Bernstein, Plutonium

Reviewed by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Technology & Culture 52:2 (2011), 415-417.

Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element. By Jeremy Bernstein.  Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. xii+194. $17.95.

Plutonium is an exemplary case of fine science writing, combining scientific expertise and smooth narrative, enlivened by a personal touch.  A physicist and former staff writer for the New Yorker, Jeremy Bernstein has a deep well of experience from which he can draw, and he has a gift for bringing even the most obscure technical points into the clear light of day. Readers will come away with an enhanced understanding of the scientific strangeness of plutonium, an appreciation of the periodic table of elements, and a fresh store of interesting anecdotes about Einstein, Bohr, Meitner, Fermi, and others less well-known.  As a history, however, Plutonium suffers from its brevity, omissions, and superficial treatment of serious issues.

Bernstein is at his best describing the questions that plagued scientists about the periodic table, the inner workings of the nucleus, and the physical properties of plutonium.  As Bernstein demonstrates, plutonium is bizarre.  For example, it behaves weirdly in its allotropic phases (these describe how the atoms are bonded together).  In two of these, volume actually decreases when the temperature is raised.  Bernstein also provides an accessible account of some of the early history of X-Rays and radioactivity.  He takes the story into World War II to describe the production of plutonium, first by co-discoverers Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan and then by large-scale reactors in the American bomb project.

Plutonium is a tale of discovery, ingenious solutions, and priority disputes.  Bernstein devotes considerable, perhaps disproportionate, attention to the German atomic bomb (Bernstein also annotated the 2000 book, Hitler’s Uranium Club), though precious little on the Soviet one, to showcase differences with the Americans.  His commentary about non-scientific subjects is usually anecdotal, and is openly subjective.  For example, discussing Otto Hahn’s work on chemical weapons in World War I, he writes, “As far as I know, he never stated that the use of poison gas was morally wrong” (41).  When discussing science, Bernstein injects his own views without explaining how they have any particular weight.  Again on Hahn: “My own view is that Hahn never understood the physics of fission” (48).  This kind of offhand comment is hard to take seriously, when describing a man who won the Nobel Prize for discovering fission, even if scholars today contest the award.

Bernstein is most comfortable describing what happens inside an atom, and telling the tale of plutonium’s discovery, not in trying to understand controversies and practices since World War II. The only explicitly postwar chapter is one called “Now What?” which skips lightly over much of the Cold War.  When he broaches the tricky subject of radiation exposure to scientists (including the IPPU group, “I pee plutonium”), he does not attempt his own analysis.  Instead, he employs long quotes by scientists at the time.  For example, we have pages from George Voelz, the health physicist who studied the IPPU group and later assessed the Karen Silkwood case. Voelz’s recollections are fascinating, but some analysis by Bernstein would have been helpful.  Instead he simply writes, “How convincing one finds it can, I am sure, be debated.” (126).  This is hardly an enlightening summation.

There is nothing at all in Bernstein’s book on the human experiments conducted with plutonium under the Manhattan Project and Atomic Energy Commission.  The details of these can be found in journalist Eileen Welsome’s 1999 book, The Plutonium Files, or simply by pointing one’s internet browser to the U.S. Department of Energy’s website. Bernstein does devote some attention to the Hanford nuclear site, in a fifteen-page chapter that runs down a host of other contemporary issues: environmental damage, health risks, energy policy, and weapons proliferation.  It is a thin treatment, but Bernstein lets himself off the hook with the following statement on Hanford’s pollution from plutonium production: “This is such an enormous and emotional subject that to do justice to it, if justice can be done, would require another and different book” (163). Evidently not a book called Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element.  Bernstein instead has played to his laudable strengths, namely in explaining scientific concepts, tracing the paths of scientific discovery, and providing a bit of historical and anecdotal context along the way.


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