- Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element
Jeremy Bernstein is a physicist and prolific author of books and essays aimed at explaining science to the general public. While many of his past works have been biographical, including studies of Albert Einstein, Hans Bethe, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, in Plutonium his subject is an element rather than a person. Characteristic of his previous work, however, the author manages to inject a human element into the complicated and sometimes confusing physics and chemistry that underlay his subject matter. This is a synthetic work that offers no stunning insights for historians or scientists versed in the subject matter. Nevertheless, it is a useful primer for nonexperts interested in learning more about the science and history of an element inextricably tied to the birth of the nuclear age.
Bernstein's account begins long before the discovery of plutonium in 1941 by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, led by Glen Seaborg and Edward McMillan. The author starts with the discovery of uranium (in 1781) and proceeds to retrace most of the early history of nuclear physics, including the creation of the periodic table (1869), the discovery of the X-ray (1895), and the demonstration of nuclear fission (1938). Having set the stage for the discovery of transuranic elements such as plutonium, Bernstein traces the role of this strange (and intensely toxic) substance in the World War II efforts to build atomic weapons in both the United States and Nazi Germany. He concludes with two highly divergent chapters: a "technically demanding" (p. 137) account of plutonium's physical and chemical properties followed by an examination of the contemporary political, environmental, and national security dilemmas posed by the existence of vast stocks of the material as a legacy of the cold war nuclear arms race.
Most of Plutonium covers a territory that has already been well trod by both specialist and generalist writers. Bernstein's treatment, however, offers several unique features. First, while he writes in [End Page 198] accessible prose, the author goes into far more scientific detail than is usual in generalist accounts of the birth of the atomic age. In taking readers through the chain of events that culminated in the development of nuclear weapons, Bernstein not only explores the underlying nuclear physics that made possible the discovery and production of plutonium, but also traces the various steps and missteps made along the way by an international cast of physicists and chemists. Readers primarily interested in the practical and moral implications of plutonium as a fuel for bombs and reactors may find this book difficult reading at times. But nonexperts interested in either the science of plutonium or the history of nuclear physics as a field of study (and not put off by the occasional equation) will likely find this book rewarding.
In keeping with Bernstein's previous studies, he enlivens the sometimes challenging scientific aspects of his study with nuanced portraits of the scientists involved. In his lengthy career as a physicist and science writer, Bernstein has met and interviewed a rich collection of famous (and not so famous) scientists. As a result, he has an insider's feel for the culture and mores of the fascinating group of characters who weave in and out of the story of plutonium. His treatment of the social world of German physics in the 1930s (including the complex personal and professional connections between Otto Hahn and Lisa Meitner) is particularly compelling.
The greatest weakness of this study from a scholarly perspective is the paucity of reference notes. This is a thinly referenced work and a number of the footnotes consist simply of acknowledgements to fellow scientists with whom he discussed the relevant issues. It is unfortunate that Bernstein for the most part fails to provide citations that might introduce the interested reader to the vast body of relevant specialist literature on the topics covered in this volume. This is compounded by the fact that the...