Review: “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (25th Anniversary Edition) by Richard Rhodes

Making of the Atomic Bomb

Whew. That was a big book. Took me three months to finish because of the copious amounts of notes I took. I’ve never reviewed non-fiction before and I don’t know what made me decide to start with a Pulitzer Prize winner but here goes.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is a major work of historical synthesis that brings to life the men and machines that gave us the nuclear era. Rich in drama and suspense, the book also has remarkable breadth and depth, revealing new connections, insights, and surprises. It bristles with detail and irony. There are raccoon coats and incendiary raids, heavy water and theatrical satires, patent fights and suntan lotion (worn in 1945 by physicists in the predawn darkness of the New Mexican desert to protect them from the flash of the first bomb). There was even a third “gadget” being readied to be dropped on Japan, even as Hiroshima and Nagasaki smoldered. The Making of the Atomic Bomb offers not only the best overview of last century’s pivotal event but also a probing analysis of what it means for the future.

Richard Rhodes has written a comprehensive work that moves from the birth of atomic physics in the early 1900’s to the postwar creation of the “Super,” or hydrogen bomb, in the 1950’s. It details a secret bomb-building race among the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan during the Second World War. Technically, it ranges from scientific discovery to industrial development, weapon design, and fabrication, describing each with clarity and precision. The book illuminates not only scientists and their insights but also the times they lived in, showing how these often eccentric individuals were shaped by the philosophies and atrocities that shook the first half of the 20th century. Happily, Mr. Rhodes avoids the sermons and apocalyptic overtones that often mar the subjects of nuclear arms and atomic creativity. Nor does he point accusatory fingers. Short on heroes and villains, his book is populated instead with complex figures in a compelling plot.

Best of all, the characters speak in their own voices, in long paragraphs of direct quotation. This chorus of self-expression was made possible by the vast literature that has accumulated about the building of the bomb. Mr. Rhodes’s coup was to realize that the time was ripe to tap this vast repository, which now includes memoirs, oral histories, and collections of letters, as well as scores of previously secret Government documents. The book’s bibliography is some 750 entries long, and Mr. Rhodes has fleshed out this archive by interviewing the living principals and by traveling to the sites and shrines of the atomic era. Even 25 years later, the freshness of Mr. Rhodes’s work seems to spring in large measure from his being neither scientist nor science writer but an intelligent layman freed from the norms and assumptions of the scientific discipline. It also derives from his novelistic skills. The author of several novels and works of nonfiction, Mr. Rhodes has used his considerable talents to find the natural depth and drama of the story of the atomic bomb, and has shunned any temptation to dabble in novelistic history.

All too often the moral drawn from the atomic saga and its legacy of arms development is, simply put, that science can lead to evil, and that since its temptations cannot be resisted, its powers should be sharply constricted. Yet no modern nation will hobble its physicists and engineers because of the inordinate power they put in the hands of the government. The inevitable march of technology thus leads some observers to despair.

Mr. Rhodes draws a different lesson from the history he has told. Although he finds little hope in the technical strides of science and dismisses the current quest for a Star Wars antimissile system, he sees great promise in the emergence of science as an agent for social change.

In the book’s epilogue, he points out that for the first time in history, science in 1945 became a force strong enough to challenge the power and authority of the modern nation-state, itself an institution which has not been an unalloyed power for good. Mr. Rhodes notes plausible estimates that say the nations of this century have managed to eliminate some 100 million people during wars and other man-made violence. Yet today the superpowers, their nuclear arsenals swollen with the destructive power of a million Hiroshimas, have lost much of their strength and influence in world affairs. So too, Mr. Rhodes notes, they have been forced to engage each other in scientific exchanges, negotiations, treaties, and have suffered an erosion of their sovereignties because of spy satellites and other means for monitoring the dangers of the nuclear age.

In all this Mr. Rhodes sees a glimmer of hope. Even though an instrument of terror, science may one day prompt the birth of a supranational order. “The preeminent transnational community in our culture is science,” Mr. Rhodes writes. “With the release of nuclear energy in the first half of the twentieth century, that model commonwealth decisively challenged the power of the nation-state. The confrontation is ongoing and inextricably embedded in mortal risk, but it offers at least a distant prospect of felicity. The different country that still opens before us is Bohr’s open world.”

 

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