Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Age of Radiance by Craig Nelson ****

The Age of Radiance by Craig Nelson is a four part history of atomic energy.

Part 1: The fundamental science from Marie Curie to Lise Meitner with a refreshing emphasis on women scientists.

Part 2: Los Alamos, Manhattan Project, and the development of the A bomb.

Part 3: Cold War with newly declassified information which is still frightening even after all these years, and in some place laughable.

Part 4: Atomic power generation with highlighting Three-mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

Even for someone who follows this history, Nelson has uncovered plenty of new information to keep the story fresh and interesting, like backyard bombs.

The carnage was so extravagant that any idea of strategy or targeting was removed; the backyard bomb of Teller's Los Alamos dreams-the one so huge and so lethal you didn't need to take it and drop it on an enemy, you could just set it off in your own backyard.
Like most history, this book shares a mythology with fiction: people are in charge and the consequences of their actions are critical. Homo sapien sapiens are pattern matching beings. They expect the narrative to be controled by cause and effect, action and reaction, not randomness. This myth persists even though much of our experience is arbitrary and inexplicable.

Nelson makes a strong case for Germany's loss in World War II being a direct result of antisemitism, both from Germany's loss of scientific resources, and from the actions of those angry scientists who were victims of antisemitism. This is a neat example of cause and effect like you'd find in any novel from classics to contemporaries, from literary to genre.

A well-written book for those interested in the history of science and research.

Age of Radiance also receives the Parsec Award (in honor of the Star Wars quote: "It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.") for asserting:
Dyson then designed Orion, which exploded five nuclear bombs every three second two hundred behind itself to reach a thrust of 3,000 mph.
Much like the original quote where time was confused with distance (parsecs), in the case velocity (mph) is confused with force (thrust).

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