The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era

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Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rocket Men and the award-winning biographer of Thomas Paine comes the first complete history of the Atomic Age, a brilliant, magisterial account of the men and women who uncovered the secrets of the nucleus, brought its power to America, and ignited the twentieth century.

When Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller forged the science of radioactivity, they created a revolution that arced from the end of the nineteenth century, ...

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The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era

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Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rocket Men and the award-winning biographer of Thomas Paine comes the first complete history of the Atomic Age, a brilliant, magisterial account of the men and women who uncovered the secrets of the nucleus, brought its power to America, and ignited the twentieth century.

When Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller forged the science of radioactivity, they created a revolution that arced from the end of the nineteenth century, through the course of World War II and the Cold War of superpower brinksmanship, to our own twenty-first-century confrontation with the dangers of nuclear power and proliferation—a history of paradox, miracle, and nightmare. While nuclear science improves our everyday lives—from medicine to microwave technology—radiation’s invisible powers can trigger cancer and cellular mayhem. Writing with a biographer’s passion, Craig Nelson unlocks one of the great mysteries of the universe in a work that is tragic, triumphant, and above all, fascinating.

From the discovery of X-rays in the 1890s, through the birth of nuclear power in an abandoned Chicago football stadium, to the bomb builders of Los Alamos and the apocalyptic Dr. Strangelove era, Nelson illuminates a pageant of fascinating historical figures: Marie and Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Franklin Roosevelt, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Harry Truman, Curtis LeMay, John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others. He reveals how brilliant Jewish scientists fleeing Hitler transformed America from a nation that created lightbulbs and telephones into one that split atoms; how the most grotesque weapon ever invented could realize Alfred Nobel’s lifelong dream of global peace; and how, in our time, emergency workers and low-level utility employees fought to contain run-amok nuclear reactors while wondering if they would live or die.

Radiance defies our common-sense views of nature, with its staggering amounts of energy flowing from seemingly inert rock and matter pulsing in half-lives that transforms into other states over the course of decades or in the blink of an eye. Radiation is as scary a word as cancer, but it’s the power that keeps our planet warm, as well as the force behind earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, and so organic to all life that even our own human bodies are radioactive. By tracing mankind’s complicated relationship with the dangerous energy it discovered and unleashed, Nelson reveals how atomic power and radiation are indivisible from our everyday lives.

Brilliantly told and masterfully crafted, The Age of Radiance provides a new understanding of a misunderstood epoch in history and restores to prominence the forgotten heroes and heroines who have changed all of our lives for better and for worse. It confirms Craig Nelson’s position as one of the most lively and skillful popular historians writing today.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

For most of us, the Atomic Era began with the Manhattan Project and ended with the cessation of the Cold War. For award-winning author Craig Nelson (Rocket Men; The First Heroes), it began with Wilhelm Röntgen's 1895 discovery of x-rays and sizzled to a radioactive climax in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown. His new release The Age of Radiance unfolds the history of an era that both threatened universal apocalypse and promised a plentiful, inexpensive new source of energy. This rich, brisk narrative spotlights the geniuses behind this true revolution, but doesn't neglect its centrality to issues of war and peace. An anecdote-rich book; certain to receive media attention.

