The Age of Radiance

The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era

By Craig Nelson

Scribner. 416 pp. $29.99

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Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis

In the late afternoon of November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen, a 50-year-old German scientist at the University of Würtzburg, was working in a laboratory right out of the Frankenstein movies, complete with hanging glass tubes of various sizes and battery-powered sparking apparatus.

Trying to find out why the inside of vacuum tubes glowed blue and green when electrified, Röntgen, placing his hand between the tube and a fluorescent screen, perceived the outline on the screen not only of his hand, but also, clearly, of the bones of his fingers.

"I was as if in a state of shock," he wrote. He had discovered the mysterious X-ray, which he named for the ray's unknown nature. For this discovery Röntgen would receive, in 1901, the first Nobel Prize for Physics.

However, although the X-ray was soon found to have medical applications, in 1898, 39-year-old Clarence Madison Dally became the first person to succumb to X-ray exposure after demonstrating the Edison X-ray lightbulb two years before at New York's Electrical Exhibit.

This is how Craig Nelson begins his fascinating, information-rich new work on the history of atomic energy, The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era. And as he proceeds with his history, Nelson, author of Rocket Men (2009) and Thomas Paine (2007), always keeps an eye cocked toward atomic energy's double-edged potential - from its use in medical treatment to its Armageddon-inducing potential in war.

The author gives respectful attention to the great scientists who teased out the secrets of the atom. We meet the unstoppable Polish teenager  Marja  Sklodowska as she toils her way from a hardscrabble existence in Czarist-occupied Poland to the Sorbonne. She meets scientist Pierre Curie, marries him. They would "pass through life together," Madame Curie wrote, "hypnotized in . . . our dream of science."

On Feb. 17, 1898, while investigating mysterious rays from uranium, Madame Curie, Nelson informs us, discovered "the first physical evidence that enormous energy lay within the very essence of matter." In uranium's strange emanations she had discovered radium - and radioactivity.

And just as Röntgen's rays had been used against diphtheria and tuberculosis, Curie's radium could kill cancerous tumor cells. But radium, it was soon found, could also kill people.

Moving toward the World War II era, Nelson introduces us to the genial workaholic, supremely self-confident Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi, discoverer of slow neutrons and, in 1942, the father of atomic energy's first controlled chain reaction..

We meet the "outrageously frank and forthright . . . uncivil, undiplomatic, and obnoxious . . . staggeringly offensive" Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who, although a dating-service nightmare, was nevertheless a coinventor of the nuclear reactor.

We also meet scientists Edward Teller, Niels Bohr, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Lise Meitner, and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam. These notables, a number of whom were Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany, either aided or resided at the secret atomic laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., where they worked relentlessly to beat Hitler in the development of the first atomic bomb.

By the summer of 1945, 6,000 scientists and their families lived there. Outspoken Army Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, commander of Los Alamos, described these personalities as "the largest collection of crackpots ever seen." But Nelson recounts how in just over two years, these "crackpots," despite the personality conflicts between the various exalted egos, managed the crucial nuclear test detonation on July 16, 1945.

The successful test led inexorably to the incineration of Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, killing 78,150 people and destroying 70,000 of the city's 76,000 buildings. The destruction of Nagasaki occurred three days later with similar results. The war ended and the scientists, for the most part, were considered heroes.

Nelson then takes us through the Cold War years. In this intensely paranoid time (especially the 1950s and early 1960s), the United States and the Soviet Union stockpiled enormous numbers of nuclear bombs and missiles for insane mutual destruction. According to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the opponents were like "two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life."

The author ends The Age of Radiance with the domestic nuclear catastrophes of Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011). But he also, as usual, points out nuclear power's benevolent capabilities for humankind - its miraculous medicinal and cancer-killing capacities.

Filled with drama, vivid anecdotes, and breathtaking scientific breakthroughs, this book is an engrossing, comprehensive history of the atomic age.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.