|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||M - Th 11p / 10c|
Uranium by Tom Zoellner;
Uranium’s history is a geological ugly duckling tale. Aside from occasional use as a dye, the ore was most often seen as trash — its German name, Pechblende, meant “bad-luck rock,” Zoellner says — and silver miners who found the greasy gray uranium dirt just left it in piles nearby. It was only with Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium in uranium ore that people started to take notice — the Curies, after all, touted their find as a cure for cancer. Experiments on radium led in 1932 to the discovery of the neutron, which the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard grasped might be able to set off catastrophically powerful chain reactions. The rest, more or less, is history.
Which is a bit of a problem for Zoellner. The genre of pop microhistory into which his book fits — “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World,” and “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World” — is predicated on the idea that these are not things people normally understand to be world-changing. Nuclear weapons, however, are not in this category. As a result, large portions of the story Zoellner tells have been explored in more depth in other popular accounts.
Perhaps to address this, Zoellner intersperses the history with descriptions of his own globe-trotting, from the Congo to Mongolia, from the American West to Eastern Europe to Australia. He pokes around in old mines and tours a uranium refining plant. He calls at the offices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, and the World Nuclear Association, in London. He interviews the Yemeni minister of electricity, is almost kidnapped on the way to a mine in Niger and knocks back Chechen grappa with border guards responsible for keeping black-market uranium from being smuggled from Russia into Georgia.