Harold C. Urey (1893–1981) was one of the most famous American scientists of the twentieth century. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934 for his discovery of deuterium and heavy water, Urey later participated in the Manhattan Project and NASA's lunar exploration program. Biologists might better know him for his contributions to the now famous Miller–Urey experiment which showed amino acids, life's basic building blocks, could form spontaneously from chemical precursors in an environment that simulated conditions on the early Earth. In this, the first ever biography of the chemist, Matthew Shindell shines new light on Urey's achievements and efforts to shape his public and private lives.
Shindell follows Urey through his orthodox religious upbringing, the scientific work that won him the Nobel, and his subsequent efforts to use his fame to intervene in political, social, and scientific matters. At times, Urey succeeded, including when he helped create the fields of isotope geochemistry and cosmochemistry. But other endeavors, such as his promotion of world governance of atomic weapons, failed. By exploring those efforts, as well as Urey's evolution from farm boy to scientific celebrity, we can discern broader changes in the social and intellectual landscape of twentieth-century America. More than a life story, The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey immerses readers in the struggles and triumphs of not only an extraordinary man, but also his extraordinary times.
Introduction The Making and Remaking of an American Chemist
One From Farm Boy to Wartime Chemist
Two From Industrial Chemistry to Copenhagen
Three From Novice in Europe to Expert in America
Four From Nobel Laureate to Manhattan Project Burnout
Five A Separation Man No More
Six A Return to Science
Seven To Hell with the Moon!
Epilogue A Life in Science
List of Archives
List of Oral History Interviews
Matthew Shindell is curator of planetary science and exploration at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
"The absorbing biography [...] uses the researcher's life to show how a conscientious chemist navigated the cold war [...] This fine biography wonderfully shows how Urey's scientific contributions led chemistry in new directions, including to the Moon – and, in depicting the life of a leading scientist, Shindell probes the complex interplay of faith, values and politics in the United States."
"One cannot understand the origins of nuclear power and weaponry, of planetary exploration, or of our modern ideas about earth history and climate change without knowing the contributions of Harold Urey. Shindell's meticulously researched and riveting account of Urey's life and work traces the intellectual, political, and spiritual struggles of a man whose career binds together many of the major scientific and political events of the twentieth century."
– David Grinspoon, author of Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto
"Harold Urey was simultaneously a towering figure in American science yet never quite fit into the categories imposed on him. Shindell vibrantly revives Urey's story of science, politics, religion, and humanity across the American century."
– Michael D. Gordin, Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Princeton University
"This is an elegantly written and smartly researched biography of a major figure whose contributions to twentieth-century science have been inexplicably understudied. As with the best of this sort of biographical exploration, Shindell here crafts a rich historical narrative in which the individual subject provides an opportunity to investigate and understand large-scale social and cultural developments in a fine-grained way. The book is a serious contribution to the field, as well as paradigmatic of how the history of chemistry can appeal to a wide audience."
– Matthew Stanley, author of Einstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I