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16 January 2013

What I read in the holidays

Here at Write, we're great readers. During the working year we don't often get the chance to read just to relax. But in the holidays we read all kinds of books, articles, and magazines. I've been enjoying Andrew Blackwell's Visit Sunny Chernobyl and Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places. I admit this book title may not sound like a relaxing read, but Andrew Blackwell writes about serious topics in a compelling style with a good dose of humour to help the messages get through.

Chapter 1 is a fascinating story about his visit to Chernobyl. And it includes a really good explanation in plain English of nuclear fission.

I googled 'nuclear fission'. gave this explanation 4 out of 5 stars for usefulness for my age (adult) with a basic level of knowledge – see what you think.
An explanation of nuclear fission

But Andrew Blackwell's explanation works for me and gives me just the amount of information I need to know right now. It starts like this:
Oh, fission. People make it sound so complicated, but any chump can get the basics. It involves – to skip most of the physics – piling up a giant stack of purified uranium to make your reactor's core. You'll have to mix some graphite in with the uranium, to mellow out the neutrons it's emitting.
We good? Okay. Once you've got the core together, install some plumbing in it so you can run water through to carry off the heat, and then just stand back and cross your fingers.
A few of the uranium atoms in your core will spontaneously split – they're funny that way – and when they do, they'll give off heat and some neutrons. It doesn't matter if you don't know what neutrons are, other than that they're tiny and will shoot off like bullets, colliding with neighboring uranium atoms and causing them to split. This will give off more heat and more neutrons, which will cause still further atoms to split, and so on, and so on, and so on. The immense heat created by this chain reaction will heat the water, which will create the steam, which will spin the turbines at terrifying speed, which will turn the generators, which will create an ungodly amount of electricity, which will be used to keep office buildings uncomfortably cold in the middle of summer.
So far, so good. 
He then goes on to explain how the control rods work – and what happens when the chain reaction gets out of control.

Notice how Blackwell speaks directly to you, the reader, and uses the active voice rather than the passive. And he tells a story that draws you in and leads to a strong conclusion. He goes on to explain how pulling the control rods out lets the chain reaction begin. Then:
But pull the control rods out slowly, okay? And for the love of God, please – please – put them back when you're done.
So think about your readers, especially when writing about technical topics. In the appropriate setting, a clear, chatty explanation may be just what your readers are looking for. Especially when they're on holiday.

Want to buy a copy of Andrew Blackwell's book?

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