Skip to main content

Biohazard – Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelman ***

In places this well-crafted bit of cold war history reads like a spy thriller, so much so that I was convinced after a few pages that I was not reading a personal story, but rather the hand of a ghost writer, as a quick glance at the cover makes it clear. It’s not a bad thing, but the structure of these things, often put together by a staff writer on the big American magazines, is so formulaic that you come to expect ‘now they’re going to jump back in time’ or ‘now they’re going to slot in a surprise.’
Don’t let that put you off, though, the first person narrator Ken Alibek, a former Soviet manager in the biological weapons programme, has a fascinating and chilling story to tell. We see his growing involvement in the industrial scale sites producing the likes of anthrax and smallpox, with plenty of scares and terrifying achievements along the way. Right from the beginning of the book, where (in a classic ghost-written jump forward) he is given the challenge of providing enough anthrax to fill multi-warhead ICBMs it’s a tense story, especially bearing in mind this was taking place in an increasingly unstable country that supposedly had given up biological weapons years before.
It’s very readable, and emphasizes just what a level of threat biological weapons were and may still be. The only reason it doesn’t score better is that, though there is a scientific context, which is why it’s here at all, it is relatively minor. We do seem some of the science of the biological agents, but primarily this is a book about politics, management and technology. Even so well worth checking out.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr