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Throughout the Modern Age (1500–present), some technologies of war have produced cultural shifts so significant as to give birth to new social and economic opportunities. In the 20th century, this phenomenon materialized with the birth of uranium mining. Although uranium’s destructive power would not be unleashed on the world for more than a century after its discovery in 1789 by German chemist Martin Klaproth, the rock would change not only the nature of modern warfare but the course of human history as well.

Long before uranium was used to build humankind’s most destructive weapons, it was employed as a coloring agent for ceramics and glass. In the same way oxidizing iron produces ferric oxide, or rust, oxidizing uranium produces its own uranium oxides. One of these, ...

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