Why am I interested in nuclear tales, both fiction and non-fiction? I can't claim to have spent my childhood steeped in the "duck and cover" heyday of the Cold War. There's an interesting quote in Uranium's introduction that I can't personally relate to: "Growing up in the Cold War you could be vaporized with only ten minutes warning. The brief warning period seemed more terrible than vaporization." Maybe it's because I may owe my existence to Fat Man and Little Boy - because otherwise my father would have been wading ashore from 400 yards out in Operation Olympic with a likely low probability of survival.
Uranium tells the tale of the radioactive element itself, from initial discover to mining throughout the world. The focus appears to be on the human costs of the mining itself - slave labor, poor working conditions, financial ruin. Third world countries were exploited, totalitarian regimes ran roughshod over the populace, and unscrupulous deals led many to financial ruin. All to get this rock out of the ground and processed for use in weapons (mostly) and power generation.
Unfortunately, it's not clear exactly what Zoellner's point is. No fingers are pointed. No suggestions made. No stance taken. It's almost as though he wanted me to empathize with the rock itself rather than the miners.
Zoellner does sexualize the ore and its uses over and over again throughout the book. Overtly. Strangely. And uncomfortably given the lack of emotion in the rest of the book. He makes a penis-vagina analogy for the slamming together of the uranium masses in an atomic bomb. Subatomic particle physics are described as orgiastic. Here's a quote: "Man's most carnal tendencies are inflamed by the most modern of elements, uranium." On and on.
He did score a point with me by citing William Faulkner's Nobel prize speech in which he cites fear of being blown up as squelching effect on society in the 1950s.
So, what did I learn from Uranium? Taking a lead from the author's fixation, I learned that Genghis Kahn was apparently quite the stud. "DNA tests reveal that one sixteenth of the population of eastern Asia is genetically descended from one person, believed to be Genghis Kahn." Booyah.
I much preferred Reed and Stillman's The Nuclear Express.