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Plutonium
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Table of Contents

I. Preamble II. The History of Uranium III. The Periodic Table IV. Frau Rontgen's Hand V. Close Calls VI. Fissions VII. Transuranics VIII. Plutonium Goes to War IX. Los Alamos X. Electrons XI. Now What? Notes Credits Index

About the Author

Jeremy Bernstein was a staff writer at the New Yorker for thirty-five years and is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma.

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Plutonium was the heaviest natural element found in minute amounts of pitchblende in the mining area of Saxony, Germany, at the beginning of the 20th century. The radioactive substance is now overwhelmingly prevalent, and because of its extensive half-life, it poses an environmental threat. Intrigued by its bizarre chemical and physical properties and its subsequent role in nuclear reactions, physicist Bernstein, who has written both technical papers and popular science (e.g., Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma), here traces plutonium's history and describes its chemical and physical properties along with its role in the construction of nuclear arms. Running through a spectrum of Nobel prize winners, he grippingly portrays the race to develop the first nuclear weapon during World War II as well as the interplay among the global personalities involved. Readers learn that this hazardous element, good for nothing but nuclear weapon production, continues to holds us hostage with the threat of nuclear terrorism. This historical record of the growth of chemistry and its effect on history is suitable for public and academic libraries.-Rita Hoots, Sacramento City Coll., Davis, CA Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Physicist and former New Yorker staff writer Bernstein presents a scientifically rigorous (equations and all) but clearly written explanation of the recondite reasons why plutonium is supremely suited for bomb-making material-and little else. From the discovery of uranium in 1789 to the Manhattan Project, Nazi attempts at a nuclear bomb and the post-WWII efforts of the U.S.S.R. to become a nuclear power, Bernstein reviews the element's storied past. Although the discovery of the atom's structure has been covered before, Bernstein spins an accessible, insightful description of how the great scientists Curie, Bohr, Rutherford and Fermi, among others, deconstructed the atom through a combination of individual brilliance, a spirit of collaboration and serendipity. He also brings his acquaintance with several Los Alamos scientists (he interned at the laboratory in 1957) to the less canonical subject of the scientific and engineering problems inherent to building a working nuclear bomb. Here the search for the elusive element comes to center stage in this challenging but rewarding account (after 2005's Secrets of the Old One: Einstein 1905). (Apr.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

"In Plutonium, Jeremy Bernstein acknowledges that everything connected with the element is complicated, and that includes plutonium itself and its history. Its discovery in 1941 by Glenn Seaborg and Arthur Wahl is part of a much bigger story in which each part becomes a story in itself."-Nature "Plutonium is a strong candidate for the weirdest, most fascinating, and most frightening element in the periodic table. For it to be the subject of a book by the acclaimed physicist turned science writer Jeremy Bernstein promises a great deal. Plutonium does not disappoint, even for those who think they are already familiar with the evolution of nuclear science during the twentieth century."-Physics World "Bernstein spins an accessible, insightful description of how the great scientists Curie, Bohr, Rutherford, and Fermi, among others, deconstructed the atom through a combination of individual brilliance, a spirit of collaboration, and serendipity."-Publishers Weekly "Bernstein's book should play a useful role by helping demystify plutonium and by encouraging interested members of the public and Congress to start constructing a more rational policy to deal with the dangers posed by this man-made element."-American Scientist "Irony and drama shape Bernstein's accounts of amazing feats of scientific deduction and world-endangering secrets, which give way to a sobering overview of the environmental damage caused by plutonium-producing reactors and the enormous threats embodied in today's global plutonium inventory."-Booklist "Running through a spectrum of Nobel Prize winners, Bernstein grippingly portrays the race to develop the first nuclear weapon during World War II as well as the interplay among the global personalities involved. Readers learn that this hazardous element, good for nothing but nuclear weapon production, continues to hold us hostage with the threat of nuclear terrorism."-Library Journal "None of Jeremy Bernstein's devoted New Yorker readers were surprised that he brought J. Robert Oppenheimer to life in his compelling biography, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. But bringing plutonium to life-making the 94th element as interesting as 'the father of the atomic bomb'-is science writing that borders on literary magic."-Martin J. Sherwin, coauthor of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

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