Before the Fallout

From the serendipitous discoveries of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895 and of the radioactivity of radium by Marie Curie in 1898, author Diana Preston tracks the evolving model of the atom from Ernest Rutherford (1908) to Niels Bohr (1911) to Erwin Schroedinger (1927). These discoveries would lead to an understanding of nuclear fission, first correctly described by Lise Meitner in 1939. Soon thereafter, J. Robert Oppenheimer realized that nuclear fission was the key to making an atomic bomb.

Preston describes the race to produce the first atomic bomb, including the German, Japanese, and Russian projects, all of which paled in comparison with the Manhattan Project in America. She adeptly unveils glimpses into the individual personalities of the political and scientific participants. The underlying scientific and technical issues are described so clearly that even the casual reader can understand the advancements that led to the production of the bomb. Impending political decisions hinged on the specialized knowledge coming from scientific research.

Vivid descriptions of Hiroshima both before and after the bombing that occurred on August 6, 1945, are provided. At the end of Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, Preston asks a number of intriguing “what if” questions that cause the reader to ponder and wonder. What would have happened if the bomb were invented earlier or later than what it was? What would have happened if some of the prominent scientists had died prematurely or if Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived longer? A revealing story about individuals, Before the Fallout is an excellent introduction to the unfolding of the atomic age.