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The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era Hardcover – March 25, 2014

3.8 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Nelson (Rocket Men, 2009) presents a sweeping panorama of the nuclear age, from Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, paying particular attention to the colorful scientists whose brilliance and diligence unlocked the secrets of the atom. These include the big names whose contributions have been well documented, like Marie and Pierre Curie, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and Robert Oppenheimer, but also lesser-known figures, including the “suicide team” of Tokyo Electric technicians (derisively nicknamed “gamma sponges”) who entered the Fukushima reactor to manually open its exhaust vents. Nelson tells their stories vividly, with a journalist’s eye for symmetry and irony; the science itself is, at times, less central to his narrative than the fusion-reactions of interacting scientists and government officials. Despite truly harrowing descriptions of Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as a tense account of Cold War nuclear maneuvers, this selection at times sounds a note of disappointment at the world’s emerging squeamishness about the “two-faced god” of nuclear technologies. “It is time,” Nelson suggests, “to learn to live with blessed curses.” --Brendan Driscoll

Review

"A book that moves at a thrilling pace through the while history of the atomic age... Mr. Nelson wisely dramatizes the insights that led to understanding the nucleus by following the lives of a few physcists, each a leader in the field and each displaying remarkable traits of individuality, creativity and endurance... this ambitious book does achieve is goal, presenting a grand and very readable overview of the nuclear era." (Wall Street Journal)

"Rich with powerful images ... fraught with drama ... and moments of great pathos ... a thrilling, intense, and disturbing account of the scientific and sociopolitical history of the atomic era, from the discovery of X-rays to the tragic meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011." (Christian Science Monitor)

“A page-turning history... Historian Craig Nelson tells the tale with exceptional panache… an example of top-notch storytelling… Nelson’s version is one of the best, an ideal balance of detail, character, conflict and information…He’s always able to find the image or observation that makes a scene or situation blossom in a reader’s mind’s eye. And much of what he finds is surprising.” (Salon)

“A fascinating, information-rich new work… Filled with drama, vivid anecdotes, and breathtaking scientific breakthroughs, this book is an engrossing, comprehensive history of the atomic age.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“Nelson writes a wonderfully detailed, anecdote-filled account of atomic energy, from Wilhelm Roentgen’s 1895 discovery of radiation to the ongoing hangover of the Fukushima disaster.… Other authors have covered the myriad ways this invisible power impacts our lives, but Nelson brilliantly weaves a plethora of material into one noteworthy volume.” (Publisher’s Weekly (starred review))

"This is the kind of book that doesn’t just inform you but leaves you feeling smarter." (Dallas Morning News)

"A highly readable history of humanity’s embrace of nuclear energy and radiation." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“This is no impersonal “march of science” story. The author also shows how the development of nuclear physics was deeply influenced by contemporary politics and the interplay of the personalities involved. An engaging history that raises provocative questions about the future of nuclear science.” (Kirkus (starred review))

“A sweeping panorama of the nuclear age, from Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, paying particular attention to the colorful scientists whose brilliance and diligence unlocked the secrets of the atom.… Nelson tells their stories vividly, with a journalist’s eye for symmetry and irony; the science itself is, at times, less central to his narrative than the fusion-reactions of interacting scientists and government officials.” (Booklist)

"Nelson's vivid reconstructions...shine. They make this book fun to read and sometimes hard to put down.'" (On the Seawall)

"A comprehensive and fascinating look at the invention of atomic energy. It is the sort of book struck through with facts, quotes, and stories that you never even knew happened. Nelson is as dexterous writing about Cold War-era Realpolitik as he is writing about complicated science in a way that the proletariat can get an idea of what’s going on; and he’s funny to boot. The pleasure of reading this book comes from the many, many insights and facts that are brought to light through Nelson’s smart voice." (Flavorwire)

"Nelson is especially good with a 'you are there' approach in describing Curie’s work and her late-night visits to the backyard lab with husband Pierre to look at the glow from her experiments stored in jars. He uses a similar tack in describing efforts by Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and others to start a chain reaction at an old squash court at the University of Chicago, work that gave rise to the Los Alamos lab and the construction of the first working atomic bombs." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“Wow! Craig Nelson’s The Age of Radiance is like the best of John McPhee mixed with the page-turning glory of a science-fiction thriller. A magnificent storyteller, Nelson takes even the most atomized of details and spins a dazzling history of the Atomic Age. This book gives you x-ray glasses: After reading it you literally can’t walk down the street without seeing everything in our world anew.” (Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers and In Harm’s Way)

“As he did with the space program in Rocket Men, in The Age of Radiance Craig Nelson has brought an era and an ethos to life. At the same time, he’s performed an even more difficult task: he’s made both the scientific and political complexities of the atomic era comprehensible and transparent.” (Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call)

