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'Before the Fallout' examines relief, agony and science of Hiroshima

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"Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima" by Diana Preston; Walker ($27)


Aug. 6 marked the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Hardly cause for celebration - though at the time, for many, that is exactly what it was. As an American second lieutenant, then 21, wrote:

"When ... the news began to circulate that ... we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all."

That lieutenant, and hundreds of thousands like him, knew well the horrors of war. But not the precise horror of Hiroshima. Of that, readers of Diana Preston's "Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima," are apprised from the start.

Preston begins by quoting a young mother, Futaba Kitayama, who reported looking up and seeing "an airplane as pretty as a silver treasure ... in the cloudless pure blue sky." Something dropped from the plane, then exploded into "an indescribable light." Kitayama's face felt suddenly moist. Then, "when I wiped my face the skin peeled off."

Between the young soldier's relief and the young mother's agony lies the unsettling territory of Preston's narrative. Much of this story has been told before. The virtue of Preston's book is that it gathers the major threads and weaves them tightly into a focused chronicle, positioning the key details in such a way as to provide an overall perspective, a sort of chronological contour map. Preston is also excellent when it comes to explaining the science.

The perspective is provided as much by the personalities involved as by the events recounted. As Preston notes in her final paragraph, "history - even the history of science - is inherently about people, how they thought, what they did with their thoughts, and how they interacted with the individuals immediately around them and then with society and the greater world order."

A good illustration of this is provided by the case of Ida Noddack.

In May 1934, Enrico Fermi began bombarding uranium with neutrons. This seemed to cause the creation of new radioactive elements beyond uranium, which he called transuranics. Fermi also discovered that slow-moving neutrons were more effective agents of bombardment.

Everyone agreed except Noddack, a German chemist and co-discoverer of rhenium, the last naturally occurring element to be identified. Noddack suggested that what might really be happening is that the heavy uranium nucleus was being shattered, releasing unprecedented energy and transmuting into much lighter elements.

Noddack did not pursue the matter, and no one else paid any attention. In fact, her suggestion was dismissed out of hand as "absurd." In part, this was because she was a woman. It was probably also because she was a chemist - in the scientific pecking order, chemists were thought inferior to physicists.

Mostly, it was because she and her husband had years before claimed to have discovered an element, which they named "masurium." It proved to be a claim they could not substantiate. Italian physicist Emilio Segre, who later acknowledged that Noddack's suggestion should have led to the immediate discovery of nuclear fission, at the time thought Noddack and her husband not only incompetent, but "plainly dishonest."

So nuclear fission ended up being officially discovered five years later. So what? Well, as Preston observes, had the discovery been made earlier, "the uses of fission would have been more widely debated and information more widely pooled before the outbreak of war. ... The German program would have gone into wartime isolation more advanced. ... There might have been much more French information and facilities for the Germans to capture."

The major competitors in the search for an atomic bomb were, of course, Germany and the United States, and personality played a key role as well in that contest. Germany had no counterpart to Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, "the supremely practical human bulldozer" who headed the Manhattan Project. But Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg, who led the German effort, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who ran the laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., had much in common. Both were theoretical physicists whose interest in their subject was as much philosophical as scientific. Neither was much of an experimentalist. Heisenberg could also be careless when it came to the mathematics of his field.

But Oppenheimer was a gifted administrator and a skillful manager of people. Heisenberg was neither. Moreover, Heisenberg seems to have become, during the war years, the very embodiment of his own indeterminacy principle. He never joined the Nazi Party and was no anti-Semite. But he deeply believed in German culture and seems to have had an unusual capacity for self-deception. It is altogether possible that by war's end his motives and intentions were unclear even to himself.

Perhaps what is most unusual is how quickly nuclear physics arrived, one might say, at critical mass. Marie Curie discovered radium in December 1898. Preston points out that at the time, there were perhaps 1,000 physicists worldwide, and only 10 percent of those were engaged in research on radioactivity. Yet less than 47 years later a nuclear bomb exploded over Hiroshima.

We can be grateful none has been used since the one dropped on Nagasaki three days later. But before we congratulate ourselves, let us pause and ponder a fact noted in a footnote on Page 2 of Preston's book. In 1998, a Russian general informed the world that the Soviet Union had devised a portable nuclear bomb. More than 100 were in fact made. At the time, fewer than half could be accounted for.


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


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