A Conversation With Craig Nelson

Why did you write The Age of Radiance?
I grew up in the Harvard Shelf – “Great Books” era, so doing the one volume that covers a huge moment in human history and reveals a complicated, interesting topic in a complicated, interesting way is sorta the reason I do what I do. My last book, Rocket Men, was about how we went to the moon, a great jolt in American history fueled by science, politics, business, and the military, and I wanted to do another big, juicy read like that. So when I came across a blog asking, “which was America’s greater achievement, the building of the atomic bomb or the space program?” … I thought: gotcha.

What was the most interesting thing you learned in your research?
The Atomic Age is an incredible epic filled with people we think we know already – from Marie Curie and Albert Einstein to Ronald Reagan and the plant workers of Fukushima – but they all turn out to be a lot more complicated and interesting than any of us could’ve imagined.

I guess my favorite wow! came in uncovering the real Marie Curie, who was no cold-blooded egghead with only one man in her life, but instead a fiercely ambitious woman who had a series of love affairs beyond her marriage to Pierre, one of which led to her own daughter Irene becoming the second woman ever to win the Nobel Prize … Marie being the first.

Also would be learning how the discoverer of fission, Lise Meitner, lost her place in history to Nazis for being Jewish, and then again in the post-war world to men for being a woman. It’s a really shocking turn of events and one reason I write these books is to get forgotten heroes like Meitner the respect, honor, and kudos they deserve.

Then there’s the incredible ‘history repeating itself’ of this drama. When Roentgen discovered X-rays, it set off a global fad, with the machines being used as novelty gags and sizing your shoes, until the dangers were revealed. Then exactly the same thing happened all over again when Curie discovered radium, and when Los Alamos unleashed the atomic bomb. In the end I say someday we need to learn how to live with cursed blessings, and that history repeating itself is why.

In our own time, a lot of the workers at Fukushima who got poisoned trying to keep Japan from turning into a global ecological villain were members of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. So there’s that.

What insights did you gain from the five years you spent on this book?
Hold on a minute. I’m having salt and vinegar chips with hummus and it is incredible.

Idea-wise, the most provocative notion was that radioactivity is all around us, raining down from the skies and floating up from the earth’s bedrock, so much so that all us human beings are radioactive and, every time we draw nigh, we irradiate each other. Could it be that the subatomic particles and gamma rays flowing between our bodies combine with the odor of our pheromones to produce human chemistry?

The second most provocative thing I discovered was that Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite whose fortune funds the prize, had a great dream: to “produce a substance or a machine of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation that wars should thereby become altogether impossible.” He failed, but many believe that Edward Teller (the Richard Nixon of American physics) succeeded, with the hydrogen — aka thermonuclear, aka fusion — bomb. That all sides in the Cold War, from Russia and China to the U.S., Britain, and France, had a thermonuclear arsenal so powerful it could only be used for genocide meant that no one, not even Stalin or Mao, actually used it. A few dogfights over Korea were the only times that the Soviets and the Americans directly battled each other throughout their entire history as mortal superpower adversaries. In his 1961 inaugural address, John Kennedy called it0 “that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.” When Ronald Reagan tried to talk to Margaret Thatcher about his dream of ending all atomic arsenals, she was horrified, convinced that nuclear weapons kept the Cold War cold. Comics have been satirizing Robert McNamara’s Dr. Strangelove notion of Mutual Assured Destruction for decades … but it worked.

So imagine our atomic arsenals, glowing and unused, not poised for Armageddon, but instead the warm, nucleic source of global peace. Sociologist Elspeth Rostow, appointed to chair the U.S. Institute of Peace by Reagan, had a proposal, which should be seriously considered once again. It is time to give the physicists and engineers of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore the award they deserve — the Nobel Peace Prize. Clearly Alfred Nobel would’ve agreed. What do you think?

Isn’t the science hard to understand?
You just need to know the basics to be able to get what’s going on, and anyway, the history of science is a simple story. A quirky weirdo in the middle of nowhere, using either experiments in the lab or calculations on paper, comes up with something. Another quirky weirdo in the middle of nowhere hears about that something and comes up with something else. Another quirky weirdo in the middle of nowhere hears about that something else and comes up with another something else. So without everyone sharing their discoveries with publishing in journals, it wouldn’t work. And this is where the whole Internet concept of information wanting to be free and the hivemind comes from, and actually, where that notion finds its greatest worth.

You spend a lot of time on the popular culture side of the Atomic Age. Why?
Combined with solid journalism and research, popular culture can offer incredible insights. One amazing example is Stanley Kubrick’s movie, Dr. Strangelove, which seems so bizarre and deranged in its humor, but actually hews remarkably close to reality. When the movie discusses such outlandish strategies as Americans surviving nuclear holocaust by corralling the best of the nation into mining shafts with a ratio of 10 women to every man, these were serious considerations at the time, so serious that the theorist promulgating them asked Kubrick for royalties. When the U.S. president and U.S.S.R. premier regularly speak directly over a hotline in the movie, this hadn’t been invented yet; the two governments communicated by teletype that had to be coded and translated, and the hotline wouldn’t be installed until after the Cuban Missile Crisis. And, the end of the film being the end of the world brought to you by the Kremlin’s “Doomsday Machine”? This would also be invented years later, when the Soviets decided to create an automatic computer-controlled nuclear missile strike — Dead Hand.

Did anything memorable happen on the way to publication?
About a year before the due date, my very kind editor called and said that, if I needed help, I could turn in an early draft and get his thoughts. And I told him thanks so much, but I’ll wait and deliver what I consider the final version. I didn’t tell him that, at that time, the book was over 2,500 pages long and frankly, a little crazy, since I’ve never met a tangent I didn’t like. I mean, there were probably three pages on the plum-pudding model of the atom — which, like the pudding, is a model that sounds a lot better than it tastes. But later I thought, what if I had turned in that 2500-page crazy version, what would’ve happened? It’s like a monster movie.

What’s your next book about?
I promised my publisher to keep it a secret. And since there’s a rumor going around New York that she has had people murdered in their beds, my lips are sealed, man. Imagine this little old historian in his big white feather bed with his two little black kittens and he wakes up to find an assassin strangling him by the throat! That is scary.

Anything to sum up?
One second. I’m pulling a mushroom and black bean risotto with soft-boiled eggs out of the oven. This is great, I could do this all day.
In college I was forced to learn the philosophies of crazy French people, but one of their ideas has stuck with me. That is, there are two kinds of meaning in the world: denotation, and connotation. Denotation is plain and direct, the dictionary definitions, the facts at hand. Connotation is everything outside the dictionary, the allusions, the implications, the poetry, even down to what something means to each of us personally.
So when I say the word radioactive, what does that connote to you? Danger? Infection? Cancer? Sinister? Something I don’t know all that much about but which I do know is scary?

The denotation is simple. It’s fat atoms. Atoms so morbidly obese they defy the laws of attraction that forms our material world, and spit out little pieces of themselves (two kinds of subatomic particles, and a stream of energy called gamma rays which is like a super X-ray).

The vast gulf between the denotation and connotation is what this book is really about. The realities of radioactivity, our uneasy relationship with it, and our incredible myths about it.

You know, history itself has denotation and connotation, with the denotation the way you learned about it in school, having to memorize dates, and battles, and epochs, and kings and queens of England and France. But the connotation, everything else, is summed up by the father of the field, Herodotus, who said the practice of history is one simple idea: Have I got a story for you …