The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey by Matthew Shindell, The University of Chicago Press; December 2019; Hardback; 248 pages, $27.50.

This impressive biography is a well-researched and enjoyable read – a wonderful account of Harold Urey’s pioneering work, including his contributions in cosmochemistry and lunar science.

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.

Within the book’s seven chapters, the author explores Urey’s maturation from farm boy to wartime chemist, followed by his Nobel Laureate status to a “Manhattan Project burnout.”

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. The chapter — “To Hell with the Moon!” – is a thoroughly absorbing story of the scientist’s move into planetary science and his early modeling of the Moon and solar system development.

The scientist was not a fan of NASA when it was established in 1958. Nor was he interested in planting human footprints on the Moon. “Urey’s lack of enthusiasm may have stemmed at least partially from the fact that the majority of the scientists and administrators who made up the new NASA were either atmospheric scientists, military personnel, or engineers,” Shindell writes. Still, Urey later became an important and early voice in putting forward a scientific agenda for lunar exploration.

Harold C. Urey

Why the relationship with NASA turned sour, I’m not going to elaborate here, but the author offers impeccable detail and quotes a telling passage from Urey, written in 1976 that the Moon was quite a disappointment and explaining that the Moon seems to be an “incidental object of some kind with no theory for its origin that is generally accepted.”

The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey is a thumbs-up tome. The epilogue wraps up the Nobel Prize winner’s life in science, followed by a great set of notes, list of archives, oral history interviews, and bibliography.

Urey died in early January 1981.

On a personal note, decades ago, I bumped into Harold Urey while digging into a substantial cache of Ranger and Surveyor lunar documents held in the library stacks at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla, California. He was a professor at large at UCSD and I treasure that moment of conversation with that grand man.

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