Climate change seems to be the world’s current fear, but once upon a time it was the nuclear arms race that had us all atremble. Like a lot of people who were teenagers in the 1980s, I had a bit of a thing about nuclear weapons, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) etc.
At the core of this interest (so to speak) is the mysterious 94th element of the periodic table –Plutonium. Remember the brilliant BBC tv series Edge of Darkness when hero Ronald Craven (Bob Peck) brings together two bars of plutonium causing a criticality accident? Plutonium is the stuff of nightmares. Jeremy Bernstein’s book Plutonium: a history of the world’s most dangerous element is a combination of science, history and a discussion with a very smart friend. He ambles around the characters and the hard science – from the history of uranium, the periodic table, to Los Alamos and beyond.
Bernstein looks at famous scientists like Curie, Rutherford and Fermi – but he also uncovers some lesser known names (and interestingly many of them are women) including Ida Noddack who presaged nuclear fission and Lise Meitner who was scandalously overlooked when her collaborator Otto Hahn won the 1945 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
If you want to read another book on radioactive exploits, The Radioactive Boy Scout is for you. In this true story, we learn about the incorrigible David Hahn whose scientific experimentation goes beyond the norm. In his pursuit of an Atomic Energy badge for the Boy Scouts, he tries to build a nuclear breeder reactor in his backyard. He gets information from industry experts, and scavenges antiques shops and junkyards for old fashioned devices like smoke detectors and clocks containing radioactive substances.
This story is more pacey and exciting than any adventure novel.