on May 21, 2005
In 1895, I've heard, the director of the patent office resigned saying that there was nothing new to invent.
Also in 1895 Rontgen discovered X-Rays.
In 1905 a young man no one had heard of published three articles in one issue of the most promient journal of Physics. The first would have gained him an honorable mention in the chemistry texts of today. The second would get him a Nobel prize, and become the foundation of what we now know of as television. The third article was the theory of relativity.
Forty years later Paul Tibbets, piloting the 'Enola Gay' dropped the 'Little Boy' atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
This book is the story of those fifty years. It's a fascinating story of people with genius level minds making new breakthroughs in physics nearly every year. It is also a story of people, of Lise Meitner making a magnificant discovery but having it ignored because she was female.
Those fifty years transformed the world of physics from a backwater of levers and pulleys into the queen of all the sciences.
on August 5, 2005
Physicists made phenomenal progress in understanding the workings of the atom in the first half of the twentieth century from the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 through the unlocking of awesome power demonstrated in the New Mexico desert in 1945. Diana Preston's history gives us some understanding of the events and people who contributed to the leap in scientific understanding. She concentrates on individuals who achieved so much including Rutherford, the Curies, Bohr, Chadwick, and Fermi. She traces the evolution of nuclear physics in different parts of the world from Japan, England, Germany, France, and America. Of particular historical interest is how the efforts initiated by Leo Szilard eventually led to the successful Manhattan project as opposed to the failure of any nuclear program in the Axis countries in spite of having very capable scientists such as Heisenberg and Nishina.
Preston is adept at describing the technical issues so that even a casual reader can understand how the different experiments and theories contributed to advances. And she is adept at describing personality issues: ". . . Groves had also alienated Ernest Lawrence . . . he warned the Nobel prize winner that he had better do a good job since his reputation depended on it. Lawrence replied, "My reputation is already made. It is yours that depends on the outcome of the Manhattan project." "
The artwork by van der Goes, The Fall, hints at the origin of the title and is used to create an intriguing dust jacket for the hardcover edition.
"Before the Fallout" is well worth reading for anyone interested in the question of how we went from a world of gun powder and swords to nuclear weapons in a mere half-century.
on August 18, 2006
Diana Preston combines the exciting story of the individuals responsible for the scientific discoveries of Atomic Energy with the race for the Atomic Bomb. She traces the fifty year journey of discoveries which culminated in Hiroshima's destruction. The book is one of biography, science (well told and easy to understand), and the history of this unique quest for knowledge. The book is a broad overview of the subject which along the way presents material that surely could be expanded into many different books and even a few movies. For example the story of the two attempts to destroy the Nazi's Norwegian source of Heavy Water reads like the film "The Guns of Navarone".
I have had the pleasure to meet Diana Preston and hear her speak at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair. She is a regular attendee. I have read all but her first book and have felt her "Lusitania" her greatest achievement but this, her newest, is just as wonderful.
The book is well organized and has many characters that you find easy to follow via each mini biography throughout the narrative. The book ends with really two epilogues. (I do like a good epilog too.) The first tells what happened to each participant after WWII and the last is a "what if" analysis this is most interesting as it puts many of the events in the book into a broad context and points out the individual difference each scientist made. I just loved Preston's comment at the end of the book... "History....even the history of science... is inherently about people, how they thought, what they did with their thoughts, and how they interacted with the individuals immediately around them and then with society and the greater world order. All involved in this story....regardless of race, sex. creed, age, or intellectual ability... had the potential to act individually. In thinking about history but, above all, about the future, we should not depersonalize situations but remember our individual responsibility for them and the consequences fro others." I know you will find this book amazing even if you feel the subject might be dry and to scientific. (High Schools please add this one to your required reading list.)
on January 23, 2016
I stumbled upon this book one day when walking through the library to pick up a book I turned down the wrong aisle and the title caught my eye. I read the prologue and was intrigued enough to check it out. I am glad I did.
I enjoy reading biographies, books on science, history, WWII, and many other subjects but this book hit those four mentioned at the same time. The book was crafted in such a way to keep the pace flowing and at times seem pressing as if I didn’t know what would happen by the end of the book even though we all know how things ended at Hiroshima. For the scientists involved Preston almost presents mini-biographies for them as she explains their scientific work and its contribution to the progression of nuclear weapons. She also succeeds at putting a human face on many of the scientists in this book. She presents the material and scientists in such a light that you can almost feel the weight of their decisions when trying to decide whether to build a bomb or not.
