Marie did not associate her physical decline with radiation, and her approach was characteristic of the casual attitude of the Radium...
“Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima”
by Diana Preston
Walker & Co., 400 pp., $27
British historian Diana Preston, the author of “The Boxer Rebellion” and “Lusitania,” returns to the early 20th century to tell the story of the atom bomb. Her new book, “Before the Fallout,” begins in an atmosphere of freewheeling discovery and ends in nationalism and fear.
This is a story of individuals. It has little time for the impersonal-forces theory of history, because here every step toward the bomb is by a particular person. “History — even the history of science — is inherently about people,” she writes.
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Preston keeps the science simple, and provides enough other detail to make the people real. She writes of Marie Curie’s researches with radium, but also her breakthrough as a woman in French academia, her embarrassment at being publicly denounced as an adulteress, her pain from radiation burns and her single-mindedness about science.
The author of “Before the Fallout” will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle, as part of the Seattle Science Lectures, co-sponsored by Town Hall Seattle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the University of Washington and the Pacific Science Center. Admission is $5 at the door. For more information, call the University Book Store at 206-634-3400 or consult www.ubookstore.com.
The first third of the book is set in a time when nuclear physics was small, globally scattered and politically uncorrupted. World War I was a mere blip, because what could protons and electrons have to do with combat?
By 1930 came hints of the answer — and of political perils. The Nazis were elected in 1933, and Albert Einstein moved out of Germany. Physicist Peter Kapitza, working in Britain, returned home to Russia, and the Communist state forbade him to leave. Physicist Lise Meitner stayed on in Berlin in the belief that her Austrian nationality was more important than her Jewishness. It is a harrowing moment in the book when she decides, with the Gestapo about to seize her, to flee to Holland. Another such moment is the escape of physicist Niels Bohr from occupied Denmark.
It was the scientists who sold the politicians on the bomb. The reason to have it was that Germany might get it. One of the first with that argument was physicist Joseph Rotblat, a Pole who had barely escaped the invasion of his homeland. Later he became the only scientist to resign from the atomic bomb project in protest.
Preston gives attention to the German, Japanese and Russian atomic projects, none of which came remotely close. As the war was drawing to a close, it was clear that no Axis power had an atomic bomb, but by then there were other reasons to use it.
The last half of Preston’s book deals increasingly with political and moral questions, culminating in the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Preston denies that Japan was attacked on account of racism; she says that, had a bomb been available earlier, it would have been used on Germany.
Through much of the latter part of the book is the question, asked but not shouted, of responsibility. What was the scientists’ responsibility? Was it up to them to make political decisions? Winston Churchill didn’t think so, nor did Franklin Roosevelt. Niels Bohr appealed to them both, separately, to share the secret of the bomb with the Russians. Harry Truman’s secretary of state, James Byrnes, ignored an argument from physicist Leo Szilard that the bomb would start an arms race. In the end, none of the political decisions about the bomb was made by scientists.
Preston also explores the issue of security. Before the U.S. was in the war, Szilard had campaigned among physicists in America not to publish scientific advances that could be used by the Axis powers. He was partly successful, and as a result, German physicist Werner Heisenberg was not alerted to his mistakes in the use of graphite. That was not decisive, but in another set of circumstances it might have been.
There are other might-have-beens. The first Allied power to start a bomb project was Britain. Had Britain not persuaded the U.S. government to take on the project before Pearl Harbor, the bomb might not have been ready in 1945.
Had physicist Klaus Fuchs not spied for the Communists, the Russian bomb would not have been ready in 1949. But the bombs would have been developed. “Ideas have their time, and if not discovered by one person, they will be by another,” she writes.
That does seem to be a nod toward the idea of impersonal forces. But only a nod; just because someone else would have done a thing eventually does not take the glory or the shame from the one who did it. This is a book that tracks these individual stories from a distant beginning to a dramatic finale.
Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer
for The Seattle Times.