Reading Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World (Viking) is a great way to wrap your head around many of the technical, geographical, and ethical issues surrounding nuclear power and nuclear weapons. By learning exactly how we came to turn an odd yellow rock into an agent of phenomenal promise and danger, you’ll be better informed to decide the wisdom of reviving nuclear power and letting nuclear weapons proliferate.
One of the book’s most memorable sections is about William L. Laurence, the public relations man who hyped the atomic bomb for the U.S. government. Laurence was a science writer for the New York Times who became so enthralled by nuclear weapons that he became their paid P.R. man while covering the science beat, a brazen conflict of interest that was kept secret until the day after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Zoellner chronicles Laurence’s almost spiritual conversion to the religion of the atom and unsparingly critiques his writing style, which was so over the top that the White House once sent back a press release draft for being too exaggerated:
Laurence never met a classical allusion that he didn’t like, or attempt to employ. ... Uranium was to Laurence, at various points, ‘a cosmic treasure house’ and a ‘philosopher’s stone’ or a ‘Goose that laid Golden Eggs,’ which ‘brought a new kind of fire that lead to ‘the fabled seven golden cities of Cibola.’ These messianic word-pictures of a life to come, though wildly overoptimistic , helped to create in the American public a generally positive and hopeful feeling about the dawn of the new atomic age.
Laurence, known as “Atomic Bill” to some, won a Pulitzer Prize for his Times series about the making of the atomic bomb—a prize that journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman have said should be rescinded. Not only was Laurence on the War Department’s payroll, they contend; he also wrote stories that debunked the deadly effects of gamma ray radiation even as Japanese bomb victims lay dying.
Fairly, Zoellner notes that Laurence himself had misgivings about the “great forebodings” of the nuclear age, and once characterized the human race’s dilemma in his typically dramatic style: “Today we are standing at a major crossroads,” he wrote. “One fork of the road has a signpost inscribed with the word Paradise, the other fork has a signpost bearing the word Doomsday.”
It might have been as close to the truth as he ever got.