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Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  325 Ratings  ·  51 Reviews
Whether you are a scientist or a poet, pro-nuclear energy or staunch opponent, conspiracy theorist or pragmatist, James Mahaffey's books have served to open up the world of nuclear science like never before. With clear explanations of some of the most complex scientific endeavors in history, Mahaffey's new book looks back at the atom's wild, secretive past and then toward ...more
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published June 6th 2017 by Pegasus Books
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Lis Carey
James Mahaffey is former senior research scientist in nuclear physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who, as he says near the end of this book, now writes books. If you enjoy geeks geeking on about what they love (and I very much do), his books are a lot of fun.

This one is about some of the wilder and woollier adventures in atomic energy, bombs, scientific frauds, and all the things that make a life in science a lot more exciting than someone thinking of it only as, you know, science, m
Noah Goats
Sep 18, 2017 rated it liked it
The history of science is to some extent a history of failure, but most of us don't think much about those failures. In Atomic Adventures James McHaffey dives into scientific misfires with a gleeful good humor (even when he is connected with the mistake personally). But failure can be both fascinating and instructive and learning about things like SDI and cold fusion can be a lot of fun, even if these ideas haven't panned out (YET!).
Peter Tillman
Aug 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: techie types, nuclear fans
Recommended to Peter by: WSJ review, see text
Mahaffey is a good writer, and has an eye for oddball anecdotes. He gets carried away with the details sometimes, and the text can be technically dense. I like his discursive-techie voice. He's fond of tiny-print footnotes; some have a hidden nugget or two. I’m the intended audience, and the book mostly clicked for me. Solid 4 stars overall; 5 when he's coookin'.

If I were you, I'd skim the antique N-ray stuff (Introduction) very lightly, especially if you're already familiar with this fine demo
Howard Accurso
Aug 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A book full of stories about atomic bombs, cold fusion, and the history of nuclear proliferation. I loved the isotopes and nuclides. And if you see a mushroom cloud in the distance with a band of red on top of it, that's most likely a U 235 fission event crowned with a layer of Strontium 90, the main radioactive byproduct of such a blast. There is also a chapter with advice on what to do if you are exposed to radiation. The text is meticulously footnoted, and ample sources are listed at the end ...more
Jan 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
I listened to the audiobook version of this book whilst commuting.

A fascinating and entertaining book with amazing stories of the race to conquer atomic energy. Whilst I struggled with the detailed science aspects, the stories of the backroom experiments of the early pioneers are incredible.

Worth a read/listen if you enjoy science even as an armchair scientist!
Jul 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Largely little-known stories centered around atomic technologies, entertainingly told with amusing style. What's not to like?
Mar 24, 2017 marked it as did-not-finish
While I loved Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima I'm having a hard time getting into this one. Trying to figure out why... it's a little bit more textbook-y and I'm not really sure what thread is holding the whole thing together. The text is full of rabbit trails, and while the footnotes are fun they're another layer of rabbit trails off of that. Or maybe it's just the wrong time, who knows. Sigh.
Susan Gallagher
Sep 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not as much fun as his book on atomic accidents--not as many stories of people doing dumb things with plutonium--but good nonetheless. The chapter on radionucleides as murder weapons was crazy stuff!
Mike Maurer
Nov 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, science
An excellent romp through the world of nuclear physics. The author, while a highly technical person, is able to write about technical things so that anyone can understand. Plus a large dollop of humor tacked on for good measure.

Many of the stories are around science frauds or failures of one type or another. Well researched. Expect a lot of footnotes, over 200 are there. A lot of the humor is in those footnotes. I was laughing out loud at many of his descriptions of past experiments.

I knew a cou
Aug 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
A book about many things related to fission and fusion, including the author's own part in replicating (and disproving) the spectacle of cold fusion in 1989. Told by one who knows his subject and includes great footnotes and references, this collection of incidents is recommended.

Some of the many incidents documented here include atomic action outside the United States around WWII, a would-be fusion reactor in Argentina, attempted murder using isotopes, and A.Q. Khan's nuclear nonsense in and ar
Just A. Bean
More entertainment than science. That is, the author was more interested in telling amusing stories than explaining science, though he had a go at it ever so often, but didn't leave me feeling notably enlightened. Which is fine. I'm more interested in amusing stories than knowing what a proton does, and for the most part the stories were pretty good. He did some times get sidetracked into non-science stuff that was less interesting, and he was perhaps a little to flippant about serious matters t ...more
When I started this I was kind of prepared not to be super impressed. I've read a lot about nuclear physics and kind of figured this wouldn't really cover any new ground, but I was actually pleasantly surprised! While Mahaffey does, of course, mention a lot of the big events in nuclear scientific history, his main focus is on the "oopsies"--those times we thought cold fusion was a totally doable way to get all the energy we could ever need. Or when we thought N-rays were a thing. Or aliums. I th ...more
Jul 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
A very interesting book about little know atomic facts and projects. Who knew Japan was trying to develop an atomic bomb! Except for the last chapter we are subjected to very little scientific jargon. The book is clear and precise. Good job.
Sep 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dr. James Mahaffey's book, "Atomic Adventures" contains a number of stories of atomic science, some successes, some failures, but mostly all new and interesting. Topics covered range from cold fusion, dirty bombs, Japanese efforts to develop an atomic bomb during WW II, Argentina's expensive and failed support for rogue scientist promising to develop cold fusion power, lost or stolen radiation sources from field x-ray machines, atomic airplanes, etc. The stories are clear, understandable, and in ...more
Jan 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Nuclear engineer Mahaffey has some fascinating stories to tell. As he titles his author’s introduction, these are “stories told at night around the glow of the reactor.” He starts with some spectacular failures. Early discoveries of non-existence “n-rays” by a French scientist are followed by the tale of Argentina President Juan Perón’s recruitment of an eccentric German scientist after the Second World War. The result: an enormous reactor was built, which failed to produce the promised fusion r ...more
Mar 19, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, science
This is a curious hodgepodge of stories about various topics of interest to those with a bent towards all things nuclear energy. There's no real narrative thread here as each chapter stands on its own. As a reader, you'll find some stories interesting and perhaps novel. Some of the stories come from the author's personal experience as a nuclear physicist at Georgian Tech. In all cases, the chapters offer a wealth of detail, sometimes told in a breezy manner with drawings and photographs.. Nuclea ...more
Aug 17, 2017 rated it liked it
This is the author's third book on nuclear topics and unlike his previous two, weaves his personal experience in with the history of nuclear science. The author has an eye for the interesting and shows his research and both skillfully points out open questions and their likely answers. The best example of this is in the section focusing on nuclear research done by the Axis powers during World War II. The author recounts reports from captured Japanese soldiers that suggest they witnessed somethin ...more
Johnny Malloy
Feb 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
James Mahaffey loves details. Almost to a fault. The stories in this book are really interesting and fun, but they are LOADED with detail. Mahaffey will describe the exact specs of a cold-fusion experiment down to the materials used, measurements of said materials, lengths of time of certain activities, and on and on. And all of it for no real reason other than he likes detail - because (spoiler alert) he proves the claim of cold fusion is totally bunk. Twice.

But even if you don't have a taste f
Russell Atkinson
Oct 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
You probably need to have a strong science interest and education to enjoy this book. The title should probably use the word misadventures, rather than adventures. It describes a number of nuclear projects, experiments, or cockamamie ideas that failed for one reason or another. Two chapters are spent on cold fusion, for example, an idea that the author himself admitted took him in long enough for him to "confirm" its existence, only to discover that the "proof" of its existence was simply an ins ...more
Apr 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book, as often happens in the armchair-science genre, has an incredibly misleading title. It should have been titled "Several detailed anecdotes that involve nuclear physics, and a bit of my memoirs."

Which isn't to say it's a bad book. I loved reading about the German & Japanese bomb-making effort (or lack thereof), the farce of the Argentinian fusion reactor, followed by the farce of the American cold fusion discovery.

The book is, as others have noted, technical and detailed, which I l
Jan 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I am not a scientist and I loved this book. To be fair, I should add that my father was a physicist, my brother studied physics, and dinner table conversation often involved science (it was safer than politics, back in the days of Viet Nam) - so perhaps my ability to follow this kind of subject matter isn't typical of most artists and musicians. But this is a fascinating book, full of amazing and often jaw-dropping stories from *inside* the highly charged and elite world of atomic science and re ...more
May 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
The best part of this book is the author's account of his own attempts to reproduce the results of the Pons and Fleischman cold fusion experiment. Throughout the book the author's experience with experimental work and instrumentation shines through as the strongest part of the book. There were a few places where I was less enamoured of his efforts - some peripheral historical details didn't seem quite right and the treatment of quantum physics and EPR paradox left quite a bit to be desired. He w ...more
Jennifer Nanek
Jul 07, 2018 rated it liked it
This was a challenging book to read. This book tells various stories about mishaps in nuclear science.

