Before the fall-out: from Marie Curie to Hiroshima

Before the fall-out: from Marie Curie to Hiroshima 
Diana Preston 
London, UK: Doubleday | 2005 | 438pp | ?20.00 (HB) | ISBN 0385604386 
Reviewed by Anne Aldridge 

This book traces the events of the first half of 20th century which led from Marie Curie’s work on radioactivity to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The rapid course of these developments was determined by the historical events of the century as they unfolded. 

In 1900, as Diana Preston points out in the prologue to the book, physics was a new subject. The 1910 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica devoted over 50 pages to chemistry, but physics did not feature at all. In radioactivity, physics and chemistry met together, as reflected in the awarding of Nobel prizes in both subjects to Marie Curie in 1903 and 1911 respectively. 

From then on the two subjects complemented each other and progress seems to have taken on a life of its own, rapidly spiralling towards the Armageddon at Hiroshima.  

Progress in scientific research usually consists of individuals each advancing knowledge a little before passing the ’baton’ to another. Hence the meticulous and laborious work of Marie Curie on extracting and purifying radium and polonium led to Ernest Rutherford’s work on subatomic structure.  

Neils Bohr then brought quantum theory to the heart of the understanding of the atom. Against the backdrop of fear that the Germans might be close to developing their own atomic bomb the developments gathered pace, with James Chadwick, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Albert Einstein and others making their invaluable contributions. 

Preston, as a historian, puts the whole story into its historical and political context, giving insights into the thoughts of those involved and how they interacted with each other. The extensive section dealing with the Manhatten project and how Robert Oppenheimer organised the efforts of the various ’eggheads’ to achieve the goal of the atomic bomb makes fascinating reading. Preston’s account is very well presented and draws on some new material, including interviews with the last living scientist to have worked with Marie Curie. 

Preston does not let the reader forget the horror of Hiroshima, returning to it again and again, but she feels, probably rightly, that the outcome was inevitable with the pressures of war and its single-minded focusing of research resources.  

What would have happened if the 20th century had provided scientists with different priorities and motivations? We will never know.