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

Jeremy Bernstein
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 1, 2009 1742230881 978-1742230887
Historically fascinating and scientifically rigorous, Plutonium tells the story of a rare and exotic element put to deadly use in atomic bombs, from its discovery to the present day. From the discovery of uranium in 1789 to the Manhattan Project, from Nazi efforts to build a nuclear bomb to the cold war between the USA and USSR, Bernstein tells the important story of one of nature's rarest elements, put to deadly use in nuclear weapons. Along the way, he paints revealing pen portraits of scientists who helped discover the element and produce it in vast quantities during World War II-from Marie Curie to Robert Oppenheimer and beyond.

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.

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 (38 customer reviews)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Physics, Chemistry and History of Plutonium July 23, 2007
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
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ninety-Fourth Element June 18, 2007
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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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great subject...not so great presentation. 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
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read 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
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting But Incoherent December 17, 2009
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW - Gotta read this
If you are one of those people who understands that world events are strongly shaped by technology - or the lack thereof - this should not be missed!!!
Published 12 days ago by Wayne B. Norris
2.0 out of 5 stars Is that do
Is that so: I wonder if you have considered the elements that make up the human mind?

Bernstein does not clearly distinguish between PU 239 and PU 240 fissile rates. Read more
Published 1 month ago by John Hayward
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good book
Very good book, the narrative is concise and plain, easy to understand.

Would be better finished. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Marcelo
5.0 out of 5 stars a good and interesting reading
In a few lines, this book is good. The narration and how this story is told, navigating the waters of science and not it shallow waters, give you a good understanding of this... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Luis Mansilla Miranda
4.0 out of 5 stars Depth of detail. It's almost "You were there"!
Depth of detail. It's almost "You were there"! As a (retired) nuclear it was most interesting to me.
My only thought was that it could be a little more organized.
Published 7 months ago by Gordon C. Mattox
4.0 out of 5 stars makes a good read
good book about plutonium even though at times long winded, makes a good read on the beach or while spending the holidays
Published 7 months ago by RadioChemistry
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my favorite true science books
I love this book. I found it both a) more accessible and b) more scientifically sound than Tom Zoellner's (also pretty good) "Uranium. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Book!
A very good book with a lot of information on nuclear fission and of course on plutonium. I recommend to everyone interested in nuclear energy.
Published 9 months ago by Fernando A. Grangé Levy
3.0 out of 5 stars Nice scientific review of Plutonium
Good historical reviews although is a bit technical in most chapters (requires knowledge in chemisty) is a good book reference,
Published 10 months ago by Guillermo Mota
5.0 out of 5 stars Tells you all you want to know.. and more.
Great book, extremely well written, answered all the questions that I had on the subject of Plutonium the element. Read more
Published 10 months ago by morituri
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Topic From this Discussion
Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element ....
Yes... I also thought (and felt) the same. But in my case I related to the number 39 (nuclear jargon usually drops the obvious 200, and refer to the fissil isotope as "Pu-39").
In any case, "49" sounds wrong...
Aug 7, 2009 by Sergio Korochinsky |  See all 2 posts
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