A New Approach to Atomic History

Jeris Stueland Yurma reviews Jeremy Bernstein’s Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element.

By Jeris Stueland Yurma | January 12, 2008
Plutonium-238 sphere under its own light

Plutonium-238 sphere under its own light.

Jeremy Bernstein. Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. x + 181 pp. $27.95.

Plutonium, which occurs naturally in trace amounts but is typically created in the laboratory by the irradiation of uranium, was discovered by the chemist Glenn Seaborg in 1941. Four years later enough plutonium had been produced to provide the fissionable core for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Nagasaki. Despite this monumental beginning there existed no history of the element itself, so the physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein set himself to writing a history of plutonium accessible to the general public. The result is the recently published Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element.

Bernstein traces the history of plutonium from the creation of the periodic table and discovery of uranium through to the development of the atomic bomb and the environmental and other repercussions that continue to reverberate to this day. The book can be divided into four major sections differentiated by the way Bernstein approaches his subject. Bernstein begins the first with a discussion of events leading to the development of the periodic table and the discoveries of radioactivity and nuclear fission. This section offers quite a teleological history, with Bernstein clearly headed toward his primary interests: the development of the atomic bomb and, in particular, plutonium weapons. Bernstein is so focused on the future that he intersperses contemporary explanations of, for example, chemical elements with his history. This may be helpful to interested nonprofessionals, but professional scientists will certainly not need “atomic weight” defined for them and historians of science may find this section too teleological for their tastes. However, like Bernstein’s focus, the strengths of Plutonium lie ahead.

The next section offers a more in-depth account of the discoveries of nuclear fission and the transuranic (heavier than uranium) elements, including plutonium, and the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. This is strengthened by Bernstein’s knowledge of the Farm Hall transcripts: records of the secretly taped conversations of 10 German atomic scientists who were interned in England at the close of World War II. These documents formed the basis for Bernstein’s previous work, Hitler’s Uranium Club (Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics, 1996). In Plutonium, Bernstein’s familiarity with the Farm Hall transcripts is clear in the rich detail he provides. This is especially true in his deep understanding of the chemist Otto Hahn and the aspects of Hahn’s personality that enabled him to attempt to exclude the physicist Lise Meitner from credit for the discovery of fission-in which she played a role at least equal to Hahn’s own-while remaining her close friend.

Chapter 10, in which Bernstein attempts to explain “the very strange physics and chemistry of plutonium,” stands apart from the rest of the text for its detailed scientific explication, nearly devoid of historical context. Bernstein warns readers with only a passing interest in the chemistry and physics of plutonium to read only the chapter summary and move on; however, both the summary and the body of the chapter are clearly written and certainly not above the head of the interested layperson. Bernstein’s separation of plutonium’s “science” from its “history” may frustrate some historians of science, especially those trained in recent decades, many of whom consider science not a pursuit of truths that remain so even outside of one’s historical context but an activity as much of its time as politics or art. Other readers, though, may appreciate the opportunity to delve more deeply into the science of plutonium.

The final chapter also stands alone, and here Bernstein moves away from his examination of plutonium’s history to offer a few warnings about its future, arguing that today we are threatened by plutonium in two ways: weapons proliferation and environmental degradation. It is now quite common to see popular texts on science at least mention these issues, especially the latter. Whether these touches of advocacy advance the understanding of science is debatable. However, as Bernstein’s aim seems to be to offer his readers views of plutonium from a variety of angles, closing with a discussion of these important issues certainly seems appropriate.

Plutonium is enlivened by Bernstein’s experience as a physicist, including a summer spent at Los Alamos in 1957. Professional scientists in particular should appreciate Bernstein’s familiarity with the physics and chemistry of plutonium, while nonprofessionals should enjoy his ability to make this science clear and understandable.

Bernstein’s approach to the topic itself is also notable. Bernstein is primarily concerned with events relating to the development of the atomic bomb, a topic on which much has been written. The vast majority of these works lead their readers along the same well-worn, teleological path, beginning at the discovery of radioactivity and leading directly to the bombing of Hiroshima. The paths taken by our historical actors, however, were not so straight and lacked clear destinations, so it is time for historians to approach the history of the beginning of the atomic era differently. Bernstein offers one such approach by focusing on plutonium rather than the atomic bomb. As a result, even though Bernstein’s first few chapters are somewhat teleological, they offer a different teleology than that provided by previous historians. For example, because he focuses on an element, Bernstein includes a summary of the development of the periodic table that will certainly be of interest to his readers and would definitely not be found in the typical history of the bomb.

Plutonium will not be all things to all readers. Professional scientists and historians will likely find parts of the book simplistic, but both groups should also find parts that offer significant insight. Nonspecialists should greatly enjoy this alternative path into the history of the atomic era.