Before the Fallout – From Marie Curie to Hiroshima was written by Diana Preston and published in 2005.
The book includes a whole lot of history, some biographical details, and plenty of information about how the world went from Marie Curie’s work to the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
It also has information about World War II, as well as the secret groups who were unwittingly working to make the bomb.
To my surprise, I learned that the scientists started out being incredibly open about what they were working on. They were thrilled to share their data with scientists from other countries, and saw themselves as separate from politics.
The book is filled with footnotes, old photos, a large index, and a glossary at the end. While parts of it do read like a narrative, the book is definitely not a work of fiction. It took me a while to read through this book, not because the information in it was difficult to process, but because there was so much detail to consider.
As such, this review is not going to cover absolutely everything that was in the book. Doing so would be tedious, and Diana Preston wrote it better than I could have. She has her sources cited in footnotes as well as in a section at the back of the book. It is an educationally enlightening read, and I learned some things that I did not know. That said, the book may be too academic for some readers.
Marie Sklodowska was born in 1867 in what was left of Poland (which was occupied by Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Russia. Her father was a teacher of physics and mathematics, and he encouraged her to leave Warsaw, where women were barred from attending university.
Marie moved, began working as a governess, and sent her money to fund her sister’s medical studies in Paris. Later, Marie moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonnes Faculty of Sciences.
Marie met Pierre Curie and the two had long conversations about science. They married on July 26, 1895. Both continued working on science, even after their first child, daughter Iréne, was born. Marie Curie did her doctoral thesis on Becquerel rays, which led to new discoveries.
Marie Curie started working with uranium, and then a new element called radium. Unfortunately, these radioactive elements caused great harm to both Marie Curie and her husband Pierre. Their bodies were deteriorating. Pierre’s hands became weak and he struggled to button his clothing. Marie’s fingertips became hardened and burned, and she had a miscarriage not long after that.
In the meantime, the scientific community was very excited about radium. Among them was Ernest Rutherford, who eventually was able to meet the Curies in person. Rutherford treated Marie as an equal, something most other male scientists failed to do. The two met several times.
Pierre Currie died three years later at the age of 46. It wasn’t the radium that killed him. He accidentally stepped in front of a horse-drawn wagon. Marie was now a widow, at the age of 38, with two young daughters.
Rutherford won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908. In 1910, Marie Curie, who had by then become a full rank professor, was invited to meet with a group of other scientists to discuss radium. It didn’t go well. Some were against naming the measurement for radiation the “curie”, and Marie would not back down. She was quite ill, and frail, due to radiation exposure, and retired to her room after not getting her way.
A year later, Marie Curie and another scientist, Paul Langevin, met with Albert Einstein (who later praised Marie’s “passionateness”). Rumor spread, and people began to believe that Marie Curie and Paul Langevin were in love. She was a widow, but he was married. The newspapers hastily posted stories about the two, which caused the scandal to spread. Some people started to believe that their affair started before Marie’s husband died, and that his death was a suicide. It was tabloid journalism.
Long story short, Marie Curie was basically expelled from science, at a time when she was becoming increasingly ill. Society believed the “tabloids” and wanted to punish a woman who had an affair with a married man. Paul Langevin, the married man who supposedly had an affair with Marie, faced no such hardship. He was still very welcome to work with scientists and attend conferences.
Rumors still persisted about Marie, who was eventually able to return to her lab – with the help of a lab assistant. Her second daughter, Eve, had blue eyes and dark hair. She did not resemble her sister who was fair. A story spread that Eve, born in 1904, was the daughter of scientist André Debierne.
These are just a few examples of how women who were scientists were unfairly stunted by the level of misogyny they were forced to deal with.
Years later, Marie’s oldest daughter continued her mother’s work. Iréne married Frédréric Joliot, who was also a scientist. Going against the social rules of their time, Iréne did not take her husband’s surname. They used Jolliot-Curie as their last name. There was speculation that perhaps Frédréric was cool with this because he wanted the status of having Curie as part of his surname.
Marie Curie died of what was then called “extreme pernicious anemia” at the age of 66 in 1934. Her coffin was buried above Pierre Curie’s.
Lise Meitner, another scientist, faced other difficulties. Meitner was Austrian, and was working with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. They discovered a new element called protactinium.
