Customer Review

31 of 42 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting. And badly flawed., April 11, 2010
This review is from: Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (Hardcover)
Mahaffey's book is an entertaining read, but he bungles enough physics and history of physics to make one wonder if some of his history-of-nuclear-power lore is more tall-tales-around-the-campfire than it is accurate accounts of what really happened.

First, the interesting stuff: Assuming he got these things right, we learn a fair amount about the vision and doggedness of Hyman Rickover, the father of our nuclear navy. There are also interesting, detailed accounts of various reactor accidents -- not just the obvious (Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) but also the obscure (the Windscale 1 reactor in Great Britain, and a number of cases at what's now called the Idaho Nuclear Engineering Laboratory near Arco, ID).

For another example, Mahaffey's account of the proceedings as Fermi turned on the world's first artificial sustained nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago in December, 1942 contains lots of relevant details I'd not read before (compare with Richard Rhodes's superb book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb).

Mahaffey also discusses in detail the history of approaches to nuclear-powered aircraft and rockets. In hindsight, this seems like pretty fanciful stuff, but he makes clear that it was the product of the age of American exuberance, post World War II.

Further, Mahaffey makes reasonable comparisons of the nuclear power industry's safety record with that of other industries. He says that Chernobyl, in 1986, caused 55 deaths (though I doubt that he has included here the later deaths due to the widespread radiation cloud) while 1984's Bhopal, India chemical disaster killed about 15,000.

It's also worth noting that the book is well written, something one can't count on these days, despite the (purported) involvement of editors.

So why only two stars? I would have given three, but in first reading the book, I skipped Chapters 3 and 4 of Part I and Chapters 1 and 2 of Part II (pages 47 through 156), because it appeared to be about more history that I, as a physicist myself, already knew, and I wanted to move on to see what Mahaffey had to say about the prospects for nuclear power, looking ahead from our current situation. Actually, he doesn't say much about this - except to assert that the nuclearization of our economy is inevitable - and the book after page 133 is largely about those accidents and about those gee-whiz applications that never materialized.

So I circled back to read the skipped pages, thinking they might answer some questions I had from reading the later chapters. But mostly what I came away with was astonishment that Mahaffey, who says he was an undergrad physics major, could so badly mangle basic facts about physics and the history of physics. Actually, there's some of this in the rest of the book, too, but those chapters really drove home the point that, if the author is this squirrelly about basics, there may be lots of careless assertions in the rest of the book, too.


Page xxi [introduction]. Einstein is identified as a "nuclear physicist," but he wasn't, and the proposed application to bombs was a surprise to him when Szilard brought it up.

Page 16. Mahaffey writes something strongly suggesting he thinks Faraday discovered that an electric current produces a magnetic field. Actually, this was Oersted's discovery.

Pages 53 - 54. Mahaffey tells us that Planck's crucial research was on the photoelectric effect and that the value of Planck's constant wasn't determined until years later. Further, he implies that Planck was an experimentalist. These are all glaring errors. As Wolfgang Pauli would have said, on these points, Mahaffey "isn't even wrong." The facts are that Planck "discovered" quantum theory by coming up with a mathematical formula that perfectly fit the blackbody radiation curve determined by contemporary experimentalists, and, in so doing, he derived a reasonable value for what's now known as "Planck's constant." Further, Planck was purely a theoretician.

Page 80. "If hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1, then helium weighs 4. Nitrogen, further up the weight scale, has 7 protons, but has an atomic weight of 17." It's hard to believe that Mahaffey's "17" is merely a typo.

Page 151. I. I. Rabi is identified as "another very capable theorist from Hungary." In fact, Rabi had immigrated to the U.S. at about age 3, with his family, from Galicia, in what's now Poland. And Rabi was, like Fermi, both experimentalist and theoretician.

In his acknowledgements, Mahaffey thanks physicists Douglas Wrege and Don Harmer and nuclear engineer Monte Davis "for checking the manuscript for technical accuracy and clarity." These three gentlemen, who also provided glowing endorsement blurbs for the book's back cover, must not have checked very carefully.

Note that none of the errors I've pointed to detract from understanding the rest of the book. But the carelessness of their existence -- each one could easily have been checked and corrected -- casts doubt on the accuracy of the stories Mahaffey tells us.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 16, 2010 5:22:41 PM PDT
Neil Mehra says:
Looks like Paul needs to bone up on his QED ! His factual assertions are both nitpicky and incorrect . I suggest The Historical Development of Quantum Theory , by the authority on the subject, Dr Jagdish Mehra.

Posted on Jun 2, 2011 9:38:55 AM PDT
J. L. Gerard says:
Paul, the physicist who wrote this thoughtful review, skipped too many pages of the book. There are some other glaring errors that he missed. Just by reading the pages available on Amazon, I found the following:
On page 3, the author tells us that yellowcake is Uranium Tetrafluoride. This is totally wrong. Uranium Tetrafluoride is a greenish compound known in the industry as "green salt". Yellowcake is now usually a brown to black powder composed of various oxides and other forms of uranium compounds. It was a yellow powder when resulting from older refining processes.
After this mistake, he gets back on the rails and manages to deliver a more or less correct description of the refining and concentrating processes. Since I am researching the use of nuclear energy as part of a practical solution for the elimination of coal and oil burning for electricity generation, I will read this book and continue my review later.
As was Paul, I am baffled as to how such egregious mistakes could have been made and missed during the editing process. Part of the problem is that education in the US is so poor that it is difficult to find people to work as editors who have a good enough background of general science and other information. We need to organize our priorities so that education is one of the programs that is generously funded and never cut. Otherwise we will have real problems surviving as a viable nation.

Posted on Jul 7, 2012 5:43:57 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 7, 2012 5:45:09 AM PDT
Interrobang says:
Agreed. This book is very enjoyable to read, but unfortunately the inaccuracies it contains lead me to wonder what other misinformation I'm taking in.

Another example - on page xxii of the introduction, the author states "It has been over 60 years since anyone died in a criticality accident." Really??? Hasn't he heard of Tokaimura, for example, which happened in 1999? A quick google or a simple glance at wikipedia finds a number of other deaths caused by criticality accidents. It's quite bizarre how an author with Mahaffey's education couple with the amount of research that he says went into this book could make such a simple mistake. And it's also very disappointing that no one appears to have fact-checked the book before it was published.

Simple, careless mistakes have seriously let down what could be an excellent book. What a shame.

Posted on Dec 21, 2013 10:55:55 AM PST
Thank you for your careful and thorough review of the book. (Admission, I came here by reading comments by you on another book review, where you included a link to THIS review. Is that Byzantine enough ;-> ?

Well done!

Posted on Jul 16, 2014 5:48:38 AM PDT
j d says:
Thank you for your careful review. Are there any books you would recommend for a layman?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2014 9:45:51 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 16, 2014 9:46:06 AM PDT
Paul says:
To j d:

I don't have any competing books in mind. My guess is that the author **does** get the stories right about the various accidents, which made up the bulk of the book (as I recall). It's just some of the basic-physics miscues that made me wonder.

I've had some productive and cordial email exchanges with the author since I wrote that review. And he has a follow-up book out, which I've partly read (and given him comments on) in manuscript form. I'll reiterate that his writing (i.e. the actual verbiage) is excellent, which isn't something you can take for granted these days.

Anyway, what's in the book is all I know about most of the accidents discussed within -- i.e. those I'd never heard of before.
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