Of astronomy and nuclear arms

This week has seen the fall of two TBR titles that double as my first science reads for 2022.

StarTalk Radio is a podcast hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and features interviews with prominent scientists, policy makers, etc, along with a rotating panel of guest hosts who are described as comedians*. StarTalk draws on the shows, particularly the “Cosmic Queries” segments devoted to listener questions, to offer a smattering of information on both astronomy and Earth science. Each chapter is based on an episode of the show, and uses listener questions as a jumping-off point into a broader subject. It’s very much a coffee table book, largely proportioned and very visually-appealing. Text-wise, it’s very busy, with multiple sidebars and quotes per page surrounding a paragraph of two of the actual narrative. The section subjects run all over the place and leave the domain of science towards the end, with chapters on futuristic speculation. This is a great book to look at and glean quick information from, but it’s not a satisfying read.

* Tastes vary, but I find most of the comedians to be more inane than entertaining.

Regular readers here know that I regard nuclear energy as the practical approach to move beyond the fossil fuel economy, given its ability to provide a steady base load that does not depend on fickle things like wind and cloud cover. I purchased Atomic Awakening back in 2016 to learn more about the nuclear power industry. Although the cover describes it as being about the past and future of nuclear energy, this is thoroughly a history, first of science and then of technological enterprise. The book’s first third is devoted to the line of studies that began with the mysteries of X-rays, and then revealed radioactivity and the structure of the atom, before shifting to the United States’ full-steam-ahead effort to weaponize the atom before Germany could. Following the close of World War 2, the author then shifts to the growth of atomic power in the postwar era, from military applications (nuclear submarines, attempts at a nuclear airplane), civilian development (nuclear energy and wildly irresponsible construction proposals) and the origin of radiotherapy, as well as speculation about nuclear-powered spacecraft. Although the author is a nuclear proponent, he doesn’t shy away from covering nuclear accidents (both in the labs and in application, with sections on the Demon Core that killed two scientists in two separate incidents, and the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl). His coverage of modern reactors is surprisingly nonexistant, aside from commenting that rising concerns about peak oil and climate change have prompted a resurrection of interest in expanding the nuclear contribution to nations’ power grids. Unfortunately, the Fukushima affair (despite its lack of injuries or deaths) has had another chilling effect, for a reason that the author comments on in his text: appearances matter more than substance. Although I wanted more information on the likes of molten salt reactors, Atomic Awakening proved incredibly interesting given the variety of applications it reviewed for nuclear power.

Related:
A Bright Future, an argument for nuclear energy as a keystone of combating climate change
Command and Control, Eric Schlosser. A history of accidents involving nuclear weaponry.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to Of astronomy and nuclear arms

  1. I’d be interested in looking at the first book. The second looks good and I also think the nuclear energy is far cleaner and efficacious. I know there are dangers and a problem of disposal, although I haven’t really researched a lot.
    You’re a libertarian, right?
    My husband showed me this video. If you don’t know about this channel, and you probably do, here’s my favorite:

    • Hahahah, Andrew Heaton’s a favorite of mine. I’ve covered a couple of his books here. My favorites:

      “How do you disappoint a libertarian with only one Leppo?”
      “What’s a Leppo- DAMN IT!” *

      “I’m not sure that joke works.”
      “Well, neither does nation-building, but we keep trying it.”

      * This one is going to be obscure by now. It refers to Gary Johnson, the 2012/2016 Libertarian presidential candidate, not recognizing the capital of Syria….during the Syrian crisis.

      • Not too obscure for those of us disappointed by Johnson’s lightweight campaign. Especially since the Libertarian Party finally got its act together and nominated a candidate that had name recognition outside of esoteric libertarian circles.

  2. Atomic Awakening is right up my alley – as a history of science aficionado, plus I share your viewpoint on the importance of nuclear power.

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