Book Review: Uranium Wars by Amir Aczel

6613883Title: Uranium Wars

Author: Amir Aczel

Genre: Science, History, Nonfiction, Physics

PublisherSt Martins Press

Published: September 1, 2009

Page Amount: 256 pages

Blurb From Goodreads: Uranium, a nondescript element when found in nature, in the past century has become more sought after than gold. Its nucleus is so heavy that it is highly unstable and radioactive. If broken apart, it unleashes the tremendous power within the atom—the most controversial type of energy ever discovered. Set against the darkening shadow of World War II, Amir D. Aczel’s suspenseful account tells the story of the fierce competition among the day’s top scientists to harness nuclear power. The intensely driven Marie Curie identified radioactivity. The University of Berlin team of Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner–he an upright, politically conservative German chemist and she a soft-spoken Austrian Jewish theoretical physicist–achieved the most spectacular discoveries in fission. Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, raced against Meitner and Hahn to break the secret of the splitting of the atom. As the war raged, Niels Bohr, a founder of modern physics, had a dramatic meeting with Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist in charge of the Nazi project to beat the Allies to the bomb. And finally, in 1942, Enrico Fermi, a prodigy from Rome who had fled the war to the United States, unleashed the first nuclear chain reaction in a racquetball court at the University of Chicago. At a time when the world is again confronted with the perils of nuclear armament, Amir D. Aczel’s absorbing story of a rivalry that changed the course of history is as thrilling and suspenseful as it is scientifically revelatory and newsworthy.

Why Read: Like I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog, I am a sucker for theoretical math and physics books… especially those written by one of my favorite authors, Amir Aczel. Uranium Wars was no exception. For as long as I can remember, nuclear physics has fascinated me (even though I’m absolutely terrible at all things math and physics) and so when I found out that my favorite author along with my favorite topic had decided to pair up – you bet that I got that book a soon as physically possible.

Review: Understanding why nuclear bombs explode isn’t something that’s usually delegated to popular science books. Then again, tracing the steps of the great physicists, chemists and mathematicians who discovered uranium, radioactivity, and how to make it all go boom isn’t either. Amir Aczel though has a way of making the ordinary and boring seems incredibly magical and intriguing. How did they find out what a half-life of an element is, how did we discover what makes up the inside of an element, can our world cope with the knowledge of how the universe work if we only use it to blow our enemies out of existence?

Maybe these things aren’t as ordinary as they appear. Aczel takes things to the next level, regardless of whether you are as fascinated by the theories of how we are made up of minuscule things called electrons as I am. The characters that he creates are famous and not-so-famous scientists who contributed to the journey of uranium as one of our most infamous elements: Marie Curie, Einstein, Oppenheimer and other names that I’ll let you discover as you pour over the past. They are formed by their personal stories and by their scientific discoveries. How does it change someone to realize that they have “become death, destroyer of worlds?” (I’m sure we all know to whom I am referring to here)

The pace of the book seems slow at first… Why should the beginning of a book about nuclear bombs start with scientists discovering uranium in Germany, and noticing that its very presence was doing something to the other elements around it? Each dissimilar history lesson forms a direct line to another and before you realize what’s happened, you understand too clearly how it is that nuclear bombs are now a known and irreversible quantity in our world.

Beyond fact and theory, Aczel also writes with a beautiful precision that is almost haunting and although the story is something that can be told a series of bullet points, it’s the “who” factor that allows him to bring his writing to the surface. I find myself entranced by minor details and amazed at how he brings complex physics to the level of a layman. After reading this, I could give you an easy description of the Heisenberg principle and about why uranium acts in the way that it does (and I’ve never even taken a legitimate college level course).

Perhaps it’s beyond obvious that I may rate this book as the top one this year for me. I’ve read quite a few great books this year and by no means am I finished, but as of now – this books tops my chart by far. I have yet to read something more dynamically written and creatively imagined than Uranium Wars.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Heather says:

    I’m the same as you – I don’t really do maths and science, but I do love to read about them. This sounds fascinating!

    1. Gabriella says:

      Ahh you must read it then 🙂

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