Tragedy, The Boxer Rebellion, and A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. She lives in London

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2006

    Scientific writing at its best

    This book is well worth a read. It sews together the progression from the earliest awareness of previously unknown phenomena through a tightly told tale to the first use of atomic weapons. Superbly told, it brings the whole history of these events in a compelling series of events which inexorably lead to the Manhattan Project. Well written not only from a scientific perspective but also from the quirky personalities involved and the moral and political aspects of what was the most intriguing scientific project of the 20th century

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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