The Pope of Physics

On the one hand, I enjoyed this book. On the other, for such an important and fascinating character as Fermi, I couldn’t help but think this book was a bit of small beer. I would’ve happily enjoyed a book three times its length. Relatedly, I would’ve liked fewer asides about the general aspects of the Manhattan Project. Perhaps there’s no good way to get all the info now, but I would’ve loved to get a stronger feel for all those deathbed conversations with great and controversial thinkers.

I don’t want to say it’s a bad book – in fact it might be the best Fermi biography available. It also has the incidental point of interest that one of the authors is the nephew of Emilio Segrè, which may explain why the sections about Fermi’s friends were some of the best and most detailed of the book. If you, like me, enjoy biographies from the Heroic Age of Physics, it’s definitely worth a read.

The Pope of Physics (Segrè and Hoerlin)

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima

This book. It’s a treasure, really. Sometimes, pop science books are written by people like me – interested non-experts who can turn a phrase. That’s fine, and I like those books. But, now and then you get a book where someone pours a lifetime of expertise and stories beteween the covers. That’s what Mahaffey has done.

This book is mostly a sequence of discussions of exactly what happened at particular nuclear accidents (ranging from nuclear power to nuclear bombs). The depth of his research is sometimes staggering. He also has funny stories, and he provides insights into the psychology of disasters in general.

That said, it’s thick. It’s thick and although it CAN be consumed by people who aren’t well-versed in nuclear power, it’s gonna send you to wikipedia a lot. And, especially in the middle of explanations about nuclear plants, it can get really tough to follow. Here’s a sample sentence from page 344, which I wrote down to illustrate the point: “In the 177FA design, B&W had replaced the troublesome Crosby PORV with a Dresser 31533VX30.”

One gets the idea that there exists some nuclear engineer who reads “Crosby PORV” and bursts out laughing at the very idea of such a thing. Personally, I found I just had to accept that, as someone without a graduate degree in nuke stuff, there were parts that flew over my head. That said, Mahaffey is such a charming writer, so obviously in love with his subject, it can be enjoyable even when it’s hard to follow.

Atomic Accidents (Mahaffey)