Plutonium : A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element

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When plutonium was first manufactured at Berkeley in the spring of 1941, there was so little of it that it was not visible to the naked eye. It took a year to accumulate enough so that one could actually see it. Now so much has been produced that we don't know what to do to get rid of it. We have created a monster.The history of plutonium is as strange as the element itself. When scientists began looking for it, they did so simply in the spirit of inquiry, not certain whether there were still spots to fill on the periodic table. But the discovery of fission made it clear that this still-hypothetical element would be more than just a scientific curiosity-it could be the main ingredient of a powerful nuclear weapon. As it turned out, it is good for almost nothing else. Plutonium's nuclear potential put it at the heart of the World War II arms race-the Russians found out about it through espionage, the Germans through independent research, and everybody wanted some. Now it is warehoused around the world-the United States alone possesses about forty-seven metric tons-but it has almost no practical use outside its role in nuclear weaponry. How did the product of scientific curiosity become such a dangerous burden?In his history of this complex and dangerous element, noted physicist Jeremy Bernstein describes the steps that were taken to transform plutonium from a laboratory novelty into the nuclear weapon that destroyed Nagasaki. This is the first book to weave together the many strands of plutonium's story, explaining not only the science but also the people involved.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 216 pages
  • 130 x 216 x 13mm | 272.16g
  • Ithaca, United States
  • English
  • 0801475171
  • 9780801475177
  • 352,647

Table of contents

I. Preamble
II. The History of Uranium
III. The Periodic Table
IV. Frau Roentgen's Hand
V. Close Calls
VI. Fissions
VII. Transuranics
VIII. Plutonium Goes to War
IX. Los Alamos
X. Electrons
XI. Now What?Notes
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Review quote

"Running through a spectrum of Nobel Prize winners, Bernstein grippingly portrays the race to develop the first nuclear weapon during World War II as well as the interplay among the global personalities involved. Readers learn that this hazardous element, good for nothing but nuclear weapon production, continues to hold us hostage with the threat of nuclear terrorism." * Library Journal * "Bernstein spins an accessible, insightful description of how the great scientists Curie, Bohr, Rutherford, and Fermi, among others, deconstructed the atom through a combination of individual brilliance, a spirit of collaboration, and serendipity." * Publishers Weekly * "Plutonium is a strong candidate for the weirdest, most fascinating, and most frightening element in the periodic table. For it to be the subject of a book by the acclaimed physicist turned science writer Jeremy Bernstein promises a great deal. Plutonium does not disappoint, even for those who think they are already familiar with the evolution of nuclear science during the twentieth century." * Physics World * "In Plutonium, Jeremy Bernstein acknowledges that everything connected with the element is complicated, and that includes plutonium itself and its history. Its discovery in 1941 by Glenn Seaborg and Arthur Wahl is part of a much bigger story in which each part becomes a story in itself." * Nature * "Bernstein's book should play a useful role by helping demystify plutonium and by encouraging interested members of the public and Congress to start constructing a more rational policy to deal with the dangers posed by this man-made element." * American Scientist * "Irony and drama shape Bernstein's accounts of amazing feats of scientific deduction and world-endangering secrets, which give way to a sobering overview of the environmental damage caused by plutonium-producing reactors and the enormous threats embodied in today's global plutonium inventory." * Booklist *
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About Jeremy Bernstein

Jeremy Bernstein was a staff writer at the New Yorker for thirty-five years and is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma.
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Rating details

247 ratings
3.73 out of 5 stars
5 23% (57)
4 38% (95)
3 29% (71)
2 8% (20)
1 2% (4)
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