Three Books in One
Craig Nelson has really written three books. The first one on the history of nuclear physics from 1890 – 1960 and physicists involved is terrific. The second one is on the role of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and here his biases show and he leaves much to be desired. The third book embedded in “Radiance” is a history of nuclear power where he emphasizes the three big disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima which highlights the incompetence and the corruption of the nuclear industry. Here he is on pretty solid ground. And he recognizes that despite the disasters nuclear power might in the long run be better than carbon burning power plants.
His history of the science is easy to follow for the lay reader and he draws great insights into the personalities of Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szillard, John von Neumann and Otto Hahn. He is at his best when he discusses the life and work of Lise Meitner who rightly deserves credit for her Nobel Prize work with Otto Hahn in splitting the atom. Einstein rightly called her “our (meaning German) Curie.” Also of note is his discussion of the coincidence of so many leading physicists and mathematicians all being born in early 1900s Budapest. What was in the Danube at that time?
Where he goes astray is in his views on the Cold War. To him Russia is always reacting to moves by the United States. Yet nowhere in the book is a discussion of the massive Soviet build-up that took place in the 1970s. His villain is Edward Teller, the co-developer of thermo-nuclear weaponry and the instigator of Reagan’s strategic defense initiative (SDI) known as “Star Wars”. His animus towards Teller goes back 1940s Los Alamos and his testimony critical of Oppenheimer during his security clearance hearing. To be sure Teller had his faults, but Nelson goes overboard. Nelson also fails to understand that a less than perfect SDI would have great deterrent value because it would increase the uncertainty with respect to a first strike.
So the way I would score it would be 5 stars for the history of science section, 4 stars for nuclear power and 3 stars for the Cold War portion. Net, net 4 stars.