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Brief history of nuclear age offers facts, not polemics

The Making of the Atomic Age, by Alwyn McKay. New York: Oxford University Press. 141 pp. $5.95 The goal of a quick briefing on the history of the nuclear age has eluded me. This elusiveness may be self-induced; I've been put off by visions of having to wade through thick books on physics and politics.

Therein lies the value of physicist Alwyn McKay's tight, readable history of the science, technology, and rationale that led to the atom bomb and nuclear power.

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In 141 pages, McKay takes us from the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and the discovery in 1897 that uranium emits radiation, to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, the US-based Manhattan Project, and the dropping of two nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945.

The last chapter sketches -- hastily -- the history of commercial nuclear energy, of which McKay is an unabashed proponent, and discusses its role in meeting future world energy demand.

The slim volume breaks no ground. It is designed to be a short introduction to the subject rather than a comprehensive analysis, and it lives up to its objective. For those who want to dig further, McKay includes a list of additional readings.

Despite the book's usefulness, I have two quibbles: First, the author relegates to a three-page appendix a simple, clear explanation of the atom, its characteristics, and the processes of fission and fusion. Several terms were defined more clearly in the appendix than in the text. Had McKay used this basic information in an early chapter instead, much of the subsequent story would have been easier to follow.

Second, McKay could have capitalized on his acquaintance with several of the people he mentions. I could easily have read another 10 or 20 pages if he had been more anecdotal in his treatment of these scientists.

For those who want a rousing debate on the morality of nuclear weapons in the late 20th century, don't look here. McKay's book isn't polemic.

But its brevity and authority still make this short history valuable for people concerned about the issue of nuclear weapons. Too often, historical perspective can get lost amid the give-and-take of the nuclear debate. Although it wasn't clear at the time, it seems clear now that after the discovery of fission in 1938 military applications would have come, regardless of World War II. By now, the physics is so well understood by so many that the nuclear genie will not fit back into its bottle.

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Peter Spotts, an editor in the Monitor's National News department, specializes in national defense and science-related issues.