Romancing the Atom
Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima
by Robert R. Johnson
August 2012, 217pp, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-0-313-39279-5
$65, £50, 57€, A90
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eBook Available: 978-0-313-39280-1
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The atom and its associated power have captivated the human consciousness for more than 100 years. From the production of glow-in-the-dark wristwatch faces to studies on the effects of radiation on the human body, there have been many shocking examples of our willingness to expose innocent victims to great harm in exchange for the perceived benefit.

This book presents a compelling account of atomic development over the last century that demonstrates how humans have repeatedly chosen to ignore the associated impacts for the sake of technological, scientific, military, and economic expediency.

In 1945, Albert Einstein said, “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.” This statement seems more valid today than ever. Romancing the Atom: Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima presents compelling moments that clearly depict the folly and shortsightedness of our “atomic mindset” and shed light upon current issues of nuclear power, waste disposal, and weapons development.

The book consists of ten nonfiction historical vignettes, including the women radium dial painters of the 1920s, the expulsion of the Bikini Island residents to create a massive “petri dish” for post-World War II bomb and radiation testing, the government-subsidized uranium rush of the 1950s and its effects on Native American communities, and the secret radioactive material development facilities in residential neighborhoods. In addition, the book includes original interviews of prominent historians, writers, and private citizens involved with these poignant stories.

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  • Draws from top-secret government and military documents from the history of atomic development, archival documents from the Library of Congress, and letters from Albert Einstein and other prominent scientists during the 1950s and 1960s
  • Presents chronological histories of events such as the displacement and relocation of the Bikini Islanders, uranium mines on Native American lands, and the cleanup of a secret uranium milling facility in a residential neighborhood in Oxford, Ohio
  • Contains various maps including radioactive cleanup sites in the United States and other parts of the world
  • Includes many photographs and illustrations that accompany the text
  • Provides a bibliography containing a significant collection of books, magazine articles, newspaper reports, movies, comics, government documents, and other related archival materials
Robert R. Johnson is professor of rhetoric, composition, and technical communication in the Humanities Department at Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI. His published works include articles in virtually every major journal in his respective disciplines and the book User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, winner of the 1999 Best Book Award in Scientific and Technical Communication from the National Council of Teachers of English.


2014 CCCC Technical and Scientific Communication Award —National Council of Teachers of English, February 3, 2014


"Romancing the Atom is not just a book about the shabby secrets of the atomic age, it also proposes a key for springing the lock on what has made all this possible. . . . Johnson's treatment is crisp and finely detailed. It offers a unique perspective . . . a jewel in plain sight." —Pasatiempo, The Santa Fe New Mexican, January 25, 2013

"Johnson’s familiar tone will make readers feel like he’s in the room with them, telling a story about these (sometimes horrifying) events. . . . This book will interest readers who love the history of science, especially 20th-century, military, or weapons history buffs."—Library Journal, December 6, 2012

"In Romancing the Atom, Robert R. Johnson illustrates the long history of the combustible element and the largely rapturous human reaction to it. The atom’s tale is revealed through a series of fascinating and richly drawn stories that include some unforgettable and bizarre moments (Liquid Sunshine, anyone?). This fine book is a marvel of in depth research and highly entertaining narrative style."—Bill Geerhart, Editor and Co-founder of

"The beauty and the terror of nuclear fission has been an enchantment for men and societies for nearly seventy years. As Robert Johnson reminds us in this excellent book, that fascination has a deadly side that cannot be ignored. Through a series of selected episodes, he looks beyond the seduction of nuclear propaganda and shows us what the morning after looks like." —Tom Zoellner, Author of Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World

"With its stories of Radium Girls painting glowing hands onto the faces of mass-produced clocks, and scientists quaffing radioactive 'liquid sunshine' like it was whiskey, Romancing the Atom is an expertly researched cultural history with all the wonder, paranoia, and color of a 1940s comic book."—Andrew Leland, Co-editor of The Believer

"Romancing the Atom is a deeply engrossing, cautionary tale of our often dangerous love affair with a power we don’t fully understand."—Jeanette Walls, Author of The Glass Castle
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