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The Curve of Binding Energy


by John McPhee

isbn: 0374515980
subject: Nonfiction, General Science, Biography, Military
finished: 9/11/1999

Although I've been fascinated by the Manhattan Project for years, I'd never heard of Ted Taylor until I read this book. Shortly after the war he began working at Los Alamos, where he designed many of the smallest and lightest nuclear bombs. Subsequently, Taylor became an advocate of putting the genie back into the bottle. One of his nightmare scenarios was a group of terrorists knocking down the World Trade Center with a homemade nuclear bomb -- a prediction that turned out to be eerily accurate, except that fortunately, the 1993 bombing was not nuclear.

I picked this book up because I'd heard that it discussed the ill-fated Orion project, which I've become interested in recently. The idea was to launch rockets using nuclear bombs as fuel; because nuclear fuel contains thousands of times the available energy of chemical fuel, very large and heavy nuclear rockets could traverse interplanetary space fairly quickly. Taylor and other scientists (notably Freeman Dyson) were convinced that something like Orion was necessary to enable manned exploration of the solar system. So far, it looks like they were right.

McPhee has done something amazing -- he produced a work of pop science that is worth reading more than 25 years after it was first published. It paints a portrait of a fascinating man, although it's unfortunately somewhat repetitive in places, while he describes the poor security surrounding nuclear materials (which one hopes has improved since then).

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copyright © 1999 John Regehr