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50 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well travelled, well researched, and fascinating
Unlike some of the other reviewers, I have actually read this book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The focus of this book is on the history, not the science, of uranium (which should be obvious - it is a work of reportage, not science). Furthermore, the parts of the book that do deal with science are correct, clear, and concise; they are understandable to a...
Published on April 3, 2009 by Cynthia

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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More Travelogue than anything serious - misses the real issue
Guess it depends on what you're looking for. Just don't look for too much science or engineering in this book. You will find entertaining stories and anecdotes as well as a bunch of travelogues. This is not a "serious" book - it's journalism in hard cover.

The author is a newspaper reporter and magazine editor writing on the beach in Northern California...
Published on August 10, 2009 by Joseph Somsel


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50 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well travelled, well researched, and fascinating, April 3, 2009
By 
Cynthia (New York, NY) - See all my reviews
Unlike some of the other reviewers, I have actually read this book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The focus of this book is on the history, not the science, of uranium (which should be obvious - it is a work of reportage, not science). Furthermore, the parts of the book that do deal with science are correct, clear, and concise; they are understandable to a lay reader but not boring -- the prose is poetic and beautiful in its description of uranium's structure, isotopes, and process of decay (ultimately winding up as lead).

Now on to the important stuff: Zoellner presents the paradox of uranium with drama and art. From the front lines, Zoellner reports on the tragic and terrifying. He speaks directly with survivors of Soviet prison camps on the border of East Germany and the Czech Republic, where thousands of political prisoners were forced to mine uranium to fuel the arms race. These stories are heartbreaking, and for me, were a new revelation about the havor wreaked by the cold war.

Zoellner travels into the heart of what is now the DRC, to visit Shinkolobwe, where the uranium for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was mined. The discoveries he makes there are bone chilling (I won't give them away!)

He also captures the intangible influence uranium has had on society - the paradox of salvation (clean energy) and damnation (mutually assured destruction); its integration into capitalism and stock markets; how its pursuit in Canada, the American West, and even Mongolia, resembles the goldrush and embodies American entrepreneurship and adventure.

Despite the terrifying realities Zoellner reports, he is even-handed and does not set out to scare the reader. Thankfully, he also reports on the pithy and humorous -- including his own foibles while travelling the world.

My primary criticism is the dearth of time spent discussing today's choices -- does America become a nuclear country, like France? How do we address the deadly remains of the Cold War? Who can we trust to make these decisions.

In sum, Uranium is a fascinating read, a good book for history buffs, current events junkies, non-fiction lovers of all stripes, and even scientists.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An eye-opener, April 8, 2009
By 
Forget the comparisons to pop histories about cod, salt, dictionaries, potatoes, or even the color blue. This book doesn't elevate an obscure or minor subject with the ersatz claim that it "changed the world." No--in point of fact, uranium really DID change the world, and continues to exert enormous influence. For once, we have a subtitle that really means what it says, and this book tells that story.

"Uranium" takes a profound subject and makes it accessible to the lay person. While obviously informed by science, "Uranium" approaches its topic from the angle of social history, which makes it especially compelling. Zoellner's narrative comes alive with first-person reportage, fascinating anecdotes and lucid prose. You come away with a deeper understanding of how uranium has shaped modern society, influenced governments, and held both despots and the destitute in its thrall. Its very instability as an element mirrors the instability it threatens on a global stage. And as a mainstream energy source, it holds promise--but only if we can manage its waste and keep the source material out of evil hands. The more people understand about this substance, the better. Highly recommended.
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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More Travelogue than anything serious - misses the real issue, August 10, 2009
By 
Joseph Somsel (San Jose, California) - See all my reviews
Guess it depends on what you're looking for. Just don't look for too much science or engineering in this book. You will find entertaining stories and anecdotes as well as a bunch of travelogues. This is not a "serious" book - it's journalism in hard cover.

The author is a newspaper reporter and magazine editor writing on the beach in Northern California (literally) but, mercifully, he avoids the knee-jerk environmentalism and turns in a fairly balanced work. He does makes some boners like comparing occupational hazards of early US underground mining for uranium with mining slave labor behind the Iron Curtain. They are comparable neither in moral equivalency nor in quantified loss of life.

As someone with a little background in the subject, he's sloppier in terminology and scientific concepts that I would like and has a weakness for purple prose.

If you're looking for WHY uranium is so significant to the human race, he talks about the Bomb but does a lesser job on the core fact that some of the advocates he quotes only hint at. The discovery of nuclear energy really can be a game changer for the human race. We've only the most clumsy applications so far - I know, I'm a nuclear engineer - but a universe awaits us.

Why don't we have more than 20% of country's electricity come from uranium? Why don't we have nuclear rockets to shuttle us to the Moon and Mars? (They were ready for flight-testing in 1972!) Why aren't we rushing to build pebble reactors to make gasoline from water and coal via nuclear heat?