Publishers Weekly
★ 12/16/2013
The atomic age arrived with a bang in 1945, terrifying the world with the threat of nuclear holocaust while offering the possibility of a cheap source of energy. Yet neither scenario followed and the era petered out with the century’s end, as the digital age was ushered in. Nelson (Rocket Men) writes a wonderfully detailed, anecdote-filled account of atomic energy, from Wilhelm Roentgen’s 1895 discovery of radiation to the ongoing hangover of the Fukushima disaster. Roentgen’s fateful discovery opens this account and is followed in turn by four more geniuses—Pierre and Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—as well as the colleagues who helped them tease out details of a hitherto unknown but spectacular source of energy. Hardly anyone believed in its practicality until Hitler expelled the cream of Europe’s physicists and claimed that those remaining were working on an atomic bomb. America embarked on an immense project to beat the Nazis at their own game before becoming entangled with Soviet nuclear program in the bizarre, abysmally wasteful Cold War. Other authors have covered the myriad ways this invisible power impacts our lives, but Nelson brilliantly weaves a plethora of material into one noteworthy volume. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky. (Mar.)
Daniel Okrent
“As he did with the space program in Rocket Men, in The Age of Radiance Craig Nelson has brought an era and an ethos to life. At the same time, he’s performed an even more difficult task: he’s made both the scientific and political complexities of the atomic era comprehensible and transparent.”
Doug Stanton
“Wow! Craig Nelson’s The Age of Radiance is like the best of John McPhee mixed with the page-turning glory of a science-fiction thriller. A magnificent storyteller, Nelson takes even the most atomized of details and spins a dazzling history of the Atomic Age. This book gives you x-ray glasses: After reading it you literally can’t walk down the street without seeing everything in our world anew.”
Salon
“A page-turning history... Historian Craig Nelson tells the tale with exceptional panache… an example of top-notch storytelling… Nelson’s version is one of the best, an ideal balance of detail, character, conflict and information…He’s always able to find the image or observation that makes a scene or situation blossom in a reader’s mind’s eye. And much of what he finds is surprising.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“A fascinating, information-rich new work… Filled with drama, vivid anecdotes, and breathtaking scientific breakthroughs, this book is an engrossing, comprehensive history of the atomic age.”
Los Angeles Times
"A dramatic history, full of missteps and accidental discoveries, manipulations and malfeasance, outsized personalities and egos, and inadvertent deaths born of ignorance as well as human error...A readable and fresh romp through a familiar history.”
Wall Street Journal
"A book that moves at a thrilling pace through the while history of the atomic age... Mr. Nelson wisely dramatizes the insights that led to understanding the nucleus by following the lives of a few physcists, each a leader in the field and each displaying remarkable traits of individuality, creativity and endurance... this ambitious book does achieve is goal, presenting a grand and very readable overview of the nuclear era."
Christian Science Monitor
"Rich with powerful images ... fraught with drama ... and moments of great pathos ... a thrilling, intense, and disturbing account of the scientific and sociopolitical history of the atomic era, from the discovery of X-rays to the tragic meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011."
Dallas Morning News
"This is the kind of book that doesn’t just inform you but leaves you feeling smarter."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"A highly readable history of humanity’s embrace of nuclear energy and radiation."
On the Seawall
"Nelson's vivid reconstructions...shine. They make this book fun to read and sometimes hard to put down.'"
Flavorwire
"A comprehensive and fascinating look at the invention of atomic energy. It is the sort of book struck through with facts, quotes, and stories that you never even knew happened. Nelson is as dexterous writing about Cold War-era Realpolitik as he is writing about complicated science in a way that the proletariat can get an idea of what’s going on; and he’s funny to boot. The pleasure of reading this book comes from the many, many insights and facts that are brought to light through Nelson’s smart voice."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Nelson is especially good with a 'you are there' approach in describing Curie’s work and her late-night visits to the backyard lab with husband Pierre to look at the glow from her experiments stored in jars. He uses a similar tack in describing efforts by Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and others to start a chain reaction at an old squash court at the University of Chicago, work that gave rise to the Los Alamos lab and the construction of the first working atomic bombs."
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Nelson writes a wonderfully detailed, anecdote-filled account of atomic energy, from Wilhelm Roentgen’s 1895 discovery of radiation to the ongoing hangover of the Fukushima disaster.… Other authors have covered the myriad ways this invisible power impacts our lives, but Nelson brilliantly weaves a plethora of material into one noteworthy volume.”
Booklist
“A sweeping panorama of the nuclear age, from Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, paying particular attention to the colorful scientists whose brilliance and diligence unlocked the secrets of the atom.… Nelson tells their stories vividly, with a journalist’s eye for symmetry and irony; the science itself is, at times, less central to his narrative than the fusion-reactions of interacting scientists and government officials.”
Library Journal
10/01/2013
Having breached the New York Times best sellers list with Rocket Boys, former publishing exec Nelson here works through the portraiture of significant figures from Marie and Pierre Curie and Robert Oppenheimer to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to chronicle the atomic age. Certainly relevant; with a five-city tour to Denver, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-10
Nelson (Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, 2009, etc.) returns with a survey of mankind's use of radioactive materials. Beginning with the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and ending with the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the author examines the discovery of radium (used for a while in everything from watches to toothpaste), the development of nuclear fission and fusion, and the use of the resulting new elements in nuclear weapons, medicine and power generation. Nelson's coverage of the science underlying this saga is admirably thorough and accessible, but this is no impersonal "march of science" story. The author also shows how the development of nuclear physics was deeply influenced by contemporary politics and the interplay of the personalities involved. He includes lively biographies of the men—Wilhelm Roentgen, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and others—who created this new age and of two remarkable women: the celebrated Polish-born Marie Curie and the almost forgotten Austrian Lise Meitner. Nelson characterizes nuclear science as a "two-faced god," a blessing and a curse, and its history as irrational, confusing and conflicted. For example, nuclear weapons are so dreadful that they have effectively prevented war between superpowers, but their production and maintenance have been a staggering waste of resources. The author's gripping narratives of the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima simply scream that fallible humans should not be messing around with this technology, and yet he argues that nuclear power is still the safest and best option for environmentally responsible power generation. Nevertheless, Nelson contends that the nuclear era is now drawing to a close, as the acquisition of nuclear weapons is viewed only as the mark of a pariah regime, and the dishonesty of governments and industry has ruined the prospects for further development of nuclear power. An engaging history that raises provocative questions about the future of nuclear science.
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Nelson writes a wonderfully detailed, anecdote-filled account of atomic energy.… Other authors have covered the myriad ways this invisible power impacts our lives, but Nelson brilliantly weaves a plethora of material into one noteworthy volume.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451660432
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 3/25/2014
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 105,064
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Craig Nelson

