"Persuasive and based on deep research. Atomic Awakening taught me a great deal." (Nature)
The American public's introduction to nuclear technology was manifested in destruction and death. With Hiroshima and the Cold War still ringing in our ears, our perception of all things nuclear is seen through the lens of weapons development. Nuclear power is full of mind-bending theories, deep secrets, and the misdirection of public consciousness - some deliberate, some accidental. The result of this fixation on bombs and fallout is that the development of a non-polluting, renewable energy source stands frozen in time.
Outlining nuclear energy's discovery and applications throughout history, Mahaffey's brilliant and accessible book is essential to understanding the astounding phenomenon of nuclear power in an age where renewable energy and climate change have become the defining concerns of the twenty-first century.
©2009 James Mahaffey (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
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!
Well narrated, the story moves along at a nice pace and with a good sense of humour. You don't need to be a physicist to understand it, as as much of the story is about the people behind the development of our understanding of radioactivity as what was actually observed. By the time the author gets to the Manhattan Project (after about 100 years of discoveries) you're hooked and can't put the earphones down.
An excellent history of the development of atomic technologies. Great insight into the hype and ultimate realisation of true potential. A little light on current innovations and future potential. Despite that, highly recommend.
Inherently interesting material, presented with insight and a sense of humor and perspective. I didn't love the reader: good diction and clarity, but an odd, "radio-advertising-like" delivery. I got used to it, but couldn't really settle in. Still, recommended.
great narrator, gifted writer. very highly recommended. I laughed my butt off over the helmet story in chapter 15. I learned a lot, laughed a little and cringed 100 times over some of these stories. amazing book..
"Awesome perspective on nuclear history"
This book makes the story of nuclear science and engineering so cool that I too could imagine myself standing over a naked core and daring it to go critical. One of my favorite books.
"great and fascinating book."
learned a lot of things about nuclear physics with stories that keep you interested. a lot of information that is unbiased regarding nuclear power.
"pretentious author, but good content"
lots of good content. the history of science was particularly good. the author is somewhat rude and belittling to the reader/listener sometimes, but if you can get past that, he seems to know a good deal if relevant information. the reader was too cheesy-action-movie for my taste, and mispronounced several scientists names, but other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this work.
"Pretty Good, Well Presented Book with Bad Editing"
This is another book that languished in the wish list until it was on two for one. I had listened to this author's book, ‘Atomic Accidents’, and I was fairly curt in that review. I couldn’t commit to this book because of that, but the sale essentially got me this book for free so, I took it.
The Good - Atomic Awakening details the history of ‘atomic’ (nuclear) science in a detailed, yet easy to understand, way. From the very beginning, through the major discoveries, to the present day. Any layperson, with basic public education, should comprehend it. The book touches on science fiction and myths that surround this field and it also ties it together with other fields of study such as electricity. If you have no knowledge of nuclear science this book will provide a good foundation. If you have some knowledge it will supplement what you already know. I finished the book feeling satisfied and curios to learn more about some of the specific topics covered in the book. I made a total of 12 bookmarks with notes for later reference. It’s a fairly good book overall, but not a great book.
The Not So Good – The outline is a bit confusing because it’s broken into parts so you may hear the narrator say “Chapter 2” when you’re halfway through the book because it’s in the second chapter of that part. Also, some dates are slightly confusing because the story jumps ahead and then goes back. I think that’s more the reality of taking a book meant for reading and turning it into an audio book and not the writing however.
The Bad – There’s one major error in this book where it recounts a meeting of scientist working on the ‘A-Bomb’ before 1945. When citing the location of the meeting, the Bohemian Club, the narrator says “founded in 1972” when, in fact, it was founded in 1872. While I very easily made that determination through simple context this is an example of horrible editing because it takes zero knowledge of the subject matter to catch this error.
Caveat - I won’t write this entire book off over one error no matter how blatant because I know the bulk of the book is accurate. This was most likely a misreading by the narrator and not an error by the author; I hope? Regardless, the editor/author failed to catch it and coupled with the inconsistency in this author’s other book it does make me question the attention to detail by the editor and the author.
Narration – John McLain’s narration was good and well suited to this book’s writing style and subject matter, albeit somewhat mechanical in delivery and even slightly annoying, at times, in the way he would trail off at the end of sentences. However, it didn’t take long to grow accustomed to that. His narration didn’t add to, or detract from, the book.
Summation – Reflecting on the entire work; it left me with the not so surprising impression the author is a supporter of nuclear science and energy. However, I don't think he displayed any unfair bias or mindless predilection toward them. He hides nothing and goes into a fair amount of detail about all the major accidents; devoting large sections to the incidents at Idaho Falls, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl to name a few. He provides facts about these events from a balanced perspective. This book sparked my interest in reading (listening to) other books about those incidents. As a result, instead of switching genres, as I do after finishing a book, I went to the book ‘Idaho Falls’ (see that review too). Even with its faults I wouldn’t steer anyone away from this book because overall it was accurate and it was put together pretty well. That said, I'm still glad I didn't pay full price or drop a full credit for it.
I thought I knew atomic history pretty but learned a lot from this book. Part history, part science. Loved it!
"Come for the Learning... then stay."
I got this book as a follow up to Uranium by Tom Zeollner, to be honest this one was much closer to my interests. Mahaffey covers the history of the engineering the development and the disasters of nuclear power in a way that is always varied and engaging. That fascinating detail is meshed with some truly hilarious dry humor throughout. I can't recommend this book too much!
"If I could give it more stars, I would."
A very informative and interesting book narrated perfectly. This book was in no way boring. Also, thanks to the narrator for pronouncing Nevada properly!
"Hard to keep up!!!"
What a great story and treatment. But this is a heavy subject. Even slowing narration was not sufficient to understand and enjoy. If you are a scientist ok, but I finally became intimidated to the point, where it was not worth damaging my self worth. A shame, my loss!!!
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