She presents many stories and moral dilemmas through the book that will make you question your own thoughts on how the use of the atomic bombs were handled. She also presents the “what-if” scenarios that show how close the history of the atom bomb came to being completely different on many different occasions.
After reading this book I’m still not sure how I feel about the dropping of the atom bombs but I do know that I now know much more than before.
on February 16, 2006
Since reading Lusitania three years ago, I have devoured every Diana Preston book that I can get my hands on. I wasn't sure that I would enjoy Before the Fallout as much as the others since science is not my specialty, but once again her book has totally captured my attention. The way Preston weaves the history with the science (but not too technical) with the personal lives of the people involved is fascinating. Certainly the development of the atomic bomb is one of the defining events of our lifetime, and the story behind that event as told by Diana Preston is so intriguing that I would recommend this book to anyone! My only disappointment is that now that I'm done, I'm going to have to wait awhile for her next book!
on April 23, 2007
BEFORE THE FALLOUT: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima
--By Diana Preston Reviewed by Philip Henry
"My God, What have we done?"
With those words, the crew of the "Enola Gay" summed up their feelings after dropping the A-Bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. The history of the Atomic (and later, Hydrogen) bomb permeates the history of the past century: from 1895, when Roentgen discovered the X-Ray, through the pioneering experiments of Einstein, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer; Leo Szilard (the often-overlooked main ingredient in the Manhattan Project) through efforts to control nuclear proliferation and the Cold War.
That's a lot of ground to cover, but in "Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima" Diana Preston attempts, and to a large degree succeeds, in doing so.
While Richard Rhodes' monumental two-volume history (The Atomic Bomb, and "Dark Sun") will remain the Industry Standard for the nuclear history cottage industry, Preston has done an admirable job of encapsulating the excitement, paranoia, and regrets of the Nuclear Founders.She does an excellent job of giving credit where credit is due to some of the neglected major players in the drama: Leo Szilard, who was prescient about the political and military consequences of nuclear energy; Werner Heisenberg, who directed the Nazi nuclear project although he wasn't a Nazi; and Niels Bohr.
The tension between J.Robert Oppenheim, the brilliant physicist (he got his PhD at 22) and developed the Black Holes in space theory) and Edward Teller is the material for books that stand on their own in reporting it: "American Prometheus", for one.
This is fascinating stuff for all of us: those in "The Greatest Generation" who fought WWII; those of us in the Baby Boomer generation who grew up under the shadow of the bomb and remember "duck and cover" drills in elementary school; and the Public Leaders who should read, and digest, this material CAREFULLY!
My only reservations are the speculative "What If's" that she includes in her Epilogue. Sure, its fascinating to speculate on what might have happened if Hitler had used the intellectual genius of Heisenberg and others to build the bomb.. but he didn't.
I give this four and a half stars.
on September 6, 2013
While this book looks long it reads fast, it's an entrancing look at the early history of nuclear physics. A must for those interested in History, Science, the History of Science, innovation and invention, World War II or, well I could go on...Preston gives us a wonderfully nuanced and robust portrayal of the major actors in the first 50 years of nuclear physics. From Feynman and Oppenheimer to the Curie's and Heisenberg, we tend to view these people as great towering minds (which they were) and forget they were people who loved and struggled and lived. I love the science and the history that is the underpinning of this book, but in my opinion the best parts were the glimpses into the all to human lives of the early pioneers of nuclear physics and their struggles in a quickly changing world. Read it for fun, read it for the ethics, the history or, like I did, because it looks interesting, whatever excuse you use, indulge your inner geek and read it.
on June 1, 2014
I enjoyed this book very much. It is a more personal than usual history of the physics of the A-bomb, its construction, its delivery, and the politics of the entire process. In a number of places the author dispels some gossip concerning various discoveries and events that I have never found credible. This book presents a very readable, largely non-technical (but still insightful), history of the people, events, and places leading to the 1945 destruction of Hiroshima.
on August 23, 2014
The story begins with the discovery of X-rays and ends with the Atomic Bomb. The whole history of atomic physics. But in a fun way that blends science, history, characters, anecdotes. It is a story with a few opinions and comments. It's quite a scientific account. For those who like the subject of nuclear physics and history.
on January 5, 2006
"Before the Fallout", while lacking the technical detail presented in Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb", presents some interesting personality sketches (the degree to which these are subjective remains unresolved). Preston presents an interesting collection of missed opportunities on the road to the discovery of fission. One may be left with the feeling that body of the book serves only as a platform for the epilogue and its litany of "what if"s.