The book was a quick read and entertaining but again, hardly touches the real issues we must struggle with.

One quibble with the editor and not the author - why can't we have a cover photo with adequate depth of field so that the rock is all in focus? It is set up for eye strain now.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars FANTASTIC VOYAGE INTO THE AMAZING HISTORY OF URANIUM, April 16, 2009
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I think that Tom Zoellner presented a fantastic, well written, account of uranium. The book dives into, in great detail, the vast history of uranium including: The element, The mineral, and possible future uses.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone the is into physics and geology, as well as historians. I enjoyed reading this book very much.
Thanks,
Mark R. Hunsberger
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking and scary, May 6, 2009
What I consistently found most disturbing about Uranium as I was reading it was what it had to say about human nature. The author doesn't take a political stand one way or the other, which I think really serves the book. Instead, he provides historical background about the discovery of uranium and the way that discovery has shaped our world since. I found it to be a very neutral account for the most part. Yet for me, even that neutral tone couldn't hide the horror of the realization of the brutalities and atrocities carried out by the governments of a wide variety of nations, all in the interest of procuring as much uranium as possible. It's truly stunning to realize just how indifferent humans can be to the plights of others when they're blinded by greed.

There is a provocative central question to this book: Has uranium actually made our world safer or more dangerous? The heads of state of most nations seem to think that the nuclear threat isn't all that real because no one in their right mind would drop a bomb on another nation as that nation would retaliate by dropping a bomb in return. This idea of mutually assured destruction apparently helps some people sleep at night but it's really a rationalization. Zoellner addresses this issue when he writes about the possibility of terrorists or rogue nations obtaining nuclear weapons. When you're talking about people who have no real respect for human life or people whose ideology leads them to think obsessively about the end of the world, can you really expect that the idea of mutually assured destruction will prove an adequate deterrent?

What is also disturbing about this novel is the many ways in which uranium has been used against people. It goes without saying that the United States' dropping of hydrogen bombs in Japan during WWII is the most dramatic example of this. And, yet, Zoellner points out the ways in which Africans in the Congo were forced into slave labor in harsh conditions with even harsher punishment and the way the former Soviet Union later utilized similar practices during the Cold War arms race. Zoellner writes about those who have been exposed to radiation in the air, soil, and water due to byproducts of the mines, as well as the health effects on the scientists, miners (paid and unpaid), and employees of processing plants--especially before the effects of radiation were fully understood. When all of these factors together are added up, the toll on human life has been more or less incalculable--and this, of course, does not even begin to address the toll on the environment. While the production of nuclear energy doesn't produce greenhouse gases, it does produce toxic waste and that has to be disposed of somewhere.

This is a very powerful work, one that presents the facts and some fascinating stories of almost mythical proportions. Yet the book leaves the reader to draw his or her conclusions about uranium and nuclear energy and this is perhaps its greatest strength. I imagine some readers will walk away from it with the belief that nuclear energy is the way to go while others will walk away from it with the exact opposite belief. This is a very well-written, well-researched, and fascinating look at how a simple, abundant element was able to alter the course of human development.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Global Story of Uranium, August 7, 2009
By 
G. Poirier (Orleans, ON, Canada) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
In his quest to paint as complete a picture as possible of this important element, the author begins his story in the Middle Ages and ends it in the present. Although most of the developments that one would expect in such a narrative are covered at least to some degree, i.e., discovery of radioactivity, discovery of fission and the development and use of the atomic bomb, other aspects of uranium figure much more prominently in the book. These include: the prospecting, discovery and mining of uranium, uranium mine locations in the world, the politics involved, the economic and sociological aspects, etc.; nuclear power is also discussed but to a much lesser extent. The author does a good job of explaining some of the scientific aspects of uranium at a level suitable for a general audience. However, those excursions are few and brief. In fact, a few are a bit too brief to be meaningful. The writing style is quite lively, clear, friendly, very accessible and engaging. Very little jargon is used, but when it is the terms are fully and clearly explained. This book can be enjoyed by anyone, but those interested in current affairs will likely appreciate it the most.
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29 of 44 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not a science book - all anecdote and author opinion, May 9, 2009
By 
Patrick J. Sullivan (Miami, FL United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
For those looking for a book that explores the potential of nuclear energy, this book is a complete waste of time. It is subtitled: "War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World," but energy is given very short shrift and there's no detail. Even the last chapter's nominal focus on the reborn promise of nuclear energy's potential to help cure our society of oil dependency and pollution can't stay on track. The author repeatedly digresses to what really interests him: the geopolitics of uranium, or at least his version of them.

I still find it hard to believe that anyone could write a 300-page book about uranium and include repeated teases about its use as an energy source, yet not discuss nuclear submarines or nuclear propulsion, Yucca Mountain, or breeder reactors (or the U.S. ban on building breeder reactors, obviously). So what does author Tom Zoellner include to make up for these omissions? What you might call an eclectic mix of alternate subjects, if you were being kind. I was feeling less than kind after wasting several hours reading Zoellner instead toss into the mix: Zoroaster, Bob Hope, Brigham Young, Joan Didion, and of course Dagwood Bumstead. The author jumps all over the place.

