Author finds the history of atomic energy rich in drama but not tidy or entirely moral

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Craig Nelson traces how the discovery of radium affected the trajectory of history in his new book.

Craig Nelson traces how the discovery of radium affected the trajectory of history in his new book.

Early in his new history of humanity’s embrace of nuclear energy and radiation, Craig Nelson writes about the impoverished 19-year-old Manya Sklowdowska and her lover, Casimir Zorawski, the eldest child in a wealthy Polish farming family for whom she worked as a nanny. His parents rejected the girl as below their station. The college-student son acquiesced, married someone else and went on to become a “well-regarded mathematician in Poland.”

The jilted Manya became Marie Curie.

The story of the star-crossed lovers and the unforeseen consequences of a single decision dovetail nicely with the sweep of our engagement with nuclear science. Had Zorawski married Sklowdowska, forestalling her move to Paris for studies and, eventually, another lover, would she have discovered radium or found “the first physical evidence that enormous energy lay within the very essence of matter?”

Probably not. But it’s also probable that someone else would have made the discovery, although in a different time and place, thus affecting the trajectory of history. It is just these sorts of detailed stories that make Nelson’s “The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era” such a readable and fresh romp through a familiar history while artfully defending nuclear benefits, especially in medicine.

It’s a dramatic history, full of missteps and accidental discoveries, manipulations and malfeasance, outsized personalities and egos, inadvertent deaths born of ignorance as well as human error, and the willful killing of thousands of people when two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.

And it’s a story of numbers too. During World War II the United States used coordinated raids to firebomb 63 Japanese cities that, as Gen. Curtis LeMay later claimed, “scorched, boiled and baked to death” more than 800,000 people, overwhelmingly civilians. It was, LeMay said, the kind of campaign that “if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

So the atomic bombs were simply weapons of efficiency: One plane, one bomb, one city instead of the “210 conventional firebomb strikes” it would have taken to inflict the same damage in Hiroshima and 120 strikes to level Nagasaki. More numbers: The U.S. and the Soviet Union spent $5.5 trillion ensuring neither would ever launch a nuclear missile. The United States still spends $55 billion a year on a nuclear program with no enemy to deter and no foreseeable reason to ever launch one of the missiles.

The problem with the book arises at the end with Nelson’s unpersuasive conclusion that we should, like Dr. Strangelove, learn to love the bomb – or at least nuclear energy, “the blessed curses,” as he calls it. His reason? The nasty effects of nuclear bombs, nuclear meltdowns and radiation have been overblown. The nuclear industry, he argues, doesn’t suffer from selling a dangerous process but from losing the public relations battle over how people perceive it.

This is after Nelson details the dangers that exist in the ground at Chernobyl (mitigated, in his view, because it has reverted to a natural state in the absence of humans), how close we came to a global catastrophe at Fukushima, and that the Centers for Disease Control attribute 11,000 deaths a year to cancers fed by the legacy of open-air nuclear bomb testing. Yes, burning fossil fuels has led us to a tipping point of global warming and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands through pollution. But turning to another deadly source of power isn’t the solution to that particular quandary.

But you don’t have to agree with Nelson’s conclusion to enjoy the book. He is especially good with a “you are there” approach in describing Curie’s work and her late-night visits to the backyard lab with husband Pierre to look at the glow from her experiments stored in jars. He uses a similar tack in describing efforts by Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and others to start a chain reaction at an old squash court at the University of Chicago, work that gave rise to the Los Alamos lab and the construction of the first working atomic bombs.

And Nelson also is good at laying out the political divides among the key players in developing the bomb, from the manipulative and unrepentant Edward Teller, to Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer and others who, as the first bomb was nearing completion, began to wonder what the United States was about to unleash on mankind.

And, after it had been detonated over Hiroshima, what their roles had been in the history of war. As Oppenheimer said later, those involved in the project “had known sin.”