What does atomic energy and nuclear power mean to you? For the average American citizen, it’s short for a couple of things: the work of Marie Curie, Los Alamos and the atomic bomb, Hiroshima, the Cold War, recent nuclear reactor disasters, and Homer Simpson’s job on The Simpsons. All of these stories are united by one discovery — radiation — and how it changed the world, but there’s not much in the way of a complete history of the science and what came from it, tracing the links from Marie Curie to Robert Oppenheimer and beyond.
Craig Nelson’s excellent new book, The Age of Radiation, is the answer to that question, 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. In the case of Marie Curie, Nelson sheds light on her life beyond just her scientific accomplishments, starting with her origin story as Polish-born Marja Sklodowska, who worked as a maid until she was able to move to Paris and learn. The book reveals that she had a long-term affair with a married scientist, evidenced in love letters that have been sealed away from the public. There’s a gruesome glee to the details surrounding the experiments that the Curies did in Paris: according to Nelson, so many people had their hands literally melt off, not to mention the many cases of horrific cancers, all for the sake of science.
Following the Curies, we learn about the many Jewish scientists who, in fleeing war-torn WWII, ended up changing the world and certainly the course of America as a nation. Nelson is sharp on the story of Lise Meitner, the discoverer of fission, whose major role in scientific development was forgotten to history as a woman and a Jew. Once Nelson makes his way over to America, discussing Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project, he’s able to hold several balls in the air at once. The reader gets a full idea of the scientists’ lives (and, often, their Communist leanings) and the tragedy at the center of their work: the terrible force of the inventions and ingenuity that led to the atomic bomb.
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. Did you know that Herman Kahn’s 1960 On Thermonuclear War was a big influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, so much so that Kahn, a man described as a “thermonuclear Zero Mostel,” asked the director for royalties? (He was denied.) The pleasure of reading this book comes from the many, many insights and facts that are brought to light through Nelson’s smart voice.
We are radiant beings, dealing with radiation every day of our lives, and The Age of Radiance is a book that brings that truth to life. It’s an essential portrayal of the genius, destruction, and politics that have emerged from one small scientific discovery, even better, from the committed work of obsessive, particular, strange humans — and how that work has left a gigantic shadow that the world still wrestles with today.