Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: Atomic Adventures

Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder--a Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science
James Mahaffey

This could more accurately be titled Atomic Anecdotes. It's like a Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not compendium of nuclear physics. The stories are a semi-random mix of

  • Outright scientific quackery (Ronald Richter)
  • Scientists who were honestly deluded (the titular N-rays, cold fusion)
  • Stuff that was scientifically fine but not practical engineering (atomic-powered aircraft)
  • Stuff that was scientifically and practically fine, but killed by politics (nuclear-thermal rockets)
  • Tales of the true but obscure (the Japanese atomic bomb program)
To put it another way, Chapter 1 is 36 pages long and contains 39 footnotes, all of which are anecdotes or sidelights that Mahaffey couldn't squeeze into the text but couldn't bear to leave out. 

Also, the writing assumes a quite substantial understanding of physics--not at the degree level, perhaps, but certainly above the interested-amateur grade.

Personally, I enjoyed the book. It's funny, and the individual components are all well-written. More importantly, I have a bottomless appetite for this kind of useless information, and I also have the requisite scientific knowledge. The story of how the author got caught up in the cold-fusion debacle is particularly good--amusing, personal, and lively. I'd be cautious about picking this up if you don't fit my profile, though.

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