Book: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Brilliant and very detailed history

Richard Rhodes
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Simon and Schuster, 1986
ISBN: 0-684-81378-5
790 pages (main text)

The cover of The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes proudly proclaims that the book won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It surprises me some that it won all those. Not because it's a bad book. It's an excellent, even brilliant one. I'm surprised because the book tells its story in such breadth and in such detail that I don't know how anyone but a geek like me would remain interested though its nearly 800 pages. Mind you, I don't think that there's a page wasted and Mr Rhodes's prose (regardless of a very occasional infelicitous sentence) is interesting and engaging. I just can't quite imagine that an average reader would be interested in 800 pages of it.

Mr Rhodes doesn't just give the reader detail. He also begins his history early, both in time and logically. That is, in beginning to discuss the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, Mr Rhodes brings up the doubly-indirect influence on him of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The influence is certainly relevant, but it's something that I suspect that most people would be OK with skipping. Similarly, Mr Rhodes pretty much begins the story in the first years of the twentieth century with the discovery that atoms have such things as nuclei (though he does step back briefly to discuss seventeenth- through nineteenth-century questions about the existence of atoms). It's quite a trek from there to fission and fusion. Indeed, it's more than 150 pages into the book before neutrons are discovered. All that is so much catnip to me but I can easily imagine someone less geeky becoming a trifle impatient.

There are numerous fascinating details in the book. I think I had known that Enrico Fermi did some of his work at Columbia University, but who knew that the college's football team was pressed into service to pack uranium oxide into cans in an attempt to build a nuclear reactor in Schermerhorn. (Fermi never managed a chain reaction there; he succeeded with a reactor built in a squash court at the University of Chicago,) It was a biologist who gave the world the name for fission. Final assembly of the bomb Little Boy, which was dropped on Hiroshima, was done in flight. And then there's the story of the guy who taught poker to "Johnny" von Neumann (the great mathematician) and who rather wished his pupil had caught on a little less quickly.

Of course, not all the detail is scientific. The number of meetings and government committees is at least as great as one might imagine. And the same is true for the German and Japanese efforts. (The German attempt may have been significantly hampered by a clerical error.)

This is a big book in every way. In addition to the scope and detail, Mr Rhodes brings a very large number of interesting characters to life. (It turns out that brilliant physicists are often fascinating characters.) And beyond all that, his narration makes the project exciting, inspiring, chilling, and horrifying when it should. The range of emotions evokes is greater than you'd expect in fiction.

For any geek like me, the book is a magisterial telling of a fascinating story in which scientists are heroes.

Posted: Wed - August 5, 2009 at 02:02 PM   Main   Category: