Guest Review: Kelly Cherry on The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era, by Craig Nelson (Scribner)

Presented with yet another book about atomic energy, we might ask why. We already have Richard Rhodes's very thorough The Making of the Atomic Bomb, two magnificent biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer (American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and Robert Oppenheimer: His Life and Mind by Ray Monk), as well as a long list of impressive books that detail various stepping stones and aspects of the discovery of fission and the development of nuclear weapons, including the historical, the scientific, and the political.

NelsonCover.jpgWhy? Because here, the author places radium at the center of his book, which turns out to make his work much more inclusive. Radium, we now know, is everywhere. Our planet has 70 billion curies of radium. In human hands, radium is a force for both good and evil, though it is not always easy to determine when it's being used for which. Nelson's title substitutes the term "radiance" for radium, as if he wishes simultaneously to consider the force qua force and the men and women who brought it to our attention as intellectually radiant.

Beginning with Wilhelm Röentgen, who received the first Nobel Prize in physics, and Ernest Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics, Nelson moves to Pierre and Marie Curie, the Joliot-Curies, Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn (who grabbed the Nobel for himself and wrote Meitner out of history). Nelson then traces, to a degree, the usual course of histories of radium but along the way creates portraits that wonderfully enliven a text that unfortunately sometimes reads like a cut-and-paste assemblage. We learn that Pierre was by no means the only man in Marie Curie's life: after his death, she and a younger, married man, Paul Langevin, lived in sin, scandalizing all of Paris. That this man, like her deceased Pierre, like herself, was a physicist — Einstein said that "it seems to be certain that he would have developed the special theory of relativity if it had not been done elsewhere" — may enlighten readers who think that scientists are boringly rational. Paul eventually returned to his wife (who then gave him permission to take another mistress), but his grandson and Marie's granddaughter would, in time, wed.

NelsonTime.jpegMany readers who would pick up this book may know that Leo Szilard was first to conceive of a chain reaction, but did we know that he spent three hours a morning soaking in a tub and thinking? That he was frequently thought of as "obnoxious"? (I hate knowing this, having long loved him for The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, a penetrating collection.)

Did we know that the physicist James Franck was deeply in love with the great Meitner (who taught a seminar with Szilard)? Alas, he was too shy to tell her how he felt and she was too shy to flirt. Meitner figured out why barium precipitates from uranium. Hahn knew that it did, but not why. Meitner also understood that this meant the freeing of enormous energy was possible according to Einstein's equation.

Hitler chased so many scientists out of Germany that Göttingen was no longer a cutting-edge center for physics, nor was the venerable Kaiser Wilhelm Centre. The new centers were Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Michigan. Enrico Fermi, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, Max Planck, Alfred Einstein settled in America and Niels Bohr and Max Born were frequent consultants. Nelson's vivid reconstructions of their personalities shine. They make this book fun to read and sometimes hard to put down.

NelsonScott.jpegAs the Atomic Era reaches its maturity, however, the book recapitulates the Cold War, including, most shockingly, the horrifying dishonesty that governed much of U.S. policy. We now know that for most of the time the Russians were bluffing. Yet Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who firebombed Japan and led the Strategic Air Command, thought nuking the USSR was the answer to everything. As Nelson writes, "His idea was to strike the USSR with the entirety of his arsenal, killing over 77 million people in 188 Soviet cities ... in thirty days." LeMay's name for his cockamamie plan was "the Sunday Punch." Winston Churchill, who made mistakes of his own, was certainly correct when he said, "If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce."

NelsonReagan.jpegSo much money was spent on weaponry that would have been better spent on education, housing, meals for the poor, medicine, and the arts. After a certain point there was no reason to keep building the military. It's true that the Cuban Missile Crisis came excruciatingly close to ushering in WWIII but Nikita Khrushchev, that practical peasant, caved. Mikhail Gorbachev, a cooler head, aware that the disaster at Chernobyl spelled the end of the Soviet Union, offered major concessions to Ronald Reagan who, enthralled by Teller's grandiose notions of Star Wars, declined to accept them. Nelson persuasively argues that the Cold War would have ended earlier if Reagan had accepted. Gorbachev was later able to make an agreement with Bush 41.

He brings us up to the present, discussing nuclear reactors (and disastrous meltdowns), nuclear waste (predominately in the U.S.), nuclear warheads for sale, but also the tremendous benefits of nuclear medicine. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The Russian Federation may be — no, is, I should say — dismayingly reluctant to recognize personal freedoms but its antagonism toward the West is more focused on economic spheres of influence than on nuclear-armed ideology. Nelson affirms the idea that nuclear weapons must be eliminated, as gas was after WWI. The scientist who led the wartime project to make the bomb, Oppenheimer, himself proposed the elimination of nuclear weapons. And what reader, reflecting on The Age of Radiance, who cares about our race and planet, could disagree.

Nelson.jpgIn conclusion, Nelson argues that the Atomic Era is over. Finished. His book is convincing on this subject, though accidents tend to be unpredictable. Perhaps we can assume that The Digital Age is our future. If so, it will surely have its own pros and cons, although software can't blow us up — or can it, given 3D printing? Nevertheless, it will be a long time before the fascination of the Atomic Era wears off.

[Published March 25, 2014. 488 pages, $29.99 hardcover]

Kelly Cherry's A Kind of Dream, a group of interlinked stories, has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Re Radiance

Ah, energy! Perfect power! How long it'll take the fascination of the Atomic Era to wear off seems to be more connected to elemental physics than to aesthetics. Or to the actors who drew their atomic schemes out of the air. I imagine the milliards of half-lives in relation to the time we've got left to save ourselves. How do we link the feasibility of this unpredictability to the other unpredictabilities of our lives? It's a fine moment to contemplate. Good luck to us all. It's also a fine review that makes a reader want to know more. Thank you very much.