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Bewildering Stories

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

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Uranium: War, Energy
and the Rock that Shaped the World
Author: Tom Zoellner
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2009
Length: 337 pages
ISBN: 978-0-670-02064-5
If anyone doubts the power of the idea in science fiction, an anecdote from Tom Zoellner’s fascinating riff on everything uranium will settle the argument. H. G. Wells, considered (along with Jules Verne) one of the two great-grandfathers of the genre, wrote a massive antiwar tome about a fictionalized mineral called Carolinum.

His 1914 vintage mineral bore all the characteristics of the infamous ore. Wells was the one who invented the term atomic bomb. The hellish mineral turned world capitals into lakes of fire. Maybe Wells really did have a time machine. But perhaps not: his tale ends with world powers agreeing to lock up the infernal demon forever. We know that won’t happen.

More to the point, Wells’ fictional Carolinum was described as unstable and shedding “bits of itself.” Just like uranium, the heaviest known natural element (so far as this former computer science, not physics, major, knows).

Thus the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard was the first to realize, fresh from reading the Wells novel, and uneasy with the bad news from Hitler’s Germany, the full destructive potential of the unstable uranium and the true atomic bomb it might made.

Case rests. First we imagine it, then we invent it. Can Star Trek’s transporters be that far ahead of us? After all, Dr. Moreau’s chimeras are already here too.

The book can also scare the pants off you. Zoellner begins with a trip to the fabulous Congo (Zaïre) mine, Shinkolobwe, which provided the material for the Hiroshima bomb. The mine is officially closed but in actual fact still busily worked by local talent who sell the ore to the black market. A United Nations security force keeps an official presence on the site, but the author walked right in and viewed the obvious signs of busy activity without ever glimpsing any boys in (light) blue.

So away the ore ships. China is apparently one of the major buyers, but the Middle East weighs in there too. Anonymous Lebanese buyers and radioactive materials are a confluence I don’t like to think about.

But no point in shouting wolf: the lamb’s already down the gullet. Following the same greased-by-corruption trails used by drug smugglers, the ingredients for a dirty bomb are certainly in the wrong hands already. Even the Mafia tried to sell Shinkolobwe’s ore to a Middle East buyer — who fortunately proved to be an Italian police officer.

Zoellner’s lively book mixes history, eyewitness journalism, and colorful anecdotes to cover uranium mines, the nuclear renaissance, the current spread of nuclear technology, and much more. Of particular interest is his discussion of how Israel got the bomb and still won’t admit to. The dirty espionage aspects of that tale are discussed far more explicitly by Gordon Thomas in his almost-too-racy work, Gideon’s Spies: the Secret History of the Mossad, which I also recommend.

What can I say? Uranium makes a fascinating and scary story. Just let me know if you ever find that time machine H. G. Wells must have had.

Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker

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