"A dramatic history, full of missteps and accidental discoveries, manipulations and malfeasance, outsized personalities and egos, and inadvertent deaths born of ignorance as well as human error...A readable and fresh romp through a familiar history.” (Los Angeles Times)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (March 25, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 145166043X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451660432
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #772,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Cameron Reed on April 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Craig Nelson’s “The Age of Radiance” offers a survey of nuclear energy from Henri Becquerel through the recent accident at Fukushima, and, overall, does a respectable job. As a physicist, I am familiar with the science involved with this material. I found its coverage of the personalities involved to be engaging, and intended to go through the entire volume. However, I soon noticed that it contains numerous small errors, especially in the sections that dealt with my own area of expertise, the Manhattan Project; I finally gave up about half-way through, and this is why I give this book a two-star rating.
Here is a partial list of corrections: In a discussion of a memo from Vannevar Bush to President Roosevelt (p. 146), FDR is quoted as writing “Time is very much of the essence,” whereas the actual wording is “I think the whole thing should be pushed not only in regard to development, but also with due regard to time. This is very much of the essence.” Page 147 implies that a group of scientists chose General Groves to lead the Project, an assertion I have never come across in my own research. Los Alamos had 6000 residents, but only about 2500 employees (150). No credible source ever refers to Einstein having consulted at Los Alamos (153); his forte was not nuclear physics and Groves would have considered him too great a security risk. Construction on the K-25 diffusion plant did not begun until 1943, and was not finished until well into 1945 (161). A discussion at the bottom of p. 161 confusingly mixes the discovery of plutonium and uranium separation techniques in the same paragraph. A description of the S-50 liquid-diffusion plant reverses the order of heated and cooled pipes (163).
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Format: Kindle Edition
Author Craig Nelson does a credible job of explaining the history and science of the atomic bomb, also covering a lot of politics. On the other hand, Nelson makes extensive use of quotes, particularly pertaining to Marie Curie and Paul Langevin that quickly become tiresome. Nelson does an excellent job of covering post-war nuclear issues such as the Cuban missile crisis and atomic power generation. On the latter, however, he did not cover enough science. From a science point of view, Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is a better book but Nelson’s book brings us up to the present day. Even though there is a lot of overlap between Age of Radiance and Making of the Atomic Bomb, I recommend both books for those more interested in the science of the atomic bomb and The Age of Radiance alone for those who want a little less science but more information about the situation today.
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Format: Hardcover
Okay, I admit it. I made a big mistake when I checked "The Age of Radiance" out of the public library. I didn't even look at the author's name on the cover when I spotted the volume on the New Books shelf. I just grabbed it and headed for the self-checkout scanner. In my defense, I was in a bit of a hurry.

Had I noticed the author was the same one who gave us the memorably atrocious "Rocket Men," I would never have checked it out. But I didn't realize that until I started to read it. Since I had the book in hand then, so to speak, I figured I'd start into it anyway. I thought that perhaps Mr. Nelson did a better job explaining nuclear technology than he did Project Apollo.

Unfortunately, he didn't. By the time I read Chapter 1--FIVE pages--my mind was reeling from his bizarre phraseology, botched descriptions of technical concepts and absurd uses of terminology that, to me, indicate he is as ignorant about nuclear matters as he is about spaceflight. I skimmed ahead and read a few sections about topics with which I am reasonably familiar, such as the implosion technique. He gets those wrong, too--not totally, perhaps, but enough to reveal that he does not really know much about the subject he's trying to write about.

"The Age of Radiance" is similar to "Rocket Men" in that Mr. Nelson relies VERY heavily on extensive quotes from other published sources. That's not necessarily bad in itself. But he clearly lacks the relevant knowledge to tie such quotes together or to place the events they describe in the proper historical context. At best, "The Age of Radiance" is a disconnected series of oral history interviews without a technically and historically accurate unifying narrative. I continue to wonder why authors such as Mr.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I agree with the other reviewers who were put off by the excessive quotes. However, my main disappointment with this book is that in making the "two-faces" of nuclear energy conclusion of his book, oddly Nelson made only passing reference to a true success story in using nuclear power: the U.S. Navy's nuclear powered ships.

Ever since the submarine Nautilus first went to sea in 1955, our Navy has had stellar performance from its nuclear propulsion plants in submarines, aircraft carriers, and cruisers. Started by Admiral Rickover, a tradition of excellence in construction and training has led to reliability and safety. Design innovations such as reactors that will last as long as half the 50-year lifetime of a nuclear aircraft carrier, without refueling, are taken for granted. Nelson barely mentioned naval reactors at all, yet they account for the majority of reactors our country has ever built.

In attempting to weigh the scales of the good (mainly only citing medical uses) against the bad (waste, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island) he leaves out a success story that would help his two-faces of the "atomic era" balance better. It may be that Nelson ignored this because he may think it is just the Navy, and not of general interest. That would be a mistake, because excellence is excellence. With outstanding results in all of the naval reactors, the conclusion is clear that nuclear power can work well. Even Tom Friedman noted this performance excellence in one of his columns this week, written after a trip on a nuclear submarine. Strange that Nelson pretty much ignored this positive aspect of nuclear energy application.
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