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Atomic Adventures

Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder—A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science

James Mahaffey
Pegasus Books
2017
421 pp.
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Atomic Adventures, James Mahaffey’s latest contribution to the history of nuclear science, reads like a collection of spooky tales perfect for sharing around the campfire this summer. Have you heard the one about the Nazi engineer who built a nuclear reactor in Argentina? Or how a crazed father tried to poison his son with radiation? Or how the Japanese government hired Mexican spies to steal American atomic secrets?

Like any good campfire tale, the stories recounted in Atomic Adventures provoke equal amounts of horror, wonder, and skepticism. But Mahaffey has done his homework. The book is painstakingly researched, with generous footnotes and bibliographic lists of sources. (He concedes that quite a few of the far-fetched stories are, in fact, tall tales, taken from the memoirs of scientists with a flair for the dramatic.)

Anecdotes tumble forth onto the page with only the briefest transitions. One moment, readers are transported to a French laboratory in 1903, where Prosper-René Blondlot has discovered a new kind of invisible ray. The next, Mahaffey is describing a uranium enrichment plant in mid–20th-century Pakistan, where a team of physicists is building a bomb.

As a genre, many studies of nuclear history stick to a single, well-known site—Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or Los Alamos, New Mexico, for example—and are often closely linked to the American experience of World War II. Mahaffey’s globe-trotting atomic tour implicitly argues that nuclear history is global history, not simply American history.

In some ways, Atomic Adventures is reminiscent of historian Richard Rhodes’s book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Both works discuss the personalities of the atomic scientists and military staff involved in nuclear programs. But Mahaffey offers more than just history. He sets out to teach his readers about the science behind the stories. Whenever a bomb, plane, or reactor is mentioned, he jumps into a technically rich explanation of the science involved.

Most of Mahaffey’s tales are pure fun, but his more personal anecdotes offer a lesson. In 1989, several universities raced to prove the existence of a theoretical source of nuclear energy: cold fusion. Mahaffey recreates the tense laboratory atmosphere as he and his colleagues attempted to discover it. (Spoiler: Cold fusion still remains an elusive technology.) These passages give readers a glimpse into the real moments of frustration and jubilations of a researcher’s life.

In a culture fixated on accomplishment, it’s important to talk about the things that didn’t work. What Atomic Adventures does well is to celebrate the full arc of science: the good, the bad, and the quirky.

About the author

Department of the History of Science, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA