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From Marie Curie to Hiroshima

A-BeforeFalloutOn December 26, 1898, Marie Curie publicized her discovery of radium. Almost a half-century later, "Little Boy" exploded over Hiroshima. Before the Fallout recounts the intervening 47 years, when the Allied and Axis nations raced to develop nuclear power. Combining history, science, and biography, British historian Preston chronicles the lives and actions of the scientists and global leaders whose decisions changed the course of history. Preston, who interviewed the surviving scientists, profiles Hiroshima before the blast and sheds new light on the intense wartime meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. She also explores the far-reaching human effects of the atomic bomb—and speculates what may have occurred if events had proceeded differently.
Walker & Company. 368 pages. $27. ISBN: 0802714455

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Preston is pretty good at explaining some rather difficult physics. And she’s equally adept at describing the state of the world in the years leading up to and through World War II. But her greatest strength is in portraying the players, large and small, who made atomic history in just 47 years." Scott LaFee

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Preston’s pet causes occasionally taint her otherwise evenhanded telling. . . . Despite these lapses in historical judgment, Before the Fallout offers a novel and remarkably human perspective on greater and lesser stars in the atomic firmament and the ways they influenced each other." Elizabeth Svoboda

South FL Sun-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"In a book like this the science could easily obscure the narrative or overwhelm the reader. That this never happens speaks for the author’s ability to interweave the physics with the human element, the science with the political and military machinations. . . . This is a highly readable book about an important subject." Max Castro

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Much of this story has been told before. The virtue of Preston’s book is that it gathers the major threads and weaves them tightly into a focused chronicle, positioning the key details in such a way as to provide an overall perspective, a sort of chronological contour map." Frank Wilson

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a story of individuals. It has little time for the impersonal-forces theory of history, because here every step toward the bomb is by a particular person. . . . Preston keeps the science simple, and provides enough other detail to make the people real." Bruce Ramsey

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While her book provides no startling revelations, Preston artfully distills the key moments of the pre-atomic-bomb era, both scientific and biographic, and weaves them into an absorbing narrative. The result is a concise and very readable overview of the human chain reaction that began in 1896 with the innocent observation that uranium salts could fog a photographic plate and culminated half a century later in the most potent weapon the world had ever seen." Marcia Bartusiak

Critical Summary

Readers won’t mind that this book offers nothing new about a subject that has been thoroughly examined. Preston’s what-if scenarios are as fascinating as her portraits of the players, from Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer to FDR, Emperor Hirohito, and Hitler. Preston’s focus on the lesser-known personalities, including physicist Werner Heisenberg, chemist Ida Noddack, and Lise Meitner (who explained nuclear fission for the first time), distinguishes Before the Fallout from other accounts of the creation of the nuclear bomb. Preston, author of The Boxer Rebellion and Lusitania, also describes the underlying science well, rarely failing to connect it to its social implications. "In this 60th-anniversary year, when new books about the bomb are as ubiquitous as self-help tomes," writes the San Francisco Chronicle, "Preston’s achievement is a rare one."

Supplemental Reading

Shockwave Countdown to Hiroshima | Stephen Walker (2005): Walker’s history has been compared favorably to John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima. The book begins with the first test of the bomb and follows through to Hiroshima, drawing on interviews with Americans and Japanese to present the view from the ground as well as a broad historical perspective.