Book Review: Radioactive

This year for history I am teaching Man’s Greatest Accomplishments. I had several things in mind I wanted to cover with the kids (organization/gov’t, domestication of plants and animals, epidemiology, writing) and then I asked them what they thought were man’s greatest accomplishments. This has led to me researching in depth a lot of things I only previously considered from other view points. Like the atomic bomb. Oh, sure I am all over the political, military, and cultural ramifications and even the consequences. But how the made it? Crud, I need a library. Radioactive by Winifred Conkling is one of the many books I read, and a well written one at that.

Basic Summary (Courtesy of Amazon):

The fascinating, little-known story of how two brilliant female physicists’ groundbreaking discoveries led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

In 1934, Irène Curie, working with her husband and fellow scientist, Frederic Joliot, made a discovery that would change the world: artificial radioactivity. This breakthrough allowed scientists to modify elements and create new ones by altering the structure of atoms. Curie shared a Nobel Prize with her husband for their work. But when she was nominated to the French Academy of Sciences, the academy denied her admission and voted to disqualify all women from membership. Four years later, Curie’s breakthrough led physicist Lise Meitner to a brilliant leap of understanding that unlocked the secret of nuclear fission. Meitner’s unique insight was critical to the revolution in science that led to nuclear energy and the race to build the atom bomb, yet her achievement was left unrecognized by the Nobel committee in favor of that of her male colleague.

Radioactive! presents the story of two women breaking ground in a male-dominated field, scientists still largely unknown despite their crucial contributions to cutting-edge research, in a nonfiction narrative that reads with the suspense of a thriller. Photographs and sidebars illuminate and clarify the science in the book.

 

My thoughts:

This book was a super intriguing read. Both a step by step process of how nuclear fission and the chain reaction occurred and the nasty way politics, war, and human frailty impacted the way the world at large viewed the process. Some were rewarded for their efforts. Others were denied credit or blamed. In one case, Lise Meitner, she was both denied credit and then blamed as “the little lady who start this whole mess” after the bombs were dropped. She was much more gracious in the situation than I would have been.

Whether you dig science or not, this is a good read. As always, I found a lot of the psychology of humans the most interesting portion.  And I got enough details to be able to answer my students complicated questions, which they always ask about every topic.

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