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The Curve of Binding Energy Mass Market Paperback – February 12, 1979

4.3 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Theodore B. Taylor was among the most ingenious engineers of the nuclear age. He created the most powerful and the smallest nuclear weapons of his time (his masterpiece, the Davy Crockett, weighed in at a svelte 50 pounds) and also spearheaded efforts to create a nuclear-powered spacecraft. But in his later years, Taylor became increasingly concerned that compact and powerful bombs could be easily built not just by nations employing experts such as himself, but by single individuals with modest technical ability and perseverance. McPhee tours American nuclear installations with Taylor, and we are treated to a grim, eye-opening account of just how close we are to witnessing terrorist attacks using homemade nuclear weaponry. The Curve of Binding Energy is compelling writing about an urgently important topic. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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“A book holding, with pretty good authority, that tens of thousands of people know enough about the bomb and are close enough to what they don't know to produce a bomb at home . . . The report's art at its difficult best.” ―Alvin Beam, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer

“Though dwellers in the nuclear age should ponder this book, as much for its intellectual excitement as for its warning.” ―Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (February 12, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345280008
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345280008
  • Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 4.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,761,329 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
"The Curve of Binding Energy" is the landmark work that changed the American government's collective mind about the possibility of nuclear terrorism. It is fair to say that until nuclear weapon designer Ted Taylor sat down with John McPhee, and until McPhee's articles and book were published, the U.S. government believed that building a nuclear weapon required a regiment of top scientists and an effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project, something which could only be done by major industrialized powers (despite China).
After "Curve" was published, the government accepted the idea that terrorists could build nuclear devices, given only that they had access to fissile material and shifted gears almost immediately, an occurrence as rare as its effects were crucial. Taylor demonstrated that a few competent people mining the scientific literature could do the job. Many millions of dollars, pounds, francs, euros and rubles have been spent by many governments since publication of "Curve" to ensure that no terrorist ever gets his hands on plutonium or enriched uranium, and we are all safer as a result.
The book is, of course, incredibly readable and compelling. One would not expect less from the foremost prose stylist in the United States.
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Format: Paperback
John McPhee is a writer for the New Yorker with a particular focus on science and nature. His heroes tend not to be the pure scientists but the engineers, the doers. His 1987 profile of the Old River Control Structure, the enormously complex and epic-scale engineering works that prevent the main body of the waters of the Mississippi from spilling down the Atchafalaya as they really want to, was widely linked at the time of the New Orleans floods last year and deservedly so -- search for "McPhee Old River Control" to read it, it's well worth it. He has a love for the concrete that doesn't prevent him having a good understanding of the underlying science that his engineers use and writes clearly and with energy.

The Curve of Binding Energy is about Ted Taylor, a physicist from Los Alamos, his efforts to develop the lightest fission bomb that he possibly could, and how his research pushed him in the direction of proper oversight of post-fission materials. The writing is excellent, pacey and readable, though at times tending too much to the New Yorker structure of "At facility Y I was ushered in to meet Expert X. He had shrewd eyes and an expansive, welcoming half-smile at the corners of his mouth. He said Z." The basic message is: (1) plutonium is easy to get access to; (2) with current (1974) practices and volumes the amount necessary to produce a bomb (15 kg) would be lost in the statistical noise; (3) this will only get worse as volumes produced go up, and they're projected to go up massively.

This is all from the perspective of 1974, of course. Since then, prompted in part by the concerns this book raised (and in part by independent factors such as a fall in the price of oil), the US cut back hugely on reactor starts. Nevertheless, nuclear power in the US grew from 114.
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Format: Paperback
I read this book in 1975 and have subsequently reread it several times. The possibilities imagined in this book haven't yet come to pass, mainly, I think, because Ted Taylor is a genius and the terrorists are actually pretty stupid. Dr. Taylor, or someone like him, could build a home-made bomb that would make the events of 9/11 look like a tea party. However, the people motivated to actually carry out events like 9/11 are fortunately not so technically inclined.
The book spells out in chilling detail how it is actually pretty simple to put together an atomic bomb that could rival a Hiroshima-class explosion, IF, and it is a big IF, you have enriched uranium or plutonium.
The book does into enough detail to prove the point that bomb construction is fairly simple, but it contains several deliberate mistakes (one in chemistry and one in physics, that I could find) that keep this book from being a "blueprint" for bomb construction.
Like "The Hot Zone" about ebolla, this book may keep you awake nights if you read it carefully and really think about the implications.
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Format: Hardcover
One of the best and brightest, through Mr. McPhee's able penmanship, Mr. Taylor gives a guided tour of the (then) current state-of-the-art. Chock full of facts, figures and references, all verifiable. With the current glut of so-called 'expert' writers in this field, this book is one of the better uses of a tree on this subject ;O). I guarantee that any person interested in the nuclear weapons stockpile-to-target sequence will find the book an EXCELLENT buy.
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By A Customer on August 20, 1997
Format: Hardcover
It doesn't matter what McPhee writes about- he's simply the best non-fiction writer of the post-war era. All the best non-fiction writers today- Richard Rhodes comes to mind- owe a debt to the writings of McPhee. He makes literally any subject come alive, and when he has a compelling one like Ted Taylor and nuclear weapons technology and proliferation, the result is compelling, page turning narrative. Buy this book. Buy any John McPhee. You won't be disappointed
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I first read The Curve of Binding Energy when I bought the paperback edition in 1974 or 1975. It's one of the most compelling books I've ever read, and when that paperback finally bit the dust after so many readings, I got the Kindle version. In the book, author John McPhee documented the life and thoughts of theoretical physicist Ted Taylor as he accompanied him on a tour of facilities where nuclear fuels were processed or stored. Taylor was a remarkable man, a quirky but brilliant atomic bomb designer who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the post-WWII years, designing smaller but more efficient fission bombs. His smallest successful bomb? The Davy Crockett, which he described as being about the size of a rugby football.

The book is heavy on Taylor's concerns about terrorists or criminals stealing uranium or plutonium from nuclear fuel processing or storage facilities, or while these materials were being transported. In the era when the book was published (1974), the future was very bright for nuclear power, which drove Taylor's concerns, since there would be a huge increase in the amount of fuel being processed, plus the large stockpiles of plutonium that would come from the new breeder reactors. But as we now know, that never happened, and very few new reactors were licensed in the U.S. after the 1970s. And with accidents like Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and more recently, Japan's Fukushima Daiichi (2011), the future of nuclear power looks bleak in the United States as well as many other countries.

Ted Taylor was instrumental in designing many of the fission bombs developed at Los Alamos from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. In the book, he gave a lot of fairly detailed information on how to build a fission bomb.
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