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The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor [NOOK Book]

Overview


Theodore Taylor was one of the most brilliant engineers of the nuclear age, but in his later years he became concerned with the possibility of an individual being able to construct a weapon of mass destruction on their own. McPhee tours American nuclear institutions with Taylor and shows us how close we are to terrorist attacks employing homemade nuclear weaponry.


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The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor

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Overview


Theodore Taylor was one of the most brilliant engineers of the nuclear age, but in his later years he became concerned with the possibility of an individual being able to construct a weapon of mass destruction on their own. McPhee tours American nuclear institutions with Taylor and shows us how close we are to terrorist attacks employing homemade nuclear weaponry.


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374708610
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2011
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 521,395
  • File size: 227 KB

Meet the Author


John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Biography

"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt


Curve of Binding Energy, The
TO many people who have participated professionally in the advancement of the nuclear age, it seems not just possible but more and more apparent that nuclear explosions will again take place in cities. It seems to them likely, almost beyond quibbling, that more nations now have nuclear bombs than the six that have tested them, for it is hardly necessary to test a bomb in order to make one. There is also no particular reason the maker need be a nation. Smaller units could do it--groups of people with a common purpose or a common enemy. Just how few people could achieve the fabrication of an atomic bomb on their own is a question on which opinion divides, but there are physicistswith experience in the weapons field who believe that the job could be done by one person, working alone, with nuclear material stolen from private industry.What will happen when the explosions come--when a part of New York or Cairo or Adelaide has been hollowed out by a device in the kiloton range? Since even a so-called fizzle yield could kill a number of thousands of people, how many nuclear detonations can the world tolerate?Answers--again from professional people--vary, but many will say that while there is necessarily a limit to the amount of nuclear destruction society can tolerate, the limit is certainly not zero. Remarks by, for example, contemporary chemists, physicists, and engineers go like this (the segments of dialogue are assembled but not invented):"I think we have to live with the expectation that once every four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place and kill a lot of people.""What we are taking with the nuclear industry is a calculated risk.""It is simply a new fact of existence that this risk will exist. The problem can't be solved. But it can be alleviated.""Bomb damage is vastly exaggerated.""What fraction of a society has to be knocked out to make it collapse? We have some benchmarks. None collapsed in the Second World War.""The largest bomb that has ever been exploded anywhere was sixty megatons, and that is one-thousandth the force of an earthquake, one-thousandth the force of a hurricane. We have lived with earthquakes and hurricanes for a long time.""It is often assumed true that a full-blown nuclear war would be the end of life on earth. That is far from the truth. To end life on earth would take at least a thousand times the total yield of all the nuclear explosives existing in the world, and probably a lot more.""After a bomb goes off, and the fire ends, quiet descends again, and life continues.""We continue in the direction we're going, and take every precaution, or we go backward and outlaw the atom. I think the latter is a frivolous point of view. Man has never taken such a backward step. In the fourteenth century, people must have been against gunpowder, and people today might well say they were right. But you don't move backward.""At the start of the First World War, the high-explosive shell was described as 'the ultimate weapon.' It was said that the war could not last more than two weeks. Then they discovered dirt. They found they could get away from the high-explosive shell in trenches. When hijackers start holding up whole nations and exploding nuclear bombs, we must again discover dirt. We can live with these bombs. The power of dirt will be reexploited.""There is an intensity that society can tolerate. Thismeans that x number could die with y frequency in nuclear blasts and society would absorb it. This is really true. Ten x and ten y might go beyond the intensity limit.""I can imagine a rash of these things happening. I can imagine--in the worst situation--hundreds of explosions a year.""I see no way of anything happening where the rubric of society would collapse, where the majority of the human race would just curl up its toes and not care what happens after that. The collective human spirit is more powerful than all the bombs we have. Even if quite a few nuclear explosions go off and they become part of our existence, civilization won't collapse. We will adapt. We will go on. But the whole thing is so unpleasant. It is worth moving mountains, if we have to, to avoid it.""A homemade nuclear bomb would be a six-by-six-foot monster. It would take cranes to lift it. You're not going to get a sophisticated little thing that fits into a desk drawer.""No. But you could get something that would fit under the hood of a Volkswagen.""If it is possible to build such a device, the situation will come up. We just should be prepared for it, and not sit around wringing our hands. You can't solve this problem emotionally. No. 1: This is a hazard. No. 2: The strictest practicable measures have to be taken to prevent it.""We have to ask ourselves, 'What are we spending our money on, and what are we getting out of it?' I don't believe we can protect ourselves against every bogeyman in the closet. I think we have to take the calculated risk."Some years ago, Theodore B. Taylor, who is a theoretical physicist, began to worry full time about this subject. He developed a sense of urgency that is shared by only a small proportion of other professionals in the nuclear world, where the general attitude seems to be that there is little to worry about, for almost no one could successfully make a nuclear bomb without retracing the Manhattan Project. Taylor completely disagrees. In the course of a series of travels I made with him to nuclear installations around the United States, he showed me how comparatively easy it would be to steal nuclear material and, step by step, make it into a bomb. Without revealing anything that is not readily available in print, he earnestly wishes to demonstrate to the public that the problem is immediate. His sense of urgency is enhanced by the knowledge that the nuclear-power industry has entered an era of considerable growth, and for every kilogram of weapons-grade nuclear material that exists now hundreds will exist in the not distant future. To give substance to his allegations, he feels he must go into ample detail--not enough to offer an exact blueprint to anyone, to cross any existing line of secrecy, or to assist criminals who have the requisite training by telling them anything they couldnot find out on their own, but enough to make clear beyond question what could happen.The source and the reach of his worry result from his own experience. He knows how to do what he fears will be done. Peers and superiors considered him stellar at it once, and used that word to describe him. When he was in his twenties and early thirties, he worked in the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where he was a conceptual designer of nuclear bombs. He designed Davy Crockett, which in its time was the lightest and smallest fission bomb ever made. It weighed less than fifty pounds. He designed Hamlet, which, of all things, was the most efficient fission bomb ever made in the kiloton range. And he designed the Super Oralloy Bomb, the largest-yield fission bomb that has ever been exploded anywhere.Copyright © 1973, 1974 by John McPhee
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2005

    My Introduction to Reading John McPhee

    This is a fascinating narrative. Part of its fascination comes from Dr. Taylor¿s claim that easily terrorists could easily build and use nuclear weapons. Freeman Dyson indicated that this would be harder than Dr. Taylor thought.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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