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October 24, 2011
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November 6, 2011
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Good Reads: Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World

When I make it to the library, or more frequently order off Amazon, I almost always read fiction for pleasure. Over the past several years the only nonfiction I’ve read has been research oriented. But, some of those books have been as unworldly as any fiction on the market. A great example – I just finished an excellent book by Tom Zoellner called Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World.  Jon Steward, The Daily Show, called it “crazy fascinating,” which actually is a really accurate description of the book. Don’t let the title deter you – it’s a fascinating read.

I grew up in the seventies, in the midst of the Cold War era when we all still thought there was a real chance we’d get vaporized in a nuclear holocaust before graduating high school. The potential for good and evil, all packed into a mineral found inside the earth’s crust, fascinates me. Here’s how Zoellner puts it: “The earth came seeded with the means of its own destruction, a geological original sin.”  Uranium has the power to end life on earth, and can also bring heat and power to millions – but at a cost. The contradictions are captivating, and that’s what led me to feature uranium in the mystery I’m currently writing.

It was Zoellner’s book that provided me the understanding I needed to write freely about the topic without having to stop and Google every other scene. But don’t get the idea that Zoellner’s book is dry science. Instead, it’s a fascinating account of the bizarre history of uranium, from secret mines in the Congo all the way to the bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The original attempt by the government to cover up the devastation would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. Most amazing to me were his accounts of the scientists who unlocked the secrets inside the heaviest natural element on earth. Once they understood the instability of the atom, there were an amazing number of discoveries that led directly to the atomic bomb – and what a ride it was.

Zoellner helps the reader navigate the complex science necessary to understand how this misunderstood element still weighs so heavily on our future. He succeeds at illustrating the capacity for horror locked inside this rock without ever becoming melodramatic or using scare tactics. The facts do that just fine on their own.