Sunday, April 21, 2013

A dangerous element

Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World
Tom Zoellner
Viking Adult, 2005

Reviewer: Sesana
3 out of 5 stars

Eminently readable, Uranium traces the history of the element from garbage rock to coveted weapons material. Zoellner made the (probably wise) decision to avoid giving too much space in his book to events widely covered elsewhere. So there's very little about Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, and even the Manhattan Project gets rather less attention than it might have, with Zoellner focusing more on the uranium than on the scientists. Because let's face it, if you're going to pick up a history of uranium, you likely already have at least a passing knowledge those events. I also appreciate his even-handedness when discussing opening up the nuclear club.

But readable as it is, Uranium is sometimes lacking in narrative. Too often, Zoellner is plugging in large amounts of relatively unconnected facts and stories. It looks like he found far more interesting information than he could successfully integrate into one book, but tried to squeeze in as much as possible anyways. I understand the impulse, because this is good stuff. There's also one chapter, about the post-war uranium booms in the US and USSR, where Zoellner attempted a split timeline, seemingly to showcase the similarities between the two countries. It didn't really work for me, and I think I would have gotten more out of the chapter if he'd written it more conventionally.

So, readable, fascinating, but a little messy. Overall, more good than bad. I was also pleased to see that Zoellner did cite his sources. The complete list is available on his website, and there's also shorter but still fairly comprehensive list at the back of the physical book.

Also reviewed at Goodreads.

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