A riveting narrative of the Atomic Age—from x-rays and Marie Curie to the Nevada Test Site and the 2011 meltdown in Japan—written by the prizewinning and bestselling author of Rocket Men.
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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About the Author
Craig Nelson is the author of Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness and the New York Times bestseller, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, as well as several previous books, including The Age of Radiance (a PEN Award Finalist chosen as one of the year’s best books by NBC News, the American Institute of Physics, Kirkus Reviews, and FlavorWire), 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.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The Old World
1 Radiation: What's in It for Me? 3
2 The Astonished Owner of a New and Mysterious Power 8
3 Rome: November 10, 1938 55
4 The Mysteries of Budapest 73
Part 2 The New World
5 The Birth of Radiance 109
6 The Secret of All Secrets 140
7 The First Cry of a Newborn World 196
8 My God, What Have We Done? 206
Part 3 World's End
9 How Do You Keep a Cold War Cold? 225
10 A Totally Different Scheme, and It Will Change the Course of History 247
11 The Origins of Modern Swimwear 270
12 The Delicate Balance of Terror 276
Part 4 Power and Cataclysm
13 Too Cheap to Meter 303
14 There Fell a Great Star from Heaven, Burning as It Were a Lamp 312
15 Hitting a Bullet with a Bullet 327
16 On the Shores of Fortunate Island 340
17 Under the Thrall of a Two-Faced God 368
Heartfelt Thanks 381
Photo Credits 417
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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
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