The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age

by Steve Olson

Hardcover, 2020




W. W. Norton & Company (2020), Edition: First Edition, 352 pages


"A thrilling narrative of scientific triumph-and the unimaginable, world-ending peril it brought us. Fearing that the Germans would be the first to weaponize the atom, the United States marshaled brilliant minds and seemingly inexhaustible bodies to find a way to create a nuclear chain reaction with unimaginable explosive power. It would begin with plutonium, the first element ever manufactured by humans. In a matter of months, a city designed to produce this dangerous material arose from the desert of eastern Washington State. Plutonium powered the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 (a target selected in almost arbitrary fashion). And the work of Glenn Seaborg, Enrico Fermi, and hundreds of thousands of others-the physicists, engineers, laborers, and support staff of the Hanford Nuclear Facility-would remain the basis of the entire US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War and into the present. With his characteristic blend of scientific clarity and human stories, Steve Olson offers this dramatic story of human achievement-and hubris-to a new generation"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Shrike58
When I actually got around to picking up this book, I wasn't sure that it was really something I wanted to read. What I was mostly looking for was an examination of the Manhattan Project as an industrial adventure. I was afraid that I had just another generic overview of the start of the Atomic
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Age. Olson actually managed to satisfy my intentions, but what he is really about is looking at the second act of the First Atomic War, as Nagasaki tends to get somewhat slighted as compared to coverage of Hiroshima. It also means that there is a focus on Glenn Seaborg, the point man in the discovery of Plutonium, the element that really made atomic weapons a relatively practical industrial product.

Besides that, there is quite a bit of an elegiac tone to this history. This is since Olson originally hails from the general vicinity of Hanford, and uses this history as an opportunity to muse over whether Humanity can get its act together enough to overcome the ever looming prospect of nuclear war, among surviving other aspects of industrial civilization; there being no "externalities" in a closed system. Finally, Olson dedicates this book to the memory of John Hersey, who was an important teacher for him.

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Washington State Book Award (Finalist — General Nonfiction — 2021)


Original language

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