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The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age

by Steve Olson

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964287,829 (4)2
"A thrilling narrative of scientific triumph-and the unimaginable, world-ending peril it brought us. Fearing that the Germans would be the first to weaponize the atom, the United States marshaled brilliant minds and seemingly inexhaustible bodies to find a way to create a nuclear chain reaction with unimaginable explosive power. It would begin with plutonium, the first element ever manufactured by humans. In a matter of months, a city designed to produce this dangerous material arose from the desert of eastern Washington State. Plutonium powered the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 (a target selected in almost arbitrary fashion). And the work of Glenn Seaborg, Enrico Fermi, and hundreds of thousands of others-the physicists, engineers, laborers, and support staff of the Hanford Nuclear Facility-would remain the basis of the entire US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War and into the present. With his characteristic blend of scientific clarity and human stories, Steve Olson offers this dramatic story of human achievement-and hubris-to a new generation"--… (more)
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Showing 4 of 4
Provides a good mix of the technical and social aspects that went into the development of the US nuclear arsenal. Most histories of nuclear weapons tend to focus on Los Alamos and Hiroshima and forget the longer lived legacy of Hanford. This book corrects that and brings a fascinating review of the destruction of Nagasaki that is rarely seen in histories of the war and the atomic weapons. The birth and growth of the community around the Hanford plant is interesting. I personally feel the environmental legacy of Hanford is downplayed by the author. ( )
  SteveGuth | Jan 14, 2022 |
When I actually got around to picking up this book, I wasn't sure that it was really something I wanted to read. What I was mostly looking for was an examination of the Manhattan Project as an industrial adventure. I was afraid that I had just another generic overview of the start of the Atomic Age. Olson actually managed to satisfy my intentions, but what he is really about is looking at the second act of the First Atomic War, as Nagasaki tends to get somewhat slighted as compared to coverage of Hiroshima. It also means that there is a focus on Glenn Seaborg, the point man in the discovery of Plutonium, the element that really made atomic weapons a relatively practical industrial product.

Besides that, there is quite a bit of an elegiac tone to this history. This is since Olson originally hails from the general vicinity of Hanford, and uses this history as an opportunity to muse over whether Humanity can get its act together enough to overcome the ever looming prospect of nuclear war, among surviving other aspects of industrial civilization; there being no "externalities" in a closed system. Finally, Olson dedicates this book to the memory of John Hersey, who was an important teacher for him.

Recommended. ( )
  Shrike58 | Dec 25, 2021 |
In THE APOCALYPSE FACTORY, by Steve Olson, the age of plutonium and nuclear weaponization is looked at from it's raw and untested beginnings and brings the reader all the way to the present. The reader sees how the discovery of plutonium extraction, that can eventually become a nuclear weapon, quickly went from scientific experimentation to creating a town in a barren section in eastern Washington state for the sole purpose of developing and creating the components that become a nuclear bomb. Olson covers the dropping of those initial bombs in Japan, particularly the one in Nagasaki, and its after effects on the Japanese population not just from a health perspective, but looking at economic and diplomatic effects as well. As the book continues past World War II, the nuclear arms race becomes a political hot button and Olson considers all sides in the diplomatic negotiations that continue well into the 1980's and are still happening today.
Olson does an excellent job of describing all of the science behind everything nuclear in a way that is easy to understand and very accessible. While recounted the major decisions and events around the Atomic Age, facts are presented with little political color or judgment, but the reader can't help but share in Olson's feeling of awe that bleeds through the text that it was truly astonishing that United States was able to create nuclear weapons so fast and without "blowing themselves up".
THE APOCALYPSE FACTORY does what only the best non-fiction books do; it tells a story, full of anticipation, success, and failure. The story just happens to be true. Olson also has a cinematic way of describing things so that the reader can really picture in their head what is going on. A pleasure to read.
Thank you to W. W. Norton & Company, Steve Olson, and Netgalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review! ( )
1 vote EHoward29 | Jul 7, 2020 |
I received a free copy of this e-book from the publisher (Via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

After reading the description, I thought this book would be more focused on the history made at Hanford Site, Washington. While some of the book is set there, a larger portion that I expected was focused on other things (war goings on, the test and use of the bombs, etc). I would have liked to hear more about the work done at Hanford. I felt some of the stories had been told too many times in various books on the topic. I would have loved to hear more about the dumping of wastes there. Tell me more about radioactive railcars and how they came to be contaminated!

All that aside, the writing was well done and clear, so those clueless about nuclear science have nothing to fear.

If someone came to the Reference Desk and asked for a book on nuclear history (ha!), this wouldn't be the first one I reach for. That doesn't mean it couldn't be a good choice for the right reader. Certainly pick it up if you're even passingly interested in the subject. ( )
1 vote LISandKL | Mar 27, 2020 |
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"A thrilling narrative of scientific triumph-and the unimaginable, world-ending peril it brought us. Fearing that the Germans would be the first to weaponize the atom, the United States marshaled brilliant minds and seemingly inexhaustible bodies to find a way to create a nuclear chain reaction with unimaginable explosive power. It would begin with plutonium, the first element ever manufactured by humans. In a matter of months, a city designed to produce this dangerous material arose from the desert of eastern Washington State. Plutonium powered the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 (a target selected in almost arbitrary fashion). And the work of Glenn Seaborg, Enrico Fermi, and hundreds of thousands of others-the physicists, engineers, laborers, and support staff of the Hanford Nuclear Facility-would remain the basis of the entire US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War and into the present. With his characteristic blend of scientific clarity and human stories, Steve Olson offers this dramatic story of human achievement-and hubris-to a new generation"--

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