In 1998, Norma Field visited Sharon Stephens at home. Stephens was ill with the cancer she'd thought — they'd all thought, for the past nine years — had relented. This was two weeks before the end. Field had come to adopt a bird; the dog had already gone with another friend.

Field said she was struck by the subtle but overpowering sense that Stephens had accepted what was happening. She thought that watching it made her less afraid of dying, though she later wondered if this was just the most profound notion she could think to assign to something "unnameable." Field also thought about the swiftness of her friend's deterioration: Stephens had lived and worked downwind of multiple radioactive sites, and frequently visited places invisibly scarred by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Shortly thereafter, Field, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Chicago, began teaching about nuclear power and weapons. It was another departure from the narrowly defined role her colleagues would have preferred she fulfill. Back in 1983, Field’s hiring committee, which had included renowned historian Harry D. Harootunian, had reached past a candidate with whom the faculty shared close ties and a common academic agenda to make Field the first female faculty member in the department’s history hired to a position that put her on track for possible future tenure.