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The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey

Harold C. Urey (1893–1981), whose discoveries lie at the foundation of modern science, was one of the most famous American scientists of the twentieth century. Born in rural Indiana, his evolution from small-town farm boy to scientific celebrity made him a symbol and spokesman for American scientific authority. Because he rose to fame alongside the prestige of American science, the story of his life reflects broader changes in the social and intellectual landscape of twentieth-century America. In this, the first ever biography of the chemist, Matthew Shindell shines new light on Urey’s struggles and achievements in a thoughtful exploration of the science, politics, and society of the Cold War era.
From Urey’s orthodox religious upbringing to his death in 1981, Shindell follows the scientist through nearly a century of American history: his discovery of deuterium and heavy water earned him the Nobel Prize in 1934, his work on the Manhattan Project helped usher in the atomic age, he initiated a generation of American scientists into the world of quantum physics and chemistry, and he took on the origin of the Moon in NASA’s lunar exploration program. Despite his success, however, Urey had difficulty navigating the nuclear age. In later years he lived in the shadow of the bomb he helped create, plagued by the uncertainties unleashed by the rise of American science and unable to reconcile the consequences of scientific progress with the morality of religion.
Tracing Urey’s life through two world wars and the Cold War not only conveys the complex historical relationship between science and religion in the twentieth century, but it also illustrates how these complexities spilled over into the early days of space science. More than a life story, this book immerses readers in the trials and triumphs of an extraordinary man and his extraordinary times.

248 pages | 12 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020


Biography and Letters


History of Science


"Absorbing . . . [Shindell] 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."


"Urey's story embodies the quintessential American themes of innovation, hard work, and home-grown creativity. But the book itself is also a challenge to scientific biographies that adhere to a whiggish history of the secularizing influence of science on post–Cold War America and a historiographic study of what happens when a scientist, who 'worked within the same institutions where the secularist view was forged' (p. 11), refused to conform to that ideology. . . . The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey is a welcome contribution to the kind of history that John Hedley Brooke calls putting 'science in [its] theistic contexts' (quoted on p. 14), where we see how the two ways of knowing are still entwined even today. Through Urey's biography—the story of a man who was genuinely subsumed by his calling of unweaving the most minute elements of creation—Shindell illuminates how science and religion are neither an 'abstract concept or philosophy' but instead 'both social enterprises and lived experiences.'"

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"The life of this famous Nobel laureate (prize awarded in 1934) is a study in contrasts and conflicts. . . . This expert biography reveals in detail the versatility and evolving interests of a leading scientist who never received full credit for many of his accomplishments. A true tragic hero. . . . Highly Recommended. All readers."

Choice, 2020 Outstanding Academic Title

"An elegantly written and well researched biography. . . . Shindell is not solely interested in describing Urey’s impressive scientific achievements but also asks 'but who was he?'. Exploring this question is where Shindell’s biography excels. . . . Supported by comprehensive notes including a fascinating archive of oral histories, Shindell’s highly readable account captures the religious, scientific and political conflicts affecting this major American scientist during some of the most tumultuous periods of the last century."


"This impressive biography is a well-researched and enjoyable read—a wonderful account of Harold Urey’s pioneering work. . . . The author offers an intriguing look at Urey’s scientific contributions, but also insight into the scientist’s struggles with faith and tangles with political forces in America. . . . For all you space-based readers, you’ll find a marvelous account of Urey’s cosmic encounter coming to grips with the formation and evolution of the solar system. . . . A thoroughly absorbing story of the scientist’s move into planetary science and his early modeling of the Moon and solar system development. . . . A thumbs-up tome."

Leonard David | Inside Outer Space

"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

Table of Contents

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



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