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

Norton. Jul. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9780393634976. $27.95. HIST
The thesis of Olson’s (Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens) latest work of nonfiction is that Washington State, in particular the Hanford Nuclear Facility, played a lesser-known, but equally vital role in the creation of the atomic bomb. Glenn Seaborg, who discovered plutonium, is spotlighted along with several other scientists in the late 1930s as they raced against time to discover atomic weaponry before the Germans. These discoveries led to the production of plutonium in Washington in the early to mid-1940s. Olson does a solid job of framing the strategy of the Manhattan Project within global affairs. While readers may know the story of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the eventual bombing of Japan, few will know how those bombs were truly made. Ultimately, Olson brings a philosophical eye to the scientific details described, asking how humans live in a world they now have the power to destroy.
VERDICT While avid readers of World War II will turn to Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb as the definitive book on the Manhattan Project, those looking for a digestible and humanistic version of events will find Olson’s book fascinating and thought provoking. The rare crossover nonfiction for history and science readers to enjoy and ponder.
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