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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Scotty_73

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …