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on June 1, 2004
For me, the most dramatic - and scariest - part of the whole book is probably on p. 275: "Enrico Fermi...was standing at his panoramic office window high in the physics tower [of Columbia University] looking down the gray winter length of Manhattan Island, its streets alive as always with vendors and taxis and crowds. He cupped his hands as if he were holding a ball. 'A little bomb like that,' he said simply, for once not lightly mocking, 'and it would all disappear.'"
This was one day in the winter of 1938/1939, probably in Jan or Feb of 1939. Fermi was of course referring to the atomic warhead yet to be invented. Fermi's estimates of the size of the fissile material required to produce such a devastating effect remain as true today in this post-911 age as then.
I entirely agree with Rhodes that the key personality in the whole saga was not Einstein or Oppenheimer or even Fermi but Niels Bohr, who was the godfather to modern nuclear physics, who was the guiding spirit if not a working technician at Los Alamos, and whose complementarity principle, originally devised to explain quantum mechanics, became applicable to the dilemma of the bomb itself. Rhodes's emphasis on Bohr's complementarity both surprises and impresses me.
If I'm allowed one criticism, it would be that a timeline of the major developments is missing.
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on July 18, 2016
Rhodes' tome is, as far as I can tell, the best, most comprehensive history of the Manhattan Project. It's another ~800 page project, but full of interesting vignettes, including how the demand for an unconditional Japanese surrender was more or less an accident and how spontaneous fission measurements taken at high altitudes were unknowingly biased by higher cosmic ray fluxes, throwing off some fission calculations for several years.
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on April 19, 2004
This book is so good that words fall short. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most well-researched, thorough, well-written, insightful and wise histories of a phenomenon ever produced. It is an epic story with tragic overtones, populated with a cast of characters as diverse and rich as a Russian novel. It is the WHOLE story of the development of the atomic bomb -- historical, scientific, political. The lengthy description of the physical processes instigated by the explosion of the first A-bomb in history in New Mexico is like a brilliant prose poem. The chapter called "Tongues of Fire," which concerns the fate of the Japanese upon whom the bombs were dropped, is one of the most nightmarish and horrifying things I've ever read, and I literally had to fend off tears. If you're interested in the subject, you simply must read this book.
I only have one tiny, tiny criticism to offer, which is almost not worth mentioning, though I'll mention it anyway. Though Rhodes' assessment of Robert Oppenheimer's character and qualifications is exemplary, the book left me slightly unclear over exactly why he was chosen to head the Manhattan Project. In other words, I would have liked more material about the decision-making processes that went on behind the scenes which ultimately lead to his appointment.
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on June 10, 2004
The author covers the science and history of the atomic bomb very well. It is worth your time to read.
The book would have earned five stars if the author had not injected as much of his naive and politically correct view of the world as he does. Specifically, he spends a good deal of the last chapter and parts of earlier chapters indulging a woolly-headed belief that somehow the Stalin would have allowed the Soviet Union to become an open society in order to avoid the perils of a nuclear arms race, if only the U.S. and Britain had just done things differently. Also, while he does not entirely ignore the excellent reasons for dropping the atomic bombs, he devotes a great deal of space to those who, in ignorance of the the military realities of the war with Japan or because they could not bring themselves to make a hard decision which would save millions of Japanese and Allied lives, whined and railed against the use of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There are a few other subjects on which the author's "Late 20th Century Politically Correct" viewpoint comes through, but for the most part these were merely minor annoyances. Overall, and especially if you skip the last part of the last chapter, the book is excellent.
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on March 13, 2004
This book made me feel like I really could understand the intricacies of atomic power. Rhodes manages to throw into his well-written narrative the history of the Hungarian scientists who fled Nazi Germany, the personal stories of men like Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, and the genesis and eventual success of the Manhattan Project. The atomic bomb was truly a massive, detailed undertaking, and this book brings that story to life clearly and entertainingly. For instance, one fascinating aspect of this story is that the keys to releasing nuclear energy were discovered through chemists, not physicists, despite Einstein's relativity. If you really want to know what the government was and is up to in Rocky Flats, read this book.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story was the way Rhodes captures the excitement of the scientists--from Ernest Rutherford to Leo Szilard to Niehls Bohr--as they learned, piece by piece, how to release nuclear energy. Then, once the Trinity test occurs, and then the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, the entire tone of the book changes. It's almost as if the wind goes out of the scientists' (and the writer's) sails. Having built up this excitement, the men of the Manhattan Project take a look at what they have done and are suddenly horrified. I found this reaction simultaneously understandable and ridiculous. They were, after all, making a WEAPON, why were they so surprised when it worked so well?
This might serve as a cautionary tale. After all, as we know, nuclear weapons did not go away after World War II. The tremendous momentum built up at Los Alamos did not cease. Indeed, once fission power had been proven, Edward Teller and his team got approval to go ahead with development of fusion power, more specifically, hydrogen bombs.
The good part of this book is, you can read it without needing a degree in chemistry or physics, just a genuine interest in the subject. "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" rightly won the Pulitzer Prize. It tells a remarkable tale about a neglected chapter of our world's (so far) worst war. Unfortunately, you can also see the seeds for the next war within it.
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on January 11, 2004
Few reviewers have discounted the seminal importance of this comprehensive history of the A-Bomb. Having just finished it, I can state that it is both a brilliant, detailed history of the history of the atomic bomb and a revelation on the nature of how atomic weapons have changed the world. It makes one question the entire history of America's involvement in the creation and use of weapons that have such destructive force. Indeed, when we put our most enormous scientific, engineering, and industrial talents to the task on the construction of a weapon of essentially unlimited destructive power it makes one wonder what truly great things this country is capable of aside from its war-making enterprise. This book answers what is possible--or, I would argue, at least poses the proper questions about the validity of the existence of atomic weaponry and their use upon Japan.
The narratives of the victims of the Hiroshima bomb is especially gripping and horrifying. It makes one pray that they will never survive such horror and madness and makes one question how we could have possibly decided to use such a completely savage weapon against civilians.
Rhodes has brought out the times and the people involved in the Manhattan Project with particular brilliance and insight into the personalities and pressures involved. The science is pretty heavy (for me, anyway) at times, but I think Rhodes approaches the subject as he must. You will probably feel your eyelids grow thick at the times he describes some of the physics involved--and apparently he delves into even more excruciating detail in the history of the H-Bomb--but I would rather be aware of the science than be ignorant of it for the sake of simplicity or "dumbing down" of a complex chain and history of scientific discoveries that lead up to an invention as remarkable, horrible, and powerful as an atomic bomb.
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on January 8, 2004
One of the most admirable qualities of this truly marvelous work is its ability to paint the story of the creation of the first atomic weapon on the broadest possible canvas, reaching back into the bowels of history to trace, with the fidelity of a seismographic needle, the rise of both the specific intellectuals as well as the critical scientific mass to make the work not only conceivable, but possible. This is indeed a work that one reads repeatedly, for there is so much to digest within the pages of this masterwork as to defy any easy such description. So both the cast of involved personalities is long and incredibly interesting to witness as the author develops it, but then again, so is his description of the rise of theoretical physics through the work of Albert Einstein and his colleagues within the mostly European academic orbit in the first third of the twentieth century. In that sense, it is not strictly speaking, merely a detailed exposition dealing with what happened in New Mexico under incredibly secret circumstances during World War Two, as the Manhattan Project, even though it eventually gravitates toward being exactly that.
Instead, the book opens as an exploration into the minds of some brilliantly eccentric professors and intellectuals struggling within theoretical physics on the very cutting edge of the unknown, and then stretching it in quite unsuspected and revolutionary ways. And as the critical mass of theoretical knowledge began to cluster within the fairly small community of like-minded souls, the scene changes based on world politics and the rise of fascism. It is an interesting curiosity that had Hitler been less vitriolic in his condemnation of Jews, he might have forestalled the emigration of critical players in this unfolding melodrama, and so might have altered his own destiny and that of his most important ally, Japan. For just as the kluge of intellectuals conceded that such a weapon was indeed theoretically possible and feasible, many of them began to flee to more hospitable environs, including both the USA and Britain. Without their help, it is questionable as to whether the Manhattan Project could have ever succeeded.
The author is also quite convincing in his take concerning the long-rumored notion that the Nazis were also rushing toward development of the bomb, which Rhodes believes to be unsubstantiated by the available evidence. In fact, he argues exactly the opposite, that the Nazis were neither very interested in the development of such a weapon, and did not enjoy sufficient access to the kinds of materials they would have needed to mount a serious developmental nuclear program. Yet the majority of the book focuses memorably on the events transpiring in and around Los Alamos. The program to develop a useable atomic bomb was so massive and so secret that it is hard to imagine its scope at the time. Rhodes' prose admirably supports his sometimes almost confessional style, and he writes well enough to interest us in the most prosaic description even as he is describing events and people who literally transformed the world. This book has an incredible panorama to its rather ambitious scope, which includes biographical, scientific, sociological, political, and economic elements to it. It is indeed a classic, and deserves its status as one of the best-written accounts of the events of World War Two yet published. Enjoy!
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on December 6, 2003
Richard Rhodes's masterpiece is one those books that is almost impossible to over praise. Since reading it a number of years ago, I have been amazed how many times I have heard about one individual or another mentioned in these pages, and either remember specific things about them from this book, or the greater background in which they worked. The book is not, it must be emphasized, not about the Manhattan Project, although that features as a significant feature in the story. Rhodes's tale begins well in advance of that, and his narrative for several hundred pages is a story of the men and women who first started thinking within the field of physics that would eventually make the atomic bomb a theoretical possibility. The cast of characters is immense, and involves nearly all of the major theoretical physicists of the first half of the twentieth century (though many would continue to dominate well into the 20th--indeed, one of the major players, Edward Teller, died only a few weeks before my writing this review).
The first part of the book deals with those men and women who did made a series of brilliant breakthroughs in physics that made the building of an atomic bomb not merely conceivable but feasible, at least sufficiently feasible for the major players in WW II to explore in a full-fledged way whether an atomic bomb could be built. The second half of the book details the efforts of the major players in WW II to build such a bomb. I found this especially interesting, because often writers mention the danger of Hitler having built an atomic bomb before the allies, but Rhodes pretty much destroys any illusions about this. He shows that, first, the German atomic program was tremendously under funded and given only a modicum of support by Hitler and his advisors. There were two major reasons for this. First, the Nazis had little or no access to the materials that would make such a program successful, in particular to an unstable uranium isotope. Their lone source lay in heavy water, which they were able to get from Sweden, but it is exceedingly doubtful that they would have had enough to produce sufficient material for a bomb even if they had known how to do so. But the greater impediment to the building of a bomb was Hitler's own disinclination to do so. Partly because of his own experience with mustard gas in WW I, Hitler was personally opposed to the use of what we would today call WMDs. But as Rhodes shows, even in America there was uncertainty about how devastating such a weapon would be, and some of the Nazis felt that the bomb would result in setting the earth's atmosphere on fire. Therefore, the German atomic threat is greatly exaggerated. Yet, it is still asserted. I read just recently a book by former MP and cabinet minister Roy Jenkins, in which he discusses the possibility of the Nazis getting the bomb first in WW II, an event that is at most a remote possibility. In addition to the German program, Rhodes also discusses the almost nonexistent Japanese program.
The greater part of the book deals with the efforts at Los Alamos, New Mexico to build a workable atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project (so-called because its first administrative offices were in New York) is one of the most massive undertakings in human history, and the story of how General Leslie Groves (whose other great achievement was overseeing the building of the Pentagon) and Robert J. Oppenheimer headed up the program makes for absolutely riveting reading. There is simply no way in the course of a brief review to express the sheer scope and range of issues--scientific, social, political, historical, and military--that Rhodes addresses in this book. It is one of those rare books that not merely informs you on a particular subject, but deepens and broadens one's knowledge of modern history. I would quickly put this volume on the briefest of short lists of modern classics that one ought to have read to understand the world. This truly is a classic that ought to be not merely honored but read.
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on December 5, 2003
Having read both the Making of Hydrogen Bomb and the Atom Bomb I have to say Richard Rhodes succeeded where most writers do not. He managed to write a history book that reads like a gripping novel! The book is extremely interesting and I thanked the author for its 700+ page length. The story is very well organized with plenty of explanations and forewords that make the book accessible to not just Physicits and Chemists but to the average readers as well.The stories are meticulously researched and it makes one wonder how it's possible to gather so much information and organize it so well. There is politics (and many things you'll never read about anywhere else), drama, human tragedy, and human persistence. Rhodes carefully and with great care and irony outlines the lives of dozens of scientists, from the early discoverers of the nucleus, to the discovery of its parts, to the discovery of radiaton, and all the way until its horrible implementation in the atom bomb. If you ever wondered why matter is the way it is, read this and you'll be enlightened. Truly one of the best books I ever read!
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on July 19, 2003
The real message of this book seems to be escaping people, perhaps because there is no obvious excitement to it. Rhodes is quietly plugging the view of Niels Bohr that nationalism in the 20th century was starting to do more harm than good, and that the unleashing of the ultimate energy-source of the universe in the confines of one puny planet had finally brought the issue to a head. Compared with the other matters he covers -- the first discovery of alpha-particles and neutrons, the development and use of 'conventional' weapons of indiscriminate destruction, the Manhattan project and the use of the bombs over Japan to mention only the scientific issues, Bohr's philosophy is not the stuff of headlines. Churchill and Roosevelt missed its significance through their own arrogance, and even Oppenheimer got it a bit confused.
This book is a terrific read and don't let its length put you off, especially at the price. The history of science is engrossing, and so is the history of the 20th century in its clever/stupid way. The sheer brainpower assembled on the Manhattan project is awe-inspiring and the main players are depicted with balance and admirable restraint. Quite apart from the scientists, it is impossible not to see that even the charmless Gen Groves was an exceptionally gifted manager. The major political figures are only described selectively, and Churchill in particular is seen mainly at his worst. The antisemitism of the nazis is described with cold detachment, but one vignette that brought out for me the idiocy of the era was the picture of Hitler writing Mein Kampf in his prison cell 'boyish in lederhosen'. My thoughts turned directly, tangentially and scurrilously to P G Wodehouse's Spode (based on Mosley) of the Black Shorts Movement lookng a perfect perisher in his footer bags.
As an education, this book is a major event. As a readable account of of issues that we all ought to be informed about if we care for the future of our planet and our children it is unsurpassable. But back to Bohr -- I think I buy his analysis, namely that the nation-state is not such a permanent fixture as maybe a lot of us had thought, and indeed it had better not be. I think I see it fraying in different ways here and there, and on balance a good thing too.
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