Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima

by Diana Preston

Published by Walker & Company

320 pages, 2005


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The Science of Surprise

Reviewed by Andi Shechter

 

There have been countless analyses of the creation of the atomic bomb and its impact on humanity and global thinking. Author Diana Preston brings a intriguingly fresh perspective to this story. She reminds readers that in many ways, the confluence of the "new" science of physics came at a dangerous -- even treacherous -- time, as National Socialism was on the rise in Germany. It was also a time when women were entering, indeed were "allowed," for the first time, to enter the arenas of hard science, laboratories and universities, at least in the modern age. Preston reminds us that during the early days of the 20th century, science, while not wholly international, was often a mutually beneficial discipline. Experimental chemists and physicists shared the results of their work, wrote together, communicated. As Preston tells us, it wasn't so very long ago, after all, that the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on chemistry was 50 pages long while there was no entry for physics.

These sciences, as well as many forms of engineering, were to dominate the century. From Marie Curie's work on radium to the groundbreaking (to some extent literally) work at Los Alamos, at Chicago and in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in creating and understanding such ideas as chain reactions and the atom bomb. All of this occurred in a relatively short period of time.

There are always some "what ifs" in evaluating events and Preston presents some fascinating "what ifs" that would have, clearly, changed the course of history. If scientists in Japan and Germany had gone down slightly different paths, focusing on alternatives like graphite as a means to stopping chain reactions rather than heavy water; if certain scientists had stayed in Germany, or certain scientists had left Germany later, the outcome of World War II might have been different. What we know and understand about experimentation, seemingly appalling now, was different. After all, radium was considered so safe it was used as a "miracle" ingredient in toothpaste. Exposure to radioactive materials, something we simply do not take for granted now, was common enough that Marie and Pierre Curie handled the stuff all the time, seemingly refusing to associate symptoms like numbness, tiredness and illness with exposure to this miraculous stuff. Or perhaps aware of the dangers, but believing the science and discovery worth the risks. That issue is one of the few details not answered in this book.

Before the Fallout covers events all over the globe, from France and the work done on radium and other materials to many parts of Europe where scientists and others were seeing the frightening threat of the rise of Nazism. Many of the best and the brightest left; some stayed behind and while Preston does not simplify any of the reasons, it's fascinating to read the various explanations or excuses that geniuses like Werner Heisenberg used in staying behind to assist his country -- Germany -- during the war.

While the awareness of the power, the effects of the potency of the bomb is often downplayed or at least portrayed as unknown and unknowable before Trinity -- before Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- in the factual stories about the search for the bomb -- scientists being seen, or portrayed, as somehow above politics -- it was Heisenberg who wrote, in the early 1940s: "Perhaps we humans will recognize one day that we actually possess the power to destroy the earth completely, that we could very well bring upon ourselves a 'last day' or something closely related to it."

It's not easy for us to judge with the aid of 20-20 hindsight. Memories fade, reasons change. So while one person might have left Germany, or refused to participate in the war effort, another stayed. Some had seemingly good reasons, others showed astonishing naiveté, believing they could influence the power structure. Still, many did leave, often because of the clear, early warnings of severe anti-Semitism: many of the scientists were either Jewish or Jewish enough, as it were, for the Nazis; there was a Jewish grandparent, say, or someone was married to someone of Jewish background. Maybe.

At the same time, Preston shows the somewhat familiar, but ever fascinating, work being done in the United States on understanding the immense power of the bomb; how during early discussion, some members of the military thought it flat out ridiculous to even consider such an odd weapon, and to see how, in a stunningly short period of time, only after America had entered the war, did work being on the massive program to develop a successful nuclear device.

There are familiar stories here. Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer and mention of the ever-fascinating Richard Feynman. Less well known stories are here as well: Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Meitner, Bohr, the Curies. This was a time unlike any other on earth; a time of scientific wonder, of developments in technology, of leaps of understanding of the structure of our world and our universe that would have been astonishing, even had it not led to the development of the most potent weapon ever used.

Diana Preston manages to leave out a lot of judgments, which is good; the stories she tells are fantastic enough. Imagining what it must have been like to be a part of the discoveries is wonderful. Wondering "what would I have done?" is part of the debate.

Preston does ensure the reader is aware of the various biases, including sexism, which resulted in ignoring some of the finest minds in science at the time. There was German Ida Noddack, who, in the 1930s was "on the brink of revealing nuclear fission." And Austrian Lise Meitner, denounced as a "Jewess," who endangered "Aryan science." Meitner was able to escape Germany to the Netherlands and later Sweden. These women were dismissed or cheated out of the recognition they deserved for their work, in large part because of firmly-held beliefs that women did not belong in the laboratory, or studying science, or teaching at the university.

Some of the scientists involved in the work on the bomb clearly had no questions about the rightness of their actions. Others were in it more for the science. But you can't separate practice from theory any more: the bomb was made to be used and was used. How these men and women got there, what motivated them, what else was going on in their world is worth knowing. From the small stories -- the story of the destruction of the Norwegian heavy water plant used by Germany is so amazing that inevitably, most readers, I think might react with that old chestnut "if they made a movie no one would believe it." Truth here is way more amazing than fiction. And to know that a German scientist risked his life and that of his family to hide a Jew in the middle of Berlin, when his downstairs neighbor was a Nazi functionary, is a stunning account. Fritz Strassmann who worked on the German war effort, hid the pianist Andrea Wolffenstein in his home. Wolffenstein survived the war and for his efforts, Strassmann was named as one of the "righteous Gentiles" by Yad Vashem in Israel. That story takes up only a few lines in a very long, entangled book, but it's worth knowing, as is the story of the Dane Niels Bohr. The realities as well as the what ifs make this a compelling history.

Before the Fallout describes a fascinating time and place. Any reader with an interest in history, science or world politics is likely to find it engaging. | June 2005

 

Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.