Monday, August 5, 2002

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

I just finished reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

Coincidentally, August 6, 2002, is the 57th anniversary of the day the United States dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, we dropped "Fat Man" on Nagasaki, and five days later, the Japanese surrendered.

The "Bomb Book" as I've come to call it is a comprehensive, sweeping history of the making of the atomic bomb, from the earliest discoveries of the nature of the atom, to the effort made by the United States to harness this power into a weapon of mass destruction (the Manhattan Project), to the delivery of the bombs on Japan, and the forces that led the United States to this fateful decision.

Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears led me to the Bomb Book. He spent a whole chapter describing the explosion of a nuclear bomb. It was fascinating, and it kindled an interest to learn more. Discussing this at work, a colleague mentioned that I would probably want to tackle The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

This book is a monument. The author, Richard Rhodes, must be commended. His bibliography lists 556 sources. He has distilled these plus what was obviously many many interviews into a 788-page book that must be considered the definitive history of the atomic bomb. This book was published in 1986, and it won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

This is the hardest book I've read in a long time. Big novels don't scare me. I've read A Man in Full (700+ pages), An American Tragedy (800+), The Sum of All Fears (900+), and Executioner's Song (1000+ pages). But as someone recently characterized, the Bomb Book is very dense.

I started reading the book on July 13. I spent every evening (I only skipped two nights) reading one chapter. It took me up to two hours to read the 40-70 pages that make up a chapter. Towards the end of the book, I was able to digest a few pages into the next chapter. I didn't watch TV or DVDs. My wife often saw me reading this book at the dining room table, my pen in hand.

Despite the density of the material, Rhodes' terrific writing made it very bearable. His long historical and scientific passages are necessary, but he also turned out some dramatic and suspenseful paragraphs. Mostly, I found myself engrossed and amazed. This really happened, I kept telling myself. Even though I didn't understand all of the physics involved (and there's a lot; a periodic table is presented early in the book, I often referred to it), I felt awe at each discovery that made the bomb possible (fission, the neutron, U235, plutonium). The bold men and women who made these discoveries (Ernest Rutherford, Lise Meitner, Neils Bohr), and the men and women who engineered these terrible weapons (Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leslie Groves) are captured clearly in this work.

Rhodes has a thesis that I'm still trying to digest: the bomb as the "entity" or strong force that will dissolve the nation-state. The discovery of the bomb will force nations to deal with one another openly or with ever-widening suspicion. This duality, its complementarity, was proposed by Neils Bohr, and Rhodes adopts it as the key proposal of the book. The bomb is supposed to end wars, but of course it hasn't. Will we as a country (with other countries) learn the other lessons of the bomb?

Thanks to this book those lessons are at least written down.

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