Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element by Jeremy Bernstein, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element

Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element

4.0 1
by Jeremy Bernstein
     
 

When plutonium was first manufactured at Berkeley in the spring of 1941, there was so little of it that it was not visible to the naked eye. It took a year to accumulate enough so that one could actually see it. Now so much has been produced that we don't know what to do to get rid of it. We have created a monster.

The history of plutonium is as strange as the

Overview

When plutonium was first manufactured at Berkeley in the spring of 1941, there was so little of it that it was not visible to the naked eye. It took a year to accumulate enough so that one could actually see it. Now so much has been produced that we don't know what to do to get rid of it. We have created a monster.

The history of plutonium is as strange as the element itself. When scientists began looking for it, they did so simply in the spirit of inquiry, not certain whether there were still spots to fill on the periodic table. But the discovery of fission made it clear that this still-hypothetical element would be more than just a scientific curiosity—it could be the main ingredient of a powerful nuclear weapon. As it turned out, it is good for almost nothing else. Plutonium's nuclear potential put it at the heart of the World War II arms race—the Russians found out about it through espionage, the Germans through independent research, and everybody wanted some. Now it is warehoused around the world—the United States alone possesses about forty-seven metric tons—but it has almost no practical use outside its role in nuclear weaponry. How did the product of scientific curiosity become such a dangerous burden?

In his history of this complex and dangerous element, noted physicist Jeremy Bernstein describes the steps that were taken to transform plutonium from a laboratory novelty into the nuclear weapon that destroyed Nagasaki. This is the first book to weave together the many strands of plutonium's story, explaining not only the science but also the people involved.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In Plutonium, Jeremy Bernstein acknowledges that everything connected with the element is complicated, and that includes plutonium itself and its history. Its discovery in 1941 by Glenn Seaborg and Arthur Wahl is part of a much bigger story in which each part becomes a story in itself."—Nature

"Plutonium is a strong candidate for the weirdest, most fascinating, and most frightening element in the periodic table. For it to be the subject of a book by the acclaimed physicist turned science writer Jeremy Bernstein promises a great deal. Plutonium does not disappoint, even for those who think they are already familiar with the evolution of nuclear science during the twentieth century."—Physics World

"Bernstein spins an accessible, insightful description of how the great scientists Curie, Bohr, Rutherford, and Fermi, among others, deconstructed the atom through a combination of individual brilliance, a spirit of collaboration, and serendipity."—Publishers Weekly

"Bernstein's book should play a useful role by helping demystify plutonium and by encouraging interested members of the public and Congress to start constructing a more rational policy to deal with the dangers posed by this man-made element."—American Scientist

"Irony and drama shape Bernstein's accounts of amazing feats of scientific deduction and world-endangering secrets, which give way to a sobering overview of the environmental damage caused by plutonium-producing reactors and the enormous threats embodied in today's global plutonium inventory."—Booklist

"Running through a spectrum of Nobel Prize winners, Bernstein grippingly portrays the race to develop the first nuclear weapon during World War II as well as the interplay among the global personalities involved. Readers learn that this hazardous element, good for nothing but nuclear weapon production, continues to hold us hostage with the threat of nuclear terrorism."—Library Journal

"None of Jeremy Bernstein's devoted New Yorker readers were surprised that he brought J. Robert Oppenheimer to life in his compelling biography, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. But bringing plutonium to life—making the 94th element as interesting as 'the father of the atomic bomb'—is science writing that borders on literary magic."—Martin J. Sherwin, coauthor of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

Publishers Weekly

Physicist and former New Yorkerstaff writer Bernstein presents a scientifically rigorous (equations and all) but clearly written explanation of the recondite reasons why plutonium is supremely suited for bomb-making material—and little else. From the discovery of uranium in 1789 to the Manhattan Project, Nazi attempts at a nuclear bomb and the post-WWII efforts of the U.S.S.R. to become a nuclear power, Bernstein reviews the element's storied past. Although the discovery of the atom's structure has been covered before, Bernstein spins an accessible, insightful description of how the great scientists Curie, Bohr, Rutherford and Fermi, among others, deconstructed the atom through a combination of individual brilliance, a spirit of collaboration and serendipity. He also brings his acquaintance with several Los Alamos scientists (he interned at the laboratory in 1957) to the less canonical subject of the scientific and engineering problems inherent to building a working nuclear bomb. Here the search for the elusive element comes to center stage in this challenging but rewarding account (after 2005's Secrets of the Old One: Einstein 1905). (Apr.)

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Library Journal
Plutonium was the heaviest natural element found in minute amounts of pitchblende in the mining area of Saxony, Germany, at the beginning of the 20th century. The radioactive substance is now overwhelmingly prevalent, and because of its extensive half-life, it poses an environmental threat. Intrigued by its bizarre chemical and physical properties and its subsequent role in nuclear reactions, physicist Bernstein, who has written both technical papers and popular science (e.g., Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma), here traces plutonium's history and describes its chemical and physical properties along with its role in the construction of nuclear arms. Running through a spectrum of Nobel prize winners, he grippingly portrays the race to develop the first nuclear weapon during World War II as well as the interplay among the global personalities involved. Readers learn that this hazardous element, good for nothing but nuclear weapon production, continues to holds us hostage with the threat of nuclear terrorism. This historical record of the growth of chemistry and its effect on history is suitable for public and academic libraries.
—Rita Hoots

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801475177
Publisher:
Cornell University Press
Publication date:
04/02/2009
Pages:
216
Sales rank:
596,337
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

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