Thursday, June 28, 2018

Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder--A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science, by James Mahaffey (author), Keith Sellon-Wright (narrator)

Blackstone Audio, June 2017

James Mahaffey is former senior research scientist in nuclear physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who, as he says near the end of this book, now writes books. If you enjoy geeks geeking on about what they love (and I very much do), his books are a lot of fun.

This one is about some of the wilder and woollier adventures in atomic energy, bombs, scientific frauds, and all the things that make a life in science a lot more exciting than someone thinking of it only as, you know, science, might reasonably assume.

Stories include Ronald Richter selling Juan Peron on a fusion reactor project--a vanity project for Peron; for Richter a clever way to get out of Europe after the Second World War. It was based on essentially laboratory trick, for producing a tiny bit of fusion, which unfortunately is impossible to scale up to commercial energy production. Or, well, even small-scale production for research purposes. More than half a century after Richter's Argentine boondoggle, we still appear to be decades away from useful nuclear fusion for energy purposes.

Other stories include dirty bombs and what you should do, and the unwisdom of stealing radioactive materials. For instance, a Chechen rebel stole some cobalt-69, and was dead in thirty minutes. This was really a much better outcome for the rebel than for former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko poisoned with polonium-210, resulting in an agonizing death over the course of several weeks in 2006. Of course, those of us who grew up during the Cold War expect vile actions by the Russians. What's more startling and disturbing is how often radioactive materials have been used to poison people in the US and other countries, not to make a grand international example of someone, but for the ordinary reasons that lead to stabbings, shootings, and beatings. These attempts are often not successful, but in a way, that's hardly the point. They happen, and it's scary that they do.

On a lighter note, there are the episodes that may have been scientific fraud, or maybe just demonstrations of the fact that the easiest person to fool is yourself. One of those is Fleischman & Pons' announcement of cold fusion in 1989. This would have been a huge breakthrough for the whole world, and it set off a rush to try to duplicate their work. Mahaffey and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology got involved, and were the first to "confirm" the cold fusion phenomenon... And almost as quickly discovered there was a small problem in their instrumentation. Since they had gone to great effort to reproduce everything they could about Fleisschman & Pons' setup, it's quite likely they'd had the same instrument problem. Mahaffey is able to be truly merciless and gleeful in telling this particular story, because he's a principal in it.

We also get stories of abandoned reactors on forgotten islands, trees that change sex after being irradiated, a totally plausible possible explanation for what really happened at Roswell's Area 51, and accounts of the various efforts made to design an engine that really will let us travel to Mars, and maybe Alpha Centauri.

It's a lot of fun, and also pretty informative. Recommended.

I bought this audiobook.