Geographically, as well. He starts a chapter in Yemen, using that county's plans to start a nuclear industry as a springboard for Zoellner to more thoroughly examine the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Or so I assumed, wrongly. No, after some socializing in Yemen we're off to New Mexico for a few pages, then Kentucky, then Vancouver, then Mongolia. Four to five pages on any one scene is about all he can handle; he writes in 1500-word arcs or so and shifts the action abruptly when his attention begins to wane. And I use the words "scene" and "action" deliberately - one reviewer inadvertently referred to the book as a novel, and I understand what put that thought into his/her head. It's not a novel, or a novelized version of real-life events, but its style is definitely closer to that which is common in fiction than what we usually encounter in science books.

I wasn't exactly expecting a lot of charts and graphs, but I was surprised to see almost no hard figures on nuclear reserves, energy potential, or pollution; or contrasts of the foregoing to the corresponding figures for coal, etc. The whole book seems like a series of introductions to a content that appears nowhere. If like me you knew a little about uranium and nuclear energy and wanted to know more, this book will provide no help. Perhaps a bit of the blame belongs to the publisher. Their misleading cover and inside blurb claims of what this book is about, particularly on the energy and nuclear weapon fronts, should not be believed. Some readers (and some sockpuppet non-readers) have obviously liked this book, but if you like hard non-fiction science, you may not count yourself among them.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The history of an overburdened nucleus (3.5 stars), September 24, 2009
By 
J. Green (Los Angeles, California) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
First of all, this book is *not* a science book. Instead, it is a somewhat meandering history of the use of uranium, particularly as it relates to U-238 and U-235 used in nuclear fission reactions. Initially, uranium was used for little except as an occasional colorant in stained glass, but in 1934 Enrico Fermi discovered the instability of it's atom and the potential use in bombs. Zoellner discusses the history of mining uranium in Joachimsthal (Czeck Republic), Shinkolobwe (Congo), Australia, and Moab (Utah), but much of the book discusses weapon use, starting with the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, and then moving variously to Pakistan's nuclear program and Iraqi and Iranian efforts.

While variously interesting, Zoellner focuses mostly on sensational stories, even discussing a Japanese doomsday cult which sought a nuclear bomb but instead settled for using sarin gas. Even the historical stories seem to lean towards the sensational and feel incomplete (there was no mention of a 1950's proposal to use a nuclear weapon to create a large port in Alaska). And while he critically analyzes the US nuclear build up (including the silly government advice to "avoid panic and you'll come through alright"), there is little information on the parallel build up by the USSR except as it related to the Joachimsthal mine or the currently sloppy security in the former republic of Georgia. Discussions of nuclear electricity and questions of waste disposal are thin, and Homer Simpson rates a mention but Chernobyl gets barely a paragraph.

While I was initially enthusiastic about this book, it soon grew dull and at times it sounds more like a travelogue than a history. I listened to the audio book and by the end was setting the speed faster to finish quicker. The reader does a good job, even reading quotes in various accents. I originally found this annoying - he'd speak with accents in German, Russian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Australian, American cowboy, George Bush, etc. - but I must admit that it helped to keep it clearer who he was talking about.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating history of the powerful rock, April 16, 2009
By 
Amazon Customer (Washington State) - See all my reviews
As a nuclear submarine officer I deal with the reality of Uranium almost everyday. While I have been trained in many of the esoteric and highly technical facets of nuclear power, I knew little of the rocks history. This book is one I will be recommending to everyone I work with to learn the real story behind this powerful element. As a previous reviewer mentioned this is not something that will bore you with equations and gory details of nuclear fission, but it will give you some basic idea of how the energy is harnassed from Uranium. It's main emphasis however is on the story behind the how various countries acquired the technology to process uranium and what they have used it for.

It's most fascinating story is of course the production of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan and the reaction of the various scientists that were involved. After witnessing the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert, JR Oppenheimer famously proclaimed, "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds."

Overall a very well researched and written story behind the worlds deadliest element.
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4.0 out of 5 stars history, cold war, terrorist, dangers to health, June 19, 2014
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uranium has two isotopes at 238 common and 235 rare much of the discussion of this book has to do with the 235 isotope it is used to make nuclear weapons. at first there was only 2 sorces of uranium and they were in the congo and czekoslavakia. the history of the sites and the discovery of uranium is very interesting and well written in this book. then writes about the physics of uranium how it can be made into a weapon, well written, then usa and soviet unions mining of it to make nuclear bombs also modern history pakistan, australia, iran iraq and other countries
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Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World
Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World by Tom Zoellner (Paperback - February 23, 2010)
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