Report From the Stacks

P. Andrew Karam, CHP, PhD

Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder: A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science
James Mahaffey

464 pages, Pegasus Books, 2017
$14.99 (electronic), $20.36 (hardcover), $17.05 (paperback), $14.95 (audio)

After enjoying James Mahaffey's earlier book, Atomic Accidents, I was happy to see he'd written a second. And I was even happier to see that Atomic Adventures was every bit as good a read—with one exception, it was just as enjoyable and even more informative than the first. Mahaffey covered a great deal of ground in this volume, writing about dead ends such as N-rays and cold fusion, the threat of dirty bombs, military explorations into radiation weapons (including laser pistols), and much more.

I thought the book was at its best when Mahaffey was recounting his personal experience during the cold fusion brouhaha in the late 1980s—his account of his own work trying to confirm the findings of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman was a fascinating look into the scientific turmoil their announcement generated, as well as a great case study as to how science goes about its process of self-correction. Through the author, we experience the search for hard information about the initial experiment, the hypotheses generated by the announcement, some of the history of work with palladium, and the flurry of meetings that accompanied the attempts to start testing the initial findings—scientific meetings, meetings with university administrators to seek funding, and much more. Mahaffey describes his quest for supplies, for space, and for money; the design of experiments and the search for neutrons, heat, or (ideally) both; and the eventual disappointment as the initial excitement faded. Although this episode is only a fraction of the book, I learned more about the cold fusion hullaballoo than from an entire book written on the topic.

Something I hadn't realized was that Pons and Fleischman were preceded by the work of Ronald Richter, an Austrian scientist who set up a massive research facility in Argentina in the post-war years. Richter, described by his thesis advisor as having a lot of imagination and very little self-doubt, was able to convince President Juan Peron to not only build him a nuclear research facility in a remote part of the Argentinian Andes, but to give him relatively free reign to pursue his research there for a remarkably long time. Richter had his own hypotheses and made a compelling story—unfortunately, none of it had much of a grounding in science. Or, in the words of Edward Teller, "On reading the first line of Richter's papers one would think he is a genius; on reading the second line one comes to the conclusion he's nuts." In 1952, Richter's lack of progress caught up with him and his project was terminated after the equivalent of $300 million in today's dollars was spent—without a single watt of fusion-generated power to show for his efforts, Peron's confidence, or Argentina's money.

Mahaffey also discussed the American nuclear rocket program, including a great deal of information that was new to me as well as confirming some stories and rumors I've heard over the years. I have to admit that, while I did know of our efforts to design a nuclear-power rocket engine, I had not known how far the work had progressed, nor how much damage had accrued during some of the test runs. His account of some of the early accidents and problems—as well as the extraordinary ingenuity that went into overcoming these setbacks—was a wonderful read. I had known how much about this program I had not known, and it was a pleasure to find out so much about what, today, is usually an asterisked comment or is dismissed with a short paragraph or two. As just one example, he mentions one test run in which an engine ran at a power level of just under 1,500 MW for a half hour at a temperature of over 2,100 C; the final test of this engine design lasted for 62 minutes at a power output of 1,180 MW. As Mahaffey puts it, during this run "only 40 pounds of fuel disappeared out the nozzle, but the beryllium reflector rings at the top of the core cracked under the intense neutron load." I have to admit that the disappearance of "only" 40 pounds of fuel made me a little nervous ...

No book is perfect, and Atomic Adventures has its weak chapters—primarily when the author gets into areas beyond his experience in nuclear engineering. But overall, I enjoyed reading this book and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to you.