Katherine’s Bookshelf – Atomic Energy in the Coming Era

Bohr model atom in gold on a dark blue cover.
Nothing warms the cockles of my heart like old timey stylized Bohr atomic model atoms on an old book cover.

I love it. Everything about this book is great. Look at this stylish cover. You know exactly what it’s about: ATOMS, and THE FUTURE. Check out the spine:

The spine of the book with the title Atomic Energy in the Coming Era. Nice.
ATOMIC ENERGY in the Coming Era. Perfect. Just perfect. I can feel the boundless optimism, the promise of cheap, bountiful electricity radiating off it like… well, ionizing radiation.

This next paragraph is going to be bibliophile heresy, so you might want to sit down first.

Most of the time, you CAN judge a book by its cover. This is because publisher’s marketing departments exist for a reason. They exist to sell books, and get those books into the hands of the people who will want to pay for them, as quickly as possible. One of their methods is cover design. It’s actually a very rare cover that does a truly terrible job at conveying what the book is about, commercially, in a target audience sense, rather than a plot sense. Imagine a romance novel cover. Imagine a sci-fi space opera book cover. Imagine a teen dystopian fiction book cover. Imagine a shojo manga cover. You can. You know what these books look like, because they’ve all drifted into similar designs, so that someone expecting a romance novel doesn’t get stuck with a dry, navel-gaze-y sci-fi book instead. You know what you want and you know what it looks like. This book looks like pure, uncontaminated optimism and faith in a future that is only going to get better. Through SCIENCE.

If there’s any scientists reading this post, please keep reading and talk to some historians. This epic tragedy of the late 20th Century and the use of scientific cachet for marketing is a piece of the puzzle of why a good chunk of the American public has lost trust in scientific messaging. Throughout the century, there was a whole endless parade of products and innovations sold to the public with the promise of science. A lot of which turned out to be terrible ideas (ironically often discovered to be so with more science): DDT, plastic everything, throw-away culture, tetraethyl lead in the gasoline, eugenics (don’t get me started on the intensely creepy history of beauty pageants), radium suppositories. Not kidding about that last one. There were a few decades there in the early 20th Century when they were putting radium in everything. Including butts. In case you think this was an isolated thing, here’s a completely different brand of radium suppositories. Both of these courtesy of Oak Ridge Health Physics and Instrumentation Museum Online exhibits. Fun!

Yet, every once in a while, I read a very depressing article from scientists wondering why the public has so much skepticism about important issues. There’s a history here, which is part of the problem that I rarely see explored or even acknowledged by scientific publications. Never underestimate cultural memory or the power of marketing, whether to sell a product to the public, or to distract the public from the damage that same product is causing. Look to the tobacco industry for a history lesson in marketing and using scientific authority – or the appearance of it – as a means to shield an industry against the interests of defending public health. This is why academic disciplines need to talk to each other. Go read The Cigarette Century, and learn.

The title page of the book. 1945!
1945! That’s some blisteringly fast research and writing. Also, it’s a very good looking book inside as well.

Here’s the punchline: this book, written in 1945 – when atomic energy was a mere possibility on the horizon – is eerily, stunningly accurate. This is in fact a very sober and measured accounting of the possibilities and challenges of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Weren’t expecting that, were you? I bet that giddy images of mid-century futuristic flying cars and jetpacks and moon colonies were practically dancing through your head up to this point. NOPE. I was so shocked and impressed by how grounded this book was, and how disciplined its journalism, that it’s one of the few vintage books I own that I have read absolutely cover to cover. In this case, science got it right at the dawn of an age, even in conjecture.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

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