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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Physics, Chemistry and History of Plutonium
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...
Published on July 23, 2007 by G. Poirier

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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.
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...
Published on November 1, 2009 by J. W. Whaley


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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
By 
G. Poirier (Orleans, ON, Canada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element (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
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ninety-Fourth Element, June 18, 2007
This review is from: Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element (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. The author is concerned with the world-wide total of about 155 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. That much plutonium can make a lot of nuclear weapons. There is very little good use that this stockpile can be put to. Some of it may be used to fuel nuclear reactors. However, the chemistry of plutonium is difficult and the economic feasibility of plutonium reactors is not clear. There is a National Academy of Sciences report that you can read on-line: Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options (1995). There is no easy solution to the problem of what do to with all this plutonium.
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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
By 
J. W. Whaley (Fort Collins, CO USA) - See all my reviews
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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
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This review is from: Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element (Hardcover)
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
By 
NPL "NPL" (Oak Ridge, TN) - See all my reviews
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Plutonium and the people around it., October 1, 2009
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As with all of his writing this is clear, concise, informative, and entertaining. We get fascinating and personal looks at most the big players in early 20th Century physics. And what we get is fresh. We meet the Curies, Thomson, Szilard, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Zachariesen, Heisenberg, Edward Teller and the list goes on. We get a look at how close Germany came to having an atomic bomb.

The overall story is fascinating, involving, as it does, two hot wars and one cold one. We trace the history of Plutonium from its discovery and isolation to the large surplus in the world today. But the most revealing thing is the descriptions of the personalities involved; the dedicated Curies, the rather arrogant but brilliant Oppenheimer, the contentious and paranoid Teller, and many more. And finally we end up with a readable (for anyone with a modicum of technical understanding) account to the most toxic substance on earth; a substance, which has, but one use.

Perhaps because he usually writes shorter pieces there is a somewhat annoying abundance of phrases such as "we'll get to that later" or "I'll explain in Chapter x". This, I think, is the fault of his editor. Careful editing would have removed all of this discontinuity. If you pay close attention he does link everything up. Despite this one annoyance this is an informative, instructive, and thoughtful book by someone in touch with the major players in the drama. Read it, think about it, act on it.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why can't everybody write like Bernstein ?, May 23, 2007
This review is from: Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element (Hardcover)
We've all heard about plutonium - from its use in nuclear weapons to its use in generators for satellites. But what do we know about plutonium ? Surprisingly, almost nothing. This is where this book enters. It is written in a clear, simple way. It reads like a novel. Whenever a background explanation is necessary there are at most a couple of pages with the main concepts. Why can't everybody write like Bernstein ?
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More History than Science, May 8, 2008
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This review is from: Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element (Hardcover)
I have read many of the books on the Manhatten project but I really like this one because it focused in on one part plutonium. If you really want the whole story read The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
Second it gave you a history of each of the scientists involved in the discoveries.
I never really realized how important it is to the scientific community that they stay well published. I found it hard to believe that scientists in Germany war like Heisenburg didn't think that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was made out of plutonium or that the US would even make reactors for its production. It was a good thing that the allies kept all the information out of the technical journals.
I liked learning about all the scientists and where they had come from and what part no matter how small yet was very important to understanding the development of this element.
It was somewhat of a technical read but I took many physics and chemistry classes in college so the terms were not unfamiliar to me even in that section near the end where he is explaining the lantanides and actinides radii and valance electrons. It made sense why each of these groups were so similar chemically.
I will say that plutonium has some weird properties and states. Also I found it interesting that the bomb was not as easy to make as I had read earlier. I was surprised after what Klaus Fuchs told the Russians all the details in that report near the end and it still took the Russians 4 years to create the bomb. I also didn't know that we stopped sharing the secrets with the British when the war ended. The more I learn about this story the more interesting it gets.
I would recommend this to any science savy person who wants to know more about the history of the scienctists who worked on creating Plutonium.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Completely engrossing!, July 15, 2009
By 
Susan Mills (Tennessee, USA) - See all my reviews
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This is one of the most technically challenging books I have ever read- the element plutonium never ceases to amaze me- it goes through the complete history of the element, from conception to vaporization, and everything in between- I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in nuclear engineering~
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book; very informative, November 28, 2010
By 
This book was informative. The author did a great job communicating difficult concepts in a way that did not talk down to the reader, but was also understandable. Frankly, some of the concepts he explained in the book were topics I have had a difficult time understanding in the past; but when I read his explanations and examples in the book, I finally understood them. That alone was worth the price of the book.

He covers all the bases of the history of plutonium in this book, and manages to write from a neutral standpoint which is quite an amazing feat when you look at the other "history of" science books on the market about highly-charged (no pun intended) topics such as plutonium. I also very much enjoyed his dry humor and asides to the reader.

In short, excellent book and worth buying. Take it from me -- I have read a lot of science books and this is one of the better ones.

BTW, if you are looking to learn more about the topics covered in this book, you will certainly enjoy reading "Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident" by William McKeown and "We Almost Lost Detroit" by John Grant Fuller.
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Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element
Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element by Jeremy Bernstein (Hardcover - March 30, 2007)
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