Things were getting bad in Germany. Scientists who were thought to be Jewish were quietly leaving the country before things got worse. There were food shortages. I’m going to assume that you already have a basic idea of what happened in Germany before and during World War II. If not, this book will give you plenty of details.
Neils Bohr, whom the book describes as “half-Jewish” worked to find safe places for Germany’s displaced scientists. Bohr sent unsolicited invitations to scientists, asking them to come to an annual conference in Copenhagen. Some of the scientists went from there to the United States. Britain accepted “many more scientists than Britain could possibly use” all of whom where accepted as permanent residents.
Bohr helped Otto Frisch, Lise Mitner’s nephew, who had been dismissed from Hamburg University. He was able to go to England to work under Patrick Blackett in Berkbeck College, London.
Another group of scientists urged their American colleagues to set aside part of their salary for two years in order to enable their former colleagues to find Academic posts in America.
On March 12, 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Austrian citizenship ceased to exist, and Lise Meitner was being targeted. She was labeled as Jewish, but had become a Protestant. It was no longer safe for her to be in Germany, but getting her out proved to be difficult.
Meitner wrote to James Franck, who was at Johns Hopkins University in Chicago, for help. He lodged an affidavit on Meitner’s behalf, the first step in the immigration process. Meitner changed her mind, and instead wanted to travel to Neils Bohr in Copenhagen, where she could be with her nephew. The Danish Embassy declared her Austrian passport invalid, and refused to issue her a visa.
I’m not sure why Lise Meitner was not among the scientists who received help, from other scientists, so they could leave Germany. She appears to have had some of the same connections as the men who were scientists did. Why didn’t she get offered the opportunity to go to England or America?
Neils Bohr kept trying. He contacted countries with immigration policies that were less strict than Denmark. Funds were raised to enable Lise Meitner to have a paid position outside of Austria for a year. At the same time, there was another offer for Meitner to go to Sweden, but that fell apart.
Eventually, Mietner was allowed to be admitted to Holland. Getting her out of Germany involved having Otto Hahn to help her pack, for Mietner to stay at his home in Berlin overnight, and for Mietner to then take a train out of Germany with a man named Dirk Coster. (He had been trying get her a position outside of Germany.)
Meitner left with two suitcases, and a ring on her finger that belonged to Dirk Coster. It was “insurance” in case she was not able to find paid work immediately after escaping Germany. The train ride was terrifying because guards could ask to check people’s passports – and Meitner no longer had one.
Meitner ended up in Sweden, in a post at the Nobel Institute for Experimental Physics in Stockholm. She was paid less than a starting assistant, despite her knowledge and experience, and could barely pay basic expenses. She was, however, grateful to be working, and corresponded with Neils Bohr to share her results.
Germany had instituted a rule that prohibited Jewish people who from bringing money out of Germany. Some of her colleagues fought with the German Education Ministry in an effort to get Meitner’s belongings to her. The Ministry insisted everything Meitner owned must stay in Germany.
Eventually, the Ministry relented and sent Meitner’s clothes to her. She had to pay a high custom fee to get them. Her other possessions, including furniture, china dishes, and books, were destroyed by Germans and then sent to Meitner.
There are other interesting things in the book that I’m going to briefly mention. Originally, the scientists were thrilled to share their work and theories, and to publish their results. This slowly changed as World War II continued. I forgot who it was, but a scientist went around urging other scientists to stop publishing their work about physics – because Germany and Russia might benefit from that knowledge. At least one scientist continued publishing anyway.
A portion of the book describes the secret facilities that were set up by the military in the United States. Workers, many of whom were young, single, women, traveled there to work. They were told their work could help end the war. None of them knew, at the time, that their work actually was helping to create part of the bomb that was later dropped on Hiroshima.
There is a section that provides details about the pilot who flew the plane that dropped the bomb. It was not a one-man job. Several other pilots were needed in order to help ensure the plane would get to where it was supposed to go. These men worked in secret, and could not talk about this to their loved ones. No one knew, for certain, what would happen after the bomb was dropped. Imagine embarking on that mission, knowing it could be your last.
Overall, Before Fallout was a fascinating book that taught me things about World War II that I did not know before reading it. The book took a long time for me to read, and I found myself thinking about parts of it after I had finished the book. I’ve left quite a bit out of this review, which means there is more for you to discover in it than what you found here.
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