The historical portions of the stories were interesting. But the scientific portions went over my head and were rather dull. I listened to an audio of this..I may have done better actually reading this as I may have followed it better.

Some of the stories included President Peron of Argentina trying to involve his country in developing nuclear technology, the search for extraterrestrial life and
Nathan Hart
May 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
"Stories told around the Glow of the Reactor" is the title of the introduction, and it accurately describes this collection of bizarre nuclear tales. The stories range from unchecked pseudoscience fed by government coffers to early nuclear age investigation into nuclear powered flight and rocketry.

I enjoyed this book greatly, but it might be hard to grasp for non-technical people. Also, some chapters go into painfully too much detail, particularly the first chapter on Cold Fusion and the Georgia
Jan 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This was an interesting and entertaining book, but it committed the cardinal sin of being very wrong about the parts of the book that I actually know about. The sections about quantum mechanics and the bell inequalities were painfully wrong - and those were the parts I knew most about going into the book, which leads me to call into question all the stuff he told me that was actually new to me.

Normally this would drop the book down into the 1-2 star range, but there were other things in here tha
Nov 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not as much fun as Atomic Accidents, and a lot more technical - and scary. One radiation source per day goes missing?!?!?!!!
Still fascinating reading, with tons of footnotes that are at times more interesting than the actual text.
I confess to being amused by my reaction to one typo towards the end of the book - a date is given as June 38, and he then later refers to something on June 4 as happening afterwards. I was totally confused, as June 4 most certainly comes before June 38. Took me more t
Much more technical than those "brief history" type books, I enjoyed the challenge of trying to keep up with a subject I only have superficial knowledge of. Overall, I thought this book was all over the place. Granted, he kind of sets us up for that in the title, but I kept having to regroup and remember where I was each time I resumed listening, because the subjects varied so widely from chapter to chapter. Despite its wandering, I still found it highly entertaining.
Alexander Temerev
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic collection of anecdotes and cases from the history of nuclear research. While the official history of Manhattan project and further developments, as well as their Soviet and perhaps British counterparts are well known to nuclear enthusiasts and researchers, this book explores more fringe cases and failed branches -- cold fusion attempts, failed military projects and the like. A page-turner for everybody with even a slightest hint of interest in all things nuclear.
Dec 28, 2017 rated it it was ok
There are a few interesting stories in Mahaffey's book on Atomic miss-adventures. However, it seemed like each section began with a barely plausible statement about some historical event that eventually is shown to either not be true or is of questionable validity. This seems to be an attempt to make otherwise OK stories appeal to the reader, but I felt is was a distraction. I give Atomic Adventures two stars.
Steve Crane
Apr 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this book fascinating. It tells stories of incidents as well as projects both successful and unsuccessful. It also goes into some detail of nuclear physics related to the projects it describes, but does so in a way that I with limited knowledge of physics can understand. It also covers some aspects that appear to have only a tangential relation to nuclear physics, including revealing what may have been the real event behind the "Roswell incident" and all the alien stories that followed.
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Dr. James Mahaffey was senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and has worked at the Defense Nuclear Agency, the National Ground Intelligence Center, and the Air Force Air Logistics Center, focusing on nuclear power, nano-technology, and cold fusion.
(Bio from publisher)

Some of the author's works are published under the James A. Mahaffey or Jim Mahaffey names.
More about James Mahaffey

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“The Soviets were worried that the Americans would attack their "sparkling new Mir space station, ... in a space shuttle, throw out grappling hooks, forcibly board the peaceful habitat and claim it as captured territory. To the hard-core Soviet mind-set, the American government was an unstable combination of cowboys and gangsters, unpredictable and capable of any insane action. The cosmonauts would have to be armed against outrageous aggression.” 1 likes
“It's a good thing we won the war. If we hadn't, I'd be hanged as a war criminal" -- Gen Curtis LeMay, quoted by Mahaffey, p.231

On March 10, 1945, LeMay's XXI Bomber Command sent 334 B-29's to Tokyo, loaded with 1,669 tons of incendiary bombs. The resulting firestorm killed over 100,000 Japanese and injured over a million. A quarter of the industrial production in Tokyo was destroyed. (p.232, paraphrased)

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, killed around 120,000 Japanese. (Wikipedia)”
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