Uranium Wars: The Scientific Rivalry That Created the Nuclear Age

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Uranium, a nondescript element when found in nature, in the past century has become more sought after than gold. Its nucleus is so heavy that it is highly unstable and radioactive. If broken apart, it unleashes the tremendous power within the atom--the most controversial type of energy ever discovered.

Set against the darkening shadow of World War II, Amir D. Aczel's suspenseful account tells the story of the fierce competition among the day's top scientists to harness nuclear power. The intensely driven Marie Curie identified radioactivity. The University of Berlin team of Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner--he an upright, politically conservative German chemist and she a soft-spoken Austrian Jewish theoretical physicist--achieved the most spectacular discoveries in fission. Curie's daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, raced against Meitner and Hahn to break the secret of the splitting of the atom. As the war raged, Niels Bohr, a founder of modern physics, had a dramatic meeting with Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist in charge of the Nazi project to beat the Allies to the bomb. And finally, in 1942, Enrico Fermi, a prodigy from Rome who had fled the war to the United States, unleashed the first nuclear chain reaction in a racquetball court at the University of Chicago.

At a time when the world is again confronted with the perils of nuclear armament, Amir D. Aczel's absorbing story of a rivalry that changed the course of history is as thrilling and suspenseful as it is scientifically revelatory and newsworthy.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The ancient Romans used uranium as a natural oxide to bring out the luster of yellow ceramic glazes. By the late 19th century, chemists had learned that this silvery-white metallic chemical possessed unique properties, but the knowledge of its full, world-shattering potential would remain hidden until the decade before World War II. Amir Aczel's anecdote-rich Uranium Wars reveals how this obscure element facilitated the dawn of a new era. By focusing his narrative on the international scientific race to obtain nuclear capabilities, the author of Fermat's Last Theorem manages to infuse a sense of immediacy into what first seemed like a familiar story. A compelling read for serious readers of history, military history, and scientific history.
From the Publisher
“Combining these themes in a single, brief narrative is a difficult trick but one Aczel pulls off well. . .[he] writes with colour, lucidity and conviction.”—The Financial Times

“The book covers several new developments of interest to atomic aficionados...Mr Aczel’s research is thorough and his conclusions interesting.”—The Economist

“Fascinating...the history, especially of the second world war, make this a worthwhile book.”—New Scientist

“The combination of clear, in-depth scientific explanation and outstanding research make this book, from the author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, the one you should grab.”—Discover

“Aczel ponders the moral conduct of the scientists involved…he has developed rich anecdotes about their personalities and discoveries.”—The Globe and Mail

“Endlessly compelling…Aczel is a skilled science writer”—Library Journal

“A readable account of how nuclear bombs came to be made, deployed and developed…Aczel brings the story up to date.”—The Times

“A fascinating examination of the events, the personalities, and the science that have led to the atomic bomb. A very timely book at an era in which nuclear proliferation has become a real danger.” — Mario Livio, best-selling author of Is God A Mathematician?

“Reinforced by Aczel’s intent review of the historical controversy surrounding the 1941 meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and of the decision (which Aczel criticizes) to use the new doomsday weapon on Japan, this synthesis of early atomic history strengthens Aczel’s reputation for writing accessible, well received popular works on physics and mathematics.”—Booklist

"A concise and cogent review of one of the most exhilarating, yet fearsome, eras in the history of scientific discovery. Aczel sharply profiles the brilliant—and often conflicted—men and women who led us into the nuclear age." — Marcia Bartusiak, author of Einstein's Unfinished Symphony

"Amir Aczel skillfully and lucidly traces the twists and turns of uranium: a once obscure metal that became, through chance discoveries and a string of intricate decisions, the chief character of one of the central political, military, and scientific developments of the twentieth century. Rarely has the story of nuclear fission been told in so clear and riveting a fashion.” — Michael D. Gordin author of Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

“Uranium Wars is a fascinating story of discovery, intrigue, clash of egos, spying, and international conflict. Aczel tells this amazing story in a racy and accessible style - with authority but lightness-of-touch to hold the reader spell-bound.” —David Clark, author of Newton's Tyranny

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Author and Boston University research fellow Aczel (Fermat's Last Theorem) shares a scientist's history of nuclear chemistry in the 20th century, and its eventual application in the form of the atomic bomb. In the first half, Aczel covers figures of early modern science like the Curies in Paris, the Meitner-Hahn group in Berlin, and Italian physicists before they were driven out by the Fascists. (One of WWII's greatest ironies is that the science Nazis dubbed "Jewish physics" gave the Allies their conquering weapon.) Newly released documents and post-war memoirs also help Azcel chronicle German scientists, like Werner Heisenberg, who participated in the Nazi bomb project. Aczel is at his most intriguing analyzing Truman's decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima; further declassified U.S. documents reveal that the U.S. knew Japanese ambassadors were making peace offers in Moscow before the bombing, and that the destruction of Hiroshima was also meant to send a message to the Soviets. Using a wealth of new source material, Azcel covers the triumphs and mistakes that come from powerful, cutting-edge science, while sounding a cautionary alarm regarding ongoing global conflicts with terrorists and nations.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
No story in the modern history of science has been told more times from a greater number of perspectives than that of the discoveries in 20th-century atomic physics that led to the creation of the bomb. While the drama is perhaps endlessly compelling and contains new lessons for each generation, the main story is thoroughly known. Aczel is a skilled science writer whose most popular prior works (e.g., The Jesuit and the Skull) have seized upon previously obscure scientific tales. Here, he writes a lucid account of the major researchers, their contributions, and the sociopolitical forces that influenced them, with a few speculative "what if" digressions and brief references to today's nuclear issues that give general readers something to ponder. VERDICT While satisfying a novice curiosity in an engaging way, this is an optional purchase, where need or demand warrants. Most libraries probably already have other histories that serve the same needs, such as Diana Preston's Before the Fallout or Gerard J. DeGroot's The Bomb: A Life, and others might want to consider, instead, Tom Zoellner's Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World.—Gregg Sapp, Evergreen State Lib., Olympia, WA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780230613744
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Series: MacSci Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,056,832
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Amir D. Aczel is the bestselling author of Fermat's Last Theorem, The Riddle of the Compass, and The Mystery of the Aleph, and a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

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Table of Contents

The Blinding Light
• Physics and Uranium
• On the Trail of the Nucleus
• The Draw of Radioactivity
• The Meitner-Hahn Discovery
• Enrico Fermi
• The Rome Experiments
• The Events of 1938
• That Christmas
• The Heisenberg Menace
• Chain Reaction *Copenhagen
• Truth
• Building the Bomb
• Decision to Use the Bomb
• The Spying Operation
• The Cold War
• Uranium's Future

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