Like Assange himself, I think this book will strongly divide people. It certainly aroused conflicting feelings in me.
It starts with a stark warning. We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society, of constantly being watched, where every detail of our lives, everything we say or write, every website we visit, our histories, preferences, misdemeanours and even gossip about us, are collected and stored by corporations and governments - essentially forever. This is contrasted with an increasing cloak of secrecy surrounding those with power, as they increasingly take control of the infrastructure of the Internet. This is the very opposite of the liberation the old style hackers and cypherpunks envisaged for the Internet.
Following that dramatic introduction, the majority of the book is a four way discussion on the implications of this. At times it verges on the paranoid, at other times it is like four blokes down the pub, speculating on possibilities for a future dystopia.
Several themes recur: the "Four Horsemen of the Infopocalypse" are the rationale used by governments to justify increasing surveillance and censorship, which the book repeatedly seems to ridicule.
Here I started to have my doubts, for these seem to me serious societal problems, and perhaps the price of more security, is more surveillance - and that is a price worth paying.
Moreover, the strong recommendation of universal personal encryption measures, to evade surveillance, such as TOR for anonymous surfing, BitCoin for anonymous financial transactions, encrypted email clients etc. left me wondering why I would want to go to such lengths to hide what I see, buy, or write. Id be a little bemused if MI5 took a serious interest.
Then I read about Justin Carter, who was arrested and held for 5 months in Texas as a potential terrorist for making a sick joke on Facebook, and government starts to look less benign and more paranoid, and oppressive - and I concede that maybe Assange is on to something. As I write this the UK government is planning universal censorship by ISPs by default.
So, it's a worrying book, the narration is pitched just right, and it left me thinking seriously about the whole area of security, freedom, censorship and surveillance. That can only be a good thing.
Starting slow, but building to a crescendo, this is the exciting story of the exploration of the sub-atomic realm, radioactivity, and the inspiring intellectual challenges, successes and terrible blunders made by the many individuals and nations in the race to harness nuclear power both as a devastating weapon, and an inexhaustible supply of useful energy.
As an insider to the Nuclear industry, Mahaffey knows his stuff, and he pitches the balance between scientific theory and social narrative just right, in my opinion. Some slightly quirky references to the supernatural in his introduction are rapidly left behind as he charts the history of the discovery of atomic structure, the isolation of neutrons among the various curious emissions of the first discovered radioactive elements such as Radium, Polonium and Uranium and the destabilising impact of very slow or very fast neutrons on the fissile nuclei of these same elements. The book has many nice anecdotes such as the famous "traffic light" moment - the sudden realisation of the potentially huge energy that could be released in a nuclear chain reaction. The tale really takes off as the race to build a super-bomb during the war gathers pace.
A satisfying irony of history described in the book, is that it was the anti-semitism of the Nazis that so handicapped the German atom-bomb project, and gave such a decisive final advantage to the Allies. To quote one wag "We got there first because our German scientists were better than their German scientists"!
Mahaffey then goes on to describe the post-war development of the nuclear industry, as well as the further development of a variety of military nuclear hardware, reactors, rockets etc. including the fusion bomb, and the leaking of secrets to the USSR. He misses no detail out, for instance in describing the principles behind major competing reactor designs, the Cold War politics of the time, and the notorious accidents, including Winscale, 3 Mile Island and Chenobyl, as well as some less well known incidents (such as the deliberate suicidal removal of the central control rod in one military reactor) with the political as well as nuclear fallout that resulted.
These accidents, increasing capital costs, plus a growing opposition to nuclear energy changed the dream of free energy into the public image nightmare of a costly, dangerous, long lasting radioactive contaminant producing technology. However, if there is a moral to the book, it is that this fear we must overcome. He lays his cards on the table in his opposition to the "anti nuclear movement" who in his opinion may prevent us utilising this clean, safe, inexhaustible form of energy, through prejudice. Its time we looked again at nuclear energy. One area he surprisingly does not explore is nuclear fusion as a source of energy.
All in all, it is an excellent book, read in a slightly "American heroic" style, reminiscent of those 1950s information films (which sort of feels appropriate). It exemplifies all the scientific excitement of a futuristic technology, the cold war tension of a secret super-weapon, the adrenaline of nuclear disaster, and the sometimes stranger than fiction truthfulness of a historical account. Much to think about!
This is a delightful, funny, Bill Bryson travelogue through the history of the Cosmos, and how we got here. It's full of interesting discoveries, from the Big Bang, to the evolution of Victorian shooting parties dedicated to hunting rare species to extinction. In true Brysonesque manner, it is peppered with funny anecdotes about the often weird and wonderful characters behind each discovery - like the dinosaur hunters; Marsh and Peabody, who's competitive hatred of each other spurred them to such frenetic heights of palentology that between throwing rocks at each other (literally!) they discovered most of the dinosaurs the average person can name. Or the villainous Richard Owen who's seated statue used to preside in the Natural History museum, who suppressed, erased and stole other people's discoveries to claim the credit as his own.
One recurrent theme of the book is how often important scientific insights have been ignored or suppressed by those with influence. Lord Kelvin, though a great scientist retarded a true appreciation of the age of the Earth, because of his insistence that it could not be more than a few hundred thousand years old. Plate tectonics was dismissed as ridiculous for decades, despite mounting evidence and the obvious visual and geological jig-saw fit of the continents.
This is a delightful "Cooks Tour" of almost every aspect of Science, and of scientific history, covering a huge range of disciplines, and with Bill Brysons characteristic wit and charm. I love his travel books, and this audiobook - journeying through time and nature is no exception.
This is a book with an astonishingly wide scope which it covers admirably. Never during its 19 hours was I bored and it remains accessible throughout. It's packed full of things you never even knew that you didn't know!
The fact that it's described as a history may suggest that it's all about things that happened in the past and indeed much of the book does cover events from Big Bang through to recent history. But in covering such history it also explains much about how the world is today.
This is a fascinating book that will interest a wide range of people. You don't need to be an expert historian or scientist to understand and enjoy this book. I'd definitely highly recommend it.
A word about the narration also - I've listened to a number of Bill Bryson books narrated by William Roberts and he is always an excellent narrator. The way he narrates the book just adds to what is already an excellent book and ensures that one's interest is not lost for a second.