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Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element Paperback – June 1, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1742230887 ISBN-10: 1742230881

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: New South Books (June 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1742230881
  • ISBN-13: 978-1742230887
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Physicist and former New Yorker staff writer Bernstein presents a scientifically rigorous (equations and all) but clearly written explanation of the recondite reasons why plutonium is supremely suited for bomb-making material—and little else. From the discovery of uranium in 1789 to the Manhattan Project, Nazi attempts at a nuclear bomb and the post-WWII efforts of the U.S.S.R. to become a nuclear power, Bernstein reviews the element's storied past. Although the discovery of the atom's structure has been covered before, 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. He also brings his acquaintance with several Los Alamos scientists (he interned at the laboratory in 1957) to the less canonical subject of the scientific and engineering problems inherent to building a working nuclear bomb. Here the search for the elusive element comes to center stage in this challenging but rewarding account (after 2005's Secrets of the Old One: Einstein 1905). (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Physicist Bernstein has written books about Einstein, Oppenheimer, and the German nuclear program. Here he tells the complicated story of plutonium, a chemical that appears in minute amounts in nature but which scientists working feverishly during World War II learned to manufacture in quantity. Plutonium's physics and chemistry are exceptionally complex, inspiring Glenn Seaborg, the nuclear chemist who "finally identified" the elusive element in 1941, to observe, "Plutonium is so unusual as to approach the unbelievable." It is also "fiendishly toxic." Bernstein, an intern at Los Alamos in 1957, analyzes plutonium via a mix of science and biography, the former tough going for nonscientists, the latter, in the form of thumbnail portraits of nuclear scientists from Marie Curie to Enrico Fermi and beyond, vivid and affecting. 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. Although convoluted, Bernstein's unique history of the diabolical element is invaluable. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Very good book, the narrative is concise and plain, easy to understand.
Marcelo
I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Manhattan project and nuclear physics.
Jonathan S. Shapiro
I like reading his essays and books because he knows how to tell a story.
Paul Moskowitz

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 42 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on July 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In this excellent book, the author pulls no punches in describing the science of plutonium. Starting with some relevant history, he zeroes in on this new element: its discovery, its nuclear properties and its unexpected physical and chemical ones. What makes this book particularly fascinating is the fact that the author has personally known many of the scientists involved. Consequently, the reader is treated to an intimate glimpse of what some of these people were like - something that one would be less likely to get in a standard history book. The writing style is friendly, authoritative, engaging and extremely clear - a trademark of this author. Because of the technical nature of much of its content this book would likely be most enjoyed by serious science buffs and those with a technical/scientific background.
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40 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Paul Moskowitz TOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Jeremy Bernstein is a prolific writer on physics and physicists, and mountaineering. These interests coincide with my own. I like reading his essays and books because he knows how to tell a story. In this work, he covers the history of nuclear physics from the discovery of the periodic table through today. particularly as the events lead to the 94th element, plutonium. He tells the story of the people who developed the theory and practice of nuclear fission eventually resulting in the use of the mass-239 isotope of plutonium in nuclear weapons. If you think that science is without politics, you have to read this history.

I have worked with accelerators and reactors to transform elements from one into another, doing modern-day alchemy. I can give you a recipe for turning lead into gold. However, I never paid particular attention to the process of nuclear fission. Why are the isotopes uranium-235 and plutonium-239 suited for nuclear fission? Now, following Bernstein's explanation, I understand why. Simply, the even numbered isotopes of these elements are more stable. They have a lower energy than the odd isotopes. The addition of a single neutron to the odd-mass isotopes lowers the total energy of the nucleus. The excess energy liberated in the process induces the nucleus to fission. Bernstein explains this in clear language as he does for all of the chemistry, atomic, and nuclear physics in the book.

Others have suggested that the real threat of nuclear proliferation lies in the use of highly-enriched uranium. Uranium bombs may be easier for the amateur to construct than plutonium bombs. Bernstein notes that you can buy a gram of uranium-235 from Oak Ridge for $57. For $2.4 million you could buy enough to make a bomb. Of course, Oak Ridge will not sell you that much.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By J. W. Whaley on November 1, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is both interesting, and very very dry.

While the history and technical data are fascinating - the presentation of the book needs a little help. The effort put into compiling this book cannot be ignored, and is no small feat, so the author should be recognized for the volume of work. The problem I had with it was, over and over, the author would state "....but first I'd like to touch on X topic". Why not just get into that topic? Why have a lengthy explanation about why to go into talking about why to talk about a subject? It reminds me of Alan Greenspan.

This book could have just about been produced as a Gantt/milestone type linear chart - and in that would way would have been FAR easier to understand and correlate events - rather than the disjoined presentation it had. Or at least ADD a Gantt chart to it as a supplemental, that could be very helpful.

I liked it, as I'm a bit of a geek and history wonk; but the presentation detracts from the contents, and limits me to rating it at 3 stars.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By J. Kelly on June 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am a fan of high end engineering and science topics. Nuclear engineering and achievements are one of those topics I enjoy learning about. The author focuses on the historical discovery, and race to find and learn about Plutonium, and its applications/hazards.

The end of the book has an excellent while brief take on Hanford and Rocky Flats locations and proliferation concerns. A whole nother book about those topics should be done just due to the stockpiles of plutonium around the word, and the impacts it continues to have.

The debunking of "Reactor grade" and "Weapons grade" plutonium in the book is also a excellent item that brings up serious proliferation concerns.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By NPL on December 17, 2009
Format: Paperback
The author is not an expert on the subject, and although the book contains some interesting facts and anecdotes, they are presented incoherently. Often the main explication diverges into tangential narratives that do not serve the larger thesis. The subtitle claims to provide a history of plutonium, but the chronology essentially stops after the Manhattan project. The use of plutonium in RTGs or nuclear fuels such as MOX is mentioned only in passing. The unique chemical structure of plutonium was interesting, but the presentation of that information was not illustrative. The last chapter is titled "Now What?" but it doesn't attempt to offer any possible solutions.

The book amounts to little more than "Cliff Notes" on a subject that deserves a deeper and more coherent treatment.
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