Book Review: The Age of Radiance – Craig Nelson

The Age of Radiance cover

Title: The Age of Radiance
Author: Craig Nelson
ISBN: 9781451660432
Pages: 448
Release Date: March 25, 2014
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Science
Source: Publicist
Rating: 4.5 out of 5


In this definitive history of the atomic age, Craig Nelson takes the reader all the way back to Madame Curie and deftly moves forward through time, discussing the pre-World War II scientists, the Manhattan project, and ending with the nuclear disasters of our time, before ruminating on the future of nuclear power and weapons.

Snapshot Review:

The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Fall of the Atomic Era is a well-written history of the nuclear age. Nelson does a great job with this narrative, and though it takes time to build steam, what you’re left with is an engaging look at the personalities and events that have defined this controversial era.

Full Review:

The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Fall of the Atomic Era is a history of the nuclear age aimed at the layperson. What does that mean? Well, it’s not meant for scientists. It’s written in crisp, clear prose, intended to give the curious reader a sense of how exactly the atomic era came to be. Nelson makes the subject surprisingly accessible, considering it combines two often-daunting subjects: history and science. The book reads smoothly and is a great overview; Nelson goes into detail when it matters, but never so much as to overwhelm the reader.

As with any history, The Age of Radiance starts at the beginning, with Madame Curie and her discoveries during the nineteenth century. This part of the book moves slowly; while it’s certainly interesting, it has less of a connection to the reader than more recent events such as the Manhattan Project (and for sure, it has less drama). It’s not until World War II is taking shape that the narrative really picks up steam, but once it does, it doesn’t let go for a second. Nelson chronicles the flight of scientists from Nazi Germany to the United States, the development of the Manhattan Project, and the building of the a-bombs with a deft hand. It’s a tense, suspenseful tale, which is remarkable, considering everyone knows how it turned out. Nelson writes with a sure hand and always weaves a compelling story.

Nelson doesn’t hide his opinions in The Age of Radiance; he states clearly that he believes that nuclear power is on its way out (indeed, that’s foreshadowed in the subtitle of the book—the fall of the atomic era). He also believes that nuclear weapons are completely irrelevant; what is the point of having a weapon that no one is willing to use? It’s his job to make his case over the course of the book. If you have an open mind and are willing to be convinced, he makes a great case, though his brutal depiction of the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima disasters certainly make the reader rethink the dangers of nuclear power.

Though The Age of Radiance takes time to build its narrative and to acquire its tension, it’s still absolutely worth the read. This would be a great book to pick up if you have only the slightest familiarity with the events of the nuclear age and you would like to flesh out your knowledge. It’s an overview, to be sure, but one that is well thought out and will likely inspire further reading on the dramatic events and colorful personalities that populate its pages.

Other books by Craig Nelson:

Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon

Related books:

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats – Kristen Iversen

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  1. This sounds really fascinating. Thanks for the suggestion.

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