Skip to main content

Before the Fall-out – Diana Preston *****

This is a highly compelling, and in places positively gripping, account of the discovery of radioactivity and nuclear physics and its subsequent use in the first atomic bomb. The physics involved is described in a very clear and readable manner, but what really makes this book a page-turner is the fact that we get the human story behind the narrative of the scientific discoveries made.
Preston does an excellent job of relating the biographical details of the key scientists such as the Curies and Ernest Rutherford in the early days of the science of radioactivity. The work of Otto Hans and Lise Mietner, their struggles in Nazi Germany, their subsequent escape and gradual realization of the potential of nuclear energy are also vividly described.
As you might expect a fair proportion of the book is devoted to the Manhattan Project and the tension between Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. Preston also does an excellent job of portraying everyday life at Los Alamos for the scientists and their families.
We also discover the thrilling details of how the German nuclear bomb programme was stopped in its tracks by a daring operation carried out by British forces to destroy a Norwegian heavy water plant. Preston also delves in to the ambiguity of how much Heisenberg actually knew about the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, and in her epilogue speculates as to what might have happened if the Nazi programme had succeeded.
Probably the most moving sections of the book concern the inhabitants of Hiroshima and the crew of the Enola Gay – Preston’s handling of this is particularly superb and she balances the two viewpoints on the dropping of the nuclear bomb supremely well. What makes this book a worthy addition to anyone’s library is not the details of the science as such, but the fact that we get the stories of the individuals involved in one of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century.
Paperback:  
Review by Scotty_73

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…