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Book Review by John Parrington, December 2009
Amir D Aczel, Palgrave Macmillan, £18.99
This book is about a substance that languished in obscurity for centuries, yet today is far more sought after than gold. Uranium is the heaviest natural element, heaviness in this case being associated with another property: radioactive instability. This instability makes uranium a potential source of energy for peaceful uses but has also led to it being used to make the most devastating weapons ever created by humanity.
For me, the best part of Amir D Aczel's account is the story he tells about the scientific quest to understand radioactivity and the physical processes underlying it - from Marie Curie stirring a cauldron of uranium ore in the most primitive of laboratories in order to identify the elements therein, to Lise Meitner, a refugee in Sweden, penniless after fleeing the Nazis, having a eureka moment in a snowy forest and thereby discovering the principle of nuclear fission. A major feature of this history is the central role played by women.
Another central theme is the effect that war had upon the participants. Another scientist who had to flee the Nazis was Enrico Fermi. He put Meitner's theoretical ideas into practice, not in his native Italy but in Chicago, where he created the first nuclear reactor. It was a dangerous step into the unknown - Fermi had to demonstrate a chain reaction while at the same time controlling the event sufficiently so that Chicago itself did not disappear in a nuclear explosion.
Fermi showed that nuclear fission could be used in a controlled fashion to generate energy. But in 1942 the primary aim was to create the first atomic bomb. Aczel does a good job of describing the fear held by many scientists that it might be Hitler who became the first to press the nuclear trigger. It was this fear that led even anti-war scientists like Einstein to support the Manhattan Project, which employed 130,000 people and cost $2 billion, the first example of scientific research on an industrial scale.
Later, many of the leading scientists involved agonised about their role in creating the atomic bomb. Indeed, Leo Szilard, one of the main instigators of the Manhattan Project, tried to stop the employment of the bomb before Hiroshima, when it became clear that the Nazi threat had disappeared. But the US establishment had made an investment and now it wanted results.
Aczel provides important new evidence showing that the US proceeded with their bombing missions fully aware that the Japanese were trying to sue for peace and that the primary aim of the nuclear holocausts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to show the Russians who held the lever of power in the world. Thus began the Cold War.
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