Craig Nelson is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Rocket Men, as well as several previous books, including The Age of Radiance, The First Heroes, Thomas Paine (winner of the Henry Adams Prize), and Let’s Get Lost (shortlisted for W.H. Smith’s Book of the Year). His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, National Geographic, The New England Review, Popular Science, Reader’s Digest, and a host of other publications; he has been profiled in Variety, Interview, Publishers Weekly, and Time Out. Besides working at a zoo, in Hollywood, and being an Eagle Scout and a Fuller Brush Man, he was a vice president and executive editor of Harper & Row, Hyperion, and Random House, where he oversaw the publishing of twenty national bestsellers. He lives in Greenwich Village.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 11, 2014

    Researched, Informative and Well Written. A real page tuner.

    This book explains the history of the development of nuclear science, the political and moral dilemmas. It is fast pace, interesting and well written and covers 70 years of history. It's information and perspectives that was not taught in school in the 60's and 70's. After reading this book one of the take aways was how close we have come on numerous occasions to nuclear war because of warmongers like Curtis LeMay and Richard Nixon. The crazies with their fingers on the nuclear buttons were less Russian and more American. MAD was successful in preventing a nuclear war but it spawned garden variety conventional conflicts that are no less destructive and wasteful if not pointless. Also, that because of well deserved mistrust of government and industry that nuclear power will not be a viable source of energy going forward despite it being much more environmentally friendly than carbon based fuels. I really liked this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2014

    Wrong Order

    I ordered a hard-cover book and got a Nook. Nook is fine for some books but this is more like a reference book to be paged through and savored. I haven't touched it yet. Disappointing because I am a fan of those scientists

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 16, 2014

    Nelson has written a readable overview of the atomic age thus fa

    Nelson has written a readable overview of the atomic age thus far. Readers not familiar with the story will enjoy the book - it's easy to read and digest, it follows a logical progression, and it engages the reader. Those familiar with the science, however, will bristle. There are errors of minutiae and there are editorial decisions made for drama's sake rather than firm accuracy. I am very familiar with the unit REM but have never seen it defined as 'a measure of the cancerous effects of radiant energy'.

    Nelson freely admits his former ignorance concerning radiation. Maybe that is why he refers to its 'mythic' properties though it is well understood by science. I very much like his explanations about how, rather than something rare and obscure, we are quite literally bathed in the stuff and, in fact, are radioactive sources ourselves. I bothers me that he presents statistics as certainties and conjecture as fact. But there is much to like here and he makes no pretense that he writes a physics textbook.

    He argues that we are seeing the end of an age. He might be right but I'm not digging any graves quite yet

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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